Fire and Ashes

FeaturedFire and Ashes
Bennu Bird ©Paulina Noordergraaf 2018
Bennu Bird ©Paulina Noordergraaf 2018

Nobody could say the fires came unexpected. It had been the longest drought in recorded history. For years, the Summer rains had failed to arrive. The land was parched. Everywhere the trees were bare and dying, the forest floor covered in ankle-high layers of dead, brown leaves. Where walls of green once blocked the view, dark outlines of trees in charcoal black and burnt-earth browns revealed a horizon shimmering in the heat of the unrelenting sun. Yet, when the fires came, sweeping down on the village with the speed of a tsunami and the ferocity of a cyclone, hot enough to melt iron, people were still caught unprepared.

The erratically turning winds had left the village surrounded by a ring of fire, cutting off all roads, expect one dirt track leading through barren fields to the relative safety of the desert beyond. Realising they had only one chance to escape, the villagers grabbed whatever belongings they could carry. They loaded bags and children onto utes, cars and carriages and fled from their houses without even daring to look back.

The old woman they called Ms Benny was one of the heroes of the day. Even before the fires arrived she had been going around warning people to prepare to abandon their houses. She had helped people clear their driveways and make sure their vehicles were in working condition. She helped farm hands lead away cattle and release horses from their stables. When the first houses started to burn, she was there helping the panicking families get out safely and on their way.

She seemed to be everywhere at once, directing people, calming them down with her quiet confidence and steely determination. Afterwards, almost every villager would have a story about how Ms Benny helped them escape. Everyone seemed to recall her being there when they needed her most. They called her an angel. They called her a saint. They were sure that the fact that only one person died that day was solely due to her diligence and super-human interventions. She was like a force of Nature, defying the smoke and the flames as if they couldn’t touch her.

Which made her death all the more inexplicable to the villagers mourning her.

When the last remaining family had reached the track leading to safety, Ms Benny didn’t join them but turned around to look at the village going up in flames. The last building to catch fire was the old village hall, just outside the village. Everyone assumed it was empty. But Ms Benny seemed to think differently. She called out to two of the men to follow her and started to run in the direction of the burning building.

She ran faster than any old woman should be able to run. The two men couldn’t keep up with her and saw from a distance how Ms Benny, in spite of the flames shooting up from the roof, shouldered her way through the front door and disappeared into the flames. Seconds later the roof collapsed and the building went up in a single, spectacular column of fire shooting up into the sky.

The two men later swore they heard a cry like a heron’s call the moment the fire shot up. They also said the fire died out as fast as it had come, as if it had burned out all its energy in that single burst. When they arrived at the gate to the building, all that remained was a smoking pile of rubble and ashes, with only the stone chimney stack standing intact. Nobody could have survived in that inferno. They were about to turn around to join the fleeing villagers when they heard a sound coming from the fireplace. Something was alive in there. It sounded like a baby, softly crying.

The two men braved the smouldering heat of the collapsed building and cleared the ashes from around the chimney. That is where they found me, a newborn baby girl. Covered in ash, yet miraculously alive. They picked me up and raced me to safety.

Ms Benny’s body was never found. People assume the column of fire pulverised her, leaving only ashes. Nobody has ever been able to explain how I survived or where I came from. My mother remains unknown. No woman, pregnant or otherwise, was reported missing or dead. They found me holding an antique golden ring clutched in my tiny fist that people recognised as belonging to Ms Benny, so people say she must have shielded me from the heat in her dying moments. The ash they found me covered in must have been hers. Most of the villagers didn’t need an explanation. They called it a miracle and declared Ms Benny a saint.

I was adopted by a loving family who named me Benita but everyone calls me Benny, in honour of the woman who saved me. They raised me well, in the rebuilt village they had fled from the day I was born. In spite of my strange beginnings I had an unremarkable, happy childhood. When my parents died I moved away and traveled far and wide, marvelling at the beauty of this world and the strange disregard most people have for the wonders surrounding them.

I’m an old woman now. It’s been many years since I last saw that village. They didn’t need me there. But now the land is suffering again. They say this drought may be worse even than the one from when I was born. Entire regions are losing their livelihood. Ghost towns are appearing everywhere.

I still carry Ms Benny’s ring around my finger, the one I was found with all those years ago. I don’t usually notice its presence. Lately, however, it has begun to feel heavy and warm. I can almost feel a pulse to it, as if it is coming alive. Its jade carving seems brighter to me, too. Where the image was once barely visible, I can now clearly see a bird rising from the flames. When the sunlight hits it directly, I would swear I can see the flames move and the bird raise its head.

In my dreams the fire calls me.

I think it’s time to go home.

