Burning The House

Words by Alice Bishop

Pictures by Alice Bishop

Published on August 15, 2016

‘I don’t remember forgetting until I remember it.’

— Sandra Cisneros


Sit, right here with me—your Blundstones up on the balcony wire and my father’s honey-coloured whiskey in your glass. You’re on the decking of our Christmas Hills house, the Yarra Valley stretching out like patchwork between your knees. My hands, freshly freckled, shield my face from January sun as Mum, shining, listens to a radio hum inside—her hennaed hair tied back off her face. Yell out if you want food, she calls, and you look up at me like you’ve won something well deserved—your smile not yet pyrite and your stubble somehow still pulling at my spine, not quite as tall then as it later became.


Cotton-backed curtains and knitted limbs: we sleep quietly in this unburned house, still untouched by the disasters, natural and otherwise, we’ve seen on the news. Before bed, the port-coloured couch holds us, lighter then, as we flick through channels like we’re flipping tea-stained catalogues of someone else’s beige-rendered, suburban-same home. Not this one, though, with wasps in the walls and its eight-foot reclaimed doors. We overcook toast in its taffy-wood kitchen, a smoke alarm trill sending a crimson cloud of rosellas fleeing. You, you jump too. No, you’re not used to the burrs in your socks and the dust in the air. But Ali, you say, your mint-menthol breath meeting my own, I’ve never felt so at home.


This house will burn soon, bushfire blue; the colours of bruised thighs, of eucalypt gas, of June sky. The leftovers, crumbled concrete and soft grey ash, will eventually go. People passing, years from now, will never know; the new house won’t seem like a replacement one. Neighboured by silver sprouting wattle and Mountain Ash, regrown—it will again be a home. So just lay with me now, quietly, in this forgotten house like you used to—your hand on my hip and some faded cotton t-shirt, or other, rolled up under our necks. The ceiling above us is knotted pine, not yet burned. Glow-in-the-dark stars and many moons still gleam their soft phosphorescence, stuck on long ago.


Streetlights, lamplights, pleading phones: the nights are brighter than usual, those first few nights without walls. I walk through our burned home in my half-awake dreams—up the stairs with their badly stapled carpet, through front yard of grevillea and purple agapanthus, overgrown, then back inside, down the photo-lined hall. Linen cupboards of dip-dyed tablecloths, bedroom drawers of explorer socks, baby teeth and the carefully illustrated letters Dad wrote Mum, years ago. Journals printed with coffee cup crescents, a puppy-chewed table leg—those small stories will soon disappear as the February wind carries ashes to the valley below. That first love for me, second for you—it will also be blown.


But here we are again, years ago, before it all goes. Your still-familiar feet up on the balcony wire and the valley stretching out below. Be with me, just quietly now, before the fire comes and you start to look at me like the news. We still have the Currawong calls and the photos, lining the halls. I can still feel the scratch of your cheek on my own. The aftermath of it all is just around the bend: bushfire black—the colour of bruised eyes, of chemical smoke, that dark shade of your last, defeated sigh.


So let me learn something from the acres of ash, from the cicada-like shells of the burnt out Holdens lining our road. I am one of the walkers, surveying the colourless things of Skyline Road: home. There is something like freedom in every letterbox, licked, in the calls you stopped making on your Samsung phone. These are the things that have let me know, now, that it’s okay—things will go.