Content warning for animal death. Podcastle managed to schedule “Bullets” for a week when my environment echoed the opening of the story, what with widespread fires in the North Bay and the pall of smoke hanging in the air. “Bullets” opens in the aftermath of a horrific Australian brushfire when the protagonist, Judy, is engaged in the deeply unsettling but morally necessary task of searching out and dispatching livestock and wildlife fatally wounded by the fire. When she comes across the still-living remains of a wild horse she has run out of the titular bullets. Her heartbreaking frustration is interrupted by a wonder. At this point, it’s impossible to talk about any of the significant themes of the story without one small spoiler, though one that happens very early in the story. But if that matters to you, be advised.
The natural world reacts to impossible tragedy with supernatural transformation: the dying wild horse splits open to produce a naked young man whose body retains enough of the fire’s nature that, if not constantly cooled, he will burn whatever he touches or wherever he walks. And, as we learn, he’s not the only one. Throughout the bush, creatures trapped by the fire have transformed into non-verbal humans that hold within them the destructive heat of the fire. But like fire itself, they are neither evil nor malevolent, they simply are. And perhaps in response to Judy’s attempts at mercy, they gather at her farm in a complicated partnership, to rebuild. The fire-children come with technical skills and understanding, despite the lack of direct communication. They fix and build and tinker, moving Judy’s place beyond simple repair to improvement.
This puts Judy in an awkward position relative to her neighbors, who see her luck as a zero-sum game. And someone or something is setting fires everywhere except on her property. Judy has a modus vivendi with the fire-children, but they can’t help burn what they touch. And she wonders.
The story sets up some deep moral problems, not so much for the protagonist who makes the decisions she considers necessary, but for the listener/reader in working out how to frame the nature of the fire-children and so the context of Judy’s actions to determine the genre of the story. Is there a framing by which Judy’s eventual solution is moral? Or has she jumped to a horrific solution to a problem that might have been solved differently? Are the fire-children sentient beings with agency, or are they a type of revenant–a mere emotional echo of the fire’s horror. I’m not exactly sure that I like that the story left these questions unanswered, but it’s a powerful narrative device that I appreciate. I would say that “Bullets” will provoke at least two very different reactions in its audience, depending on how one fills in the story’s unresolved ambiguities.
ETA: (Originally published 2015 in In Sunshine Bright and Darkness Deep: An Anthology of Australian Horror)