16 Planetsby Bryan Walpert
Scientists say climate change is a serious threat to human civilisation, is what I would like to say to Julie, but she's sick to death of hearing it. It's freezing in this lounge, and the glass face of the woodburner is dark. Probably I should light a fire; instead, I'm staring through the window at the tops of the trees, skeletal against the sky, which is blue for the first time in about two weeks. But the day is cold, very cold. Julie's settled in the armchair, dramatically smothered in blankets, reading the Dominion Post. In the old days I would have suggested a way Julie and I could warm things up, but if I reach out a hand now to touch her leg, I might draw back a stump.
How did we get this way? I mean the earth, which is what I'd like to talk with Julie about. We've got to do something. Things are complicated. The armchair is positioned directly across from the couch, where I'm sitting. The couch faces the double glass doors, which lead to where the deck should be. Instead, there's just a drop-off to the ground. Julie won't sit on the couch because she can't stand to be reminded there's no deck where the deck should be. The framing's done, so we can see how big the deck would be if I finished cutting and laying the boards. Beyond where the deck should be is our washing, hanging on the line, blowing in the wind. Towels, sheets, Julie's jeans. Beyond our clothes-line is a fence and beyond that fence is a house that belongs to our neighbours, Mike and Helen. I can peer over the top of the fence and shout hello to Mike when he's mowing the lawns or weeding the garden. His clothesline is more or less parallel to ours. Usually children's things fill up the line - little socks, little jackets, but also onesies, cloth nappies; they just had their third child, a little boy called Alex. Julie told me, before she stopped talking to me, that we should give some of our baby clothes to Mike and Helen, but that I'd have to do it. I haven't gotten around to mentioning it to Mike, though it's been weeks now.
Things have gotten complicated; it's hard to know what to do. I think about the starfish story my mother read to me when I was a child. You might know the story - the little girl who picks up starfish stranded on the shore, just lying there beached only a few metres from life and not even aware of it, not even able to cry out and tell us, and this girl tosses them one by one back into the water. Someone comes along and says, Hey what difference is that going to make? There are so many starfish stranded on beaches around the world. And the girl says, It will make a difference for this one. The problem with this story is that starfish are destroying the coral reefs in the Philippines. To top it off, these are predator starfish, according to what I've been reading. Who knew about predator starfish? Pick up one, try to throw it back, and you're likely to get swelling, pain, sick to your stomach. What are you supposed to do when even the stupid starfish are a bloody nuisance? Who deserves to get saved?
With Julie not saying much, I get up from the couch, wander outside and over to the fence, then look over it at the cloth nappies and bibs blowing in the breeze. Mike is standing on his deck, which I built with him two years ago. I shout hello and tell him he's doing the right thing, using the line to dry all the clothes. He looks sad, which he usually does when he sees me these days. He walks over to the fence. Our heads both just make it over the top. He stretches his hand over, shakes mine solemnly and asks how I'm going. I say I worry a lot about the earth. Then we hear Alex cry. He nods his head towards my house and says, "Take care of that woman," then moves inside to check on the baby.
I stop by the mailbox on my way back to the house, open the envelopes in the kitchen. A third notice from Genesis. I go into the lounge. Julie is still in the armchair. Julie spends a lot of time in the armchair. If she goes into the kitchen, she'll see the pile of bills on the table. The Visa bill is hard to look at; I haven't opened it. We received a second notice yesterday from Telecom. If she goes down the hall, past our bedroom, she'll see the nursery. That's worse. We finished the nursery in February. It's blue and green, a sea theme that carries into the curtains she made, the drawings on the walls, the fish buttons we bought for the drawers. We chose a marine theme because we live in the Manawatu. It didn't seem fair for a boy to be born in New Zealand out of sight of the sea. I painted the room and the drawers. My mother sent us a seashell mobile from overseas to hang over the cot. Julie and I did the stencilling together from an idea she found in Little Treasures magazine. We had stencil patterns spread across the carpet that day; I had a beer in my hand, a can of Tui, imagining the day when my son would have one in his, the two of us enjoying a cold one on the deck. Julie sewed the curtains out of thermal-backed fabric she found at Spotlight; it is green and blue and covered with pictures of seaweed waving lazily in the current, the entire pattern swimming with sea creatures. I used to stare at those curtains, at the clams in their shells. Have you ever thought about the irony that the company Shell is called Shell? That's another thing I'd like to ask Julie if she ever starts talking to me again, if we're ever on the same couch again, under the same wool blanket, if she starts some day to put her head on my chest the way she used to, so I can smell the flowers in her shampoo. Think of all the drilling in the sea, the oil spills. I wonder now about the wisdom of a seashell mobile. Was it the wrong message for an impressionable mind? What do you do when even seashells remind you of an industry responsible for oil-covered seals? It's good that we're going to take down that mobile, when I get around to it.
"We've got to talk about this," is what Julie used to say, a month ago, maybe two. "Why won't you talk about this?" But I was sawing wood. I was building the deck, putting my shoulder into it, driving home nails. Late into the evening, in the twilight, the stars coming out and the crescent moon, I'd be straining to see the end of that hammer. All day I made decks. I had my own landscape business, a few part-time employees. I'd come home, shove some food down my gob, my toolbelt still on, then go outside to work on that deck. I'd work until I could hardly breathe, until my muscles ached, until I knew I'd hit that mattress and nothing could keep me awake and thinking. I would have stopped working so late if Mike and Helen had complained, but they never did. Julie would come out when it got to 10 p.m., 11 p.m. She'd stand there beneath the stars and the moon, her long black hair beautiful around her face, though often she hadn't washed her hair for days, the freckles on her pale skin invisible in the near dark, though I could picture them, like a map of the sky. "You've got to stop this," she'd say. One day I took a breath, stared up at the stars, and realised she was right. I thought about all the trees - the ones killed for me to build all those decks I had built. It was like I could see a line of trees going back to the first deck I made and going the other direction as far as I could see to the last I'd ever make. I decided right there, on a Tuesday night. I hung my tools in the workshop in our garage, walked around the house and through the front door because without the deck the glass doors are too high to step through, and that was the last time I worked on that deck, the last time I did much work at all. With time on my hands, I started looking up things on the internet, and they scared me.
