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At home with algae

Second place (fiction) winner in the Honi Soit Writing Competition 2019

An abstract background of red, black, grey and blue, with triangles, lines and crescents. The main text says "At home with algae."

This entry was awarded second place in the fiction section of the Honi Soit Writing Competition 2019, judged by award-winning author Roanna Gonsalves.

Yasmeen can hear Moss rustling inside the wall. She gets on all fours and peers through the fissure her cousin was supposed to have patched up last week. She cups her hands to her temples to drown out the dying light and spots the curious little explorer sniffing impetuously at a belly-up beetle. Yasmeen reaches blindly for the veggie bag next to her. It only takes a spinach leaf to coax Moss away from this memento mori and back out into the dusk-lit room, but he is incorrigible. The rabbit snatches the spinach leaf from her hand and disappears back into the wall before Yasmeen can even think to grab him. If that’s where he wants to be, so be it, she thinks.

Yasmeen retires outside and watches the last vestiges of a blue Bana’murrai’yung day disappear. Down by the riverbank, some of the other adults are languorously preparing the last meal of the day. The teens are setting up swags nearby, and the dogs are lounging. The few children of the group, usually a source of joy around this time, are dawdling quietly, half-together and half-alone, in between the ironbarks just downstream. Watching them, Yasmeen breathes a weird sigh of relief. For so long out here in the mess of the world, some folks—most of all the young ones—still respond in ways that make sense.

She feels a fuzzy presence brush across her ankle. It’s Moss, who’s had a change of heart. He bounds down the steps and zig-zags stop-start around the stilts. Disappearing then into the bed of dry leaves, laid down in an attempt to stimulate the evanescent bug life, Moss rustles and rustles then resplendently pops out the other side with a clump of casuarina needles stuck between his ears. Yasmeen laughs. We speak the same language.

After inspecting the stilts, Yasmeen takes Moss in her arms and they make their way down to the water, towards where Ruby is sitting between the cooks and swags and the meandering children. Ruby is sitting alone on a milk crate. Yasmeen hands them the rabbit and waves to the cooks upstream before she settles herself down on the dampish ground.

Hi lovely.

Hey.

Ruby slumps forward on their crate and Yasmeen leans on her elbows alongside. They watch the breathless black water churn and the algae heave, thick with guile. Silently they share a longing for when the water used to forget. Now, in an irrevocable reversal, the world drips with oily rememberings while Yasmeen’s own memory is more porous than a rabbit’s. She can’t recall the names or origins of probably over half the folks in the group, but she keeps faith with them as best she can. Relies on them, even, to fill in the details of how she and they got to the here and now; but even then, the details always change. Lacking an authoritative history, they have only a surfeit of stories, weaving in and out of one another, or drifting, veering into one another in the indifferent air. The stories are not often happy; often, they are jumbled and confusing. Yasmeen regrets the collapse of naïve causality, when the crises within the world’s stories still could seem of a workable scale and complexity. But she knows this way of accounting for the world, of mirroring its utter collapse in collapsed utterances, is far more accurate. Let alone far more alive; past, present, and future pieced together in the smoky air every morning at breakfast, and falling apart every night over dinner.

What are they making? Ruby asks.

I think lentil soup and steamed veggies.

Yum.

Are the kids ok?

I was going to ask you.

They don’t ask such questions often. Everyone tries to keep tabs on how everyone is, and Yasmeen usually knows who to look out for, even when she can’t recall their suffering. At the same time, she knows it is healthy—for want of a better word—to sit with suffering, to take it day by day like the weather, sometimes better, sometimes worse—but necessary—and almost always erratic. Not to choke your truer atmospheres. With last night’s ponderous rain, Yasmeen weirdly feels she can breathe again, and also that her backside has gotten damp. She briefly picks burrs off Ruby’s socks, then stands up and surveys for the children. Ruby watches as Yasmeen walks off, down towards the ironbarks.

Lillo spots her first. The young girl is behind one of the trees, pressed against its trunk, peering beyond it like a half-hearted sentry. Yasmeen smiles at her. None of the kids ever smile back, but out of instinct, Yasmeen takes her stony gaze as a cue to approach more circuitously. She walks up into a thicker crop of dead or dying casuarinas, passes through and arcs back. Lillo faces her openly now, and one of the other three, Jimmy, watches from another trunk, while the other two stand apart, facing the riverbank, the four of them forming a sweet, sad constellation.

