We’d been travelling since the fat moon turned to a sliver and we were both tired, hungry. Zyva had more stamina though, she was determined and she kept me going, despite my complaining and my tendency for sullenness.
We were heading to the sea.
It was rumoured that there were ships there and that we could escape, travel across the ocean to the place they called ‘The New Eden’. Well, that’s what we’d heard in the last days just before the wireless went down, before the petrol exhausted and the power browned out to black. I clearly remember when the rationing came, the long lines of men and women with desperate, bewildered faces. I was twelve then and Zyva was sixteen.
Zyva was my sister.
One day, when the car no longer ran, Dad went out. He went to get food, cans for good keeping. He never came home. He disappeared that day and we never knew why because by then there was no longer ‘The News’. But Mum said everything would be okay, that she knew what to do, that she’d never leave us.
Then came ‘the Mind Death’. Zyva said it was a virus, that it disrupted your neuro’s and sent you berserk. I think though, that people just realised that things would never be the same; that the world had changed for good - not our good - and that fact sent them nuts. That’s what the Mind Death was I think, people just going nuts. Zyva was adamant though, that the Great Slaughter was because of the virus, it wasn’t because people turned evil.
It’s because my sister is psychic, is what saved us. She knew it was coming and we got out as soon as Mum died. We went South. On foot. Two backpacks with water, cans and kit. We travelled when no one else did, kept off the marauding roads, aimed for high covered ground. We slept entangled together like cubs and Zyva kept me alive then. She still does now.
‘Zyz, see those buildings down that hill? We should scout them out, and make camp there’ she said, pointing and speaking in a soft, yet certain tone.
‘Zyva, we’ve only crashed at abandoned farm houses. This looks industrial, like some government facility. I don’t trust it. Others could be around here’ and she knew what I meant and how afraid I was of my own kind now.
‘We’re here. On the outskirts of the town. Mount Helen’ and she pointed with her index finger to the dot on the map on page sixty four of the 2019 Caravan Atlas. That was the thing about Zyva, she knew where we’d been and she knew where we had to go. She wasn’t as random as me.
She added, ‘It’s not industrial, it’s a university Zyz. We might get better kit, better maps. Nautical maps’ and I saw her mind calculating and recalculating as she moved forward into her firm decision.
‘Ok. But can we stick together this time. I hate empty silent buildings...’ and she looked at me and her eyes glistened and she hugged my shoulder, like a brother would. I guess she still felt guilty about the Kangaroo Flat incident, when we’d raided the Big W, when we’d encountered ‘The Others’.
We descended into the grey light with caution. We slipped down to the empty carpark, cracking apart with potholes and weeds. All around was a stillness that wasn’t tranquil. The area was heavily treed with eucalypts and shrubs that seemed like a slow motion invasion. The area had likely been derelict for only a few months or a few years, it was hard to tell these days for keeping track of time no longer seemed relevant and the passage of time was now measured by decay. We moved silently in between the concrete buildings and it was clear that rampant nature had breached here now and her vengeance was accelerating. Windows were cracked and broken, mould overgrowths were mushrooming in the eaves of the outside corridors and weeds were matting amidst paths and amongst once segregated gardens. We came to a long shadowed building that was a three story high box stretched back the length of two community swimming pools. It felt eerie as we approached, like we were being watched. And I knew we were, for a saw a solitary blackbird fly out of an upper window and I guessed he lived there now.
We crossed the south end, past a glass door that was cracked down the centre. It was coming onto dawn in the empty overcast sky. Something rustled above me. I jumped, startled. Zyva’s eyes darted upwards and then she smirked.
‘Possum Zyz. Catch ‘im and I’ll make you a hat’ and I punched her in the arm because she knew damn well my hunting skills were terrible; I was a scavenger and I hated the sight of blood.
