SPF

Apricot died, three days into the heat wave. She had just turned three, with no underlying health issues, but temperatures had soared to 120 degrees that weekend, and not even the full strength of Dani’s air conditioner could keep the cat cool, much less alive. One minute, Apricot was a spry thing, young enough to live forever, and the next, she was gone, immobile under a bed sheet, claws still clinging to thread. Hugh, however, decided to blame no one, not Dani, not even the heat. It did not matter that thousands of pets died in the city that year, and it wouldn’t matter how many more would die in the next. Even as Apricot’s owner of three years, he would just fall back on his platitudes about the circle of life, hold back his tears, and talk about how her time had run out.

“What now?” Dani had said during the funeral in Hugh’s Brooklyn backyard, while they were still digging up the plot. As a show of respect, Dani showed up in a black dress and a matching pair of sandals, while Hugh opted for an old-looking shirt with flowers splattered across the chest. In California, he insisted—though he’d only been a handful of times—people lived and thrived in their vintage finds, as if worn-down fabric could protect anyone from heat stroke.

“Who knows?” said Hugh. “Maybe she goes to the great beyond.”

“The kind with white sand?” Dani asked, eying his god-awful shirt.

Kokomo, baby.”

“This is no time for The Beach Boys.”

“There’s always time for The Beach Boys,” Hugh said.

“Not when a blizzard strikes in Zambia,” Dani said, “and definitely not when the second one hits a month later.”

Although Hugh never yelled, there came a crack in his smile as she brought up Zambia, an inscrutable knit in his eyebrows. He dug up the rest of the plot. When he buried the cat, he did not take his time in lowering her into the ground; he dropped her in with a quick plop that made Dani wince, then picked the shortest prayers to recite. Their moment of silence lasted a breath, a fraction of that, and then the service was over.

She walked home, he biked to the bodega. When she called later, Hugh insisted he was too busy to talk, and that he was getting ready to leave town for training camp again on the west coast. Dani knew better. The cat might have been at rest now, soon to be forgotten under the barren earth, but she would not die waiting for Hugh to admit the sky had been falling for a while now.

By next spring, Dani moved out from Brooklyn into her own apartment, west of Times Square. Rent in Hell’s Kitchen was higher than she would’ve liked, the price of living alone on an island about to sink into the ocean, but she figured there was no better time than now; another heat wave was approaching this spring, with temperatures climbing to 125 degrees, and apartments were hot enough without another roommate or an extra cat taking up the space. Dani spent her nights mostly alone, content to bask in the air conditioning until the blackouts made them moot.

On one of those nights, Dani woke to the sound of her phone buzzing from the dresser.

“Dan!” It was Irene, the night before her shotgun wedding to a man who still bothered to take at least four kinds of daily multivitamins. She always missed the second syllable of Dani’s name when she was excited about something. “Did the blackouts hit you?” she asked.

“Yes,” Dani said. “About an hour ago.”

“Oh you poor thing,” Irene said with a click of her tongue. “Wasn’t it only scheduled for the Upper West Side tonight?”

“They just keep getting worse,” Dani said. “I have a theory, actually—that they’re not planning them anymore. It’s just everything going to shit.”

“You’re in a mood. You better not bring that to the reception.”

“If I remember correctly, you just said I had to bring the napkins.”

Irene laughed. “Well,” she said, “why don’t you sleep on my couch tonight? That way, you can just help me get ready in the morning.”

“Sure,” Dani said, “if you’re sure Tom’s still going to be there in the morning.”

“That’s not funny,” Irene scolded. “I should just let you melt.”

Dani laughed and the two of them made plans to meet up in about an hour. She got dressed, made sure her dress was still wrinkle-free in its garment bag, and slung it over her back. She packed away a few toiletries, deodorant, a toothbrush. Irene had makeup at her place. Hopefully tampons, too. In her pocket, she made sure to pack her 150 SPF sunblock, which she’d need when the sun rose.

Out on the street, a block party sprawled out up the street, to the edge of the intersection. They always followed the blackouts, in the neighborhoods where people didn’t need or want enough to riot. Hell’s Kitchen brought zeal; if they were going to be the next neighborhood to collapse into the river, they thought, let’s just dance until doomsday. Residents brought out their battery-powered speakers and played thirty songs all at once, creating tunnels of bass so deep it felt as if this was the thing that might sink them. They danced from the fire escapes and rooftops in nothing but their underwear, while some even came naked with their pendulum genitals. They drank from their red plastic cups, spilling drinks onto the sidewalk in waterfalls. When things got really rowdy, people dropped various appliances from their rooftops, from toasters to TVs. People drove drunk in their chosen vehicles, racing their bicycles and mopeds at top speeds.

Tonight, the speedster was a tandem bicycle on the corner of fifty-second and tenth. Dani came within an inch of meeting her end when someone yanked her by the ankle and pulled her back towards the sidewalk. She let the cyclists curse her for trying to cross on a red light. In return, she delivered a middle finger in their direction, towards the horizon line, as if she were cursing it directly.

A laugh emerged in the air, close enough that it rose above the general noise. Maybe Dani knew the sound too well.

Hugh remained seated on the curbside, in a navy blue suit and a bloodied nose. Despite the starchiness of the fabric, the outpour, his smile grew with each passing millisecond, until it stretched past the crumpled napkin he held at his nostrils.

“Thought it was you,” Hugh said, making a waving motion with his hand that lasted from the top of his head to the bottom of his chest.

Dani shrugged and pushed her hair back behind her shoulders. “I haven’t had a chance to cut it.”

Hugh stood up to meet her eye-to-eye, though he was a solid six-two to her five-five. Dani resisted getting on her toes to match him.

“How have you been?” he asked.

“Fine,” she said. “I’m on my way to Irene’s.”

“Oh, that,” Hugh said with raised eyebrows. “I’m staying at their place, actually. Can you believe they’re actually getting married? Don’t you think they’re rushing into things?”

“I don’t think so,” Dani said. Shotgun weddings were the norm in all her friend circles, even if the couples in question had been only been dating as little as a month. “It’s—you know.” She took one look at Hugh and remembered Apricot, the blizzards in Zambia, the new heat wave upon them. “Crazy little thing.”

Hugh frowned at this for a moment, just like he had at Apricot’s funeral, then nodded along as if to accept the answer. “Love,” he said, as he removed the napkin from his nose.

“Anyway.” Dani noticed the crusted blood at the edge of Hugh’s nose. Pre-Apricot, she might have gone over to clean him up herself. Tonight, she would stay on the other side of the plot they dug up last spring, no matter how long it’d been since they filled it. “Isn’t it a little early to put on a suit?” she asked, changing the subject. “The reception is tomorrow.”

“I was on a date,” Hugh said. “We were at a Broadway play a few blocks over. Then she said she wanted to walk along the canals.”

“Horrible idea,” Dani said. “People are always falling in.”

“Some might find it romantic.”

Just a year ago, the canals stretching across the odd streets were simply troughs filled with muddied water, an emergency measure to alleviate rising sea levels. Romantic was an attempt at outdoor seating, lampposts, and brick-lined sidewalks, enough to the point where people were calling the city New Amsterdam again.

“Did you know gondola drivers need medallions now?” Dani asked further. “Five million dollars a year.”

Hugh made the sign of the cross. “God bless them.”

“And where is she now? That poor woman?”

“She said it wasn’t going to work out between us,” Hugh stated with a sigh.

“Why’s that?”

“She says I have nothing in my head.”

“Well, that’s wrong,” Dani said. “You had blood ooze right out of it.”

Hugh laughed again. From the rooftops of Hell’s Kitchen, illegal fireworks emerged like there was something to celebrate, and the two of them decided to make the cross-town trek together, along the canals.

#

In the morning, Irene put on her wedding dress and braided Dani’s hair. She always insisted that Dani was the last girl in Manhattan to keep her tresses, and that it was a wedding gift in itself to be able to play with them one more time.

“I don’t know how you do it,” Irene said as she tied it up at the ends. Including the bride, every girl in the wedding party had some sort of short bob, or a pixie cut, while Dani had enough hair for it to hit the bottom of her breasts. “I mean, the length is easy to miss,” Irene said, “but I always just have to tell myself that it’s a chance to show off my collarbones.”

“Like I said to Hugh last night,” Dani said, “I haven’t had a chance to go to the salon.”

“Uh-huh,” Irene said. “Weird that you ran into him, though.”

“Yeah,” said Dani, “like he just so happened to stay over the same night you invited me here, too.”

“I had nothing to do with that.” Irene yanked at a tuft of Dani’s hair in retaliation. “In fact, he was the one to turn down this ritzy place his team was going to put him up in. He even told his manager, ‘Stevie, I’m going to take the subway to Yankee Stadium. See you at batting practice later.’”

“What a waste!” Dani said.

“It’s not everyday you get to have a wedding,” Irene said, “and mine is going to be with a man I’ll love until the day I die.”

Dani looked out towards the living room, where she found the remnants of last night’s sleep situation: two unmade couches, divided by a coffee table and a few errant coasters. Dani had taken one side while Hugh took the other, and the two of them had spent the night catching up, hushed under the rattle of the air conditioner.

“Tired of Brooklyn?” Hugh had asked, presumably about the Hell’s Kitchen move.

“My roommate kept complaining about her ice cream melting. It was time to go.”

“Oh?” Hugh said. “And how are you liking it now?”

“Well enough,” Dani said.

“Enough to stay?”

“Sure. Where would I go anyway?”

“Jupiter?”

“Be serious.”

“Out west,” said Hugh. “Venice.”

“Italy? That’s east,” and sunken at the bottom of the Adriatic Sea. Dani didn’t say that last part.

“California,” he clarified.

“I hardly have it in me to walk across the island,” Dani said, “and you want me to move across the country.”

“It’s really not so bad.”

“That’s a shame,” Dani said. “You’ve become one of those LA people.”

“Oh, Dani,” Hugh said.

“Yes, Hugh?”

“You should see me out there,” he said. “I’m on TV every night.”

Dani tore herself away from the couches, her time with Hugh. She found herself gritting her teeth. When Irene asked what she was thinking about, Dani merely called it the usual lack of sleep.

There were some people that electrified the rooms they walked into, and Dani knew countless girls that thought of Hugh in this way, and millions more would fall prey to him in Los Angeles. To Dani, it was more of an electrocution—teeth-gritting, lip-biting, shivering-in-a-heat wave sort of nervous system failure. He fried her, cut her, braised her for extra effect, even when he was merely asleep in the same room; memories lifted her into sleeplessness, soul out of body.

On the desk lay a few of Hugh’s baseball cards, where he was featured as a backup infielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Irene tossed them over to Dani when she caught her looking at them from the bed.

“There’s no point in fighting with someone who’s in town for a few days,” Dani told her. She couldn’t help but scoff. “Baseball! The island is flooding, and all he cares about is batting practice.”

Irene sighed, tucking a bit of hair behind Dani’s ears. “You know how it goes. Some people are stupid enough to get married in this heat. Others run right in the sun.”

#

The groom collapsed en route back to the apartment, just a few hours before the ceremony. The coroners called it heat-induced cardiac arrest, which made some sense: joggers everywhere were warned not to exercise out in the heat wave, but Tom kept on running just as he did every morning. It also didn’t help that he’d been born with a defective heart, a fun fact he told Irene on their first date, but now all she could do was mumble about it in regret, as if she should’ve known she was marrying a man on borrowed time.