The sea levels are rising, is what I'd like to say to Julie. But she'd burst into tears again. I feel bad for Julie; she has it hard. She said once maybe we could use some help, maybe we should see someone, but I'm fine. I am. You have to focus on the big picture, is my philosophy. Every time a mom takes a son to a doctor for an ear infection, she's putting carbon dioxide into the air, heating the atmosphere like a glasshouse. Every time a mom drives her son across town to play rugby. Every time he comes home to visit from university. Think about the carbon footprint of an Air New Zealand flight going overseas to visit his grandparents. It's not right. An entire Pacific island called Tuvalu will be going under the sea, and it won't be long. The whole planet is warming up. You can't tell it today, it's so cold, but the warmer days are coming. It's better to keep the car in the garage, to stay in the house, to walk to the dairy for beer. They've got some good deals at the Four Square. Thirteen bucks for a 12-pack of Tui, just yesterday. Same deal a few days back. And think of the nappies. They're topping up the landfills. It can take 500 years for a nappy to biodegrade while sitting in a hole in the dirt. Cloth nappies? You know how much water it takes to wash them? I didn't tell Mike, but it's thirty thousand litres a year. A kid is a huge burden on the biosphere.
"It's crazy to bring someone into this world," I told Julie one night, from where I sat at my desk chair in front of the computer in the corner of the kitchen. That's where we moved the computer when we turned the study into a nursery by painting the walls green and blue, stencilling the walls with fish, and making sea curtains. I explained why this was true. I explained that scientists say climate change is a serious threat to human civilisation. I said we need to find sustainable forms of agriculture, manufacturing, energy. How will we respond? I asked her. How could Julie respond? She stopped asking me to stop, and she stopped asking me to talk. Now I'm the one bothering her with questions. She started curling up on that armchair, her back to where the deck should be, exactly where she is now, facing the wall whose other side faces the hall at the end of which there is a nursery with a sea theme and a seashell mobile and an empty cot.
You have to look at the big picture, is what I would like to tell Julie, except she's just raised the newspaper over her eyes. Just look at the headlines. We can only take so many more people on this planet. Overpopulation is killing us. Some people disagree, don't believe it, because it's hard to get all the data, to understand, to really know. Especially in New Zealand, where we've got nothing but space, where it seems sometimes like you and your neighbours are the only people in the world. But I read that in only a couple of hundred years we're going to need 16 planets if there's going to be room for all the people who keep getting born, even if others are dying early of cancer for reasons we don't know. Or take cot death, which nobody understands at all. No one knows why you have a son who is okay for four months, who wakes up and starts to smile at you beneath his seashell mobile for the first time and keeps smiling every morning like you're the most important person there is, and his name is Eric, and he has hardly any hair and cries a lot and is always hungry and keeps you from sleeping and is the most beautiful thing you've ever seen. No one knows why you see what you see when you come in after lighting the fire because it's a cold morning, the first really cold morning in June, and so you come in after spending 20 minutes trying to get that woodburner to catch, and the whole time maybe that little baby boy has been trying to catch his breath, and you don't know it because you're fiddling with a fire in the lounge. No one knows how long Eric's lying there, dying, not breathing, while only the first of at least 16 planets we're going to need keeps spinning and getting hotter because of those greenhouse gases. But not getting hotter fast enough because you still need a fire the morning the boy dies because you think to yourself that way he won't get cold when you take him out of his cot. And so you wait to take him out of the cot. And later that seashell mobile is so still you can hardly stand it and can't wait to take it down with the curtains but for now can't bear to go into the room or pack up the clothes and give them to the neighbours, whose son is alive and crying. How will we respond? It's hard to get the data, to understand. How can we respond?
I should light a fire today, still cold in early September. The wood is piled high in the carport, neatly stacked untouched piles of pine, mac, blue gum. It's sitting there, all those dead trees letting off carbon. I should pay the bills. I should find a job, something sustainable. In a couple of hours I'll walk out of the front door and around the house to stand where I should be able to sit on chairs I haven't bought and never will to put on a deck which is not where the deck should be. I'll stare at the sky and wonder if what I think are stars, winking in the distance, are some of the 16 planets people are going to fill with babies who will gulp the air and breathe it out like there is nothing to it, then grow up and toss their rubbish in the sea because now we'll have 16 planets full of oceans whose names we can't guess because they're named after people who'd discovered them, people who died, who haven't yet been born. Who gets saved? There's a southerly kicking up today. Julie's sitting there, reading the newspaper, her back to the world. Sometimes I look at Julie and wonder if anything can sustain us. Every day it seems to get chillier in this room. But the warmer days are coming. Sometimes it feels like the sea is up to my chest, my chin, like I can hardly breathe. How will we respond? Everything's changing, and it's all so confusing to me now, how we are going to visit the grandparents across the world and what we will say when we get there and, with all the landfills overflowing, how we are meant to get rid of a stupid seashell mobile, the clothes I can't seem to give away, and a useless set of blue-green curtains swimming with pictures of striped fish, clams hiding their heads in their shells, and bloody starfish who don't even know they need saving.
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