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Australia underwater


WaterBluebird in her heart

'I wish I was beautiful.' Lilia knew her nieces had found the contraband she kept in an old suitcase under her bed. Vogue. Marie Claire. Elle. Magazines — women, clothes, make-up. Desirable things, giddy things that were frowned upon now. Fashion wasn't something that was talked about anymore, not in the wake of environmental catastrophe.

Lilia knew she shouldn't have kept the magazines. The paper was so valuable now — she should've handed them in to the Paper Corp with a scoffing, dismissive gesture. 'Imagine anyone wasting their time looking at fashion, using precious paper so selfishly, so frivolously,' is what she should have said. 'No wonder the world got in such a mess.'

When the sea levels rose nearly 20 years ago and most of her house ended up underwater Lilia had found boxes of magazines in the attic. The only place that was dry. National Geographics, mostly. She'd given them to the Federal Archive for educational use; except for the fashion ones. She looked at them when the import of what had happened became too much. When she couldn't handle the new world order of frugality, selflessness and self-correction. When she caught sight of herself in spotted mirrors and realised fear wasn't beautiful.

'I wish I was beautiful too,' she whispered.

'For the greater good.' It blared from every billboard. It was on the side of buildings, on baseball caps, on T-shirts. People used it as a greeting instead of good morning. It was an initiative of the Social Welfare Org designed to make people feel better for everything they had to give up.

When Lilia thought of the days where she hadn't had to work for Soc Cap Net and surrender 75 per cent of her income; where she'd had her little house near the bay that led off Sydney Harbour; when she'd had a car and a dog and a cat it sometimes became too much for her. She grew anxious and teary and felt there was no point in going on. There was no fun anymore; just hard work and thinking of the consequences of one's actions all the time, day in and out.

The magazines helped her — the fresh, clean images of carefree days where money was no object and seeking to be beautiful was actively encouraged. It was a dream of another world.

The old world had disappeared more quickly than anticipated. After the US economy crashed in 2013 due to a right wing fundamentalist Christian group bombing ten nuclear reactors across the country as a protest against a universal health care system and the legalisation of gay marriage; much of the Midwest and all of New York and California became radioactive and uninhabitable. The fallout was worse than Chernobyl and Fukushima combined.

Lilia still cried about it; she had always wanted to go to California. And now she would never get to see the hummingbirds who lived in Orange County. The hummingbirds were gone.

After the US economy crashed there was a push from the other big economies — China, Indonesia, Brazil — to be the next big economic superpower. Over the next five years oil consumption increased and so did carbon emissions. After the northern hemisphere experienced three of its coldest winters ever in a row and the southern hemisphere slipped into perpetual summer, the reality of climate change became undeniable.

On the day the World Trade Organisation announced there was no oil left the sea levels rose. Lilia still thought of that day as Mother Nature flipping the bird at the human race. 'We hadn't listened. We hadn't listened. Raping, pillaging, polluting the planet until there was nothing left. And as if it wasn't enough to let us squirm in the ramifications of our greed, Mother Nature sent the seawaters to reclaim the broken land.'

Lilia had a compass. A 1941 Royal Navy solid brass compass. Her grandfather had used it in the second world war. Lilia wasn't much of an explorer but she loved that compass. On starry nights she used to pull it out and plot the points on the Southern Cross. She used to find North and just walk, imagining the vastness of the world stretched out before her.

On the day the Mertz glacier in Antarctica melted the needle on Lilia's compass couldn't find north or south. It just kept spinning. Lilia figured that it had finally given up the ghost, being so old, but when she heard on the news the Petermann glacier in Greenland had also melted she knew why the needle was spinning. The poles had been compromised.

Lilia still dreamed about the waters coming. Everybody did. It was a collective post traumatic stress disorder syndrome they all had to endure.

It hadn't happened as expected. Not in a rush like a flood or as dramatically as a tsunami. It was as if someone had left the garden tap on overnight and when you got up in the morning the garden beds and lawn and the little place where you drank your morning coffee and watched the rainbow lorikeets frolic in the bottlebrush trees was half a metre under water. And the next day there was more water. And the next, and the next.

