The man stands at the door with a satchel in his hand.
Can I help you? says the woman. She looks at him. He is balding, thin faced, with dark eyes. Like mine, she catches herself thinking. He is clad in pants made from a slightly glistening fabric, navy shirt and zipped jacket. His shoulders are stooped, as if his journey has fatigued him.
The day is hot. The sun leaches heavily through heat laden gums. Birds squawk in the forest in front of her. No breeze stirs the leaves.
I hope so, he says.
He puts the satchel down.
I was driving through here and my car broke down, he says.
She looks over his shoulder. She cannot see any car, but the road is obscured by the forest. No one drives through here, she thinks. It is a one way dirt track up to her enclosure. She hadn’t seen any dust clouds or signs of a vehicle.
How far have you walked?
For ages, he says.
Normally she would invite him in. Country people do that, there’s little risk. But not this man. His shoes are neither muddy nor dusty.
I can offer you a drink, she says.
Water’d be fine. Thanks. He smiles.
Take a seat, she says, and retreats into the house.
When she returns with the water he’s on the bench on the veranda, satchel on his lap. He doesn’t look harmful. But then the bad ones never do. That’s how they get you in.
Can I call someone, roadside service? she says.
No, thanks. I just need somewhere to rest a bit.
Yeah, you know, ease up, take a load off, lie low.
Sit for a while then, I have things to do.
She looks out of the window. He is sitting, staring out at the opaque and glittering forest. She hears birdcalls. The birds are indifferent to this man.
She comes out and says,
What’s in your bag?
He smiles. I read you were forthright, he says. He mops his brow with a white handkerchief. It is clean crisp. The he says, We can see the future, it is so close, but when we get there, it is nothing like we saw. Why is that?
She says nothing.
And when we arrive it is not the future. That still looms ahead, like a Tantalus, crystalline yet obscure. Don’t you think?
She smiles. There were plenty in the region who danced with crystals and read palms and invoked spirits in the bark.
So we are in a strange land that we hadn’t predicted, and still reaching for the morrow, he says.
She crosses here arms and leans again the door post. Are you a travelling philosopher? she says. You got crystals in the bag? I should forewarn you, I don’t give much truck to that nonsense.
The man shakes his head. I do apologise, he says. My name is Iain.
How do you do, Iain, she says. I’m Ruth.
Come sit, he says. He points to a chair on the veranda. Grab yourself a coffee or a tea. Or something stronger. I’ve got some important messages for you.
She goes inside. She places a rifle just inside the door. Then she gets a bottle of beer from the fridge, a tray and a glass. She lifts the bottle to him, but he says, No, I’m good, thanks. He sips his water.
She moves the chair near the door in case she has to leap up quickly, then sits and pours a glass for herself.
Who are you? she says.
Snorts. Is he crazy?
I’ve come to encourage you and thank you, he says.
She leans forward in her chair, and says, For … ?
Being brave, he says.
Chuckles, runs hand through hair. I’m not brave, she says. I’ve been very unbrave in fact.
I know, he says, but you will be.
How do you figure that, Mr Iain Walk In Stranger?
He opens the satchel. She stiffens and readies to jump in case he pulls out a weapon. But he is holding a rectangle of glass, about the size of a hand.
Look, he says.
Images appear in the glass. People, colourfully dressed, at parties, or beaches, next to cars, houses. She does not recognise any of the car brands. They look very modern and sleek. As do the buildings.
That’s me, when I was fifteen, he says. She can see the young man in him, sallow featured, a full head of hair. Anxious, a bit like he is now.
Yep, he says, I had a bit more hair then, but that’s a family trait. The men lose it pretty quickly in our line, but I’m not sure whose genes that was. Obviously not yours, you have splendid hair.
She is more occupied with the glass object. It was clear glass, but is now replete with life.
Ah, he says, the looking glass. He taps it on his hand like it was a piece of card. Of course you haven’t seen it. I should have thought about that. It’s actually an old model. I got it because it most closely resembles – what were they called? – smart phones. But I couldn’t find any of those in antique shops that worked.
He smiles at her. This is my dad. He points to a tall thin man in slacks and t-shirt. Not much hair. He says, He was a quantum consultant.
A woman pops up. That’s Mum.
Short cut dark bob. Leaning on a pillar, hands on one hip. A sharp lean look. Not unlike how she saw herself at times, when fantasising about a different life. Iain says,
She was a high achiever. Ran a glocal cybersuite for a number of years. Then became an activist for human rights. Very smart woman. Probably got her brains from her great grandmother. He smiles as if that was a compliment.
Sorry, did you say glocal?
Yes. Global/local. It was a fizz word of her generation.
Sorry, buzz. I did what research I could, but I’ve probably missed some of the nanobits – details. I’m not up with all the old expressions.
Another photo appears. He didn’t do anything to change the image.
An older woman in a resplendent aqua suit. Her hair in a brilliant coif, lipstick and large sunglasses. She was a fashionista. Great talker, great entertainer. You wouldn’t pick her as a subterfuge worker. Passed lots of intel around. Saved many lives as a result.
She looked at the woman in the photo. She guessed she was about mid-fifties, maybe a bit younger. She asks, Is this an old photo?
No. Took it last week. Gran’s 175 this year.
I know, not bad, huh? We’ve done some great work on longevity.
But that’s crazy.
But you know the best bit?
She’s your grandchild.
She sits back. A flock of cockatoos shreds the blue sky above them in a whirl of white and sun. I don’t understand. Did you say my … grandchild?
