- Published: 28 April 2020
- ISBN: 9781926428666
- Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 288
- RRP: $29.99
Some nights, when the wind is up and the power flickers and fails, she tells the child stories, as if this thread of words might be enough to bind them together, to bear them through all that is to come, like a boat, or a leviathan.
She knows she is not alone in despairing for what the future holds, in wanting to find ways to hold it back for as long as possible. But no matter how hard she tries she cannot keep it at bay forever. For a time is coming – soon, sooner than she wants it to be, sooner than either of them will be ready – when the child will have to venture forth into the world we have made and find a way to survive. The onrush of that time, the feeling that their years together are already falling away, shadows her life, a drumbeat of loss behind the moments of joy, a reminder every instant is precious. But when they are here, isolated by the power or the wind, it is not time’s flight that frightens her; instead it is the knowledge that the child is alone, and that one day soon she will understand that. And so she does what mothers have done since the beginning of time, since before we were human: she draws filaments from the darkness and weaves them together to create meaning, purpose, shape, arranging the elements to reveal the world, or perhaps to make a new one.
Before the child, if you had suggested this might be something she could do she would have laughed, told you she was not a storyteller. But in the years since the child arrived in her life she has found the habits of breath and suspense that make a story live were already there, waiting within her, just as the eagerness for it is in the child, her capacity for rapt attention.
How far back does this strand of connection go, she sometimes wonders. Did we require language to discover story, or did language evolve to sustain story? Are we the only animals that tell stories? Do the birds? The fish? The elephants? The whales and dolphins? And if they do, what shape do those stories take? For surely story is as much a way of being in the world as a way of describing it? A means of comprehending the way all that surrounds us hums through us as we live?
It is not a thought she lingers on, for to consider it is to invite a different kind of grief, an awareness of what is being lost, extinguished as the animals disappear, one by one, the irreplaceable wonder of their knowledge of the world wiped away with them.
And so instead, she sits in the dark and rocks the child and tells her stories. Tales about forests, and snow, half-remembered myths about wolves and bears, fables about talking birds and singing stones, each containing some glimpse of a world they have forgotten how to see. In the daylight she sometimes wonders how much of the power of these stories grows out of her desire for something solid, something to connect their unanchored world to the past. But at night, as she tells them, she can feel their power moving through her, and knows it is more than that, that they come from some deep place, somewhere before memory, before time.
Sometimes, though, when the child is on the edge of sleep, she tells her one particular story, a story unlike the others, a story about a people long ago, a people who were not quite us. For as long as they could remember this people had lived on the plains in Africa, moving in bands through its vast spaces, hunting and singing. Their world was a place where animals ruled, its grasslands and forests thronged by elephants and rhinoceroses so huge the earth told of their approach long before they arrived, its wetlands and rivers stalked by crocodiles, its skies filled by flocks of birds so immense they blotted out the sun. The people dreamed of the animals, dreamed themselves, weaving stories to teach those who came after them how to honour the animals, how to honour the land.
Millennia passed, and the people were happy, until one day, some of them grew restless and decided to head north, through the mountains and across the desert, into the green lands beyond.
These were new places, peopled by new creatures – bears as tall as trees, fish as long as men that lay dreaming in the rivers, vast herds of wild horses and deer – but in time the people learned their songs and as the generations slipped by they began to dream of them.
And then one day the snow began to creep south, carpeting the land, and bringing the ice with it. This new world was harder than the old, but the people learned to survive, secreting themselves in the caves and dark places to wait out winters that lasted nine months, learning to hunt the animals that came south with the snow, the mammoths and the elk and the deer, crafting clothes from their furs and treasures from their bones. And through it all they stayed true to the land, its voices, its presence.
But though they could not see it, the cold was changing them, and as the millennia slipped by they became heavier, stronger, adapting to their world just as the animals had. And when they sang the land, they knew they were part of it, that it sang them as well. And when they dreamed the world, they knew that it dreamed them as well. Until at last they were no longer the same people, but a people who lived by firelight, a people of snow and ice.
