Size / / /

Content warning:

Look at what we woke.

We feed them lies and watch them burn for it.

Koala bears rarely run during bush fires. Their instinct at danger is to climb up into canopy, where the leaves are shot through with eucalyptus oil, and flammable. They cling to the trunk with charred paws when it begins to burn, the thin bark catching easily and falling off in flaming strips. It sets their fur alight.

They die screaming.

Polar bears need pack ice to hunt. When the ice breaks up they swim until their strength runs out, or pull themselves onto continent and walk until their muscles waste, until they drag their back legs behind them and fur fails to cover their ribs. They’re too slow and too starved to find food, and they drag themselves along until they can’t anymore.

They die without the strength to scream.

Look at what we woke.

Darwin is now called The City of Fire. Thermal imagery photographs show red streams through the streets, along the exposed surfaces of buildings. These are as hot as 70°C, and we who still live and work in Darwin do so underground. Sewers have been hollowed further, pipes opened up into giant arching chambers beneath the steaming soil, and at each entrance are thick grates, and guarded, because the saltwater crocodiles swim underground as well, with the sewers opening up to the sea and the storm water drains – dusty for most of the year, until hurricane season – letting the smaller ones slip through.

They grow large beneath, as the fires grow large above.

The ground is wetter. It holds the chill less, and bread baskets move north. More of the lands under long sun are opened up for agriculture, farmers moving slowly polewards, for climate has changed the patterns of growing and there are places that once produced that don’t anymore, or don’t so much, and Canada has water to spare now which is more than can be said for California, reenacting Steinbeck as its vineyards wither. The further north we move, out of heat and into wilderness, the more susceptible we are to being eaten rather than eating ourselves.

The more we come to think it’s deserved. After all, we let it happen.

Scientific American, 8 February 2016: Australia Cuts 110 Climate Scientist Jobs

Sacrifices have to be made. We didn’t do it then, so we have to do it now.

Our ancestors, some of them, tied their heretics to posts and placed kindling around them, lit them up as candles for punishment. Our sacrifice is not religious, but when we fasten a person to their own fire-stake and stack eucalyptus leaves around their feet, leave them wailing through the heat of day until the fire comes for them, the impulse is no different. Propitiation, atonement, mercy.

Sometimes heatstroke renders them insensible before the fire comes. Sometimes we think these are the better days, but sometimes we build our altars in the early morning, set them in places where we can see the sparks already settling, because sacrifice, we think, should be screaming.

Our ancestors, some of them, starved the criminals and the people they claimed as useless, denied them food in times of short resource, let them go out into the wild and the dark to die alone, or to survive as best they could away from community. Now when we leave a person to exposure we take no chances of them coming back. We leave them in the wilderness, strip them naked, slash the tendons in the backs of their legs so that they can only crawl away from the starving bear that their blood calls.

Most often shock and blood loss leaves them unconscious; they don’t feel the claws and the jaws and the tearing. And sometimes the silence is better even, because sacrifice, we think, should not always draw attention to itself with screaming.

Lies have such a monstrous weight.

We knew what we were doing. We didn’t know what would come of it.

Monsters are too busy lying to think ahead.

The koala comes with burning.

It stalks through the streets, its body the size of skyscrapers, and we’ve watched it bring those flaming feet down and braced for impact and earthquakes, because something that size should shatter the balance of small-minded things when it moves, but for all fire comes with noise and substance all the conflagration is above ground.

All we do is wrap our heads with wet cloth and crouch beneath, watch the koala as it burns itself out and takes the city with it.

Hunger comes down from the north, an enormous frozen mouth with teeth like icicles. It paces over ice with furry paws, stretches enormous over countryside. We watch as it walks overhead, the hunger bear, and its famine claws leave furrows waist deep in the earth. Its head the size of houses, it breathes starvation and we starve under it, or think we do, for the hunger bear was raised with lies and breathes the same through those sharp and unhappy teeth.

When we feel that breath like wind on our own faces we chain ourselves to fridges, not only for the potential for gorging, but because once we’ve eaten everything within reach it makes us want to walk north, north, and feed ourselves to what we’ve starved.

