© Ellis Campbell

Winner, 2010 ‘Blackened Billy’, Tamworth, NSW.

His trembling fingers clasp a match,
against the box in eager hands –
sadistic madness gleams in light grey eyes.
A moment’s pause before the scratch
and sudden flare that soon expands
to tiny flames in tinder where it lies.

A curl of smoke—a licking flame
that creeps to fuel upon the ground,
discarded twigs and leaves of native trees.
It halts and leaps—devoid of aim –
its smoking spirals twist around
and waver in the hot air’s sluggish breeze.

It springs to catch a higher bush –
emitting puffs of blackened smoke –
and crackles as the flicking flames expand.
A change of wind—a sudden swoosh
that flings the blaze into an oak,
where it becomes a raging firebrand.

The fascinated arsonist –
entranced by magic of the flames –
retreats but cannot bear to leave the sight.
A lover in a secret tryst –
enchanted by his deadly games
that darkness will enhance to his delight.

It crawls and climbs, reducing shrubs
to billowed smoke and piles of ash –
spreads wider as the tangled timbers fall.
The arsonist retreats through scrubs –
enchanted by the timber’s crash –
engrossed in frenzied craze, he’s loving all.

A blaze of red against the sky
is visible for miles around –
a pall of smoke hangs heavy in the air.
The fire engines screaming by
emit their doleful, warning sound –
confusion reigns with fighters everywhere.

A fierce inferno’s crimson blaze
roars fuming up the canyon’s wall –
its fury knows no bounds nor fears restraint.
The fighters blunder through the haze –
aware they have no chance at all –
and pray for rain—although the chance seems faint.

A howling wind through gorges steep
drives fire in a frenzied rage –
exploding eucalypts creating gas.
The maddened flames, in swirling sweep –
that rain alone might now assuage –
force gallant fighters to retreat en masse.

The news is grim but still confused,
and loss of life is certain now –
one hundred homes are gone and more embraced.
Plus livestock, cars—the laws misused
must bear some blame.  They disallow
essential clearing of the forest’s waste.

Another day and weary men
still fight against horrific odds –
four thousand hectares burnt to cinder’s mash.
The fury drives them back again –
fuelled by the wrath of weather gods –
they blunder through a maze of smoke and ash.

Now volunteers are surging forth,
and helicopters drone above –
another town is ravaged in its path.
More smoke appears a few miles north,
alarming those whose every love
is cloistered somewhere in its aftermath.

Oh, blessed rain that gently falls
brings dampness that deflates the glow –
makes ashen residue quagmire’s slush.
Intensity of fire stalls –
the sluggish flames are burning slow
to splutter out amidst the bottlebrush.

Who can assess the awful cost
of life and homes the fire’s beat –
the perished livestock, fences, sheds and cars?
No one can know how much is lost –
and nothing can in truth delete
the anguish and the lasting mental scars.

The arsonist is skulking where
he hopes no one might realise
the evilness that wracks his worthless soul.
His very presence fouls the air –
a grim assassin in disguise,
inflicting torture none could e’er condole.

Police report a suspect near –
perhaps arrest is imminent?
What kind of sentence fits this ghastly crime?
Who understands a mind so queer?
We know police will hound the scent –
but will some drowsy judge reduce his time?

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