Evi Ruhle (Deakin University, Australia)
Greta is lying on the couch, watching the sandstone walls like TV. The heat outside is squatting on the roof like a toad. There’s nothing to do. The heat is shrinking Greta’s memories and the last two years have become hazy. She remembers that Australia was called the lucky country once. Through the skylight in the hallway sunlight cuts in like a burning sword. She should plug it up but it’s her only life-line to the outside. The temperature is bearable here underground, but there are no windows – not that there would be much to see. No one ventures outside this time of day in 52 degrees. Lester is asleep on the bed, spread-eagled in his underpants. Sleeping by day allows them to make better use of the night.
Sea breezes had been scarce all summer and the heat began pushing into town with the determination of flowing lava. The colour green drained out of the city. People with larger houses were hiding behind closed shutters. Others began leaving. Flights only departed at night and the airport was a bazaar where the rich haggled over tickets to get out. Greta remembers the day Lester returned from work early and collapsed on the couch next to her.
‘We have to leave town, Greta,’ he said, picking at the scar on his chin. Greta watched his chest heave and fall. Inside her, the baby stirred.
‘Where?’ she asked. ‘I can’t get onto anyone. Danielle doesn’t answer. Lisa’s phone is permanently off. Where are they all?’ she snapped and flicked some stray hairs out of her face as if they might sting her.
He reached for her hand and said. ‘Shhh. Panic doesn’t help.’
‘Don’t shush me. I wanna go back to Berlin,’ she replied and pulled her feet out of the bucket of water on the ground in front of her.
‘We won’t get a flight. I talked to people at work. We should go inland,’ he said, his eyes pleading with her to say yes. ‘To sit out the heat and focus on the birth of our baby.’
‘Inland? Leaving the coast is insane. What about the mountains?’ she asked.
‘There are too many bushfires up there. Inland we can live underground and near the desert the temperatures drop at night,’ Lester assured Greta and wondered whether she looked flushed from heat or rage. Her head dropped towards her belly with a sigh. She was too tired to object.
Greta undresses and lies next to Lester on the bed. He mumbles something and, in a daze, turns onto his side towards her. She rolls over, too, and pushes her butt into his crotch, feeling his skin sticky on hers. It must be about 4pm. When they get up, they have coffee as if it were breakfast time. Greta has hers weak with milk and ice. The lounge room is muffled like a cocoon and she thinks of the baby in her womb, stretching and contracting.
‘What’s the time?’ she asks Lester.
‘It’s not dark yet,’ he replies.
‘I need to get out. It’s stifling in here.’
She pushes two fingers around on the mouse pad. A translation job has come in and some emails from her family. ‘My sister writes there were fig trees and avocado trees as far north as Berlin last summer, actually carrying fruit. At Christmas they had 19.5 degrees.’
‘Better than here. And they have cellars, right?’ Lester asks walking over to where she sits. ‘The computer creates heat,’ he says, takes her hand and leads her to the bathroom. The water in the bath tub stares back at them. Hairs and oil droplets float on the surface, the smell of lavender all gone.
‘It looks like a cesspit. I’ve been in there three times today already,’ she says.
‘It’s clean enough and it cools you down. We’ll change it tomorrow. Get in and I make you something to eat,’ Lester says.
The water tricks Greta into being cool when she submerges but it quickly feels lukewarm and un-wet. When she gets out, she hears Lester come down the stairs, beads of sweat bothering his furrowed chin. They collide in the hallway and embrace in the dissolving light pillar under the skylight as if it might beam them somewhere colder.
‘Robert and Mary asked whether we’re coming out tonight, in an hour or so,’ Lester says as he pushes a plate of potato salad with gherkins and eggs across the table towards Greta. When he gets a beer from the fridge, the light blares on his face. Greta takes the bottle from him and dabs her temples with it.
‘They’re so self-absorbed. They don’t see what’s happening with the weather,’ she mumbles while chewing.
