The light was strange. The darkness was a deep red, and there was a thickness between the stars. And the air was strange too. It had a bitter tang.
The curlew was waiting for her mate. Her hunger was growing. She smelled the air. She fluffed her feathers over the delicate eggs that lay on the ground beneath her, growing life from her warmth. Shifting her position, she smelled the air again.
The bush around the clearing had gone silent. The sounds of all the other animals had stopped soon after the bitter air came, except for one animal at the other side of the clearing. It made a slight whispering sound – movement, not voice. A daycreature. A human. Just one. It had made a nest out of sticks it carried with it, and a silk sheet-web over the top. It stayed inside its nest all the time. The curlew could hear it breathing. The air began to sting the curlew’s eyes. Her hunger increased. There was a new noise, a roar like a stormy sky but lower down, and there were other sounds in it: a snap, a creak, a groan. She put her head to the side to listen, and blinked her eyes over and over against the stinging air.
The human across the clearing moved inside its nest. She heard the rustling of the nest materials as it tossed and turned inside. She heard the voice of it, low and intense.
The roaring was getting louder. It was getting hard to see. She pushed her throat in and out to pump air over her tongue, prickly as the air was, to try to cool herself down. But the air was too hot. And her nest was too hot. Her eggs were overheating. She stood up from the nest to let the air over them, but the air could not cool them. She spread her wings, her feet still on the ground, touching the eggs.
Something was crawling up a tree – something orange and bright. The stick-nest across the clearing moved suddenly and an opening appeared. The human stumbled out and fell backwards looking at the tree. The bright orange climbed until it reached the leaves and exploded. The human’s web-and-stick nest gathered thick air around it, and then it roared and became bright orange air, sucked into the sky.
The woman watched her tent as it blazed and lifted up. She ran to her four-wheel drive, climbed inside, started the engine. From inside the car she saw flames behind her, and turned to see a wall of fire covering the track out of the clearing, blocking her escape.
And she knew that she would die.
The wind roared, shaking the car. Flames rippled sideways through the trees, trickling through the air like water, running up everything they touched. The heat was too much. There was not enough air. Her mind fought – her children still needed her; her son and her daughter, they were not old enough, they shouldn’t be without her yet. But it was a senseless resistance. She was caught in a hostile atmosphere, a strange new planet: a violent elemental world, not meant for her.
She looked away from the blazing world behind her, her futile hands still holding the wheel. She looked forward, helplessly – instinctively – looking for the bird she had been studying, the other sentient thing she knew to be there. And there it was, through all the burning light and smoke, still there, the Bush Stone-curlew, standing at the other side of the clearing on the ground over its nest, head up, eyes alert.
The woman stared at the bird, only at the bird. She would not look away. She would not look at the treetops as they exploded, one by one, over her head. She would not look at the billowing inferno behind her. She would think only of her children, and she would look at the beautiful bird.
The engine cut out, robbed of oxygen. The wall of fire closed in. The smoke loosened her mind from her body, and she held the bird’s gaze. And as the heat in the air drew her life irrevocably away from her, she suffered no pain. She felt nothing of her own. She sensed only the soft inward lifting of the bird as it prepared to fly; only the perfect ability of wings to reach the cool dark sky above. And then, when the curlew finally flapped its wings to escape, the woman went with it. The last spark of her gaze left her eyes. She was drawn up with the bird. Taken away. Brought forever to the stars.
The curlew rose from the clearing and circled once. She watched as the bright fire rushed in and the woman’s children lost their mother, and the curlew lost her own children, curled up helpless in their shells below. And then she turned and flew over the stripped and smoking trees, passing out of the bushland and into the open. She landed under trees at the edge of a paddock. There was smoke here too, but no fire. There were humans in the distance, and one nearby. She stood hidden from it against the rough grey of a fallen tree trunk. She called to her mate, her wailing cry growing louder and louder. And then, when there were no calls back, the curlew grew quiet and again spread her wings and flew up into the sky.
She drew a long straight line south.
IMPACT AND AFTERMATH
‘Robin? Robin Roberts?’
