She was the queen of snark and her tongue was as sharp as obsidian. When she cut you with her words, no matter that your self-esteem was sliced and garnished and arranged like so much sashimi on a plate, she nevertheless left no scar, just a sense of awe, and sometimes, an admiring snort of involuntary laughter from the victim, who felt that history had been made and that they had been a part of it. She should have been a lawyer, people said, or a journalist, or a political cartoonist, but she did not care for any of those things. She was happy with her knitting and her wit.
It was the fire that changed everything. A long, damp, spring of cooling breezes, sweet blossom and the hum of bees grew overnight into an oppressive, scorching summer, overlooked by a malevolent sun, loud with heat. Fires sparked in forgotten places. Glass bottles discarded in the bush caught and launched the sun’s rays at dry bark and twigs. White smoke hung sinister in the air, shrinking the horizon to the distance of the next paddock, the nearest hill. For long weeks, flames had circled their town, advancing with frightening speed on hot windy days, beaten back by firefighters, hushed by rain but never – quite – vanquished. The smell permeated everything. Every substance every instinct every pore. It owned them so completely that when the ash started to rain down, they almost missed its significance, so familiar did it feel, so natural to them. She cut the grass and filled the gutters and then, as the wall of flames drew so close she could hear its voice, she fled down the dirt track after her neighbors and hoped and prayed that there would be something to come back to.
There was not. She returned to a landscape of charcoal and black dust, where the stink of death overwhelmed the lingering scent of smoldering peat, and the skeleton of her home stood, rickety and bent, just long enough to see her one last time before it collapsed, exhausted, into itself and became another pyre of black sticks among many, many, black pyres. Her mother’s glassware had melted into teardrops on the ground. Her iron kettle was twisted. Her pictures were gone.
For long months she moved slowly. She lived in the land of the dead. People took her in. There was food. She had the clothes she stood up in and the photos she’d packed in her car. She didn’t have a bad word to say about anyone. Everyone was so kind. They gave her clothes, and blankets in garish colours crocheted from cheap acrylic wool. There was brave talk of rebuilding, of government grants and compensation. She was placed in temporary accommodation. She got back to her knitting. Everyone appreciated how nice she had become. They said so to each other, often, but between the clean blue lines of their supportive conversation was the invisible ink of regret. There was already plenty of sweetness in the world. What it lacked was salt.
Summer let down its guard and fell into the arms of autumn. Winter kept a steady pace behind. The temporary stayed temporary. The grants never came. She lived on in borrowed clothes. She knitted herself a jumper for the cold, and then a hat, and then a scarf, and still nothing changed but the rain. In spring, the people stirred themselves, and she stirred with them. A mini-bus took them back to their old neighbourhood, where the camera crews were waiting. She saw the green shoots of cutting grass nibbled low by wallabies, sprays of leaves bursting lively out of dead trunks. Where her lawn used to be, the ash was contained now by a fine furze of groundcover, creeping hesitantly, unsure of its welcome. Her house was crumbled into its own outline, an architectural drawing of itself. She could never afford to have it rebuilt. They had been forgotten. The promised help would never come.
A flurry of noise, a stirring of excitement. The camera crews stood alert, the shining car with the black windows swung into view. She watched as the prime minister alighted, surrounded by his tribe. He was smaller than she’d expected. He made his way around her neighbours, shaking hands, shaking his head. The smarmy little turd was trying to look sympathetic, she thought. Here he came towards her. He was looking her in the eye now. Cameras were poised. His minders were staring at her patronizingly. She was a photo opportunity. He moved in for a hug. He laid his clammy hands on her. She went OFF.
She was the queen of snark and nobody could lay a finger on her crown. She let forth such a torrent of invective that he was blown backwards, face a peeled red as if he was suffering from chemical burns already, and she had only just begun. It took her one diamond hard sentence to remind him of the help he owed them, and two more to dissect his character completely and find him thoroughly and comprehensively wanting. He backed away towards the car but she had no need to follow him. Her voice was lodged in his ear like a leech and it was going nowhere until it had sucked him dry. On and on she railed, as the cameras gazed at her, bewitched. His presumption, the failings of his government, the state of the country, his rape of the environment, his parsimony, his obsequiousness in the face of God matched only by the contempt with which he treated God’s people. Rage rushed through her, picking up words as it went, like a flooding river snatching up rocks. She hurled them, she aimed them, she piled them about him until he was walled in on every side and the only escape left to him was apology, and a firm promise of funding. She was back.
She sits most evenings on her new veranda now, knitting and holding forth. Nobody escapes her wit and nobody wants to. It is a thing of beauty, fearsome and rare. Sharp as obsidian, clear as melted glass.