Hugh had been there. In fact, he’d encouraged Tom to go running that morning, even though he was hung-over from his bachelor party at the bar down the block. As Dani comforted Irene on the couch a few nights later, letting her wail into her lap, she stared at Hugh from the other side. It was Apricot all over again. The platitudes came like the eventual rain at the end of every heat wave, this one broken too early and for nothing: he’s in a better place, just know that he loved you until the end, things happen for a reason. This only made Irene cry harder, so Dani asked to see Hugh in the hallway.

“How did he die?” Dani asked.

“Come on now, you heard Irene before,” Hug
said with a swallow. “Cardiac arrest.”

“You’re missing a part of it.”

“I mean, we don’t know for sure it was caused by that.

“Say it,” Dani insisted.

“Who cares if it’s hot?” Hugh said. “I mean, god, all those drills we run everyday on the field? No one breaks a sweat. Everyone’s fine. We’re always fine.”

“It’s not fine.”

“He had a bad heart, okay?” Hugh’s voice broke as he said this. “What more do you need to say about this? Just—he’s gone to a better place. A better place than this.”

“So you admit it, then,” Dani said. “You know how bad it’s gotten.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“Then explain it to me.”

“It’s why people leave New York,” he said. “We don’t have blackouts in California. We all still go to the beach and watch baseball after work. You know why I think Tom died?” He paused for a moment, making sure Irene was still inside the apartment. “It’s because you’re all counting down to it yourselves, like you’re going to drop dead at zero.”

Hugh took Dani’s hand, which stunned her enough to hold his back tighter in competition. He kept his thumb pressed into the softest part of her palm, like he was trying to excavate her lifeline, or rip it apart with his fingernails. He let go and brought that same hand to Dani’s cheek, where his fingers sifted through strands of her unwashed hair.

“You’re not like them,” said Hugh. “I remember Apricot. You put on your sunblock and you do all the things you have to. But you’ve still got it,” he said. “And this city is going to rip it away from you if you don’t do anything about it.”

“What is it that I have?” Dani asked.

Inside the apartment, Irene stopped wailing, and all that remained were two people trying to breathe through the heat. Hugh held onto her, not by the hand, or a hug, but by the slight tug of her hair, looped between his fingers. Dani wondered, at that moment, if she should’ve cut her hair like the other girls. There’d be nothing to hold onto then, and Hugh would’ve had to settle for their natural distance.

The lights in the hallway flickered in and out until they went out altogether. Another blackout had arrived, and the people in their apartments began to holler and blast their music. Dani did not budge. In the darkness, she could still follow the lines of Hugh’s body, upward to the arch of his nose and his sky-high cheekbones. She followed him until she was close enough to trace those lines herself. She pressed a thumb over his cheek, then the tip of his nose, his upper lip. She kept it there. Other people might have seen the blackout as some excuse to take off their clothes and consummate even the most fleeting of unions, but Dani knew not to push things. Irene and Tom had, when they first met and made love at a blackout down the street two years ago, and then when they decided to get married not two months after. Tom certainly pushed things, when he decided to go for a run in the middle of the city’s worst heat wave ever. Dani knew better than to touch his face. This was not a consummation of anything. Repeating this to herself, she held the thumb over Hugh’s lip like the lock to her old apartment, always jamming.

Hugh bowed his head, something Dani could feel when her thumb brushed back up the bridge of his nose. He embraced her, something he hadn’t even done when Apricot died, or when Dani’s father died. They remained that way as the tenants poured out of their apartments.

“Come to Los Angeles,” Hugh said at last. “I’m tired of looking at you in the dark.”

#

A downpour came after Hugh left, enough to render lighters useless and dampen any other plans for partying on the roof. Dani pawed her way back inside, where Irene busied herself by collecting all the balled up tissues she’d spent the day crying into. She didn’t ask about Hugh, or where he’d gone in this storm, which was fine because Dani didn’t feel like talking about anything at all. She merely followed after Irene in tidying up the apartment, lighting the tea candles that were supposed to sit next to name-cards and utensils, and cutting up her wedding veil into confetti. That was the nice thing about the dark, even the candle-lit kind. Dani could comfort with the best of them, all without letting Irene know that she had things to cry about, too.

Lastly, Irene mounted her portable speaker on the windowsill. She started “Come on Eileen”, moved the couches to the opposite walls, and skipped around the coffee table. Her hands went up in the air as the chorus dropped. “Come on, Irene,” she sang with her hands over her heart, making Dani laugh. “At this moment, you mean everything!”

Dani could not help but dance, too. As she turned over and over around the coffee table, she let herself fall into dizziness, one that lasted hours and hours, and continued on until they were sure sunrise was coming.

#

In life, Dani’s father had adored the New York Yankees. This was something he never had to prove to anyone, given the yearly pilgrimage he made to Florida, by car, where the team regularly held spring training. Dani thought this never made much sense, since the Yankees played in New York, plus the fact that the city hardly ever stayed cold enough to warrant a migration. Manhattan usually got one winter storm, the devastating kind with six or seven feet of snow and comet hail, before it all melted away as if it’d never happened by early February. Still, Dani’s father never hesitated in packing a backpack, throwing on his favorite jersey, and leaving first thing in the morning. Then Dani would call him from the road, five minutes, maybe an hour later, and warn him of that year’s approaching hurricane.

“Dani,” he used to say, “there are just some things you shouldn’t give in to.” He insisted upon this even when the hurricanes needed new categories like seven, eight, sometimes nine. It was something Dani’s mother used to say too, even in the throes of her skin-cancer-induced hospice care. Her Chinese family had a funny attitude about this: that no matter what, one had to keep good tidings, or everything else was going to catch up with you. This meant blessings from every elder before a flight, and the insistence that Dani should never frown on her birthday, even on the year her mother’s hospice care turned into an empty bed in a hospital ward.

On her twenty-fifth birthday, the year after Tom’s death, Dani found herself in a parking lot somewhere near the beach. She stretched her arms up to the sky after days of driving. Irene sat on the hood of her car, content to scarf down an extra large order of French fries. They’d been on the road for what felt like years, east coast to west, and all Dani could feel was a lingering queasiness, all the way up to her nostrils. She rushed behind the car and vomited right onto the pavement, where she remained crouched over her own mess.

“We reached the end,” Irene said. “How could you still be car sick?”

Dani shrugged. She got progressively more and more nauseous the closer they got to California. “It’s the fire,” she said. “God, it was like driving through hell.”

The entire state of California had been engulfed in what experts called the infinite drought. Everything from the air to the pavement to the rolling fields dried up, as if the entire region should’ve been cremated by wildfire. On the highway, inflamed skylines rose over the horizon, rising out of the trees and soaking into an orange sky. Out a rolled-down window, she had let her bare arm roam free in the open air, to sift the soot and ash. Her palm came back gray. In the constant light, she thought she look jaundiced.

Dani wiped off any remaining spittle and looked ahead, towards the wilted palm trees, the waves. The locals marched out towards the sand in their burnt skins, past the point of a supple pink. Fault lines formed across their faces, stretched and tight to the point of fissuring. Dani watched them—how they could still strip off their sun-safe clothes into bikinis and swim trunks. They bathed in the sea, not their sunscreens. The girls here still wore their hair long, longer than Dani’s; they spread their arms open to the world, still with everything to give.

They drove further up the road, where they spotted a series of semi-attached apartments, all painted a shade of coral pink. The complex was called The Ridley. Dani had read on their website that it was named after the now-extinct Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, and that one percent of the rent paid here would automatically go to some marine life charity the landlord designated. Dani doubted the credibility of this, but it was enough for Irene to justify the move across the country and claim she was doing all this for the greater good.

That night, when the two of them finished unpacking, Irene insisted on taking Dani out to dinner. Dani suspected this was out of pity. It wasn’t like she’d had many people left to celebrate with in New York, since more and more of her friends had escaped to cooler cities like Boston or Toronto. Five months after Tom’s death, Dani’s own neighborhood had been re-zoned into sunken wasteland, thus ending her lease, which left Dani wondering why she was even playing this game of musical chairs with the other surviving Manhattanites. She imagined the lot of them, circling their ever-shrinking island, competing over apartments the size of linen closets. The whole endeavor, even the thought of it, was enough for both her and Irene to pack their bags and go.

“I’m glad we picked this place,” Irene said, though she was the one who did all the deciding. She took in a deep breath as she locked their front door for the first time to drive to dinner. “It’s going to be good things from now on. Making the most of it.”

Dani inhaled, too; the air went down thick, balling up like a stone at the base of her throat.

“I wonder if it’s why people wear vintage. It’s bad, but in a good way. Like making the most of what you’ve got,” Dani mused. “Like that one time Hugh wore this ugly Hawaiian shirt to a funeral.”

“Hugh,” Irene said, leaving her lips puckered. “Who needs him? All that boy does is hit baseballs.”

Dani laughed, remembering their conversation the morning of the wedding never-to-be. She wrung an arm around Irene and kissed her on the cheek, thankful for her. For a moment, she pondered if all she would need here was Irene, and maybe that would be enough to sweeten the air.

#

At the restaurant in Santa Monica, Dani realized this was not going to be a dinner between the two of them. At the bar sat all the friends Dani once knew, most of them from college, meandering folk that only knew her through occasional social media updates and the rumors she once fancied Tom their sophomore year. No one could remember what she did for a living, or that Tom had died just before his wedding to Irene. No one recalled anything. They just sipped their drinks and nodded along, lost in the haze of forgetting something just as soon as they’d heard it.

Her birthday party stretched on for several nights; each reigned more sleepless than the last. One man who’d sympathized with Irene about Tom was now dancing close to her, to the point where it was inevitable they’d share a kiss. Dani braced herself for this, yet found herself nauseated when they made contact: she watched how their mouths fit so perfectly together, right at the start, then completely fell out of alignment. Irene yanked at his bottom lip like hardened taffy; he accidentally smattered himself across her cheek like he was trying to slurp a hot soup.

Dani ran out of the bar and threw up again, right on the curb. She cursed wildly, out loud, twenty five times for twenty-five, and sat by herself on a bench. Her mind drifted to good tidings. As she peered up into the hills, fire lit up the peaks, a light of the worst kind. She let the sight of it mesmerize her, until she got three taps on the shoulder from behind.

It was Hugh. He smelled of spearmint gum, hair still wet from a shower, all of which Dani got to know up close when he hugged her briefly out of nowhere. She thought she was dreaming. On the car ride over, all the way from New York, she’d imagined bumping into him somewhere in the city. He’d be married to a model, or drinking a beer he’d be sponsoring on billboards. Instead of a cat, he’d have a bouncing golden retriever, appropriate for California. But this was no new moment. It was a moment that decided to pick itself up where it left off, as if Dani had pressed pause on it all the way in the East Village, carried it with her, and decided to let things play out on the other side of the country.

Dani shuffled her feet back and forth in silence. Hugh spit out his gum on the sidewalk and kept his eyes on the cement.

“Food poisoning?” Hugh asked.

Dani shook her head. “I’m not sure this city likes me that much.” She pressed pause again, merely by stepping back from Hugh altogether. “What are you doing here?”

