Buried time

Long long time ago, before the apocalypse, there lived an old woman. She kept the seasons in her body, the land rose and slept when she blinked. She held the tides in her breath, and the earth spun around the sun in rhythm with her heartbeat. She sang all the stories that were held in her body, and the songs became wind and rain and heat and language. The laws for life were codified in these songs, laws for proper relationships between everything. She wrote these laws onto the sky using stars.

She taught people how to read the stories and sing the songs, the laws mapped across country, above and below, that follow seasonal cycles. People embodied the laws through ceremony. The movement of people aligned with deep movements of eternal, ancestral creation, and death: times and places for festivities, for hunting and gathering, for initiations, for burning off, for resolving conflicts, and for resting – all followed deep patterns laid out in the Dreaming.

In her country, when the fish were running it was time to shift camp, which meant time to burn and cleanse and move on, to let the place sleep and revive through rest. When the wattle were blooming it was time to hunt roo. The people farmed by the stars using fire. When the gum trees shed it was time to make tracks, to the hills and the caves, to make camp and wait. People honoured her by honouring her cycles, tapping into her rhythms, the rhythms of the stars.

The first time her body was marked by the shallow scratchings of time was when a man called Cook was sent off by his masters to the other side of the planet, to map the transit of Venus and steal them all the land he could find. He planted flags willy-nilly and killed people for their trinkets, meddling with children and all kinds of cultures on his way. He enacted his first colonial offense on her, a toponymic imperialism, when he saw her mountain, the chief, the rain maker, and defaced him with a name to alert future colonists of the dangers of the reefs. When she heard this man call the mountain a warning she became very tired.

Soon after, the first clock was brought into her people’s country on a large boat by foreigners; the first and only synchronisation of colonial and deep times, but these times diverged soon after. The foreigners and clock sailed up the river on the tide and when they sailed back down again they were met by a wall of silent, armed warriors. She went to rest in the woman’s place at the base of the hills near the mountain.

More foreigners came back, ticking and tocking, so over at the mountain, she closed down her eyes; she went to sleep because she would not be ruled. While she slept, they squatted and stole, then began to farm with their clocks and fences, overwriting the proper ways of burning by the stars. In the blink of an eye, everything changed. Their presence was only seconds of her time but for us it felt like hundreds of years. She slept through our bad dream, dreaming ways for us to be sovereign again.

A man called Protector loved his clocks; he forced local people into backbreaking work from dusk until dawn while in their memories, their ancestors still followed the seasons from camp to camp. When the people stopped working they were called no-good and lazy, insults that only made sense in shallow time, because time is money, and lazy wouldn’t make none.

Then when the lazy bosses wouldn’t do their own work, using excuses concocted from convoluted rules of blood and colour, they stole other peoples from islands nearby, and got clocks to keep these sugar workers in line, and bells, and clangers: telling times to eat, times to haul, times to knock off. The town clock kept everyone mindful, teaching local people to follow the hands, training free people to move with its face.

The church clocks made all of the heathen kids Christian; missionary time kept all the blak kids in line. The origin story of Christian mob says it all: their big lord god created the first work week, six days on and one day off, and it wasn’t til his wayward creations bucked and rebelled that a five-day work week became the new norm, and an eight-hour workday a stand-in for justice.

Time was money; existence in a state of timeless-ness was compressed, flattened, and parcelled like land, all to make wealth for the colonising project. The new language shaped minds that could make sense of capitalism: time could be spent, saved, and wasted, only because money could do all those things too. And time and money both were stand-ins for energy.

The foreigners even made other stupid rules; southwards they put their clocks forward in the dry warm, and then put their clocks back after the hot rains, while north of the invisible line the clocks stayed staunch.

This place eventually became god’s waiting room, during a hyper-tourism boom, and every retiree who colonised the place flung off their constraints of time and leisured about, an asymmetrical way of living that was out of step with the locals who grew there. Old people hold all-times in their bodies anyway; their wrinkles are like tree rings, their greys count the years. Retirees unbuckled their watches and released sixty-five years of time’s compression, with the unstrapping of the strap their minds expanded again. They fobbed them off to grandkids who didn’t want them. It was the timing! They all had phones with clocks by then.

