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12 April 2024  •  Creative Writing

The xanthorrhoea death dance

In honour of my Mum.

By Raphaella Katzen (she/her)
The xanthorrhoea death dance

As the dirt road tapered off into bush, Mum bent over and let Wilfred off the lead. For a moment, he paused with pricked ears. Then he threw his nose to the ground, rummaging into the scrub. Mum smiled at me and followed after him, talking to him in a soft voice as she did. I hung back, watching them. Framed by gum trunks, they looped careful circles through the trees, meeting up with one another to exchange loving looks or rubs before changing directions again. 

My Mum has always had a childlike fascination with plants and flowers, and her walks in the bush are often slow and interactive. She touches, smells and observes everything with care and genuine intrigue. Whether it be me, just Wilfred or a complete stranger accompanying her, Mum’s walks are punctuated by instructions and questions.

Can you believe this?

Smell this. 

I wonder what lives in that?

Run your finger over this. 

Have you ever seen anything like that before?

When you enter the bush, you choose whether it’s a 2D or 3D experience. There are some very serious walkers, and I’m sure that for them, their walk is 2D – about getting from A to B. Behind sunglasses, their eyes are focused on not tripping. With serious faces, they smack metal walking poles into the ground and swish their nylon-clad bodies in mechanical movements. 

Where my Mum would stop, wide-eyed and perplexed to examine a fern across her path, they would see it as an obstacle to be removed with the whack of a sleeved arm. I often watch them and wonder if they see anything but the route in front of them.

For Mum, it’s the path itself that goes unnoticed. Instead, she draws my attention to the sky, when the tree branches appear slightly blurred by swarms of bugs moving underneath them. She’s running a hand across the flank of an ironbark, fingers tracing a split in its side, and then next, she’s crouched on the ground examining a spider’s hole and comparing it to the size of her thumb. She’d like to discuss the differences between the fresh baby banksia on our left, and its neighbour who is charred and burnt on our right. 

She’s walking loops around a xanthorrhoea like it’s a sculpture in the art gallery. 

When we were little, once a term Mum would announce that we were wagging school and going on an adventure. She’d load the four of us into her van in whatever we were wearing. If we got cold, we learned to bring a jacket next time. If we got scratches on our shins, it was the mark of a day well spent. We’d follow her in single file through the bush, one of her arms clutching a basket of vegemite sandwiches and water, and the other kept free for pointing, or a handhold if it was needed. 

Sometimes, she’d recruit a friend and their parent to join us on wagging day. We’d climb out of a creek as Mum wrapped us into a towel and professed that there couldn’t be anything taught in maths class more valuable than learning not to wear Crocs on a bush walk. 

Our friend’s parent would wink at us, “Isn’t your Mum just the best?”

But Mum’s fascination for wildlife didn’t end when the walk finished, it came home with us. Branches of wattle the size of my leg, balanced in glass carafes and weeping yellow dust all over the dining table. Birds coaxed into the living room by hands cupping offerings of old bread or soggy nuts from forgotten lunch boxes. Pieces of parchment spanning the length of the living room floor, covered with flannel flowers and paper daisies as she taught us how to draw. 

When the bushfires started, Mum’s heart broke a little bit every day, and mine broke with hers. With each new day, the flames ate up more of the world around us. It was nature’s apocalypse. World War Three on the bush. 

Mum and I sat in silence at the breakfast table, the paper shared between us and the dreaded fire map permanently open on our phones. From the trees outside, the birds screamed of death at me. 

At the time, I worked at an expensive restaurant on the coast serving families $6 oysters topped with pomegranate mignonette. In the dining hall, the glass windows were shut against the smog and the smoke was filtered out by the permanently blasting air conditioner. 

As I worked all summer, I was amazed at people’s willingness to ignore the sky outside, which developed into deeper hues of a bruise by the day. With thick air on the streets that hinted at the horrors faced by those fighting fires just across the bay, guests tilted their chairs away from the windows and spent the equivalent of my weekly paycheck on margaritas. 

The burning summer dragged on for nine long months. The papers were plastered with images of flames as tall as mountains, and ash-faced children crying in front of burned homes. When mum and I would indulge in an afternoon swim, cinders would be floating on the water’s surface and the smudges they left on our towels as we dried off were a guilty reminder of our reality. 

I struggled to reconcile the agony of the faces I saw in the paper with the nonchalance of those I met on the street or served at work. I began to loathe everyone who was ordering crab toast while the world was ending.

Yet as it turned out, the world wasn’t ending. Or it wasn’t for those who didn’t die burning in their homes. Or for those who didn’t die fighting for their homes. Or for those who didn’t die volunteering to protect the homes of others. 

The world wasn’t ending for those whose entire livelihoods weren’t situated amongst the 46 million acres of land that burnt to the ground in the summer of 2020. For them, the fires finished and life moved on. All that suffering, all that loss, the death of three billion native Australian animals… it was all forgotten pretty soon after everyone could dine alfresco again. 

The Prime Minister took a three-hour drive for a photo shoot and some posed condolences, and then the matter was over. The burning summer had come and it had gone.

But Mum and I only relaxed when the sky went back to blue, and at long last, the birds stopped screaming at me from the trees.

A few months later, Mum came to me.

“I have to show you something,” she said. 

She led me to the car, driving us to the reserve behind our home. As the path tapered off into bush, she bent over and let Wilfred off the lead. He was uncertain at first, then, he shoved his nose into the ash and ran off into the scrubs. She smiled at me before following him past the treeline. I hung back, watching the two of them. It felt like I was visiting a graveyard. Blackened trunks rose up around them. Their branches were empty. Hell’s chandeliers.

My favourite thing about the Australian landscape is that from a glance, everything looks armoured and coarse, but if you look closer, there is softness. Softness in the blush of a gum blossom. Softness in the gentle cursive jotted across the scribbly gum’s trunk. 

There was no softness here. Everything had been reduced to a brittle relic. 

“Come look,” Mum was calling me.

I blinked and began picking my way through to where she was standing, leaving footprints in the ash. She was leaning towards a gum trunk. Its heavy body was charred and its bark hung like scabs. 

“Look at this,” Mum pointed.

Around the other side of the gum trunk, a branch had broken off, leaving a black stump. From the centre of the stump, sprouted a green branch the size of my hand. It was fighting its way towards the sun.

“Run your finger over it.” She looked at me with a smile on her face.

I rubbed a leaf between my thumb and pointer finger. It was smooth and had that damp slimy feeling of fresh foliage. Like plastic.

I looked around. Invisible to me before, I saw little green shoots forcing their way out from all the burnt trees around us. 

“Have you ever seen anything like this before?” Asked Mum. 


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