It is a story she tells only on the edge of sleep because she does not want the child to ask her how it ends. For if she did she would have to speak of the others, the people they had left behind in Africa, of the way they grew more numerous, more intelligent, their fingers shaping the world, crafting tools and weapons, until one day they too began to move north, through the deserts and across the mountains. In the countless millennia since the people left, the newcomers had forgotten they ever existed, so when they finally reached those distant lands they were startled to find others already there, a people like them but also different; larger, stronger, wilder, their skin pale, their hair orange and brown.
What did these newcomers make of their ancient relatives when they first encountered them, she wonders. Did they see them as brothers and sisters? Or did they see in them the face of something different, something lesser, monstrous even? It is said that when the Europeans first arrived on Australian shores the Aborigines thought them ghosts; did these newcomers think the same, glimpse in their pale skin the shiver of death, an intimation of the fate that awaited them? Or did they seem misshapen and bestial? All those stories of ogres and giants and trolls, their origins buried in the deep past – do they come from them? Whichever it was, the newcomers drove them back, until finally the people who had come first were almost gone, forced back to the sea on the furthermost peninsula. And though it might have seemed that this was their end, it was not, or not quite, because they were not gone. Because there is her.
Later, Kate will wonder whether any of it would have happened if they had been somewhere less isolated, whether normality might have put a brake on their actions if they had been closer to other people. For though in those years that very notion – normality – had already begun to bend, giving way as the planet itself began to buckle and shift, there is no doubt that up there, cut off from the rest of the world, it sometimes seemed that anything was possible and nothing was forbidden. When she comes to look back she will realise that this was not an accident, that even though Davis’s other schemes had come to naught, this at least he had understood, planned for even, and the realisation that he had manipulated them will make her feel ill.
Today, though, she thinks none of this. Instead, as the helicopter shoots over the forest, its sleek shape slicing through the coiling breath of the mist that rises from the treetops, she is absorbed by the landscape beneath, its silent presence. For years now there has been drought here, but as the canopy moves past below there is little sign of it. Instead the forest that carpets the hills and the enfolded flanks of the mountains with their outcrops of grey, volcanic stone looks impenetrable, primeval. Only the scurf of smoke on the horizon betrays the truth, the degree to which this landscape is already convulsing.
In the seat beside her Jay sits, unspeaking, his dark eyes focused on the view below. His silence is perhaps a sign he is anxious about what lies ahead. When the invitation arrived Kate had recoiled from its gnomic wording, the assumption they would drop everything to head south to meet with an unidentified benefactor who was interested in discussing a mysterious project they thought the two of them would find ‘intriguing’. ‘American,’ she had snorted contemptuously when she first saw the email. ‘Or Chinese.’
But Jay had grinned. ‘We should go. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? We get a few days to ourselves in Hobart? I could do with the time away; we both could.’
Aware he was making an effort, she had forced herself to smile and agree. And so, a week later, they are here, in a helicopter somewhere over the Tasmanian bush, heading for a rendezvous at an unknown location with a potential employer whose name they did not know.
Jay twists in his seat, his attention caught by something below. She follows his gaze. At first her eyes cannot makes sense of what she is seeing: the cubic buildings scattered on the hillside are rendered almost invisible by the way their smoke-grey glass exteriors reflect the surrounding landscape, dissolving the perfection of their geometry into a mirrored infinity of grass, stone and sky.
In front of her in the cockpit the assistant – Madison, she reminds herself – swivels in her seat and looks back, her face hidden behind her oversized sunglasses, the inscrutable armour of her pale makeup and carefully painted lips. In the two hours since she met them at the airport she has offered no hint of where they are going or, indeed, any personal information at all.
‘We have to walk the last bit,’ she says, lifting her voice over the roar of the rotors and engine. ‘Helicopters aren’t permitted to approach the facility.’
Jay leans forward. ‘Facility? What is this place? Are those buildings labs?’
Madison smiles and stares over their shoulders. Kate realises she is looking at some kind of display in her sunglasses.
‘You’ll be given a full briefing once we’re on-site.’
