by Gita Ralleigh
Long ago, in the days when there were fish in the ocean and cars on the road, there lived a woman who was not afraid of governments. She was not afraid of lawyers either. Not of policemen, schoolteachers or social workers. She’d begged them for help, in their air-con offices, lolling on leatherette seats, sweat frosting on her upper lip. None of them had done a thing.
And now, after all that, she was no longer afraid of her own mother.
Fifteen and full-grown, a woman in all but the law’s eyes, she decided to leave home. Shook the metal canister loose of change, emptied it into her purse, strapped the purse under her breasts, a loose bundle of clothes on her head and swiped the sharpest knife from the kitchen drawer, testing it against her callused thumb.
She began walking. Only the Sun and Moon and her mother watched her go and all her mother had to say was, ‘Piss off, you fat bitch. Never were good for nothing.’
The girl paused in the middle of one long stride.
– ‘I’m not fat,’ she said without turning.
‘Little shit at the Mini-Mart! ‘her mother yelled after her. ‘Him, isn’t it?’
The girl ignored her mother and walked on. Out of her mother’s yard and beyond the clustered tin houses clinging to the dried-out riverbank like washed–up Coke cans. The girl’s skin, the colour of red earth after rain, glowed with a fine sheen from the heat. Her waist-long leaf green hair streamed after her, like a tree had upped its roots and gone walking.
–Green? asked the Moon. You mean like a bad peroxide job?
–No, green! Like grass–or what d’you call that stuff? Wasabi, the Sun answered.
All day, the girl walked under the sun’s white heat, her dark skin slick with sweat. No one stopped her, for she was tall, all elbows and knees and besides she had a knife and was not afraid to use it.
Nights, she slept, slumped over tables at rest stops. Sometimes she took buses or hitched truck rides but mostly she walked. There were few trucks and fewer buses now, the heat had long ago caused tarmac on the roads to bubble and scar like a bad case of acne.
The Sun and Moon continued to take a proprietary interest in her, due to the gold sun that pierced her nose and the crescent moon that nestled in her left ear lobe. Her right ear lobe was naked and sometimes when she was tired she tugged on the softness of it.
Children stopped their games of football or tag and ran alongside to keep her company for a bit. Mostly, she spoke to the animals and birds. The noonday sun was a white-hot circle, a blister in the bleached sky and every shadow pooled black as ink. Anyone who was not child or animal or bird had the sense to stay indoors.
–Where’s she think she’s going? the Moon asked.
– I wanna see the ocean. Hear her tell that kid? Since I was smaller than you, she tells him, replied the Sun.
–What did the kid say?
–Sure you going the right way sister? And she answered: Either way you’ll get there. We’re stuck in the middle.
The Moon put a sorrowful face on.
–I don’t know, she said. What possesses a fifteen-year-old to go wandering to the ocean?
–Buggered if I know, the Sun remarked.
The Moon remained silent for some time.
–Something’s got to be wrong, is all I’m saying.
The truth: thoughts of the ocean had possessed the green-haired girl for as long as she could remember. She had been raised in the centre of a great, dusty, bone-dry land that stretched for a thousand miles each way before it met water. Her mother had no car, only a rusted bicycle and a couple of evil goats, so there had been little opportunity for travel. She’d lifted her eyes to the dust-smudged horizon with a fervent longing. Dreamed, every night and most of the day of blue-green water, cool breezes and the crash and thunder of waves.
The road grew thin, began to rip a jagged path through the mountains. As the girl climbed higher and the air blew cool, a great eagle swooped and circled and the girl threw back her head, dizzy to greet it.
–How’s things? she called to the eagle.
–Yeah, said the eagle. Guess you know the planet’s screwed. Country’s changing. Rivers dried, grass parched brown. Fires tearing up the forests. You’re the first green thing I’ve seen in a long time. But I can’t complain. No fish in the river but there’s mice and rabbits. I like a rabbit. Worth the effort, know what I mean?
The girl did. At home she’d been a vegetarian but on the road she had to eat what she could. Her protein bars were gone and she didn’t know when she’d see a town again.
–You know how far it is to the ocean? she asked the eagle.
The eagle spun lower.
–Hard day’s flying, he answered. Don’t know about your speed.
The girl thanked him and kept on walking, up over the plateau and down onto the plain. She cut notches in the soles of her sandals for each day walking. So far, there were 87.
The Moon was thin but growing fat. Perhaps that was why she noticed.
–She needs to eat, she told the Sun. Look at her! Can’t you piss off behind the clouds for a bit, make it rain? Let stuff grow?
–Not my fault is it? The Sun spluttered, offended. I can’t just turn myself off like a 60-watt bulb!
The Moon remained calm.
–Guess I’ll do something, she said.
The next night, the girl was woken by the nudge of something cool, damp and alive: a wild dog, lean muzzle nosing her hand. She uncurled slowly, reaching for her knife as the pack thickened like grey smoke around her.
–Leave it out, the leader told her. We’re hunting. Make yourself useful with that knife and you can come.
–What are you hunting? the girl asked, as she loped along in the middle of the pack. Not bunnies, I hope. I’m bloody sick of bunnies.
The pack brought down a deer and the girl built a fire and feasted on the smoky meat. She moved at night with the dogs and slept all day in the shelter of the caves where they made their home. The Sun relented and allowed rain to fall in tiny, glittering showers that stunned the dry earth. The girl sipped rainwater and made soup from the wild greens that sprang up at her feet.
At the forest’s edge, she bid goodbye to the wild dog pack and wished them happy hunting.