©Bard 2021



Without stories, the knowledge would die and when the knowledge was gone, everything else would die too. Karl-Erik Sveiby and Tex Skuthorpe, Treading Lightly

Storyland – ©Paulina Noordergraaf 2018

The land was endless and infinitely rich. Every rock, every hill, every stream had a story about her origin, her life and her meaning in the bigger scheme of things. Everything was connected by a living web of stories, songs and rituals. The stories were timeless and eternal: birth, life and death all happened in that one timeless space of the creationtime. Everything that always was, is and always will be was kept alive there. That was what held the land together, living and inexhaustible. That was how the land could perpetually renew itself without really changing.

The people of this land were all too aware of the importance of the stories. They knew that every story was a thread in the fabric that kept them alive and gave their existence meaning. It was a knowing that went much deeper than the mind alone. They felt it in their soul, their bodies, their bones. Because of the stories these people lived in a world in which every place was as intimately familiar as their own familiy and friends. Knowing the stories of a tree or watering hole meant knowing the place as if they had grown up together, knowing all the gifts the place had to offer and everything the place needed to be able to keep giving. Though they traveled around as nomads these people were never on their way to somewhere else, desperate to get there. They were always home. The land itself was their safe destination, however far they travelled, as long as they knew the stories.

And so the people of the land took care of the land and her stories. It was their sacred duty to cherish every story and pass it on unblemished from generation to generation. Sometimes a story was added but hardly ever did a story get lost. Stories were exchanged between tribes, more valuable than any material trade. Stories were endlessly told, sung, danced and painted. When the land changed – through volcanic eruptions, floods, climate changes – new elements were added to the stories like newborn babies would be welcomed to the tribe. Nothing remained untold. Nothing remained unconnected. As long as every person participated in weaving this fabric, the land was one, rich and generous to all.

This timeless creationtime lasted many, many millennia. Eternally moving, eternally the same.

Until the strangers arrived in their strange boats. Strangers were not unknown in the land, but until now they had always been visitors: people that came to trade and exchange stories, to then disappear again. Or people that came, learned the stories and adapted to the land until they were strangers no more. These strangers were different. They did not come to visit but to conquer. They did not come to participate in what the land had to offer but to subjugate the land to their will. Unasked they stepped ashore. Without asking they stayed and said the land was theirs now.

The strangers did not see the connectedness between the land and her inhabitants. They didn’t see the land and her deep-rooted history. They only saw dirt and raw materials. Spaces they could occupy. Treasures they could hoard. They saw a soulless expanse they could fill with their own inventions.

They barely noticed the original inhabitants, let alone their stories, songs and symbols. On the contrary, when the wise men and women of the land occasionally invited the strangers to learn the basic stories, the ones meant to introduce children and visitors to the fabric of the land, the elders were laughed at. The strangers thought the stories childish and primitive. Fairly tales for under-developed people. Superstitions and make-belief. The sooner this nonsense would disappear from the land the better, was their opinion.

They did bring their own stories, but these were lifeless and devoid of context. Ancient stories from a land they had never been to themselves. Stories that were closely guarded, captured in deadly black ink on desiccated leaves, bound together and chained in leather. These were no living stories, connected to the fabric of the land, but dead fossils, incapable of connecting to the web of life to become one with it.

The strangers took possession of the land with a heedless cruelty the land had never experienced before. They outlawed the telling of the stories, the singing of songs, the dancing of ceremonies. They even outlawed the languages the people spoke and sang in.

With every word that faded away a thread was pulled from the web of stories. Every thread that was torn weakened the web. The land began to fragment. Her inhabitants become lost in their own land. Even the places their ancestors had lived for hundreds of generations no longer felt like home because the connecting stories were missing. The land lost her meaning and hid her secrets. From a lifelong family member lavishly sharing her abundance, the land turned into a wilderness with more perils than food. Less and less people could see the land and feel welcome.

The strangers barely noticed the land falling apart and her life disappearing. They didn’t see how much the land and her inhabitants suffered. Disconnected from the creationtime that bound everything together, they didn’t see the degradation, or attributed it to bad luck, changes in the weather, forces of nature. Droughts that lasted years were followed by floods that covered everything. Imported animals and plants turned into pests that completely unbalanced the natural harmony between species. Growing stretches of land turned into meaningless voids. More and more land became desolate, dry and dead.

The strangers retreated to their cities where they could hide inside their unnatural dwellings and pretend the decline of the land had no effect on them. They built walls around themselves so they did not have to watch the destruction. They told each other they could solve all problems with even newer inventions. They were certain they could master Nature and take back control of the land. All that was needed was more power, more machines, even more violence.

Thus the strangers perished. In the last city the last survivors looked out over a land without meaning, without life, without mercy. The land was formless and empty. There was no home they could feel safe in. There was no past they could feel part of. There was no future to look forward to. There wasn’t even a narrator to give anything meaning anymore. All that was left was the emptiness of a cold and senseless universe in which humans had no place.

The land was left behind like an unwritten page, without mountains or valleys, without rivers or lakes, without life. And she waited till someone would find her again. For true inhabitants to return to revive the land with their stories and songs. To shape the land with their ceremonies and paintings and fill it again with meaning and value.

The land waited…

©Bard 2021