Fiction

Hope sends a message

A RAGGED-­EDGED piece of structural plywood on the edge of town carries a message, scrawled in red spray-paint: ‘We were the first, we were always the first.’ People, wrapped tight against the bitter cold, move silently through autumnal streets in the sallow, shallow weak daylight, pushing against a howling wind that blows onto the land from the sea. The landscape outside the town is an endless vista of mud and stone peppered with sad little fragments of green.

I can’t help but wonder what has brought them here – why this place, this treeless town of mud and rocks that seems to have become a home, perhaps a sanctuary, for so many? It is one of the most inhospitable landscapes inhabited by humans. If this is home, how bad must where they came from be?

I am here to get the feel of the place; to understand why they are here, at the edge of the world, keeping hope alive. I need that hope and I think I am not alone in that sentiment. That is why I was sent, why I agreed to come, why this piece is being published – unless it has been suppressed. I am displaced as much as the people here; my family have not been to our homelands for generations.

Perhaps we need places like this to know what hope and freedom look like.

Bamboo scaffolds and rust-­pitted recycled cranes dominate the skyline, every one of the cranes flying the Australian Aboriginal flag on its cable. The village is a labyrinth of stone cottages, tents, plasterboard and rusted sheet-­metal shacks – a stark reminder that the population here is growing faster than organisation and construction can keep pace. The steel and concrete buildings under construction might be enough for the rapidly growing population, but I suspect that the people here will be forever playing catch-­up with their population.

Wind turbines reach for the sky, their poles erupting jauntily from rooftops, from between houses and from the rocky beach. The howling wind is pretty much constant, keeping the battery bank near the airport topped up and powering the entire town. I wonder what people did here for heat and light before they harnessed the wind; I wonder what they do for heat if the batteries run low.

I am headed to an interview with a descendant of the first founders – those who, for want of a better word, colonised this genuinely empty land; this last and perhaps, historically, only true terra nullius. The ground is wet and slippery, the air filled with razors, despite my puffer coat and the layers beneath it. People move like ghosts in the fog, attempting to complete whatever chores and tasks need doing before worse weather settles in. The weather here is famously terrible.

Mason Daniels is a tall, thin young man of medium complexion, his classical Noongar features stark in the dim LED lights; his age is almost impossible to guess. He holds a near-­sacred position in this town as one of the descendants of those known as the First Elders.

His house, from the outside, looks like it has been built from shipping crates and local mud or from shipping containers that are slowly sinking into the soil; it’s at one with the space around it. Inside it’s cluttered but neat, lined with wood like an old-­fashioned cottage, warmed bearable, but only just, by a high-­tech ceramic heater. Aboriginal art covers the walls; books are stacked on every conceivable surface. Daniels is seated, incongruously, in a folding camp chair, his height making him look a bit like a facsimile of the seat, all legs and arms and angles. He unfolds from his chair to make me a coffee but is drinking tea himself.

‘My grandmother told me the story of their arrival on this coast.’ He speaks in a bare whisper. ‘The night flight in a barely airworthy C-­130 Hercules, bought as scrap and repaired as best they could. They only just made it, carrying a few supplies, their books and some hot tents.’

I cannot even imagine the risks they took, the fear, the danger, flying that craft for hours without rest through bad weather at night, maybe seeing it as their last hope. Few of us would attempt that dangerous crossing, carrying children in arms, when failure means near-­instantaneous death.

‘They wanted to save us, to give us some hope. They wanted a better life for us, wanted safety and wanted us to live. I am glad they did it, glad they brought us here, although it’s sometimes hard. We made a home for ourselves and, for now, we are safe.’

He stares wistfully at photos on the walls of himself when a younger man, standing on the deck of a commercial fishing vessel. ‘The cold is in my bones; I can’t even fish anymore. I remember the stories our grandparents told us, of our Country; our stories, the land we may never see again.’

His voice changes as the memory and the story overtake him. ‘We tell our children the stories and the names of the places we haven’t seen for generations. That way those places will always be ours.’