‘Who?’, he asks, ‘Rob and Mary? They’ve spent more than half their lives here. They’re trying to stay positive. One of their cows is about to give birth,’ he says peeking at Greta’s belly.
‘The smell of eggs makes me queasy,’ Greta says crunching up her nose. Lester does the dishes. Over by the couch Greta has started scratching messages into the wall. Evil wins when the masses remain silent, she carves into the stone with a screwdriver and signs Greta and Lester 2025.
They get dressed and make their way up the stairs. Outside it’s dark apart from the street lights over in the township. Scattered clouds cling to the starry sky. Greta and Lester walk hand in hand to the large rock that has become a nocturnal meeting point for the locals after their daytime burrowing. Solar lights illuminate a dusty runway toward the boulder. Greta spots Robert by his posture, leaning backwards to compensate for his paunch.
‘I wonder if Robert can get us a flight to Europe?’ she asks Lester, busy discerning figures in the dark around them. He’s eager to talk to someone else after a day of house arrest with Greta.
‘Not at over 50 degrees. Anyway, you’re too far pregnant now,’ he says unhooking himself from her. ‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ he adds as he walks toward a group of men.
Feeling awkward on her own, Greta approaches Robert.
‘Hi Greta. Not long now,’ Robert says and nods at her belly. She steps back to create a safe distance between her pregnancy and his gut.
‘Not long enough. We’re still waiting for a flight to Germany,’ Greta replies, clearing her throat.
‘You sound a bit like a refugee,’ he says and coughs up a laugh.
‘I’m kind of forced to go. So, yes, I feel a bit like one.’ She gauges the right moment to ask him for help with a flight.
‘Who’s forcing you, dear?’ he says, thwarting her plan.
‘I can’t give birth in this heat. We’ve only been outside at night.’
‘Why did ya come here?’, he asks shifting his gaze from her to some people behind her.
‘It was Les’s idea. In Melbourne the concrete melts beneath your feet,’ she says and sprints on the spot as if walking on hot coals.
‘Australia’s always been hot,’ he says.
‘But not 50 degrees, Robert,’ Greta snaps, trying to claw his gaze back.
‘We’ve had 50 before,’ he replies. He slides a packet of Winfields out of his breast pocket and pats his pants for a lighter.
‘But not for two weeks flat.’
‘It’s called a hot snap. It’ll pass. Weather changes,’ he says waving his right hand through the air as if swatting a fly, his sweaty armpit gaping at her.
‘Yes, it’s called climate change,’ she replies, nodding hard at him.
‘That’s not what I meant. Weather fluctuates.’ Cigarette smoke trails his hand as he draws a sine wave into the air. Greta sways a little. ‘It’s probably just your condition,’ Robert adds, craning his neck to sneak another look past her.
‘No tourists for three weeks, Robert. What are you gonna do if this becomes the norm?’ Greta asks, stepping back into his line of sight.
‘You’re very sensitive, dear. Ah, there they are,’ he says and walks around her toward Lester and a burly man with a cowboy hat.
‘I’m in my third trimester. Before long they won’t let me on a flight,’ Greta calls after him but her words evaporate into the night. She leaves the men to it and wanders over to a group of women. They tell her about their pregnancy experiences, about the pain with a purpose and how rewarding motherhood is. Greta doesn’t find the current heat rewarding for her baby. ‘Dr. Demont is very good, he’ll look after you,’ one of the ladies with hair like straw says to Greta. Two other women sunk into camping chairs nod and murmur like disciples. Greta places her hands onto her lower back and tilts her head up toward the sky, stretching and sighing. On the other side of the camp, the men are talking loudly but Greta can’t make out any details. She excuses herself from the women. ‘Dr. Demont, right? I’ll keep him in mind,’ she says as she waddles away to find Lester.
‘I just had the call. It doesn’t look good. Can you have a look at her?’ Greta hears Robert say to the burly man with the hat.
‘Of course. My bag’s in the car. The Beretta is in there, too,’ the man says, pointing towards the road.
‘Just wanna save the calf, Trevor,’ Robert replies to the man. Greta steps out of the dark and addresses Lester: ‘Do you wanna go home soon?’
