Short Fiction

Helen Lowe

Borderlands
Site design by
Peter Fitzpatrick

Red Earth

© Helen Lowe
Published in Borderlands 10 (Australia), March 2008

No-one lives in the city anymore, because of the water. Or I should say, more accurately, because of the lack of water. It is a ghost city in a haunted landscape, ruined by erosion, salinity and the collapse of ecosystem. In the city, the story is written in the dissolution and decay of buildings. Weeds sprout in pavements and parapets, mirror glass reflects streets that are empty of everything except the blown dust. Those who could, left. Those who stayed skirmish on the fringes for subsistence.

As a child, I thought climate change would mean more rain, a not undesirable change from semi-desert to the subtropics. I never thought it would mean the end of rain and the slow in-creep of the desert. The red dust haunts me, an entire world of regret contained in its ochre grit, the bitter memories of what the world once was, as opposed to what we let it become. And there is no going back, no reprieve, no technological solution although we tried many.

I am haunted, cursed, because I lived to see the change, because it came in my time and could not be passed on, an arrears still to be paid, a world in deficit for our children. Except that I have no children. I am the one who has sworn to remember, to bear witness, to tell what is already being forgotten. To do that I must live, in these times when women again die, quite routinely, in childbirth.

It was the water that failed first, with year after year of rains that never came and saltwater intrusion into the aquifers, which eventually collapsed. And how could so many people live in one place, without water? Desalination plants were tried but the scale required was too large and the energy costs too high: they too failed. Even before that, I watched trees begin to die, unable to adapt to the changed conditions, and both birds and animals followed the trees. Only the most hardy survived, those already inured to the harshness of the land.

Even when I was a child the city was dwindling, but once the water failed people streamed away in long lines, their worldly goods packed into vehicles as they sought more favourable environments. Apparently the main roads were choked for weeks, littered with broken down vehicles and discarded goods. Now the roads themselves are abandoned, mile on mile of pitted asphalt, shimmering in the heat, a mirage of times lost. There is little fuel left for cars now, or to power the ships that used to bring it here, although I hear they still have electric trains in the river valleys to the south. That is where most of the population lives now, although it could not support the numbers that crowded there initially, bringing their legacy of shantytowns, crime and disease.

It was the new diaspora, with people fleeing environmental rather than political catastrophe. Some of the migrations were immense, with people here trying to cross the continent to its other side, hoping that things would be better there. In fact, they had their own problems, with rising sea level and the increasing ferocity and frequency of tropical storms.

News still got through for a while there were young men and women who made an adventure of crossing the deserts. We sing songs about them now, in their trucks converted to run on methane gas and cobbled together with wire and a ragbag of odd parts. The songs make the heart beat faster but a lot of them died. The desert is not forgiving, and like the ocean its boundaries and extremes have increased. We live in what feels like an ever-decreasing habitable fringe, besieged between the two.

Water is the key to survival, as it always has been although we forgot that when we lived in the city. Water seemed ubiquitous then; it came with the turning of the tap until the day when there was no water, or you went to drink and it was salt. At first those who stayed congregated in the oldest suburbs, those built around natural springs, but many of these turned saline too or dried up altogether. And we had to eat, which meant growing food. In the first years there were gangs as well, that ranged the city like wild dogs, preying on the weak and isolated. They did not last, the environment was too harsh for them, the pickings too small but they were another reason to leave the city bounds. We moved, first to the urban fringe and then to the nearby hills, looking for water, always water, and places to live and grow food.

People still clung together, for comfort as much as security, in communities as large as the water supply would allow, so now there are numerous small settlements dotted amongst the hills. Most people only go to the city to scavenge anything that can be adapted or re-used. There are very few who would walk so far just to look and remember, as I sometimes do. Yet remembering is important, not just to hammer home the bitter lesson of our hubris, the unstoppable pride and folly that wrought this disaster, but to give us all something to strive for as well, the hope of regaining at least part of what was lost.

