Fiction

The wind is trying to kill us

The wind is trying to kill us. Here in the loose forest that has been shaken and then shaken again, so that trees and bushes and rocks have fallen down the back of the slope’s couch and vanished; perhaps blown by that wind, or perhaps the ridge rolled them off as it turned over and went back to sleep. Perhaps the shrubs and stones have been animating, electrified by the sights around them, the smells and the sounds, a whole world expanding from the borders of their atoms; a world that suddenly contracted to pure unfeeling as they were stilled, left where they staggered for brief, living seconds.

We struggle to notice this leftover scrub because the wind is trying to kill us. It has happened more times than I can count. On the edges of cliffs the wind has heaved in the small of our backs to fly us like doomed gulls; on river crossings it has pushed on our packs and tried to slip us into drowning; it has picked up the snow and rain and tried to smother us in every state of water, and now it is doing it again. The trees above us roar as they hurtle their branches about and try with all their strength to let them go.

The short, red-haired man beside me hasn’t noticed – he is gabbling about a marvellous film about kittens that chase krill. This is a film that everyone in the city has seen, though at first he had wondered: How? Was the krill making its first tentative steps on to land, pursuing a wondrous new world of options such as teaching oceanography and trying out for overwater hockey? Or had the kittens overcome their dread of water because the taste of krill was so delicious and it was worth wetting their fur in salty depths? No, he explains, they were fetching the krill for beached whales and this is the tension, the moral dilemma at the heart of the film: can the kittens manage to battle their instincts to gobble that crunchy and fishy wonder instead of delivering it to save the poor basking whales?

A branch smashes on a nearby mudstone slab and the leaves do not rain down politely like this is a wholesome and earthy wedding, they spark as if they are flaming green from an explosion. But the red-haired man is chatting about all the books that are best-selling and wonderful, especially the one about the explorer who climbs the smallest mountains in the world that are still called mountains, and how funny it is! All the trials he goes through in different countries (“mountain” can mean “velvet orange” in Etruscan) but it has a sad side too, because even though he is strolling to the tops of these dubious mountains he is struggling with depression from the losses that knit sadness into his body; so we are laughing at the molehills and crying with the explorer and when his mother dies he scatters her ashes on the absolute smallest of the peaks and it is flat, totally flat.

Can’t you see, I want to yell at the red-haired man, the wind is trying to kill us! Would you do this in a war, would you chat about snipping your fingernails as we charge with bayonets to slash at other men murmuring about cutting their grass when it is just a little too wet, because there are whole trees crunching on the ground and bouncing like they’re determined to try again. The sound is like the breaking of a thousand legs and the smell is so much dust powdering up from the ground, and this time he says he has been watching a documentary about the wind – and I want to grab his shirt and say the wind, the wind! – the wind, he says, is such a fascinating thing. Do you know the Beaufort Scale? There is calm when smoke rises vertically and then light air which ripples the water and a light breeze where you can feel the wind on your face and a gentle breeze which puts leaves and small twigs in constant motion – and what is it called when the wind is trying to kill you! I want to ask, what is that fucking called? – but on he goes through moderate and fresh breezes and explains how useful the wind is, how we are harnessing it for clean power and driving ships with huge sails and we will use it to travel to Mars and the depths of the Earth and it can write songs for your lover and solve difficult quantum equations and there are rumours that the wind (when linked with complementary therapies) may be part of the solution for curing prostate cancer but the studies so far are partial and involve small numbers of participants. The wind right now is hurling the branches of gumtrees and the sound is furious, as if we are in a place it can’t reach. It is lashing at our faces, blocking our escape; it is scattering leaves in our eyes so we don’t know which way to turn.

All of a sudden it is quiet. I look beside me. The man has gone. Has a branch broken his back? No, he has dropped back and is talking to someone else.

But now that I can’t hear him, I feel lonely. The snarl of the wind pushes his voice behind him, shouting about the tree it has marked for me, the branches where my initials are carved. The wind tells me the long night is just beginning and the shiver of its voice is full of darkness and fear.

I turn to find its ear and start to whisper, and then talk and gibber, on and on. There is calm, I say. There is light air, there is light breeze, there is light air, there is calm.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 21, 2021 as "The wind is trying to kill us".

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Ben Walter is a Tasmanian writer, and the fiction editor at Island.