Watch Every Drop: a community service announcement composed for those who survived the Fall (Kirk Marshall)
There’d never come a newly-minted, indignant crimson-kissed day in this place which didn’t evoke some dark, frost-sorry memories to that time when we still had water. I can’t speak for the voiceless million, though I’ll wager in the heady grape-marinaded days of my youth when I was mobilising for political and societal allegiance as a thatch-faced environmentalist, I’d still have believed with penitent fury that it was possible, but now I possess no discord that for most survivors today water’s just some chimerical element of a bygone age. I mean, it’s a spine-decalcifying realisation as bitter as Parisian coffee grounds to yearn for something you know now doesn’t exist. And sometimes when I face the unnavigable lunar-blue badlands with their buffeting vitriolic spray of skin-scorching sand, pocked by the smelters, enrichment plants and innumerable rhinoceros-like vehicular abominations which drink up the land, all cogwheel and corrugated iron salvaged from foresworn farmstead housing, I can only glimpse at recalling what it was like to know the surcease of a parched tongue. But as with all quixotic and unforgivable reveries, I have to relegate such innermost musing to the dry dead carbuncled heart’s omnivorous furnace. Sadness breeds madness, of course.
In the synthetic, flesh-twined fibre of my Vernian hydrosuit I can feel the heat lambasting my haggard shoulders like dreamily punctual vultures, and I have to retreat back to my thirty-six floor InsulFlat to decompress the moisture-free carbon monopolising my lungs and follow it up with a fistful of mean reds. Then perhaps a windwash to rid the yellowcake trapped beneath fingernails and embedding the crow’s feet pinching my eyes, read some more Tennessee Williams, feed the echidna the termites I’d combed for and managed to successfully collect. Maybe masturbate over Cadence. Maybe not. The gloried pirouetting epiphany you’re privy to when you have no-one to count on and nothing to aspire towards is that it doesn’t particularly matter how you while away your remaining hours. Therein is something no system or agent or auspice can take or shake from you. Even after the Reef Bleach of 2024 and the final dead loggerhead turtle was discovered in a disused second-hand car lot seeking the mouth of the sea, you can still go unsung for your efforts. And that’s a freedom I’m glad we won.
I woke at 0300 hours and watched the somnambulist creatures dictating the flipbook of my dreams scuttle away into their sleep-sullied solipsist pages and dart off behind my blearied eyes once more. One of them had looked kind of like Cadence. But others had looked like mutations of carburettor engines, conveyor belts and bird-eating tarantula, so I couldn’t claim to be the swiftest exponent of Freudian analysis in the Brisbane Vertical County.
I knew this, at least, because I knew everyone by their name, face, phosphorescent visor and catalogued sorrow living in my building, and as it was the only building with organic occupants within the establishments of the recovered nation-state, I also had a reasonably comprehensive lore and understanding of each individual’s politics and affectations. Not a great many citizens still dreamed, to be frank, insofar that I was lead to learn, because, as turned out, dreams had an inextricable subconscious relationship with water. Something to do with the humour and temperature of cerebrospinal fluid, not that I can grasp the science of it. Anyway, I guess I hadn’t dreamed about Cadence. I guess it had merely been a signifying example of a strain of human ground-dwelling malaise. The French used to call it tristesse, I’ve heard. The cruelty of the human memory is its tenacious fondness for replaying, in ininhibitive minutiae of detail, all the time, the dagger of heartbreak, the treason of a lost lover, and the forbidden taste of loathsome lips. If the bitch wasn’t dead already, I’d have accursed and willed her to get that way, and fast.
Berate the starless, moonless, dusk-smogged sky above!
I missed her. I missed her like the full complement of my bones had become divisive, like a newborn calf expelled from its foetal sac misses the tonic of night, like a dehydrating turtle misses the roar and sugarwhite seethe of a cascading ocean swell.
Today I was going to embark out to the silica dunes beyond the newly-burgeoning fields of GM meat in their ripening, empurpled fury, picketing the cartographic demarcations of the Brisbane Vertical County. My vellum-bonded foot thongs inscribed their game-legged haikus in the unconquerable white paper trail of the dunes’ unending ranges, and terns turned and wuthered while I set about to digging up her grave.
