On the Breaking Down of Leaves, & (Not a) Big Deal, Lauren Forner

Photo credit: Lauren Forner

On the Breaking Down of Leaves

Your tangled intricate lace
more finely-spun
and delicate
as you waste away –
emaciated –
in your attempt to sustain
those around you.

Your fall is soft and noiseless
a sail to a forest floor,
your sacrifice
unnoticed
and your gold skeletal remains
incomparable to
the bright and gaudy blooms
that shoot
from your slow melt into the earth.

Glossy foliage
and scented stamens;
nature’s trumpeted score
to your silent
decomposition.


(Not a) Big Deal

If you scrambled
every moment
to steady yourself
on the ever-moving
mountain summit of the day,
then you too would scoff, sneer,
at a germ –
a string of invisible
complex
unfathomable molecules –
that flit from lung to lung,
dissolving structure and devouring tissue,
because an abstract,
a possible,
a might-be,
a slight chance,
death
doesn’t freeze you like midnight autumn wind
doesn’t gnaw your insides like five-day hunger
doesn’t throb like a swollen eye, hand, cheek,
jaw,
doesn’t drop in your belly like his heavy
footsteps
doesn’t carve a hole out of decades with
needles
blades
pills
ropes.

Spring where you can see it during Covid-19, M. Tara Crowl

Photo credit: Steve Nuske

I live here now, in my old country house
With the barn out back
I fold clothes
Empty the dishwasher
Take dirty diapers straight out to the big plastic bin
(No more diaper pail; the mice got in)
I pitch, to no avail
My stories go nowhere
Neither do I

Some days, the sun comes out to green the grass
Crocuses wave fingers through the soil
But then, a storm of snow counteracts
We stay inside
Watch movies
Drink wine
After the snow melts, we step into the ungovernable mud
(I cling to my child)

In the city (I used to live there
Until quarantine,
Two weeks ago) people are dying
Hundreds each day, they say
The dying are there, while I am here
(Am I all here?
Yes, I am here.
Every limb, every molecule)
I’m not allowed to leave

Today is gray, so it’s just as well
There’s nowhere to go anyway
Tomorrow the sun will come out
Maybe
I’ll go out to stand in its rays
Of course I will
(I can’t miss the sun)
But it’s not going to feel
Like it did last spring

Tagged ,

Xenophobia is a Virus, Sing Tuck Jonathan Chang

Photo by Khachik Simonian on Unsplash

Racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting attention. From deserted Chinatown districts to plummeting sales at Chinese restaurants to the violent abuse – both verbal and physical – people of my skin-tone bear the weight of the colonial gaze in extra measure. Viral paranoia spreads faster than viral infection, and COVID-19 gives them an excuse to justify their hostility openly. That is, the covert subliminal racism I’m used to, has now burgeoned into overt, brazen racism, where myself and others who look remotely “Chinese”, can be suspected of carrying the coronavirus – whether we’re at Macquarie Centre, or riding the metro in the CBD, or disembarking a flight from Singapore.

An Unjust Pecking Order

I was born in Singapore, a British colony up till 1963. The epistemological system of colonies is based on the “creation and maintenance of an unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationship… based on domination and subordination”. Postcolonial theorist Edward Said calls this ‘Orientalism’, which constructs binaries between Occident (Western world) and Orient (East), from a Eurocentric (colonist’s) perspective. This is achieved by “making statements about it, authorising views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism is a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”. These are fundamentally exploitative practices, where colonised people become marginalised as colonial powers move money, people, commodities, and technologies around the world in the service of colonial capital.

Said describes Orientalism as a “western style for dominating restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”. This pits West against East, which identifies and “subordinate[s] peoples of the Orient as the ‘Other’… the non-European self”. In postcolonial theory, this is interpreted as coloniser (West) and colonised (East) forming hierarchal binary logic, whereby West is regarded and universalised as superior in cultural standard and the “oft-invoked Other usually occupies a subjugated position”.

You also see this hierarchal discourse in the terms “first-world” and “third-world”. It’s reflective of colonial powers. One of the first postcolonial writers was Frantz Fanon, who was highly critical of the way Eurocentric ideas became the universalised standard against which everything else is judged as inadequate. In his words: “for the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white”. It is this same language you hear in the White House today – the “Chinese virus”- words used to keep colonial power in place; their white supremacist discourse justifying their casual racism by repeating colonial ideology. It’s never enforced (think along the lines of Marxist false consciousness).

So why am I pissed about referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus”?

This Orientalist discourse paints a problematic ‘us vs. them’ binary logic. The East is seen as ‘exotic, sensual, spiritual, mystical, uninhibited, primal’. Take yoga and martial arts, for example. If they’re considered ‘spiritual’, the West is, by connotation, ‘unspiritual’. It doesn’t matter which way it goes, it’s still Orientalising. Each time you say something about the East, it allows you think something about the West by inference because they’re caught in this binary relationship. For example: Scientific West vs. superstitious East. Modern West vs. backward East. Moral West vs. immoral East. Rational West vs. irrational East. Progressive West vs. regressive East. Open West vs. inscrutable East.

The East, then, becomes a screen for the West’s fears and fantasies. It’s the unfounded misgivings conjured when encountering a passer-by wearing the hijab or burqa. It’s the Japanese-American citizens in World War II being labelled as ‘foreign spies’ and mass incarcerated. It’s the Asian-American soldier in the Vietnam War pulled out of formation by their platoon commanders and sergeant majors to be an example of “what the enemy looks like”.

It’s the more-than-passing-glance glower I get on the street that translates to “get the fuck away from me”.

Yet even though West is the dominant term, it has no value without an East against which it is not, but which at the same time it relies on them not being not, to be what it is. In other words, without the supplementary idea of East, there is no framework with which to define what West is either. The relational-but-differential status of the Other is always necessary. A term like “white culture” wouldn’t make sense if everything and everyone was white.

When societal ‘harmony’ is disrupted by threats to our conceptions of the world, humanity instinctively turns to revulsion or humour to right their perceived wrongs. This is why homophobes think LGBTQ+ people are either scary enough to be murdered, or ridiculous enough to be laughed at. Same goes for the Asian man in predominantly white countries. He is both scary enough to be immediately perceived as a COVID-19 carrier, but also funny enough to be caricatured as the anime-watching, ramen-eating kung-fu sensei. Racism in society functions by maintaining these exclusions, and disrupting them nudges one out of inertia and into paranoia and ridicule.

Situating Myself in All This

I am a walking, talking example of this. I intentionally, unrelentingly press into it. My English is unnervingly fluent to the white man. I have a Diploma in Mass Communication, a Bachelor of Media, and I’m working on a Master of Creative Writing to back it up. I embody the binary contradiction – English enough, but not quite really. I can perform the social codes of ‘Englishness’, but my skin tone and code-switching marks me as distinctively not English. In these spaces, my English grants me overt power (official approval), but my sociolinguistic accent tendencies grant me covert power (social affirmation). This signifier grants me access to societal spaces where less fluent English speakers aren’t ‘welcome’. My language puts me one foot in the insider’s circle, while my race puts my other foot outside. Back home in Singapore, speaking Mandarin grants me this same covert power. One Kopimotion article puts it this way:

“language is instrumentalised to both include and exclude at the same time. Often, what this means is that even though English remains the official working language in our institutions, Mandarin achieves an unofficial status as an informal working language. On the table, we speak in English; off the table – where deals are actually negotiated and ties of friendship are formed – we grant access only to those who speak Chinese.”

Synthesising an Other in Another

The problem with this in today’s postcolonial world is “there is no neat binary opposition between coloniser and colonised [minority] – both are caught up in a complex reciprocity and [the Other] can negotiate the cracks of dominant discourses in a variety of ways”. Homi K. Bhabha coined this negotiation as “hybridity”. Instead of demarcating civilisations into rigid homogenised coloniser-colonised binaries, postcolonial societies are marked by the confluence of both dominant and subordinate cultures, and the movement of subjects across those strata.

The role of postcolonial critics is to challenge Eurocentric universalism and western hegemony (like Fanon), where white values have become standardised as arbiters of an apotheosis, and thus used to judge anything not white. They aren’t universalised at all; they’re relative values presented in a universalising way because those who are universalising have the authoritative power to do so. The myth of universality is therefore “a primary strategy for imperial control”.

Ambivalence is key to the postcolonial experience. We are endlessly hassled to ‘assimilate’. An example question would be: “you’re totally different from us; why can’t you be like us?” The colonised person is appropriated and assimilated into, and by the, dominant culture and institutions. A popular Western discourse is the concept of Asians as the ‘model minority’, which highlights socioeconomic disparity between racial demographics. Asians are typecast as unassuming, polite, intelligent, law-abiding members of society, in contrast to uneducated, welfare-dependent, criminal-prone black or Hispanic stereotypes. Positive or negative, these colonised are both inside and outside of the assimilation process. The trouble here (with white people in Australia) is that without Aboriginal/black/Asian people, they don’t know they’re white. Their very identity as a white person is predicated on the Aboriginal/black/Asian ‘other’. That is, you need to know who you are; yet if I become like you, I won’t be your other (therefore you won’t know who you are), or I’ll remain separate from you, and thus be the subject of your endless anxiety about your own cultural identity. The existence of the Other is always necessary; total assimilation means no one knows who they are in relation.

I can seamlessly assimilate while retaining the identity of my cultural roots (‘both/and’, not ‘either/or’). Bhabha calls this tactic ‘mimicry’, where colonisers desire “a reformed recognisable Other, as a subject that is almost the same, but not quite”. That is, I pretend to be who you want me to be so you can be who you think you are. But me being who you want me to be means I’m not who I am, which means you aren’t who you really are either. This is intrinsically destabilising to the majoritarian white, who considers this resemblance a “menace”. The colonial gaze can’t put the Other in their place. For the case of ‘Chinese virus’, the term’s use is to try and put China in its ‘subjugated place’ as enforced by centuries of colonial standards.

