It’s time for me to go into the earth.
I feel that imaginary, frigid wind blowing across my skin, even though I’m protected by dozens of metres of steel and double-glazed, bulletproof glass. Before I go, I want to finish my chocolate pudding. Cream slides down its steep sides like the doomed terminal face of a melting glacier turning to forked streams over volcanic soil. My mouth waters.
“It hurts me to see you like this,” Pete says, his buttoned overcoat, grey cuffs and gunmetal timepiece swimming into my peripheral view. I don’t ask him to sit at my table but he sits. His grey eyes fasten pitifully onto my face over the football-sized pudding that waits on my plate.
If only that were true, I think, irritated. It would make me happy to see you hurt.
“Like what?” I say innocently, carving into the pudding with my spoon. Steam and liquid chocolate erupt from its centre.
“Like this. There was a time I thought you were smart enough, strong enough, to be in the parliament instead of on the sidelines. But look at you. One setback and you’ve gone to hell. You’re going to give yourself a heart attack.”
“You care about my heart, Pete? That’s so sweet.”
Not as sweet as this sweet, sweet pudding.
His pity is gone now. Only anger is left in his eyes. Pure, white hot anger. He’s heard what he expected to hear, confirmation that I’ve tripled my body weight over the past six months to punish him for rejecting me. Even though I’ve admitted to nothing of the sort.
“Eat yourself to death, then. You’re only hurting yourself.”
“That’s not what you just said.”
I smile at him as he walks away. People in the food court watch him go. He’s on television, they whisper to one another. The new anchorman. He must have been pumping that woman for information. She’s one of the Minister’s science advisers. She knows about the meteor, the one that’s coming close enough to cast a shadow over us.
That woman, they say, or sometimes, that fat woman. Despite decades of experience, I can’t say exactly where the tipping point is between that woman and that fat woman. A certain amount of extra weight is expected in a desk job. Obesity becomes ever more common. But there is a point where the invisibility of the unattractive woman becomes the behemoth impossible to ignore. Instead of skimming over you, the eyes stop, and they ask themselves, Where does she buy those enormous jeans? What size underpants does she wear? How does she get out of bed?
It is my bedtime. I can’t even taste the pudding, now; it’s just a floury pressure in my mouth; in my gut. My gorge is rising. Only a few more spoonfuls to go.
When I go to the front counter to pay for my pudding, the waitress says, “See you tomorrow, Miss Mennin?”
“No,” I say. “I’m going overseas on an assignment.”
“Oh, how long will you be away?”
“Smart move! You’ll be missing the Canberra winter.”
I have always missed it. Sometimes, when I wake, there’s still enough snow, and I’m slight enough, to go skiing for a week. More often than not, though, what’s left is a thin, transparent crust of ice, split by the scarlet lignotubers of snow gums, their yawning and stretching already begun.
The basement holds the smell of apples.
Apples haven’t been stored here for twenty years, but the earthen walls won’t let the aroma fade; they’re passing judgement on me for replacing the apples. I am no autumnal keeper of seeds, sun-warmed slice of the seasons, but a sleeping infertile abomination; unnatural accident; hidden shame.
Despite that, after all these years I’ve attained a kind of rapport with the apple seeds in jars and the sacks of old grain. It used to be a game with my mother, to guess which seeds were still alive. We’d split them to see the green inside or the ashy layers of the dead ones.
Back then, I used to cheat by feeling the weight of them in my palm. Life is heavy.
But now I can tell without touching them. Somehow, I can smell the life in them.
My mother bought the orchard, and with it, the barn, when I was six years old. I told her I couldn’t sleep properly in my bed. I felt cold. I wanted darkness and dirt all around me.
She cried, that first time. Stayed beside me and cried and waited for me to wake. She cries a lot, since it happened. I should phone her laboratory, now, to let her know I’m tucking myself in for the long sleep, but she’ll only cry and apologise, and there’s no point in it.