Toiling away took most of the day — albeit I’m wary that, after the face of the last clock was publicly fractured, such a lineal word is now arbitrary — by which time my spade’s gavelled mean metal head was hitting the ironbark lid to her coffin, and sweat was beading off the septum of my angular Irish nose in a sticky string of malformed pearls.
I slunk to my haunches, permitting the blessed cool of the photovoltaic shade-panels’ deflected breezes near the ore-mining hutment to slake my unquenched, raspy thirst for unrecycled air. This reminded me, somehow, of when I was once corralled into sharing a 4WD hire-car with some fellow freak fundraisers stinking of patchouli and beeswax shampoo, back when I was still handsome and impressionable, and I’d been compelled to endure an air-conditioning unit which regurgitated monstrous vegan farts at me for three pitiless hours while landscape warped and wept outside electric glass windows. We ran down a big red roo later that day. I watched its eyes make vehement persecuting demands of all of us, before its crushed and shallow ribcage rattled its last exhaustive, torturous breath. Its body smelled just like stale vegan farts. I decided to never digest another vegetable again.
The lid of the coffin slid off, unyielding and vacuum-sealed, with little apparent ease. Inside, after the mandrake squeal of brass and wood had subsided, and beyond the miasma of released, pollen-frenzying dust motes lay her frayed, sickly corpse. I placed my swarthy palm against the prickle-steeled green hide of her flesh. She was still warm to touch, surprisingly. The air — what was present of it and not stagnating and pustulant — stunk rich with the pall of her recent vegetative, antediluvian demise.
I unsheathed my patented Swiss Army blade and cut deep and merciless into the mescaline pulp of her acrid cadaver. After ten minutes of industrious and sadistic surgery I’d divined my redemption, I’d found it. At the dark brackish hollow of her cacti centre had collected a diaphanous pool of secreted dew, as true and unadulterated as the cobalt pummel of my rotten salad days. I lowered myself to my knees and submerged my head into Cadence’s ruptured innards. I don’t remember what happened next. The most beneficial and virtuous thing about days of blazing, unfaltering sunlight is that there’s no longer any watch that exists to record moments in seconds. I held my breath for centuries, millennia, night.
Here’s how I choose to argue the incommensurably debatable, incommunicably topical conundrum as to whether the emergence of e-publishing signifies the “demise” of print publishing (which I’m certain we’re all resolved to agree wouldn’t be an especially dignified or auspiciously indemnified death, but would probably involve blood, entail entrails, command carnage, inspire violence): I’m forever resigned to envision an alternative world, a feasible future, a caricatured grotesquery of reality populating some Philip K. Dick short-story, in which these sorts of speculative arguments collapse into one another like farts in an echo chamber. It’s not that the praxis of publishing, nor discussion, debate, hyperbole, hypothesis or even a literary soliloquy addressing the fate of formats is devoid of value – it’s not a question of intellectual economics, it’s a question of whether a rampant concatenation of contentions from writers and editors can constitute anything short of pretentious – but after the months of monotone dialogue that any individual invested in literature must endure when conversation about the future of publishing abounds, I’m left feeling somewhat devoid of a voice. Let me tell you a story as to why this is the case – as to why all vacillating views on the evolution of publishing might not even be valid. A few years back, when I was younger and more adventurous but no less handsome, I relinquished ongoing employment as a full-time teacher in Tokyo, Japan, and returned to Brisbane, Queensland, to work for minimum wage and free felafels in an Australian performing arts bookstore, which was sequestered below street-level and kept in a state of reasonable disarray where cats seemed to always spawn from between the floorboards. The bookshop will have to remain unattributed, but I’m comfortable enough to disclose the personal tyrannies of the shop’s pyrrhic inhabitants, and specifically those of my boss, a piratical sycophant with the heart of a giant aardvark. A kind of Zarathustrian übermensch who assumed the disquieting physical status of Hemmingway, equipped with the faculties of an elegant like Laurence Olivier and the facial hair of the Brothers ZZ Top, my boss was a fantastical misanthrope who would smoke Toscani cigars at the counter, swill cask wine from the only clean highball he claimed to possess, and swear at his customers if they asked him to locate a book by ISBN. I distinctly recall one torrid afternoon when, an hour before I would close shop, he arose storming from his back-office to explain to everyone currently occupying his establishment that they were all “cunts” and if he had a gun on premises, “browsing might become fun for everybody”. He was constantly amazed that his bookstore continued to attract patrons at all, but such an emotion manifested itself as a Gordian knot within his sheer interior, because he loathed the idea of transacting business – my boss was an