One Century of Diseases Later

Even after the devastation of the 1918 influenza pandemic, humanity still hasn’t learnt its lesson. Contagion outbreaks evince double standards. The 1918 influenza pandemic is more commonly known as the ‘Spanish’ flu. Its name is a misnomer, because the first few outbreaks and mortalities were documented in the US. Because Spain was neutral during the concurrent World War I, it wasn’t under wartime censorship. Therefore, the false impression that Spain was hardest hit gave rise to its ‘Spanish’ flu designation. It was one of two pandemics caused by H1N1 influenza A virus. The other is the 2009 swine flu outbreak that originated in North America. The first incidence of Mad Cow disease and its associated vCJD came from the UK in 1986. Yet there’s no ‘American bacteria’ or ‘British prion’. The 2013-2016 Ebola crisis became a rhetorical proxy for ‘African-ness’. COVID-19 isn’t new ground. Two other coronaviruses have been prevalent in my lifetime – SARS in 2003, and MERS in 2012. Even though the latter stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, xenophobic sentiments aren’t nearly commensurate to the racialised backlash COVID-19 has had on those of Asian descent, like me.

Identities are produced through series of social categorisations; who you are is a function of how you are treated because of the social categories you occupy. These different ‘selves’, which arise at the interstitial liminal spaces of different lines of privilege and prejudice, are what critical theorists call ‘subject positions’. Even though different skin colours occupy the same physical space, we occupy different subject positions because we are included and excluded differently through circles of language, culture, and power that box us to varying degrees. Unfortunately, since who we are is so deeply connected to our very different social realities, we cannot learn compassion if we refuse to look through each other’s eyes. Until we’re willing to, this xenophobia will propagate long after COVID-19 is etched into the annals of history.

Tagged

Inside a Sunless Sea, Tanya Lake

Photo credit: Tanya Lake

The bottom fell out
Of my pants the other day.
In Wuhan province
A black swan dived.
I tightened my belt,
then took a stumble
And all across the world
We heard the rumble
Of turbulent skies
Closing in
Inside a sunless sea.

Mal Bligh’s Dream, Jamie Derkenne

Knowing I had nowhere to isolate, a grazier I sheared for offered a small hut on 2000 acres down Albury way, near a place called Burrumbuttock. He told me Larry and I could stay as long as required, in return for keeping an eye on the Murray Greys and the fences.

We settled in well. I’d filled the back of my antique Hilux with cans, pasta, dog biscuits and the like. Larry and I would go for walks in the early morning, me checking the rabbit traps, picking dandelions, nettles and other greens. Sometimes I’d see a rabbit grazing nearby. Larry would look at me pleading, wanting permission. I’d pause a few seconds and then click my tongue. Rabbits are fast, but sometimes Larry was faster. She’d catch them by the neck and shake them hard. But she’d always bring them back to me. Larry is half-dingo, half-red, manic in energy and slow in brains.

As the weeks went by, we fell into a routine. We’d get up early, start the stove, and put the coffee pot on. I’d give Larry breakfast. Just after dawn, we’d walk along some fences, check the traps, check the cattle, and then wander back for breakfast. The grazier had left us three isa-browns in a broken chook run. I’d cleaned the run, fixed the netting and had taught Larry to leave them alone by switching her backside with a long stick of cane every time she made a lunge. In the end, she’d just pretend they weren’t there by gazing through them. Every morning, the chooks would lay me one or two eggs, which was just right for frying. The shack had a small verandah on the northern side, so we’d sit there in the rising sunshine warming ourselves, me enjoying a few coffees, and Larry snapping at flies. Sometimes I’d listen to a bit of radio, but the signal would come and go, so for the most part I didn’t bother. Mid-morning, we’d head out in the ute, if we could get it going, and fix whatever needed fixing, hardly anything, usually just a few strands snapped by a lovelorn bull, or a trough that had run dry, and then we’d head back home, where I’d read on the verandah until dinner time. We’d go to bed early. Larry and I shared a single bed, so sometimes sleeping was a bit awkward. We’d have arguments about whose head was on the pillow, and arguments about Larry’s farting, which was gruesome.

One day I found a clump of succulent looking mushrooms, white with pink gills and slightly colouring to yellow in the middle of the caps. I picked the lot and that evening made an omelette with the mushrooms, eggs and some wild sorrel. The mushrooms cooked up well, the stems turning a blue black in the heat. It was an outstanding meal, and that night I had a wonderful sleep.

The next morning, just as I’d got the fire going, I heard footsteps outside. That was puzzling, because I hadn’t heard any car. I stood up. Through the window, I could see the shadow of a big man, and then I heard the thump of his footfall on the verandah. He didn’t knock so much as thump. I opened the door. There stood a moderately tall, portly man wearing a blue city suit that was a couple of sizes too big for him, the sort of suit you’d wear to hide a large paunch. It looked expensive. Even though it was just on dawn, he was sweating profusely. He had a red tie, also too large, and a well-tanned face, except for around the eyes, as if he wore sunglasses a lot. His eyes were small and his eyebrows were arched in a way that made his whole face look angry. He had thin, yellowish hair that had been carefully combed to hide a balding pate. His lips were pursed.

‘Hiya, mind if I make a call? I can’t get a signal on the cell.’ He didn’t wait for an answer but pushed his way in and stood in the middle of the room looking for a phone.

‘I don’t have one.’

‘No shit, but you’ve got a cell, right?’

I shook my head. ‘You won’t find a signal until you get into Burrumbuttock. Nothing out here.’

‘What did you say? Where the hell am I?’

‘Near Barrumbuttock, on John Bishop’s run.’

He waved a hand. I noticed they were very small for a man of his build. ‘No, what state is this? I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.’

‘Australia.’

‘Huh.’ He shook his head. ‘I’ll be goddamned.’ He looked through the window and scratched his head. ‘Always thought there’d be more mountains, more snow. And more green. Hey, but you can’t believe everything you read, right?’

‘How did you get here?’

He tilted his head. ‘You know, you speak American pretty good, but I have to tell ya, and I don’t mean no offence – but you sound kind of Limey. Just saying.’ He suddenly remembered my question.

‘That’s the thing. I dunno. Not many people know this, but I had an uncle at MIT, super smart guy. Genius. So I go to the box room, and I’m trying to find a box of golden photos I need to burn, but that’s a different story, and there’s this box of stuff from Uncle John. I pull out this thing that looks like a remote and see it’s got a red light glowing. It’s been in a goddamned box for years and the darn thing is still working. So for the heck of it, I press the power button and whamo, I suddenly find myself amongst all this dead grass eyeballing the biggest rat you’ve ever seen, honest-to-god, bigger than those ones you get on the Jamaica Line, like it was the size of that dog there and now I’m here in god-damned Europe. Wait till the tech boys hear about this, there is going to be so much money in this. Maybe a TV show.’

I couldn’t help feeling I’d met this man before. I held out my hand and said, ‘By the way, I’m Mal. Mal Bligh.’ He grinned, leaned right in and gripped my hand hard, squeezing it to see if I’d flinch. I’ve spent 30 years shearing. I squeezed back. His grin faltered.

‘Hiya Mal. You call me Thedon.’

Thedon sat down on the dusty red couch that Larry or I used as a makeshift bed, depending on who lost the last argument. Larry had been sitting under the table all this time, but when Thedon sat down she let out a low growl. I could see the fur on the back of her neck stand on end. Thedon clocked the coffee pot and pointed with one of his small, stubby fingers.

‘Gimme one of those. Four sugars, white and strong.’ I poured him a mug, gave it a slurp of milk, spooned in half my sugar, and sat in the armchair opposite. He took a sip and spat it out, all over the floor.

‘Jesus, I didn’t mean that strong.’ He looked pained. I took the mug, emptied half the coffee and replaced it with some hot water from the stove. He took another sip and sighed. ‘Now that’s nearly as good as a Starbucks.’ I sat down again.

‘So Mal, what you need to do is help me let my people know I’m here, so they don’t freak the hell out that I’m like de-observed.’ Larry growled some more. I was a bit worried. Larry had never bitten anyone before, but there was a first time for everything.

‘That’s a fearsome dog you got there pal. What’s his name?’

‘Larry. And Larry’s a she.’

‘Huh. You call your dog a dude’s name?’

‘Larry is just short for her real name.’

Larry growled at Thedon again. She clearly didn’t like him.

Thedon’s eyes narrowed. ‘If I had a dog like that, I’d chain it. Maybe throw away the key. That’s not a good dog.’

Keeping his eyes locked on Larry, he crossed his legs. He had expensive leather shoes, but they had extra thick soles, more like platform shoes. His crossed over foot was waggling at a hundred miles an hour. He rubbed his hand together.

‘So Mal, you need to do this. You need to drive me to Barron’s Ass or whatever the town is, and help me message my people. That can’t be too hard can it?’

I nodded. I was looking forward to driving this man out of my life as quickly as possible. The police in town would probably clock him as a fruit tingle on the loose straight away. Let them deal with it.

‘Sure, come with me now, I’ll get the ute.’

Thedon got up and started to move forward. He froze. Held up a hand for me to stop. He stared at the floor for a second, held his other hand to his face and then let out a trumpeting sneeze. He looked at his hand horrified, looked around and then wiped it on the arm of my sofa. He acted like nothing had happened.

‘Hey, that was rude. That was filthy!’

He looked at me innocently. ‘What was?’

‘You just wiped your filthy snot all over my couch.’

‘I did no such thing pal! That would be disgusting! I’m a very clean man!’ He looked like he was getting ready to fight me.

I grabbed keys and walked out. He was behind me but made a point of getting in front of me as we walked to the ute, which was parked under a tree about 100 metres from the house. As we walked, Thedon made trumpeting sounds, the kind you make through pursed lips, reminding me vaguely of that Hendrix solo. He walked around to the driver’s side and opened the door.

‘What the hey?’ he asked.

‘I’m driving, not you.’

He went around to the passenger side and got in. Larry sat in the tray, slobbering on the rear window. I got into my seat. I could feel the ute leaning because of Thedon’s weight. I turned the key. The engine car gave a whine and a spluttering cough but nothing more. It was always causing me grief. I popped the hood and got out. Thedon got out and stood behind me. He was sniffing in a way that made my skin crawl.

‘You gonna fix it, right? I mean, I can’t stay here in these boondocks. Where did you say we are? Assville?’

‘No, you can’t,’ I mumbled to myself through gritted teeth.

I checked the timer belt, but it was good, and the carburettor looked good too. The battery caps I’d whittled a few days before from mulga sticks were still holding but one of the battery terminals had worked loose, even though it was clamped as tight as it would go.

I dug into my pockets and fished out a five-cent coin.

‘Here, hold this,’ I said and went to the tool sack I keep under the driver’s seat and got out a screwdriver to loosen the clamp.

