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Mallacoota Time: remembering the lost summer of 2020

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We first wrote about Mallacoota couple Milena Cifali and Jim Horvath in February, when Ginger Gorman told their story of switching on the TV on New Year’s Day to see their home completely destroyed.

Their beloved property (picture above) had been razed to the ground by one of the worst firestorms of the Black Summer bushfire disaster.

“About the first thing we saw was a photo of our home, totally flattened to just rubble and ash. And we knew it was our house because there was a burnt-out van out the front that we recognised,” Milena recalled.

“It was pretty surreal…You just don’t expect that your house is going to go down even though you hear there’s a fire there.”

Milena Cifali with partner Jim Horvath.

Now, after months of trying to heal from the disaster, Milena has written a book—Mallcoota Time—which she says is a “bushfire memoir”.

Ahead of the book’s release on Saturday 5 September at Muse Kingston, we asked Milena to share an excerpt.

Mallacoota Time (excerpt)

A warm, breezy Brisbane morning awaits after a fitful night of sleep, wrestling anxiety and bedsheets, ashen images playing out in my mind.

We turn on ABC News 24, and there it is: an image of our home, flattened, razed to the ground. Ash and rubble. Rubble and ash.

As the day passes, that image is replayed over and over, on ABC, SBS, A Current Affair; it is the picture that has been chosen to be replayed incessantly. There is no doubt it is ours. There is no escaping.

All day these images flash before our eyes. They tell us we are not dreaming. A photo emerges on the news of a young boy, in a boat on the lake, with a mask on, under blood red skies. That is one of my guitar students.

Last time I saw him he was sitting next to me, guitar in hand, laughing, with one of our lorikeets sitting on his head, his face full of delight. Now I see his face: eyes filled with trepidation, experiencing a terrifying ordeal that no child should have to endure.

On New Year’s Day, I write a poem. My love story with Mallacoota is finished.

Possum Requiem—Ode To Mallacoota

The phone rang.
He told us we had lost our home.
‘I’ve been for a drive, I’m still alive.
My home is gone and so is yours.’
Engulfed in flames on New Year’s Eve.
Just too hard to believe…
How do I say goodbye to our ancient tree
that held so many birds safe in its arms?
How do I say goodbye to a koala, our koala, Aristotle, sheltered in its crook?
The birds. Our birds!
A glimpse of golden light in the Western sky
and then,
gelato colours,
softest pinks and blues,
Mallacoota hues….
fading to dark
revealing  glittering stars
above  Mallacoota waves,
on the cool night balcony
the salt air wrapping it’s gentle breezes around us.. and caressing our souls…
how do I say goodbye to
a nighttime visit from our possum friend, who gave us possum hugs.. Is he alive? Did he survive?
My heart beats in time with
this forest and this sea.
How can it be
that I must say goodbye
to this paradise?
I can always buy a new toaster,
A kettle, a cup, a plate,
But it’s too late, too late
To sit together on our old blue couch, on our verandah,
And watch the rainbow lorikeets
frolic,  or Mrs magpie sing for her supper,
Or play guitar in the morning sun..
and music with friends on a full moon night.
wherever I may roam I may create a new home :
But this sense of place has gone.
This was our Mallacoota magic.
How tragic….

— Milena Cifali 1/1/2020


What: Launch of bushfire memoir Mallacoota Time
When: Saturday 5 September
Where: Muse Bookstore, 69 Canberra Avenue, Kingston
Cost: Free. Bookings are required as seating is limited.
More information: echobooks.com.au/biography/mallacoota-time + musecanberra.com.au

Feature image: Supplied.

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