Like Europe’s old people, who could not imagine life free from the tyranny of kings, these people could not imagine a world without capital, could not imagine a world without the measuring of time, the carving out of minutes from hours. But one followed another, which followed the first. They got rid of the absolute rule of kings, and that gave way to the disavowal of other dictators and demagogues with their hoarded wealth, but once they were phased out, it was already two minutes to midnight and a race against time.

Before too long, we were running out of time before climate change ran away; it was soon to be out of the grasp of everyone. Their age of enlightenment had darkened our world, cast long shadows towards a final countdown that touched on end times; an apocalypse so thorough it could be enjoyed by everyone this time, not just us who were blak and made poor.

Winter’s long march was cut short as the years melted like icecaps. Slow and deep aeons, ages, and epochs, all unravelling in the blink of an eye. Country was cannibalising itself to give birth to itself again, to reclaim itself the way foreigners once tried to reclaim the continent, even though they’d never owned it in the first place. We had to leave the land alone, cos it got no rest under unchecked industry – it was sown and reaped and impregnated continuously, never given a chance to recoup or just be. We had nothing to revolt against but the tyranny of time, and all the sneaky ways it was learned and performed.

The old woman was still asleep near the mountain, and that’s where we went to find out what to do. All through her sleep she’d been tossing and turning, shaking the earth that was her cradle. It was not the peaceful slumber of babies but the night terrors of war. She whispered to us, and roared in turn, and muttered and groaned as she dreamt; she hummed rhythms of time and weather and healing, the cycles of stars and ceremony and waters. We listened and felt and weighed and digested. By the time we left, we carried enough inside us to know how to heal the land.

First things first to live right forever: we had to do away with colonial time. To properly heal our country and culture we had to get rid of the symbols that sanctioned its harm. We gathered and formed a first-rate emergency response team. We didn’t have a moment to spare.

We got a strong mob together with vans, utes, and trucks, we drove up to every single building in town. We went into houses and stole all the clocks, in buildings and town centres we lifted what we could find, took all the watches and ways of keeping time.

We drove up to each place and combed the whole space for loot. We went in, methodical, and scoured the walls thoroughly, searching high and low for the devilish bosses, and flung them into backpacks and sacks we carried with us. As we went round we murmured and hummed, chatted and danced, energising each other; we sang songs to the old ways in the earth to reactivate them, a playfully serious business we worked. Some say it took ten days, but the truth is it gave us back eternity.

We took clocks at work that kept families separate. They turned people into slaves and turned leaders into tyrants. We took them from kitchens in cafes across the town, we rummaged around the council chambers for all the kinds we could find, and shops and farms and all other buildings that used to rule the roost by the clock.

We rolled into schools and took all the bells and timers, wrist watches from teachers to track lateness and wagging, classroom clocks that told of bored yawning children, clocks that trained jarjums to follow its lead, so that when they grew up they’d be good little workers, always on time, never behind.

Timetables for bus stops and movement in schools, rosters and schedules and timekeepers at work; all spoke of deadlines, lateness, overtime and time in lieu, time-and-a-half and double-time and periods of trial. We tore them down, and took diaries too, any kind of journal that spoke dates and years. We ripped them to shreds and threw the pieces in our bags.

We took stopwatches that trained athletes to race against themselves, and to usurp the times of others recorded in books. These stopwatches groaned with the strain of children sacrificing play and pleasure for training and honing their bodies to weapons; they smelled of chlorine and track grass, tiger balm and gatorade. A young swimmer’s soul was trapped in one stopwatch: she’d wake up at dawn and ride her bike to the pool to race against her past self each new day.

There was no free time at home, for all that – time-poor parents were always rushed off their feet. Rich and poor all had clocks: time transcended class but kept its divisions hard.

We found lots of round wall clocks the sizes of dinner plates, and digital kitchen timers, the batteries long dead, black faces blank where bright LED lights once changed its face minute by minute. We found shiny red bedside clocks with buzzers on top, small round pieces that buzzed and walked and jumped with the force of their own alarm. A black cheap radio clock bought cheaper from a super store, digital, programmable, plugged into a power source in the wall. A dusty old timepiece with cobwebs and dirt, the thick silky dust on its face telling more about a golden age than its hands ever could. A sleek black clock with thin silver hands that rested in notches that announced time for dinner or breakfast.

We took all the calendars too, vertical books of gridded up leaves, on fridges and the backs of bathroom doors, with art works and erotica for everyone to gawk at. Calendars that measured holidays, work days and shifts, and countdowns to fun times where people lived in the future while their bodies operated in the present; work was a durational performance of repetitive, dull actions. Some calendars told of biological clocks and monthly cycles that never knew the joy of a pregnant pause.