‘Pass me the coin.’ Thedon was just about to pass the coin when he stopped, staring at it.

‘Hey, I know that broad! Bit long in the tooth, but great skin and great pins!’ I snapped my fingers. He handed it over. I wedged the coin between the clamp and the terminal and tightened it up. It was secure now.

We walked around to our seats. Larry, seeing that her seat was unoccupied, had taken back what was rightfully hers. As Thedon approached, she started growling some more, wrinkling her nose and showing her teeth. Thedon reached out to grab Larry by the collar. Larry barked and lunged at his hand. She knew exactly what she was doing as she just nipped him, enough to draw a few drops of blood but not cause any serious damage.

‘Oh holy crap! Blood! You can get infected!’ Thedon wailed as if he was dying. I snapped my fingers at Larry and pointed to the back of the ute. Larry, now a bit ashamed by her assault, loped into the tray without fuss. Thedon was almost crying in anguish and, to be honest, his face had turned from a well-tanned brownish orange to an ashen grey. I walked over to a bush, snapped a twig and spun some cobwebs round it. I then went over to Thedon and looked at his hand. There were several drops of blood on his thumb knuckle. I spun the cobwebs around the wound. The bleeding instantly stopped. Old bushman’s trick. We got back in the ute. I turned the key. It coughed again, spluttered like it had phlegm in the lines.

‘Filter,’ I said. ‘I need to somehow replace the filter.’

‘So you got plenty of filters, ain’t that so? You’d be like the king of filters.’ 

‘Not a single one.’

‘Huh. If you know it’s the filter, then you knew it would be the filter and you would have prepared. I’m just saying. What do we do now?’

‘We walk.’

We got out of the car and started the seven K walk to Barrumbuttock. We walked for about ten minutes, Thedon in front, when he staggered and stopped.

‘I’m not used to this. I need to catch my breath. I’m a very fit man, but not this fit. Ain’t you got a buggy or something?’

It was obvious I hadn’t. Thedon was wheezing a bit. ‘You should’ve organised a buggy. You ain’t a liberal are you? My people always organise a buggy. Where did you say the clubhouse is again?’

I pointed down the road. He started walking again, stopped and turned. ‘Hey, ain’t you coming?’

I shook my head. ‘You’re on your own on this one-’ I paused. ‘…mate.’

He waved a hand dismissively. I watched him trudge down the road, maybe another 200 metres. I didn’t stop staring. The man had Kalahari buttocks, bobbing up and down like the biggest ground turkey you’ve ever seen. I could feel Larry’s eyes boring into me. I’m ashamed to admit it but, not taking my eyes off Thedon, I clicked my tongue.

Tagged ,

Another Man’s Child, Elizabeth White

Photo by Sergey Norkov on Unsplash

NOW

It is a clear evening in late July. Light leaks into the old house from the moon and the street lamps, through the louvers of the enclosed verandah. Outside the Queenslander, a mother and baby possum are crawling along a power line running from Kathleen’s roof down towards the street. They are the only creatures, human or animal, active at this moment in the evening. Kathleen doesn’t notice them. But if she had, she may have felt a sense of camaraderie. Wishing she had a parent to guide her through her own juncture of uncertainty.

Hours before the daylight will creep into the house, Kathleen slips out from beneath the blanket that covers her and her husband Leo. Her feet sink into the worn-out grooves in her old blue slippers. The synthetic fleece is threadbare, loosely hugging her skin. She slides off the bed and grabs her fluffy dressing gown off the armchair in the corner of the room and walks towards the kitchen. She treads lightly on the wooden floorboards, floating like a ghost secretly in the dark. She senses that even though hours have passed since she turned off her bedside light, she hasn’t slept at all. While she is bothered by the lack of rest, she is not surprised by her mind’s inability to cease activity for just a few hours.

When she was a child Kathleen would struggle to sleep the night before her birthday. Excitement and anticipation overwhelmed her young body with the need to grasp for the coming day with moments of joyful and untroubled restlessness. These days her mind rouses her body in dark hours, leading her through a labyrinth of fear and agitation while the approaching day lies dormant.

Kathleen falls easily into the pattern of her usual morning habits. She reaches the kitchen without giving any attention to her surroundings. The microwave beams 2:45 in a blue light that illuminates the area. Kathleen notices a cool breeze blowing through the window above the sink that causes ripples in the white mosquito net curtains that hang between the house and the outdoors. The air is fresh on her skin and ushers her towards wakefulness. Up until this point, she has tried to ignore any sense of her feelings since her father died last week.

From the moment she received the phone call from the hospital, Kathleen was set into motion. She began to constantly collate lists in her mind. What needed to be accomplished? Family members began to fly in. They congregated together and spent hours around the dining table in Kathleen’s house. Everyone had a story about Hugh. They’d laugh and then find themselves crying about the memories that now felt like they were vanishing. For short moments she sat with them, unable to focus, not remembering how to listen. She would rise from the table and set off, busying herself around them, ensuring that all the arrangements were made. Her sister Beth and brother Neil kept offering to help, but she was the last one who had seen their father. She had tried to take care of it all. She could tell her siblings were frustrated with her; the evidence of their conversations about her always on their faces when she entered a room.

Finally, she relinquished and made them responsible for the wake and sharing a eulogy. But she refused to let them start sorting through his home. Not yet, not yet she kept saying, pretending it was because of her grief. She couldn’t risk them finding anything, not before she’d had a chance to look for some kind of evidence for herself, or at least until they knew the truth about her too. Why had it taken Hugh till his last day to tell her that she wasn’t his daughter? And without being able to give her an explanation, why bother telling her?

The whisper of this Friday morning stirs her from the daze of the last week. Her father has gone, and now the morning of his funeral has arrived. For the first time this week, the weight of his loss is starting to reach her. She doesn’t feel ready for the day that is ahead. Her father will not be there to comfort her.

Kathleen takes the kettle from the stovetop and hears leftover water from its last boiling slosh inside the iron pot. She pours the water down the sink and starts to fill it from the tap. She stares straight ahead, looking through the mosquito net mesh towards the palm trees that separate her house from the neighbour’s.

She recalls the last time she saw her father, the afternoon before he died. The phase of remaining spirited had passed and his manner was bleeding with frustration and anger. He was seventy four. A month before, he had been healthy, death had not been on the cards. All it had taken was the one cut on this leg while working in his garden. It had led to an infection. The infection turned to gangrene. A fortnight later, part of his leg was gone. When the surgery wound struggled to heal, they realised the infection had reached his blood.

When they had last been together in his hospital room, Hugh had roused on Kathleen whenever she left his side for a moment to grab a coffee. He’d said that she was selfish to abandon a dying man. She could have yelled at him then. She could have poured out the anger and disarray that was bubbling inside her, but she held onto hope that he might tell her clearly what happened. When he slept he remained troubled, unable to bear what he had become, an old man who could no longer fight off death. It was chasing him with pitiful ailments and afflictions that might have been avoided. Once a man of natural exuberance and catholic hope, dying was making a ruin out of him. For the first time in her life, Kathleen noticed the loss of conviction in Hugh’s eyes. He knew it wouldn’t turn out all right after all. And here she was trying to understand why he’d never told her sooner. Who was her real father? Why did her mother never say anything?

Kathleen turns her attention back to the kettle. Water is overflowing out the top and from the spout. She turns off the tap and pours out some of the water. She puts the kettle on the stove and decides not to turn it on. She doesn’t want to take the risk that she might stir Leo from his sleep. She wants to be alone with her thoughts in the darkness.

THEN

Hugh arrives home. There’s a car parked in his driveway. His eyes scan the rearview mirror. There’s a smudge of dirt on his forehead. He had barely looked at his reflection this morning. He had scrambled out of bed in a roadside motel and hit the road. After two months driving trucks during grain harvest, all he could think about was annihilating 900 kilometres and getting home to his wife and kids. God knows how long he’d been getting around like this, blind to this conspicuous smear on his face.

He grabs his bag off the passenger seat and thrusts himself out of the car. The door slams and he gets another glimpse of his dirty face in the car window. He must have been in a daze to have missed that.

He scales the stairs of his Queenslander home. His kids are running along the inside verandah, their little footsteps coming towards him. The front door opens. It’s his mate from work, Reg Currell.

‘Reg, what are you doing here?’ asks Hugh.

‘Hugh, mate, just leaving. I dropped off your roster for next fortnight, left it with Jean.’

‘Oh, thanks Reg. I thought they sent you to the Riverina?’

‘Nah, the Magill family put in orange trees this year, they didn’t bother with grains. I’ve been in the depot since spring. Servicing the trucks doing local loads.’

‘Rightio.’

 ‘Yeah well. I’ll see you Monday. You look spent, mate. You know you’ve got dirt on your mug?’

‘I noticed. Thanks.’

Reg slides past him and bobs down the stairs. Hugh steps into the verandah. Neil and Betty lunge towards him embracing his knees and tugging at his arms. He sees Jean step out of their bedroom and onto the verandah. She looks different. Her skin is sun-kissed and healthy. The fabric on her dress pulls tighter over her breasts than he remembers. The effect of being away for two months is reflecting back at him. He’s overlooked more than some dirt. His wife is pregnant.

NOW

St Michael’s is stony cold. Warmth radiates from the bar heaters mounted along the sandstone walls inside the church, but it doesn’t seem to reach Kathleen, she sits fighting away shivers in her pew. Leo places a hand on her leg. She wonders if he’s trying to secure her; keep her still, keep her grounded. She hasn’t even told him yet. She feels like there is nothing to say. How can she ever make sense of her real parentage? Her childhood? The fact that Hugh was the person who she felt loved her more than anyone? What does it mean now that he was just another man?

Father Gibbons seemed like he’d spent the last thirty years waiting for Kathleen when she had knocked on his door a few days ago. He’d been just a young priest when Hugh called asking him to come and see his wife and her child in the hospital. Hugh had told Father Gibbons straight away that he wanted him to christen this other man’s child. But, after that he had committed himself to loving her like she was his own. That was all that Father Gibbons knew. Her mother never came to confession, and it wasn’t his place to ask. He believed from the outside that Hugh seemed like he was reconciled.

Kathleen had told him that Hugh’s final request had been clear. He wanted Father Gibbons to tell the truth about how they’d met, at his funeral. Kathleen had felt uneasy knowing she was about to be at the centre of a commotion. But she wanted to believe that the truth would have value if it came from a priest.

