ghosts of the red dust

Around dusk I'm driving someone to the airport when I see the big black cloud towering in the south. Storm is rising . . . blues fall down like drops of rain . . . later on, after the forked lightning and the heavy showers, a drunk lawyer going to Bankstown tells me that the forecast, which he does not believe, is for one hundred kilometre an hour winds. They come through in the night, bringing the red dust, and next morning the air is a sinister orange colour, car headlamps and streetlights glow silver and beamless, unable to penetrate the murk. We can feel the fine particulate matter in our nostrils, in our eyes, on our tongues as we wait out by the letterbox for the taxi. We are early or it is late so we hail a cruiser, a mad Arab who nearly tears M's fingers off as he grabs at her suitcase and drives through the apocalyptic streets as if he himself has a date with destiny. On the railway overbridge at Sydenham a truck has spilled its load of turf, the driver is out on the road with a mask around his mouth rolling up the unrolled rolls of someone's new lawn while the red wind whips by. No planes are leaving because no planes are coming in: the dust sucked into their jet engines might turn to mud once they fly up again into wet layers of atmospheric cloud. The airline disavows all responsibility and leaves it to us to re-book on a later flight. When that is done we check into the Ibis for the day, eat, shower, rest, unaware that the ferrous dust contains microbes, viruses, that have lain quiescent out there in the Lake Eyre Basin since before the Phanerozoic Eon began. They came perhaps from that epochal collision between proto-earth and the very large, Mars-sized planetesimal that split off the moon; and have been biding their time ever since: older than the 4404 Ma zircon crystals of Alcheringa, older than Cryptozoic bacteria found in the Greenland permafrost; almost older than time. We don't at first realise we are playing host to aliens, the knowledge comes upon us only slowly, as blessed incomprehension gives way to the kind of clarity I wouldn't wish upon anyone else; except that we are all equally infected or soon will be. For instance I did not know that the molecules of blood and chlorophyll are nearly identical, iron in the one replaced by magnesium in the other, but now I see it at a glance. I look down at the palm of my hand and watch there, past skin and fat and bone and blood, the double helix untwining, the mitochondria exorcising their vesicles, the RNA . . . I keeping thinking Rodinia but that is the wrong word. These Martian viruses are not responsible for our arcane nomenclature, they have no interest in any of that, all they want to do is replicate as fast as possible. I have a nose full of the red dust that I don't unload until we are in the hotel room in Auckland and have slept and woken and it is morning again. It's in the creases of my big black sports bag and all through the back pack I use to carry smaller things around. Auckland is rainy, all grey and white and blue, muted and dazzling at once. I get wet walking up to the publishers on Anzac Avenue and notice a slightly orange tinge in the drips falling from my eyebrows. Out on the island we explore military fortifications from World War Two: gun emplacements, observation decks, radar rooms, underground bunkers where the big shells were stored. Long concrete tunnels for unspecified purposes. All the stock has been taken off while some poison that thins the blood is dropped to make a dent in the populations of rodents and mustelids and feral cats infesting the island. It's killed all the native wildlife too, as well as a few dogs, and without sheep to crop it the grass grows tall and lush and green and looks like something out of a film, perhaps of the Mongolian steppe . . . or would if there were not saucers and slabs of blue gulf everywhere you look. Our X Ray eyes trouble us less out here, it's only in the city, among the uninfected or not yet infected populations that the extrasensory seems an affliction. After all who really wants to know what others are thinking? Or rather, not thinking so much as just aimlessly moving around the clutter we keep in our minds. I weary of this too great an insight into things, I try instead to open up a channel of communication with the beings I now harbour; but the only language they understand is chemical. On the plane back we drink Bloody Marys and watch a very funny film about a Bucks Night in Vegas. At the duty free I buy a bottle of Kentucky bourbon because I've learned that alcohol sends a strong signal into the recesses of my body where the particulate beings have established their beachheads. In Summer Hill I see the red dust everywhere, all over the cars in the street, in the cracks between every paving stone up at the village, gathered on the leaves of the dry sclerophyll trees. My apartment smells of it, dry, slightly metallic, utterly without aura. We have left two wine glasses in the sink, rinsed but with the grey water still in them. A skin of red dust has formed on top of each one and when I look closely at it I see cities of the red night incandescing, their outlandish tribes contending for mastery, their orgies and massacres, their carnage, their sadness and their fear. I quickly tip the glasses' contents away down the drain even though I know it is useless: the ghosts of the red dust are with us now forever and those changes of perception noted above are only the beginning of a process of mutation that will soon make us unrecognisable to each other; except as the aliens we are now fast becoming.