by Mark Pooley
Alice lived alone in a little house on a beach on an island off an island off an island at the bottom of the world. Her widowed father had raised her and had built the house from old planks and driftwood he’d collected over the years. It looked like what it was; a salt-bleached crate, a weathered box of flotsam dreams, washed-up and embedded in the dunes.
Today, in remembrance, Alice was excused from her duties at the island’s pharmacy. A year had passed since her father and two others had died defending properties from the first recorded bushfire along the remote peninsula.
Mid-morning, perched in her empty nest, Alice checked her e-mail. Always a reminder of their closeness, the continuity of their shared username seemed a way of holding her father’s presence, and today she would resume her respectful task of forwarding polite closures to his many contacts; not as impersonal, cut-and-paste replies, but – in Jack’s regard for the written word – each a brief, yet considered tribute.
Alice was two years old when her mother died of an undiagnosed metastased melanoma.
Dedicated environmentalists, Stella and Jack had relocated from country Victoria to join the Franklin Dam protests of December 1982. Their success in that battle strengthened their convictions and heralded their calling. They saw Tasmania not only as a new home, but as a new world, an Eden, where devoted believers could set examples for all of humanity to follow, and, given the looming threats, for the wide-eyed couple and their ‘tree-hugging’ cohorts, these were plausible aspirations.
A qualified pharmacist, Stella easily found her place in the capital city, providing a stable income to support her partner’s itinerant employment – a kind of Jack of all trades. Outside of work, their new life was consumed by political activism. As founding members of the embryonic Tasmanian Greens, Stella and Jack dreamt of a southern Utopia where their shared ideals of ecological sustainability, grassroots democracy, social justice and peace seemed – in the early eighties – not an impossible dream, but a clear and reachable star.
Their demanding schedules, allied with Jack’s random hours, left little time for a conventional home life but, a decade later, against the odds and quite by accident, Alice was conceived.
Although supported by friends and colleagues, the years following Stella’s death proved too difficult for Jack, and as Alice approached school-age, in melancholic retreat, he swapped their Hobart cottage for a beachside acreage on Bruny Island where his skills were always in demand. Located at the southern end of the isthmus, the island’s only school was a ten minute bike-ride from the fibro shack they now called home. Calm summer nights were spent outdoors, stargazing from a rough timber scaffold that was later to become the floor level of the house. One evening, captivated by a dazzling aurora, Alice asked her father,
“Is Mummy up there?”
Jack did not hesitate to impart a simple philosophy, “Yes, she is Sweetheart. Everything that ever was and ever will be is out there. Like all things, we’re just a heap of teeny-weeny particles arranged in different ways. Sometimes we have to change our location, but we exist forever. We can’t see her anymore, but yes, the teeny-weeny particles of Mummy will always be with us.”
He then proceeded to tell Alice a story of a faraway island – a beautiful green island. It was covered in lush vegetation, with forests of towering trees, cascading rivers and deep lakes. All sorts of animals lived healthy, happy lives, surviving on the sweet fruits the island’s plants produced. Everything seemed in perfect balance. But then, the cruellest and greediest of the animals suddenly overran the island, stealing all the fruits, invading and destroying the forests the other animals called home. And the more they multiplied in number, the more destructive they became. The beautiful green island had no defence against these greedy creatures who soon stripped all the life from its surface, leaving just a barren, deserted rock in the middle of an endless sea. Realising their fate, a few of these creatures had built canoes from the last of the island’s trees and had paddled away in search of another green island.
Storytelling was Jack’s innate way of educating his young daughter. The environmental message was always clear, but it was only now, all these decades later, that Alice could see another painful metaphor buried within her father’s story of that night. But was it intentional? As an infant, she was never expected to understand the symbolic link between her mother’s malignant cells and the ‘Island’ parable.
Today, as ever, Alice relies on the evidence of a single photograph to verify her attendance at a vigil beneath the dappled canopy of a Salamanca park. A fading snapshot; a black-bereted toddler clasping her father’s hand amid the eulogies. Hundreds had gathered to show and voice their respect, their love for a shining star among their constellation.
Alice continued checking the inbox. As usual, the bulk of her father’s e-mail was from conservation groups, local Independents and The Greens, the most poignant this morning being one from the branch of the Victorian country town where he and Stella had lived before their Franklin River calling. An invitation to participate in an essay contest seemed a fitting way to connect posthumously with his old community. But what would Jack want to say, and should it be submitted under his name? Alice spent hours dwelling on the matter; thinking back to the bushfire and how their two closest neighbours had helped her father save their property before heading off along the peninsula, never to return. She looked around, scanning the budding regrowth. Like the water tanks, the shed and solar panels had survived the blaze, as had the big battery and aerobic-treatment system they’d installed together just a month before that fateful day. And now, through welling tears, the warmest memories: Sunday picnics with the abalone divers on Partridge Island, dolphins escorting their kayaks across Adventure Bay, and here, their everyday bliss, the furling, foamy crests along their pristine shore. Streaming tears, Alice could see her father stepping through the army of soldier crabs to cast his line into the afternoon shallows of a receding tide. She held the image till it withered in the flames, recalling the ferocity –– that scorching day –– the howling gale –– the blanketing cloud –– her escape to the beach –– her sleepless night in the community hall.
