The Burn

I found myself travelling to South Australia as a buyer for Mark Anthony Wine Merchants—nice work if you can get it, as the song goes.

The position with Mark Anthony’s, which I no longer hold, was acquired partially thanks to a Wine Lovers Magnetic Poetry kit I picked up at a yard sale along with a croquet mallet and the game Operation that incredibly had almost all the tiny plastic body parts except for the funny bone. During my interview I mixed and matched the words I’d spent the weekend making haikus with on my fridge:

bottle shock

yeasty nose, reticent legs
nutty, persistent
fleshy abrasive terroir

It was as if I were describing not a persuasive vintage but a particularly unpleasant toddler. I also quoted, without attribution, Robert Parker, and some of the more obscure lines from Sideways. It’s amazing where you can get to in life if you learn the lingua franca of a situation.

I stopped in Adelaide for a few days after touring the vineyards, which were recovering from the 2022 plague of starving thrushes, followed by the drought of 2023. The new varietals had benefitted from scorching fires in the wake of the drought. Something about the alkalizing effect on acidic soils.

I’d fallen in with some jolly McLaren Vale vintners who brought me along to a brunch celebrating a group of writers there for an international literary festival. The party was held in the courtyard of a Mission-style home. With its peeling wrought-iron filigree, empty lap pool filled with large dry leaves, its cracked garden walls (their pink paint faded to a sickly calamine) teeming with passion fruit vines in full flower, and the tapestry cushions featuring hunters and the hunted on white wicker chairs, the space exuded a shabby-chic colonialist vibe.

It was a convivial gathering—there was wine, of course—with one off-note. All the vintners and their friends (men and woman who flew hobby planes or owned small but productive mines) were climate-change deniers. It started when a young novelist from Helsinki insisted on a short reading as a tribute to the host country. The passage involved a scuba diver from Finland succumbing to fathomless depression after witnessing coral death at The Great Barrier Reef:

“She afterwards swam through her days as if through brine-flavoured gelatin. When her son laughed, when her husband exerted himself for her carnal pleasure, she felt no cheer. She could only picture that endless, bleached-bone, underwater cemetery.”

I’d heard the Finns were a gloomy bunch, but perhaps the excerpt sounded more celebratory in its original tongue.

After scattered applause and an audible snicker, one elderly wine maker groused loudly about the just-vanquished Labour government’s carbon tax and soon the green-baiting was fast and furious.

The authors were at first silently shocked, swallowing their spicy little crayfish croquets whole and exaggeratedly eyeballing each other in a kind of telepathic circling of the wagons. Then this elegant elderly author from Raipur, his lovely white hair swirled up like a meringue run through with nicotine streaks above a kind face, cleared his throat. “Ladies and gentlemen, if I may be so bold, to be sure we can agree that due to the accumulation of unprecedented volumes of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, we should all, to a person, be scrutinizing our transportation options.” As if he—and the rest of the gleefully globetrotting writers—hadn’t flown there racking up air miles and carbon emissions.

“There’s the pot calling the kettle black, mate!” said the man to my left, the heir to the Ugg-Boots family fortune. “I was in Delhi last year and had to sport an oxygen tank the whole fuckin’ time.”

One of the tortoise-skinned women in sleeveless pastel-hued linen tunics rotated her neck to the right, then to the left, raised her eyebrows and laughed, “Surely you don’t buy that silly Greta Thunberg sky-is-falling nonsense!”

They all had the same look, that George Hamilton tan, skin that no doubt recoiled from even an SPF 5. During the Renaissance they would’ve been considered field hands or Moors; here they were what passed for landed gentry.

“You would think,” said another tortoise, “that when she was appointed Deputy Secretary-General of the UN she would have cut off those braids. The girl needs a stylist!”

The Finnish novelist regained her voice. “It is not a joke. The polar bears are fish in a barrel on their melting ice floes!”

A transplanted Texan, who’d been introduced as running the biggest horseback adventure outfit south of Queensland, nyuck-nyucked and straightened one arm into a rifle while peering through the scope of a thumb and index finger. “That, I’d love to bear witness to, darling.”

That was when the lone Australian writer present, winner of several honours for his trilogy about the horrors of a long-forgotten Gallipoli, slurred loudly for more ice. If it was a diversion tactic, it didn’t work.

