“Can I help you?”
The words feel utterly inadequate now. Now that I know how little my efforts would help, in the end. The weather’s pounding onslaught left a bare fraction of the lives I’d struggled for, but it left enough. Enough to allow me peace knowing I did what I could. Not enough to stem the nightmares. No, those would hang around for decades. Yet, I can’t blame them, how would anyone know the trauma that nature might throw in our way?
I didn’t know. She didn’t know. I looked into her clouded eyes, her imploring face beaming into mine, and there was no way either of us’d known the levels nature would rise to try and eradicate us. She reached to me before I even had the chance to ask. But I asked her nonetheless, “Can I help you?”
“Uh course, you can fookin’ help me, ya fool!”
Tessa reached for my arm as I lifted the fallen cabinet from her pinned body. Her small house, sitting dry in the Australian dust on a bend of the Tickatock Creek, she declared, hadn’t see the stream flow since her hair was yellow. I breathed out and my breath fogged in the cold. The house floated now in a river of fist sized ice that bobbed like white apples in the flood waters coursing down the channel.
“Whut are those?” she cried, scrabbling onto my back as I slogged through the icy-cold water churning through her kitchen. The house bumped into a rock or something and I lost my footing, nearly falling into the frigid slough.
“Hail, I’m guessin’,” I replied. I kept her saddled and with the rickety home anchored for the time being, I sloshed to the backdoor, which was now the front, forced the screen open and jumped to where I figured higher ground might be. I missed. But not by much. Tessa yelled in my ear about the searing cold water that now swirled around my waist and up her own bare legs, her house dress sloppy rags waving in the rust-brown water. But I pushed on, the house blocking much of the flow that now began to rage through the small canyon.
“Make for the lookout!” she yelled in my ear, her arm, pale for an outbacker, pointing through the few acacia trees she’d left for shade around the house.
I nodded and grab her thighs with both arms and pushed my sodden legs against the current up near dry ground. Once I’d reached water that only came to my knees, I set her down and towed her by the hand to her “lookout” up the bank and toward the highest ground we could see, a few hundred yards distant.
“Stay here!” I said, over the growing sound of rain that had begun to pelt us. The flood must have happened miles from here and only just now shifted our direction.
“Those ice-rocks ‘gonna strike you down! Here’n there’s a crop-out I sit in and watch the sunset.” We reversed roles and the old woman pulled me up the slope a bit further to a recess in the rock. Sure enough, the lip of a shallow cave save our lives. Hail the size of hedgehogs began to fall, blasting every flat thing in sight. Thousands of explosions burst on our ears as we watched branches get snapped from trees, ice-bombs detonating as the balls of frozen water devistated the area.
She looked on silent as the hail pelted her home, driving holes through the roof, puffs of air from the explosions billowing out the house’s yellow-flower curtains.
“Lucky you came along when ye did, don’t think I’d a made in there.” She nodded to the house which freed itself from the stone anchor and went spinning down the raging stream. “Don’t think my rabbits ‘r gonna survive. Chicken’s neither.”
Where Tessa’s miniature livestock had lived, shacks and raised cages, nothing stood. They’d been washed away with the first rumbling wave of the flashflood.
Earlier, I’d come out to check on the old woman’s eyesight. Her glaucoma had advanced over the last few months but damn if she would accept treatment or assistance. Her ancient homestead would be her grave, she said, every time I’d come out to see if she hadn’t died of dehydration or pure orneriness.
“I’m gonna have to go check on the others,” I said, as the curtain of falling ice finally settled to a peppering.
“George and Georgia ain’t gonna make it. Mr. Reef ‘neither. You best just stay here ’till things settle down,” she said.
“No, I’ve got to try, they’re doomed otherwise.” I rose and patted her hand as she tried to hold me back. “You’ll be fine here. Besides, Reef, he’s…”
Tessa’s nearly milk-white eyes looked up into my own. For a moment I could see how her face and hair and high cheek bones would have made her a beautiful woman years past.
“I know. I know what he means to you,” she said. She dropped my hand. “I’ll be jolly. But come back when ye can. I can’t spend the night here. No home you see.”
I bent and pecked her on the cheek. “If I’m not back in an hour… I’ll be back in an hour at most.”
I left Tessa sitting under the eave of that red rock, looking out at the most wondrous sunset I’d seen out here in Australian’s red desert. “Ice! In the desert, no less. Who’d uh thought, eh?”