avowed Communist, and often quoted aloud from The Communist Manifesto – and yet feared falling into bankruptcy by resisting to sell his wares. He was a gregarious ex-emeritus professor of Literature and Philosophy who had, for decades, engaged in combat with the “coterie of academic fucks” occupying Queensland’s pre-eminent tertiary institution, and had retreated into a tiny life of bookselling, daytime drunkenness and month-long heart attacks. On one profound occasion, he cornered me in the store during business hours to extol the pleasures of eating marijuana by the leaf, which he advised “was an elevator to the stars”. During my three-month stint as bookstore assistant, dogsbody, and infrequent fire warden, my boss paid me cash-in-hand from the same teapot he used to brew tea. He retained a corkboard honour wall with almost obsessive focus, which he decorated and scrapbooked with the many faultlessly eloquent civic complaints that he had published in the city newspaper. He chased me around the store chanting C.J. Dennis’s The Glugs of Gosh in an attempt to dismantle the mechanics of freeform verse, and when I found myself stonewalled between two shelves of children’s books, shaken and with no salvation in sight, I could do little else but succumb to song:
“Begone, red Devil!” I made reply.
“Parch shall these lips of mine,
And my tongue shall shrink, and my throat go dry,
Ere ever I taste your wine!”
What I am revealing here, perhaps for the first time, is that I loved the man: he was of angelic muscle, and his lust for life was violent and infectious. I harbour not a single reservation when I confess that, despite occupying only a crazy three-month ellipsis in my life prior to my move to Melbourne, he persists in my memory as a favourite boss. Perhaps the most significant disclosure in context to our discussion of e-publishing, however, is that the man was a rampant champion of technology: he preferred to populate his days by playing Space Invaders in preference to consolidating stock via Thorpe-Bowker’s Booknet, and found it appropriate to demythologise the 3D motion-capture rendering of Angelina Jolie’s Scandinavian porn-Gorgon in Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf, insisting that a perfect world would be one in which we all participated in suitmation by wearing svelte spandex, to transubstantiate our flesh for pixels, our dicks for vectors. He took me aside one morning and confided that he was dying from heart disease, and that the bookstore was no longer commercially viable – I think we both laughed at this juncture – and that he would have to liquidate his assets. His speech wasn’t entirely lucid, now dislocated of his common bombast so that appeared small before me, a man of vast shoulders but small dividends. He kept mopping his face with the palm of his hand – it was a fact that we were seized by a Queensland summer, but it wasn’t the sort to squeeze from between your pores – and I discerned the image of a defeated lion at the threshold to our store, as he turned his back to me and gazed accusingly at the street. “One day soon, you won’t find a single fucking book on a shelf,” he muttered, his eyes squinting through the shopfront glass, a tornado whistling through his septum. “I’m not assuming the role of a doomsday prophet here, either. A book will either be electric, pure thought, reduced to an electronically-calibrated text document that people download, read, discard, pirate precisely like gaming shareware – or it will be a kitsch hardcopy print-object that is purchased via the internet, from behind the colophon of an online bookstore and from inside a cardboard box secreted beneath a web developer’s bedroom mattress. It will be both these things, and neither will come to occlude or cannibalise the other. I’m looking right square at the future,” he rumbled, the musculature in his neck summoning up visions of dinosaur flesh thrashing through gingko canopies. “I’m standing right at the brink here, Kirk, we both are, and this is the future. Books will be two things, and they will be the same thing, and people will again convey their monstrous ignorance by arbitrating false values that one of these things is superior to the other. But it won’t matter. Because booksellers will become new again. It’ll be like we’re finally all lycra-clad performers in a collective act of suitmation. We’ll forego these physical ramparts for pixels, and we won’t have to invest a flying fuck in the worries of pundits or patrons. Literature is gonna invade cyberspace, and people like you and me who it’s slowly killing might be able to retire, happy, fresh cannabis in our mouths. They’ll set us all on pyres to Valhalla, set upon the rafts with torches, and we’ll ebb out into the wine-dark brink, words crackling between fibre-optic cables within our earshot like a dying applause.” He turned to me then, and regarded me with eyes that were dry and full of sorrow for a day he would not greet. “No-one will ever say that I mattered. That’s the very point. If there’s words swarming behind computer screens or between covers in days to come, I wouldn’t want to matter. The words will be king, and we’ll all have won. Not a single cunt will interrupt our tea-breaks ever again.” At the doorway, his body spangling against the daylight, his shadow cast the store in a hue I don’t even think it’s important to debate.