The Canadian poet K— (famous at home and in Germany for her odes to prairie truck stops) said, “Seriously? People? The glaciers are losing ground daily from Canada to Peru to the Antarctic. I know a guy with National Geographic who says that in geological time it’s the equivalent of standing and watching the Eiffel Tower melt.”

Our hostess, whose leek and potato frittata was exceptional and who’d commandeered her handsome sons into making the killer bellinis, just laughed. “Look at you, you angry little puppet, you’re going to set my napery on fire. Antarctica is actually gaining ice! Senator Micky Ruir was here just last week and told me—”

One of the linen tunic women interrupted. “Isn’t it crazy how much the senator looks like Lin-Manuel Miranda in The Nautilus, right down to that crumpled yachting hat? Only less, um…tan, of course.”

The gentleman from Raipur gasped and then coughed into an umber handkerchief. “Oh, that television program, it will prove the end of me. When Captain Nemo’s pregnant wife contracted the Zika virus my tears flowed like Kunchikal Falls. My dearest told me to stop that right now and be a man or she was packing to go to her sister in Brighton.”

Covering her ears, the young Finnish novelist shouted, “Oh my God, do not tell me, do not tell me! I have been only streamed up to Episode Four!”

This was apparently the cue for the Kyrgyzstan-conflict vet from Lexington, whose memoir about blood and belonging in the heat-soaked desert was an unexpected New York Times bestseller, to launch into a sad spiel about the so-called Third Golden Age of Television and how he was wasting his talents trying to write the Great American Novel when all people really wanted was to binge-watch plague-porn on Netflix-Infinity and Disney+. I felt sorry for him, I really did—that handsome face pocked with those PTSD-scarred eyes, the perceptible tremour of his right hand that he attempted to quell by keeping it pressed against the table.

I hadn’t spent much time among writers and found the level of palpable neediness and ego astounding. Also, they’d all quickly cleared their plates and gone for seconds and even thirds as if they hadn’t been fed since they were weaned from the tit. The scrawny Adelaide socialites gripped their glasses of sparkling water with hands knuckle-whitened to bone—evidently the sight of all those fat cells invisibly but perceptibly multiplying, like a vast contagion, was more frightening than the prospect of the rising seas, the droughts ravaging the plains, the fires scarring the landscape, decimating the wildlife and the ranks of their firefighters. Like their fellow South Australians in Nevil Shute’s apocalyptic classic On the Beach they partied by the shore as end times drifted closer.

K— stood and turned to me, “Hey. Help me find the can.”

We walked out of earshot, over past the bar. That’s when she told me I couldn’t fly home before visiting the Adelaide Botanic Garden. “The oxygen high is better than a case of—” She lifted her glass of Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier. “But if you only have time for one exhibit, go directly to the Amazon Waterlily Pavilion.”

K— gripped my forearm so hard at this point I wondered whether she was wasted. But clear-eyed and clear-voiced, she said, “The green level of lily leaves roofs the pond’s chamber and paves the flies’ furious arena.”
At the time, I’m sorry to say, I just thought, poets and their fucking words!, forgetting they used to be—could very well still be—the conscience of the world.

Then K— just said, “Nice meeting you,” and pushed past me into the bathroom. Canned laughter floated over from the courtyard. I released my held breath into the air where it hung like smog, sour with disappointment, but over what I still don’t know.


The Finnish novelist, the earnest Tuula, invited me along to a public talk that evening held in a park alongside the River Torrens. The river had dried to a trickle during the drought and was now crossable on foot. You wouldn’t even get the bottoms of your espadrilles muddy. A few odd-looking water fowl forlornly patrolled the riverbed looking for non-existent fish.

The speaker was from Montreal, a proponent of radical next-generation climate science that up until recently had been viewed as a whole lot of hooey. I had no idea what to expect, but Tuula spoke of this woman and her colleagues at the Rudoph Steiner Bioanthrosophy Institute with a messianic fervor I found irresistible. Besides, Tuula turned out not to be quite so deadly serious once she had a few craft beers inside her.