Kathleen had never felt out of place in the family, and her parents were still married until Hugh died: because of her dementia it seemed like Kathleen’s mother had passed away a long time before. Drifting out of herself slowly over the last 10 years or so. But maybe there had been a growing absence in her mother for all of Kathleen’s life.

Neil sits back in his seat after sharing his eulogy. Father Gibbons rises. Kathleen is aware of the drama that he is about to set into motion. But she almost feels like she needs drama right now. Something to align her with the sense of upheaval that she has traversed over the last week. She watches him reaching the lectern, and there she decides to hold her gaze. The silence amplifies when the secret is spilled out to the congregation of mourners. And there she continues to look, when the burn of the heaters finally reaches her, with the stares of them all.

THEN

The dream has finished.

Hugh’s feet hit the cool floorboards; he pushes himself up with both hands, he has no reluctance leaving the warmth of his bed. He is awake.

He ambles out of the bedroom and into the hallway. His eyes are still adjusting. The wash of a pink dawn delicately illuminates the way. His feet patter on the wooden slats. The sound of another cry reaches his ears. The lament that disturbed his sleep. His hands reach out to the walls to guide and steady his movements. He is a veteran of the five am shuffle, a hurried pace towards the summoning cry from Kathleen’s bedroom. The daily exercise. A stumble and scamper.

Through the open doorway he extends his arms into the cot and collects the crying baby. The child burrows her head into the hollow between Hugh’s neck and shoulder. Her eyes hover above sleep, her breath settles into an even rhythm. Hugh’s feet move them gently around the room. If he does this right the whole family might get an extra hour of sleep.

Jean has followed him into the room. Her hands seize hold of Kathleen’s body, and she cradles her towards her own chest.

‘I’ll take her,’ Jean murmurs.

‘It’s alright, I had her.’

‘She’s mine. I’ll take care of it.’

‘Jean, I don’t mind helping.’

‘You go back to bed.’

Hugh stops in the doorway, facing back towards their bedroom. The exhaustion of trying to forgive Jean is getting the better of him. He breathes in deeply and lets his shoulders round into his body. He wants to keep the promise of his vows, but it’s a contest he can’t win. He can’t claim the child of another man. But when her cries call him from sleep in the early mornings, instinctively he fathers her, doting at her little tears. He makes himself responsible for her existence.

NOW

Magpies chortle in the large pine trees. Kathleen climbs onto the large wooden fence beside the road. She feels the need to enter the cemetery the same way she did when she was a child on the occasions when Hugh brought them here to see his mother. She sits at the top of the fence then catapults herself towards the ground. The echo of her father is beside her, flying away without her. 

Fresh soil is piled high from the day before. Kathleen stares at the earth, angry at the confusion and frustration that he has made her bear. Sadness would have felt simple compared to this. She sits on the wet ground and scoops up a handful of soil, and then lets its fall back down between her fingers. She can’t make peace with the immeasurable chasm that has been dug between her and the truth.

Tagged

All Good Things, Catherine Panich

Photo by Ferdinand Stöhr on Unsplash

You probably know the feeling.

Boarding lounge, ten minutes to go. Bottle of water drained and tossed, carry-on at your feet, pass and passport in hand, one last message then switch to flight mode. No, off.

I wonder who’s going to be sitting next to me?

This flight out of Arctic Kirkenes would land in Oslo mid-afternoon. I scanned the crowd for solo travellers, because I was one. The silver-haired man in a dark grey suit? Mining? Shipping? Bureaucrat? But he joined the priority queue for business class, so not him. The woman who hugged an over-sized handbag? Much my age, pleasant enough company for a couple of hours. An itinerant worker? Or a student dreaming of summer’s libations? Who hasn’t played airport roulette?

Then I spotted him. God, I hope it won’t be him. But I had that sharp feeling. You just know.

He was still rows away, but I could smell him. Stumbling over his carry-all and duty-free bags, he worked his way up the aisle. A heavy sourness of stale cigarette smoke and alcohol had impregnated his clothes, saturating the air he pushed through. Late thirties at a guess, scrawny, with an edgy air of neglect that was more stray cat than aloof domesticated.

Just my luck…

He checked his seat number, searched for the correct row, then with a curt nod slid down beside me, his long legs barely accommodated.

Thank God I reserved the window seat.

We buckled up.

Kirkenes quickly fell away beneath the plumes of smoke from wildfires across northern Scandinavia. The dazzling fjords spilling into the Barendt Sea were no longer visible, nor Kirkenes’ timber houses and the verdant beech forests along the Pasvik River.

I’d spent some time in the second most bombed place of World War II. Trapped by the furious ambitions of the Nazis and Red Army for the ice-free port of Murmansk, Kirkenes had been laid waste. Scorched earth.

I’d wandered among delicate bright Arctic blossoms, which had burst open with the impatience only a brief summer could inspire; heard the orange-legged seagulls honk like geese.

Now all lay behind me.

Ever so faintly, the voice of my Danish father seeped in. All good things come to an end. He had a wistful fondness for this Viking proverb. When I was a child, it accompanied ‘no more ice-cream’ or ‘pack away your toys’ or ‘time for bed’. Now I understand he was thinking of his own life, its unspoken disappointments, the many losses brought about by war and migration, and lives beyond repair. But the tipping point… How do you recognize it? Can you?

Only two days ago I’d arrived in a heatwave. In fact, we’d had to stop walking across the tarmac to make way for a departing plane. Petrol fumes in the ripping hot wind posed a danger as the plane swung onto the runway. What had I expected of mid-summer in the Arctic? Certainly not bedraggled flocks of moose lolling by the dusty road-side, nor gasping birds, not such heat where there was midnight sun.

I asked the flight attendant for coffee; the man next to me said, ‘Whisky, no ice, and a Coke.’

Finally we exchanged some niceties. He smiled curiously when I said ‘Sydney’, his pale blue eyes alert.

‘Gum?’ he offered.

‘No thanks. Well… okay.’

He was from a coastal town on the Vardanger Fjord. ‘Vadsϕ. It’s very small. Far away from everything.’ His face relaxed at the thought, and he suddenly looked younger. ‘Peaceful. Surrounded by nature. Not so much stress.’

I guessed Vadsϕ had the same frontier feeling as Kirkenes, a world belonging to tough men and brutalist edges. ‘But why do you stay there?’

‘For the past 2 years I’m a cook in a café.’ He gave a little smile. ‘Nothing much but it’s okay.’ He paused. ‘To be honest, it’s been good for me.’

I recalled my last meal in Kirkenes. ‘So what’s your secret for cooking reindeer steak?’

He laughed with disarming openness. ‘Fry quickly on a hot plate, then serve with lingon berry jam and gravy. Have you eaten cloud berries?’

‘Only as jam.’

‘They’re Arctic berries. They grow in marshes and are only picked in August. It’s hard work. That’s why they’re expensive, but also special.’

I tried to imagine remote Vadsϕ in the long months of darkness, when snow and ice were impenetrable and the cold burned bitter. It lay at the heart of Sami culture. My Danish grandmother, whom I only knew from a formal black and white photo, had sent me one of my first books. Elli-Karin, a Sami girl, tended the reindeers while her father repaired their turf house before winter returned. I loved that book, and through it, my grandmother. Both are long gone. On this trip I didn’t get to a Sami village, and the closest I’d come to reindeers was the recipe of a cook who was flicking through the in-flight magazine.

‘But don’t you get lonely?’ I persevered. ‘Or want to move to the city some time?’

‘Why?’ he shrugged. ‘The people are nice. We don’t live in one another’s pockets, but we care for each other. I can trust my friends to watch the house while I’m away. And I do the same for them.’

He folded one lean hand over the other, then drifted off to sleep. Strands of fair hair fell across his face as his jaw slackened.

I leaned against the window, the view partially obliterated by a wing. Below glided pleated mountains and the shiny confetti of sparkling lakes. And there were no borders – no Finland, Russia or Norway. Ah, how lovely the blue!

Twenty-four hours ago, I’d been in search of lunch. Outside a run-down cafe a board announced: kebab and pizza special. Despite the uninviting interior, I placed my order.

‘How many?’ asked the man at the till. His tone was abrasive, maybe due to his poor English.

‘Just the one.’

‘One? Are you alone?’ Both question and enquiry.

I took a bottle of water from the fridge, then sat at a small table by the window.

At the rear, a family shared lunch. Two women in Islamic dress presided over a gaggle of children, a lively happy group. The youngest looked about the same age as my little grandson.

The boss and his cook moved to chairs at the entrance, chain smoking and talking away empty hours in the sun.

I paused on my way out. ‘Is that your family?’ I nodded towards the gathering.

‘Yes, my family.’ Although surprised, he was pleased by my question.

Children’s carefree laughter filled the cafe. The child who reminded me of my grandson leaped from his chair and ran to his father, dark curls bobbing.

‘You have a beautiful family.’ Curiosity got the better of me. ‘Where are you from?’

He frowned, stroking the head of his son. ‘Why you want to know?’

‘Just interested.’ I told him I was from Australia.

The men glanced at each other. ‘Syria,’ said the boss. ‘We are here from Syria. Three years.’

‘In Sydney I teach English. Some of my students are Syrian.’

He relaxed. ‘Good students?’

‘Yes. And very nice.’ That made him happy. As I turned to leave I had the impulse to say, ‘I hope you have a good life here. After everything…’

Later that afternoon I joined a small tour group to where Norway ended and Russia began.

A young soldier was throwing a ball for an indefatigable shepherd. Barry had been on border duty years longer than his handler. On cue, he leaped into his box at the rear of a black SUV, to be chauffeured back to the compound and dinner.

According to our tour guide: ‘This is where thousands of Syrians crossed the border on bicycles. Have you heard about it? Three years ago, European countries were trying to stop the flood of refugees. But there was another way – the Arctic route through Russia. The asylum seekers got visas. They went to Moscow, then they managed to get right up here, to Murmansk. But it was illegal to cross the border by foot, so they bought bicycles. Thousands of bicycles. They rode across the border. Now no-one knows where most of them have gone.’

Our little tour group gazed silently at the close dark hills of Russia, the stark watch-tower, and the boom gates where a pair of armed soldiers faced each other stiffly.

‘They say fifty tonnes of bicycles were abandoned,’ marvelled our guide. ‘Filled about thirty containers.’