Hugh dug out a small box from his pocket and handed it over to Dani. Inside, there was a collectible pin, a “2” the size of a postage stamp. It was painted a simple white with navy blue pinstripes, the mark of the New York Yankees—and most importantly, the number of her father’s favorite player when he was a kid. Dani resisted the urge to vomit again. Maybe it wasn’t that. But she felt something in her was about to burst, so all she could do was shut the box and bow her head.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s been weird, hasn’t it?”

“Doesn’t have to be,” Hugh said. “We can pretend it’s New Year’s. Birthdays already feel like that, when you think about it. Whenever I break a resolution, I think, ah well, I’ll just wish for things to get better when I blow out the candles.”

“And does that ever work for you?” Dani asked.

“Maybe not all the other times,” he said. “But you came to California, didn’t you?”

#

That night, Dani abandoned her own party and drove away with Hugh with the top down, the city still burning above them. They ended up at the beach, where Dani encountered a west coast strain of those blackout partygoers. They were much the same with their red cups, their portable speakers; some things, like the need to dance, were universal. It was just the way they did it that felt foreign. In New York, the residents embraced dancing in the dark, feeling their way through the rest of the night, while the Los Angeles breed huddled around towering bonfires, as if the infernos had become part of who they were.

Hugh sat in the sand with her. Dani felt dizzy, just watching the people link hands and dance around whatever they could burn.

“I should be happy for her,” Dani said. “I know I should.” It was one of those things that rested, top of mind, like a book at the edge of a shelf. Normally, she pushed a thought like this back into place, to be forgotten like all the others, but she found herself unable to put it away. Maybe it was because Hugh wasn’t dancing like all the others. Between them, there was a stillness she could speak into.

“But the whole time,” she continued, “all I wanted to tell her was to slow down. Slow down, why don’t you? You just met him. Tom just died.” She peered out towards the shore, where she spotted the silhouette of a girl, dashing between the fire and the darkness of the waves. Dani thought someone should stop her, because she’d either get burned alive or swallowed up by the tide, never to be seen again, but no one did, and she kept running back and forth until the sight of her was a blur.

“I hate this place,” she said. “But I can’t hate you.”

Dani let her eyes grow wide, impossibly so, and let out a childish yelp, something she used to do with Hugh when she couldn’t make up her mind about certain things. He used to roll his eyes at this version of Dani, the silly Dani, but the sight of her this time made him smile, then wider, until it broke his face from the strain. She always knew when he was about to cry: the air currents around them changed, all by his attempt at a deep exhale, while he mashed his mouth closed so tight you couldn’t see his lips anymore.

Dani, in turn, let their hands crawl towards each other until they were held. This was enough for Hugh break down altogether. He cried, ugly, then soft, until all he could do was smack himself to stop.

“Do you remember when we last met?” Hugh asked. “In Hell’s Kitchen? My nose was all busted and that girl said I had nothing in my head?”

“Sure I do.”

“Well, it didn’t go like that. Not quite. She said she liked me, I think, but then I said I couldn’t ever go out with her again. She asked me why.”

“Why?” Dani mimicked.

“I didn’t even know at first. It just fell out of my mouth. She was a perfectly fine girl, pretty, smart. Baseball fanatic. But I couldn’t see her again. I just couldn’t. So I told her, ‘there’s this girl who killed my cat last year, and I’ve never been able to forget her.’ That’s when she socked me in the nose and called me a pig. But I didn’t care. I thought, Dani has to come to California—not because I was avoiding the end of the world. But because I wanted you at the very end of it.”

“But then we walked the canals,” Hugh continued on. “The way you belonged out there, like you knew every street still worth walking. The more I saw it, the more I thought, I have to save her. I have to save her. But then I knew there was no one to save. That that was the end of your world. And this here is mine.”

Dani peered out towards the sea. The darkness seemed to stretch out forever, tides climbing higher and higher like they came out of the underworld itself. The girl, who’d been running between the light and the dark, had stopped altogether. The party stopped when they realized the girl was nowhere to be found, and that she was nowhere near the fire. She’d gone to the waves. Screams arose from the shore, with calls of a name Dani would soon forget, need to forget, for the sake of not counting another loss.

Voice of God

When I was younger,

say twelve or thirteen.

 

I asked my preacher Dad

“How does God sound when he speaks to a mortal man like you?”

 

He said “Try to talk with water in your mouth,

multiply the rumble you make by infinity.

 

Try to read a message of inverted alphabets

arranged backwards and italized like birds standing on a rope.

 

Imagine the mighty sound of mega large trumpets or a line of horning cars,

a falling bridge, the squash sound as you step on a fat Roach.

 

As clear as mystery, his voice is the loudest

silence you can ever hear.”

 

It’s been ten years since then.

More bridges has collapsed.

 

And more cars are horning than ever

with the drivers more keen on moving in random.

 

Our troubles are multipled by infinity.

 

People have an inverted reasons for doing things that isn’t right.

What a vile scene!

 

Last night rain made the reception bad,

my brother from the other end of the phone sounds like someone

 

whose head was under water

with mouth full of water.

 

The rumbling noise everywhere—

What is God saying?

All We Have Left Is Ourselves

The long list of blame is endless. We point fingers at each other. Someone says Adam caused it. Why did he allow Eve to deceive him? The women point the fingers right back at the men. You should be ashamed of yourselves. Real men take responsibility for their actions. The juju man blames no one in particular. Our ancestors are infuriated at us. We have bitten more than we can chew. The pastors and Imams are not left out in the paroxysm. We need to atone for our sins. The Redeemer is coming soon. Rapture is at hand. There is the man who is making money from the scourge. He puts up a charade. The government has failed us. Where are the palliatives for the down-trodden and low income earners? The scientist blames it on dwellers of earth. We all. Mother Earth is currently an oblate spheroid. Your actions made her this way. A small group who want to save the environment from pulverization gather to educate the people, telling them to do their part. Protect your environment. The environment is a sentient being. She will fight back if abused.

Bunch of hypocrites. You want my opinion on the current happenings? We are the ones who stuff heaps of garbage on the culvert, waiting for the waste truck to come dispose of it. And when we don’t see them, we pray for the rain to come, tossing all our trash in the undulating flow. I see the juju man’s signature: the blood of the dead chicken on the three-road junction. The lifeless chicken, rotting on the road until the sun dries what is left of it. The opulent man is also guilty. He rubs his wealth on us all, building a mansion that extends, blocking the channel of water. The government appeals to the landlady of the sea, appeasing her with sacrifice. They build exorbitant houses after sand-filling the beach—Oceanview Estate they call it. The harmless little children, too. Taking a heavy dump in the canal. Dysentery, cholera, malaria: pervasive in our locality like the vast blue sky. How will I forget the company that is the crux of this problem. Plant-17. The gigantic establishment that posed as the messiah. They give us a transformer, and in turn hijack our sight. They offer us food and later infect our farms with toxic residue of their product. They offer us jobs, and we spend the emolument on hospital bills. They furnish our schools, sensitize our children to the danger of not protecting the environment. Little did we know that we gave the devil a room in our domicile. Now he has chosen not to leave, inviting his associates. All we want is to survive. No matter what it takes. Mother Earth is on a vacation somewhere on a beach in Hawaii. Perhaps in Obudu Cattle Ranch, sipping on coconut drink and basking in the comfort of a masseur.

Do you still want my opinion on the current happenings? I suggest you grab an N95 mask, soldier boots, and your camera, and follow me. Because out there is fucking jungle, eat or get eaten.

#

It begins with a tocsin. We wake up from the deep sleep, thinking the long awaited rapture has finally arrived. This is not rapture—that is, if rapture has not already taken place. Everyone wakes up with that agility instilled by a clarion call. The bugle sound shoots through our ears again. Yolanda is still covered in her duvet. I nudge her. ‘Yoli. Yoli. Wake up. The buyers are here,’ I say, knotting the lace of my boot. She doesn’t say anything. I pull the duvet off her half-naked body. I see her sallow eyes. She coughs, a dry one. Not again. Yolanda’s cough has been persistent, going on for weeks. At the incipient stage we thought it was triggered by the coconut and palm kernel nuts she eats on a regular. But it is not that. It is something more baleful. I cup Yolanda’s jaw in my hand, checking her eyes as if I could diagnose the problem. Later, I run off with my Ghana-must-go bag to meet the others.

You see, everyone living in Ajeshima is a scavenger. Stealing is highly prohibited. Whoever you were before this wave doesn’t matter. If you want to pay your rent, eat some not-too-healthy food, and smoke good weed, you have to sell something. A group of elite came to our aid two months back. The largess they brought sustained us for a while, until we were all out. Then the situation changed. They asked for something in return. Now we fan out to where we can find goods, garner whatever we can; iron scraps, used cans, nuts and bolts, plastic, anything worthy of an exchange. This group gives us boots, N95 and gas masks. You get paid by the measure of your hunt—bottled water, food stuff, and medical assistance. Payment in cash is small except if what you are selling is huge.

After the trade, I approach the man in charge, telling him of Yolanda. Her incessant croak cough. He thinks it is a minor sickness. I beg him to wait while I bring Yolanda to him. ‘It will cost you. Time is expensive these days,’ he says, winking at me. He wants me to fuck him. No way! I have a full sack of used cans that can cover Yolanda’s bills.

‘Go fuck yourself,’ I tell him. He turns back, heads into the chopper.

Back in the hostel, Yolanda is still sleeping. Her cough aggravates. People in the camp are muttering. I hope she doesn’t have the flu. There is a law sacrosanct to all. Anyone who has the flu gets temporarily evicted until management thinks the person is better enough to return.

Austin comes to her aid. He was a 500-level undergraduate of Medicine and Surgery before all of this. He is the closest thing to a doctor in the hostel. Austin covers his nose with an N95 and rubber gloves. Yolanda does as she is told. Widen your eyes. Open your mouth. Cough once. Twice. He asks her some questions, too. Taking notes.

He beckons me outside. This cannot be good. ‘She has asbestosis,’ he says. ‘The antibiotics we have here cannot do the magic. She will be needing something stronger.’

Yolanda asks what the problem is. It is her health. She has the right to know. The reaction on her face is far from what I expected. It is gaiety. I know that frame on her face. She thinks it is time for her to go meet her maker.

‘We will get through this. I assure you,’ I say, locking her hand in mine.

Footsteps approach behind me. All of them wearing protective kits. They have come for Yolanda. Austin must have told them about her sickness. I do not blame him. He risks getting evicted to the wetland if he doesn’t report a sickness that may be noxious to the populace. Yolanda calls out to me, acting contumacious.

‘Please don’t let them take me away.’ She fights back.

My hands are tied. There is nothing I can do. I want her to get better even if it means going away for a while. I am pissed at many things. An avalanche of rage bobs in my head. I head over to the area where we take a shit. A boy with a ringworm-streaked head walks past me. He is only wearing a colorless pant with holes. Buzzing flies trail his bum. I squat, doing my business. Plopping sound, bdum bdum, drops in the blackwater below the shack. Yolanda is the only person close to a family I have. How can I go on living if she dies? The rage blistering my heart has exacerbated. I don’t take cognizance of the pervert boys watching me from the door hole until someone asks what they’re doing there.

