Red dust kicked up around Billy’s scuffed boots as he trudged down the long track that led from the family homestead to the main road. The orange glow of the new dawn hung on the horizon and the cloudless sky promised another day of incessant dry heat. A murder of crows pecking at the corpse of a rabbit laid out on barren soil took flight as Billy approached – cawing loudly as their wings flapped slowly and lazily.
A murder of crows Billy thought to himself. A siege of cranes, a band of coyotes, and a gaggle of geese. He had learned these and other collectives in the boarding school that he now attended in Adelaide – ten gruelling hours drive away from the farm that had been in his family for more than 100 years.
Billy looked at the withered sticks and stubble of the trees that he had helped his father plant along the length of the track – or the driveway as his mother liked to refer to it. The trees were all long dead after the absence of rain. He remembered the backbreaking days six years ago planting the saplings with his dad. He was just eight at the time and he wore his grandpa’s battered Akubra hat – way too big for his little head - and he remembered his mother laughing at his stubborn refusal to take a rest from his labours. He remembers too her excitement and delight in the promise that the trees would provide shade all away along the track - right up to the house. Their grand promenade she called it. Billy remembered how his mum used to laugh all the time and how bright and beautiful and bubbly she was back then. He racked his brain trying to recall when he had heard his mother laugh since.
A loose corrugated sheet on the metal drum that constituted their letterbox rattled a little as it flapped in the rising hot morning breeze. Tumbleweed danced across the black asphalt as Billy lifted the back flap and let it bang close when he saw that there was no mail. He stepped onto the road that ran north to south and scanned the flat desolate vista in both directions for a sign of any vehicles. Even through his thick boots be could feel the warmth of the road rising - still incalescent from the previous day’s sun. A heat haze was already misting on the horizon making the short scrubby saltbush shimmer. The gnarled white bleached trunks and dirty brown foliage of the stunted vegetation offered a stark contrast to the burnt ochre soil.
Billy sighed and walked to the sun bleached rock that was semi buried next to the letterbox and he sat himself down. He could barely make out the name “Kealey” painted on its flat face. Billy remembered carefully painting over the letters – when was it only a couple of summers back? He made a mental note to add the re-painting of it to his already lengthy list of holiday chores. As he hunched over to watch an orderly trail of bull ants march tirelessly across the desert sand the flies appeared and he absently swatted them from his face. Beads of perspiration gathered on his forehead and his eyes stung from the salt.
After only ten minutes or so Billy heard the sound of a distant engine approaching above the angry buzz of the flies and he stood up and saw a dark dot way off down the road. The putt putting of an engine grew louder as the shape took the form of a battered four-wheel drive. The vehicle rattled to a halt at the Kealey driveway and with the engine still idling the smeared driver window wound down and a ruddy-faced red-nosed man stuck his head out. Billy took a couple of steps forward and the cool blast of the air conditioning from the vehicle sprayed his face. The acrid smell of stale tobacco smoke wafted out.
“Gidday young Billy mate youse are home for the holidays then are you?”
“Gidday Mr. Carson yeah I got in on Saturday”
“’Hows your Mum and Dad then?”
“They are all right thanks. Mum sent me down to check the mail. Said she is expectin’ a parcel”
“Only this from the Bank mate. Suspect it is not good news and all. Never is with those fuckers”
Billy accepted the official looking envelope that was handed to him and eyes downcast he shuffled his feet and kicked at the loose gravel on the side of the road.
There was an uncomfortable silence for a few seconds and Billy heard the crackle on the car radio and the depressingly cheerful tone of the announcer saying ‘Yes it’s going to be another hot one today folks with the mercury already hitting thirty two degrees and the Woomera recording a record 2000th straight day with no rain. Stay cool folks and stay strong all you farmers out there. Here’s a little Slim Dusty classic to brighten up your days’
Mr Carson reached over and turned down the volume.
“Yep its gonna be another hot one today Billy. Hope youse aren’t too uncomfortable comin’ from your big fancy city school an’ all that”
“She’ll be right Mr Carson, any chance of some rain you think?”
The postman laughed.
“Geez mate we haven’t had any rain ‘ere for nearly six years. I deliver mail not fuckin’ miracles. Little Gemma Shaw over at the Kipling property ‘asn’t seen rain in ‘er life time son. Dunno ‘ow your old man and the other farmers around these parts make a livin’ anymore. Better get youse a fancy degree and talk to those buggers down in Canberra. Politicians fuckin’ up the world with global warming and climate change and shit. There’s no future in farmin’ anymore son. None at all”
Billy shuffled his feet again and kicked at the dirt - not really knowing what to say.
“I remember when your old man was a little nipper Billy. All the dams was full an’ the rains came in like clockwork every season. Things are really fucked up now. Won’t stop rainin’ in some parts of the world and won’t start rainin’ here and other places.”