Yes, he says. You only one survived. The pandemic got the others. But that’s okay, we blossom again. I have numerous siblings and cousins.
She stares at him. Is he insane? Is she insane? Is this just a hallucination? She blinks. The sun hits her face. It is not harsh and does not obscure her vision. She is warmed by it in fact.
Look, he says, I don’t have a lot of time. The immediate future is, frankly tough, at least that’s what the history book say. But we make it through. I’m evidence of that. We wouldn’t– I wouldn’t – be here, unless you did what you don’t want to do. But you can, you know, and you will, because I am here. I’m proof of what you do. That’s why I say both encouragement and thanks.
He stares at her, childlike, as if expecting her to make plans for dinner or organise a street party. She says,
This thing I am meant to do. What is it?
Persevere, he says without hesitating. Believe. Know that what you want, and think, is correct and will succeed.
Her mind turns to the academy. The Head of Department shouting her down, the Dean watching, and the men in black suits with the white plastic spirals that joined their jackets to their earpieces. The words that stung were ‘your chair has been dissolved’. She was to leave. Immediately. She left, immediately, in the company of the two spiral men. The only things she was allowed to take with her were the stuffed mascot from the Gene Science conference she had convened two years before, and the cactus on her desk, in which she had buried the vials. She got away as far and as fast as she could. She never thought she’d do anything again. She was afraid to. They were everywhere. What could she, a single person, do against all that?
The cockatoos flutter from some distant gums. She looks up and sees a cloud of moving dust in the distance. A vehicle is driving along the dirt road. She cannot see it, but the dust cloud is larger than a car would make.
He leaps up. I’m sorry, he says, I have to go.
Before she can say anything he skips down the stairs and across the grass towards the trees.
Hey, she says, you knew my name anyway!
He turns and raises an arm above his head. Take courage, and thank you!. In that instant he is a man receding, a moment in time. Then he is gone.
She gazes at her piece of farm, the soft incline of grass which filters into the tall gums and mesh of vines and dark foliage. She cannot see him. He has vanished. She hears the rattle of the vehicle on the track and then it appears around the corner. It is black. Its front grill is a shining scowl of chrome.
Side doors slide open and two men get out. There are more inside. She sees the plastic ear spirals. She breathes in sharply, mustering courage. She does not want to give these bastards an inch. Besides, they’ve got nothing on her.
Ruth Richards? says the one in front. She wonders if they are the same as the men who marched her out of her office back then, but she cannot tell. They all look the same.
Did you just receive a visit from a man?
She eyes her interlocutor. He has a brick for a head; his body is a black block. She is speaking to stone.
Haven’t had a man for ages, she says. And if you’re offering, the answer is no. She strains to ensure her voice does not tremble.
The man ignores her. Two more emerge from the van. They have guns. They stride to the rear of the house.
Chickens, my dog and a pig, she says. There’s a cow a bit further that way. She points towards the trees, away from where her visitor went.
We don’t need the attitude, says the block.
She holds up her hands.
I was just letting you know what’s around the back.
A bark splits the woods. One of the gunmen comes trotting back to the front. Ruth smiles. Good old Tiger. A toothless fourteen year old, but still with plenty of bark.
The block speaks again.
If you have not just received a visitor, Mrs Richards, why are there two glasses on the table?
Ruth looks at the table where her beer bottle sits with the two glasses.There is water in one glass and foam on the rim of the other.
She looks at brickface.
I was drinking water and decided I’d like something stronger. It’s a hot day.
The man looks at the table. He says,
We know where you are Ms Richards. We always have. We want to know who has visited you.
No one, she says. Did you pass a car on the way here?
The block says nothing, but his eyes narrow ever so slightly. So no car then. Iain had told her a little safety fib.
Helicopter? she says. Did you see a man running through the bush?
The second gunman comes out the front door. The brick turns to him and raises an eyebrow. The gunman shakes his head.
Don’t leave here, says the brick. Don’t receive visitors, don’t talk to strangers, don’t talk to anyone.
I go the markets each week, she says. I’m not going to starve.
The brick glowers at her. We have eyes, he says.
Could do with some cream, she says.
His head lifts.
He glowers some more, and says, Just be careful.
She watches them go, and when she is sure they are gone she lets out a sudden rush of air. Her back is sweaty. Flies buzz in the veranda. She leans on the back of a chair and slows her breath.
She goes inside. She looks for items that have been disturbed; the coffee table, her bed, the kitchen appliances. Behind a picture in the living room she finds a microphone. She thinks, What is this, the cold war? She can’t see any cameras. They will be there though. She whacks the tapestry on the wall to make sure. A cloud of dust disperses.
She knows what she must do. She gathers her bee keeping gear and heads out the back. Tiger barks gruffly and comes to her, his tail battering the wall of the pig pen.
Did you give those nasty men a fright did you? she says. She pats him and his whole body wags. Good boy.
She puts on gloves and the hat and arranges the mesh about her shoulders. She walks through the towering hardwoods to where the hives are secreted and opens one of the boxes. The bees buzz around her like a crowd applauding. She feels underneath and pulls out a small box. Carefully opening it, she checks to make sure the vials are safe.
I have not been brave, she thinks, but then why should I have been? There is so much marshalled against me. She replaces the box which contains the vials. I don’t know if I can do it.
She takes some honey in a jar, shuts the hive and thanks the bees for their work.
She turns back to the house, Tiger running ahead of her. She is resolved now. She knows what she has to do. She begins the task of summoning her courage.