There is a tree; the squirrels know this. You could professionally train a red-kneed bird-eating spider to locate it by scent, but still the bulbous globe of the huntress would emerge the other side of the wood, scattered and baffled. It’s a blue tree, with a congregation of foliage that sounds like the world’s loneliest letters-to-the-editor when the wind swifts by.
I call it Evergrey. There are real facts, like love and summer and Warren Beatty and crimson. These are some things; there are others, too. What I like about Evergrey is that it only attracts real facts. It is the opposite of a person in this way: it possesses no need for the inhalation of fiction.
I remember a girl; she was something. A real fact, a beatific crimson, a summer love. My feet have never been extremities to profess to the transubstantiating prowess of my intellect: I can walk no better nor more impressively than I can remember scents. This girl had a perfume about her, but all I remember from my instances with her is the deliberate story of my feet, which is a terrible vacancy, and I have to wonder what has engineered us all to be so talented at loss? When I was young I would amuse myself by harbouring a belief that each blade of grass was like a blind man aching to caress something real, touch a sole or shoe the way a hand plunges through water to ensnare a fish. I have seen this on television; I know how it is done. This girl was like the grass, which is to say I refused capture or navigated my feet all over her geography.
Bodies retreat beneath spontaneous intimacy: a kiss is a knife, after all, and it severs resentment from a smiting fist. She looked gentle; she wore a red jersey, mine, over naked shoulders. I have always hated algebra, and she threatened to thwart this, my eyes finally recognising the hidden constant. A mathematical smile: I say this because it was incalculable. She claimed to know a tree-herder, someone who reared larch and beechwood, and he was apparently an old man with damp eyes with a riverboat not far from the left bank of Everygrey Lake. There was no such man, and the body of water to which I refer remains anonymous.
An unnamed mirror, black like a comet’s underbelly. She was my Evergrey Lake. I chased her to the tree once. That is to say, I begged her for a kiss and she ran away. Her laughter was a thing to summon. It was a convertible through winter rain. When I transferred my tongue for hers, I came away indebted. Allow me to explain: she seized ownership of my private life, by reaching through the summit of me, beneath the sediment, where the worms trembled and convulsed. She found something approximate to fertile, at least I thought so, because a shoot began budding and coiling within my chest, my own little simulation of the Evergrey tree. There was nothing quite so exact as her hair; now I am equipped the foresight to discern that my observation was only romantic folly. Her hair was no different from decayed coral, but I did not realise this for a long time because my eyes are sensitive to the sun. For all it’s worth, I thought there was no material so lustrous.
When I joined her beneath the pollen-shaggy canopy, my hands would congregate around her jeans: these were blue; her Levis, and not my hands.
