© Catherine Lee

Winner 2011 ‘Bryan Kelleher Literary Award’, Australian Unity, South Melbourne, Victoria.

Silhouettes on outback sunset blaze the flame trees to the sky,
their scarlet blooms defying dying day;
so secure within the legend that they ever will endure
whilst they can tempt their unsuspecting prey.

Vain and haughty, still unmatched by cat’s paw, orchid, bottlebrush,
the banksias or proud Sturt’s desert pea;
glowing steadfast through each harsh Australian season every year,
the dang’rous fire burns bright, resplendently.

Neither drenching rains nor desert sun can faze the constant flame,
though gums and tussock grass and flowers succumb,
lying stark, defeated by these arid, unforgiving plains—
the flame tree, to all elements, is numb.

It is said her charm and beauty lures the weary traveller in
to shelter underneath her ample arch.
Once relaxed, the lethal flame begins to hypnotise and taunt,
while unseen poisons launch their fatal march.

Now I didn’t pay much heed to Dreamtime stories, though agreed
that strange things happen which we can’t explain;
so when Fred, our mate, went missing from his shack down by the creek,
we all met up to search the vast terrain.

But in vain we called repeatedly, afraid to voice our dread,
whilst sun raged fiercely in a cloudless sky,
till as shadows slowly lengthened and a breeze began to blow,
our fears began to grow and multiply.

It was then we heard the howling start—a melancholy wail
which echoed round the huge and empty plain;
so we stopped to listen, hair on end, as silence briefly reigned—
then eerie, deaf’ning cries commenced again.

It appeared to be quite near, so cautious, warily we turned;
retraced our steps to trail the mournful sound…
In a tiny little grove which we had not observed before,
the desert’s deadly tree grew all around!

Pete cried, “Lord!” and briskly crossed himself, for Max, Fred’s dog was there,
just whimpering, and clearly terrified!
Since the others wouldn’t venture further, Pete and I advanced
and gently pushed the woeful dog aside.

I knelt down, for Pete seemed nervous, and I checked on poor old Fred—
so pallid, grey—no pulse beat in his chest.
It was clear he’d lain a while to drowse beneath the flow’ring tree,
and drifted into endless, silent rest.

As I brushed away some twigs I whispered, “Get the stretcher Pete,”
then turned to beckon Max with outstretched arm;
but though loyal to the end, he’d come no closer to that tree—
I couldn’t help but shiver with alarm.

Dusk fell swiftly, and I glanced towards the canopy above,
despite the legend that its look deceives;
though I tried to turn away I couldn’t help but be seduced
by gently swaying, luscious scarlet leaves.

A delicious, drowsy mood began to overtake my sense,
as leaves took shape and swirled like angel hair;
such a goddess, in a long red dress, enticing me to stay—
unearthly beauty quite beyond compare!

As she danced she laughed and gestured, and she spoke in dulcet tones
which washed and echoed through my mind like waves;
soon the call of that sweet siren was a magnet, willing me
surrender to a power that enslaves.

Then a rougher voice intruded, though I fought to hold it back—
harsh yelling from a distant mystic place;
but persistently it nagged me till I opened bleary eyes
and stared up into Pete’s astounded face.

‘Come on Bruce mate, let’s get out of here! It nearly got you too!’
And dazed, I blinked, then rubbed each heavy eye.
As we carried Fred away towards his now redundant shack,
I’d swear I heard a disappointed sigh!

Ever since, I fight strange urges to return to that small grove
where Fred succumbed when he went in alone.
I’m both drawn and yet repelled—I know its magic leads to death—
that tree whose splendour hides a heart of stone…

Silhouettes on outback sunset blaze those flame trees to the sky,
still burgeoning from barren rocks and sand;
for until the day they fail to lure a man beneath their limbs,
they’ll cast their shadows on this blistered land.

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