They found places to keep things, islands, that’s how it started. Atolls for cartons of egg shells, for foreign postcards stacked in boxes. Archipelagos cluttered with shipping-crates of photographs, moss-terrariums, insects adrift in methyl-alcohol, vials of nectar, jars of ochre-coloured soil. Islets devoted to feathers, to gem-stones they’d found while still clinging to the mainland coast, still sifting through the deserts. Uncut sapphires glinting in torch light, kicked over on the goldfields – carried now in buckets with amber, quartz, granite flecked with mica – coated with dust from dilapidated shacks, busted cities, from the gully where their tumbling down home had once stood, leaning into the westerlies, into winds that brought ice then razed forests, seared the green of the plain.
They had an atoll for seeds, un-germinated seeds which they’d stored for posterity, a vestige of hope. They ferried them to that island in flotillas of walnut shell boats, while the ocean was still as a stone. She remembers that day as the last when they knew they could still return to their home.
They built shelters: a tower of spiralling shell, bunkers lined with coral, they slept on pandanus. When night fell they paced out the shores of their islands, the silt coves, they followed the rhythms, the turnings of the luminescent tide, they spoke about the sky, about the lights they saw sometimes in the distance, the fishing hulks, the ferries carrying children, rising, falling on the horizon to the north.
‘What will we do if they come here?’
‘Why would anyone come?’
‘If they’re lost?’
‘These islands are too small, they’re too low. They will see that.’
‘But those boats, they’re not safe.’
‘If they come here we will go.’
And things did come: discarded things, a child in a basket of reeds, up-turned rafts, leather boots, things that sting. They fended them off, they waded into the shallows and veered them off-shore with poles whittled from palms, with nets woven of shoe-laces, frayed ends of string. They were grateful for the fins, for the singing.
The winds came. They swept over the islands like a flood. Pieces of damp paper, torn letters shivering in leaves, in the branches, filled the air above their islands like locusts – cicadas falling from the spinning of the sky – catching in her hair, covering the floor of his boat. In the tower she pieced them together, words about love, about things they had lost.
‘Will nothing grow now?’
‘I don’t know. Some things will.’
She placed her hand on the warmth of her belly, she remembered the swelling, the kicking of feet, tiny elbows sculpting a tent out of skin. She thought of the child in the basket.
‘He could have stayed. There is room.’
‘It’s too late.’
Susie Greenhill lives on the mouth of a river in Tasmania’s far south. Her short fiction has been published in anthologies and journals. Her soon to be finished novel manuscript, ‘The Clinking,’ won the 2016 Richell Prize. She has a PhD in creative writing and environmental literature.