I can’t tell you how kinetic a sensation it was to fan my palm over these jeans: it wasn’t that these skin-intimate tubular accessories alluded to the indefatigable plunder of her legs, which shone like the surfaces of night dolphins emerging through surf, but because of what they physically manifested. I wasn’t so intent on the sublime arrangement of the female form which these jeans denied me, but the brazen-blazered blue fabric hugging her pelvis, itself, the same way an ice-cream flavour arouses the ache of hunger because of the tongue navigating its sweet, frozen dome. You want that ice-cream almost as much as you crave that tongue; this is what it was for me to witness the girl gyrating about in her Levis. There is a narratological reference offered by a structuralist theoretician regarding signification, which argues that a pipe and the illustration of the same pipe are different things. When I think of her jeans, and later draw these, I cannot pursue the theoretician’s point: they are exactly the same thing, and this thing is all about sex and not the territory of language. I mean the visceral act, the practice, and not the sociolinguistic theory that assesses it: sex is something that occurs off the page, for words cannot seek to supplement the pleasure with their feeble phonetic preoccupations. I will only say that the girl made my testicles ache. But isn’t this a fact of uneducated love?
Her body was something to draw clichés from the soil like a mouth sucking poison. It was black like a terrible victory, marbled black like the aperture of a gun.
My red jersey collapsed around her shoulders, and she looked significant, glamorous. Vanity provoked me to scale the Evergrey to demonstrate my prowess as both a lover and an athlete. I clambered up the peril-brindled trunk, accelerating over the conifer’s spiny flesh with the brutalised pads of my feet. Some days I recall looking down at the girl and capturing a smile of warm chastisement, and an upwelling of magnificent brown breasts; other days I know this is a mythology which I have grafted onto the memory to retain some retrospective grace.
What I know is that as I ascended the thicket of branches, inhaling purple thistle and vaulting between the Evergrey’s violent intersection of limbs I looked out from my post and viewed the viscid, bright contour of green sky and saw a distant figure escorting ripples in their turbid thousands through the surface of Evergrey Lake. I climbed higher to secure a better post, and squinted through the microcosm of aspidistra-spores describing their lazy ballet around my warring eyes. I visored my brow with a palm, and struggled higher so that my view was unimpeded, installed with a new capacity for geometry, so that I could spy on the silhouette of the swimmer far beyond the base of the Evergrey.
I chewed the inside of my cheek, and hissed to the girl: “There’s someone naked in the lake, away from the other side of the wood. There’s someone fucking naked, I swear.” She rewarded me no response, so I scaled to the tree’s apex, where the branches were so few that the lack of traction seized me in a vertiginous fear. The swimmer looked up at me then, and I knew who it was.
I fell from the Evergrey and sailed into the afternoon, raging through branches that cut me like adultery. I woke to find myself covered in blood, and with a damp-eyed tree-herder angled over me, his mouth tiny with horror, whispering: “I remember you. You were at the lake when that girl died all those years ago?”
We were sitting with calculable comfort at about 3,000 feet, our feeble human engineering warping from the relaxed atmosphere of our immediate surrounds, the cabin lights dimmed in a subdued, sleep-aglow sort of way, and the earth rotating beneath us was now not even a memory, but a rumour or a myth.
I think it’s only precise to suggest that we were all succumbing to the mid-flight possibility of unerring bliss when the plane banked left with a sudden sharp logic, and the craft began to shudder, a nauseating momentum. A bear was on the wing, and it was sinking its legend of bladed teeth into the skybus carapace, plunging holes into the cabin through which its thermal-deranged eye roved, bloodshot and foaming, fascinated by the horrified human cargo trembling and yowling within.
I’d seen a bear once, or maybe read about one, but the experience had constituted an apparently unprofound and spurious event, because I knew nothing of merit about such animals, except that they excrete a noxious mixture from a foot-shaped gland, though for what it’s worth that could have been mountain goats. Not possessing an interest in the particulars of zoology, or things of this breed, I did not feel certain about the most effective way to intervene in the turbulent fear of the moment, so I slunk out of my seat into the aisle and grimaced, like a marathon athlete distressed by the lacklustre gloss of his or her performance.
