On Fire

By Kevin Smith

On a hot day
something went wrong. My brother
cleaning up a paddock
pushed fallen timber into piles with a tractor.
Under the sun
the machine laboured on.

Deep beneath
the hood a greasy gloom, a spark somewhere,
a sudden fire
divining reservoirs of oil and diesel,
lines wet with fluid.

Liquid flame
spilled across the engine block
and the cabin filled with smoke. Exploding tyres
boomed through clouds
and cleared
the trees of crows. Burning plastic sickened

the air. His wife
working another paddock
looked up
and saw the black smoke rising. She fixed
her eyes on it
while the boys clambered into the ute.

‘What is it?’
Her face shut like a gate.
From the brow of a hill they saw the tractor burning,
no husband
in sight—no father.
They came on, the last yards hardest; the chance

of him appearing
slipped away.
Was that a blackened shadow in the cabin?
Heat pushed her back.
Rounds of wire hung loose on rims like bracelets
on a wrist stripped

of flesh. She gripped
the boys—but could not speak
his absence.
And what was that written on her children’s faces
that flung them
into whorls of silence?

O god, let it not be so.
The sky leaned close—a ghostly breath.
ran up the white flags of surrender. And there
—he came
strolling over pasture. The boys broke

and ran—crying—into his arms.
Yet the landscape
—spare and silent—
held fast the awful tract she’d yet to cross—to feel
his living
flesh pressed against her flesh.

Kevin Smith is a retired teacher who has taught acting and drama in secondary schools, colleges and universities, facilitating drama workshops at state and national conferences. He has worked professionally as an actor, dramaturg, director and writer. Kevin wrote this poem recently while on a farm in the Canberra – Tumut area, where it was tinder dry and fire waits for any opportunity.