by Jamie D. Munro
Bella found her father by the wheat fields. Alone with the flies, leaning against a rusted fence in his torn trousers and dirt-stained shirt, he gazed across their land. Withered weeds clung to the barbed wire crisscrossing the paddocks. Cicadas clicked. The green crop, barely a foot tall, bore a scorched tinge marking the end of its growth.
A snake slithered across the sun-cracked earth between them.
Bella stiffened. Every day without rain pulled him further from her. Approaching, she lifted her hat to brush her pink fringe from her glasses. Her baby goat Eco followed, always at her heels. “Dad,” she said, resting a hand on his sweat-soaked back.
He continued to stare, like she wasn’t there, his hand trembling on the fence. Salt from the distant ocean hung in the air.
“Hey.” She placed a hand over his, steadying it. “We’ll get more rain.”
“Hmm.” He pulled his hand away, folding his arms. “You know, we had droughts when you was little,” he said in his drawn-out voice. “But this ….” He sighed, scratching his beard, still avoiding eye contact.
She stepped in close. His shirt smelled of grease and sweat, the familiar reminder of his long days working the farm, trying to hold onto the place, despite the constant setbacks. “We’ll get more growth from this crop,” she said. “The rain hasn’t finished yet, okay?”
He glanced to the barren sky. “Bella ….” Pausing, he watched a wedge-tailed eagle circle overhead. “Is that what your technology is saying? Hmm?”
She stroked his neck. “Dad, come on.”
He stepped away.
A gust whipped-up dust between them. Grit in her mouth and a scorching wind on her face, she clutched her hat and turned the brim down against it. Eco bleated, nudging against her boots. Bella picked the goat up and held him against her chest. She grabbed her father’s shirt sleeve and pulled him around. “We can hope.”
“Hope?” He grunted, pulling out of her grasp. “Yeah … I had hope ….” He turned to the fields. “I hoped for a lot o’ things ’ere. But none of that’s worked out.” He looked back at her. “You’re normally a numbers and facts girl, what’re those glasses o’ yours saying now?”
The wind hushed. A crow cawed in the distance.
“You never want to hear the facts.”
“Jus’ ….” He drew in a breath. “Bella, jus’ tell me if we’ve lost another year’s crop.”
She had stopped with the weather forecasts weeks ago — there was a limit to how long she could pretend to expect rain, a limit to how far she could watch her father sink into despair. “Dad.”
“Bella May.” He looked down at her. “Tell me.”
She pressed a button on the side of her smartglasses. Data scrolled across her vision. 10.13 am, October 3, 2050. Menus appeared around the edge. She focused on weather and double-blinked. Temperature: 43°C, forecast temperature: 49°C, days since rain: 39, rain forecast: Nil.
She slapped the side of her glasses. The data disappeared.
Her father exhaled and looked back over the fields. Heat shimmered in a haze in the distance. A howl of wind rushed across the fields toward them, blasting sand and stalk, scorching Bella’s legs below her shorts. “I never thought this place would end with me,” he quietly said to himself. “This was all meant to be Ethan’s someday.”
Ethan again. Never her. Like her father was the only one who missed him. The only one with regrets. She had lost a brother that day, too. “It won’t end. I’ve been working on it. There’s so many options. If only you’d—”
He grinned at her like she was five years old again and asking to farm unicorns.
“Dad, we can keep this place going if you’d just give me another chance—”
“You were up all night again …, weren’t you? With all your research ’n’ stuff. Hmm?” He shook his head and chuckled. “Bella, the men have been farmin’ this land since my grandad’s grandad cleared the land. We can’t just change .... I know farmin’.”
“But I have new ideas! I think I can—”
He held up a hand to her. “What I needed was Ethan’s help.”
She stepped back, clutching Eco. She was that little girl again, being told to help Mum around the house while her little brother went farming with Dad.
“Damn it, Dad!”
He straightened up and faced her.
She hesitated, then quietly said, “The seawall was my idea. We wouldn’t have a farm now without it. But I never expected it to—”
Her smartglasses flashed with a red icon. She double blinked on it. Vision from Drone 3 played on her lenses. Out where their farm met the ocean, at the edge of the fields, a trickle of water was breaching the seawall.
“Quick! There’s a leak in the wall.” She put Eco down and ran toward the workshop, before turning back. “Get the front-end loader.” She ran off again. “I’ll get the dozer!”
Bleating, Eco caught up to her in the workshop. She scooped him up and climbed into the cab of the bulldozer. She yelled, “Start dozer!” The machine rattled to life. She drove off.
Racing along the edge of the fields, the electric engine whirred. The tracks kicked-up dust behind her. A mob of sheep scrambled across a paddock.
By the time she reached the spot pinpointed by the drone, the ocean was gushing through a breach in the seawall. Saltwater and seaweed surged into the wheat fields, collapsing the crop. Bella slapped the steering wheel. “Argh!”
