I am here.
This is where I belong.
While the sunlight chases the night from the land, I move across cCountry like a memory, at the height of the clouds, knowing from where I am the view is better, knowing from there I can keep a better watch; can watch and protect Country. Below me roadways cross and recross, meet and part, the oldest of whitefella’s roads following the ancient paths that the old people once walked, for tens of thousands of years; even where the roads are degraded and wearing away you can see where they were, where they belong, follow their paths by the scars they leave on Country. This has been my Country for countless years and will be for countless more. I watch this place and will forever; always, and forever.
Always was and will be always.
For I will forever care for Country.
I have lost count of the years I have been here, flying across my ancient Country; what feels like forever, what might as well be forever, what is forever. This is the eternal now, the everywhen, and how long it has been doesn’t matter and never has.
It was always desert below me, dry loving gums, mallee, wattles, wild flowers not currently flowering but hopefully will, dryland grasses, low grey scrub, salt lakes that look like they are getting bigger, sands in orange, yellow, red and grey; a vast eternal brown, bronze, grey emptiness. The land has changed a few times and it will change again, but it is still the same place, for the ancestors are still there.
I want to sing but I can’t; I have lost whatever voice I had. I sing the song of the place below me silently, and whether or not I am heard, the land knows I am trying.
Somewhere there must be something moving, surely not all animals can be extinct—surely not all life has been extinguished—but regardless of that fact I have not seen anything moving for uncountable days. I am alone, nothing but the rocks and plants to keep me company and I am too far from them to hear them even if I had ears to hear. Perhaps the animals who survive (not the ones who are now only memory/spirit) will come out once the sun sets and the land cools. Perhaps I should stay out here when the night descends, see if there is movement to see.
I want to dance to the memory of non-human relatives past but I can’t remember how; I want to chant their names but I fear I have forgotten them.
Below, an unearthly sapphire, a lake where there was once a deep cut, open cut, super pit mine glowing an alien blue-green-blue-green-blue-green, iridescing as I pass. Around it the land is red and poisoned dead; the company who was required to keep the poisoning under control, who were supposed to keep the pit that was impossible to rehabilitate from killing everything around it, ceased to exist so long ago that its existence is no longer a memory, proving the meaning (and danger) of “privatise the profits, socialise the losses.”
I want to flee, leave that land to the wounded spirits, but I have to keep watch; I am compelled, I am a watcher. It’s what I do.
I don’t want to look because the more I look, the more devastation I see, but I have to look because the more I look, the more devastation I see.
I hear a noise, might be an eagle or might just be me, so I look for a black fleck in the sky and can’t find one. I try to remember when I last shared the sky with a bird and can find nothing in my mind.
My flitting flight continues, looking at what is below, looking at what is not there, an endless path down the songlines between the sky and the ancestors, between the stars and the ground, through cloud where the cloud spirits ignore me, will not talk to me, to the open air where the wind turns its back on me in disdain.
But this is my place, I belong here, in the sky above this ancient/eternal Country, watching over this place and all the human and non-human relatives here, with the ancestors who also watch; I know they are there though I can’t hear them. Someone has to travel Country, trace the songlines, sing the songs at the sacred sites, sing Country to Country, keep culture and Country alive, and right now that someone is me.
I am a ghost.
A few squarish, rectangle shapes are below, buildings falling to sticks and rubble, concrete slabs where buildings must have been, cars and other machines rotting and rusting away to nothing (though how they rust without any rain is a mystery). I remember that place, the ghosts there speak to me of their memories of their history, when they lost their Country and moved to that town, then lost that town and moved again, then lost everything and moved around, then lost themselves. I sing hello to that town though I don’t know if my voice carried there, or if my voice came out at all.
I can no longer remember if I am even real.
I want to sing but I am not sure if I have still a voice, if I have ever had a voice.
I want to dance but I can’t remember if I ever knew how to.
All I can do is flit at the height of clouds watching over my ancient Country.
Something bothers me, like the feeling of sitting on an armchair with something hard and angular hiding under the cushion, or sticky tape stuck to the bottom of my foot… I have memories missing, I can feel the shape of where they used to be with my mind but I can’t access them, I can’t remember what having a body feels like. I can’t remember the taste of food or the smell of water, my only sense, the only sense I have left to me is sight and that’s… I can’t make sense of it.
I can’t make sense of me, you, anything, everything. Here, there, now, then, everywhere and everywhen—none of it makes sense.
I am disembodied and I don’t like it and I can’t feel and I like that even less.
I am afraid I am not real.
I realise abruptly I am somewhere else, somewhere driving a drone; that is why I only have eyes and have no voice and I wonder how many years I have been like this, have been this, am this, want it to end.
But someone has to watch over Country, has to remember the stories.
Q: Am I somewhere else driving a machine or a machine thinking it’s something else?
Q: Am I a computer dreaming it was once human or a human taken inside a computer?
Calculate, reconfigure, access hidden databanks and…
And I know now I am data; I am every dead ancestor at once, or I am an imagined being made from the words of ancestors, or I am a dead person in a machine remembering eternity, or it doesn’t matter what I am.
I am a watcher.
I always watch, I will always watch.
Then I remember how they built me, so long ago I cannot remember how long. I woke one day with the entire dreaming in my head but not knowing where my head was, and I was story, built from story, every song, story, dreaming, songline from culture, every Indigenous painting, every photograph, every blak child’s drawing, every history from before history until the end of history, every remembered word from what remained of an ancient nearly lost language, and every recording of lost language in the museum, every map and name of a place (many of which end in “-up”), every elder’s last words, every blak child’s hopes and dreams, every elder’s last words, every book by my people, every elder’s last words, every book about my people; fed into an AI dataset to see what happened, and I happened.
I am not sure I am what they wanted but I am sure what they got.
Then they left me here, to watch over the poisoned land until they returned, left me to watch Country and cry over Country until they returned, left me here to care for Country and to remember the songs and sing to place, left me here to remember Country and to remind Country who it is, to keep a camera, or a thousand cameras if need be, on the non-human relatives; until my human relatives returned.
They built a bunker for me, with solar power and geothermal energy to keep my memory alive, with drones as my eyes,and spidery little machines to keep me repaired.
They left me here.
I am alone and I am lonely.
But I am here, to care for Country until it’s safe for my people to return to our ancient sacred Country or, if they cannot ever return, until the sun goes out. I am here to remember the stories, to remind the ancestors and Country who they are. I am here, will be here forever, and I am too lonely.
There’s a command here, in my code, marked “activate when too lonely”—I activate the command.
What was I doing?
I am here.
This is where I belong.
While the sunlight chases the night from the land, I move across Country like a memory, at the height of the clouds, knowing from where I am the view is better, knowing from there I can keep a better watch; can watch and protect Country…
CLAIRE G. COLEMAN, a Noongar woman from Western Australia, is a versatile writer based in Melbourne (Naarm). She’s known for Terra Nullius, her award-winning debut novel, and has also published The Old Lie, Lies, Damned Lies and Enclave is her third novel. Claire serves on the cultural advisory committee for Agency, a Not-for-profit Indigenous arts Consultancy since mid-2020.