 

AT THE EDGE of town someone has dragged together all the compost, manure and mud they can find to build a market garden: a small cluster of rock-­walled terraces balanced on bare boulders. Rusted steel pipes and twisted wire support climbers, the plants stretching to the sun as if desperate for what warmth it can provide. The compost, garden beds and soil, like much of the town, all smell of fish.

Fay Mac is a more recent arrival, fleeing prosecution and, like all refugees, is welcomed by descendants of the First Elders, who have obvious historical reasons for understanding their plight. Sometimes the kindness of people who have little – those who have suffered, whose land has been stolen, who barely have enough to eat – surprises even me. Those with little nearly always offer what little they have to others.

I sit with Fay on a stone bench at the edge of the market garden. Her watery pale skin is wrinkled by age and ultraviolet; it has the tone of someone who is seasonally burnt to a crisp returning to customary paleness during the long, cold local winters. She speaks to me about the gratitude she feels towards the people who welcomed her. ‘When I had nowhere else to go, they let me come here, and for that I will always be grateful.’

Fay’s voice is melodious and soft, her accent still strong, her voice warming as she speaks. ‘I was a journalist back home, had to flee when they made criticising the government illegal, and I would love to get back to it one day, when I have a chance. But for now this market garden and the generosity of the people here gives me all I need.’

The adaptability and resourcefulness of the residents is obvious everywhere I look: houses built with everything from local stone to the corpses of helicopters; gardens growing vegetables, a couple of lemon trees or – occasionally – a few frightened flowers; steaming compost heaps both feeding the plants and warming the buildings. Nearby is what can be described as a new housing estate or a new camp: everything hammered with rain and splattered with mud.

People at the building sites are tethered to the scaffolds, raising apartment buildings into the wind.

Seldom have I seen such industry, or such desperate energy: everybody is taking advantage of the relatively good weather, building houses and extensions; fishing; growing food. This seems to be the rhythm of the place: work when you can, when there is no rain or snow, because the good weather will not last forever. People shout greetings to each other, in English, Noongar and in languages I don’t recognise. Someone shouts to give my love to Hope.

 

HOPE IS ELDERLY; she never leaves her beautiful cottage, one of the first built out of local stone and concrete, and she can barely move from her bed to the overstuffed couch. She is well looked after: people in the town fight for the privilege of being her carer, to bring her meals, to help her move to the spot among her books and blankets in front of her kerosene heater. Today there’s a young girl – to whom I am not introduced – who stands by to run to the kitchen for toast or for tea in enamelled tin mugs the size of buckets.

I need to lean in and strain to hear Hope speaking, she is so soft voiced. ‘I was the first born,’ she breathes, ‘only days after my parents arrived here. I shouldn’t have survived this long; I didn’t plan or even want to live this long. Soon it will be my time to leave.’

While I am here talking to Hope, watching her drink pannikin after pannikin of tea, a steady stream of dignitaries is coming and going: there is so much traffic that I can’t help but wonder if every day is like this or if curiosity about my presence induced this number of arrivals. Perhaps they believe, like she does, that her time is ending, that soon she will leave this life and that that might be her desire. She has the aura of someone whose time has come, who is not even holding on.

She is an anchor to this place, spiritually, mentally and legally, as its first native-­born. It’s not hard to understand why she is tendered so much respect. When she passes on and her body is returned to the soil, her children and then her grandchildren will be the new anchors. The ‘children of hope’ I have heard them called.

‘I sometimes wish they would leave me be,’ she whispers. ‘I have nothing left to give, nothing more to say. I have given the historical society my papers, I have written down what little I remember. I didn’t ask for this.’

 

THE HISTORICAL SOCIETY is housed in what looks like a prefab classroom from the 1990s and I can’t help but wonder how such a thing could have been transported to this place. There are exhibits, maps, photographs of people trying to cut a village from virgin alien mud and rock. On the faces in the fading photos – the UV here slowly bleaches everything – I see a mixture of hope and fear.