Ladies and gentlemen, we have begun our descent into Oslo…

My flight companion stirred. He glanced about disoriented, rubbed his hands over his face, then gulped the last of the Coke. My blocked ears had already noted the dropping altitude. The landing gear clunked into position.

‘Are you staying long in Oslo?’ I asked.

He hesitated. ‘Actually, I’m going to Tallinn.’

‘Ah…’ Years ago I’d roamed through Tallinn’s beautifully restored Old Town.

He combed his fingers through his hair. ‘I’m going to visit my family. I was born in Estonia and lived there most of my life, before moving to Norway – you know… work.’ He turned the empty Coke can in his hands. ‘And I’m going meet up with my son. I haven’t seen him for two years. I will take him to Vadsϕ for a holiday. To my house, for the first time. He’s fourteen and likes fishing. Then I will bring him back to Tallinn, for school.’ He smiled.

With the wheels’ impact on the runway, the opportunity to push that life’s door further ajar passed.

As my flight companion eased out of his seat and reached to retrieve his things from the stow, I noticed the design on his t-shirt. ‘Father Ted!’ I laughed. An Estonian from Vadsϕ, and a fan of that British sitcom! Its title was emblazoned in Gothic letters across three eccentric Irish priests, exiled to remote Craggy Island. ‘I love Father Ted! I’ve watched all the repeats.’

‘Me too! It’s my favourite. I get together with my friends and we have Father Ted evenings. We laugh ourselves sick. I’ve got the whole box set, every single episode.’

He patted their faces, greeting old mates, then broke into a crazy Irish accent: ‘Ted: “So you took Father Jack out for a walk… and you lost him. Again.” Dougal: “Well, Ted, like I said last time: It won’t happen again.”’

And I fell into Mrs Doyle, the housekeeper: ‘You’ll have some tea… Are you sure you don’t want any? Aw go on, you’ll have some. Go on go on go on go on go on go on go on go on GO ON!’

And we laughed loudly amid the impatience of passengers who jostled in a slow conga line towards the exit.

He placed his duty-free bags on the seat. ‘For my son,’ he smiled, as if guessing I’d assumed alcohol. He tucked the next boarding pass into his passport. ‘Have a safe trip home,’ he beamed.

‘You too. And have a wonderful time with your son.’

He turned and eased into the queue, then strode briskly towards the transit lounge. No looking back. Boarding for Tallinn.

I went the other way, taking the metro into Oslo, where I discovered the apartment of Henrik Ibsen. It was here he wrote The Doll’s House, which my students generally liked. Ibsen lived there on his return from self-imposed exile in Italy, despite his wife’s reluctance to again endure Norwegian winters. Just before closing time, I shared Ibsen’s view of the street, saw his writing desk and chair, the lamps and cosy timber panelling, his works of art – all evidence of success.

And oh! So remarkably, Ibsen’s dining table was set with hand-cut crystal goblets, identical to those I’d inherited from my parents, passed down from my Danish grandmother and great-grandmother. Exactly the same! Those elegant wine glasses had graced my grandmother’s table in Copenhagen, a long time ago.

In Sydney, I will clutch these moments like the bright bunch of floating balloons I’ll take to my grandson’s birthday party.

I bake a cake in the shape of an aeroplane, decorating it with chocolate icing and a thick shower of sprinkles. So colourful, so joyous.

My daughter lights five candles, and her little boy’s flushed cheeks glow in the incandescence. As we sing Happy birthday dear Charlie! he sharply sucks in air, then blows for all he’s worth, to extinguish the dancing flames in a single breath. Then he asks for the candles to be relit, so that he can do it again, and again.

But as drops of wax melt into the icing, my daughter says, ‘That’s it now, Charlie. Time to cut the cake.’

The knife does its work, and for a while we surrender to spongy stickiness, silently finding bliss in all these good things.

Tagged

Deadly Traffic, Jacqui Greig

Photo credit: gmacfadyen

The email blipped onto my phone as I boarded a flight from Diqing to Kunming in China’s south western Yunnan province. I tapped the little aeroplane icon and walked down the jet bridge. Later, as the Himalayas passed below, stereoscopic and horizon-wide, I read, ‘A mystery virus is sickening people in Wuhan. Stay away from markets.’ It was 14 Jan 2020 and I was on my way home to an Australia still smoke-dazed from its worst bushfire season ever. Given the many discussions I’d had with my brother, a biomedical engineer researching HIV at Massachusetts General Hospital, the email should have alarmed me. Perhaps it was getting up at an ungodly hour to reach the airport, or the brief but disconcerting concern that my visa wasn’t valid, that left me exhausted and unconcerned. I, like the rest of the soporific world, pushed the message out of my mind. The truth is that for all of us this story started long before now.

On the morning of my eleventh birthday, I had met an African Spitting Cobra and a dinosaur. To my brothers and me, the scaly creature rustling from the veldt on its hind legs with its giant claws tucked against its chest was a velociraptor. The snake, also scaly but slimmer and agile, didn’t stay; it swam off, a gold flash in the grass. The dinosaur turned its inquisitive snout in our direction and sniffed our scent on the dawn air. We three crouched, entranced as we watched the creature continue its purposeful progress. That was the first and last time I saw a pangolin. The beauty of other animals over the years: a cheetah downing its prey in a swirl of dust, the iridescent joy of a hovering sunbird, or the silver gleam of a diving otter, never dimmed the privilege I felt at glimpsing the elusive scaly anteater.

Pangolins, native to Asia and Africa, subsist on ants and termites, a preference sufficient to make them lovable. Pangolins are ant devourers extraordinaire. They possess the elongated sticky tongues of other myrmecophages and their tough, keratin-lined stomachs must, for ants, be comparable to the voracious maw of the sarlacc in The Return of the Jedi. Ant venom has the questionable distinction of being the only acid named after an animal. Formic acid packs a punch but the scaly exterior of the pangolin is ideally suited to its diet. Pangolins are the only mammals that boast of such armour which they put to good use defending themselves by curling into a tight ball and swinging their sharp tail to ward off predators. This defensive tactic accounts for their name, which derived from Malay, pengguling, means ‘one who rolls up,’ but it also leaves them vulnerable to poaching. Humans, unlike leopards, overcome it with ease and our appetite for the keratin scales which protected pangolins for millennia, now renders them the most trafficked animal in the world.

Keratin is a remarkable protein, as lustrous as hair and as tough as hooves; it constitutes rhino horn as well as pangolin scales. Despite being ubiquitous, the protein has resulted in these two animals being listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) list. This means that they may not be hunted or traded for any reason other than scientific purposes. No study has ever found keratin to have therapeutic properties.

Chinese friends explain that pangolins’ mythical appearance makes them prized. What my child-eyes believed was a dinosaur is perceived in China as a small dragon. When rolled up, pangolins resemble fabled dragon eggs.

The rarer pangolins become, the more they cost, paradoxically increasing the demand for pangolin meat. For a host to provide expensive pangolin, or other rare wild animal meat, for guests or employees shows generosity and improves face. Along with the perceived healing properties of the scales, this has skyrocketed the [1]  price of pangolins. As recently as 2018, the Chinese government, in  Implementation of the Rural Revitalization Strategy, encouraged farming of wild animals for sale in wet markets as a path out of poverty for millions of rural poor. The practice was further encouraged on Chinese television and by internet celebrities. According to Beijing University’s Professor Lü Zhi, wild animal farming is largely unregulated and many animals for sale are wild-caught ‘laundered’ animals. Particularly vulnerable are species near impossible [2]  to breed in captivity like pangolins.

It’s autumn in Hangzhou city with hawkers shouting their wares: framed red jianzhi[1], jade and silver bangles, and wood carved croak-frogs. With leaves already tinged yellow, the ancient gingko trees lining the street shade the afternoon warmth. A brisk walk uphill is required to reach my destination, the local Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) centre. Along the way, aromas of frying oil, meat and spice assail my nostrils,  smells that become an assault as I pass the local ‘stinky tofu’ dealer. Wooden benches cluster about the entrance where the TCM patients wait. Inside it is cool, cavernous, and quiet, the air is redolent of spices and dried plants: the reassuring scents of ancient knowledge. White-coated doctors staff the heavy counters where meticulous drawers, brass-labelled with artistic hanzi[2], stretch into the gloom. Atop the cabinets reside china-blue medicine jars guarding secret balms interspersed with glass jars of animal feti, snakes and pickled roots. Time is spent unravelling each person’s concern. Despite many years of absorbing western medicine, the gravitas of history and the spell of mythology overwhelm me and remind that the Western scientific approach can neglect with patients.

I ask whether pangolin scales are available. The prompt denial seems more to deflect this waiguo ren[3] than to communicate the truth. The Chinese name for pangolin scaleschuan shan ji, means ‘piercing through a mountain’, which epitomises their perceived strength and explains why they remain listed in hundreds of TCM formulations. These formulations are used to improve lactation, menstrual disturbances and arthritic pains deemed due to cold, or damp. As unscientific prescriptions go, the notion that pangolin scales act as galactagogues is no more unlikely than the advice that fenugreek, nettle, blessed thistle and ginger improve breast-milk flow than we would like to admit. The latter remedies remain touted in Australia without any corroborating trial evidence.

Zootherapy, the use of animals for healing, was a world-wide phenomenon prior to the ascent of scientific medicine. As recently as 2011, World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics reveal that 80% of people in developing nations still rely on traditional medicines for their primary healthcare. Many modern medications derive from natural remedies, humble aspirin being one of the more notable. In Latin America, 584 animal species, ranging from the slimy — slugs, snails, and worms, to the magnificent — pumas, manatees and tapirs, are listed as having medicinal properties. The most renowned TCM practitioner of the Tang Dynasty (608-907), Sun Simiao, in his ethical treatise, Da Yi Jing Cheng- The Sincerity of Great Physicians, wrote of animal usage, ‘if you kill an animal or take a life to save another life, it moves away from the original meaning…the lives of animals and humans are equal.’ Today, TCM has drifted from this principle and, though practitioners may be reluctant to prescribe endangered animal parts, the raw ingredients remain readily available in shops. It may be easier to buy a whole pangolin shell than to obtain prepared medicine containing pangolin scales. Purchasers can then simply prepare the scales for personal use. The meteoric rise of an enormous, cashed up Chinese middle class, coupled with the Communist Party’s ambition to elevate TCM to the status of Western medicine, has left vulnerable species on the edge of extinction; a precipice they were already pushed toward by climate change and habitat destruction.