How ya doing?

Not expecting a spoken response, Yasmeen gestures for Lillo to come for a cuddle. She obliges not unlike Moss did the spinach leaf. They share the briefest contact, desperate and wanting, and Lillo walks off past Yasmeen as if she hadn’t been there at all. Sticks crunch beneath her boots.

Don’t you want some dinner?

Lillo slows down but doesn’t look back. Yasmeen turns to Jimmy, then to the other two.

Dinner?

Waiting a minute or two for the air to attenuate, Yasmeen starts for the others, and the children eventually follow, each at their own, meandering pace. It’s bluish-dark and the shadows are emerging in their benign and malevolent way. An effluvial gust of wind blows gently from the algae- coated river. There’s an oppressive urgency to the slowness of everything; a harrowing, insidious creeping. Yasmeen remembers to breathe and feel her feet on the ground. She keeps her eyes locked on the neutral human light of the solar lamp beneath which the cooks are ladling out dinner.

Express anti-survivalists, they give a healthy portion of produce to the dogs, and Ruby, who’s rejoined the group, treats Moss to a few more spinach leaves before starting their soup. It is important to imagine abundance; here in this briefly bountiful space together, folks murmur warmly to one another, quietly content, eating slowly and well, treasuring these traces of non-precarious life. Yasmeen can’t help but smile as she arrives. She says some hellos and gratefully goes to grab a bowl before she sees Ruby gesturing to her. Beside them, a bowl of soup is waiting.

Thanks lovely.

Ruby scrunches up their face in a cute smile. Yasmeen sits and starts eating. Together they sit on the inner of two loose circles, the four of the children coming to sit behind, one by one. Jimmy, the last in, approaches from the serving table chewing dolefully on a stem of broccoli.

The dinner descends into calm and circumspect silence; no stories tonight. Yasmeen sighs quietly. How am I supposed to feel? She dips into her own head for a while until one of the dogs paces by and sphinxes at Lillo’s feet. Yasmeen turns and smiles bittersweetly to the children, but in the very same moment, Jimmy’s head is in his hands. Two or three of the other adults notice him starting to cry. With Yasmeen and Ruby they assemble around him, kneeling and cooing. Everyone has noticed now. To appease their attention, Jimmy makes the smallest gesture to his bowl, then withdraws completely into himself, sobbing, overwhelmed. Yasmeen sees. A moth’s joyous, helical frenzy has ended on the cooling surface of Jimmy’s soup. Another universe of sensations, unceremoniously extinguished. Lillo and the other two barely react.

It was only four days ago, Yasmeen recalls, that the children had wondered at a dragonfly surveilling their breakfast.

* * *

Yasmeen sighs deep from her diaphragm.

It’s late.

She puts on her headlamp and quietly leaves Ruby to sleep. Moss notices but is unfazed.

Yasmeen walks down the outside steps and turns to stare back at the modest little structure the two of them built. Our little cabana is not so bad, even if the walls are crumbling apart. She feels a groundswell of warmth and love within herself.

She walks slowly down to the river and sits. Time slows down. Soon she’s not sure if she’s been there for mere minutes or for hours. All the while, all around her, contaminated, compromised life carries on, but it does so less and less conspicuously every day. The algae, bereft of speech, seems almost respectfully mournful for its observance of silence in this increasingly soundless world, even as it chokes the river with its cryptic conative thirst.

Yasmeen thinks she can hear a gentle sloshing, but it’s just her brain filling in the gaps. There’s not much left to think.

She returns, her legs and her head heavy, to the ironbarks downstream where the children had been. She stands by the same tree Lillo had, running her hands over the congealed kino, like blood frozen from the wound. Yasmeen wishes Lillo were awake and with her here again. She would grip the child in her embrace and not let her go.

Eventually, the darkness dissipates into day, but Yasmeen knows it’s foolish to think this is meaningful. In the shadows as in the bare, blinding daylight, worlds are cruel, hopeful, full of hurt, love, and awe. But they are going. No-one feels their going more than the children.