“There she is!” Tuula hopped up and down in one spot while clapping her hands together like a child. I noticed many of the others in the crowd doing the same thing, as if I stood in the midst of a small herd of excited wallabies. The speaker, a towering redhead in a rustic green caftan secured with some kind of bark or twine—she looked liked a flaming tree—began almost immediately so I missed her introductory remarks amidst the initial clamour.

“Sometimes she appears as a waif. Sometimes she is tight-laced governess. Sometimes she is cigarette girl in a 1920s speakeasy. Most often, though, she appears at the edge of your vision, a sparkle of beach glass, a shard of ice, the tail of a sirocco wind. Like the Yeti and the Christ she is both mythical and utterly convincing.

“There have been many reported sightings of cave witches over the centuries, but prolonged encounters with the human species have been rare.

“There is a story about an 18th-century Austrian spelunker who was exploring the Postojnska Cave in what is now Slovenia, well before it became a tourist destination. The third Baron von Höhle-Schatten went in as a strapping thirty-three-year-old man and emerged an infant, baby Leopold once again, carried by an ageless woman with a withered left arm. He was recognized as himself by the distinctive birthmark on his face, an explosion of magenta and turquoise writhing across his countenance like a nest of snakes. Believing him now cursed, his family disowned him. This was the first verifiable incident of human contact with a cave witch.

“Those of us who have devoted ourselves to the study of the cave witch were long derided as cryptozoologists. But, as the cave witch has recently captured the imagination of a public weary of shrapnel and bombast, of choking heat and rising oceans, there has ensued a clamour for information from the media and lecture invitations from the Ivy Leagues. To the ladies and gentlemen of the fifth estate and the ivory tower we say this: The cave witch is not reducible to the equivalent of a TED Talk. And as with all things that become fashionable, there inevitably arises the desire to possess. A cave witch, unlike a Damascus steel chef knife, or beachfront property, is not something to possess.

“Cave witches are rather solitary, but the few who do mate, like swans mate for life. We may not notice that she is bonded as she is eclectic in her choice of partner. A chipped stone could take her fancy. Or an abandoned cast-iron skillet. She loves fiercely and loyally, though eccentrically. She is drawn to flaws, those cracks where the light gets in. In this way she is like Japanese raku potters with their Wabi-sabi aesthetic. Perfection and permanence are anathema to the cave witch. If you are conventionally beautiful or handsome the cave witch will look right through you as if you were a curtain of rain on an otherwise bountiful day. But if you have a wall-eye, or your eyebrows were burned off in a fire set by an ungrateful stepchild, or your face sprayed with acid by a lout racing past on a Vespa scooter, the cave witch will love you.

“Appearances to the contrary, we share more DNA with an Abyssinian kitten or a fruit fly than we do with a cave witch. Her genetic material is four dimensional, exists outside of her body, and has much in common, geometrically, with the I.M. Pei pyramids of the Louvre.

“And it is this, her otherworldly genetic code, that could provide the answer to the global food security problem, to drought, to species extinction, to the melting of the polar ice caps.”

At this point the audience drew in a collective breath. Beside me Tuula held a hand to her throat and closed her eyes. Her small ears quivered ever-so-slightly like an insect’s antennae. She was the most sensitive person I’d ever encountered; it was as if every hair follicle was tuned to the fortunes misfortunes of the world.

“Bear with me,” the speaker twitched a small smile, “And remember, Rome wasn’t built—or destroyed—in a day.

“A suitable dwelling for a cave witch can be found anywhere there is a source of water and an abundance of eccentric vegetation and other-worldly botanicals. The cave itself can be of stone, earth, or ice; hidden behind a waterfall or out in the open; moist and subterranean or dry as sandstone.

“As with any cave sentient beings have called home since time began, there are stories to be reckoned with on the walls where the cave witch dwells. Even if she’s away on her wanderings, her murmurings slip through the opening like fog and curl up along the walls. We’ve seen shifting shapes in them the way others see images in clouds. A polar bear giving birth to a seal. A honeysuckle blossom suckling at the teat of a sow. A woman emerging from a tar-black pool and lighting up the world with a single candle. It is only recently that we’ve learned these shapes are the repository of the cave witch’s memories of the future.

“Our one close encounter thus far with a cave witch occurred last year in the Zvih’hazi oasis, at the edge of a desert in what used to be known as Libya.