The helicopter swings around, passing over a low hill towards an open space on its far side. Jay leans back into his seat. ‘Who the hell are we meeting?’ he says, his voice pitched low enough to ensure only Kate can hear him over the engine. Kate just shakes her head and looks out the window again.
The grass flows outward in waves beneath them as they descend, exposing the bleached textures of its roots, the darker hues of earth and stone. At the last moment the helicopter seems to hesitate, the pitch of the engine rising, then there is a jolt as the rear wheels make contact with the ground, followed by the gentler bump of the front. A moment later the engine spins down, the space left by the absence of its sound immense.
With a practised motion the pilot opens the door and climbs out. Reaching up she takes their bags, one by one, then helps each of them down. As Kate climbs out she catches a glimpse of herself reflected in the plexiglass canopy. At Jay’s insistence she dressed well, taking more care than she has in months, the black shirt and dark jeans she has chosen emphasising her lean figure. Yet when she looks at her face, its thinness beneath her pulled-back blonde hair emphasised by her scrubbed skin and hollow cheekbones, all she sees are her eyes, lost, numb, emptied out.
Picking up her bag she stares up the hillside while she waits for Jay to arrange himself, dully grateful she packed lightly and is not required to drag a suitcase over the ground.
Once Jay has his bags Madison heads off up the slope, moving remarkably sure-footedly given she is wearing heels, Jay beside her. Kate watches them ascend for a second or two and then follows, a few metres behind.
The hill is high enough to block the view of the facility – or, Kate realises, to block the facility’s view of the landing area – so it is only as she reaches the top that she has a chance to observe it properly. Seen from ground level it is, if anything, even more beautiful than it was from the air: its interconnected cubes seem to float above the hillside opposite, as weightless and inscrutable as some kind of alien artefact.
Jay stops to let Kate catch up with him. ‘Who do you think designed this place?’ he asks. Kate glances at him – he is easily seduced by wealth – but before she can answer, a strange cry echoes across the hillside, a strangled howl like nothing she has heard before. She stares around.
‘What was that?’ she asks.
Jay shrugs. ‘A bird? Some kind of possum?’
Kate stares at him. Jay is a creature of the city, his interactions with wild animals and the bush confined to the occasional documentary, yet even so she cannot believe he is not at least slightly unsettled by the sound. Ahead of them Madison is already halfway down the hill. Adjusting her bag on her shoulder Kate stares across the open space towards the building one more time, the cloud-filled surfaces of its mirrored walls depthless, unbounded. Then she adjusts her bag on her shoulder and heads down after Madison, Jay beside her.
Madison stops by the base of the nearest cube. Where its cantilevered shape meets the hillside a door is cut into its side, the outline almost invisible; beside it a small panel is set into the surface at chest height. Madison waves a hand in front of the panel, and the door slides open. Stepping aside, she motions to Kate and Jay to enter. Inside is an entrance area, its double-height space subtly illuminated to emphasise its simplicity, the way its stark lines are rendered calming, even comfortable, by the perfection of its dimensions. One of Kate’s colleagues once joked that you always know you’re in the presence of real money – corporate money – when there is no sign of advertising, an observation that comes back to Kate as they are led through the space and up a staircase into an open area above.
Unlike the quiet atmosphere of the entrance area, this second space has the hushed power of a stone circle or temple. Unfurnished save for a long table in its centre and a pair of chairs to one side, its angles direct the eye to narrow floor-to-ceiling windows set into the walls, each of which frames a different slice of the landscape. Kate comes to a halt.
Off to one side, somebody moves. Kate turns to see a male figure standing by one of the windows. As if Kate’s attention were some kind of signal he steps into the light, his pale eyes focused on her and Jay.
Kate hesitates, aware he is familiar but unable to place him. He is young – no more than thirty, or perhaps thirty-five – with tousled blond hair and the narrow frame and large-eyed, slightly ungainly features of a 1960s pop star, although under the rumpled Nirvana T-shirt he wears his body looks well maintained. He stops in front of them, and as he does Kate realises who he is. Davis Hucken. Tech billionaire. Founder of Gather, the social network whose user base now surpasses those of Instagram and Twitter combined.