We came around, past the building, into an open space, surrounded on three sides by tall buildings that formed a U shape. There were oak trees bursting with green and thick grasses with daisies and mushrooms. Up ahead was a strange sculpture of metal and stone. We slowly moved closer, scanning the windows for moving shadows, Zyva no doubt checking for exit routes. There was a brass plate on a stone block next to the sculpture which actually wasn’t – rather, it was an old stamping press, from the time of the gold rush. I wondered about that as this place felt like it’d never known gold or rush, just twilight and stillness.
On the far end of the open space was a building with a large sign at the top that read, ‘Geology and Metallurgy Department’. Separated from the U shaped buildings but in close proximity was a more modern, less boxy concrete facility the colour of bleached apricot. The faded sign out the front had an arrow pointing to it and I could make out the faint words ‘Nursing’.
Zyva saw it at the same time and we looked at each other for a moment. Mum had been a nurse. She broke eye contact and simply said, ‘We’ll go in here. There’s gotta be something useful around’ and she could’ve meant anything from glucose to blankets to gauze, if not all three. I was wondering about the other building though, the Geology building. I was wondering what this place was like before we’d come. Before any of us had come.
I was wondering what it had been like before humans.
I was wondering what it had been like before humans.
Zyva saw my faraway look. She read my thoughts and she knew I was musing on philosophical things. Soon the world would return to what it had been and I wondered whether it would grieve for us though deep down I knew that it would be indifferent, that it wouldn’t mourn our departure as we’d never mourned the loss of all the unknown creatures.
Z let me be in these moments, she knew that my ‘blue time’ was how I made sense of the nonsense of the world now remaining. Her way was to keep busy, focused on short term goals, like what was for breakfast and dinner. I stared out the window and out the corner of my eye, saw her set up the hex stove, punch air holes in the bean tins, ignite the white crystal. Later, I heard her rummaging in the room across the hall, looking for something useful. She came back with two squat plastic bottles of water, emergency rations stashed and then never reclaimed.
We stayed up later than usual, to watch the sunlight cut gold beams on the still trees. I tucked into my hot beans and washed it down with swigs of water from my bottle. We hadn’t eaten for two days because rations were running low and Z wanted to give me an incentive to walk quicker. ‘When we get there you can rest and have a hot meal’ she’d said and true as always, she’d kept her word.
I was rocking back on the chair, savouring the last of my mixed beans, when a magpie zoomed past, just outside the window. Z saw it too. We looked at each other and I glimpsed anxiety in her eyes; she was wondering what the hell the bird was bolting from, what was out there that was so terrifying? I squeezed her hand and felt her sweat and I knew that, despite her grown up pretence, she was slowly succumbing to the reality of things. So I did what I always did, I made up a story for her.
‘... about a magpie, not fleeing just flying. See, he’s just found out that his true love is about to marry a crow. And now he’s really freakin’ out, ‘cause he played it all ‘whatever’ with her and now she’s about to fly the coop, see. So he has to find her, convince her that he’s always loved her and now there’s a massive storm rollin’ in and he’s running out of time, but he battles the storm, he ducks n weaves n dives past it. Then he starts askin’ around for her whereabouts, and each time he gets an answer he races to that place... and each time, he just misses her by a minute...
...and so, it goes like that, he just keeps missing her as he’s getting more frantic ‘cause he just knows somehow that the crow isn’t her true love. Then - finally! - he sees her - in the city - down a back alley - with her new bird-friend, some galahs and a mopoke owl. And so...’
Despite her toughness, Z loved happy endings. She dozed against my shoulder and so I gently laid her down on her swag. She dreamed up the ending and I knew true love had won out because there was the imprint of a smile on her face as she relaxed into sleep.
I was glad she’d found her happy ending. And yet, I wondered why my ending was so different, why my view of history was so bleak. Perhaps history didn’t have happy endings, just endings.
‘...He was met at fifty feet five miles inbound from her locale, met by two compadres who gave him black and white at what they’d found...
...And if perhaps, you looked up then, that moment there, you might wonder why a bird would drop from sky? Five miles hence a crow cawed and cans clattered and even bird brains knew what clattering cans and love ties meant; they meant Undo’
Zyva was sound asleep now but I remained restless.
