Before the Pilgrim family with their buttons, altars, and inventories; before Royal families, prime-ministers and presidents, entertainment and sports stars, and reality TV personalities; before territories with sheep and cattle properties, mining and sugar cane industries and tourism along the coast; before policies about these people versus those people or even distinctions between foreign and native, us and them; before convicts and bushrangers, freemen and nouveau gentry; before the flu epidemic, the overland telegraph, and even before the ships from across the world arrived with Europeans, who were as generous with their beads as with their botany, buckshot, and bacteria—13,000 to 11,000 years before, to be precise—this ocean advanced a meter a day, the intertidal zone stretched, and those who were there on the Arafura Plain and the Great Australian Bight were forced to retreat.
How could they know of the massive ice floes, fragmented from the Antarctic ice sheet, melting as they drifted north and the lakes in the lobes of the ice shields of North America emptying and the seas’ instantaneous rise? Their place, never a “plain” or “bight,” was formed of the bodies of ancestors. The blood that coursed through their arteries and veins was as much theirs as ancestral. Bodies inseparable from place and past, they welcomed the water. They built great fires and sang and danced, and in this dialogue of corroboree—to the clacks of sticks, thuds of footfalls, and drone of dijeridu—elders led the celebration of the water and receding land. That’s how they launched themselves on the voyage inland.
That day was quieter than usual in the Casuals Department of Deltons Department Store. Mrs. Johnson, from Linens and Fabric, had already dropped off the box of buttons Robert Pilgrim had requested earlier in the week. He’d chosen for Audrey, his wife, three flower buttons with pink, purple, and yellow plastic petals respectively, a striped toucan button, a fish button with glazed green scales, and two bead buttons that resembled pearls.
The last time Delton’s was this quiet there’d been an explosion at the mine outside Mt. Isaac, in which four mechanics were killed. Robert knew the men by their widows. For a month after the accident, Casey Phelps and Julie McInerny had stopped shopping altogether. Mary O’Neil had replaced her white church veils with black ones, and Jan Tyndon had bought dozens of men’s athletic socks as though stockpiling for all the years Jim wouldn’t be buying them. Robert took pride in his insight about Mt. Isaac’s private life and pleasure in the moments he could act upon this, like when he slipped matching gloves into Mrs. O’Neil’s bag on the morning she bought the veils. Because she later returned to give Robert her husband’s hardhat, he knew that his gesture was appreciated.
Robert called his supervisor to request an early tea break. “Go for it, Bob,” Mr. Hamish Templeton said. It was the same tone he used when he said, “I’ll pass your concerns on to the Delton family, but I wouldn’t hold my breath” when Robert had mentioned his concerns about the lack of windows at Deltons and his worry about bush fires and his fear that he wouldn’t have enough time to warn his customers if he couldn’t see what was coming.