On my January flight home, I was unaware the plane was tracking north-east of the main pangolin smuggling route from Myanmar into China. The poor of Myanmar, a strife-torn country with one of the largest income gaps in the world, are easily exploited by wildlife smuggling chains. The smuggling routes stretch from Mandalay northwards through the border town of Muse and the poorly policed, casino hub of Mongla, before crossing into China near Ruili. Investigators from the environmental group Sustainable Asia report that smugglers take pangolins only as far as Ruili due to stringent police road checks in China. From Ruili, transportation becomes the buyer’s responsibility. To circumvent this, many Chinese keen to sample Pangolin and other wild meat travel to Yangon in Southern Myanmar. There, a restaurant opposite the international airport openly serves these delicacies. It is possible that one of these trafficking routes, fanning out across the vastness below my plane, facilitated the transmission of Covid-19 into our world.

I hadn’t been home long before I started receiving panicked emails and messages from friends in China. People, many people, were dying, and my friends were terrified and angry. News of doctors and academics being silenced abounded. The world’s slumber was disturbed by a new, deadly, crown virus that had started in a wildlife market in Wuhan.

Neither zoonoses nor plagues are a novelty, despite the virus initially being called ‘novel’. Zoonoses and coronaviruses are devastatingly familiar to doctors and epidemiologists. In medieval times, the plague was deemed miasmic, caused by ‘bad air’. Now, the commonly accepted theory is that the plague was a zoonosis, an infection that crosses the species barrier from animal to human. The plague bacterium, aptly named Yersinia pestis, was ably assisted by fleas in its transitional leap from rats to humans. Tuberculosis came to us from cows, psittacosis from parrots, and rabies from any animal that bites. We risk disease if we live too close to animals either by domesticating them, encouraging their overpopulation or by driving them from their homes by natural habitat destruction. In the last decade, 75% of new diseases have been zoonotic; the barrier between human and animal has always been gossamer thin.

The route Covid-19 [3]  took to reach our lungs may never be fully elucidated. The market where it is believed to have started has been disinfected before reopening. However, scientists rapidly identified and sequenced the genome of the causative coronavirus, a member of the virus group that caused recent deadly epidemics like SARS (2003) and MERS (2012), and which has long annoyed us with the common cold. Bats have evolved to co-exist with coronaviruses for millennia, but humans virtually never catch the virus from bats. For this leap, an intermediate host is needed to facilitate the gene mutations that help the virus attach to human cells, which it does using its corona, or crown, of surface ‘bubbles’. For SARS, the intermediate host was the civet; for MERS, it was camels. As urbanisation destroys their habitat, bats come into closer contact with intermediate animal hosts. The market atmosphere of stressed wild animals in crowded cages further increases the likelihood of the gene leap occurring. Covid-19 shares 77% of its RNA with a bat coronavirus, while its receptors share 99% of their RNA with a pangolin coronavirus.

The road to the Covid-19 pandemic is pathed with ironies. China had, as recently as 2019, planned an outright ban on pangolin trade. Since 1989, pangolins have been on China’s level II protection list, which bans eating pangolin meat but allows scientific research and medicinal use. The elevation to stage I protection, banning all use, would come into effect in Jan 2020. After the SARS epidemic in 2003, China placed a ban on the sale of wild animal meat, but it was only temporary. China is not alone in selling wild animals in wet markets; the phenomenon is common in South East Asian and many African countries.

In the United States, repeated warnings concerning the likelihood of a pandemic were met with the shuttering of the Pandemic Preparedness Unit in 2018. The same year Luciana Borio, then director for medical and biodefense preparedness at the National Security Council, told a symposium that “the threat of pandemic flu is our number-one health security concern”. When President Trump said on March 6, 2020 that the pandemic was an “unforeseen problem…that came out of nowhere”[4], he had never been further from the truth.

The tragic tale of pangolins encapsulates the perfect storm of the Covid-19 pandemic: the environmental destruction and climate change leave bats and pangolins vulnerable; the poverty and inequity encourage poaching to help people to survive; and the greed strips every resource from our environment at the lowest cost and sells it to the highest bidder[4] . Over [5] the years, my heart has wrenched each time I read of another border-police haul of illegal pangolin scales. I have felt grief that my children would never see this elusive and gentle creature wending its way through a honeyed African dawn. How much more I should have worried.

Bibliography

Alves, Romulo R., and Humberto N. Alves. “The faunal drugstore: Animal-based remedies used in traditional medicines in Latin America.” Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, vol. 7, no. 9, 7 Mar. 2011, doi:10.1186/1746-4269-7-9.  

“CITES Appendices.” CITES Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, CITES, www.cites.org/eng/app/index.php.  

“Pangolin.” South Africa’s showcase of our collective heritage, southafrica.co.za, www.southafrica.co.za/pangolin.html.  

Devonshire-Ellis, Chris. “Covid-19 Carriers: What Do China’s Wildlife Protection Laws Say about Pangolins?” China Briefing, Denzan-Shira, 1 Apr. 2020, www.china-briefing.com/news/covid-19-carriers-chinas-wildlife-protection-laws-pangolins/.  

Friedman, Uri. “We Were Warned.” The Atlantic, 18 Mar. 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/03/pandemic-coronavirus-united-states-trump-cdc/608215/.  

Greenfield, Patrick. “Ban wildlife markets to avert pandemics, says UN biodiversity chief.” The Guardian, 6 Apr. 2020.  

Long, Marcy T., and Bonnie Au. “Pangolins Poverty and Porous borders.” Chinadialogue, edited by Jessica Aldred, Ned Pennant-Rea, Lizi Hesling, and Jiang Yifan, Chinadialogue, 27 Feb. 2020, www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/11878-Podcast-Pangolins-poverty-and-porous-borders.  

Long, Marcy T., and Bonnie Au. “Why are pangolins so prized in China?” Chinadialogue, edited by Jessica Aldred, Ned Pennant-Rea, Lizi Hesling, and Jiang Yifan, Chinadialogue, 14 Feb. 2020, www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/11855-Podcast-Why-are-pangolins-so-prized-in-China-.  

Lyons, Suzannah, and Natasha Mitchell. “How did coronavirus start? Where did bats get the virus from and how did it spread to humans?” ABC News: ABC Science, ABC News, 9 Apr. 2020.  

Qiu, Jane. “How China’s ‘Bat Woman’ Hunted Down Viruses from SARS to the New Coronavirus.” Scientific American, 27 Apr. 2020.  

Ranasinghe, Kashmi. “Going viral: how a virus mutates between animals.” CSIRO Scope, CSIRO, 7 Apr. 2020, blog.csiro.au/virus-mutation/.  


Endnotes

[1] Papercuts – a Chinese traditional art form that dates back to the 6th century ACE

[2] Chinese characters

[3] Foreigner

[4] Quotes from ‘We were warned’ The Atlantic March 18, 2020.


Tagged , , ,

Miss Phillipa, Melanie Ifield

Photo by Johannes W on Unsplash

The doctors all agree that for me to feel entirely myself again (such an admirable ambition) I am to make my way to the seaside for a week. 

I emerge from a six-hour bus ride at a foreign bus stop in a foreign town. It is late and I am hungry. I am not supposed to feel hunger and the normalcy of such a physical sensation rocks me. Perhaps it’s the local’s blasted sea air working its insidious way into my digestive tract. Well, I’ll take this holiday, and return to work not a day over one week and see what they have to say about that.

I make my way down cobblestone streets. Nightlights are starting to twinkle into life, illuminating this strange town and its inhabitants. There is a sense of freedom in all their movements, as though they have imbibed too much of others’ good intentions. Well, they will get nothing from me. 

There is the sign I have been looking for. A weather-beaten panel over a door stating you could rest your head at the ‘Sea-Side Inn’ for the value price of $49 per night. What a delight. The night clerk greets me as I walk in. During our conversation he establishes, via pointed questioning, that I have a credit card and a driver’s licence. He mentions the tourist pack they have with maps to interesting destinations, all the beaches and bookstores. Could he interest me in these? He couldn’t. I take it anyway for appeasement’s sake.

A cheery voice from behind asks me if he could be of assistance and help me with my luggage. I am faintly amused. In all conceivability it is my wasted appearance which lends itself to such solicitous feelings. Certainly no one has ever offered to carry my luggage before.

I am led up a flight of stairs. A door is opened for me and I am left in solitude.

The bathroom smells familiar, as though they, like the hospital I so recently vacated, use hospital grade detergent. I look back at the mirror. How disagreeable. Not quite in blushing youth anymore. Quite the opposite really: pale, washed out middle age. Perhaps I could find my youth strolling these sunburned streets chatting gaily to other figments of my imagination.

I open the window. Bad idea. More of that sea air comes waltzing in as though every open panel of glass is a hand written invitation. It dances with my curtains, then marches through my hair and down my pipes. I shut the window.

There is not much evening left and I plan to be unpacked and fully rested for tomorrow when I shall face the foreign town and all its peculiarities. Tonight I feel the strength has left me.

Sunlight wakens me. It has sneaked in through closed blinds. I never sleep with the blinds open, no need to leave the flight path to the heavens all that open. I observe myself in the mirror after I dress. My image stares back at me and reminds me that time has marked me more effectively than any passing love affair. Dances are a thing of the misty past and knitting booties for non-existent grandchildren is supposed to fill my days in happy contemplation.

I venture downstairs. Legs a little wobbly. I wander along cobbled streets towards the distant sea. It comes on me suddenly. One minute I am contentedly strolling along and then I turn a corner and see the endless blue. I have to sit down and catch my breath.

I’ve never seen the sea before. It crashes majestically upon the shoreline and I feel very little. Not a feeling designed to flood me with the confidence that has been eluding me. Stupid doctors. Sent me to the wrong address.

People are actually stripping off their layers of civilisation and running at the seething mass of unfathomable waters. They are facing it and yelling challenges to the sky. I sit there and eye them doubtfully.

‘I am quite comfortable here, thank you young man,’ I reassure the darkly handsome stranger who catches sight of my breathless state. I am in no need of assistance and have no desire to thrust myself into the sweeping jaws of foaming waves.

This sea they are all so enamoured with appears dangerous. Look at them plunging in and spending energy one day they will kill to have again. They have no care that it whispers a dirge in its sleepless prowling of our coast. They are secure. They are young and how the young feel their own brand of immortality. Just you wait, I think with savage glee. You’ll sit here and feel the same feelings of wasted energy. I stand and stretch. My, how tiring all this fresh air is. I make my way to a small café I saw earlier.