Next to her, Jay has fallen still.
‘You came,’ Davis says, opening and closing his hands as he speaks. ‘I was worried you might change your minds.’
His voice is oddly pitched, almost adolescent, its carefully neutral Californian tones not quite disguising the edge of something harder beneath. Still startled, Kate realises she remembers reading about him buying large areas of land here in Tasmania, supposedly because of its relative isolation and potential resilience in an unstable world.
‘This place belongs to you?’ she asks.
Davis blinks. ‘Technically it belongs to the Hucken Foundation, but yes, I suppose so.’
Kate keeps her face blank. ‘What is it? Some kind of retreat?’
Davis smiles again, his expression unreadable. There is, she sees now, something odd about his affect, an awkwardness, as if his reactions are not natural but somehow acquired.
‘What do you know about the Foundation?’
Kate and Jay exchange a glance.
Jay steps forward. ‘A little. It’s an offshoot of Gather, a kind of charitable or benevolent arm of the main organisation. You’ve been funding the creation of seed banks and genetic repositories, and giving money to a whole range of environmental programs, a lot of them in developing countries. I’m pretty sure I read about something to do with river dolphins in the Amazon just recently? And the coral restoration program in East Africa? Also I know you were involved in the work Narayan and her team have done tweaking plankton DNA up in Alaska.’
‘That’s correct. The Narayan project in particular has been a huge success. And we have twelve of the repositories now, all fully self-sufficient and capable of surviving ten thousand years without maintenance. We’re also working on repositories for cultural materials: artefacts, literature, music, technology. Again, all designed to last a hundred centuries.’
Kate doesn’t speak. This kind of talk has always made her uncomfortable; the very qualities people like Davis find so intoxicating seeming arrogant and preening to her.
‘But there’s another strand to our work. One that’s less public.’ Davis glances at Madison. ‘Have they signed the non-disclosure agreements?’
Madison checks her screen and tells him they have. Davis nods. Turning away from them, he moves back towards the window and stares out. Looking at his slim figure silhouetted in the light Kate is struck by the disconcerting sense that they are watching a rehearsed performance, as if he is acting out a private TED video. Or is it just that he has so internalised this mode of performance it has become second nature?
‘When we set up the Foundation we thought we were in the business of saving things, of doing what we could to stop what we have disappearing. That’s why we built the repositories. The seeds and biological material stored in them mean we have a safeguard that will allow the planet – and us – to survive an extinction-level event.’
‘Like an asteroid?’ Jay asks.
Davis turns back to them. His eyes are a colourless blue; combined with his sandy hair and pale lashes they make him seem almost transparent.
‘Did you see the news this morning?’
Jay and Kate look at one another.
‘The last white rhino. Gone.’
Kate nods. ‘I saw. But what does that have to do with this facility?’
‘Let me tell you a story. A hundred thousand years ago there was megafauna all over the world. Woolly rhinoceroses and mammoth and elk in Europe and Asia, giant sloths and sabre-toothed tigers and monster armadillos in the Americas, huge marsupials and massive reptiles here in Australia. But then, about eighty or ninety thousand years ago, they began to disappear. If you plot those disappearances on a map it looks like a wave, washing across the world, following the migration of our ancestors across the planet’s surface. Some places lasted longer: in America the megafauna survived until twelve thousand years ago, in New Zealand the moas and the giant eagles lasted until about six hundred years ago. In the southern oceans the whales and the seals survived until the beginning of the nineteenth century. But wherever you look, these collapses coincided with the arrival of Homo sapiens.’
Ethan Salt tip-toed to the very edge of the tenement rooftop, rolling his special poster into a perfect telescope.
The boy gasped for breath, hair in his mouth, before the next wave slammed him back against the bottom. He tumbled, the fizz of bubbles around him.
As Marie prepared to break into her father’s bedroom, she felt a little pool of guilt well up inside her for betraying him.
It would be easy not to notice him. Just a small thing. Dappled with dried bracken and dirt.