“Her movements followed the sun. She took water in through her pores—she spent hours in a shallow pool near the opening of her cave, her hair a mossy green. Her silence was incandescent. (It must be added that there is no record of anyone anywhere ever having heard the voice of a cave witch.)

“In her bromeliad-edged pool, the algae blooms enveloped her semi-submerged body. She shimmered in the peach-fuzzed moonlight, licked by phosphorescence. Tendrils of clematis and woody vines wrapped themselves around her wrists, her waist, and they began to tango. The milk thistle threw up shimmering clouds of pollen, as did the Black Spider lily. She breathed in deeply, as if inhaling the very universe itself.

“We believe—and are on the verge of proving—that she exchanged RNA with the plant matter around her.”

A ripple almost like an electric current pulsed through the crowd. I was sure that if Tuula had touched a finger to my arm at that moment one of us would have self-combusted.

“Just last month a system of caves was discovered under the city of Montreal. Those of us who live in la Belle Ville shudder with uncontrollable delight, wondering whether it has a resident cave witch. Just to imagine her nearby as we rocket past on the Metro is thrill enough.

“We now know she is everywhere. Contrary to the old-wives tale spawned back in 1746 when the cave witch emerged from the Postojnska Jama with the future Baron von Höhle-Schatten III in her arms, the cave witch does not wither the corn. She is the blessed materfamilias of the flora. Madonna of the fields. Our Devi of blue agave. Mother of root ball and seed pod. Demeter. Kupala of loosestrife and fern. Zara-Mama, saviour of the corn, and lover of the pocked and the broken.”

The speaker tightened the fastener on her wrapper and stepped off the dias to stunned silence. Tuula shrugged and resumed her dour expression as if she was used to being sorely disappointed and we parted ways after a few heartfelt hugs. “I could promise to stay in touch,” she said, “but my past experience informs me I will not—I am too preoccupied by the dying world—and I do not want you to remember me a liar.”


I did a couple of things I’m not proud of while in Australia.

There was a sensational murder trial gripping Adelaide at the time. A young woman, whose name was, coincidentally, Adelaide, stood accused of murdering her husband although no body had been recovered. The evidence was evidently more than circumstantial.

Since this was the biggest show in town, the Texan dude rancher had asked me for the pleasure of my company at the courthouse the next day. He’d arranged for front row seats. Of course he had. It was a perverse concept for a date but I went anyway, even took care in dressing. Something very filmy and breathable—after all, the mercury just kept climbing and the rancher wasn’t unattractive as long as I let my mind drift while he talked. His name was Barney, although I wished it wasn’t. I thought maybe I could call him Bobcat instead.

It was sweltering by early the next morning, my final day in Adelaide. I lay on the Texan’s expansive bed, reluctant to stay, as lush as his quarters were. He had nickered and neighed while climaxing; he really was more a Barney than a Bobcat. And he did that pistol thing with his index finger and thumb, adding a little click of the tongue, at the end of almost every sentence. Maybe the horses liked it. Did what they were told. While he was in the shower, I slipped out to go lie down in my extravagantly air-conditioned hotel and await my afternoon flight back home.

And I ate kangaroo meat while in Adelaide. One afternoon at the Cleland Wildlife Park I fed them dried pellets that looked like rabbit droppings from a little bag purchased at the gift shop. A few nights later I feasted on mixed grill with Bobcat—emu, ostrich, crocodile, and kangaroo—at a high-end restaurant, all polished brass and gleaming blonde wood, perched above the parched River Torrens. In the distance the glow of another bush fire.

It didn’t feel wrong, but thinking about it now – when I can barely force myself to skin a carrot without hearing it scream like a mandrake root ripped untimely from the earth, and the sun in the smoked-clogged Pacific-Northwest sky is a pale, eerie orange like the long-dead sun in the world between worlds in The Chronicles of Narnia—it didn’t feel exactly right either.

Zsuzsi Gartner is the author of the Giller-Prize shortlisted Better Living through Plastic Explosives and the acclaimed story collection All the Anxious Girls on Earth, and editor of the award-winning anthology Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow. Her novel, The Beguiling, from which “The Burn” is adapted, will be published by Penguin Canada this fall. Zsuzsi lives in East Vancouver with two very nice boys, one of them human. (Author sketch by Lisa Moore)