–Bloody holiday for us, the pack leader told her. Carrion everywhere, near every head of cattle dead. Still. Keeps the muscles working, eh?
–What happens when you’ve eaten all the cattle? she asked him.
–People next. Then I dunno, each other? Dogs is dogs, eh?
The girl thanked him and walked on. She’d abandoned her sandals with their notched soles long ago, at day 133. Her long feet were dry and fissured with cracks as the earth she strode on. She could tell she had almost reached the ocean because of the new voices she heard: a low, buzzing thrill of plankton, the high yodel of jellyfish, and below them all, the deep, mournful ache of whale song.
Also, there was a sign.
OCEANTOWN 23 KM.
The girl kept walking, listening for the thrill and boom of the surf. She licked her lips and tasted salt. She was by the ocean. And the Sun and Moon were still watching.
–Well, the Sun said. That’s a tough young woman. To walk all that way in her condition. Did you know?
–I guessed, the Moon replied.
For the girl’s outline had swelled, like a ripening mango. Inside her belly, like stone inside a fruit, her child rippled its limbs. When she reached Oceantown she found the library and went in to send her mother an e-mail. It read:
Wasn’t him from the Mini-Mart anyways. It was your ex.
–That bastard, the Sun yelled.
–Can’t you do something? the Moon asked. Smite him down with sunstroke, or something.
–I’ll bloody do worse. The Sun muttered. Always knew that bloke was seven shades of a shit.
The Sun snuck a couple of rays in to dazzle the mother’s ex-boyfriend, who was driving home half–cut in his truck from the pub. Flew off the bridge and landed upside down in the dry riverbed, wheels spinning. Broke his neck in one clean snap.
–Good riddance. The Moon cheered. What’s going to happen to her?
The girl reached the ocean on a dark, windy night. She couldn’t wait for dawn, so walked to the end of the pier and held her arms out to the darkness while jealous waves tossed and spumed at her feet.
–What’s going to happen to this place? she asked aloud. She crouched to listen to the ocean between the planks and the booming song of the great whales answered.
–The Great Ice is dying, the whales told her. Calving endless fragments from its bulk. The land is bare and dry now, but the waters are rising. Soon our great blue ocean will cover your lands, your cathedrals, towers and palaces.
–Will my child live? she asked them.
The whales lowered their voices and murmured among themselves. After some thought, they answered.
–One day, your children and your children’s children shall swim in the cerulean waters and look down upon the drowned cities.
–I’d like to see that, the girl said thoughtfully.
Cathedrals and palaces. Towers and cities. These were things of which she knew nothing and yet as the whales sang, she saw herself and her child, their shining, powerful dark backs drifting over empty palaces and ruined citadels.
The girl stayed on in Oceantown. She slept on a bench, its slats warped by the salt water and screws rusted. Now it was almost time for the baby she noticed her skin shone with oil, her hair grew longer every day, thick, full of the water’s light and greener than ever. If it hadn’t been for the itch, she’d have been perfectly happy. The itch was relentless, from the toes of her long feet it travelled up her muscled brown legs and ended at her waist. She went to the town doctor, but all he had to offer was aqueous cream.
–What are you up to? the Sun asked the Moon.
–You feel sorry for them, don’t you? Listen, they had their chance.
The Moon was silent.
–Anyway, the Sun said, in a conciliatory tone. You’re beautiful reflected in the water. It’ll be all water now. Everywhere you look!
–But no one will write poetry to me, the Moon said sadly.
–Or stick bloody great footprints over your face, the Sun added.
The girl slept and watched the ocean and combed her hair with her fingers. Her belly swelled and tightened until the child’s tiny hands and the outline of its skull pressed against her skin like prints in wet earth.
–How’s she going to get that thing out? asked the Sun.
The Moon smiled her secret smile and didn’t answer.
On the day the baby came, the girl was awoken at dawn by great pains that ripped deep within her, rose to an unbearable pitch of terror then subsided, leaving her shaking like one in the throes of a seizure.
–Tearing me apart, little bugger, she tried to say, but was unable to form a single word. The waves broke with her contractions, the whales sang, even the dogs in the distant forest howled in sympathy with her pain.
All day she laboured. The doctor from the town came out to see her, tried to persuade her to the hospital but she wouldn’t go. The Sun set and the Moon rose. Still she laboured on.
–Can’t believe I’m going to miss this, the Sun said.
The Moon thumbed her nose at him, pleased with herself.
In the darkest part of the night, the girl, half–dreaming with her pain, felt herself changing. Her hips creaked as they swung wide, she gripped the silk of her calves and screamed as she watched her feet lengthen and fan. Her legs turned scaled, glossy, emerald green to match her hair. Her breasts stood proud with milk and at last, from between her forked tail, she felt herself split, burst and tear open, as in a rush of seawater, her baby emerged.
The waves lapped, warm and tender, over the pier to bathe him. She nursed him all night, watching his small blue tail unfold and lose its dull bloom, his tiny scales take on a kingfisher glint.
Come morning the Sun peeked over the horizon a full twenty minutes early.
–Knew you were planning something, he said to the smirking Moon.
–Evolution, she told him. They’ll all look like this given time.
The Sun swung higher and the girl and her baby slipped off the pier and splashed into the water. Their forked tails glinted in its bright rays, sea blue and grass green, as they leapt and rolled in the ocean spray. As the Sun dazzled the noonday sky and Oceantown folk crowded the pier to wonder at them, they began swimming, one after the other, towards the far distant sharp, white horizon.