The wide brown land is baking today. Fire warnings abound, as all creatures great and small look for caves and cool. Tomorrow, rain and storms are predicted, along with icy southerly blasts. A change, they call it at the weather bureau.
Spring is exiting stage left, but she is not going gentle. She is burning and raving, raging, hurtling to her end, free of fear or doubt. “Adios”, she calls over her shoulder, kicking up dust as she leaves me behind.
When that dust settles, I look down and see the rose, a shock of crimson, past its prime and out of place. This is a lonely path. I chose it because no-one ventures through these ravaged gullies where thousands once excavated for gold, and trees whisper of disappointed avarice. The foot-width trail, made by kangaroos through spindly burned gums, yields wonders sparingly, demanding a walker return over and over to its flinty surface before it reveals a snuffling echidna or a native orchid.
So how did the rose get here?
I want to pick it up and see if there is still any scent to be had, but something stops me. Its stem is short. Was it worn in a lapel to a dance where things did not go to plan? Was it nestled in the upswept hair of a girl as she swayed and dipped across a polished floor? And what befell her, that her rose ended here, at my feet?
The forest is silent. It broods. Would it yield up a body to me if something terrible had happened? We are remote enough to speak of shallow graves.
There are no marks in the dirt to speak of struggle, no indentations or footsteps in dried clay, no signs to tell me how a cultivated, blood-red wonder has been transported to the goldfields rough, its petals in danger of being crunched into the quartz by my boots.
A shard of sunlight finds the rose, exposing it as dry, its stem withered. Done.
“Rose…” I whisper into the eucalypt-scented silence.
I walk away, straining to see or hear something that might explain it, but there is only the creak of a trunk against the branch of a neighbouring tree, and the scrunch of my feet. This forest does not give up its ghosts, but they are out there. Somewhere to my left, the thump-thump of a wallaby; overhead the shriek of a cockatoo; somewhere very close, the slither of grass parting at ground level.
Feet on earth. Marking out time. The scrunch. The rhythm. The passing. On.
To the cemetery.
Coming out of the forest into grazing land, there it lies, framed by grandfather eucalypts and pines, introduced and indigenous standing sentinel around the bones of other grandfathers. And children.
I walk through the creaking metal gates and up the central avenue, passing the century-old plinth where only one word of the inscription remains intact – SACRED; past purple thistles rising out of the earth and marble crucifixes crumbling back into it; past the granite stone for Laurel, “Giver of love and joy”; and past the holly bush that has grown on the still-tended grave of an infant who would now be a woman more than a century old.
On the high ground, under a row of whistling pine trees, there’s a slab of red stone for Norman, who died almost twenty years ago. Neighbour Norm, a flirtatious bear of a man who used to joke that he joined the Progress Association to ensure there was no progress, and whose inscription tells me that the greatest of all is love. To Norman’s right is a matching stone for his grandson Michael, whose life was taken by depression over a decade ago. I’m glad Norman went first.
I plant myself between them, looking over the field of the dead to the young eucalypts planted across the road. They will be harvested for commercial use. Their fate is known.
Norman, Michael and I sit on the hill. Norman reminds me to feast, to laugh and to love well. Michael reminds me to relish the days of sun, because the dark ones can claim us. The eucalypts speak of the honour of usefulness, and the imperative of remembering that the end will come.
Except of course, the end doesn’t come. Why do we assume “it” ends when we do? “It” goes on. “It” keeps turning, and feet keep walking, roses keep growing, and we keep remembering.
The sun is high and the pines smell like Christmas.
Time to move. The road is waiting.
Some of them have been burned.
Their trunks are charred black, but at the base of one tree, silvery grey leaves have sprouted, thick and determined.
New life from old.
My feet crunch on gravel.
The scrunch. The rhythm. The passing.
On. On. On.
The scrunch of feet on gravel – click to hear!