#

I have always had a penchant for photography. Taking pictures of nature, wildlife, that sort of it. I saw an advert for interns at a company. After pitching them my idea, they suggested I send them my best shots. Tolu, my friend, suggested I bring them pictures of rural areas. People like crude pictures. The search began, until I landed in Ajeshima. What a perfect place for a shot, I thought. Ajeshima is at the boundary of two local governments. You cannot be oblivious of the berm, the vast river meandering through a large body flanked by overgrown bushes, boys wearing dreadlock sitting in a canoe rolling dried weed for business and pleasure, burnt tires in the middle of the road, and little kids searching furtively for bush animals. An autochthon of the place was my tour guide for the time I would be spending there. For a little cash, she took me all around. I slept at a lodge meant for the Corpers, who were on break at that time. A small, but decent house. Two days I spent strolling, taking pictures. Then I saw a canal where kids sloshed through the discolored puddles looking for something. The water might be a mixture of sludge, animal waste and sharps. But these kids were oblivious of the danger, plunging their hands for the catch.

‘Na their goldmine be that. You no sabi how much iron scrap cost?’ said a man scanning the pile of dirt, also looking for something valuable. ‘You fine well-well o.’

I noticed him staring at my cleavage.

The rain fell heavily. I stayed back at the lodge, checking out the pictures, sorting them. For days, the downpour increased. Boys in the area gathered more stones, adding to the riprap when they noticed the flood had trespassed the riverbanks. Coupled with news of crocodiles sneaking into the lodge at times, this convinced me I had to find somewhere safe. My guide told me of a school that required the service of an English Teacher. She suggested I could also snap pictures with them after lessons.

There, I met Yolanda. She came for morning class along with a few others. She became my favorite student and friend, too. Though older, Yolanda related with me like we were yealing.

I got to know that she had worked as a putter at Ebute-Metta railroad. Later she quit the job to do other construction jobs; filling, sanding, scraping asbestos from materials of older buildings. She worked as a janitor in between. Yoli was a man in a woman’s body. She suggested I come live with her. ‘I have a place. I can use your company. You don’t have to pay rent. No padi for jungle. But I will keep you safe.’

I arrived at Tokyo-Villa. Faces scanned me. Who be this one again o.

It was Yolanda who first told me of the brownfield where the denizens worked before they were out of jobs. I asked Yolanda why she wouldn’t leave this area for a better life in the city. She snickered, explaining she wouldn’t stand a chance in an urban world. I knew it was a lie. She liked it here. The freedom to do whatever she wanted.

The flood increased. A surge damaged what was left of the rickety buildings void of people. The brownfield collapsed. The toxins mixed with the drinking water, making it unsafe for consumption. But Tokyo-Villa was safe, for now. Too many questions popped up in my head. Why isn’t the government doing anything to decontaminate the brownfield? Why hasn’t anyone heard about this? Who is going to come to their aid? I had many more questions to ask, but no answer. The bridge had been damaged. Canoe riders told of the risk in case you wanted to get past the boundary into the neighboring local government. I was stuck in Ajeshima.

Yolanda showed me how the hunt went down. Everyone called scavenging hunt. We walked past graffiti on the wall. I was ensorcelled by the equine drawing, white and red. We went to a machine shop. Choking motes suspended in the air greeted us, welcome. Mostly teenagers and a few aged worked there. ‘Why are they not wearing masks?’ I asked Yolanda. She laughed.

‘They didn’t die as children here in this locality. I am sure they can survive this.’

A man who I figured was the superior scolded a boy. His asperity made the boy shut off the drilling machine he held on to. The man poked the boy on the chest. Yolanda went over as though to settle the dispute, but I saw her cutting eye signal to me. Behind the superior’s back, two boys carried three billets out the door. My best guess, someone outside received it, hid it for them.

#

Austin allows me to see Yolanda. I have roughly ten minutes with her before the management tells me to leave. Once a person is quarantined, only Austin and his team of auxiliary nurses are allowed to visit them until management says the patient’s ailment is asymptomatic. I wear my N95, holding a wrapped package in my hand. Yolanda likes roasted grasscutter. She looks limp when I see her.

‘Yoli, see what I brought for you.’

The aroma of the roasted meat wafts into the room. I unwrap it, cutting a chunk into her mouth. She chews on it the same way a baby growing teeth attempts his first bite. It breaks my heart to see her unable to eat. She asks if anyone has been threatening me in her absence. She asks of the garrulous Iya Ridwan who is pregnant with her seventh child. ‘That woman jus’ dey born like rat,’ she says. We laugh about it. She asks about her goods, safely tucked inside her locker. Of all the things she asks, Yolanda never asks about her health.

‘I have paid my bills on earth. When it is time, I will go,’ she says, hitting her chest.

#

Yolanda got her fair share out of the billets stolen from the machine shop. I watched the boys who participated brokering a deal at a liquor store. She paid some of her share to a woman by the roadside selling roasted grasscutter and palm wine.

‘Come. Let me show you somewhere,’ Yolanda said.

She helped me climb up a pile of stones. The view was better from where we sat. The roasted meat tasted better than I expected. Yolanda advised against drinking the palm-wine. A diurnal wind roamed, soothing my nerves. This area was completely different from the slum where the majority lived. The stench was minimal, though the breeze still carried scent of weed at intervals. I stretched my hands behind me, trying to relax, when my fingers touched a goop on a wad of newspaper. Yolanda couldn’t stop laughing when she saw my hand. ‘Na person pikin you touch so.’ Someone had poured his semen there.

We got home to find a crowd before the façade of the building. A boy working in the machine shop had been carried away. He had a cold, which metamorphosed into something lethal. Yolanda knew him—one of the boys who helped in stealing the billets. We found out that some deposit of beryllium had taken his body hostage, damaging his heart in the process.

I went back to the machine shop the next day. Talking to the supervisor about providing masks for his workers, he asked if I would like a job as his personal assistant. The sick boy had been replaced. This one, too, exposed himself to the hazards without concern.

#

Home is where your heart lies. My mother has said this umpteen times. I wanted to be a lawyer, protect the frail people in society. Along the way I lost that interest. I entered for a degree in journalism, majoring in photo-journalism. This became my métier.

Yolanda kept going out for her regular hunt. One of these days, she promised, she would take me to where she worked. The hostel was boring. The few of us left in the room during the day were lazyish. A zaftig combing her wig sang in her local dialect. An old man tuned his radio set, searching for something of interest. I watched the ceiling, counting invisible stars. Ennui took over my sensations. My camera’s battery was out flat. Dealers in batteries were at the other side of the river. There was no way I could reach them—the canoe driver was unavailable.

I asked around for anyone who deals in paper. This is Tokyo-Villa. Everyone deals in every form of waste. I went looking. On coming back from my short adventure, I found a huge of pile of newspapers, stacked it on my bed. ‘Aunt be careful-o. Those paper been dey get bedbugs,’ someone from the hostel said. I carried them outside. One after the other I began sorting them out, cutting out the images so I could paste them on the wall. It was high time this hostel got a facelift. Kids in the hostel joined me. Together we made art.

‘Why do they call this place Tokyo-Villa?’ I asked. One of the kids pointed to a gaunt old man chewing herbal stick, sitting on a straw chair.

‘Sir, I was told you know the history of this place.’ He coughed. Told me to grab a chair.

 

A group of people who regarded themselves as an NGO came to Ajeshima nine years ago. They had the goal of building a school for the inhabitants. Their leader met with the chairman of the association, relaying their purpose for coming. School was imperative, at least for the children. Other demands could be provided later. The project commenced. It was revealed that the Japanese who came with the group were the main sponsors of the project. The project went half-way, then resources were no longer available for completion. The old man said embezzlement took charge. Rodents, hoodlums, and miscreants saw the need to turn the place to a usual hangout. The association in Ajeshima came together, gathered resources, completed the building. This time the initial plan for the project changed: a hostel was built, named after the Japanese.

 

Yolanda came back at dusk. She was pissed at the paper arrangement at her bed space. She bloviated about how things were hard, the harsh situation. Here I was, wasting money on papers that I did not need. She thought I was obtuse. Someone has to keep hope alive. Perhaps mother earth would bring us good fortune in the days to come.

#

There are many rules in scavenging. The most important of them all is safety. We set out to hunt the following day. I replaced my camera battery after Yolanda bought a new one for me. We passed through a glen leading to a heap of disused items. Everything is useful in Ajeshima. Items abandoned in the open are left for vagrant dogs. We came across some boys and two girls in an effluent. Discharge from a severed drum plonked into the disturbed water. The teenagers were hunting for sharps. I rested my gaze on them. What if they get infected from this? Or worse, carry a vector to their homes. Yolanda shunned my rhetorical question. I noticed their change of mood upon discovering something riveting. It turned out to be a putrid animal, dead for days.

‘Welcome to the jungle,’ Yolanda said.

The next stop was a place that used to be an aquifer. It used to be the main source for good water before the pollution. Now the place had become anhydrous. ‘What lies down there?’ I asked Yolanda.

‘Why don’t you go down? I am sure the creatures living there will like human company,’ she goaded. ‘Put on your mask. We are approaching the area of Plant-17.’ She said Plant-17 was responsible for the pollution. They dealt in a wide range of products from chemicals, fertilizers, metals, ceramics, and extraction of platinum metals to catalytic converters. The association had given them quick notice after having realized the damage they caused. Chaos erupted when the directors in Plant-17 employed the services of soldiers to stall the commotion of the people at their entrance. Property was damaged. At night the people threw bottles filled with fuel, gagged with a small piece of cloth, and lit on fire at the top. Two young boys were killed in sporadic shooting by the sentries guarding the place, and the hoodlums dispersed into the streets. An eye for an eye. The media got word of the happenings. Law enforcement came in mass, quelling the situation. Plant-17 took their leave abruptly. Police red duct tape couldn’t restrict intruders from plundering what was left. They carted away scraps found in the building, leaving it in skeletal form. What they didn’t know was that the company left a souvenir—cadmium residue in the air. The association banned anyone from going near Plant-17, noticing the number of sick children suffering from respiratory diseases. Yolanda a way around everything. ‘This N95 will keep us safe,’ she assured me.

‘What are we looking for?’ I asked, keeping my breath steady. A movement spooked me in the dust-covered, chapped papers to my left. A rat without a tail scurried across the floor with soot all over it. Yolanda said there were bad market days. I brought out my camera, taking shots of the rickety innards, piles of dirt. ‘Yoli. There is something here.’ She tightened her fur gloves, pulling up the trash to reveal fluttering cockroaches. One catalytic converter lay there helplessly. The smile on her face that day is etched deeper in my subconscious each time I remember. Yolanda hugged me, saying I brought her good luck. Used catalytic converters are worth more than other scraps.

On our way home, some men were goading a crocodile close to the effluent. This was not the first time I had heard of crocodiles coming into the open to find food.

#

Yolanda has reached her threshold of adverse health. I know this when the inhaler can’t alleviate her anymore. The once-healthy figure I liked from the first day I met her has become shrunken. Austin says she has not been eating. Yolanda tells me of the severe pains sprouting from her body. Her fingers are clubbed, too.

I try to force myself to sleep that night, but I cannot. The room feels gelid. The mattress is missing a body. The atmosphere whistles a dirge. Austin’s words thrum in my head. She will need something stronger. Anything from flu or pneumonia treatments will make her better, temporarily. ‘Is there a cure for this sickness?’ He shook his head. There is no cure for it. She can live on an oxygen tank for the time being. If what Yolanda needs is an oxygen tank, then I better give myself to that perverted representative of the elite group.

