Duncan Coop - Cli-Fi
“God, the smell of it is even worse than the–”
The pedestrian’s remark is truncated by James’s front door slamming behind him. He has an exam that afternoon, but her observation tugs at his attention. He had always loved the smell of burning eucalyptus, it reminded him of campfires and the old open fireplace in his home near Singleton. Before the drought and the fire-ban, long before the 1.5 degrees. And he recalls his amusement when, visiting the city years ago, he had found little rectangles of fragrant eucalyptus wood on sale as incense for $30 a pop. After the first really bad fire season they had disappeared, and the scent blanketing the city had gone from ‘smell’ to ‘stench’ pretty quickly. But you got used to it. So as James looks up at the blotchy grey sky, drifting like an indistinct sea-creature, it’s not because of his parochial origins that he notices the pedestrian’s accent. It’s because she smelt something that he hadn’t, that no Sydneysider after eight years of fires could smell anymore. But there it was, arriving on cue at the end of November. Smoke.
“It is just so sinister,” Sofía continues on, as the door across the road slams, “I mean, the sky is bad enough, but at least you can go inside. You can’t get away from the smell”
“Didn’t you ever read the news before applying for exchange?” Catriona asks.
“I guess I just didn’t think it could engulf whole cities. This is definitely not what the brochures said.”
Catriona laughs deeply, then stops at the sad crescent-moons of Sofía’s eyes; “Oh, you’re serious?” she asks.
“Yes, do you know how much wild-life there was in Australia eight years ago?” Sofía asks, but Catriona is still muttering about brochures and who reads them.
“Look, Spain has a very similar climate to Australia, very similar, and I love my country, but we do not have the spectacular things that are here. To see an animal that has springs as legs and a pocket for its babies, or a bear that drops out of trees to attack. That would be something special, something that nowhere else in the world could you see”
“Wait. You know that’s a myth, about the bears?”
“But this smoke, this is the smell of those creatures burning: billions of them” Sofía concludes
As they walk across the park, Catriona looks past the arching branches of the old Moreton Bay Figs into the depthless grey sky. It seemed somehow unreal to her for the lack of cold and rain that accompanies clouds back in Ireland. Its macabre origins gave the pollution a ghostlike quality. And like a ghost, it seemed to taunt them. It had been explained away for years by government, who, like relatives of the haunted house’s tenant, denied it’s connection to climate change as the fanciful whims of the feeble-minded. Catriona coughs. And the dead’s presence, the scorched soul of the country, did not loom to too large in the minds of a busy population and its inert leadership.
“Fucking filled with ash again,” Ted runs a hand through his wet hair and flicks black flakes of charcoal onto the rocks of Gordon’s Bay. In a few hours the tide will rise and return them to sea.
“Kinda ruins the beach,” Angus says.
“Yeah but it’s still nice and hot. And the water’s good.”
“Shame about that though,” Angus points a pale finger toward the sky.
“Hmmm yeah,” Ted looks up. It occurs to him that he’s noticing the grey pall for the first time since it arrived a week ago, but it doesn’t stay long in his mind. For Ted, who never leaves Sydney except in a jet, there are distractions aplenty at eye level.
“Hope you’ve slip, slop, slapped mate. Remember you can still get burnt through that. Don’t want to end up with cancer”
“It’s great, isn’t it; takes the sun, but not the UV,” Angus rubs cream into his arms.
“Yeah, and right when we finish exams.”
“It’s the fires again.”
“Ah, everyone catastrophises about the bloody fires, but Australia’s had fires since forever. There’s always been ash in the water around this time of year,” Ted reckons.
“Nah, not always mate, when we were kids the water was clear as,” Angus says.
“I don’t know, seems like it’s always been like this.” Ted observes with fading attention, “Anyway, those massive storms we get now at the end of summer will put them out, just like last year.” And he lays back easy on the warm rock and thinks about his ski trip to Aspen in a couple months.