“Thanks Mr Carson. I better go and take this back to Dad”
Billy waved the envelope and stepped back from the road.
“Tell your Mum an’ Dad gidday from me”
The postman wound up his window and the jeep drove away. Billy watched it disappear up the road and he waited until it once again became a blurred shape in the distance before he turned and started the long trudge back down the driveway. The sun had risen higher now and it was getting hot. Really hot.
Kejjo’s back ached and his hands were chaffed and red as he held yet another hessian sack open while his uncle shovelled more sand into it. When it was three quarters full his father quickly folded over the end, stitched it up and dragged it to the levy that was being constructed – this one another hundred meters inland from the remnants of last barrier that had been built. No trace remained of the village that Kejjo had been born in. The sea had reclaimed it.
“Has God forsaken us papa?” Kejjo asked.
His father glared in response and thrust another empty sack at him then turned away to gaze at out to the sea. Kejjo saw his father’s broad shoulders slump and he thought that he could hear the semblance of a sob. That couldn’t be right. In all of Kejjo’s thirteen years he had never once seen his father cry. He was always the strong one in the village – a great man who told wonderful stories about the warrior ancestors of his lineage.
Kejjo’s father had seen and survived the great mushroom clouds in his youth when the Americans had tested their big bombs. Many of his uncles and cousins had died of the sicknesses that came afterwards as had some of the elders too. Kejjo’s father was there too when the Islands had finally become an independent nation. Surely a man who had seen and experienced so much could somehow find a way to save the atoll. If anyone could do it his father could.
“Here open the sack Kejjo” uncle Fu’lau demanded impatiently – his shovel full.
“When will the waters stop uncle?”
“When it is God’s will,” his uncle replied.
“The great snows at the ends of the world are melting boy” he added
“Will we all drown?”
“We will if we don’t finish building this levy” Fu’lua said.
“Hey turn up the radio Kejjo” one of his cousins who was working two pairs down from Kejjo yelled out
“They are talking about us”
Kejjo looked to his uncle who nodded his approval and he quickly scampered over to the ancient and battered Bakelite unit. He twisted the volume dial to full and there was a crackle of resistance but the noise amplified. The digging and bagging stopped and all the men and boys clustered and paused and listened. A man with a clipped and impassive British accent announced:
‘In further developing news, a state of emergency has now been declared on the Marshall islands where rising sea levels are reported to be reclaiming the atolls at a rate that by far exceeds predictions made by oceanographers. ABC reporter Claudia Alexander is in the Marshall Islands. Claudia what can you tell us about the situation over there?’
“What’s an oceanographer uncle?” Kejjo asked
A collective and loud “shhh” came from the men on the beach.
‘Thanks David, yes the situation here is getting rather bad with an estimated three and a half thousand Marshall Islanders having already been displaced by oceans that have risen alarmingly over the past two years. It is predicted that up to another ten thousand islanders will be required to re-located in the next two years. Climate change experts report that these rising sea levels are as a direct result of global warming’
“Enough” Kejjo’s father declared as he reached down to turn the radio off.
“Everyone back to work now”
Kejjo scampered back to his uncle’s side who gave him a rough but playful ruffling of his head
“Ain’t no rising water ever gonna get over this mighty wall is it little man?” said Fu’Lau as he started shoveling again.
When they locked eyes Kejjo noticed a disconcerting flash of uncertainty from his uncle and, not for the first time in recent weeks, Kejjo experienced a black shadow of fear cross his heart.
His parents were arguing again. Despite their attempts to restrain their raised voices and the foam pillow that he clutched tightly over his head, Billy still could make out the odd word and get the gist of their conversation. “Bank” was uttered several times and he thought he heard the words “school” and “tractor” and “mortgage” as well. The hissed whispers were like angry snakes Billy thought. Poisonous adders. Terrible asps.
Billy then heard the front screen door slam loudly and he felt the thud of his dad’s work boots stomp across the veranda. As the roar of the engine of his father’s ute dissipated in the distance he thought that he heard his mother crying. He knew that he should get out of his own bed and go in and say something and maybe tell her that everything would turn out all OK but he was frozen in fear. Despite the heat he felt all cold and shivery and some part of him knew that everything would not be alight. It would never be alright. So he held the pillow as hard as he could over his head until the solace of sleep came and eventually took him. It was a restless and disturbed slumber full of dust and despair.
At breakfast in the vast homestead kitchen Billy’s mum had laid out the table with plates of toast spread thick with vegemite and the aroma of the steeping black pot of tea was delicious.
“No eggs for breakfast I’m afraid today Billy” apologised his mum
“The chooks aren’t laying what they used to anymore and we have had to eat some over the past couple of weeks”
“Where’s Dad Mum?”