Yolanda summons me, to tell me about herself. She started fending for herself at the age of nine. Sold weed, drugs, did illicit jobs to survive. Her eyes show no remorse. A girl must survive. No matter the cost. She tells me where all her stash is. She is impervious to the thought of dying. ‘Don’t do anything stupid. It is time to start taking care of yourself,’ Yolanda says. She points to my pimply face. Little speckles spread on my neck. I can’t remember the last time I had a decent bath. It’s been so long. She says I should promise her not to stay in Ajeshima if something happens to her. I could not hold back the tears from flooding my eyes.

Mother Earth answers my prayer. The rain stops pelting. The flood still remains, filling the road, houses and shops. Austin calls for me. He needs to say no words.

I arrange the inhabitants of Tokyo-Villa, gather them for a photo shoot. One last look at Yolanda’s bed. Memories we shared make me cry some more. As I walk across the repaired wooden bridge, I see children in the canal. The surface is turbid. One of the children is in pain. The others hold him still, pulling with their hands a leech halfway into an open sore in his foot. I snap a picture of them. Someone has to come to their aid. I can help with that.

 

The smell of good air is balmy, home. My sister snuggles me from behind. There is a lot I want to tell her. But first I hang the picture of Yolanda and me on my bookshelf, heading towards the bathroom.

Mummies

“The Egyptians understood the rise of the sun each day was not guaranteed.”

“Please pause.” The house voice stopped. Dev missed the kind female persona almost instantly, but he needed focus. He owned a dozen books on ancient Egypt and wanted to donate some or all. He didn’t require any of them since he had digital copies. Physical books could be a deceptive comfort. Sometimes he forgot owning the knowledge was not the same as possessing it.

He’d planned to spend his retirement making a path through world history. That plan, like so many others, died with Emily. Ten years later, and he’d given no thought to history until the past few months, when the mountains began burning again.

Farnaby was barking. He’d just let him out, and there was plenty of shade, but he’d best get him soon. Outside on an August afternoon wasn’t a safe place for either small dogs or old men.

Tomorrow morning he’d take him for a ride into the foothills if the heat, smoke, and ash permitted. He didn’t know what dogs needed; Farnaby was his first since childhood. But Dev needed out of the house. He wanted to see if the city was still something like what he remembered.

“Please read the part about what I might find in an ancient Egyptian garbage dump.” He couldn’t help himself. Questions popped into his head, and if he didn’t ask them immediately, he was likely to forget.

The woman’s voice continued. “At Oxyrhynchus archaeologists found hundreds of thousands of bits of papyrus including unknown Sappho poems, plays, and the lost Gospel of Thomas. Other dump sites have provided bits of pottery, tools, religious artifacts, as well as thousands of limestone flakes bearing the practice writing of scribes, daily entries, love notes, complaints, and other texts of historical interest.”

“So, one’s man’s treasure,” Dev said. She didn’t answer.

His late friend Lyle should have had a dog. A dog might have saved him, but Dev hadn’t understood that five years ago. Lyle was a major reason Dev was reducing his footprint, leaving less for his daughter to sort out after he was gone.

He never went inside the house when he picked up Lyle, but he saw the curtains snug against the windows from the press of accumulation, the random junk sitting in the side yard, the trash spilling from under a garage door that wouldn’t close all the way. He knew very well what must have been going on inside Lyle’s home. The police found Lyle entombed in his bedroom wrapped in his belongings, in a house without power or running water.

Dev used the Egyptian books to fill one of the Donate boxes and emptied three shelves of fiction into several others. He stacked these into the corner along with several bags of clothing, sacks full of household items he would never use, and a crate of small electronics most of whose function now escaped him. There were still thousands of items in his home. He knew appropriate decisions on most of these would require some sort of breakthrough, a change in perspective that would turn their presence from comforting to annoying.

“Please continue.”

“The Egyptians spent significant time and resources preparing for their deaths, filling their tombs with items needed for the journey. The afterlife was their future, their science fiction, and every day it rubbed through into their now.”

There was more, but he gradually came to acknowledge the commotion erupting outside. Farnaby. He’d only let the Scottish Terrier out to relieve himself. “Please, what’s the current temperature?”

“One Hundred Thirty Degrees Fahrenheit.” Dev rushed to the door and slammed it open into a blast of heat, reached behind to close it and keep the cool air inside, and inadvertently grabbed the hot handle.

He may have screamed, he wasn’t sure. He bent over in agony, shaking his burnt fingers, sucking in the smoke-flavored air. Everything looked a smoldering yellow. Farnaby barked excitedly, both at Dev’s trembling fingers and the new thing clinging to the Maple tree.

The creature stuck to the tree was hard to distinguish from the bark, being little more than a subtle shift in the pattern. Some insect he had never seen before, three or four inches long, twig-like with a triangular head. Some sort of mantis perhaps. They’d lost the crickets for good. So, was this their replacement?

“Farnaby! Come!” He stumbled to the door and grabbed the handle with his shirttail, letting the dog precede him, and once inside struggled up the stairs and got his hand under a cool stream of water. He could hear the soft murmur of the Please voice downstairs. He hadn’t ordered it off, and it still prattled on to an empty room about dead Egyptians and their adventures in a highly anticipated afterlife.

“The first rulers of Egypt were ancient even to the Romans. Cleopatra lived closer to the invention of the self-driving automobile than she did to the building of the Great Pyramid.” At this distance she sounded like a whisper in his ear, but that small bit of perspective still impressed. “Please stop.” His voice was hoarse, but she obeyed.

He stared out the window at the burning mountains, disappeared beneath a deep mustard-colored veil. Dev realized somewhere beneath all that accumulating ash lay his Emily’s ashes. He couldn’t decide if this should horrify or comfort him.

He tried to see through the smoke, looking for any bit of remembered detail. His view rapidly deteriorated.

Part of the reason he and Emily bought this place was because of the view, and the mature landscaping that came with it. Forty-two different flowering plants at that time, blossoms staggered through the seasons. He used to take photos of flower buds breaking into bloom, of insects crawling over petals and stems, jewels of dew suspended in early morning webs, a world often unnoticed, and delicate as a dream.

The growing seasons for a number of those plants had since shifted by months. Many died because he couldn’t water them enough, and some no longer survived in Colorado’s climate. Was this the future invading his now?

When his hand felt better, he dried it gingerly, applying lotion and a loose bandage. Farnaby gazed at his wrappings mournfully.

“So, I’m part mummy now, kiddo.”

He couldn’t find anything identical to the new bug on the web. The closest was a smaller Bark Mantis from Honduras. It was far north of its usual territory, but habitats and migration ranges had been evolving for years.

He resisted the impulse to ask the house to read to him some more. As comforting as it was to hear another voice, he had other things to think about. He seldom asked for the news. He had no need for daily updates on what fresh hell waited for him outside.

He picked up a book, The Next Hundred Years, thoroughly worn from reading. He’d owned it a good twenty years. There were few things more useless than an old book of predictions. It fell open to the chapter “Upload Yourself,” this exploration of a future world in which dying folk could upload their minds to a computer network to escape death, living out eternity in this oh-so-vivid ultra hi def afterlife modeled from their own specifications. But what right did anyone have to escape into an eternity where the sky was always blue and nature this sensuous intoxication when the world you left behind was in flames?

The doorbell rang and the living room screen lit up with an image of the grocery delivery man in his dazzling reflective suit. Farnaby raced to the door barking frantically. Dev watched the screen until the man left his porch. He opened the door and hollered “Thank you!” as he gathered up the bags. The man turned and waved and returned a “You’re welcome!” Such a banal exchange, but many weeks this was Dev’s only in-person human interaction.

With frequent price spikes and shortages Dev had to study the choices carefully to see what he could afford. Some months he spent nearly forty percent of his income on food, pre-World War One levels. It didn’t bother him Farnaby’s food cost more than his own, but it was something he couldn’t tell his daughter.

He always went to bed early. Electricity was available for certain hours of the day, and for most nights not at all without a permit.

#

“In the Victorian era mummy unwrapping was a social event. Mummies were in plentiful supply and you could buy one for your parlor if you so desired. Mummies were burned like coal on some rail lines, ground up and made into medicines or paint, their wrappings used to make paper.”

Early the next morning they got into the car and Dev told it where he wanted to go, and the approximate timing required for Farnaby’s bathroom breaks. He could request a change in route at any time during the trip, but the car wouldn’t permit him to go anywhere he wasn’t allowed, or which might put them in danger from fire, flood, or other hazards. It knew far more about the projected weather, road conditions, and traffic patterns than he did so he was content to let the car do its job. Not that he had much choice. Dev was no longer licensed to use the manual override.

Farnaby huddled in the seat against him, head up and mouth pulled back in a rictus grin. This wasn’t one of the newer SDEVs, but it featured full length transparent doors on both sides for optimal viewing, superior climate control, and enhanced air filtration. Owning such a vehicle for limited use was the only extravagance Dev permitted himself.

Within a few miles of his neighborhood they were surrounded by crumbling concrete ribbons of highway, abandoned buildings of rusting steel and coarse cement, and much more traffic than he’d anticipated. Half the lanes were devoted to large electric commuter buses spaced breathtakingly close. This was supposed to be safe, but Dev could barely stand to watch them. Farnaby had his muzzle pressed against the door, apparently fascinated by these vehicles he’d never seen before. Dev heard new work schedules started early because of the heat and ended after dark for a workweek of three days, but he hadn’t paid much attention to such concerns since retirement.

Traffic in the recreational lanes was relatively light, so they were making good progress until Farnaby suddenly made whimpering sounds and began bobbing his head. “Please, we need a bathroom break,” Dev announced.

“Leaving the highway.” The voice was off-key and grating. It had been that way for a while, but Dev didn’t consider it worth fixing.

As they exited onto a local street Dev saw a tattered scarecrow of a man standing on the corner holding a blank cardboard sign. He wore an older style reflective suit ripped in several places, the trousers coming apart at the seams and mended with tape and pieces of dirty canvas or cloth. The floppy, broad-brimmed hat pulled down around his head did not disguise his wide-eyed gaze. The portions of his arms peeking through the rips were burnt and raw looking.

As they made the turn the man jumped up and down and pointed at his sign. He shouted something, but Dev couldn’t make out any specific words.

Desperate, unhinged behavior was not uncommon in people living on the ragged edge. Dev wondered if the man had a shelter to go to as the day wore on and the temperature rose. Someday he wanted to talk to someone like this, find out what their life was like, but he was ashamed to admit he was too afraid.

He wasn’t alone in this. People feared each other. You could no longer trust the sky over your head or the ground beneath your feet.

The car pulled over by an empty lot amid shuttered and decaying buildings. A faded sign proclaimed Springs’ Reclamation Garden: Victory Over Climate Change. These had been popular twenty years ago, trucking in topsoil to cover ruined spaces and create something rich with green. Although there were pale vines and anemic flowers, scattered patches of weeds, most of the lot was barren.

A few crows explored the ground. Songbirds had almost disappeared, but crows were thriving. It wasn’t their fault, and there wasn’t enough time to grieve over every single thing the world had lost, but Dev still resented their presence.

The car doors began to open, then shut again as a sudden cloudburst washed that view away. Farnaby looked anxious but waited patiently. They seldom received an enduring rain, just these overly dramatic explosions of thunder, shadow, and downpour lasting a few minutes or less. Soon Dev was standing in the brown grass at the edge of the lot, watching the terrier nosing around the sad-looking piece of ground.