Look at what we woke.

Look at what we made.

Ghost bears, giant bears, pacing over landscape. They burn and hunt and eat, their paws and eucalyptus breath, their scars and starving claws.

We blister under them. We bleed and freeze. They take no notice. We’re so small, compared to them, to the blizzards and fire storms of their bodies. No wonder they see us as nothing but fuel.

We feed them pieces of ourselves. Sacrificial offerings, to make them go away.

Sometimes it even works.

The stake, the bones and flesh and screaming, are always burned to ash. These blow away in scalding winds, the ground baked so hard that it’s hard for us to dig the next hole, to set the next post. It’s a filthy job and an unhappy one, but we do it because the circle of blackened earth around the post is large, but often limited. More often than not, once the red bear eats it blows itself out, doesn’t drag that massive body through the rest of Darwin, doesn’t burn what remains of city and fields and food stores, the fishing docks down at the harbour.

One of us burns, or we all do.

The jaws of the hunger bear bite through bone as though it is a soft and spongy thing. We hear it eat, out on the remains of ice, though the exposed, the ones with their tendons cut, are little more than mouthfuls. But sacrifice never meant satiation, which is all to the good as there’s nothing that could fill up the hunger bear anyway, and if we didn’t keep it away with blood-offering it would loom over all our cities, would bring its great paw down on houses and schools and shops until we all ran out, swarmed out of our little places like termites, knowing that it meant being devoured but the emptiness in our guts a promise that devouring is the quicker option, the kinder death.

One of us feeds, or we all do. Every day we feed, because every day we lied.

Science, 25 August 2017: DOE Denies It has Policy to Remove ‘Climate Change’ from Agency Materials

The Scientist, 29 August 2017: Researchers Advised to Remove Climate Change Language

Every day we lied, and every day we used truth to do it:

Bears have died for climate before. The giant koala, Phascolarctos stirtoni, is a Pleistocene relative of today’s koala. Its common name is relative, for the giant koala was only a third again as large as its modern kin, not near as large as the holocaust in koala shape that stalks our cities, but size didn’t save it in the end. It is hypothesized that the giant koala died because the climate changed, because of the effect that change had on sources of nutrition.

(Today, increased atmospheric carbon dioxide reduces the nutrients available in eucalyptus leaves, increases the amount of toxic tannins. There’s starvation here as well, and poison to go with burning, the dehydration deaths caused by leaves with too little water.)

Bears have lived for climate before. Late in the Pleistocene, a population of brown bears, Ursus arctos, adapted to the ecology of their polar home. They began to eat a diet that was primarily meat, primarily marine, and their ability to process large amounts of animal fat without cardio-pulmonary consequence developed, differentiating them from their brown cousins. Their fur lightened, their molars changed. A new species, and an iconic one, bred on the border lines of ice age.

(Today, increasing temperatures lead to loss of ice and the polar bears are moving inland, into brown bear territory. The two interbreed, producing fertile offspring and suggesting that genetic change has not yet reached true species-level difference.)

This is how it goes: climate change is a hack, a fraud, a politically motivated recipe for economic failure. It’s happened in the past, without us, for billions of years the climate changed without us. We can’t affect the climate, we’re only one species and the world is so large and so complex, and besides God would never allow it.

It’s bad science. It’s hippie emotionalism. Species come and go, and humans are the only important one anyway. Organisms that can’t adapt to changing conditions should just die. It’s sad, but it’s not our fault.

Photographs of koalas with burned paws are shared around the world. We watch them being given water from a fireman’s drink bottle, watch them face down on a veterinary table with each paw soaking in little tubs, wearing colourful protective wee mittens over bandages and burned flesh, and donations of those homemade mittens are sent from far-off countries. Hundreds of mittens, thousands of them, and it’s an easy way for us to put off responsibility, pretending that helping in small ways makes up for refusing the large ones.

(The small helps are necessary too.)