‘Soon yes. Can you go ahead? I’m helping Trevor and Rob with one of his cows. Are you okay?’
‘Yes, just tired. What’s wrong with the cow?’
‘She’s about to give birth, struggling with the heat. Probably not the best thing for you to watch.’
‘If you’re going, I’m coming.’
‘No, it’s best if you went home, dear,’ Robert butts in.
‘I’m coming along, even if it’s only for a ride in the air-conditioned car,’ Greta insists. Robert and Trevor frown at each other. The four of them pile into Trevor’s car and drive to the cowshed. On the dashboard the temperature reads 38 degrees. It’s 2am. Greta leans backwards and lets the cool air from the fan wash over her.
When they arrive, they go directly to the shed. The cow looks straight at them and her head appears to be pinned onto the barrel of her pregnant body.
‘May as well get started,’ Trevor says. He pulls on a long rubber glove and begins to insert his arm into the back of the cow. At the other end, Rob and Lester are hushing the animal. Greta moves up to Lester and reaches for his hand, but he pulls away as if the calf were more important than their baby. The cow bellows and other animals across the farm follow suit. Greta can feel the baby kicking inside her belly. When Trevor pulls his arm out of the cow, fluids cascade to the ground and a small hoof appears. Trevor shakes his head. Trying to get a better look, Greta takes a step forward but Lester grips her arm. Over near the wall, Trevor picks up a long metal contraption from beneath the hay. He grabs it with both hands and approaches the cow like a javelin thrower readying himself for a toss. The cow shifts and the hay rustles below her. Trevor follows and tries to fasten the metal frame to her backside but the animal begins to bellow and reel like a drunk before tumbling onto her side almost taking Trevor with her. Lester lets go of Greta’s arm but before he can help, Trevor drops the metal contraption to the ground with a clank.
Trevor pulls a white handkerchief out of his pocket and wipes his face and neck before refolding and tucking it away, all the while keeping eye contact with the other two men. This time he nods and the men are quick to join into the pantomime. The cow is laboring under the heat, grounded, like the airplanes at the airport. Trevor passes a bottle of water around from which Robert and Lester take a sip as if to seal a deal. Somewhere in the corner, a fly has commenced its buzzing pirouette of death. Trevor unclips his leather medical bag that looks like a magic kit and from it, he produces a pistol. ‘No!’ Greta shouts but the cow’s renewed bellowing drowns out her protest. Trevor walks up to the cow and places the pistol at her temple. With the gun poised, he takes a look around the shed and then squints before he pushes the trigger. Greta is feeling dizzy and blood has begun running down the inside of her left leg.
When Greta opens her eyes, she is lying on the couch facing the sandstone wall. She’s propped up on two pillows, a fan whirring into her left ear. Lester is sitting on her other side.
‘Hi. Do you need anything? Some water?’ He strokes her head. ‘The doctor is on his way.’
‘What’s the time?’ Greta asks and wipes her hands on her dressing gown, gaping open over her belly. She doesn’t remember getting changed.
‘It’s just getting light,’ Lester says. There is a knock at the door and he gets up.
Greta hears him talk to someone in the hallway. ‘Thanks for coming so quickly, Dr. Demont. Follow me.’
Lester steps into the lounge room with Dr. Trevor Demont. Greta squirms and tries to get up but her body remains stuck to the sofa, grounded. Trevor places the medicine bag that looks like a magic kit on the table and takes a seat next to Greta. She watches his lips move but doesn’t hear what he’s saying. She tilts her head to the side and her eyes become transfixed on Trevor’s bag as she imagines the contents inside. In the kitchen the radio is broadcasting on the weather. The forecast for the next five days: unchanged.
Evi grew up in Germany and moved to Melbourne in her late twenties. A German translator by trade, she recently discovered writing short fiction. She currently studies Creative Writing at Deakin University at their cloud campus. Her writing is inspired by the different places she calls home with a particular interest in climate change.