By R. A. Shury, New Zealand
People call it resilience, but really that’s just another word for not having any choice. For us it was normal, us kids that is. Mum was the one who really suffered, her and the other adults. They really knew what things had been like, before. They had been expelled from paradise. We grew up outside the garden. I don’t say we had it easy, but it’s hard to miss what you never had.
Our house was little more than a shack surrounded by walls, in turn surrounded by rocky hills leading down to a grey sea. We were constantly repairing it and repainting it. Our village was a collection of similar shacks, and the odd shop or stall. There was one big room, a hall which was used for our rudimentary lessons and for dances and birthdays, and it was the place we’d all gather in and hold hands together when the really big storms came, because it was the strongest. I think it was made before things changed, designed to survive storms, because part of it was dug beneath the ground.
The walls around the village were made of ugly grey steel, and our houses were pretty compared to them. When a storm came, pushing the water and the plants around, we’d hide, and afterwards, go out and inspect the damage. My Uncle Aaron lived with us, and every time he’d say, ‘It could have been worse,’ and blow his nose on an old rag he kept in his pocket. The storms used to bring dust, too, and he hated the dust. But he was always cheerful when he was around the children, and he’d sometimes wink at me and give me extra jam with my bread.
The children in our family were me, my brother Tim and my sister Mary. I’m the youngest, which adults seem to think is a blessing, and children a curse. I was a small child, and I’m small now, but I have become strong, in body and mind. You have to be strong, these days; but it’s the norm, and no one complains anymore.
After the storms we’d see if the house needed shoring up, and collect any bits of wood or steel which were salvageable. The adults would see which houses were worst, and fix those first, with everybody helping. It was the community spirit which I loved, even before I knew what it was. People pulling together, working, helping each other. It’s the attitude I admire most.
The storms would come mostly in spring and autumn. Well, the big ones, anyway. It could be stormy at any time of year. And the really big ones maybe once a year or less. The weather was always our enemy; one minute you’d be playing or painting the house, the next you’d have to run inside. The big bell would be ringing, Mum would be calling our names. We’d run to the hall and close all the shutters, and wait.
There’s one storm I remember more clearly than all the others. Actually, there were two storms, although the one which affected me directly was… well, I’m getting ahead of myself.
We didn’t give them names, anymore. The storms, that is. We’d run out of names. We just gave them numbers. I remember Mum called this one four hundred and seventy-eight. At the time I didn’t understand what the numbers meant, I was too young and I hadn’t learned a lot of maths, but it sounded like a big number to me, the way she said it.
I was away up in the hills with Mary, playing; I wanted to play dragons, and she, being older, wanted to play princesses, which even today I know is a boring thing to play. But, Mary would never compromise, and so we played princesses. I hated that about her. She never took her turn doing what I wanted to do, and it wasn’t a problem Mum had time to solve.
I must have become bored and wandered off. I think maybe we’d argued, but that part is hazy. Names floated across the air, like we were being called, but I ignored them, sulking.
The storm came up quickly, and I only noticed it with minutes to spare. The village was up on the higher ground, and I’d wandered over one of the sheltering hills and into a bay which faced the sea. There were trees and scrub, but they wouldn’t be enough. Even at that age, I knew how to gauge the storms.
I sprinted down towards the shore and across the stone beach, as the wind picked up. I felt a pebble strike me on the hand, and I knew it was seconds now, seconds to find shelter. The larger caves were too far away; I scooted along to one of the smaller ones, little more than an indentation in the rock, and backed inside.
The winds whipped up, and stones began flying. The hole I was in was angled away from the main beach, and so I was fortunate. I avoided most of the debris, and I didn’t even really get as wet as I could have. But the wind came in and clawed at me, braced in my little cubby; it felt like huge hands trying to pull me out. I screamed and gritted my teeth, and screamed again. I knew if the wind took me, I was dead. I pressed my hands and feet against the sides of the hole, squeezed my eyes shut, and held on.
Minutes passed, or hours. The storms could be minutes or days long. If this had been a longer one, you’d not be hearing my story now. The winds eased and the sea flattened. I crawled out of the hole and up the hill, black and blue, dragging myself every inch. I must have passed out, because when I woke up I was in my bed at home. They tell me my uncle found me and carried me back to the village; he went out looking even before the storm had abated. I was his favourite, because I’d been named after his wife, who died a long time ago.