She was trying to invent a cure for obesity, a one-off hibernation that would melt the fat away. When she couldn’t get approval, she decided to test it on herself. It was her own DNA that she used to make the virus target-specific; to make it safe, she thought.
Only, her DNA is in me, too. It’s these little unintended consequences that always catch them out. Why is that? When any normal, not-smart person could have picked the fatal flaw? Her immune system fought the virus off, much to her dismay.
But I was only six years old.
The apple press and the copper still are long gone. No more bottles of cider rest on the racks. If I live long enough, maybe my essence will seep into these walls.
Maybe the basement will smell of me, long after I am gone.
I dream of fire.
When I wake, for a moment I believe that a forest of mushrooms has grown up around me. I can’t see them, in the dark, but I smell them.
Why is it so dark?
When I open the trapdoor, there’s no longer a barn to block out the sky. Only fetid, rotting humus. And the sky is grey, grainy, like an old black and white television set refusing to tune.
The city is gone. I stare down from my hilltop at a plain devoid of anything green or growing.
I can think of only one explanation. The meteor did not pass by. Dust from the impact has blocked solar radiation and caused the death of all plants. The death of animals that feed on plants. The death of animals that feed on animals that feed on plants.
Hunger rises in me. I am awake. I need food.
There are mushrooms. Valleys of edible fungi. I pluck them; suck them from wooden surfaces. I dig for them in the soil. My clawed fingers emerge, triumphant, tangled with worms. I swallow the worms whole, unwilling to taste them, but unable to discard them. My choices are few.
The sky brightens and darkens and brightens again. I don’t see the sun. I don’t feel its warmth. For an instant, I don’t want to obey my disgusting urge to eat; what is the point of living when everyone else is dead?
My life was always lonely. I had my mother’s love, but that was all. I loved them, though. All those unique and imperfect people. I showed my love by writing the best reports I knew how to write; doing the best research I knew how to do. My warnings didn’t protect them.
It turns out there was no point to me then, and no point to me, now, but perhaps I am more animal than I know, because my rational mind is not able to override my instincts.
I use the worms to bait snares for carrion-eating birds. Their meat is dark. I eat it raw. The spring is colder than any spring I’ve ever known. The bird skins with their glossy black feathers, I make into a blanket to keep warm, stitching them together with wooden slivers; a blanket of blunt needles.
My mother is dead. She must be dead. Everyone is dead.
I can’t stop eating, even when I’m bawling my eyes out.
The next time I wake, the world is a little brighter.
“I miss you,” I say to the smell of my mother that lingers even after my eyes are all the way open.
If she hadn’t done this to me, I’d be dead, too. But I know I’m not able to reproduce. I’m no saviour of the human race. I wouldn’t be, even if there was a man hibernating beside me. I loved Pete because he seemed like an uncaring husk, but I could sense the seed of compassion inside him. It never got a chance to grow. His corpse is here, somewhere. Worms, mushrooms. Perhaps I have eaten organic material that was once part of him.
“Peter Samford,” I say to the clear sky, “I wouldn’t sleep with you if you were the last man on Earth.”
Sunlight warms my skin. Immediately I feel optimistic.
Are there others?
There are always others.
We’re like cockroaches.
Once the worst of my hunger is sated, I set off to find them.
I walk down the hillside, wrapped in my raven cloak. Underfoot, ferns are busy uncurling. Moss is beginning to spread. My clothes, my shoes, are too big, but I’ll grow into them.
I stop to eat. Worms, mushrooms. Like knowing which seeds are viable, I know which mushrooms are safe. It wasn’t always the way; I’m like a human pig, now, sniffing for truffles. Have my cells been instructed to manufacture pig proteins as well as grizzly bear ones? Only my mother would know.
My mother’s gift; the gift that keeps on giving. She used to pick the mushrooms off her pizza. It was the texture, like slugs, she said.
I have eaten slugs and I disagree.