That is the task my father set me, when he decided to stay rather than join the diaspora. "There is nowhere else to go," he said, very quietly, as we watched the last of our neighbours drive away. I can still remember the weight of his hand, resting on my shoulder. "Things aren't going to be better elsewhere, or at least, not significantly and there's going to be a lot of people crowding into those few, slightly better places. We might as well stay here."

I remember looking up, and seeing the shadow on his face, a shadow that deepened in the years that followed. I have never forgotten the words he spoke next. "It's too far gone now, there won't be any going back. It's going to be bloody hard too, harder than we can imagine now. But it's still important that we remember what we've had, the good and the bad, and make sure that's passed on." He had given my shoulder a little shake, for emphasis. "Promise me you'll do that, Janie, no matter what happens. Lot's of people won't understand, but it's the most important thing."

He was wrong, of course, survival was the most important thing that and re-learning hard lessons, like keeping our shit out of our water supply. Basic perhaps, but in the city someone else always took care of that, some bureaucrat or engineer. Yet he was right as well, because we all need something to hope for: a dream that things can be better in times when it seems they cannot get worse.

And we need to hold on to the knowledge that can help us win the battle for survival. That's why I still walk from community to community, a circuit longer than our erratic seasons, longer even than the years, to pass on my own small fund of knowledge and to persuade everyone I can to teach their children to read and write. Sometimes, I stay a whole season and teach the children myself, in the communities where my message is accepted and the parents dream of a school.

The echo of my voice haunts my solitary journeys, persuading, arguing that we cannot let knowledge and literacy go when there are still books, whole libraries full of them, decaying in the city. Many have already succumbed to neglect and insects, the latter as dedicated as we in their quest for survival. The books are the main reason I go back to the city, the heart and soul of my remembering. I seek out the most useful and the best preserved, so I can pass them on to those who will know how to use them, or who are willing to learn. And I know everyone within the circumference of my travels, know the hands and mind to which every book should go, but I am always limited, both by their condition and the numbers I can carry.

Sometimes, I will sit for a long time, turning a book in my hands and reflecting on the knowledge stored within its covers. So many books, so many subjects: science, engineering, medicine. And I want to howl when I think of everything I cannot take with me, that may not last until I come again. Howl or weep at the prospect of painfully rediscovering the knowledge they contain by trial and error.

But I don't howl, or weep. My father taught me that despair is a waste of the precious energy required for the task at hand. "Leave howling to the dogs," he would say. "We are still human."

So I carry on with the duty my father laid on me, even now when the sum of my years has far exceeded his. He lived to a reasonable age, for the times, and never gave in to despair, but I don't think he endured out of hope either. He felt he had a duty to make amends, by surviving and helping others do the same, for his own generation's failure to act on climate change. That was what drove him. He mourned the species that were lost, but the shadow in his eyes was always longest when he watched the children, knowing that many wouldn't live to be adults. They succumb once again to the old ills, the things we had all but forgotten, like malnutrition, tetanus and tuberculosis. The cemeteries that dot the hills are full of their tiny graves.

"We stole their future," he said once, when we passed one such graveyard. "It's that, more than anything, that weighs on me."

His words stay with me and I strive, always, to achieve what he wanted. I don't think though, that I will be remembered as a teacher or a faithful steward of the past's knowledge. These are not the names I hear when the children call out to me, or that their parents use when I come to the door. "Storyteller," they say, and make me welcome. This is the name that earns me a share of their food and a place to sleep, opening their hearts to my exhortations on reading, writing and the value of books.

I like to hear the children's voices when they clamour after me for stories, and see their eyes light up when I stop to tell them one. I am their story-woman, the teller of fantastic tales from a fabulous past, a past that already they don't quite believe in. After all, it bears no resemblance to their reality and ultimately the world is circumscribed by the boundaries of our own experience.

Their favourite story, the one they ask for again and again is that of a world seen from the moon, a round blue world floating in space. They love it, but even as I speak I see the disbelief in their eyes. The earth, after all, is red.

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