Alice signed out, then created a Word document and selected a font. She stared for a while at the insertion point. Again, what would Jack want to say? She remembered her childhood. Those aurora nights under the stars. She imagined her mother rallying the anti-logging protesters. She thought of the big picture. Yes, that’s it! The Big Picture! She would elevate the ‘Island’ parable to the grandest of stages with her mother as the star.
But this time Stella would survive . . .
Once upon a time a star was born. A shining light among her peers.
As her childhood ferment simmered, and as she blossomed into youth, Stella came to learn she was not really a star at all, finding her place within a group of similar entities orbiting what she now knew to be the real star – a blazing star – at the centre of her circle of celestial friends. To her close and distant relatives, Stella Earth became an inspiration, universally admired and quietly envied by her less-fertile neighbours. Not too big nor too small, Stella portrayed the perfect heavenly body, a creative, life-giving miracle – a force of nature – whose stunning complexion harboured an ecosystem of minuscule carbon-based organisms. All of these dermal parasites existed in nicely-balanced harmony, replenishing her glowing visage with cyclical precision for eons. This was the secret of Stella’s unique ascendancy.
Of course, as with all lifeforms, her existence was fragile – her beauty provisional upon the stability of a rare symbiosis. When only in middle-age, Stella Earth could sense something was wrong, she could feel her temperature rising, her balance had shifted. The prognosis was dire – a fatal disease. The most evolved of her parasitic communities – the apex predator at the top of the food chain – had rapidly multiplied, threatening her stable ecology. Over the course of a fleeting century – in a blink of cosmic time – when all had seemed in perfect harmony on Stella Earth, this rapacious organism had turned malignant, determined to reproduce exponentially and to dominate, manipulate, and to kill off what it saw as the inferior, benign parasites, corrupting the microbial balance supporting Stella’s very existence. Her shroud was thinning, her arteries were clogging with poisons. To little avail, Stella tried to resist the abuse with decades of fire and tempest, but by the time her parasitic bacteria became aware of the impending danger, it was too late. The swarming multitude had chosen to ignore the fact that Stella was herself a living breathing entity and completely reliant on an invisible, yet protective membrane – a thin, life-supporting outer cocoon – and without it, her sapphire lustre would fade to that of her inanimate neighbours.
Fortunately, this Grimm fairy-tale has a happy ending. Stella’s recovery was slow, but she could start to breathe again – her cancer was in remission. The billions of devouring parasites were now subjected to the very same universal laws-of-nature that had created them.
First, the warring predators faced-off, then a lethal pandemic took its toll, and finally, in the nick of space-time for Stella, the malignant parasites took aim and destroyed themselves in one chain-reactive apocalypse. Nature’s own chemotherapy – her balancing act – was an opponent that even the brilliant, deserving, self-righteous, myth-worshipping, all-conquering parasites could never hope to defeat.
As Stella Earth convalesced in a millennium of calm, and when the choking clouds had dissipated, she slowly regained her stellar beauty. Her friends and neighbours cheered; they always knew Stella was a real survivor.
But, lamentably, in cautious, creeping numbers, mutations of the apex species – still victims of their mindset – abandoned their caves for kingdoms and wars, but now, as Einstein had predicted, with weapons of sticks and stones.
An extended metaphor from a complicit parasite:
Imagine isolating just a few of the seven billion malignant cancer-cells from a dying patient.
Imagine these microscopic cells could converse with us and comprehend our concerns. We would lecture them on the danger of their growth and of their (and their host’s) inevitable demise. No doubt, they would all cry in unison,
“But we’re intelligent and caring creatures . . . we’re only trying to survive!”
Her childhood teachings had inspired Alice. This was her way of honouring a woman who, though lost to her memory, existed still in album glimpses and in her late father’s recollections.
The parable and its footnote were merely renditions – reworkings of Jack’s allegories.
Alice attributed the essay to her parents – ‘Stella and Jack’ – in the hope that some old acquaintances from their Victorian hometown would read it and remember them.
Following Jack’s death, Alice continued his membership of the Australian Greens. Removed by distance from the frontline activities of the state branch, she always tried to support the noble cause to which her parents had dedicated their lives.
Nibbling on leftovers in her lonely eyrie, Alice watched the nightly news: Disturbing drone-footage from Queensland capturing the charred remains of incinerated homes and vehicles now being swept away by flash flooding. The Prime Minister suggests Australians ‘should adapt’ to a changing climate. Next: A Catalyst Special –– ‘Mars: Our Second Home’.
Alice leant toward the window. A cloudless nightfall. Across a silvern bay she could see an aurora rising. Down through the swale, up among the windswept grasses of a foredune crest, Alice settled with her laptop.
To a linenfold horizon of rainbow hues, she delivered her essay to her parents in tearful homage. The Southern Lights were beckoning. Cradled in the womb of a cosmic web,
Alice surrendered to the infinite universe of teeny-weeny particles.