“On [Friday 13 January 1939] it appeared that the whole State [Victoria, Australia] was alight. At midday, in many places, it was dark as night. Men carrying hurricane lamps, worked to make safe their families and belongings. Travellers on the highways were trapped by fires or blazing fallen trees, and perished. Throughout the land there was daytime darkness… Steel girders and machinery were twisted by heat as if they had been of fine wire. Sleepers of heavy durable timber, set in the soil, their upper surfaces flush with the ground, were burnt through… Where the fire was most intense the soil was burnt to such a depth that it may be many years before it shall have been restored…”
— Stretton Royal Commission.
June huddled at the back of the dugout, clutching her younger sister’s trembling form. Little May was terrified, and her sobs filled the dark space. June was no less afraid, but refused to succumb to the fear. They were as safe as they could possibly be, safer than so many others.
The damp hessian covering the opening was suddenly lifted, and Frank, the oldest of the three siblings, hurtled through. He was covered in ash and smelt of acrid smoke.
“Stay back Junie, and keep May close. I’ve never seen so much smoke and the flames are higher than the trees.” His voice was husky and painful and he coughed into his handkerchief, before he used it to mop at the sweat dripping from his hair. June could barely make out his features, as the pool of light from the kerosene lamp was barely enough to reach him. The insipid lamp was the only thing keeping her terror at bay.
June could hear the fire, it roared like a monster from her worst nightmare and the heat was becoming unbearable. The dampened hessian overhanging the opening did little to keep the smoke out of their refuge. Dad had dug this shelter out of the side of a hill near their home when they first moved to Rubicon to work on the mill. The shelter was a place to store dry goods, but June and May had used it as their secret hideaway. The cool earth was a pleasant place to play in the heat of an Australian summer and in the last few years they’d had a string of hot summers, each one dryer than the one before. It was not cool here now, the packed earth was warm and uncomfortable. Outside, the air was thick and hot, sizzling with ash tossed on the ferocious winds that whipped the bushfires into towering infernos.
“Where’s Mummy and Dad?” June asked, her eyes searching the hessian behind her brother, hoping to see one or both of her parents.
“They sent me away, but they’re staying to protect the mill.”
“Oh…!” June’s eyes were wide as she looked from her brother’s ash covered face to her little sister’s tear streaked one. She didn’t want to say it out loud, after all, little May was only eight. But how could her parents fight the inferno that was heading their way? She’d seen it on the opposite hillside as she’d dragged May to the shelter. The flames, like the fires of hell that she learned about at Sunday school, were running down the hill toward their little home and timber mill. The fire front was so enormous that it consumed the sky, the smoke obliterating the sun and thrusting the land into an unnatural darkness.
“It’s an inferno out there, Junie. Nothing will be able to survive it.”
“Where’s Spike?” Frank just shook his head, a hopelessness in his eyes that spoke volumes.
“Oh, God!” June closed her eyes and prayed. Spike was only a dog, but he was a good dog. He didn’t deserve to be out there, but she couldn’t go looking for him, not with a wild bushfire raging out of control towards her home. She wasn’t overly religious, wasn’t overly good, but there seemed to be nothing else that she could do but pray. “God, please save us!” Her whispered prayer, repeated over and over as it fell from her lips in a childish, desperate plea.
Each minute ticked away like an hour as it grew hotter within their shelter, and the air became thicker. God didn’t seem to be listening to her prayers. She shut her eyes tight as her heart pounded in her throat and, with shaking, sweaty limbs, she clutched her sister’s face to her chest. If they were going to die, she didn’t want May to know about it.
Eventually, terror gave way to exhaustion, and little May slipped into a restless sleep. June carefully set her down and slithered to the opening, where she carefully moved the hessian a fraction to peer outside.
“What are you doing? Get back!” Frank croaked, his voice a mere rasp of sound.
June didn’t heed him. Her wide eyes watered with the smoke, but she couldn’t tear her gaze from the fires of hell that raged beyond their safe haven. The flames danced closer and embers swirled in the air like furious fireflies. The sound was deafening, an angry beast hungrily consuming everything in its path. And there, amid the swirling sparks and choking fumes, stood a tall, dark shadow with glowing eyes. Its form was insubstantial, a mass of menacing smoke with a terrifying consciousness. It turned and looked at June as she peered past the hessian barrier, and she was paralysed with fear as the glowing red eyes seared her soul.
