The Charred Chimney by Zoya Nojin
Lora watched the landscape whiz by out the car window and she was bored for the first time in her life. Red dirt and green scrub blurred across the flat outback landscape, out to the endless horizon. And there was nothing else to see. Not a house, not a kangaroo, not even a cloud marred the bluest of afternoon skies.
If only she had a book to read! She’d listened to her audio books so many times and the only other paperback ones she’d brought, well, she could practically memorise every word. Having no book made her feel jittery. And bored!
They’d been travelling for two days in the same scenery, on the ‘adventure of a lifetime’, her parents said, though she knew they were really doing it for her. They wanted to get her ‘out of books and into the real world’. She watched them wailing to the same country and western songs for the twentieth time and shook her head.
‘Dad! Can you please give Keith Urban a rest? He’s beginning to drive me crazy!’
Mum smiled and turned the music off. ‘It might be nice to have a break.’
Her younger sister, Jessie, heard them talking. She pulled out her earphones. ‘When are we going to stop, Dad?’
‘The map says there’s a camping ground not too far away. We’ll stop there for the night.’
‘Another hour,’ Mum said before anyone could ask.
Lora sighed and went back to looking out the window. The landscape did soon change though, as spindly trees and undulating hills started to appear. They finally pulled into a cleared area off the side of the road. A trickling creek meandered along the bottom of a dusty crevice nearby.
‘Well, this is it!’ said Dad, switching off the car and cracking his knuckles.
‘It doesn’t look like much,’ Jessie said, squinting as she hopped out of the car.
Lora followed her and looked around. Their camping spot for the night was a deserted space of spiky bushes and twiggy trees, sparse and bent. A lonely raven cawed in the distance. ‘There’s no one else here.’
‘All to ourselves!’ Mum said, grinning. ‘Let’s set up and then you girls can go explore.’
Lora and Jessie looked across the creek to a small hill and a tall black structure standing alone at the bottom. Lora knew that’s where they’d head. It was the only interesting feature in this dry empty place.
They turned and helped pull out the camper trailer and began setting up the beds. Dad brought out the chairs and tables and Mum unpacked the food for dinner. It was a well-rehearsed scene and for a while they were as busy as the flies they shooed from their sweaty faces.
After a cold drink from the icebox, Lora and Jessie headed for the creek.
‘It’s so hot!’ Lora groaned. ‘It’s going to be awful in the camper tonight.’
‘Let’s ask if we can sleep outside!’ Jessie hopped with excitement. ‘Dad’s been promising us for ages.’
‘I s’pose,’ Lora said. It would be cooler than under the khaki canvas. And a million stars could whisper their stories as she drifted to sleep. It might be alright.
‘Will you be scared?’ Jessie asked as they scrambled down the rocky bank to the red sandy floor.
‘There’s no one out here,’ said Lora.
‘I know that. I was talking about spiders and snakes.’
Lora frowned. ‘Oh.’
The creek was a tiny thread of water, trickling around rocks and weedy grass. Lora threw in some stones while Jessie poked the bottom with a stick. They splashed each other and felt refreshed by the cold drips. A squiggly line of black ants marched over dried animal tracks and up the other rocky bank, and when Jessie thought they’d seen enough, they began to scuttle up too. They came out onto a flat strip of land, sprinkled with bushes and yellow grasses. Beyond the few trees Lora spied the hill and at the bottom, jutted the black formation.
‘Come on, Lora!’ Jessie shouted and ran. ‘There it is!’
Lora picked up a stick and swished it as she ran after her sister. ‘Watch for snakes!’ she called as she leapt between the grasses to catch up.
As they neared, the black structure transformed into a charred brick chimney. It loomed over them, alone and leaning with regret.
Lora and Jessie stopped and stared at the burnt ruin, the last remnant of a house from long ago. Of someone’s home. But whose?
In silence, Lora and Jessie walked around the chimney and inspected the ground.
‘Wouldn’t it be great if we found a clue?’ Jessie whispered in the still air.
‘You mean like a clue to who lived here?’ Lora whispered back. It seemed right to whisper, as though in respect for those who’d tried their best to exist in this desolate landscape.
‘Yeah.’ Jessie squinted at the ground. ‘I think the house went this way.’ Her feet crunched over bits of old grey wood, some burnt, but mostly splintered and crumbling with age.
Lora stepped along what seemed to be the other wall of the tiny house. It looked to be no bigger than their lounge room at home. Then something metal caught her eye. With a cry she crouched down and uncovered the dirt from an old button, the silver tarnished, the edges beginning to rust.
‘What is it?’ Jessie hurried over. ‘A button!’ She picked it up for a closer look.
‘I wonder whose it is?’ Lora pondered and went to put it back, but Jessie slipped the button into her jeans pocket.
‘Let’s ask Dad. He’s into that old artefact stuff,’ she said and began looking around some more.