This is what I imagined was happening in my form room at that moment. I imagined some old-time bespectacled schoolmistress reading my name out over and over from her roll, and in the silence after each call the crickets chirping, the tumbleweed tumbling. I had to imagine it because I wasn’t there. I was lost.
Yes, that really is my name. You’d think that two parents with the surname Roberts would think twice before calling their only daughter Robin, wouldn’t you? You’d reckon. And when you heard that those two parents were Rodney Roberts and Roberta Roberts, you’d think they were just mean – like, if they’d had to suffer all those Rs, then they’d make their kid suffer too. But if you actually knew my parents, you’d get that giving me a Rolls-Royce name was just their cute way of including me in their club: the R&R club. Well, that was their thinking anyway. They were making sure I felt part of the family.
The family. It’s not like there’s much of a family to be part of anymore.
And as for the name itself, Robin, well I blame my dad for that, crazy bird-lover. Then again, I could blame my dad for a lot of things right now . . .
Lost, in the first minutes of the first day of my new posh school in the big ugly city. The bell had gone nearly ten minutes earlier, the noisy throng of girls that had crowded all available space had now completely disappeared; and F-block had clearly fallen off the face of the earth. There I was, alone in the echoing hallways, wearing the requisite below-the-knee-length tartan dress, an itchy blazer and – I was sure of it – the wrong shoes. If there is one thing I understand in this world, it is that you will never know the right shoes for a particular school until you’re in it.
I went outside, sat on a step, and put my head on my knees. This school was nothing like my old school. I’d come from a tiny, two-building country high school, only about one hundred and fifty kids in the whole school. And now here I was in a school where there were that many kids in one year level, where corridors disappeared into the distance, and where I was supposed to find my place among hundreds of girls. That’s right. Girls. Enrolling me in a girls’ school was Mum’s bright idea. I don’t know what she was thinking.
The thought of her made me long for her in a way I hadn’t since I was a little kid. She was here, somewhere. Back home in the country she’d taught at the private school in town while I went to the local secondary, but now, in the city, we’d ended up at the same school. It was a good school apparently, a state school with private-school pretensions. And great ‘outcomes’, Mum said. And good for her career.
I could try to find her. But what could she do? She was teaching. I couldn’t waltz into her class in front of all her students and say in my best little-kid voice, ‘Help me, Mummy.’ I lifted my head from my knees, and bloody hell – there, right in front of me, was F-block, squat and smug. Sprinting up two steps at a time, I found F-10 on the third floor, and burst into the room suddenly and loudly. Twenty pairs of eyes turned towards me. The words ‘Mr Krietcher’ were printed on the whiteboard, and from underneath them two small, dark eyes looked me over.
‘And you might be?’
Panting, out of breath, ‘Flame’, I wheezed.
This ‘Mr Krietcher’ just looked at me funny, and then was silent.
Oh God. What had I just done? Flame, short for Flame Robin, is my dad’s pet name for me. I stuttered and scrambled for more words.
‘Ah . . . Robin Roberts, sir.’
He picked up a clipboard from the desk, and scanned the roll. ‘“Flame”, did you say? Is that a nickname? Do you prefer that?’
‘No, no. Robin, please. Robin’s fine. Robin Roberts.’ And with a cheesy flourish of my hand, ‘At your service.’ Oh God.
There was giggling around the room. The teacher raised an eyebrow and the giggling stopped. He carefully marked the page, and placed the pen and the clipboard back onto the desk in front of him.
‘Robin Roberts, I don’t know what your last school was like, but at this school we value punctuality.’
‘I know, oh my God, I’m so sorry, but –’
He cut me off by raising his hand, which I thought was a bit rude, turned back around to the board and continued writing. The minute his back was to us, all the girls in the room turned towards me, getting a good look.
At my old school, where all the teachers knew all the students from the time they were little kids – knew their parents, knew the stupid things they had done when they were six (or sixteen) – there was room for a bit of conversational back and forth, some healthy sparring. The teachers even seemed to enjoy it. So I really didn’t know I was venturing into dangerous territory when I said, ‘But it’s my first day, sir, maybe you could go a bit easy.’