“Bella!” Her father yelled over the intercom. “Are you—”
“I’ve found it. The paddock’s flooding. Hurry!” She lowered the blade on the dozer with her tattooed arm and stomped on the accelerator. The machine churned up topsoil and wheat stalk, pushing it toward the tractor-sized hole. She clutched Eco in her lap, driving the mound of dirt into the gap. Foam sprayed back at the dozer. The stench of brine entered the gap.
Bella yanked the gearshift back. The dozer rattled through her seat. Clenching her eyes, she grasped her sunburnt forehead and calmed her breaths. Reversing, she threw her hat to the floor and scanned the fields behind her. The flood had extended a few hundred yards, drowning the crop. She braked and turned the front wipers on, grating salt and sand across the windshield. She pressed forward again.
“Stop!” her father yelled.
She jumped on the brakes. Eco skidded to the floor.
Her father’s loader crossed just yards in front of her. The solar roof panels glared. Dirt spilled from the raised bucket.
Eco leapt onto her lap. He rubbed his premature horns against her stomach.
“Hold on, Eco!”
Her father dumped the load into the breach. The ocean washed half the soil back.
“Go!” her father shouted.
She held a hand to her mouth. Only three years had passed since the rising sea had overrun her first seawall. Three years since she had lost Ethan, half their land, and nearly herself.
The loader backed out. Bella clenched her teeth and accelerated. Waves of whitewash submerged the dozer’s tracks. Creeping forward, the machine slowed. Inching the dirt into the gap, the dozer shuddered to a halt.
The flow stopped. The sea level lowered around her. She grabbed Eco and climbed out, jumping into the knee-deep water with a cold splash.
Her father braked several yards away, opened his door, and stared at her.
“It’s stalled,” she shouted over the loader’s engine.
He shut the loader off. “What?”
“It’s broken down again,” she said. “But I think it’s holding the wall.”
He climbed down, trembling as he grasped the handrails, and waded toward her. Weathered by sixty seasons beneath the Australian sun, his skin was as dry as summer clay, his back arched, and his greying hair stained with dust. “Damn it!” He snatched off his hat and threw it in the water. “Everything’s breaking!”
Ignorant. Uncaring. Emotionally absent. Yet, he was all the family she had left, the only reminder of Ethan’s brown eyes and broad shoulders, the living reminder of how much her mother had loved him, despite it all. Bella went to her father and took his hand. “Come on,” she said, leading him up the ten-foot-high embankment.
“Bella, I …,”—he shook his head, his breaths laboring—“I … I don’t even think your carbon-dollar tree farm would ’ave carried us through this time. We’re ruined.”
The drone hovered several yards above them as they reached the top. Bella pressed a button on her glasses, and said, “Drone 3, patrol.” It buzzed away to continue its surveillance along the mile-long wall.
Her father scanned the flooded fields. Gulls shrieked and skimmed the water as the sea surged over the crops, rolling foam, weed, and seawater across the farm.
“Six generations of farming ….” He gasped. “Gone.”
“No!” She turned away from him and placed Eco down, patting the goat. Her shirt clung to her chest as she heaved in the dry air. “There’s always another way.” Waves thumped against the wall less than a yard below, spraying cool mist over her face and salt across her lips.
She stood up and gazed across the Indian Ocean, the vast expanse where in better times they would play together. All of them. Back when her father had shown her some kindness. Sandcastles and swimming. Picnics and sunsets. Before her Mum got sick. Before they lost Ethan. Before her father broke.
She grasped her mother’s wedding ring hanging around her neck and turned to her father. “We’re not leaving this place. Our memories are here. This is our home.” She paused. “Dad, you’re all I have.”
He stared at her like he had just realized she was there, that during the last few years without Ethan he hadn’t been alone at all, like he was seeing her for the first time. Like she was his daughter. She hoped.
Bella smiled. “We’ll harvest what’s left,” she said. “We’ll … we’ll use everything we have to make the wall higher. We’ll—”
He broke off his focus on her. “No.”
She stepped in. “Look at me!”
He turned away. “Your ideas don’t work. We lost the first wall and all your carbon trees ….” He looked out across the ocean and lowered his voice, “You promised it’d work.”
“It was working. We wouldn’t have a farm now if it wasn’t for my walls.” She grabbed his shoulder and turned him back around. “You’re so stuck in your old ways of farming. That’s what’s destroying this place.”
Her brother again. Still. After all the years trying to prove herself worthy of farming, worthy of being his child. “What! What about Ethan!”
“He’d … he’d still be ’ere if it wasn’t for your wall!”
She gritted her teeth.
He glared at her, wrinkles creasing. His mouth trembled. He walked away to the repaired wall.
A wave crashed, soaking him, and sending dirt cascading toward the dozer.
She stepped toward him, then stopped herself. Maybe he needed a decent spray.