I have no memory of being found and brought back, but sometimes my mind creates one, like a dream; I am warm and weary, and I float through the air towards my home and am as light as a cloud.
It took me a while to recover, but it didn’t take as long for Mum to give me a thorough telling off. I learned my lesson, of course, not just because not being able to go out and play for a few days was awful, or because of the bumps and bruises. I also saw the fear in Mum’s eyes when she thought about what could have happened to me. Having faced the storm, I’d felt the fear too. I always played close to the village after that, and I always have one eye on the sky. Anyone who says they don’t these days is a liar.
The second storm I want to tell you about came after the selling man had come past. He came once or twice a month, doing the rounds of the settlements in the area. I was always curious, wanting to visit the other places, and he’d sit down at the end of the day and tell us stories about the places he’d been. Most of it was exaggerated, of course, but us kids didn’t know that at the time, and we loved the stories. He’d rattle on, about dangerous journeys, monsters, and magic potions, until Mum came to flap her tea towel at us and we ran inside to bed.
He sold food and water bottles and soap and candles and blankets and anything really he could get his hands on. He was a lifeline to us for many things, like the kerosene we used for lamps. He even had some trinkets, which fascinated us. Little baubles, pieces of circular plastic, and other things we didn’t understand. Relics of the old world, which the adults used to um and ah over, and tell stories about.
The adults had their personal trinkets, too, and they’d guard them and take them out and look at them when they thought we weren’t paying attention. They’d look at them like they held secrets they’d never release. Mum had one like a flat piece of soap, but much harder. It was white on one side, and black on the other, and the black side had a few chips and cracks in it. Sometimes, she’d take it out and just run her fingers over it. I asked her what it was, and she said it used to light up and play wonderful games and videos, and let her talk to her friends far away.
I asked her what a video was, and she just smiled and rubbed my hair. She told me they were like stories with pictures, like the books we had but somehow different. I didn’t understand.
One night, when we were hunkered down in the hall, I complained to Tim about the storms, and why there were so many, and why we couldn’t be left alone to go out and play, or sleep, or even just paint the house. Old Ella overheard us; she was the oldest woman in the village, or seemed so, perhaps because she was so intimidating to us. Old Ella said that the storms had come because God was angry at us. I’d heard about God from some of the adults; and although Mum said he was just a story, the other adults acted like he was a powerful man, and spoke his name with fear and awe. Powerful enough to create storms? I wondered what I could have done to upset someone so powerful, they needed to send a storm after me. I wondered when he would arrive at the village, so I could ask him.
I was going to tell you about the second storm. I remember it well because it was the storm which broke my uncle. I remember it because it was such a shock. It was the third really big storm we’d had in as many weeks, and even for us that was a lot. We were used to little ones all the time, but the really big ones were usually at least a few months between. So we were all in the hall, like we usually were, and listening to the cracks and the creaks. I remember some of the youngest children crying, and a lot of sounds like snapping and smashing. We stayed in the hall all night.
In the morning we came out, and our house was gone, flattened, torn up. It was sad, but we’d seen it before. It meant a lot of rebuilding, and we’d had to rebuild the house from scratch twice already, so that it was barely up before it got knocked back down. It was tiring work, but each time we finished it was satisfying. I used to think that each house was a completely new house, with its own personality, but the adults thought of it as the same house.
Uncle Aaron was devastated. The other adults were too, looking around and seeing the village virtually gone, but it was his reaction that shocked me most. After every other big storm he’d smiled at me, picked up a piece of wood, and started the rebuilding process. This time, he just looked tired. I remember him saying, to no one in particular, that things shouldn’t be this way, that we’d messed it all up. I wasn’t sure how us messing things up brought storms, but I was too nervous to ask. Uncle Aaron sat down on the stone steps, which were about the only thing left of the house, and began to cry. My mother went over to him, and they sat together for a long time.
Tim and Mary and I looked at each other with puzzled expressions. I felt something was wrong but I didn’t know how to express it. We looked around, trying to see how this storm had been different from any of the other big ones we’d been through, but the damage was the same as any we’d seen before. Then, not knowing any better, we picked up pieces of wood and got to work making a new house.