I eat dandelion shoots and pigweed. I gobble sour, under-pollinated blackberries and the sweet heads of kangaroo grasses. I catch birds and the now abundant frogs. There are streams of clear water. I drink from them.
There’s nobody in the scorched, flattened remnant of the city. No secret tunnels. No footprints in the ash.
Cold catches me before I can walk to the coast, to the next, bigger, second city. I dig a tunnel and reinforce it. I sleep.
It takes most of my waking months to walk the rest of the way.
I smell the snow-in-waiting, think: It’s three years since I sat at the parliament house cafeteria, eating chocolate pudding.
The second city, too, is burned to the ground, but roofs of rubble have been erected over entrances to underground car parks. Footprints mark the ground between the cracked, patchwork concrete slab that the city once stood on and the freshwater sources that slide curious fingers around it.
When I see the dark silhouettes moving, I stay low. What bestial depths have these people sunk to? I don’t care to know. Not now.
Not when snow is coming to old Sydney Town, too early and too deep. If I don’t dig a shelter now, it will be too late, too difficult to break through the ice.
I take a last, deep drink from a subzero stream, and hear a voice that belongs to memory.
“Kate,” says Peter Samford, aghast, stumbling back from the water’s edge, upsetting his wheelbarrow full of water bottles. “Kate Mennin?”
His head is a skull. His eyes are sunken. I see his ribs at the open collar of his shirt.
“You’re not real,” he shouts at me. “You’re not real.”
He is starving. Yet he has survived. In my pre-hibernation condition, I am four times his mass, though he remains taller than me, a shivering skeleton.
“One more winter,” I say. “Make it through one more winter and the earth will be returned to you, Peter Samford.”
He runs away, leaving his wheelbarrow behind.
Deciding to leave it hidden, I gently fold my raven-feather cloak.
My clothes? I can’t take them off. They’re the only ones I have. Four years in the same clothes. The abandonment of my normal hormonal cycles to the grizzly’s fat storage and hibernation mechanisms has meant no menstrual blood to musk them, but they reek, all the same, of soil and sweat and sorrow.
They are ten sizes too big, hanging like a collapsed tent over the bones of my shoulders. I could steal from the starving stick-people, but they might die. Stealing seems more serious when there are lives at stake.
At the same time, it seems entirely more necessary. It’s how this country was made, I suppose, before it was blasted clean.
The footprints connecting the city to its fresh water have become well-trodden paths. Men and women in army uniforms take note of my arrival. My stomach is audible.
I’m as skinny as they are. They direct me to a kind of refugee camp that overlooks a harbour littered with steel wrecks. A grey-bearded man with watery eyes gets up from an old piece of carpet. He’s winding the ends of bits of wire together to make a longer spool.
“I’m Ted,” he says. “I’ll show you where to go.”
The bridge is rusted, but it still stands. I spot another refugee camp on the north side of the harbour. There are no gulls. Nor are there people fishing.
“What is your name?” an old woman asks me in a soft voice when we reach the main building. It’s made of salvage, its supports of different materials, different lengths, but it’s well-made; it doesn’t rattle in the chill salt wind.
“Kate,” I say. I haven’t said it aloud for so long, I barely recognise it as mine.
“Mennin,” I say, and she laughs as she records it in the yellowed pages of a spiral-bound book.
“You don’t want to tell me? That’s fine. Mennin is as good a name as any. Ted can show you where to shower, eat and rest. We’ll assign work tomorrow morning.”
I ask her to look for my mother’s name. It’s why I’ve come. It’s what I’m there for.
“No,” the old woman says at last, after skimming the pages of the book. “No record of her.”
“Please, let me look,” I say. Her eyesight is probably hopeless.
Reluctantly, she passes over the book.
It’s not her eyesight. My mother’s name is not there.
Peter Samford’s name is.
“Pete Samford,” I mutter as Ted leads me to the cold showers.