Mistake. I could tell instantly from the way his writing arm froze, and the way all the heads in the room snapped back to look at him, to see what he would do. Shit, was he one of these insecure teachers, the ones that never let their guard down, not for a second? Oh, come on, dude, cut me some slack. He slowly turned around.
‘Robin Roberts, I view it as part of my job to prepare you girls for success in the adult world. And the adult world does not smile upon disorganised and irresponsible people. Now please take a seat.’
So I’m usually a fairly cool and even-tempered person, but light the right fuse and I can go off a little bit. And for me, the right fuse was a sense of injustice. Here he was, on my first day, judging my actual character, based on what? On absolutely nothing.
‘But it wasn’t my fault!’
Mr Krietcher remained calm. ‘The rules are simple. If you are late to my class I will give you detention. Today you are lucky: because it is your first day you only have a warning. But for the future, know that tardiness – and backchat for that matter – is simply unacceptable.’
There’s this thing among teachers, I know about it from my mum. It’s a saying: Don’t smile until Easter. It’s about being a total hard-arse for the first weeks of the year so your students are totally cowed and under control before you get any sort of friendly vibe on. And it’s possible that this guy was doing that. It was possible that he would turn out to be a nice guy, a good teacher. Possible. But it was also possible that he was just an unreasonable jerk. Either way, it made no difference to my reaction. My face grew hot with the unfairness of it all.
‘Dude,’ I said – yes, I actually called him dude – ‘I think you’ve misjudged me, and I think you’re being a bit harsh.’ One girl actually slapped her hand over her mouth, as if she could shut me up by covering her own talking apparatus.
He lifted his chin and looked down his nose at me, truly down his nose. ‘Dude?’ he repeated. ‘Harsh?’ he also repeated. ‘I don’t think I was being harsh. But now, as you have already given me the descriptor, I might as well deserve it. You have worn out my patience and good humour and I would like to see you here, this afternoon, at three-thirty.’
Wow. Was this really happening? In a matter of moments my fi st day had gone from giving me a little bit of shit to becoming a very productive shit farm; it had produced a great quantity of the stuff and sent it very efficiently my way. And, in fact, this was a bit more shit than I was prepared to take. I was really pissed off. Hell, I’d had enough today. I’d tried my best, but now I was going to turn around and stomp out of there, bugger the consequences. But just as I was drawing myself up to a good stalking-off height, a fairly small and abrupt voice said, ‘Excuse me, sir.’
It was a tiny, pale-looking girl sitting up towards the front of the class.
‘Excuse me, Mr Krietcher, but I do think you are being harsh. I’m not entirely sure why you can’t see it for yourself, but I believe Robin Roberts is correct in pointing it out to you, and I believe it is also my duty to speak up, so that you may see and correct the error of your ways.’
There were embarrassed titters and whispers around the room, and also the odd gasp. Clearly this was all quite thrilling. Mr Krietcher slowly pushed his glasses back on his nose, fixing his gaze on the girl.
‘Delia Mann.’ He seemed to consider her for a long time as she sat there with her chin pointed straight at him. She looked fearless. It threw him. He seemed indecisive. Eventually he said, ‘Delia, I’m disappointed. But I suppose I’ll be seeing you at three-thirty as well. Quite the little party. Welcome to year eleven, everybody.’
He went back to writing on the board and, amid whispers and looks, I took the only empty seat in the room, next to Delia.
Lunchtime was a trial. Not bold enough yet to try to sit with any of the groups from my classes, I had to eat my lunch quickly and then hide out in the library, pretending I had some pressing research. I found a table in a corner and through the library window I watched the girls in the yard. The tiny year sevens, fresh from primary school, were still playing games, hiding and chasing. I envied them. It’s so much easier to be new all together, especially when you know you won’t get laughed at for suggesting a game. The year twelves were in the library with me, being given a special library induction, and looking stressed. I envied them too; they had an excuse not to be social. Outside the library windows, scattered about the yard, girls from the other year levels sat in their impenetrable social groups: all those relationships already bound tightly together, no gaps. I could see a largish group of girls from my form room. One girl was definitely at the centre of that group; you could tell by the way the other girls sat, slightly angled towards her – Natasha, that was her name. She had honey-streaked light brown hair that clearly did as it was told, falling obediently in an unwavering line down her back. She was obviously popular, but popularity here also seemed to follow strange lines – I couldn’t always pick it just by looking. Many different types of girls seemed popular, for different reasons. Some of the smartest girls in the classes I’d had so far, the ones who tried hard and took it seriously, seemed really popular. That just didn’t happen at my old school. Half the students at my old school didn’t even make it to year twelve. It was all quite disorienting.