A lot of people refused to leave their homes. Sydneysiders in particular loved their waterfront properties and many of them could not fathom that the mansions that had cost them millions of dollars were going to be permanently under water. There were stories of elderly eastern suburbs socialites loading their antiques into the water taxis that seemed to have popped up all over the place. And drownings. Lots of drownings.

The rich people had the most trouble running for their lives. Their lives were things, assets, collections. Who were they if they had to run and leave them behind?

Lilia remembered two sounds in the aftermath of the waters rising: the endless lapping and drip of murky water, and the sobbing. She joined the search and rescue teams and everywhere they went the sobbing assailed them. But it wasn't the kind of sobbing one partakes in when one is in physical torment, in pain — people were in pain, of course they were, but it was the kind of pain they had never imagined. A hollow desolation that scraped them raw from the inside out.

It was disbelief and regret combined — they had known better and had done nothing and now they had lost everything. It was a 'facing the truth of the situation' kind of pain. And it was worse than any kind of remorse.

As the waters continued to rise Lilia took all she had left and moved to her brother's house in the Blue Mountains — the magazines, three teacups with tiny birds painted on them, some old clothes and a photocopy of a poem by Bukowski. She didn't know where it had come from or why she'd kept it but there it was, scrunched inside one of the teacups.

There's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I'm not going to let anybody see you.

Lilia couldn't bring herself to think about it — the sadness in the poem. Tight-fitting. Holding out its arms like a vortex and sucking everything in.

The birds were gone. Their trees were dead, brittle in the salty, dirty water. It was the thing that Lilia found hardest to bear. She thought that maybe she would have to be like Bukowski to get through the emptiness, to hold a bluebird or a honeyeater or a willy wagtail in her heart and not let it go. Never ever. If she held it, if she kept it, if she never let anyone see it, then maybe a spell would be cast. Maybe one day the birds would return.

The people in the mountains were now the ones with all the power. They were safe all the way up there in their strongholds that used to be called bohemian, places for dropouts, but were now seen as being the most sensible of investments.

The banks were dismantled, the enormous corporations that had more wealth than entire countries were a distant memory. The stockmarket was nonexistent. Psychiatric hospitals were set up to house those who had been rich before, run by the Socialist Capitalist Network, the new form of government that took all your money but gave you everything you needed. Except for birds in the morning.

Lilia worked as a counsellor, holding the hands of people who'd lost millions of dollars. It seems the former rich coped worst with environmental disaster. There were thousands of suicides a week from people who couldn't face life without Dolce and Gabbana and pedicures once a week.

By contrast, the former poor mucked in and sorted things out. Building entire towns in the far reaches of the mountains, planting gardens, selling vegetables and livestock. They generated energy from the waters, restoring the internet and cable television. They were thriving, coming into their own. Their lives were better than they'd ever been. They weren't judged for what they had but for who they were and what they contributed to society.

Lilia heard them singing as they worked. The former poor who were now rich in ways they had never imagined. Even in the stinking, tropical heat they sang — for the world was theirs.

In spite of the singing Lilia's heart ached. She missed the butterflies — wiped out by the increase in temperature — that used to flit about the garden in spring, their movements choreographed with such delicacy and skill that she could have sworn someone, somewhere was waving a baton, casting directions.

She missed things that were so much a part of city life — the smell of croissants baking in the mornings, the doors of delivery trucks opening and closing, the thud of the morning paper as it hit the front door, and car horns. It had been many years since Lilia had heard a car horn blaring.

She liked her life in the mountains. It was peaceful, it was busy, it was a sanctuary, but she missed the city. She missed the mix of industry and nature. She missed the architecture, the feats of engineering. She missed the rose gardens. She missed the birds.

The trees in the mountains still stood. Stalwart. Ramparts against the salty water. Old trees. Aussie trees. Trees that spoke in the wind, that took the never-ending heat and flung it beyond imagining where it dissipated and faded to nothing.

Casuarinas, acacias, melaleucas, the eucalypts. Scented paperbarks, mallees, blackbutts. Stoic. Trustworthy. The sight of them as welcome as a lighthouse at sea. They thrived and they endured, providing food and shade and a sense of hope. They watched the world with a deep knowing and at night Lilia became convinced they moved in concert with the moon and stars.