The starving bears tug heartstrings. There’s a guilt that’s hard to look at, so when they take someone who’s wandered too close, the waves of meat moving north, we look away and try not to blame. It’s easier to refuse responsibility when the refusal’s on both sides, and the bears never take a lot.

There’s not enough of them left to make a dent, in any case.

(Forgiveness can sometimes be stronger than fear.)

If we don’t look, everything is normal. If we don’t look, it’s not happening.

Scientific American, 31 October 2017: Government Scientist Blocked from Talking About Climate and Wildfires

The ecology of Australia is adapted to fire. Its evolution is one of burning. The eucalypts, especially, are serotinous. The seeds survive bushfires in woody casings that open after flames. The leaves take a long time to break down and are impregnated with flammable oils; the bark shreds off in thin pieces. Alight, they can be blown over distance.

One lit match, and the fire will spread and spread.

(Organisms that can’t adapt to changing conditions should just die.)

We have adapted to fire.

We volunteer for burning, when the crocodiles have taken our families, when the fire has taken our features. Our world is one of sunlight anyway, of pain and burning and it is the world of our creation, the world which our lies have made. When the fire koala breathes on us, hot gusts in our faces set our hair alight, set our lungs to scalding and the screaming stops then, our hands still tugging futile at the stake they’ve been tied to and we die in sizzling clouds of eucalyptus oil with the claws and burning fur of the koala brushing up against us.

All our extremes were normal, they said.

The ecology of the Arctic is adapted to ice. Its evolution is one of dry freezing: permafrost, glaciers, sea ice, the frigid oceanic currents. Bearded seals are a favourite food of polar bears. The seals are able to survive the cold primarily due to their thick layers of blubber, a highly calorific fat content that makes them valuable prey for marine carnivores. The increasing temperatures and subsequent reduction in ice means that the bearded seals are harder to stalk, and harder to catch.

Organisms that can’t adapt to changing conditions should just die, they said.

We have adapted to ice loss.

We volunteer for exposure when the hunger grows too great, when our children have opened up their bellies with scalpels to pack the food in deeper, when their blood on our hands has a meaty, delicious flavour. When the hunger bear stands over us, body big enough to block out the sun and its ribs poking through the horror-structure of its body, the screams are frozen in our lungs, full of icicles now and longing. The last thing we smell is our bellies, opened up and steaming, the enticement of blood and our own fingers tearing at bowels, the nails not long enough to really join in the feasting.

Catastrophic extremes are only to be expected, they said.

The bears, the bears.

We feed the bears of fire and ice, we feed them lies, we feed them twice.

We lied and woke them up.

Heatstroke takes more lives than invasion. Underground is cooler, but we can’t stay there forever and even those south of us are burning in their cities. There’s transport, supplies come in from other places, the remains of growing things for food. It’s easier at night when the heat gnaws less at bones but crocodiles are night hunters and they’re growing larger, and there’s not enough night vision goggles to keep their silent, heavy tread away.

It’s safer in sunlight, barely, but the heatstroke bites with red teeth, more dangerous than mouths.

Hunger takes more lives than invasion. For all the landscape’s changing, the wild places getting smaller and crowding the animals into our backyards, making them walk our streets, it doesn’t stop us eating. That’s the life instinct: to go on, to consume, and some of us don’t have enough and die of it, while some of us have more than enough and it’s still not, because the long snout of hunger lies beneath and ready to ambush. It wakes us in the night and sets us to stuffing, makes us burst our own bellies with the lies we fed ourselves, makes us walk out into dark streets where the wolves scavenge, where the brown bears lie in wait.

It’s safer in sunlight, but who wants to spend all their life with clear vision anyway. Our vision is already clear enough.

We came for them first, the ones who lied the best.

We had to. Every organism adapts to their environment; it was a matter of survival. Sacrifice means the holocaust above dies down at night. Even the buildings cool, the tar settles in the streets and come early morning we can walk across it without sticking, with the crocodile tracks and the great marks of the fire bear as it drags its claws through the city stand rigid around us before the roads melt again into straightness. The fire bear always comes back during the day. It stays away longer if we give it something new to consume … something not eucalypt because we raised the fire bear on lies and that’s what it likes best to eat.

