I closed my eyes and breathed in. The air snaked its way into my lungs and made my chest constrict a little. Behind my eyelids, I saw the spruce trees heavily dusted in snow and watched as the snowflakes fell with a soft crackle onto the silent, white landscape surrounding me.
Ma coughed beside me, abruptly bringing me out of my reverie. I resisted the urge to snap at her.
No, she couldn’t help it.
I wiped a hand across my forehead, it was colder than before. Ma shifted, presumably to relieve the ache that had settled in all of our bones. We’d been here for a while now.
I wondered if we would ever leave. The thought sent a shiver down my arms and back that felt like hundreds of baby spiders were scuttling across my flesh.
Spiders. I hadn’t thought of that.
I glanced around the dark room.
“Ma?” I whispered, as my hands smoothed outwards across the hard floor around me.
A gentle touch of cold fingers to my right forearm signalled she was listening.
“Do you think there might be spiders in here?”
My voice sounded young and girlish, the trivial fear silly even to my own ears given the current circumstances. Ma blew air out of her nose in what sounded like a half laugh. She thought it was silly too.
I pulled my legs up to my chest and held tightly to them. I wasn’t convinced.
“I saw a huntsman once on the outer door when Pa asked me to get a shovel for him.”
My brother’s voice was louder from the far corner of the room.
“Don’t start, Ben.”
Ma’s reprimand was half-hearted, executed in a quiet voice and lacking the fervour to convince him.
“It was huge. Like the size of a dinner plate.”
I’d seen plenty of huntsmen spiders before having lived on acreage for most of my childhood life. He was not exaggerating. I saw the long, hairy legs stretched out from the cracks in a piece of firewood that were tempting to a young child with a love for fluffy pipe cleaners. The monster had leapt out of its hiding place at a horrifying speed and I’d had nightmares ever since.
Ma’s voice was a little louder this time, though it still lacked conviction. I bit the skin on my lower lip, rolling it between my teeth and enjoying the distraction of the pain.
I closed my eyes again. The snow was dazzling and magical, and invoked the same sense of wonder I’d felt when standing in awe of the coloured fairy lights covering the town church at Christmas time. I had taken my shoes off despite Pa’s warning and felt the freezing powder between my toes. I’d grinned at him, my teeth sparkling just as white as the snow. Endless summers were all I’d ever known. A real winter was something straight from the pages of a fairy tale.
“Do you think Pa is okay?”
The little crack in my brother’s voice scared me more than the question itself. Ben was normally fearless. If my brave big brother was scared, what hope did I have?
Ma coughed again.
“He’s a smart man. He will save us.”
She sounded like she was trying to convince herself. I bit my lip harder. I was not going to cry. I wouldn’t do that to them.
I imagined the cabin we’d stayed in at the ski resort. The walls made from large logs that I’d shamefully checked for hidden pipe cleaner legs. My father had laughed and told me they didn’t get spiders like that in the cold. I’d felt a rush of relief at the revelation that I was safe here. I looked around the dark room and saw the little frosted glass windows with snow tapping softly against them.
Suddenly, there was a cracking sound from outside and a heavy thump that was felt through the floor. I gasped. My brother let out a soft whimper.
Ma said, “It’s just a tree. It’s okay.”
I tried not to think about what was happening outside the walls of the room that would make a tree crack and fall. We must be right in the middle of the chaos now. My heart ached for Pa. I reached a hand out and touched my fingertips against the smooth surface of the wall. It was hot. I pulled my hand back and clutched it to my chest.
“The walls are hot,” I said in a quiet voice.
“I know,” Ben answered, his tone placating and wary, no longer antagonising.
“Stay away from them,” Ma said.
I shuffled a little to my left. The blood pulsed uncomfortably through the constricted blood vessels that had numbed from my previous position.
It reminded me how the cold had bitten the tips of my extremities, numbing them until they felt more like little popsicles than fingers and toes. I imagined the crackling sounds filtering in from outside being caused by an almighty blizzard and I felt slightly better.
Then came a series of loud bangs against the metal roof. I couldn’t help it, I screamed. Neither Ma nor Ben scolded me for making such a sound. Something heavy had fallen on the roof. Then came a shuffling sound. Like a large pile of snow gently sliding off the slates on the cabin roof.
I didn’t ask Ma what it might have been because I didn’t want to know. My skin was beginning to drip water. The little crystal beads fell from my temples like they had from the icicles hanging in perfect formation along the eave of the cabin entrance. Pa had warned me not to stand underneath them, they were sharp and could hurt if they fell on me.
The sides of the room creaked against an unseen pressure. There was a sharp rattle from the doors where we had entered.
“It’s like it’s trying to get inside,” Ben whispered.
I shut my eyes tight and bit my lip hard. I didn’t want to think about the monster outside. In my mind, the rattle was a soft jingle of bells on a wreath hung on the cabin door and the creaking a result of gusts of icy winds swirling in a winter storm.
For a while we listened to the sounds in silence. Each of us replacing them with other thoughts to distract from the terror. After some time, the sounds became less tumultuous and further apart. The air was still thick and Ma would continue to cough every few minutes.
For some reason I found the steady predictability of her coughs to be soothing in a way, and I drifted into a semi-unconsciousness with my knees drawn to my chest and my head resting on folded arms. Occasionally, a bead of sweat would run down my spine and I’d awaken abruptly, my tired brain convinced it had been a spider until I’d feel the cool droplet with shaky fingers.
A roaring sound erupted and I was snapped out of my alpine dreams.
Ma cried out in a desperate voice. “Arthur?”
Ben started yelling and I could hear him stand up in the darkness. There was a bright light and I shut my eyes because it burned more than the heat that was covering my skin in an uncomfortable stickiness. I heard a voice that wasn’t Pa’s but it was familiar. Ma was sobbing and Ben was asking questions that I couldn’t process.
I opened my eyes and squinted against the light. I could smell the monster still. It smelt of those dark nights in June when Pa had thrown the green waste onto the flames that had risen in violent bursts of radiant orange into the black. But this time instead of exciting me, it was suffocating me. I covered my nose.
“Mara, it’s okay. We’re safe now.” My brother’s tone was soft and coaxing.
He’d never spoken to me like that before. Even when we were children, he’d always addressed me with a hardened superiority. It was unnerving. I felt his hand on my arm pulling me upwards. My legs were wobbly and it took a moment for them to function enough to allow me to step out into the light.
The ground felt soft beneath my shoes and I noticed there was white powder there. I glanced up, expecting to see the winter wonderland I’d dreamt of but instead I was surrounded by the black, charred remains of everything I’d ever known. My house was a graveyard of blackened sheet metal and timber. The paperbark trees stood like ghostly soldiers mourning their fallen, ashen and hopeless. Our family car was a skeletal beast whose rib cage was all that remained.
My head felt too heavy so I steadied myself by putting my hands on my knees. Ma and Ben were speaking too fast to the man who had saved us. I remembered now who he was. Our neighbour, Paul.
Where was Pa?
The last words he’d said to us was that we would be safe in the shipping container and to stay there until the fire had passed. Then he’d gone to help the neighbours.
Paul’s face looked much older than it had that last time I’d seen him. The expression he wore made my heart throb painfully against my chest.
I closed my eyes. I saw Pa pulling on his boots and coat, opening the cabin door, and lifting his face to the soft morning sunlight. I had pretended to be still asleep on the couch in the living room and through one half-closed eye, I’d watched him walk out the door and march down the steps into the powdery snow outside. His retreating figure the last thing I saw before an icy gust had blown the door shut.
It was just like the way the doors of the container had slammed shut after he’d stepped out into the fiery haze.