We rummaged through jewellery boxes, found all these watches: one with thick leather straps of boiled cow skin, this one with dainty silver cross-linked chains, some wide and chunky gold chain mail straps, other plastic, or satin bands, or the novelty kind that buckled and strapped, others that slapped, some that clasped with copper snatches. This was jewellery that people could use to police themselves; they became relics after phones lived pockets all the time.

Timers in bathrooms, on top of sinks or stuck to soap scum tiles on shower walls; egg timers that flipped and took time to digest, trickled sand into its bottom, others wound up and counted down to tell the toilette that time was up, time to go, water’s a wasting, so turn that tap off now and save money (which is time, which is energy). Kitchen timers, white plastic cubes whose faces wound up and tick-tocked down to zero, no half-baked things on its watch.

Some of the clocks had homes in children’s rooms, in plastic pinks and powder blues, the latest types of characters and cartoons: animals and princesses and spacemen decorating their faces, hands made of things like swords and wands and pencils and tails, all these little imaginative time keepers closing round the faces of cartoon tricksters. Training them up to be good little timekeepers, punctual. A small girl’s first clock held the energy of her future: a lolly-coloured chunk of plastic, shiny and pink, that she covered in stickers and sprinkled with glitter. It taught her to wake in time for school, which taught her to be on time for her boss which trained her to boss her future children with her watch.

From each clock we handled: etheric threads radiated like spiderwebs, joined to every life it had ruled, each string controlling a life like a puppet master. Every clock the centre of a web of lies, a network of control of jump-how-high, and ring-ring-ring, up-you-get and go, despite what you need for health and healing.

And then we had taken all the time in the land. We were satisfied there was no more bossy machinery left, no remaining kinds of anxiety-inducing objects that had all the people jumping how-high and at all kinds of strange times, depending on what their big lord governments had told them.

We put all our loot into loaded up vehicles, drove them down in a caravan down to the mudflats near the mountain, the place where you’d sink if you went at the wrong-rainy times of year. We dumped the clocks in, sacks and all, and the ticking gurgled and bubbled as the mud gobbled time, man made tools of the capitalist tyranny finally returning to the graveyard of all-times in country where it was swallowed and succumbed to deep and forever-rest where it belonged.

As the mud gurgled and echoed, the old woman stirred.

The mud rose up and gulped them down, boiled and bubbled around its offerings of time, and the tick-tock, wake-up, go-to-sleep, incessant bossing stopped; peoples’ relationships to the clocks snipped and snapped, snick-snack sounds marking freedom from the tyranny of time. The mud and the movement broke down the parts, and tree roots slurped nanoparticles into their systems.

The weight of time in the mud elevated the ground, gurgling away in thick gluey mud where creatures swam around and made them their homes, where deep and spidery mangrove roots thrust through their empty spaces and muscled the faces apart, never to be put back together again.

And when everything was gone we were ready to live again, ready to live deeply and cyclically again, ready to live gently and deeply with country again. The land breathed out a sigh of its unmasking and we danced in a ceremony of sovereign celebration of how clocks used to rule us as bosses by proxy, but no more did they do so. The old woman rolled over then sat up and yawned. She raised her hands, and cicadas thrummed dryly on the hot baking leaves. She stretched her arms; frogs sang in the mangroves in a lusty throaty chorus.

Now we wake when rested, sleep when tired, work when fed and able like our old people did, never dragged out or bossed around to do what a little king-machine said so. We wake with the sun that reptilian eyes inside our skulls sense through the heating of the morning light, the rising subtle warmth of the world, the changing scents of green and earth and salted water where we sleep. We are untimed and untamed within deep time, not shallow.



Image: Tricia J / Flickr



Mykaela Saunders

Mykaela Saunders is a Koori and Lebanese writer, teacher, community researcher, and the editor of THIS ALL COME BACK NOW, the world’s first anthology of blackfella speculative fiction, forthcoming with UQP in 2022. Mykaela has won the Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, the National Indigenous Story Award, the Oodgeroo Noonuccal Indigenous Poetry Prize, the Grace Marion Wilson Emerging Writers Prize and the University of Sydney's Sister Alison Bush Graduate Medal. Of Dharug descent, and working-class and queer, Mykaela belongs to the Tweed Goori community.

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