It dies down in winter, the hunger storm without, the frozen winds. The ice that’s left reforms, the polar bears that are left scramble to the floes for hunting, but the summer always comes back with starvation and they have to come for us instead. And we had to come for them – for the ones who lied the best, because if we lie as slick as seals the lies seep out of us like so much oily blubber, give a shiny bursting gloss to skin. The more the hunger bear eats of lies, the longer the winters last.

This makes us careful about our lies, doling them out in small proportion when once we spewed and swallowed them like the smell of eucalyptus leaves, like the soft giving flesh of fat and fish.

The Guardian, 26 May 2016: Australia Scrubbed from UN Climate Change Report after Government Intervention

I’m a liar too. A koala is a marsupial, not a bear.

Tourist dollars, industry profits, narrative structure. Whatever it’s for, we lie to make a point.

The ones of us who know we are liars, well. We begin to think of justice, because if ever there is an ideal constructed out of falsity it is that, and we are all familiar.

Justice becomes a temptation, and a cause.

We set fire to them first, the worst of the liars. When the city started burning down, when it was too hot to live above ground and those monstrous footprints started burning city blocks we dragged out the politicians who’d signed and bribed and looked away, strung them from lampposts with their guts cut out and hanging down, set fire to their entrails while they were still living because the screaming brought the bear from the suburbs, from the supermarkets, from trying to force its face through grating into the drains where we huddled, the iron glowing and bending sticky-soft around that searching face.

We took knives to them first, the polluters and the lobbyists, the ones that we let look away for profit, the ones whose money we took to look away in turn,  but money didn’t do much for us when the hunger bear came and it didn’t do much for them either, didn’t patch together their tendons with bank notes as the bear stalked them bloody, didn’t let them call for help because we stuffed their gullets before we cut them, pouched their cheeks with promissory notes the colour of bribes and lies, the ones that said they could buy anything, including bears.

But bears cannot be bought. Which is why, when we look at them, we see the mirrors in their starved and burning eyes, the ones that say we let it happen, we let our greed and their greed call the bears and now they’ve come and we’ve nothing left but sacrifice.

Hot breath against cheek. Was it worth it, says the koala, its body the size of skyscrapers.

Cold claw against stomach. How do your lies taste now, says the polar bear, its head the size of houses.

They taste like ice and ashes. They taste like the breath of the bear that ate our homework. The payment’s in the post the email never came it was fire-based ecology anyway we don’t feel well not all scientists agree a bear ate our grandmother died after eating homework glaciers have always come and gone the car wouldn’t start there’s an accident on the roads danger to the economy we’ll be right there with the money homework promises these extremes are normal ate our homework it would have happened anyway five minutes we’ll be there in five minutes of course we didn’t mean it like that one person can’t do anything one species better you than us better them than us it’ll be over soon ….

This is how it goes.

Look at what we woke.

Look at what we woke in us.

There’s a lot less liars now.

Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer. She’s sold close to fifty short stories to various markets, and several novellas, two poetry collections, an essay collection, and a climate fiction novel are also available. She attended Clarion West 2016 and was the Massey University writer-in-residence for 2020.
Current Issue
15 Jul 2024

I inherited the molting, which my mother will deny; she’ll insist it’s a thing only women do, each heartbreak withering from the body like a petal.
The Abstract Maker 
a sand trail ever fungible, called to reconcile the syrupy baubles—resplendent pineapple geodes
The Languages of Birds 
Who chose who spoke? Who silenced the sparrow?
Monday: A Botanical Daughter by Noah Medlock 
Wednesday: Stolen Hours and Other Curiosities by Manjula Padmanabhan 
Friday: The Book of Witches edited by Jonathan Strahan 
Issue 8 Jul 2024
Issue 1 Jul 2024
Issue 24 Jun 2024
Issue 17 Jun 2024
Issue 10 Jun 2024
Issue 9 Jun 2024
Issue 3 Jun 2024
Issue 27 May 2024
Issue 20 May 2024
Issue 13 May 2024
Load More