I finish my salad and fish. I sit and let humanity wash over me in a tide of raised voices and sweet scents. I shudder and put down my wine, leaving the café, giving no tip. Do I seek the emotions of others? Do I reek of my inner grayness? Is my age a natural insult to their youth? Am I an object of their pity? I hurry away. I am successful I want to shout. I have a house, a car and a bank balance you would be envious of: I could buy you all. I halt at that thought, a part of me ashamed. 

A group of youngsters come careering passed. One knocks my arm and stops. Pleasant face screws up with worry. ‘So sorry missus. Don’t know what I was thinking, not to see you there. Hope I haven’t damaged anything?’

I open my mouth to deliver a blistering lecture, and close it again on a teeth-clenching smile. ‘Oh no dear, I am perfectly fine,’ and I turn to walk back the way I have come. Had I once been that age? All limbs and freckles and bursting forth with a vitality that alarms middle aged ladies so much? Seems unlikely. I always had an old and slightly jaded soul, just had to grow into it. I am well on the way. Perhaps being more elderly is going to be better than I imagine. I curl my lip in derision. May as well get that knitting out.

I am in an open aired plaza. I hear snatches of conversation. People glad the weather was holding, glad the storm of last week had blown over and delighted the local council was putting on a dance in two days, right here at the Plaza, wouldn’t you know? No, I didn’t know. Bother and damnation. My room overlooks the park attached to this Plaza. How annoying.

I find myself in a bookstore. A little light reading might pick my spirits up. I make my selection – there isn’t much to choose from – and return to the blistering street. I hasten back to my room, my sanctuary, and lean heavily against the door as it closes behind me. I frown down at my light and whimsical novel. It is full of romantic nonsense. Whoever would enjoy a chauvinist telling you what to do all the time? So controlling I could choke, but I have it now, so may as well get on with it.

Evening approaches. Marta Hermann’s novel on Lady Westerling’s Romantic Sojourn put me to sleep hours ago. I turn my head to look out of my window. Daylight has receded. Dinnertime approaches once more. There is a lovely little corner in my host’s dining lounge tucked obscurely away from nearly everyone’s view I can hide in for dinner. I eat a little more salad and a lot less fish. There is no red meat on the menu.

I feel eyes upon me. I glance surreptitiously across my garlic bread. Seated just within sight is a man. Well, nothing too portentous about that. I make no acknowledgement that he is looking in my direction. While I was the looker when younger, I can’t imagine turning heads now but there you go. Fair’s fair. The man may have forgotten his glasses. I finish my meal.

He has approached my table hiding behind a waitress. No warning. Pleasing deep voice says he can’t help but see I am alone and asks if I would care for a nightcap at the bar. Disturbing. I can’t imagine what encouraged him. I frown majestically and refuse politely. He smiles at me and suggests a holiday for one is never as much fun as having someone to share the tedium with. A kindred spirit in the most unlikely of places? I say I am too weary from my day. A second suggestion is forthcoming. What if we were to walk the beach together in the morning? I agree, if only to remove this obstacle from between me and my room.

I am in my room. My heart is beating a little too fast. This man has upset my calm. I cannot help feeling I have committed a grave error of judgement. Not to worry, there are a million ways of seeing off unwanted attention. I close my blinds and allow Lady Westerling’s ridiculous palpitations to put me to sleep.

It is Tuesday. I have a date to go walking on the beach. Good grief. What had I been thinking? I sit and ponder how to escape this demanding social event. I am not a social creature. (Sometimes I am, however, Master of the Understatement.)

A knock sounds on my door. Not here already! I have never dressed so fast. I answer the door in bright yellows and brilliant whites. Enough to paralyse the best intentions. It is a maid. Would I like my orange juice here or out on the terrace with my gentleman friend? I have forgotten his name already! It is supplied with amusement.

I’m not saying Amery and I are friends upon our return to the motel, but we have talked and know a little more of each other. I agree to meet him for dinner and retire to my room. I am in turmoil. I lie on my bed. This Amery is a wonder. Most disturbing. My eye wanders over Westerling… Perhaps I can fit in a chapter or two before dinner.

As usual, I have drifted to sleep. I glance at my watch. Good heavens, I’ll be late. I study my wardrobe. Somehow, it all seems a little out of place now. I choose the only evening-looking garment among the meagre contents of the cupboard. I eye my rather sombre appearance.

Amery has booked a table in a neighbouring restaurant. He takes my arm, to direct me to the right doorway I can only presume. My stomach flutters and I quickly put it down to hunger. I am faced with a beaming waiter – may he take my coat? It is much too grand to call this scrap of material a coat, but yes, he could take it if it makes him feel any better. Amery smiles at my tone. Amusing, am I? At least meat is on the menu. Amery quietly studies what they are offering. He does many things quietly I am discovering. Fascinating. Perhaps it’s his age. He’s probably said it all before.

Dinner is a strange affair. I find myself searching for interesting pieces of myself to place into his silent and warm companionship. I wonder if my doctors would be smiling in satisfaction.

I am glad when it is over, I tell myself. In reality, I think I have enjoyed someone else’s company more than my own for the first time in years. Disturbing. I am faced with the inevitable good night scene. Do I commit myself to further dates? I am in a quandary. Amery escorts me to my door. I know where to find him if I would like some more company, I am informed. I close the door. Having fulfilled my promise to talk to another human being on my holiday, I am now under no further obligation to continue doing so. I go to sleep on the thought that while no obligation exists, a desire might. Thoroughly disturbing.

I cannot believe the quickened pace this holiday is now setting. A veritable whirlwind, I fear. Tonight is that Council-approved concert. I see a note slipped under my door. My disloyal heart leaps. Amery? A notice, actually, for all those who wish to help in providing supervision for the concert. Oh my, now wouldn’t that be fun? I shudder.

A knock. That helpful maid again? This time I answer in my dressing gown, note in hand. Bright delighted smile. Am I supervising? Certainly not. Pleading gray eyes. I shall have to think, I say, putting those pleading eyes on the shelf for later.

My in-house phone rings. Amery. Have I received a note? Yes, but I am determined not to be a part of it. I am admonished. Surely I will not turn my back on a bunch of children? I fume. Coercion. Had he spoken to a certain pair of gray eyes? Chuckles flow down the line. It is possible – didn’t they work on me? Certainly not, but he does. I am a registered supervisor before breakfast is done. Dreadful, but my resistance is weak (perhaps I should change my reading material).

Today I refuse to see Amery out of conscientious objection. I plan to idle my time away watching the waves. I need time to think, away from this insidious feeling. I am most assuredly letting myself be swept away with events. Holidays always seem to work against our nature. 

I sit at a bench, Greek Salad in hand. A group of young, lithe bodies pass me. One stops. It is gray eyes, off duty and rearing to fling herself into the onrushing embrace of water. Will I be swimming today? Highly unlikely, though I do wear my outdated navy suit under my dress for reasons best described as the same recklessness that took me on my date last night. We are joined by the rest of the gaggle, swaying in slips of material that surely have no legal right to be called anything, let alone clothes. Have they perfected sincere, puppy dog eyes, this generation? I am overwhelmed with beseeching sets of them. I fear I must swim or dream of hurt, reproachful looks for days.

The water is cool and nibbles in a friendly fashion at my toes. The gaggle of youth dances off until waist deep. It’s a little disconcerting, this close inspection by seething masses of salty water.

Sunburn has turned me from fluorescent white to fluorescent red, and discomfort interrupts me. I have studied the patterns of water for hours. I face Amery and masses of screaming partygoers in relatively few hours. I leave gray eyes fluttering them at a hapless group of young lads. Ah, for the
grace, and innocence, of the young. Though come to think of it, that glance was definitely not innocent.

I pass through the lobby. Could they suggest Aloe Vera for my skin? They could indeed. I retire to my room to shower and apply layers of oil. I observe my reflection. A faint resemblance to a sautéed underfed lobster.

I wake later to flames marching down my back and across my shoulders. Dressing for this concert proves challenging, but luckily, hours later the concert is over. Relief. I am on fire. Sleep beckons and I crave my solitude.

I spend Thursday bemoaning my lobster-like state. Gray eyes is on afternoon shift and brings me drinks whenever Amery is lax. I believe I am not good company by the looks that pass between the two. Amery insists on staying by my side, however. Incorrigible.

Sleep is an uneasy and fitful friend. Friday looms near and threateningly similar. I take painkillers. I may still look poached, but at least I can’t feel it, so I take a walk with Amery. Amery takes hold of my hand like it is something precious. Am I completely unaware of his feelings? There is no response to a direct attack. This Amery has wiggled himself into my holiday and stolen my calm self-possession. The afternoon is spent in joyful discovery of a kindred spirit. I amaze myself.

It is Saturday. My week is almost over. A last day to sit and watch the ocean. A last day to indulge in endless chatter with my Amery. It is warm and my skin requires the shade. I am happy in his company. I am aware of the each of the hour. There are rare quiet moments today. It is as though we know every word matters. Amery’s silence is gone. All the words he thought he had said and done with now tumble out in a fever. I am not silent either.

 I shall always remember my Saturday. There is nothing said I wish to repeat. Our words are for us alone. I just know it has opened a world of possibility where once I saw inevitability. Only six days? Who could credit it? Sometimes it takes the smallest amount of time to work the greatest changes imaginable. I look over at the bed in my little room and see his peaceful face sleeping there. Somewhat cynically, I smile at my contentment, such a new phenomenon. Life has given me another chance and I go forward to grasp it with both hands. Sometimes a miracle comes
along.

The sea air stirs my curtains and I cannot help but breathe in and fill my lungs to bursting point. A warm voice laughingly tells me to leave off from my solitary contemplation and come to bed. I look again at the quarter moon and reach out to close the blinds. I hesitate. Crawling into bed, I glance over at the wide-open view and wink at the stars and the moon.

Tagged ,

The Beast, Amanda Midlam

Photo by Michael Held on Unsplash

The monster fire that ate Mallacoota on New Year’s Eve and spat out charred toothpicks is galloping towards us.

Just a few days into 2020, the mayor of Bega Valley Shire makes a heart-quaking announcement. My town of Eden will not be defended.

How can a town of 3100 people not be defended?

