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.