“Stay close,” he said, as if the dog understood him. But that’s what you did with dogs, wasn’t it? He wasn’t afraid of him running away, but maybe of someone snatching him—that would be awful. He didn’t want him getting into things, getting stung or tick infested. Ticks didn’t die in the winter anymore. They drove Farnaby crazy all year long.

Something shiny and red in the ground caught his eye. It was curved and protruded a half inch or so above the dirt alongside a flattened clump of vegetation. He glanced around and saw other red bits, blue bits, portions of drinking cups, paper and plastic trash, a long line of rusted metal. Trash was rising out of the earth after the hard rain.

He got Farnaby into the vehicle and they headed back toward the highway. He didn’t see the tattered man anywhere. Dev hoped he’d found a safe spot to shelter before the day heated up. But it was unlikely to be a place with air conditioning. AC had become the crucial dividing line between the haves and have nots. Many could not afford it, and that meant death for some. People could get a medical subsidy if they qualified, but those qualifications became stricter every year.

It wasn’t that people didn’t care, and most understood their responsibility, recycling everything possible, using clean energy and conserving water. Yet the oceans continued to rise due to the damage already done, the ice caps and glaciers continued to disappear. The arctic was ice-free year-round. The indigenous population had largely left, although some attempted to stay close to home, working for the big shipping operations and oil companies. Maybe it wasn’t the kind of work they should have been doing, but how could you blame them?

As the car climbed the foothills they passed through a bluish fog and then a yellow one, and then into a relatively clear band of air between the fog and the smoke across the mountains above. As the day heated up the fog would burn away and the smoke would drop lower to obscure everything, but they would be back home by then.

The car pulled off to the side. “This is the highest you may go. Waiting for further instructions.”

Dev was disappointed. He’d been sure they could go higher. “Open doors please.” They got out but Farnaby refused to leave his side. He kept staring at the distant br
sh, the shadows beneath the trees. Dev couldn’t see anything, but he knew animals were coming out of the mountains to escape the wildfires looking for food, water, and shelter. He had no intention of staying outside the car for long.

He couldn’t say the view had been worth the trip. The nearby trees were yellow and brittle even during summer. A few still had moss, but it was faded. Both further up the hillside and in the distance, he saw long stretches of dead trees like painted gray stripes in the canopy. He remembered a pond with waterfowl, blackbirds, the occasional fox. He wasn’t sure, but he could see a dark patch of ground with a few dead cat o’ nine tails which might once have been that beautiful sanctuary.

When Kelly was small, he and Emily would show her what the city looked like from this higher, calmer perspective. Not only could he not see the city today, the air smelled like garbage.

Dev wouldn’t claim to be a great outdoorsman. He’d never enjoyed camping, preferring a comfortable bed in an air-conditioned hotel room. But he always knew how lucky they were to live in a state with such wonders. As Kelly grew older every summer he and Emily took her to some beautiful Colorado setting for an extended stay. Emily set up a scrapbook, and Kelly filled it with postcards and photos, pressed flowers, leaves, brochures, and her little notes about what she witnessed on these trips. He should have given the scrapbook to Kelly a long time ago, but he wasn’t quite ready to let it go.

He recalled Maroon Bells, with its two purple-and-white-striped peaks mirrored in an alpine lake. It was still there, he’d heard, but difficult to get to with the heat and the fires. The road was closed most years.

They’d spent two weeks at the Great Sand Dunes, where Medano Creek emerged every spring from the Sangre de Cristos behind the dunes to form an oasis, to disappear late August for another year. It was now dried up and apparently gone forever.

Hanging Lake, though, had been her favorite. They made three trips to see this magical body of water clinging to the edge of the mountain, multiple waterfalls cascading off moss-covered stone into the still pool below. She was grown when it was destroyed by a massive forest fire that consumed most of the mountain, the site disintegrating in the resulting landslide and erosion. She’d called him, sobbing, to tell him the news.

Dev had lost all desire to travel. It wasn’t just an issue of his age or his stamina. He was afraid there was no place he could go on this ailing planet and not see more signs of its demise. He felt powerless about many things, but especially in the face of climate, a system so vast it overlapped both thousands of miles of land and sea and generations of time. It was impossible for one person to engage a phenomenon so immense. But at least people should be encouraged to open their mouths and speak the truth of their grief.

When they got home the landline was flashing and a soft but persistent alarm emanated from his screen. He’d never seen this before and his first thought was there’d been an evacuation warning. “Please answer!” he cried, louder than intended, and sank into a chair. Farnaby crawled under the antique coffee table.

Kelly filled the frame, larger than life-size. He regretted getting one so big. Like everyone else in the world he’d watched the terrible final months of coastal Bangladesh as it disappeared into the ocean, the human tragedy playing out live and magnified in his living room.

“Dad, where were you? I’ve been checking the cameras for hours.” She was calling from the hospital, still in her mask and gown. She was a small woman, his precious child, and his first thought was she looked cute in her surgical gear, but of course he didn’t say that.

“I’m sorry. Farnaby and I drove into the foothills. I guess I should have let you know I was leaving.”

“No, no, I’m not your keeper. I just got really worried. This heat wave, and the air is so bad. I checked the cameras in every room, even the bathroom. Sorry. There are a few blind spots in the system. I was afraid you were lying dead in one of them.”

Dev hadn’t known there were blind spots. He made a mental note. They’d installed it two years ago; a camera system so emergency services and nervous adult children could check up on their elderly parents. There were tiny cameras with sensors in one corner of the ceiling of every room. He’d pretty much forgotten about them.

“Well, I’m okay. I see you’re at work.”

She pulled her mask down. “It’s been a busy day. Too many respiratory cases to keep up. Is your breathing okay?”

“I’m fine, honey. Really.”

“I saw all those boxes and bags. Are you getting rid of more stuff?”

“Trying to. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of things.”

“You know I worry when you do that. I’m always afraid you’re giving up.”

“Not giving up at all. Just focusing, creating space in my home, and by extension creating space in my head.”

Farnaby came out from under the table then, staring at the screen, head cocked to one side.

“Hi Farnaby!” He sat up, tail wagging. “You know I still can’t believe you got a dog. I told you to get one after Mom died but you were adamant you didn’t want one.”

“At that time, I couldn’t handle being responsible for another life. I didn’t even want plants in the house.”

“He’s so small and chipper! I figured you’d want a big old hound with a sad face and droopy ears.”

“I would never own a pet who looked like me.”

“Oh Dad—”

“He keeps me company. But some days I can’t get a word in edgewise.”

“But that name? It’s cute, but how’d you come up with that?”

“It’s the main character from Aldous Huxley’s final novel Island. It’s about a utopia.”

“Do you believe in that stuff? Utopias?”

“Not really. The problem with utopians is every time you turn around, they’re trying to kill people.”

#

“It was a modest afterlife for the common folk, marginally better than their lives before, but dead pharaohs might dwell among the stars at the end of their journey. The royals, the wealthy and educated could afford a tomb or coffin decorated with inscriptions providing food and magic spells to foil the demons and fiery lakes encountered. As final insurance, your family could arrange for a scarab placed within the mummy wrappings above your heart, inscribed with a spell which magically hid all your wrongdoing from final judgement.”

If you had enough wealth and knowledge, you could get away with almost anything. Some things hadn’t changed in 2,500 years.

Dev spent part of every day wrapped in expensive filtered and conditioned air, peeking through his front windows at his local neighborhood, a narrow view between heavy curtains. He understood how lucky he was, how privileged, with guaranteed retirement income and a daughter devoted to his well-being. He wasn’t a rich man, but his imagined needs had never been too large for his revenue. As far as that wild man he saw yesterday was concerned, Dev indeed dwelled among the stars.

If he didn’t see a neighbor for an extended period he wondered if they’d died or moved to a location more bearable. You rarely saw someone die. One day you noticed they were gone. It was like what happened to the missing plants and bugs, the songbirds, the coral reefs.

The suicide rate was quite high. Very few of those happened in public. Sometimes it seemed a miracle to be able to live at all. Dev didn’t fear dying, but he lived every day anticipating an end: of some species, some comforting ritual, some cherished location.

He hadn’t told Kelly this, but many days he felt too tired to get out of bed, or to climb out of a chair, or to choose. Did the cameras see his fatigue? Each day he waited for the exhaustion to pass, knowing someday it would not.

He saw the men walking up to his porch with their wagon. They were dressed similarly to the fellow from yesterday, with bits of reflective suit, wide floppy hats, dirty surgical masks, and pieces of homemade patchwork consisting of netting, disintegrating padding, cardboard, metal, and reflective tape. This ragged outfit had become a kind of uniform for those who wandered or attempted to live outside. His neighborhood, being so close to major routes, had frequent wanderers.

He waited as the older one walked onto the porch and rang the bell. On the screen his face around the mask looked stiff and leathery, shriveled, and expressionless. The younger man remained at the bottom of the steps guarding the wagon. Dev checked the other camera views. There was no one else in sight. On the second ring Dev spoke. “Can I help you?”

The older man paused for a moment, then turned his dark eyes toward the camera over the door. “Anything, please?” The young man said something, and the old man said something back. “Anything you can spare?”

Dev thought the accent was different from the Mexican Spanish he was used to. When the two men talked their speech was full of slang. He didn’t understand a word. Honduran, maybe? Like the newly arrived Mantis in his backyard. Like much of Central America, Honduras was burning down. When your house was burning down, you left it.

“Wait just a second. Oh, do you like books?”

The old man blinked. His eyes looked enormous above the mask. “I like to read.”

Dev went downstairs and retrieved one of the books on Egypt, and at the last second snagged a volume of Neruda off a shelf. He brought them upstairs and opened the hall closet. Stacked inside were boxes full of food, medicine, odd items like gloves, flashlight, batteries, a little cash. He slipped the books into the box on top and carried it to the door. “I’m terribly sorry, but please step off the porch and wait.” He was embarrassed every one of the many times he’d said this, but he was a cautious man.

Dev watched the screen as the man went back down the steps and joined his partner. Then he stepped out onto the porch into the fuggy air and set the box down. He smiled at them apologetically. “Please take these. I hope they help you on your journey.” He wanted to say more. He wanted to ask the elderly man what it was like to be old where he came from, to be old and wandering now through this darkening and unforgiving place. But he did not, could not, and went back inside.

He watched them on the screen as they loaded the box into their wagon and left, then switched cameras to follow their slow progress down the street, to the next house, and the one after.

The air became grainier as additional smoke settled in. More shambling figures joined them, some with wagons, some with dogs.

Whatever future there might be was manifesting here, right now, rubbing its way into the present. Dev turned away and went around checking windows, securing doors, closing himself in for the night.

We Have So Little Time Left

Already, the sunlight is shrinking like an old shirt

that barely covers the belly, even while it glows

gilding the dried up cattails, the snapped branches

that pierce the cloudless sky like a severed bone.

 

Only smudges of light left on the slick leaves

languishing in icy mud, and on the rushing squirrels,

newly fattened for their long, incredible fast.

Fewer acorns endure under the detritus

 

to trip our balance. The sky is less blue,

the slippery light distant, when it isn’t daring us

with glare. All the garden vegetables remaining

taste like old, cold dirt.

 

Soon my jaw will forget how to release from its clench

against the elements, and soon we’ll crave the elements,

predictable days of final growth—the hardening

stems racing to ripen before turning to rot.