I was wondering about the ships, whether they were real. And if they were real, were they waiting for us, waiting until we turned up, the last two passengers bound for some new world? Would they take us free on board or would we have to pay for passage?
Old currency meant nothing now, not that we had any. Old currency wasn’t even good for burning, the plastic melted to a foul smoke. So what was the new currency? I guess it had become what it’d always been; gold. I remembered that monument down between the trees. It had been connected to gold. It’d been a stamping press, surface evidence that this place had been a goldfield. It probably still was for not every gram of the stuff could have been ripped out of the earth.
Z was always planning ahead, always carrying the burden of responsibility. She seemed always the older sister to me, her useless little brother. Now it was my turn to step up. I’d unearth the secrets to the gold. I’d get us enough of it to guarantee we’d get on that last ship. Z would be so surprised, so proud of me and my ingenuity she’d let slip one of her rare warm smiles. Yes, I’d pull out a fistful of nuggets, found during our transit over the gold-fields to the sea. She’d be surprised, yeah she’d wonder how I’d done it? Nothing much fooled her, so my plan was to prospect as she slept. I’d earn our passage and she’d know that I’d grown up and didn’t need her to always take care of me.
I looked out of the cracked window. Across the way was the Geology Department. All of the answers I’d need would be there, had to be there. For they’d have books that’d show me what to look for and maps that’d point me to where I had to dig; they might even have shovels and a shovel would really come in handy, if for nothing else than to build a fire pit. Well, that’s what I’d tell Z anyway.
Perhaps I should’ve written her a note, but I didn’t think I’d be long and she was snoring now. So I slipped out and down the passage, down two flights of steps, to the foyer. I was wary of daylight and open spaces, so I waited for a few minutes, listening, watching. Outside it was eerily still. So I quietly opened the glass door and crept outside, then jogged across the grass to the long side wall of the Geology Department, and keeping close to the brick, slipped silently along to the doorway midway down the building.
Once inside, I moved along deserted passages of shadow and grey light. I went room by room, looking for something like a library, or an office with books and maps. Most of them were classrooms, arrayed with chairs, tables and dust. Some were small offices, thick with strewn yellowing papers, coffee cups with brown congealed rings, photos of loved ones – kids – pets. There were books on geology and metallurgy and engineering. They were too technical, too non-specific. I wanted the secrets of this place. I wanted to know where the gold was because I knew the place was hiding its wealth from dumb looters. And I was a smart looter.
I guess I lost track of time. Moving from room to room, looking for treasure maps does that to you. Finally I found a room on the upper level, at the far end of the passage. It was small, almost like some janitors store room. Inside were filing cabinets. They were locked. I tugged them but the lock remained stubborn. So I hunted around for some brute decryption which came in the form of a fire extinguisher. I smashed open that lock and yanked out of the top cabinet; inside were rows of records and, at the back, a bottle of bourbon. The second and third cabinet were the same, more records, reports, accounts. Then, in the bottom cabinet I found tightly folded geological maps. I grabbed them out - three at a time - and I dumped them onto the floor. I sat cross-legged on the floor and sprawled out their secrets, one by one.
They were interesting but not useful for they were for lands far away from times long ago. I was beginning to despair. Maybe there was no gold left here? Maybe I’d never be able to pull out my glistening nuggets? I’d let her down. I’d let Z down again. And I began to hate her. Hate her for always being so smart, for always having to carry me.
Then my imagination became rampant.
We were standing at the dock now before that mighty ship that was about to sail. The Captain was looking at me - unimpressed - and then looking at Z, all hungry. I began to get wet-eye and I hated when that happened so I punched the maps, then got up and kicked and kicked that stupid cabinet, kicked it until my stupid foot bled.
‘Hey. I’m here, it’s okay, it’ll be okay’ and I felt her arms around me and I turned into her though she hadn’t uttered a word.
That was the day I got gold fever. Z led me back to our refuge and she held me as I shivered out the sweat of the sun. And later I held her and wondered about our future as her tears glistened in the moonlight.