JAMES BRADLEY: Some nights, when the wind is up and the power flickers and fails, she tells the child stories, as if this thread of words might be enough to bind them together, to bear them through all that is to come, like a boat or a leviathan.
She knows she is not alone in despairing for what the future holds, in wanting to find ways to hold it back for as long as possible. But no matter how hard she tries she cannot keep it at bay forever. For a time is coming - soon, sooner than she wants it to be, sooner than either of them will be ready - when the child will have to venture forth into the world we have made and find a way to survive. The onrush of that time, the feeling that their years together are already falling away, shadows her life, a drumbeat of loss behind the moments of joy, a reminder every instant is precious. But when they are here, isolated by the power or the wind, it is not time's flight that frightens her; instead it is the knowledge that the child is alone, and that one day soon she will understand that. And so she does what mothers have done since the beginning of time, since before we were human: she draws filaments from the darkness and weaves them together to create meaning, purpose, shape, arranging the elements to reveal the world, or perhaps to make a new one.
Before the child, if you suggested this might be something she could do she would have laughed, told you she was not a storyteller. But in the years since the child arrived in her life she has found the habits of breath and suspense that make a story live were already there, waiting within her, just as the eagerness for it is in the child, her capacity for rapt attention.
How far back does this strand of connection go, she sometimes wonders. Did we require language to discover story, or did language evolve to sustain story? Are we the only animals that tell stories? Do the birds? The fish? the elephants? The whales and dolphins? And if they do, what shape do those stories take? For surely story is as much a way of being in the world as a way of describing it? A means of comprehending the way all that surrounds us hums through us as we live?
It is not a thought she lingers on, for to consider it is to invite a different kind of grief, an awareness of what has being lost, extinguished as the animals disappear, one by one, the irreplaceable wonder of their knowledge of the world wiped away with them.
And so instead, she sits in the dark and rocks the child and tells her stories. Tales about forests, and snow, half remembered myths about wolves and bears, fables about talking birds and singing stones, each containing some glimpse of a world they've forgotten how to see. In the daylight she sometimes wonders how much of the power of these stories grows out of her desire for something solid, something to connect their unanchored world to the past. But at night, she tells them, she can feel their power moving through her and knows it is more than that, that they come from some deep place, somewhere before memory, before time.
Sometimes, though, when the child is on the edge of sleep, she tells her one particular story, a story, unlike the others, a story about a people long ago, a people who were not quite us. For as long as they could remember this people had lived on the plains in Africa, moving in bands through its vast spaces, hunting and singing. Their world was a place where animals ruled, its grasslands and forests thronged by elephants and rhinoceroses so huge the earth told of their approach long before they arrived, its wetlands and rivers stalked by crocodiles, its skies filled by flocks of birds so immense, they blotted out the sun. The people dreamed of the animals, dreamed themselves, weaving stories to teach those who came after them how to honour the animals, how to honour the land.
Millennia passed, and the people were happy, until one day some of them grew restless and decided to head north, through the mountains and across the desert, into the green lands beyond.
These were new places, peopled by new creatures - bears as tall as trees, fish as long as men that lay dreaming in the rivers, vast herds of wild horses and deer - but in time the people learned their songs and as the generation slipped by they began to dream of them.
And then one day the snow began to creep south, carpeting the land, and bringing the ice with it. This new world was harder than the old, but the people learned to survive, secreting themselves in the caves and dark places to wait out winters that lasted nine months, learning to hunt the animals that came south with the snow, the mammoths and the elk and the deer, crafting clothes from their furs and treasures from their bones. And through it all they stayed true to the land, its voices, its presence.
But though they could not see it, the cold was changing them, and as the millennia slipped by, they became heavier, stronger, adapting to their world just as the animals had. When they sang the land, they knew they were part of it, that it sang them as well. And when they dreamed the world, they knew that it dreamed them as well. Until at last they were no longer the same people, but a people who lived by firelight, a people of snow and ice.
It is a story she tells only on the edge of sleep because she does not want the child to ask her how it ends. For if she did she would have to speak of the others, the people they had left behind in Africa, of the way they grew more numerous, more intelligent, their fingers shaping the world, crafting tools and weapons, until one day they too began to move north, through the deserts and across the mountains. In the countless millennia since the people left, the newcomers had forgotten they ever existed, so when they finally reached those distant lands they were startled to find others already there, a people like them but also different; larger, stronger, wilder, their skin pale, their hair orange and brown.
What did these newcomers make of their ancient relatives when they first encountered them, she wonders. Do they see them as brothers and sisters? Or did they see in them the face of something different, something lesser, monstrous even? It is said that when the Europeans first arrived on Australian shores, the aborigines thought them ghosts; did these newcomers think the same, glimpse in their pale skin the shiver of death, an intimation of the fate that awaited them? Or did they seem misshapen and bestial? All those stories of ogres and giants and trolls, their origins buried in the deep past - do they come from them? Whichever it was, the newcomers drove them back, until finally the people who had come first were almost gone, forced back to the sea on the furthermost peninsula. And though it might have seemed this was their end, it was not, or not quite, because they were not gone. Because there is her.