 

The air will sizzle, and some far away bed

of ice will implode, or simply drip. Death

by a thousand small cuts. But tonight, like every night,

the sun will set in its predictable pattern, cutting off

 

another sliver of our lives. And we might crawl

into bed with a cup of tea, a fantasy

story while fat squirrels scutter up snags

of what once upon a time were trees.

The Talking Bears of Greikengkul

In a way, Silya had grown up with the bears. Her father had, for a time, worked for the Interspecies Language Group, cooing to the cubs and whispering dirty Slavic limericks and snippets of Tolstoy whenever the researchers left the room. He was a subversive, her mother had said, but always with a laugh. “It’s why they killed him.” Following the bear’s lives consumed her mother and colored every facet of Silya’s childhood. Each birthday since infancy Silya received a Talking Bear gift. She owned complete sets of the bean bag plushies, the coins, every trading card, including the rare Kamchatka. Her mittens frayed away from her fingers and her ribs were sharp enough to gut anyone Silya hugged, but she had Talking Bear swag out the wazoo. She could recite their individual stats, sing the ditties, and she was the first person in her class to have watched the video of the surgery where they’d been modified. It was quite boring, though, mostly shaved pink rectangles of skin among oceans of blue paper. So it surprised no one that she ended up at the university where the bears had been gifted in their retirement, and it would also have been no surprise that she snuck through the barricades between classes to hide amongst the honeysuckle and listen to them talk.

It was on one of these jaunts that Jumar found her gnawing the fence with the teeth of her pliers. There was nothing to do but let him come along. Almost immediately they found one. “Would you like a Dr. Pepper?” said the bear, standing up. The human inflection always startled Silya, but Jumar said, “Why yes,” and held out his hand, even though the bear obviously was only reciting what it had heard the prior handlers say. Silya grabbed his shirt and they stumbled away, diving through the fence as the bear’s claws clanged against the wire.

“You aren’t supposed to engage them.”

“I thought that’s what you were doing.”

Silya was too angry to answer. He knew the rules. She ought to take him back to the dorm but instead she resumed her original direction. Jumar tromped after her, “You know they’re going to be euthanized, don’t you?”

She hadn’t. “Why? That’s a waste. We can learn so much from them still.”

“After that student wandered into their lair, they decided it was too risky to keep them here. Besides, no one’s doing any research. They’re just a publicity stunt.”

When she found the mother and cubs she touched a finger to his lips before he spoke. He hunkered next to her, shoulder to shoulder. The spice of him contrasted with the sweet flowers. “What is she saying?” he whispered.

She shook her head, annoyed. Didn’t he understand the universal signal for shut up? But when he opened his mouth again she jutted her chin and said, “Mama, telling story to cubs.”

His face scrunched into confusion as he listened. Granted it wasn’t much of a story, but Silya knew the details, and she knew the particulars of the scientist who crafted it. Unlike with human fairytales, metaphor was less important than diction for the bears. Her mouth followed Mama Bear’s rounding vowels and the pursing of her jowls, but the cub, still immature, mostly barked. Until it saw Silya and said her name.

No time to check if Jumar heard, she was too busy running. When they’d reached the safety of the building’s interior, sliding the great bolt while tons of bear flesh pounded the outer door, he said, “Their speech is clearer than I thought it would be. But I have a question. Weren’t the cubs born here?”

Silya followed the question to its logical center. “The second gen mods were genetic, allowing any cubs born with the mutation to be capable of forming words. But nobody’s heard more than a roar from them as yet.”

“Is that what you’re looking for, why you keep going out there?” His tone was more accusing than concerned. No one had been killed by the bears in years. She shrugged, but Silya wondered, was that why? She didn’t know, only that she’d been compelled to come, to listen. She thought she heard Russian from one of the older bears, once, but she couldn’t be sure. When she hadn’t responded Jumar said, “That cub looked right at you. I could have sworn it said your name.” She felt her cheeks flush and she smiled, embarrassed but pleased. He added, “I could trap it for you.”

She laughed, dropped her voice to a sexy alto. “Jumar: bear hunter.” He kissed her and they didn’t talk about it anymore.

#

Silya was too busy with classes over the next few weeks to visit the bears or Jumar’s dorm. Greikengkul University got a lot of students on its bear gimmick, but it was as tough a slog as any university. She was awakened from a nap by the Kodiak Cantata, her mother’s ringtone. When she answered, peeling Sociology notes from her sweaty forehead, her mother said, “Don’t babble, Misia.” Silya’s wide yawn had her imagining herself one of the bears. Her mother’s next words snapped her to fully woke human. “It’s all over the news. Some poor fool has gotten trapped by the bears. Do you know who it is?”

A certain poor fool had been joking, surely. She typed in the link her mother recited. The news cameras only showed the outside of the largest cave, restless bears pacing, pawing the air and grumbling about the dean. The Greikengkul representative was belaboring that this was the dean of the former owner’s college, and that the bears were quite content in their new environment. Silya’s mother said, “Oh that looks like Penny. Her red ruff is getting some grey. Just like me. I miss them. I wish the . . . .”

“I’m going to go check it out. I’ll call you back when I know more.”

“Make sure they don’t hurt the poor darlings. Send me pictures.”

It was warm out, but Silya layered on a nylon undershirt, sweater and jacket, stuffed gloves and hat in her pocket. At the last second she pocketed her roommate’s pepper spray. As she followed the trail grooved by her many trips to the hidden entry spot, she called Jumar. No answer. She swiped her phone to leave a message, a noncommittal, hey, where are you, but Jumar had sent her one instead. I’m coming by tonight with a surprise.

That was confirmation enough who the poor fool was, and she altered her course, now moving along the electric fence until the wiry arms stretched over the river. The narrow gap between wire and concrete might deter a bear, but a person could squeeze through. She’d then have to figure how to climb the embankment or swim upstream, salmon-like. Which called to mind a memory. She and her mother laughing as the bears stood in the middle of a salmon run. One was saying hey watch this, but the altered mouth was suddenly filled with a fish. The other bears made a sound, something like a bark or a sneeze and her mother had told her that was bear laughter.

A growl interrupted Silya’s thoughts and she lost her balance. Theodore, her mother’s least favorite, who only spoke when a treat was involved, at the top of the hill. He didn’t speak now, which she found encouraging. The action of turning caused her to lose her traction on the slick concrete and she slid on her butt and soles into a stream of leaves and bear shit. Theodore blew a strawberry of dismissal and sauntered off. Dank rotting leaves coated her sneakers and the acid feral smell of urine made her eyes burn. Did the bears mark the entrance or was this some other animal? She thought again of her mother, who never ascribed anything but human attributes to the talking bears. She would have claimed they were above shitting in the woods, much less marking their territory, even as she changed the diaper of what was left of Silya’s father.

Google maps showed the bear’s main cave system was several kilometers to the west, but Silya knew of another entrance. Modern lore among the students, for it was where the remains of the golden-haired girl had been discovered. If you knew what to look for, a path once used by a drug cartel led to the hidden entrance. A pattern of stones, a shadow from the mountain at a particular hour.

She pushed aside branches and a coarse thatch of brush. Once inside she heard her name echoing through the tunnel. “Jumar,” she called, and was answered by a growl. A tawny cub appeared. It opened its maw sideways, ferocious and adorable at the same time. She didn’t recognize this as one of the talking bears, although her mother would have known. “Do you speak?”

The bear shook its head, an action that might have been comical if it didn’t then charge her and clamp down on her forearm. Through Silya’s terror she heard her name bouncing off the walls, low, watery, urgent, mingling with her cry of pain. The cub jerked its head, tearing through leather and cloth, but leaving her with only a superficial wound.

“Silya.” From behind her, louder now. She turned to find a woman, the warden, who held a gun pointed in the direction of the departing bear. She turned the gun on Silya. “Are you Silya?”

“Yes.”

“Come with me.”

Silya followed the woman out of the cave, and the whispers of her name amongst other murmurs followed them. As they walked toward a jeep with two more wardens, Silya noticed the muzzles of the guns aimed at her. “Am I under arrest?”

“Why are you on a first name basis with these bears?” the first warden asked as she helped Silya into the jeep and spread apart the edges of her wounded jacket. The other wardens leaned in, nodding, the brims of their hats tapping.

“Have you found Jumar . . . I mean, have you rescued the person trapped by the bears?”

A warden cleaned her arm, wrapped it. “Not yet. Can you really converse with them? We were told they only mimic speech.”

“I have spoken to them before,” she admitted. In normal circumstances the admission would get her kicked out of the university. “They never answered intelligibly. But I will try again.”

#

The wardens offered her a helmet with a mask. The grill cage looked too much like fangs, so she refused. “You’ll be with me, so I won’t need it,” Silya explained, pointing at the woman’s gun. The puppet lines of the warden’s mouth deepened but she waved Silya to stay close to her as they entered the main cave. A man with a microphone was saying to a camera, “The number one threat—” Flashes and shouts drowned out the rest, but as soon as Silya and the warden were inside, a stench of rotting fruit and ursine urine made smell the primary sense, so that sound no longer mattered. Jumar’s shredded backpack taunted them. They stepped around the strewn contents, Bit-O-Honey wrappers, keys and an orange inhaler, and moved into darkness. Huff-huff noises bounced at them.

The warden held the rifle in one hand and put the other on Silya’s arm. She whispered in a knowledgeable tone, “They make that sound to warn you off.”

Pulling away and feeling along the mossy, clammy stones, Silya spoke to the darkness. “Do you know me?”

A pale snout, the ancient scars x-ed along it into a grotesque smile, entered the faint circle of light. This was Alana, or perhaps Dorie, from the first generation. The bear said, “Do you know the song of Silya?”

“Yes. Would you like me to sing it?”

The bear took another step. “The doctor will see you now.”

Silya sensed the warden behind her, raising the gun. She said to Alana or Dorie, “I’d like to see Jumar. Is he okay?”

“Trust me, this won’t hurt you.”

“I know that.” Silya decided to take the bear’s offer at face value and raised her foot, as if she might step around the bear. A metal clicking behind her made the bear look up. It showed bloodied teeth. “Is Jumar in there?”

The bear laughed. The sound was not the sneezing her mother had described but it wasn’t an imitation of the researcher’s either. It was a new sound, and yet a clear sound of amusement.

The bear lunged. The warden’s rifle was quicker and the bear fell. With her ears ringing Silya asked, “Did you kill her?”

“Only stunned, but if I have to shoot her again, the dose would be lethal. Hurry.” Silya felt along the cold wall, stepping from moss to something slick and crunchy. Bones. “Jumar?” Silence. Silya moved fast, letting her palm on damp stone be a guide.

She started to sing, “Little bear little bear, are you alone there?” Her voice cracked and she swallowed hard. “I’m sending my daughter to visit your lair. Silya, we call her—”

Silya. Silya. Silya. Sibilance echoed all around, drowning out her voice. Silya’s eyes had grown accustomed to the dark but the warden was no longer behind her, had not been for some time now.

Jumar’s body leaned against the stone wall. His smiling eyes didn’t seem to notice the rest of his face had been chewed off. From behind her a bear said, “No words in there. We checked the Wernicke’s.” It laughed, that new talking bear chortle, and was joined by others. They moved around her, sniffing, some of them humming like her father had. A cub rolled back and forth, holding its feet. “Silya,” it said, “do you know how the song of Silya ends?”

