The trees are bare, killed by the salt I guess, but there are fresh weeds underneath them and the goats eat happily. I herd them through our sector, slowly in the early heat, and we are out of the dead wood in an hour. We walk round to the seaward side of our territory. The storm surge brought piles of fresh seaweed up the slope, before the sea retreated out of sight again. Long may it stay there.
A work party are repairing the damage to our seawall, piling the rubble back up to the proper height. The foreman tips his straw hat to me and I nod back. Manners are important in the Tribe. We look at the half-naked labourers, building our new fleet of fishing canoes, sweating to get the job done before it gets too hot. I stop to admire some of the women, their brown skin smooth over strong muscles. Some stand up and smile at me: word has got out. The foreman and I look at the wall and exchange glances: will it ever be high enough? He grimaces. I nod again and leave.
The herd moves on, chewing through the seaweed. Watching them is boring work, and in my position I don’t have to do it, but it gets me out of the compound. The goats reach a line of red-painted sticks, the edge of our sector. I turn them round, away from the remaining piles of seaweed, which goes on and on, but they are full and don’t protest. Crossing the highway, the herd passes through the lines of car wrecks, half buried in rivers of sand, and we walk down the gentle slope to the brook. The animals drink the water – fresh and sweet, as the tide is out. I keep watch for raiders.
I lead them back in through the rubble chicane, nodding at the guards. Inside, the herd passes through the reserve and into the old cemetery. Bushes have grown up among the tombstones and the goats can shelter from the midday sun. Leaving them to it, I head over to the compound and flop down in the shade next to the Doc.
She and I watch the Tribe’s Ocker Man telling the kids a story; part of his sacred duty to preserve Aussie culture. He wears the blue singlet and thongs with pride. Barry likes a bit of fresh air around his parts but has been told to wear shorts. This is just as well, because he prances around the seated children while he tells the story with gusto.
“Well, kids, the sea suddenly rises up by a metre – only one metre mind, but it happens in just one year –”
This is an exaggeration, it took two.
“– and this was bad for us, because the airport flooded, and the river washed half the city away! But it was worse for other people. Over in Banga-desh the great River Ganges washed their whole country away!”
The kids giggle, they love this story. My two are there, laughing along as though nothing has happened. Thank God they’re too young to really understand.
“So, all of a sudden one hundred million Banga-deshis need a new place to live, because theirs has been flushed into the sea. Well, only one million make it to Oz in boats, and we let ‘em in, because – well there’s too many of ’em to stop.
And, boy, were those Banga-deshis mad. I mean angry mad! They were angry that all our waste and po-loo-shun had made the seas rise and the floods wash their houses and their fields away. But fortunately, they didn’t blame us, oh no, they blamed the Dee-ny-ers!”
The kids booed and hissed. Deniers: servants of Satan the accuser, and Shiva the destroyer.
“So, we and the Bang-deshis got together and stormed the big houses and the fancy corp-oh-rate headquarters where the Deniers lived, and we tied them to lamp posts, and–”
“Yeah!” shout the kids. Their parents told them how they were part of that – everyone in the Tribe does, if they know what’s good for them.
“–and Sheila, the Ozzie hero, and Mohammed, the Banga-deshi hero, they give the Dee-ny-ers what they deserve…”
The Doc stands up and motions for me to follow her, as she’s heard this story enough times. So have I. We leave, trusting that our Ocker won’t overdo the gory details of killing, cooking and eating. If he told the truth, that most of the Deniers disappeared or killed themselves, then the kids wouldn’t have half as much fun. As we walk away, we can hear the kids start to chant: Burn the Deniers! Burn the Deniers!
We go over to the Doc’s place and sit in her backyard under the sail.
“I still can’t believe how it all happened so quick.”
“Tipping points, my boy, tipping points. Once the permafrost started releasing methane, the rate of warming –”
“Nah, no Doc, I meant how we became so, well, savage. We used to be good people, didn’t we?”
“Butchering the Deniers opened the floodgates, I think. Once we started behaving like that we couldn’t stop.”
“So why did the government encourage it?”
“They knew what was coming – they thought blaming the Deniers would buy them some time. They didn’t reckon on having half-a-million people flooded out just in this city: how could they?”
The Doc lights her pipe, her most treasured possession as it had once belonged to her wife. “Anyway,” she says through the smoke, “looking forward: have you thought about a new wife yet?”
“No. Not yet.”
“Sorry.” She looks at her pipe. “Adam, you know you weren’t–”
“Is that all you wanted to talk about?”
“Not all, no.” She puts the pipe back in her mouth. After a few moments of silence, the Doc fetches two stubbies from her secret stash and hands me one.
“The Chief wants to see you.”
I drink a swig and grimace, even though it’s rude to (how I miss cold beer). “Is that all?” I say cautiously.
“I’ll let her tell you what it’s about.”
She’s not going to let go of this, is she? “Well there’s heaps of fit, young women to choose from.”
“Damn straight!” says the Doc, taking the pipe out of her mouth and licking her lips. “Darwinian selection, I suppose.” The Doc had come over to teach evolution at the Catholic University; now she can never go back.
“Guess so,” I agree. There are plenty of women in the Tribe who want to screw the Chief’s brother, as they think it will boost them up the pecking order.
“Are you listening to me?”
“What’s up, Doc?’
“Funny.” She scowls at me. “The Tribe has a big problem and you,” she points at me with her pipe, “are part of the answer.”
I don’t like the sound of that, and I don’t even know what she’s talking about, but whatever it is I don’t have a choice. There’s nowhere else to go. I drink the rest of the beer in silence.
“You’d better get over there before the rains come.”