“He went to town to see the Bank Manager. He won’t be long.”
“I don’t have to go back to boarding school Mum. It would save you and Dad heaps and I could stay here and help out around the place”
“Don’t be silly Billy. Your Dad and me want you to finish your schooling and go onto university. Make something of yourself”
“But I want to work on the farm”
“Just finish your schooling first love. No eat up the rest of that toast and off with you. Those jobs won’t do themselves”
Lightning streaked the sky and illuminated the rain that was teeming down in sheets. The clap of thunder boomed loud. The storms came every day now – each one seemingly stronger than the last. This was once the dry season. Kejjo shivered and hugged his knees tighter. The smell of ozone hung in the air. The single globe in the hut flickered and sputtered and then extinguished altogether. Above the howl of the gale he heard men yelling. The words were indistinguishable but Kejjo heard urgency and panic in the tone. He was frightened.
Billy woke with a start and he sat up in bed. Icy dread clutched his heart as the realisation struck him that the wailing that he heard and that he thought was a part of his dream – his nightmare in fact - was real. He slipped on his jeans and pulled on a t-shirt and shoeless he ran down the hall and out the front door. He stopped at the sight of his mother kneeling in the dirt out front of the barn door - her whole body shaking with her sobbing.
He walked slowly towards her.
He looked past her and through the open door of the barn Billy saw the lifeless body of his father swinging from the rafters – his face all purple and bruised.
In a daze of disbelief – then grief - Billy staggered to his mother and then he dropped to his knees as well. His mother reached for him and they clutched each other tightly. The tears mingled as they fell to the ground and each droplet kicked-up red puffs of sand. The moisture evaporated immediately.
Kejjo sat alone in the rear of the boat amongst the piles of boxes. Chickens clucked loudly from old apple crates and two goats were tethered to the railing. They were all the livestock that were left. His uncle walked unsteadily towards him as the vessel pitched in the swell of the ocean. Barely visible now in the distance Kejjo could just make out the shape of their island – or what was left of it. It was the only home that he had never known.
“Will the melting snow at the ends of the world swallow up all of the land uncle?”
“I don’t know Kejjo”
Waves slapped at the side of the boat as the island disappeared on the horizon. The rains started again and they mingled with the tears that streaked down Kejjo’s face.
“Come join the others Kejjo. It is cold out here and the little ones are scared. Read them a story”
“My father is the one who reads the stories to the children”
“Your father and your other Uncles stayed behind on the island Kejjo. You know that”
“Will they save it Uncle?”
“No Kejjo. They will salvage what they can and will meet us at Majuro”
Fu’Lau held out an arm and Kejjo’s hand was engulfed in his uncle’s giant fist. He was effortlessly pulled to his feet. Together they bent into the sleeting rain and they made their way slowly and warily to the front of the boat and to the deck door that led down inside. Downstairs thirty frightened little children huddled together amongst even more crates and boxes as well as fishing nets and poles. Some of the children were sobbing quietly and a few were noticeably sea-sick. The fear was palpable.
“Read to them Kejjo”
“What story shall I read them Uncle?”
Fu’Lau opened a book with a black battered cover and he flicked through the pages to where a corner had been carefully folded. He handed the book to Kejjo and he then ushered the children around.
“From here Kejjo” he said as he pointed.
“For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth. The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits. Every living thing that moved on land perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.”
“The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days.
But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. The water receded steadily from the earth.”
“We are like Noah and the Ark” Kejjo told the children.
“We are all saved”
Billy shifted uncomfortably in the car seat. He pulled at the collar of his shirt and his feet hurt. Both his suit and his shoes were a size too small for his fast growing body. His ‘good’ clothes his Mum called them. Beside him his mother sat impassively in her black dress – her face as bleak as the landscape. On the car radio the announcers voice was sickeningly cheerful.
“If you hadn’t noticed it’s hot, hot, hot again folks with the mercury already sitting on thirty six degrees and still rising. We are expecting a top temperature of fourty two degrees with no respite in sight. The shire is has announced even tighter water restrictions with both the upper and lower dams nearly empty. In world news fierce tropical storms continue to batter the south pacific with three of the atolls of the Marshall Islands now nearly completely engulfed by rising sea levels. United Nations scientists released a statement claiming that there has been a ten-fold increase in natural disasters and that these are a direct result of global warming. They claim that there is mounting and now indisputable evidence that the global warming is man-made.
What we wouldn’t do to get a little of that rain over here. Here’s a little country and western classic to cheer you up and get you through your day”
Tears welled up in Billy’s eyes and he turned to face away from his mother and gazed out of the car window. Through blurred and stinging eyes the barren red landscape flashed by.
It was arid and cracked and broken.