Boornak, the historian and archivist, is a thin woman, perhaps mid-­fifties, but it’s always hard to tell with Noongar mob. ‘It’s difficult to keep the archives in good condition,’ she tells me. ‘Moisture is increasing as the temperature does, the dehumidifiers are struggling, mud tracks everywhere, the terrible sunlight here fades documents, and the freezing dark winters destroy a lot of what we are trying to protect.’ She sounds stressed, her nail-­bitten hands twitching and quivering as she speaks.

‘Even the computers don’t last – the climate here is hard on them and it takes ages to get parts. But it’s important, the information we have here. Without it we might not be able to keep proving our claim. Our lawyers have another case in court ongoing; I spend so much time collating and sending documents I don’t have as much time as I would like to keep this place running.’

The laws that allowed – even encouraged – the Noongar people to claim this land were controversial as soon as they were passed. As land here slowly cleared of ice, as temperatures raised to make the place liveable – even if only just – new treaties gave permission for the nearest Indigenous people to each section of the coast of Antarctica to establish colonies if they could get there and take it.

This allowance was brief: that treaty fell three years later, but any families who had children born on the continent were allowed to stay and to invite others to their colonies. Hope and the other children born in that town gave the Noongar people control over hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of this continent, their possession supported by the United Nations.

Now, the Indigenous-­owned colonies are the only parts of Antarctica not privately owned; mining companies and their armies have taken control of the great swathes of rock and minerals this continent contains. Without the protection of treaties, without an alliance with the socialist Canadian government, the Noongar Territories of Antarctica would not be here.

The colony is a mere seventy-­five years old and has grown painfully slowly: the bad weather and isolation has made permanent buildings nearly impossible to complete. But the more I look around, the more it appears to be thriving: houses of stone peek out from between the more makeshift dwellings, but most buildings are made of shipping containers – the number of configurations they can be arranged into is staggering.

Not everybody is happy, of course. I arrange a meeting, sitting on milk crates behind the fish-­packing warehouse at the screw-­pile docks, with a hacker and activist known as Noorn, the snake. They greet me wearing a mask, mouth covered to muffle their voice. I have to sit close to understand them, so close I can smell fermented fish and smoke on their breath. Smoked and fermented fish is the main food source in the town, and fish is pretty much the only export, as the people here stand firmly against mining – which is commendable considering their hardship.

‘We should never have come. Our parents and grandparents should have stayed and fought against the mining companies and the magnates and oligarchs on the mainland, should have stopped them taking control of our sacred homeland.’

Noorn’s voice is overtly emotional, even through their mask. Resigned, sad, angry: I can hear those feelings in turn, layered upon each other.

‘Once we left our land, we risked losing claim to it. The Magnate in Perth is claiming we have no right to our land anymore, that by leaving there and becoming citizens of the Noongar Territories we have forfeited our rights. I understand why our parents made the decision to leave, things were getting a bit hot back at home, but I wouldn’t have made that decision myself. I shouldn’t be bound by it.’

Noorn has a backpack; they are leaving – taking passage to the US on a freighter. ‘I’ll join up with other hackers there, take the fight to the enemy, get our land back.’ I wish them luck. It’s time for me to leave as well, to return to the nearest thing I have to a home.

My chopper arrives to take me to the nearest intercontinental airport in the palawa territories. From there it’s an unfortunately long flight back to my home in Aotearoa from where – like the people in the Noongar and palawa territories of Antarctica – I can dream of returning to Australia.

Like Noorn I want to see the fascist regime overthrown, I want to see the mining magnates removed and the return of democracy. Perhaps it’s been too long; perhaps the home my parents knew no longer exists and never will again. We will hope, and we will fight.

This story is part of that – a message we hope might go viral, encouraging the people to overthrow the fascists.

On the chopper I receive a text message.

It’s from Hope. She wishes me luck.

 

Author’s note: This piece was inspired by the Antarctica’s Nearest Indigenous Peoples map from The Decolonial Atlas and the play Antarctica by Canadian artist Syrus Marcus Ware.

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