“We should trade with it!” I suggested, as oxygen masks vaulted from the ceiling in a weird clusterfuck of pneumatic pipe and plastic.
Stewardesses were somersaulting like bulbs of forest pollen, their white uniforms brazen and distinct amongst the red abundance of screaming mouths. I felt, for a glee-drunk second, that all these bright, swift, softly-phosphorous women were dashing themselves at my feet because of the image of a gallant hero-bandit which I presently commandeered, but I am not so dispossessed of intelligence to forget that I am fat, short, nervous and equipped with a nose capable of inviting comparisons with a small bowel. For these reasons I merely entertained an obscene fantasy to put me at ease, in which I swam naked with these fleet-pleated females in a lake that bristled with the greenest orbs of floating apples, and within a passage of panicked seconds I felt sufficiently restored in my miraculous purpose to propose another solution.
“I think I watched a documentary once which advises victims of a bear attack to transform into hedgehogs and roll away. Actually, I think it was a school play I was once involved in. Nevermind!”
This, too, did not generate the stutter of generous applause nor the graphic spontaneous nudity that I was striving to catalyse, so I scowled and plundered my pockets for warmth. The bear had sheared a considerable hole in the side of the aircraft at this point, so that we could all collectively observe the rapid articulations of the beast’s paws as they monstered the exterior alloy and thrust talons the size of sunsets through the gap in the metal.
It was a mild, unclouded day outside, and the high-octane whistling of debris and upholstery being set astir by the stratospheric winds reminded me of swallows whistling, though it might have been shrikes warbling.
“I’ve got it!” I yelled, my head frothy and raging with the adrenaline of my conviction. “Why don’t we paint stripes on ourselves to make us resemble zebras? Bears don’t eat zebras, and that’s a simple fact of chemistry!” I was incommunicable with pride at this theoretical injunction, and I probably would’ve been swarmed by in-flight hostesses startled into arousal by the catastrophic theatre of our present dilemma, but the bear chose that moment to lunge at a passenger hoarse with terror, cowering in her seat, and the berserk creature managed to pull her, despite her convulsive kicks, through the gash in the plane’s exposed side.
The woman was accelerating to her murder, and this realisation went down sharp in me, like a slice of lightning pie. I could only glimpse a tangle of visual cues outside the periphery of the nearest convex window, but the thrashing passenger seemed to be grappling with the bear out on the wing, blood fanning rivers of carotid-crimson through the incendiary fire of the daytime sky.
The bear was feasting. I could not abide this, particularly not directly following my brilliant scheme to disguise the entire airborne convoy as economy-class zebras, so I careened down the aisle, artfully darting past the sinewy blooms of the oxygen masks, capering above the glade of golden hair thicketing from the screaming scalps of one hundred sex-fierce flight attendants as they marvelled at my Sisyphean ascent, and soon the planets glided through my legs like a basketball being dribbled to the cosmic net by a Harlem Globetrotter displaying the wings of a condor.
I thundered down the aisle, between fright-blighted faces, a thousand docile drugged-up irises swifting in their sockets to watch me dare the ghosts of adventure, yet I continued harrying up that band of carpet without pause, until I reached the emergency supplies strapped fast to the wall at the nose-end of the plane. I prized the flare-gun from its bracket and without a further regard for self-preservation, or even the expression on my ex-wife’s face when I disturbed her in the throes of orgasm with a census collector, I dove through the hole in the aircraft and hooked onto the ligature of the left wing.
The bear looked up, haunted, a mutilated sneaker dangling like the first fruit of misery from its blood-clovered jaw. It roared at me then, at my compulsion to disrespect its efforts to kill the whimpering, shallow-breathing woman travestied in a splay of wounded limbs on the shark-shaped extremity of the aeroplane.
I grinned, clambering to my knees and triumphantly locating my feet. I waved the gun, an arc of propulsive colour, and narrowed my gaze at the great swollen animal hulking toward me. “You’re smoked, cubby,” I crowed, pulling the trigger, thinking that I should aim for its heart, but wondering whether that applied to bears or tigers. The sky pulsed a stroboscopic red.