Lora shrugged. She didn’t think the button was worth taking, but Jessie could be stubborn about these things.
‘I don’t see anything else,’ Jessie said. ‘Not even old glass for the windows.’
‘Windows never had glass in the olden days,’ Lora said.
‘Huh! Imagine not being able to get away from all these flies, even inside!’ Jessie waved her hand in front of her face again.
‘Come on,’ Lora said. ‘Let’s get back to camp. It’s a bit spooky around here.’
‘Yeah, it’s too quiet or something. And it’s probably dinner time!’
They jogged back to the creek and Lora felt glad to get away. It had been a sad place to visit, with no sign of prosperous living at all. She did wonder though, what had happened to the people?
Their parents greeted them with a couple of fat sausages tucked into a bun with cheese, tomatoes and lettuce. Lora hadn’t realised how hungry she was. She forgot about the button, and it was only afterwards when they were sitting by the fire watching the sunset, that her Dad asked how their explorations went.
Across the creek, the black chimney faded into the night shadows as Lora and Jessie described their afternoon. Jessie remembered the button and she took it out and placed it on the table. ‘Lora found it. Whose do you think it is?’
‘A mystery is it?’ Mum smiled as Dad picked up the button.
‘It looks like a man’s shirt button,’ Dad said. ‘It’s very old. A pity the letters on it have worn away as they would have given us a clue. They used to put names on buttons over a hundred years ago.’
‘Wow, it’s really old!’ said Jessie.
‘So it was a man’s button then?’ asked Lora.
‘Yes, but what type of man?’ Dad peered at her. ‘Convict? Prospector? Lonely widower?’
‘It’s story-telling time!’ said Mum and Lora sighed with contentment. She loved this part of the day. It was sometimes better than her books.
‘You can go first Jessie,’ said Mum, ‘since I see you’re itching to tell us the real story behind the burnt chimney.’
‘Charred chimney,’ Lora corrected her. It had a ring to it that she liked.
‘Sshh!’ Jessie said, then lowered her voice. ‘Once upon a time, a young man worked in a tailor’s shop. His horrible boss kept him in a back room, sewing until his fingers bled.’
Lora rolled her eyes. Jessie did like to be dramatic.
‘The nasty boss kept showing off his wonderful clothes, but the young man had to wear rags. So one day when the boss was sleeping, the young man grabbed a giant sack and stole all the clothes in the shop. I know that for stealing even an apple you got gaoled and shipped to Australia as a convict, so to steal a shopful of clothes was really bad.’
Jessie looked to see her parents nodding, before she continued. ‘So then the young man ran away. He got away from the police by running through creeks to hide his scent from their trackers. He finally ended up here, out in the middle of nowhere, where no one knew he stole clothes. Then he made a little house by chopping down some trees and he paraded around in all the fine clothes as much as he liked.’
Lora tried not to giggle. She enjoyed Jessie’s stories, though they were a bit ridiculous sometimes.
Jessie summed up. ‘Soon, the young man got lonely, so he decided to grow a beard and go back to the city, leaving his house and all the clothes to crumble and rot. All except for the chimney and one button.’ And she pointed to the button on the table. ‘The end.’
Lora and her parents clapped while Jessie grinned. Then Mum said she would go next.
‘Once upon a time,’ Mum started, ‘there was a young couple deeply in love.’
Lora smiled. Mum did like a good love story.
‘They bought a block of land ready to start their lives together, not realising it was here in the middle nowhere. But the husband felt adventurous and decided they would try to make a go of it. And the wife followed along because they were newly married and she would follow him anywhere.
When they got here, the husband built a little wooden cottage and the wife tried to plant some seeds. But the ground was hard and the river often ran dry. Then the rains wouldn’t come for weeks. The husband moved the sheep further and further away looking for food and the wife was often left alone for days.’
‘Oh, that’s sad,’ Jessie said.
Mum nodded and continued. ‘One day the wife got fed up and as she was about to have a baby, she decided to burn down the house. Her husband was due to come back that day, so she put all their valuables outside before placing kindling around the walls. Then her husband came over the hill to see his house on fire! But he was so glad his wife was safe, that he decided they couldn’t live here anymore, where houses were prone to burn down from the slightest spark. So they sold their block of land and moved back to the city, living happily ever after. The end.’
Everyone clapped and Jessie smothered a yawn. ‘That was good, Mum.’
But Dad frowned. ‘I’m not sure about burning the house down just because she was fed up.’
‘Well let’s hear your story then,’ Mum said laughing.
Dad cleared his throat, ‘Right. Once upon a time, there was an old soldier who came home from the war with a lame foot and no job. So he decided to seek his fortune out in the hills where he’d heard there was gold to be found. He packed up his belongings and followed the river, meeting other prospectors on the way who’d already staked their claim. So the soldier kept moving. Further and further he travelled until he reached this place, so far from anywhere and anybody that all the gold he found would be his.
