What is The Grief? Learn about the frightening reality of Cade’s possible future by watching this chilling video reading. The video includes captions for those who prefer or require them and the full text of the excerpt is provided below.
Grief was never something I was comfortable thinking about. I mean, no-one enjoyed navigating absence — the common experience of loss that came with funerals and memorial services and disappointments — yet I was as competent with these small sorrows as anyone else. But Grief, the undermining upwelling of loss in response to ecosystem devastation, the failure of conservation, was far harder to comprehend. I acknowledged it as little as possible. Still, it took real effort to look away from anything that had so much power, and so much spread. Like a contagion, it ran through entire families, through populations and with random outbreaks, until everyone knew someone who had it, who had succumbed.
“It’s the experience of loss,” the psychologists said, but more than that it was a loss underlined by guilt, because that loss had no natural cause; not if you didn’t count humans as natural, and I didn’t. We weren’t thunderstorms, nor did we blunder about, blind as bacteria. We had the capacity for choice, and what we had chosen — what we continued to choose — was death.
The shift in climate that we’d ignored for so long, that we’d only given lip service to preventing … when it came it took so many of us with it, took us with floods and droughts. That was a small thing, really, and we were practised at looking away, so long as it only happened to other people, in other places. But when it started taking what lived with us — the birds and beasts and creatures that we loved, the green world that grew up around us, well. That was a loss we hadn’t prepared for, for all we had allowed it … encouraged it, even, through our choices.
It had never occurred to me — to any of us — how intensely we could mourn another species once that species was gone.
It wasn’t the same for everyone. Some people didn’t get it at all. Some people got it more than others — there was a higher rate of Grief in Indigenous populations, another negative metric people didn’t want to acknowledge lest it highlight their own culpability and continued privilege. Some people were set off by old extinctions, some by new. Some felt it well up inside them with each new charred koala, burnt to death by bushfires. For some it was the sight of starved rockhopper penguins, for some the quiet, empty spaces where the little rock wrens had been, or the fading of alpine buttercups. The skeletal bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef had triggered the Grief of entire communities, and looking back now, I realized that there Marjorie had shown her susceptibility.
“It’s all right for you,” she said. “No matter what happens, you’ll always have your jellyfish.”
I wish I’d seen less bitterness. I wish I’d found another way to share the jellyfish with her. A better way. But with the Reef gone, there was no substitute for her, nothing she could ever learn to love so well.
The thing about Grief: once it comes it never leaves. The Grief is spiralling down and down into loss that can never be recovered, that will never lack culpability. It’s the guilt that makes it so devastating … and so profoundly destructive.
The Grief always ends in suicide.
The day that Marjorie became the Sea Witch she fired her boat to ashes. The Sea Witch was too large, and too unwieldy, for her to haul it up into sands on her own, so she beached it at the highest point she could and waited for low tide. The sands around the keel were wet, and my footprints filled with water as soon as the weight was lifted, so I hoped for spluttering and a slow harmless guttering of flame, as all my efforts to talk her out of burning failed.
“I don’t want her anymore,” she said.
“Then sell her! Or give her away if you have to. Don’t destroy just for the sake of it.” Marjorie loved the Sea Witch, no matter how much she tried to persuade me that she no longer cared. It had been freedom for her, and accommodation, and salt movement. I’d spent more than my share of time aboard, watching the affection on her face as she smoothed down surfaces, painted varnish over old wood, talked to every sail and joint.
“Why not destroy for the sake of it?” she said. “Isn’t that what we’ve always done?” That utterance was an exaggeration and a culmination both, because Marjorie had spent her life in conservation, and it had failed her as much as she had failed it. She’d tried, again and again, to bring back and build up, and the repudiation of that wasn’t just false, it was wallowing.
“If you can’t bear to watch, you can go home,” she said, but I couldn’t. That would be abandonment and we’d been friends so long. I wouldn’t forgive myself. Already I could see the Grief rising in her, though I didn’t want to. Once manifested it never left, only got worse and worse until the Grief was all that was left. The Grief, and the ways of ending it.
Part of me was afraid she’d throw herself into the fire, burn herself down alongside the Sea Witch. That was what made me stay; that was what made me hope for the futility of burning … that perhaps she’d see the futility as well as the flames and snap herself out of it.
I should have expected accelerant. There was no hysterics, no determined rush to annihilation, just a quiet slopping of fuel that sounded like seashore, a match, and the end of the vessel. It burnt quickly enough and Marjorie stood back and watched with folded arms, never made so much as a move towards the conflagration once she’d sparked it.
“Is it enough?” I asked her, when the Sea Witch had burnt down to wet sand and ashes, mostly, with parts of her left over for wreckage. The wheel had kept its shape; I could see its print in the sand, half-buried. The Sea Witch’s course was set.
“It’s never enough,” she said.