“Thanks,” I said for the beer, not the advice. I leave the Doc’s place and, sure enough, the clouds are building inland. They’re getting darker, and their white heads bloom upwards. As I stand and watch they grow up and begin to spread out into that distinctive anvil shape, so feared by us sailors. I shiver in the heat and look down. You can’t see the skyscrapers in the CBD from here anymore, there’s too much moisture in the air. We hear a great rumble every so often and wonder whether another one has fallen, but it could just be thunder, we tell ourselves. The downpour will start soon, but I have time to dawdle as I walk past the old sports fields where workers sweat among the rows of crops. Permaculture – such a comforting word.
Most of the Tribe live on the old campus, in the fenced compound, which is easier to defend. I hate the bloody place. We grew up in the biggest, safest, least populated country in the world and now we live in a yellow-brick rabbit hutch, squashed in with our gossiping neighbours.
The Chief lives on the top floor of the tower, in the middle of the main building. I climb up the stairs, past the sentries, who just nod at me: I’m expected. I get to the top and knock on the heavy wooden door, which is opened by Fatima, one of the Firebirds, my sister’s personal bodyguards. She bows, and I nod, but then she smiles and looks at me strangely. What’s going on–
I turn to her and bow. “My Chief, hail!” I don’t mind the BS formality. I don’t really know what happened to her, but Sandra – daughter, sister, sports fanatic, karate champion – is long gone. When I look up, I see only the Tribe’s leader: easier that way. “You wanted to see me, Chief.”
The top floor is roofed but there is no glass between the columns; the Doc says it’s ‘Romanesque’. A cooling breeze blows through. Inside it’s minimalist, a hammock, a rug with cushions, a hatstand holding weapons and a telescope. A netball and hoop. My sister had been the State’s U19 Team coach, and they had been training here in the holidays when the Year of Rain started. Cut off from their families, she had held them together and they became the core of a new community, binding together university staff and locals alike.
I do so and am surprised when Fatima sits next to me. Well, at least she isn’t standing behind me with a knife in her hand.
“You’ve finished mourning for Marlene.” The Chief doesn’t do small talk.
“Ah, yes, Chief.” Has it really been a year?
“It is your duty to have a new wife.”
“Yes. Thank you, Chief.” I hope this is the right thing to say.
“Good. I have decided to give you Fatima.”
For a moment I am lost for words. I look at Fatima who smiles coyly at me, an odd look on a fanatical killer, but what the hell. I look at back at the Chief, who is waiting for my reply.
“Thank you Chief, you honour me.” Stick to the formula. Then I remember Fatima, “I am a lucky man,” I say, smiling and taking her hand. You must kill and eat a denier to become a Firebird: best we start on good terms.
“You may go to the love shack for three days.”
I look at my new bride, who smiles and blushes. Well, there’ll be plenty of time for sleeping when I’m dead, as the saying goes. “Thanks, Chief,” I say, smiling, meaning it this time. Then I think of Marlene and feel guilty.
“But before you go, I have a mission for you both.”
Oh, here we go…
Fatima nods and smiles. She knew this was coming. I shiver: is she my bribe for what’s to come, or am I hers?
“I have decided that we must leave our island. Every month the storm surges get higher and more violent, and we must repair our seawall more and more often. When the cyclone season starts it will only get worse – last year’s was bad enough and we may not survive another. But long before we are overwhelmed, our fields will be poisoned by the salt. We will starve if we stay here.”
“Thank you for this sacred mission, my Chief,” says Fatima, beaming.
“Yes, Chief.” I nod vigorously. I have a moment of clarity: ‘all men die but you will know how and why’. Was that line from Gladiator?
“Let me explain, Adam,” says Sandra, which chills me more than anything else so far. “You will leave the Tribe and head inland, looking for a new place for us to live. The Doc says the northern coast will be devastated by cyclones now that the barrier reef is gone, and it’s too hot up there anyway. So, you must go south and cross the River. We’ve made a boat for you, just an outrigger canoe, but the Polynesians colonized the Pacific using them. All you have to do is get down the coast and head inland to safe ground. The Doc recommends the highlands to the north of the Hunter Valley.”
The Hunter used to be a nine-to-ten-hour drive from Brisbane: 800km? “That’s a long way,” I blurt out.
The Chief looks at me. Fatima looks worried.
“I mean, how long do we have to complete our mission, Chief?”
“Be back here by the third full moon.”
“And am I – are we looking for an unpopulated area?” This seems unlikely.
“No, any suitable territory will probably be occupied. Fatima will conduct the reconnaissance and we will prepare based on what she sees.”
“Do Deniers live there, Chief?” My new bride smiles and licks her lips.
I see the journey ahead with sudden, terrible clarity. I sail us down the coast, skilfully avoiding the storms, and Fatima goes ashore every night to kill for food. It will take a few weeks to get down there. We hide the canoe and trek inland. Fatima checks out the surviving communities and finds out what our Chief needs to know. Then she returns with the rest of the Firebirds. Surprise attacks at night. The villagers won’t know what hit them, and they’ll never see another dawn. After each frenzy of killing the Tribe will feast, and the Hunter will be ours.
I know that the Deniers are long gone, and so does my sister, we’ve talked about it often enough – in private.
“Fatima, we do not want to fight, but we will if we must, and we will win, but we’ll only fight when we need to. We can farm our goats on salty land where no other livestock can survive, and we will trade with our new neighbours and grow in numbers. Every Firebird will become a Chief or marry one.” Sandra nods at me. “We will rebuild our Tribes, our Nations. It will be as if the colonists never came, with their industry and their carbon economy, and all the suffering it caused. We will belong to the land again, instead of grieving it.”
I see so many casualties, of which truth is only one. This is worse than war, it is survival.
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