Maybe that was what drew my eyes to this particular group of girls clustered around Natasha: there was something familiar about them. They seemed more like the girls from home. They all wore their skirts as short as they possibly could without attracting disciplinary attention, and in class they seemed to be less conscientious than their peers. I knew how to be friends with girls like that.
Maybe tomorrow I would take a breath and plunge in and talk to them, be friendly. But right then I was a big chicken.
And by the end of the day, I was a big, exhausted chicken. It’s tiring, being the new girl. So the last thing I wanted to do was to stay after school.
After everyone else had gone home, we sat in our form room, Delia and I. Mr Krietcher sat at the front of the room reading a newspaper. I was feeling a keen summer-afternoon lethargy, and if I had dared I would have put my head down on the table. Delia was actually doing homework. She was sitting neatly on her chair a few seats away from me, pulled in as close to the desk as she could get, with her maths books open, and she was writing a stream of tidy fives down the side of her page. She didn’t look at all like she was really in year eleven. She didn’t even look like she should be in year ten. She was small for a start. Her school dress was clearly too big – it was way beyond the below-the-knee stipulation; halfway down her calves, in fact. It was practically a frock. Her brown hair was in a primary-school ponytail, tied low at the back with a navy blue scrunchie that had been magically time-portalled onto her head from the 1980s. Her face was pointed and there was a slight rough boyishness around her mouth, but her forehead was baby-smooth, no furrows at all, despite her intense focus on the textbooks in front of her. She looked a lot like a little kid playing grown-ups.
I was leaning back in my chair and doodling with my pen over the front of the new pink exercise book Mum had bought for me the week before. She said there were other colours but she chose the pink because it was so ‘cheery’. I thanked her, but I don’t think I’m really a pink kind of person. My pen was working back and forth over the front of my new pink book, and I was thinking about how this Delia girl had stood up for me. I would never have done something like that for a new girl at my old school. She must be a bit nuts.
I looked up as Mr Krietcher finished the last page of his newspaper, clumsily folding it shut. He gave Delia a hard stare, and then stood up and walked out of the room. Delia looked up as the door slammed, but then went straight back to her work.
I leaned across to her. ‘Thanks for today,’ I said.
‘You’re welcome.’ She didn’t look up from her page, and the figures kept scratching out from her pen.
‘I really appreciate it. I mean, there’s no way –’ ‘Can you please stop talking? It’s quite distracting.’ ‘But he’s gone. You don’t have to –’
I sat back in my chair. ‘Jeez. We can hardly get into more trouble.’
She finally looked up – exasperated I think. The kids at this school certainly were conscientious, that was for sure. And then Delia suddenly stopped looking exasperatedly at me.
‘What are those?’ She was looking at the doodles on the front of my book. Only as I looked at them now, I saw they weren’t just doodles. I’d drawn two birds. Long, thin birds. The two of them stood there together, on the pink cover. Delia seemed transfixed.
I looked at them and laughed. Fancy my subconscious pulling them up and drawing them out through my hand.
‘Wow! Ha. I didn’t even mean to draw them.’
‘What are they?’
‘Well . . .’ I was always cautious when revealing my birdy side. ‘They’re these really cool birds from my old home in the country.’
How far to go? I assessed that Delia was risk-free: there was no way she could do social damage. ‘They’re called Bush Stone-curlews.’
And then she shot me such a look – God, I have no idea what that look was about. It was like she thought I was telling a lie, it was like, I don’t even know: like I’d lied to her about something important. The door opened. Mr Krietcher came back into the room with Ms Megalos, the vice-principal, in tow.