One day there were cockatoos in the grevilleas near Lilia's brother's house. Only two of them and only there for an instant but enough for grace to descend and possess the spirit. Lilia waited all day the next day for them to return and they did in late afternoon when the ground was turning purple. This time there were four.

She planned with her brother to plant the salt resistant trees in the city areas not decimated by the water — to try and give some life back. So they did. Over time the trees grew and the waters were cleansed and slowly the small animals and the birds returned. Low in numbers but enough to flatten the despair in the soul.

Lilia found she could now sing with the former poor, their songs of praise and joy and laughter. Her prayer, her spell, the bluebird held in her heart had worked its magic. She no longer wished to be beautiful, holding onto the past. The new day was all she wanted. For there was beauty all around being born again. 

Selma SergentSelma Sergent is a writer, editor and blogger. This essay was Highly Commended by the judges of the 2011 Eureka Street/Reader's Feast Award: Australia 2031 


Topic tags: Selma Sergent, Eureka Street/Reader's Feast Award, Australia 2031



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Existing comments

Super article! Now, if we could only get our Fundamentalist Right to stop bombing all attempts to help our situation.

The Worship of Money is behind most of this. Alternative energy systems do exist, however our love of man made money overrides everything. People don't realise you can't eat money! And when the corporations major requirement is make more of the stuff for their shareholders, all consideration for mankind is lost.

We are One with God. God is everywhere - which logically says we are in God - part of God. And, if I hurt another, I must hurt the Whole.

Clem Clarke | 07 September 2011  

If this was highly commended.obviously, grammar, punctuation and syntax are no longer among rhe criteria by which one judges good written expression and the politics of fear is, clearly,not monopolised by the right.

grebo | 07 September 2011  

Oh Grebo - where is your sense of wonder ...metheenks you missed the point altogether...grammar indeed! Sad response to a delightful piece of work.

Denise C | 07 September 2011  

Grebo, your own comment would be more comprehensible with a bit of adjustment of your punctuation — remove that comma after 'obviously' and put it after 'expression', for example.

Gavan | 07 September 2011  

"After the US economy crashed in 2013 due to a right wing fundamentalist Christian group bombing ten nuclear reactors across the country"

The left-wing mainstream media has great success in making people believe that Christians could behave so very badly. No one who calls themselves a true Christian would ever perpetrate such a heinous act.

But there are plenty of people who are outside the Christian faith who would perpetrate such atrocities ...and worse.

As for those who would try to make out that Timothy McVeigh was a "Christian" terrorist which some
left-wing commentators do,--- What a load of nonsense! McVeigh was an atheist and said
that "Science is my God"

Climate Alarmists portend doom and gloom for the future of the world.

Try enjoying life as God gives it to us.

Australia and the world would be so much better off if people decided to live under the Social Reign of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Trent | 07 September 2011  

This is lovely, well-written and filled with hope.

Karen | 07 September 2011  

Selma Sargent is a marvellous writer and this story is superb - should be compulsory reading in schools throughout Australia ;)

Gabrielle Bryden | 08 September 2011  

Thanks to Eureka Street for publishing this. It really is an honour. And thank you all for commenting. I probably am ruffling some feathers with the subject matter but the piece is a fictional essay not necessarily an opinion piece and I do not mean to offend. However, if it makes you think then I am pleased. I suppose what I am really trying to say here is that if we all work together - whatever our ideologies - we can make a difference. So don't be hatin'. And thank you for reading.

Selma | 08 September 2011  

Hear, hear! Gabrielle!

Stephanie Bennett | 08 September 2011  

Excellent story with the right balance of gloom and hope. We need more stories that envisage the future we're making for ourselves....

Juliet Wilson | 08 September 2011  

So sad and beautiful, Selma. I had tears in my eyes towards the end. So glad the cockatoos came back; I could just picture them briefly lifting their crests in exclamation.

daoine | 08 September 2011  

Selma is an amazing writer and this story is fantastic. Filled with hope!

meleah rebeccah | 09 September 2011  

Dear Selma, thanks for that threatening and yet hopeful article!

Jean SIetzema-DIckson | 09 September 2011