Written by Ashleigh Pegrum
I live on a small, sandy, dry island, about 50 kilometres from the mainland.
It’s early afternoon, and the hot sun is beginning its journey back to the horizon. There isn’t a cloud in sight, and the air is humid and sticky. Sweat is dripping from every pore in my thin body, and my grey singlet is sticking to my wrinkly skin, which, like everyone else around here’, is dark brown and lined from the sun. My friend and I are standing on the sandy ground outside a small hut with walls made of sticks and a roof made from bundles of tall, dry grass.
Sauda has just tackled me to the sandy ground, and I roll over, feeling warm blood drip from my nose and struggling to suck air back into my winded lungs. Sauda is down on her knees beside me in an instant, mumbling and asking how she can help.
Eventually, she runs into the hut, and after what seems like a year she comes back out followed by her tall, smiling mother, Aba. Together they carry me inside and all three of us play a game of snakes and ladders while Sauda’s mum uses toilet paper to mop up the blood on my face.
When we finish the first, Sauda and I decide to play another game, but Aba instead says she has to check on something outside. We both exchange confused looks, but we eventually forget.
As soon as she comes back into the hut, I instantly know something is wrong.
As she comes over to both of us and looks into our eyes, I know I don’t want to hear what she has to say.
2 minutes later, Sauda and I are panicking as we gather a bag of her stuff. Clothes, her small collection of coins, and her most precious toys all go in.
I turn and glance out of the small window beside her bed, fearing the worst. Above the dry branches of dead, groaning trees I see a huge cloud of thick black smoke. Only minutes ago the bright blue sky was clear and free of the now terrifying sight that fills it. The breeze is unbearably hot and danger fills the air like incense. In the distance I can clearly see the red, orange and yellow tongues of flame as they lick greedily at the dead trees and tall dry grasses that dominate the landscape.
Aba runs into the room, her face deathly pale and covered with sweat. In her arms I can see Zubaidah, Sauda’s little sister, who has only had one arm ever since she was born. Aba grabs us none-too-gently and marches us out the door. She is trying to look calm, but I can tell she is terrified.
We run to the only fire safety spot on the island. The beach.
A row of skiffs are lined up on the sand, oars ready, but otherwise empty. Cries of pain, disorientation and fear fill the air as we, doing the same as everyone else, clamber into one of the skiffs and paddle past the lapping waves.
I am terrified as I see flames engulf everything I have ever known, charring it to papery black ash, and then moving on. Soon the whole island will be nothing more than an insignificant black crisp in the middle of the ocean.
I am squinting desperately into the setting sun, trying to find my Ma and Pa in the confusion of skiffs on the water. When my eyes rest on their familiar forms, scanning the water in what I am sure is an attempt to find me, I don’t even hesitate before plunging into the choppy waves and swimming my hopeless freestyle in their direction.