He was still astonished when he looked at the sky. He could remember the days of blue, when the horizon sat above the ocean and defined the limits between sea and sky. The sun set after school as he marvelled by the bay. At the local library, he pawed over picture books that showed the earth’s beginning. Once upon a time, trees grew wild and untamed across the lands, vines tangling over branches and animals reigning free. He tried to imagine forests in place of the concrete jungle.
His parents hoped he had a future on the water. His mother wrapped the rigging of the sails, chasing the oranges and purples of the hazy dusk as he sat between them, reaching out towards the glowing golden ball disappearing in the distance. There was an uncertainty he felt in the light of the moon, but the day would begin again and the sunlight cleansed his worries. He found comfort in the shade of the trees. He was little, not much older than ten, on the day when the sun sank beneath the ocean and never returned.
He thinks his parents would be proud. He lives on the water, a little shack by the ocean where he fishes under the cover of darkness. Except now there is always the cover of darkness. Nightfall covered the sunlight, closing over plants as they shrivelled and died, a chill setting over the human race. He remembers when his parents would take away his screens in favour of outdoor play, when Vitamin D poured from the sky and branches blew in the afternoon breeze. Now he stands under lights hanging in his bathroom, basking in an artificial glow and counting the seconds, storing them up like cents until he gets to 900. He feels his age in the grinding of his bones as he stretches, reaching towards sustenance.
He walks along the shoreline when the clocks tell him. Once his legs walked with purpose, combing through his usual trails with hope itching at his fingertips. Now his feet wander aimlessly, fruitless, night after night, his hands dull and numb. He shuffles through the greying sand, textured by fallen ash and glinting like stars in the light of the moon. Sometimes he can imagine the horizon, when yachts would scatter the bay and the waves sprayed, an intoxicating rush that stole his breath and had his legs itching to spring from their seat. Now the waves maintain a steady beat, rocking back and forth like a mother soothing her child, placating the earth and carving a polished surface on the shore – froth bubbling at the edge. Once the trees felt possible again. Now nature feels increasingly like a fabled past instead of a promise of the future.
He hovers a mental stick over his feet and listens for a beep. Usually he is accompanied by the rhythm of his footsteps, the gentle hush of the tide and the soft hum of the machine. Every so often the beep rings through and disrupts the beat, but enough false alarms have become a rhythm of their own. He finds the silence a kind of cold comfort; the chill of defeat is settling over him and he’s beginning to see the merits in a pointless existence.
When the unfamiliar sound trills in his ears, something in him begins to thaw. He kneels, remembering the mumbling at Sunday Mass but not the words. Sending phrases of faith to the sky feels harmless, but he remembers the silence echoing after his prayers as he asked for his parents return. He holds trepidation again like a candle at the altar, flickering but bright in the blackness. He cannot remember hope, but something settles over him, anchoring him to this moment. Blood thrums in his ears as his hands to sift through the ground.
Fingers peel back the layers of everything before, brushing fishing nets, torn textiles, plastic bottles, faulty and forgotten phones. He can remember when queues would stretch around buildings in the name of brands, fingers itching for another new box wrapped in plastic, another technological tool encasing processors that grew faster and better, shiny and new and old again. Fish sat on shelves in stores instead of oceans, eyes bulging against the glad wrap while the seas cried out.
The noise wasn’t heard over keyboard warriors, who rushed to righteousness in the comment section but stayed mute to politicians smiling – placating the state with the ban on plastic straws from the armchairs of their private planes. Meanwhile the gaps in society kept widening. In the absence of houses bodies lay piled on the streets, stuffed in sleeping bags as strangers stepped over them on their way to work. But the medicine was getting better, the trains were getting faster and they still had choice. Yet as the years went on, the gears of capitalist ideology would grate against these freedoms like teeth grinding in the night. Every day the earth tried to use its voice but the speech was gone. Everything was the best it had been, and then it wasn’t. Now his hands caress these relics in the rubble of a faded world, the memory flickers like ripples in the dark.
The ground shifts between his fingers, pulling at the space he creates with his palms. The machine at his side jerks out another beep and then fizzles out into silence. He lifts his prize to the surface, a treasure of old. The roots are new and need fostering, but a seedling has hatched beneath the surface. He hunches over the small plant, a speck of green in the otherwise grey and black tones bleaching the beach. His tears fall to the soil as he cradles new life in his arms. He remembers playing hide-and-seek beneath the trees in the park across the road, the branches stretching over him like a roof, disguising his small form as his father craned his head. The trees were always his saviours.
Sam McDonald likes hiking, nature, poetry, the beach and other clichés. She’s currently doing postgrad at the University of Melbourne, but between her classes she finds the time to pet the neighbourhood cats, watch copious amounts of television and continue her search for Melbourne’s best bagels.