The answer is that Australian firefighters are stretched to the limit. Our fire season is now months longer than it used to be. It now overlaps with North America’s fires. There are not enough resources. A decision has been made. The towns of Bega and Merimbula will be defended from fire. Eden will not.

It is incomprehensible. Eden has a new $40 million wharf built to take colossal cruise ships. Literally thousands of people could be evacuated from the Eden wharf. But I do not have time to think it through. The second message from the mayor is terror-striking.

‘Your safest chance of survival is to leave Eden now.’

I have been preparing for bushfires since August. Drought has left the surrounding forests matchstick dry. Climate change is now creating Frankenstein fires. The rural fire service has told us to prepare, to have an evacuation plan and be ready to go. A leather overnight bag, which I bought in Bali in better days, is filled with documents and keepsakes and my passport and the dogs’ vaccination certificates. In the car already are a bag of kibble for the dogs and a change of clothing for me. To this, I add an air mattress and bedding, just in case I have to sleep in the car, then I panic off, forgetting to soak towels and place them under the doors.

Club Sapphire is the evacuation centre in Merimbula. The club is its usual, surreal, clubby self. Men wearing smart casual pants and women wearing make-up, socialising and playing poker machines. I find a desk with an evacuation sign and try to register but am told the club won’t take dogs and am directed to go to Bega.

Bega is another 30 km away. It lies inland and could easily be cut off from the coast. It is also under threat from two hell fires that are moving closer both to each other and to Bega. I am scared to go there but too scared not to. I am terror-shaken and trembling.

It is a slow drive on smoke-filled roads and it is getting dark when I arrive at the Bega evacuation centre. The first thing I notice is that it is right next door to the gas distribution centre.

If there’s an ember attack on those giant gas cylinders, the explosion will kill everyone.

The evac centre is nothing but the old showground, rebranded. It faces a nearby mountain that is caught in a conflagration but the smoke is so thick, it blacks out the flames. I can barely breathe in the miasmic smoke.

I am glad I had the foresight weeks ago to send away for a P2 face mask that has a filter. I clutch it like a lifeline. The dogs stay in the car while I register with the Red Cross in the vestibule of an old hall. The floor of the hall is awash with mattresses and bedding for the blank-eyed elderly people and families with dazed young children drifting around.

I am told there is no room for me and I should try to find a camping spot on the oval. I am also told to take a blanket so I rummage amongst a pile and select a woollen one.

Then I drive around the crammed oval looking for a spot for my car, careful not to hit any of the ghostly-looking people emerging through the gloom as I peer through the windscreen.

The showground is now a refugee centre and through the gates I can see a stream of more people coming. The lucky ones here have caravans. Most people have tents.

Who the hell decided an evacuation centre in a bushfire should be outside?

On my second drive around the showground, I find somewhere to park. I am next to a woman who has no other shelter apart from a swag she has been lent. We both cough in the turbid smoke that scorches our throat and lungs. She tells me food is available in the pavilion next to the hall.

Here I find volunteers cleaning up after the evening meal. One of them kindly makes me a salad sandwich. I don’t want to talk to anyone. Too much fear has inflamed my senses. I cannot cope with anything more. But a feral couple tell me they fled their home in the village of Verona as their house burst into flames. They evacuated to the town of Cobargo and saw fire destroying the main street. Next they evacuated to Bermagui, and then when fire threatened Bermagui, they headed to Bega.

I feel like telling them to fuck off. They are obviously bad luck. Then I wonder if this is a Lord of the Flies response.

‘It’s the government doing it,’ the man said, shaking his matted head. The woman agreed. ‘It’s a government plot to get all the hippies out of the hills.’

I don’t need their conspiracy theories. I have my own fear-fed, fiendish thoughts. This is a fight for survival. This is the end of days.

We are told that if all else burns, the Bega showground will be defended. I speak to a police officer who tells me bluntly that I made the right decision to come here. They are expecting hundreds of people in Eden to be dead by morning.

I am wretched with grief and incandescent with anger that we have known for a long time that we were sitting ducks and nothing was done to avert this. The state and federal governments both abandoned us.

Then it begins to rain. It splashes down on my hair, my face and my shoulders. It is not until I go to the toilet and see my speckled self in the mirror that I realise it is ash and soot. I hear hell-roaring thunder too. The nearest fire is so super-hot, it is creating its own weather. Thunder means lightning, which means brutal ignition and more country converted into crematoria for wildlife.

I check my phone. Many people are refusing to leave Eden. Neighbours and friends are staying to defend their homes. I am terrified for them.

The Beast is seething, ready to surge. A behemoth against an undefended populace.

My phone again. People are jammed in at the wharf area in Eden, in their cars, figuring if the worst happens they can at least jump into the sea. Some people are sheltering with their young children on one of the tugboats.

The Beast is the devil incarnate. Sleep happens on other planets. Not this one. I try to stay calm and rational, cowering in my car, incessantly checking my phone. Through the sunroof just above my head, I watch the sky as it changes from volcanic orange to incandescent red.

Phone again. My neighbours tell me police have knocked on their door to tell them to get out. But it feels too dangerous to leave Eden. The roads are full of smoke, visibility limited to a few metres. They head to the wharf.

I need to go to the toilet. There are 2000 people sheltering at Bega Showground. Sheltering is a euphemism. The hall can fit only a fraction of that number. The rest of us are outdoors desperate for shelter from the smoke. The women’s toilet at the hall is up some stairs. I don’t know how the elderly and disabled manage. Near my car is an ancient toilet block. I stumble towards it. Through the murk, I see people are walking their horses around the showground ring. I hear children crying. Everyone is coughing. A group of people are praying. This is the apocalypse.

I check my phone. The police have been to Eden with a bus to try to remove people to evacuation centres in other towns. Many refuse to go.

For me, that first evacuated night in Bega is the most terrifying. In the morning, I weep with relief when I learn that the Beast reached the edge of Eden – then the wind swung around and sent its fearsome flames elsewhere. Everyone I know in my community is still alive. No houses burned down.

But it is not over. I stay at the Bega Showground in my car for four nights.

I cry a lot. I cry constantly but I don’t know if I am weeping tears of fear for my life and grief for the loss of the environment, or if it is just my eyes watering from so much smoke. I also worry about the smoke I am breathing. What is in it? Trees, lost houses, crisped birds, charred kangaroos, chemicals from sheds, asbestos…

The experience changes me. What is valuable to me shrinks to a small list. My two dogs; the car that is our current home (and future too, if my house burns down); my keys; my P2 smoke mask; and my glasses.

Then I lose my glasses, leaving them in the shower stall, and when I go back they are gone. Without them, I can’t see to use my phone. I can’t text. I can’t access current information about the fires.

Fuck. I can’t cope with this if I can’t see.

I tie the dogs to the car door and turn the car upside down and find, falling apart with relief, an old spare pair of glasses.

The darkness does not lift. It seems perpetual. It lasts for 40 hours and intense disorientation sets in when daytime does not include daylight. Will we ever experience normal again? I develop a ritual to get me through.

Pat right pocket of pants, checking phone is still there. Pat left pocket of pants checking keys are still there. Fucked if I lose either. Utterly fucked. There are rumours, rumours, rumours everywhere. Conspiracy theories and religious proclamations about judgment day. Pat, pat, pat. Phone, keys, glasses. Pat fucketty pat.

What would it be like to die here? I think everyone is wondering if this is the end. Armageddon. Two mega fires are bearing down on Bega and further south the Beast continues to threaten Eden. There is nowhere safe to go. We are told the Bega showground is the safest place to be and will be defended if it comes under ember attack but I look around and I can’t see any buckets of water to put out embers.

My only shelter is a car out in the open with a full tank of petrol. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Eventually we are told we can return home. The danger is not over but it is no longer so cataclysmically life-threatening. My house is still standing but there has been a snowstorm inside and there’s residue on floors and countertops and in corners. It is not white but streaky grey with black smuts. It is ash that has home-invaded, sneaking in under doors and through ill-fitting windows.

The Beast seems immortal. It refuses to die. Helicopters fly over the flames with thimbles of water. It is too dangerous for firefighters to enter the forest due to falling trees. We are told they need to wait until the fire reaches a cleared area – a farm, or a town, or a village before the fire fighters can attack it.

I used to think that fires were sudden rapid events with names like Ash Wednesday or Black Saturday but our Beast has stamina. It gets status, something called a campaign fire. We are told that if we are lucky, it will burn for weeks. If we are unlucky, it will burn for months.

People in Eden are stupid with fear. I pay the newsagent for a newspaper and she stares at the money in her hand unable to count it.

‘Do you want a bag?’ asks the young girl in the crapadashery where I buy some crap.

‘No thanks,’ I say.

‘Do you want a bag?’ she replies.

We are all exhausted from being hypervigilant. Cognitive function is closed down. We are in fight or flight mode for months.

My car stays kitted out ready for evacuation. Twice more I evacuate but not to the hell hole of the Bega Showground. One time I pay to stay at a holiday apartment in an empty complex in Merimbula. The next time I go to a friend’s place, also in Merimbula. To thank her, I take her out to dinner and we sit on the deck of a restaurant until the rain of falling blackened leaves and ash forces us indoors.

And still the Beast is unsated. It prowls scarily in secrecy, invisible behind its smoke screen. No one sleeps as the Beast makes it ravenous raids, day and night. There is no clocking off when you might need to flee flames. Forty homes are lost on one infernal night in Kiah, just south of Eden. Many people I know are now homeless. Some are underinsured or not insured.

The army arrives to help and a navy ship arrives in Twofold Bay ready to take refugees. American firefighters arrive as their fire season ends and Australians from other towns turn up as fires, up and down the coast, are brought under control. Members of the community wear face masks and shuffle through the streets in fear and grief. The stories are terrible. Homes lost. Wildlife screaming as it burns. Forests incinerated.

When the cloche of smoke lifts after weeks, we see that the national park that borders the bay is blackened with plumes of smoke rising from the carnage. It is a war zone. And still the Beast keeps marauding. We are told to stay indoors, to avoid the smoke but the air has been smoky since late last year and we want to go out.

At last the Beast is brought under control but we are warned it is not over, there are hot spots and the wind could whip the fire up again. We are dead-tired. Then one day, finally, the mayor announces that the fire is out. The Beast is dead. That is in mid-March, the same time that another beast, invisible but just as deadly, sneaks into our lives. We are still in fire shock when we descend into another of Dante’s circles of hell. Covid-19 begins.

Tagged , ,