“June Mercia Melrose,” the huge form bellowed, smoke clouds billowing from its mouth. She felt the creature’s words as they vibrated through her entire body.
“Spare us, please!” June didn’t know where she found the courage to ask, or more accurately, to demand anything of the horror that stared her in the face.
“Why should I? Give me one reason.”
“I don’t know why. I just don’t want to die. We’re too young, we’re only children.”
“If I were to spare you, what would you give me?”
“I don’t know. I don’t own anything.”
“Do you have a soul?”
“I don’t know. Father O’Leary says we all do, but I have never seen it.”
“I would like a soul, a young girl’s soul. Little June, would you give me your soul?”
“I don’t know that it’s mine to give.”
“If you have a soul, then it belongs to you.”
“Father O’Leary says my soul belongs to God.”
“June, you don’t need permission to sell your soul. It is yours. You can gift it to whomever you wish. Gift it to me and in exchange, I will save your family.”
“I…” June hesitated, her eyes streaming with smoke inflicted tears that mingled with tears of terror and hopelessness. “Alright.” The shadowy form swelled with unholy joy, and its fearsome eyes grew brighter and redder. It slowly stretched out a smoky arm toward her chest.
“Wait!” June cried. The beast paused. “How do I know you will keep your word?” The red eyes glowered at her and the earth seemed to rumble, but June stood firm. “Will you keep us all safe? Mummy and Dad, and Frank and May?”
“They will be safe, little girl, as long as I have your soul.”
“What about Charlie and Roy?” June dared to ask, referring to the men who worked alongside her father at the mill. They were family too, just not by birth.
“Just give me your soul and they will all be spared.”
“And Spike, he’s family too.”
“One soul to save all those people, little June? Is your soul worth that much?”
June thought for a moment. Her soul must truly be a precious thing, if this demon of fire would pay so much for it. “Will I ever get it back?”
“Only if you can exchange it for something of equal worth.”
“What is equal to a soul?”
“Please spare my family!” June cried, as tears poured down her cheeks and evaporated from her face in the heat. A shadowy hand reached toward her, glowing clawed fingers piercing her chest, and she howled a silent scream.
The hessian covering flapped back and June startled awake, gasping for breath, her chest pounding painfully. Her mother staggered in, carrying the huge soup pot, splashing water over the sides as she hurried through the opening. Her dad followed, his face blackened, a burn marring his cheek and his hair singed on one side. But he was alive, and he carried a bundle in his arms.
“Spike!” June cried.
“He’s not too good, Junie. He was caught behind the shed and his paws are burned badly.” June rushed over to her father and sunk her face into the fur at Spike’s neck. The dog didn’t respond, laying limp in Dad’s arms.
“Oh, Spike!” June whispered.
It was difficult to tell the time as they huddled in the darkness while flames engulfed the world all around them. The roar became unbearable and the heat a furnace of horror. June clenched her eyes shut and huddled into her mother’s side as she waited for the world to end. The air was thick with smoke that seeped past the hessian at the opening, filling the small area with acrid fumes that seared her lungs. Her mother dipped some cloth into the water, placing the damp material over their mouths and noses in an effort to filter the air.
Finally, the intensity of sound and heat began to abate. Tentatively, her father ventured out of the dugout to survey the damage. June followed him. Although her mother mumbled something, she was too exhausted to stop her.
The world outside was white, all colour burned from the palate of nature’s brush. White hot ash covered the ground, like a smoldering scene from a Christmas card. Trees clawed the sky with skeletal fingers, their branches stripped bare and still burning with the remnants of flames. The sky was glowing orange, a blanket of smoke obscuring the sunlight with a post apocalyptic glow. Not a blade of grass survived for miles, and June turned to scan the area. There was desolation and destruction in every direction, including their little house, burned clear to the ground. Everything she owned, all her clothes, toys, books, every memory lost. Dad just stood there, staring at where their house had been. June watched as tears streaked clean paths down his sooty, ash-covered face. Dad never cried. She wasn’t sure what to do, so she slipped her little hand in his. He didn’t look down, but gave her hand a gentle squeeze.
“We survived,” she whispered.
“You’re right Junie, we’re all alive.” Her dad slipped an arm about her shoulders and pulled her close to his side. “Thank God we all came through this in once piece.”
June shuddered. She didn’t think God had anything to do with it. A chill ran down her spine as she wondered how she would live without her soul.