The ground fell away beneath him and he dropped a few feet.
The whole wall around him burst. The rush of sea and soil pressed her father against the dozer blade, submerging him up to his neck. His face cringed.
Bella rushed in. She pulled at his arm, leaning her weight back into the wall. Her father went deeper.
Bleating, Eco jumped in after her. Bella snatched at the goat, catching a leg.
She held her father up by one arm and the goat by another.
The sea roared past, deafening.
Her father choked. Waves washed over him.
Sinking, straining to hold on, she froze. Her face tightened with tears.
She couldn’t do it.
She let go of Eco. The sea swept him away.
Her boots slipped out from under her. She fell beneath the water, releasing her father.
Just like Ethan.
Blinded and tumbling in the whitewash, seawater in her nose, she found a handhold.
Clutching the dozer blade, blood flowing from her fingers, she pulled herself up.
Straining against the surge, she snatched at his shirt collar and dragged him onto the seawall.
They crawled to the top and collapsed.
Heaving the salt-stained air, Bella lay on her chest, the side of her face pressed to the hot sand, the wall trembling beneath her with each breaking wave. She brushed wet hair from her face and coughed up water as she watched the sea continue to pour in, the current deafening as it surged forward, engulfing their farmland.
In her mind, she saw Eco wash away, flailing and crying out, and remembered her brother. Bella had been unable to help him too.
The drone hummed above them, flashing a red strobe.
“We’re okay, Dad. A rescue drone will come now.”
The next morning, they headed out in their fishing dinghy to assess the loss. Luckily, the water had stopped within a half mile of their elevated homestead and surrounding paddocks. For now.
Leaning over the bow, Bella gazed into the water as the boat glided across the surface to the hum of the engine. Below them, the wheat fields and grazing paddocks were drowned, buried, irrecoverable.
Her father cut the engine as they reached the remnants of the seawall. Bella sat up to see the loader and dozer submerged up to their cabs, her seawall in tatters, and the ocean reaching a full mile into the farm.
There was no sign of Eco. Just like the weeks spent searching for Ethan after her first attempt to hold back the sea had failed.
Her father sat beside her on the bench seat, slouched forward, his face in his hands. “We’ve probably got … a quarter of our land left, half the sheep,” he slowly said. “And the machinery’s had it.”
She watched him without reply, the water lapping against the hull, gently rocking the aluminium boat. He glanced to her and gave a subtle grin. “But I still got you, Bella.”
She leant her head against his shoulder. “Mum always said you had a soft spot in you somewhere.”
He rubbed her back. “And you sure as hell ’ave a toughness inside o’ you.”
Sunlight glimmered off the glassy ocean surface. Bella leant back over the side. Beyond the collapsed seawall, to the land flooded a few years earlier, rows of leafless trees clung to the seafloor, barely a few feet tall, just below the surface. Remnants of her carbon-dollar tree farm.
Silver flashed across the seabed as a school of whiting swam through the seagrass.
Bella leant closer.
“Hang on, I’m thinking.”
“Oh … ’ere we go.” He half chuckled. “What ’ave you come up with now?”
He rested his hand on her back. “You okay, kiddo?”
“Dad,” she said, focused beneath the sea. “Remember how much we all loved the ocean together? You and me, Mum and Ethan. When I was little. It’s like farming the land was a constant battle against the changing climate, but in the summer, after harvest, we could all be together … fishing … snorkeling.”
“Hmm.” He wrapped an arm around her. “That was a long time ago …. But I remember.”
The carpet of long green leaves swayed back and forth in the current.
“We can save the farm,” she firmly said.
“Hmm.” Shadows passed over them as a flock of seagulls flew overhead. “The farm’s gone. We’re floating above it.”
She turned to him, grinning. “No, it’s still here.”
“Yeah, under the sea.”
“Exactly!” Squirming, she clapped her hands. “I know what to do.”
Expressionless, he stared at her.
“Oh, Dad!” She grasped his shoulders. “We’ll swap wheat for seagrass and sheep for fish!”
“What?” He sat up, screwing his face. “No, Bella. It’s over …. Done.”
“I’ve read about this!” She hugged his suddenly stiffened frame. “You get carbon-dollars for seagrass, too. More, in fact. It takes carbon from the sea as my trees did for the air. And we’ll farm fish!” She pulled back and held his hands.
A tear ran into his beard. “It’s over, Bella. The farm’s dead. Can’t you see that?”
She shook her head. “There’s grants for this sort of thing.”
He smiled, grimly.
She held his eyes in hers. “Dad, the farm can continue.” Reaching behind her neck, she undid the clasp on the chain holding her mother’s wedding ring. Placing it in her father’s hands, she closed his fingers around it. “It’s a promise I made,” she said. “It’s a promise I’ll keep.”
With one hand her father tightened his grip on the ring and put his arm around her, and with the other, he started the engine and turned homeward. She rested herself against him.