The Big Issue : Edition 466
THE BIG ISSUE 29 AUG – 11 SEP 2014 49 “She can hear the animals breathing, shuffling in their stalls, their hot flanks move against her as she stumbles to the far wall.” grew rocket and kale as my mother and I had done. Spring onions, a few herbs. There was no news of other countries and how they had weathered the Collapse; they could all be drowned and dying for all we knew. We didn’t even get much news from the coastal fringe of Australia. We knew there had been a tsunami in far north Queensland, floods in South Australia, rising sea levels wiping out the coastal cities. We only got to hear what the Abbott Island government wanted us to know. For all we knew, we could be the only ones left in an empty continent. We were living like an isolated tribe – Neanderthals with the latest technology. Abbott Island was easily defensible, an outcrop of order in a sea of chaos. In exchange for our relative comfort and our e-coupons, we gave up any freedom we’d pretended to have. It’s my birthday; there’s a rumour that they kill you on your birthday. But I know better. I know there comes a point where you’re no longer good to them. And it’s not about getting past childbearing age, that’s when they throw you out of the gates of Abbott Island. We all know that, we’ve all been there. We’re here now, and here is where they send you: to a dusty camp in the middle of the bush, to grow food and raise sheep and cattle for the city’s growing stomachs. We’re a tribe of women here. There are no men; even the guards who make sure we don’t escape, who make sure we do our work, are mostly women. I suspect they’re former inmates who had the courage or the cruelty to rise up the ranks. There are only three men; they’re in charge. Their uniforms are crisp, military, they leave here at night in their electric jeeps and go back to Abbott Island. The women wear different uniforms, as brown and nondescript as ours, but better cut. They carry stockwhips, ostensibly for the animals, but more often used on us. When you’re no longer good to them, when your hands are too arthritic, or if you have to take daily medication, or if you’re too skinny or too weak, they send you out further again. They take your uniform and you’re pushed out into the bush, to wander about for a few days, getting hungrier and thirstier, until your naked skin is burnt black – and then you perish. It usually happens at night, so that other inmates can’t see and get scared. Then there would be too many suicides. The next morning they tell us the woman died in her sleep, and that they’ve already buried the body under the trees. Most people believe it. But I don’t sleep much these days, dwelling on my mother, and thinking about the islands of both my childhood and adult life. I saw them one night. I saw how they stripped off the woman’s clothes swiftly, efficiently, how she stood there, all gooseflesh, and whimpered like a baby. Standing at the doorway of the hut, in the shadows, I felt a chill of recognition. It looked like my mother out there, shivering in the pale moonlight. I’m sure it was. SEA SUGAR LIES STILL in her bed, pretending to be asleep. Her birthday passed uneventfully; nobody remarked on it. Outside the hut, she can hear a few guards drinking the moonshine they manage to brew here: a foul, bitter beer made of barley and potato-peels. Their voices carry so far in the dry winter night, they sound as if they’re right at her window. She thinks of the children she once had, children that made no real mark on her due to their incessant needs and sheer numbers. At one stage, she was getting pregnant every year. Her body full then sagging, sagging then full, cycle after cycle. What of these children now? The girls are mothers themselves, the boys mere sperm-banks, nothing more. They’re in the city now, sleeping, cocooned, inviolate. She rises silently, already dressed. Once out of bed, she feels vulnerable, but she chose a night in which the moon is a mere sliver. She doesn’t even have a shadow. As she creeps behind the hut, she thinks of her mother buried in soil, or now under sea. A flash of rage – and the sharp image of the big man straddling her hips, her blank face beneath him. No, Sugar won’t let it happen again. If she dies tonight, at a guard’s hands or by mere exposure, at least it’s on her own terms. She feels a renewed strength, and now it’s easy to evade the few who are awake, to slip into the sheds where the animals are kept. It’s warm and dark here; so dark she can’t see her hand in front of her face. She can hear the animals breathing, shuffling in their stalls, their hot flanks move against her as she stumbles to the far wall. For months now, she’s been making a small opening there each time she’s assigned to get up at dawn and milk the cows. The floor is dirt so it’s been easy to dig with anything: a bent spoon, her bare hands. The opening leads straight out into the bush, among a clump of wattles and pink wax flowers, no open ground. She flops facedown, wriggles her head through. Clear. Then, a mouthful of dirt – she spits it out – and into the night. The gums are silvered, and soft native flowers smell of Old Ben’s honey. She will walk to Scotland Island, to see whether it, too, has vanished under water. And if it has, she’ll be content just to gaze at the sea, feel its salt tang in her nostrils instead of this dust; see her mother’s face. KATERINA COSGROVE HAS CO-OWNED BOOKSHOP CAFES AND TAUGHT AT UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY SYDNEY. SHE’S THE AUTHOR OF TWO NOVELS, THE GLASS HEART AND BONE ASH SKY (WHICH WAS SHORTLISTED FOR THE WRITING AUSTRALIA UNPUBLISHED MANUSCRIPT AWARD). HER NOVELLA, INTIMATE DISTANCE, WAS ONE OF THE WINNERS OF THE GRIFFITH REVIEW/CAL PRIZE IN 2012. VISIT HER AT KATERINACOSGROVE.COM.