“You mean the Priest,” Ted says, his furry eyebrows shooting up. “Have you come to worship? Of course, that’s why you’ve taken that name.”
“Worship who? What?”
“Mennin,” he says. “She’s the earth goddess. The Priest saw her in a vision last winter. She told him the earth would be returned to him. Do you wish to attend the ceremony?”
“No,” I say. I don’t want to see Pete, crazy or not. And I don’t feel any urge at all to correct Ted when it comes to the supposed vision. If belief in the earth goddess kept Samford from dying over winter, who am I to set him straight?
Besides, nobody can know what I am. Not now, not when there isn’t enough food to go around. They’d despise me more than ever, I think.
Just then, I glimpse colourful pictures on the walls of the bunkrooms. The rooms are terrible, claustrophobic spaces, each with a dozen pair of men’s boots lined up outside the door. Bundled shapes of sleeping adults lie on some of the simple, shelf-like bunks, but it’s the gleaming posters that catch my eye through the open doors of the rooms.
It’s fat porn. All of it. Naked women rolling in calorific wealth.
I stop still in the doorway and stare at it, astounded.
Ted retraces his steps to see what I’m looking at. He grunts, takes my sleeve and leads me away, to the mess at the very end of the corridor. I am given a small bowl of porridge and a vitamin C drink. My raucous stomach refuses to be silenced.
In the night, I leave the little settlement. I walk down to the shoreline and stuff my face with seaweed and jellyfish off the sand. In the morning, I climb the sandstone cliffs to find eggs and snakes to eat.
Then I eat mushrooms. It occurs to me that there were no mushrooms in the settlement. No wild greens. I have no time to spare for them at first, but as the months pass and I grow fatter and sleeker than I have since the impact, with more and more plant sugars to feed on, I realise I have a little time to spare.
A little time to gather mushrooms and leave them in baskets outside the rubble houses of the settlers.
A little time to take their sacks of grain and sort them into viable and non-viable seeds.
The children who are supposed to watch the grain are always napping. They are thin and short on energy. I can’t blame them for falling into exhausted sleep. One moonlit night, a little girl opens her bleary eyes and catches me cross-legged on her tarpaulin, pawing through a sack of barley. The time when I could spring lightly to my feet and dash into the trees is months behind me. I’m wearing my full weight and my raven cloak, and my skeleton is groaning with it in the chill.
I take a single seed from the sack.
“This one,” I whisper to her. “This one is the only one that will grow.”
She takes it reverently, her eyes popping.
“Thank you, Mennin,” she whispers back.
“I’m going now. Please don’t wake the others.”
Years later, it is they who leave offerings for me.
Baskets of tomatoes, sugar cane and kiwi fruit. All pollinated by the wind. Bottles of strawberry cider. I am an autumn goddess. That’s the season when they see me walking at the edges of their new civilisation, hands outstretched to catch falling yellow leaves, wishing they were butterflies, straining for the sound of honeybees. There is no apple harvest; never will be again. Children will find the basement one day, and crawl into it, and how will they describe the smell?
I can’t say where the tipping point is between skinny, wandering woman and Mennin, the Earth Mother. But there is a point where they can’t ignore me any longer. Though I keep myself hidden as best I can, they spot me, sometimes. I hear them shouting to one another and realise I’ve been seen.
Sometimes, I stop so they can talk to me. I still get lonely. I still talk to my mother’s ghost.
“Mennin,” a bony, black-haired girl cries. “Mennin, will you bless my fields?”
I turn in a circle of ebony feathers, a circle of early morning mist. My face is dirty. My eyes are wide.
“Yes,” I call back to her. “I will bless them.”
The girl drops to her knees. Her brothers, her mother and her father kneel beside her. Their bare knees are in rich soil. I have eaten worms here before.
“Will you grant me a child, Mennin?” the girl begs.
“Soon,” I say.
I wrench myself away. The air is still, but I am windswept.
It is time for me to go into the earth.