‘Well, that’s it then,’ he said. ‘Go on – go home.’
We stood and started closing up our folders and pushing them into our bags. Delia was quicker than me and was about to leave when Mr Krietcher said, ‘Delia, can you stay back for a moment? We’d like a word. Robin, when you go, close the door.’
Maybe I had misjudged Delia. Maybe she was a real rebel. Teachers don’t just bring in the vice-principal for nothing. Whatever else she had done, it must have been pretty bad.
On the train on the way home I looked out of the window to see if I could see any interesting birds.
So okay, yes, I’m a bird nerd too. I can’t just point at Dad and say ‘crazy bird-lover’ and not fess up to having a twitching eye myself. But when you grow up where I did in the country, it’s hard not to be. Birds are everywhere. And each species of bird has its own way of doing things – its own voice, its own way of flitting about, its own habits. It’s like each species has a personality, and if you’ve grown up with that personality right there, then it’s a kind of friend. I know that sounds stupid, but it’s true. Even when I was out doing stuff by myself, like taking the cows their dinner or locking up the goose shed, if there were birds around, I never felt alone. And there was always someone around: a Grey Fantail, or an Eastern Spinebill, or a Flame Robin.
The flame robins are cool. They’re small and anxious-looking and it’s as if someone has coloured in their chests with orange highlighter – it’s such a crazy fluro colour, only a little bit more crazy and fluro than my own crazy orange-red hair. So you can see where my dad got it from. Robin. Flame Robin. Flame.
But two months ago, when the fire came through, all the birds disappeared. Dad said it was worse than any fire anyone had seen in decades. He said we were lucky that we’d had all our sheep up in the top paddock: we hadn’t lost any, not like some of our neighbours. The fire was fast and hot, which is bad. It killed someone, some woman up in the hills, not a local, right on the fire track where Dad and I used to go to collect wood. It was in all the papers. And the fire stripped so much of the landscape that only days after it went through, there were absolutely no birds left.
I should have seen it as an omen, the birds all leaving like that. They left first, and then Mum and I left for the city a few weeks later. And I haven’t been back since. I don’t even know if any of them have returned.
Sparrows and pigeons, that’s all I saw from the window of the train on my way home from school. And when I got there, the tiny house was quiet as I slipped my key into the lock; no dog leaping about on the other side of the door to welcome me. Mum had got my house key cut from purple paisley metal to make it more fun. Hoping, I suppose, that a ‘fun’ key might stop me comparing this place to my old home, a farmhouse on the side of a hill, surrounded by acres of paddock and bush. We didn’t even lock the doors there.
I turned the key in the lock, and pushed the door inward. The hallway was narrow. As I walked down it my schoolbag scraped one wall and my shoulder the other. The door shut behind me, making the slide-click sound of a deadlock, and the traffic noise of nearby Punt Road became muffled. I dropped my bag on the lounge-room floor and sat on the beanbag next to it, leaning my back up against the wall. We didn’t have a couch yet. Our old one was far too big for this shoebox.
I rested my head against the wall and wished my mother would come home. I needed to talk to someone. Someone who actually knew me. Who knew me and loved me. There didn’t seem to be many of those around anymore. I swallowed the lump that rose in my throat.
The phone rang. Mum. Or Amber, my best friend from back home. I pulled myself up to answer it.
‘Is that Robin?’ It wasn’t my mother. The voice was small and sharp.
‘It’s Delia. Are you free tomorrow after school?’ ‘How did you get my –’
‘Tomorrow. Tuesday. Second day of term. Are you free?’
Of course I was free. Did I know a single person in this city? ‘Yes, but I’ll have to ask Mum. Why?’
‘I’ll show you the parklands.’ The phone clicked in my ear as she hung up abruptly.
The hallway was suddenly silent. It was darker than before. I stood there holding the dead receiver for a moment or two before slowly hanging up. I don’t even know why, but I started to cry.
Excerpted from As Stars Fall by Christie Nieman. Copyright © 2014 by Christie Nieman.
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