Three Months Later
Ted sees his face reflected in the bus’s windows as it trundles past him; bathing him in fumes and heat. Sun-bleached hair, ski-tanned, but set with red-rimmed, tired eyes. The benefits of a continuous flight from Los Angeles to Sydney were still a mystery to him. But the sleepless nights since then were not due to jetlag. There was no history of cancer on her side of the family. She hadn’t smoked for decades, not since she was his age, and even then, only when she went out. He had gazed through his tears at the great miasma over Fiji. The plane’s captain remarked that the smoke they saw was not of the perennial Australian bushfires, but the Amazon, from where it had drifted months and months ago, shrouding the entire southern hemisphere– Ted had drawn the blind and tried to sleep. But he had been unable to get the ragged cough and the bloody spatter on the side of the sick-bag out of his mind. Three days later, wrapped in Sydney humidity, he still couldn't. The rain, which reliably lulled him to sleep, hadn’t arrived yet either. The storms, the soothing patter, the walking signal crashes through his smothered thoughts and two students wearing facemasks overtake him. He draws a shaky breath, and walking toward the little cafe desperately wonders how his mother could possibly have emphysema.
James steers his battered Subaru down the gravel drive and turns south-east onto the tarmac. It’s courtesy to drag a dead kangaroo or wombat or fox off the road, but there are many small thunks as the wheels pass over rabbits and birds. “They follow the mines,” his parents had told him, “licking up the food waste and grease.”
He was happy for his parents; the sale of the farm meant an end to their - and his - financial troubles. Though, with no paddocks to graze the cattle on, he wondered what they would do with all the spare time. Not that there had been much to do in these last years except take the rifle out across the brown land to add one more starved bovine carcass to it’s dead aspect. In this reverie, he notices he is driving past one of their old paddocks. Or would have been if it weren’t obstructed by long mounds of freshly deposited earth. Seeing a break in the wall ahead, he slows down. He frowns when he parallels the gap and though there is no-one present he murmurs ‘of course’. Amidst the brown countryside is an enormous smoking wound. The early morning light seems bizarre on this crater, as though confused with the more dower light of evening. And the hopeful feeling one has when the day is barely begun and the sun seems bashful, dissipates as he looks upon the faded grey underground of what used to be when he was a kid; green and shimmering with morning dew. He shakes his head, irritated at the nostalgia. His instinct is toward detachment, perfect for criminal litigation, according to his new fellow law students. After four more years at uni he will start to make his own money. So why worry about this once-green patch of dirt? Driving away from the scene a huge truck from the mine passes and a small clump of coal knocked free of the trailer taps twice on the bonnet and settles at the base of his windscreen. Dark and weighted, he refrains from flicking it away with the wiper. He travels from parched country through blackened forest, each tree sentinel on the smooth flame-blasted ground, past perpetual roadwork and melted road signs. Eventually, sweeping the curves of the Hawkesbury, he enters the city. Having grown lighter now in the bright surrounds, he whisks the black clump away while he’s gazing at the silken white of the Opera House sails and it drops onto the bridge. As he descends beneath roadways thinking of coffee, the black clump is burst, flung and parried high into the air by traffic. It hangs there for a moment, against a mineral sky, then falls down, down into the reflective steel of the harbour.
Ted enters the café as a dusty Subaru parks across the bus-stop outside. High on the wall is a television and from the line he watches an interview with the prime minister.
“My government, which has seen the creation of a hundred thousand jobs, a hundred thousand Jackie, will continue to meet and beat climate goals which were agreed upon under the Paris Accord of 2014, while still ensuring those jobs and growth”
“But Mr. Prime Minister, we are talking about the destruction of nearly half of Australia’s natural forests since 2019”
“Ah, so you’re talking about renewables then?”
“I don’t see how you’ve come to that conclusion. I’m talking about a climatic disaster-”
“Ah, Climate! There it is. Now look Jackie, your program makes no secret of supporting the opposition, my opposition. So I will address the question you really asked…”
The line moves, Ted orders a latte “… and again as we have proven more capable than your allies, we will meet that goal of economic parity between renewables and traditional energies by 2030”
“Oh, shut up Paul!” shouts someone with a spanish accent at the TV. Irritated by this, Ted sees it’s come from one of the students who passed him at the stop lights. Her facemask gives him the impression of meekness, as if like a muzzle it had neutralized the capacity to bite, and so, not usually given to confrontation he says; “What do you know?”
“What do I know?!” she responds
“Sofía come on, let’s go,” her companion says
“What I know is that we’ve just been to our exchange induction at the university and when they gave us our student cards they also gave us these,” and she pulls off her face mask, holds it out to him. A month ago he would have jeered at these theatrics, but now the dower edges of his mind muffle even the mocking humour.