'Well, he panned until the river dried up, only managing to find a bit of glitter for his efforts. Then he decided to tunnel deep inside the hill, using many trees to hold up the mine. His few meagre finds drove him on, desperate to find that one big nugget that would make him rich.
But one day the soldier tripped on his lame foot and he fell into a support pole. The mine collapsed and he was killed. So he lies there, buried and forgotten, forever under the hill. His house fell to ruin and only a button and a charred chimney remain as a monument to his lost hopes and dreams. The end.’
‘And his ghost haunts the hill, still searching for that elusive nugget,’ Mum said, and Lora yawned.
‘Yeah,’ mumbled Jessie beside her, her eyelids drooping.
‘I think we’ll finish the stories at breakfast,’ Mum said.
‘No!’ Jessie’s eyes snapped open. ‘I want to hear Lora’s story.’
‘You can hear it in the morning,’ Dad said, smiling. ‘I’m sure it will be worth the wait.’
Lora was happy to go to bed. The stories had given her much to think about and she wasn’t quite sure how her story would go yet.
Dad had set up their sleeping bags outside on a mat near the fire, but Jessie was too tired to get excited and Lora was too tired to worry about spiders and snakes. She crawled in and fell asleep to the sound of crickets gently chirping and with Jessie holding her hand.
Suddenly her eyes snapped open. It was still dark and the stars glittered above her, but the fire was nearly out and she could feel the chill of early morning coming. She also felt something else. A feeling that someone was watching her.
Lora sat up and sucked in her breath. There, sitting cross-legged between her and the fire, was a boy about her own age. Only, he wasn’t an ordinary boy because she could see the glowing embers right through his body. He grinned at her.
‘Hello, are you awake? I’ve been waiting awhile.’
Lora closed her mouth and blinked a few times. ‘Are you a ghost?’ she finally asked.
‘I’m a spirit and you have something of mine.’ He grinned again to show he wasn’t angry, which made her wonder what it could be.
Then she realised. If he was from around here, then the only thing they’d taken was… ‘The button.’
‘Yes.’ He nodded and pointed at the table.
‘Is it yours?’
‘My father’s. I need you to bring it back.’
Lora looked out into the dark night, trying to see the lonely black chimney buried in its depths. ‘Er, can I do it in the morning?’
‘Yes. But if you don’t, I’ll haunt you forever.’
Lora frowned at him, trying to see if he was joking or not, but she couldn’t tell.
‘Those were really interesting stories your folks told,’ he said eventually. ‘Some parts were true, like Dad trying to find gold and the river often running dry. He would leave us for days to find food for our cattle.’ Then he grinned. ‘But your sister hadn’t a clue!’
Lora glanced at her sister sleeping soundly next to her. ‘So what did happen to your family then? Why did you come here and why are you a …?’
‘Ghost? Well that’s certainly a story worth telling.’ He seemed to sit back as he began his tale. ‘Once upon a time, there was a young family, with two girls and a boy. That’s my sisters and me. Mum and Dad were given a big block of land to run some cattle on. They found a nice spot near the river and built a small house. But the soil was not fertile and life was tough. I often had to go out and set traps so we could eat while Dad was away.
'It had been a long dry summer and one day I had to walk far to find food. Dark clouds swept over the land and the rains finally started. I had chased a wallaby into the dry river bed and had cornered him, when suddenly I heard an almighty roar behind me. I turned to see the river burst toward me in a torrent of water. An enormous flood swept me up. I couldn’t escape!
'I was tumbled around with rocks and branches, water was everywhere, I couldn’t breathe and then I hit my head. Then I got out of it somehow and headed for home. But when I got there, no one could see me. They were all crying and didn’t know where I went. Eventually they all packed up and left. I think they were too sad to stay. I tried to tell them what happened, but no one would listen. They couldn’t hear me.’
He looked at her intently. ‘You’re the first person to hear my story and I feel strangely good about that. Like now someone knows what happened to me. Thankyou.’
‘You’re welcome,’ she said quietly and watched him slowly fade as the sun rose over the hill.
‘Funny all those stories really got me thinking last night,’ said Dad. ‘So I got out the laptop and searched the internet for our camping site. It’s got a bit of a sad story attached to it.’
‘A ghost?’ Lora mumbled, eating her cereal. She must remember to take the button back. She’d woken to find it clenched in her fist.
‘Actually…’ started Dad.
‘Wait! Don’t spoil it!’ Jessie cried, aghast. ‘Lora hasn’t told her story yet. Tell us the real one afterwards.’
‘Okay then. Go ahead Lora. It’s your turn to tell us about the Charred Chimney.’
‘Yes,’ Mum smiled over her cup of tea. ‘This family loves a good story.’
Lora certainly loved a good story too, but…perhaps instead of just reading about it, with real life you had a chance to make a difference to someone else’s.
Lora took a deep breath and started. ‘Once upon a time, there was a young family, with two girls and a boy…’