“Well, what’s that got to do with climate change? And, what’s it got to do with renewable and traditional energies”
She looks aghast, eyes tightening in what seems like disgust, but before she can answer someone behind him says; “Fossil fuels mate, not traditional energies, it’s dinosaur bones not a cultural cuisine. You know: gas, coal.”
“That’s not what makes the smoke,” Ted says.
“Yeah, but it’s what creates the hundred thousand jobs. That and the huge fire-fighting service,” James responds.
“Yeah, and I bet we all benefit from, you know, jobs and income, and money,” Ted trails off, however the other man doesn’t contradict him, but looks down at the floor. Then James looks out the window. He knows that the smoke from the fires releases more than twice the pollutants that Australia does through industry every year, but that didn’t resolve the guilt he felt about the sale of his farm to the miners. Seeing the windscreen-wipers of his car, he recognises at last the heavy feeling he had tried to heft off of the bridge –shame.
“And in the meantime?” Sofía again; “In the meantime everything is going to burn and he says, resilience and adaptation”
“Who says?!” Ted snaps
“Your Prime Minister –Paul Donally, “Resilience and adaptation, what does that sound like to you?” Sofía asks.
“Sounds pretty Australian to me”
“Pretty Austral… Jesus, connect the dots! Every year fires, and the first season the government comes out with this resilience and adaptation bullshit. To what? Adaptation to extreme weather and resilience to huge bush-fires. Dios mio! Leave the city and have a look! This is what resilience and adaptation looks like,” She says and pulls up her sleeve, the skin of her forearm is bunched and stretched in a bright red coiling scar.
Ted’s newfound enthusiasm for politics is dissolved by his curiosity. “What is that?” He says, moving closer.
“It’s a burn” the other masked woman responds in an Irish accent.
“Yeah, but how?”
“We were on Fraser Island,” Sofía says, gazing at the mark on her arm.
“You know it?” Catriona asks
“Yeah,” Ted nods.
“Biggest sand Island in the world, teeming with wildlife and ancient forest and…” Sofía loses her voice.
“And, and the last day we are at an inland lake” Catriona goes on, rubbing her friends back, “and there’ve been fires miles and miles west of us, we are supposed to be out of the range of embers they said. And all of a sudden this enormous thing shoots into the sky in the west. Like, it looks like stone, like moving marble. It’s a plume of smoke. It moves quickly though, and in about an hour it’s above us and it starts raining these black hailstones the size of marbles. No actual rain though. So we start back through the bush to the beach” She scoffs, “totally futile, and the thing, this stone cloud, lights up inside, blue and white. There’s only about sixty people living on the island, but there are thousands of tourists too. Anyway, it’s bloody dry with the drought an all, and then this lightning stabs out of the clouds. Hits right next to us. Have you ever been close to lightning? It’s not like it is far away, it’s like someone’s turned on your light and dropped a window pane on your head. There’s fire everywhere and no rain, and a grey cloud going black and Sofía, her arm, a branch… and we are running and we can hear people, animals howling through the smoke and we just, we get to the beach and. We swim out. There are supposed to be sharks and we are bleeding from our feet and her arm, but we turn around and it’s just like hell. The flames create their own weather, the air is so hot and rising that they get higher and higher, and it’s like a blazing red crown. That’s what it looked like, a red crown. Black streaks rising up between the forks and trees bursting into flame, not catching, bursting. They’ve been dry and hot so long they just combust. There are people all over the beach, and dingoes too. It was strange, but they didn’t seem to notice each other, and the people got in the water to escape the heat but the dingoes couldn’t, they began to smoke and they were howling and burning… It’s got a name, what happened. The navy people told us. It’s called a pyroconvection storm. Smokestorms. It’s fire making more fire, reproducing itself, multiplying. It released thirty times more energy than Hiroshima. The whole island burnt. There’s nothing left”
Ted looks at the sky outside and the thought drops into his mind that the cloud blocking the sun isn’t a cloud. Remembering the way that from the plane it seemed to blanket the earth he realizes it’s not between them and the sun, it's surrounding them. They are inside of it. And it’s inside them. Sofía replaces her facemask. Seeing her arm again, Ted opens his mouth to offer a consolation –sees in his mind a blood clot on the side of a sick bag, feels in his chest a frantic need for solace himself– but before he can speak, the smoke-alarm goes off.
Recently graduated from the University of Sydney, majoring in English and History, Duncan is interested in how climate change is affecting the aspect of nature, the vibrancy of its inhabitants; and the common future of their cultures.
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