For an instant Silya was at a loss for words. The bears had always spoken in sentences that mimicked the researchers who had worked with them; this was the first time one had spoken an independently intelligent question. Communication was the key. If she could teach the bears to speak they could speak for themselves and make their own case for a place in the world. The bears herded her closer to the fire, into its light, where words from flesh became meaning.

photolinguistics

come, sit on the mountain, and

watch us speak to the stars.

 

their language is

morse code and phasic shifts;

we paint in roads and villages

and the hum of high-voltage

transformers, we murmur

in street lamps and stadiums

and the ill-mannered leak

of a window.

 

like shouting through high wind,

we are veiled

by clouds and magnetic storms and

the jealous glare of our sun

 

but the earth is

a glimmering bauble, and

our hands will bedeck her

with light.

Wash’ashore Plastics Museum

From the dock, the sandbar across the bay looked awash with shipwreck survivors dragging themselves from the surf. It was low tide. The bay was a mirror of sky reflecting off the green Atlantic. Corin guided his Boston Whaler through the shallows, hoping to ferry the stranded back to shore. He already called 911 and the Coast Guard. Their nearest boat was an hour out.

It was mid-May. Salt spray kicked up from the boat’s prow. As Corin approached, he noticed the bleached white bodies were fixed in odd poses, hands on hips, rigid, fingers extended towards the sky. Some were inhumanly thin. Others were muscled like bodybuilders. Corin throttled down with the realization. They were mannequins, the same as any other debris ferried down the coast on the Gulf Stream.

Cutting the engine, he nosed into shore.

Corin gathered the mannequins like kindling, stacking each in the boat’s bow. He returned for five trips. It was impossible to fit them all in one go. He couldn’t leave any behind for someone else to mistake for disaster.

#

“What will you do with them?” the EMT asked, his ambulance parked on the overgrown lawn in front of the museum. The man had already radioed in to cancel the approaching rescue boats.

“Add them to the collection,” Corin said, arranging mannequins outside the back door. “Not sure where they came from. They’ve got manufacturer’s engravings on their heels, but I don’t recognize the country, or city, or wherever it is.”

“That’s weird,” the EMT replied. Every local knew what Corin did for work. “What’s it say?”

“Made in Binnsend. Could be European or some place they colonized. That doesn’t narrow it down much.”

“Could you let me know when you figure it out?”

“Sure,” Corin said, positioning the last mannequin in the sprawling crowd. There were over thirty. Corin couldn’t fit them all in the showroom. The renovated cottage serving as Corin’s Wash’ashore Plastics Museum was already cramped, the original pine flooring buckling under displays and dioramas. Every wall hung heavy with debris sifted from the surf.

Once the ambulance pulled away, Corin selected the least worn mannequin and hefted it through the back door. Inside the museum, the air was cool. The cottage was built in the 1800s by his great-great-great grandfather and always felt damp.

With the mannequin cradled under his arm, Corin moved through the display section, past objects that ran aground on nearby beaches. There were yellow rubber ducks and children’s pastel-blue swimming pools, Halloween masks and comic book action figures, life vests, lipstick tubes, and an entire jar of plastic tampon applicators.

The more common detritus was heaped together in aesthetically arranged piles, color coordinated in a rainbow spectrum. The countless straws and plastic soda bottles, the jellyfish-like plastic bags and cigarette filters. He had constructed a Christmas tree out of buoys and fishing line, had built a human skeleton from discarded running shoes. People came for the oddities, but the everyday objects, paired with statistics, were the real educators. The back wall was painted with a mural of the globe. Red and blue arrows traced coastlines, marking major and minor currents. Beneath he listed which carried the most plastic, which deposited the most on the ocean floor.

With his free hand, Corin opened the door to his work space. A dim computer screen cast a glow around itself. The rest of the room was left in darkness. He stood the mannequin beside his crowded desk and flipped on the overheads. The room was nothing but metal shelves of organized plastic, all labeled and cataloged. A single desk stood at its center.

Corin typed the name Binnsend into the search bar. No accurate results appeared. Pieces on raising reptiles and reconnecting with lost friends filled the screen. He altered the search, adding country names and continents, plastic plants and manufacturing hubs. Still nothing. As he pulled a world atlas from his overflowing bookcases, his door flung open.

“Can I have one?” Beth asked.

“Not yet. I need to do research first,” Corin replied, dropping the atlas.

“On all of them?”

“Well, yeah. Who knows if one’s different from the rest.”

Beth, Corin’s wife, operated an art gallery on the far edge of the property. While Corin displayed statistics and educational warnings, Beth made plastic debris into art, mostly sculptures and mosaics constructed from single-use items and bottle caps. Occasionally she carved portraits into disposable cooler foam or Styrofoam take-out containers. Her jewelry sold well. She wore a pair of crescent moon earrings cut from an old flip phone. Her blonde hair was held back by a black bandana.

“Why? Are you afraid I’ll get all the foot traffic?” Beth asked, leaning against the doorframe. It was their usual joke of feigned rivalry.

Nearly three times the number of visitors passed through the art gallery’s doors each summer as they did Wash’ashore Plastic. Both had door counters in their entrance ways. There was no arguing attendance. Corin didn’t debate reasons one was favored over the other. He knew people liked beauty, the clean aesthetic art brought to trash. His raw, almost unfathomable data, turned viewers off. People didn’t like to confront the problem they added to. People did like to buy bottle cap portraits and jellyfish statues. It funded the majority of the couples’ joint venture.

“No. That’s not it. If I break them up, who knows what I’ll miss. The process should be easy. They’ve got manufacturer’s marks. If you go and grind one down to make beer coasters, I could lose something,” Corin said, flipping through the atlas. He ran his finger down the index at the back, searching for Binnsend. It wasn’t listed amongst the B’s.

“You really think one’s going to be that important?” Beth asked. “I’ll keep it intact and use it as a display.”

“Please, just leave them where they are. I’ll figure this out in a week. Two tops. After that you can take as many as you want.”

“Good. There’s no way you’d fit them all in here anyway,” Beth said, waving a hand towards the showroom.

“You never know, people might pay to look through the windows of a cabin stuffed with mannequins.”

“Very voyeuristic.”

“If it gets people talking, I’d be willing to show more than just mannequins,” Corin joked.

“I don’t think that would further the message you’re going for, Corin.”

“Hey, you never know,” Corin said. “People love a good spectacle for the sake of distraction.”

#

Corin was wrong. In a week, he uncovered little information on Binnsend. After two weeks, his notes were mostly blank, the few lines scribbled down crossed out in black pen. He spent his mornings researching the mannequins. Years ago, he would have been shellfishing at such an hour, but a slipped disk in his lower back forced early retirement. In the afternoon he acted as a docent in the museum, leading tourists through his displays, lingering before the current map, explaining how plastic affects the habitats of seahorses, turtles, and other marine life.

Corin traced his finger along the line for the Gulf Stream running up the Eastern seaboard.

“The Gulf Stream deposits most of the plastic I scoop up, but the Labrador current coming down from Greenland also plays a part,” Corin said.

A little kid, tucked beneath his mother’s arm, raised his hand.

“What can I do for you?” Corin asked with a smile.

“What about the other arrows?” the kid asked. “Where does their trash go?”

The map had over thirty currents outlined.

“Well, the simple answer is everywhere. Even though most of our plastic is carried by two currents, you also have the South Equatorial flowing into the Caribbean, then up around Florida. But it’s possible for something to be dropped into the California Current and make its way here,” Corin said, indicating several arrows moving along Antarctica and up the coast of Africa.

“So this stuff could come from anywhere?” the boy asked, pointing to the discarded shoe skeleton.

“Basically, yes. Every year eight million tons of plastic makes its way into the ocean. It comes from every continent. Most are single-use items only used for a few minutes before being thrown away,” Corin said, reciting his environmental pitch. “That’s why it’s important we move away from using things like plastic forks or disposable coffee cups. We use them for a minute, then they clog our waters forever. Doesn’t seem worth it.”

The young boy nodded enthusiastically as his mother tucked a ninety-nine cent coffee behind her back.

The group of tourists thanked Corin after he answered a question about a giant plastic squid that floundered ashore from Japan, then moved off on their own, inspecting other plastic oddities. While Corin stood next to the entrance, waiting for a hoped-for follow-up, the door opened, nearly catching his shoulder. Beth burst in, dirty blond hair flowing behind her. An outrageous necklace made of braided fishing line and dulled fishing hooks clinked against one another around her neck.

“You need to look at this,” she said, lassoing an arm around Corin’s waist, dragging him towards the door.

“I’ve got visitors,” he said, gesturing to the tourists.

“They’re not going to steal anything,” Beth replied, pulling harder.

“What if they have questions?”

Beth looked over the people standing around the glass display cases. “Does anyone have any final questions?”

A chorus of Nopes and All sets greeted her.

Corin let Beth escort him out of the room, into the early summer air. The humid season was just beginning. She led him across the grass dividing her gallery from his museum, towards the water. The two buildings sat on a clear-cut hill that dropped down to a rock strewn beach and the dock where Corin’s boat was moored. It was low tide again. The smell of swamp gases and decaying marine life rose on the wind. She refused to tell him what she had seen as they walked.

“Tell me it’s a mermaid,” Corin said.

“Don’t be a perv,” Beth replied, whacking his arm.

As they drew near, Corin could see that it wasn’t a mermaid, or anything else he hoped for. The bleached bodies of another twenty mannequins crowded the same sandbar as before. Their poses were different, less laid back and casual, more aggressive in their gesticulations. As Beth’s sandals flapped against the dock’s damp boards, he noted flexed arms and running strides half submerged in sand. They paused at the end of the dock, squinting into the sunlight reflecting in silver crescents off the waves.

“Since I found them first, I get one,” Beth said.

“Fine. You’re helping me move them though,” Corin replied, descending into his Boston Whaler. The boat rocked under his weight.

“Why didn’t these show up with the first load?” Beth asked, unfastening the mooring lines.

“There’s a million possibilities. Maybe some got snagged somewhere. Maybe they fell into the ocean later. Maybe someone’s messing with me. Take your pick,” Corin said, starting the engine.

“Hopefully it’s not the last one,” Beth called over the motor. She joined him on the boat’s deck, sitting on the bench spanning the middle of the fiberglass hull. Corin brought the boat to full throttle and skipped along the shallows. The water at low tide was no deeper than five feet. It took less than a minute to nose onto the bar’s sandy edge.

Together they filled the boat with mannequins, fighting the muddy suck of sand while loosening their bodies from the ground. The first thing Corin did when he laid a mannequin down was check its heel. On each, he found the engraving Made in Binnsend.

“I want this one,” Beth said, holding up a female mannequin, her hands on her hips, leaning forward as if questioning an audience.

“Works for me,” Corin replied. “She’s all yours.”

With the last of the mannequins loaded onto the boat, Corin helped Beth settle down into a nest of plastic limbs. He pushed them off of the bar, soaking the edge of his shorts, before heading back to the dock. He’d have to add the new arrivals to the pale throng behind the museum. There wasn’t much room left before they spilled around the corner, coming into view from the parking lot. He didn’t want that. Didn’t want questions without answers. Beth’s mannequin lay across her lap. One less I have to store, Corin thought. He contemplated offering up more, but couldn’t stand the idea of handing over a crucial subject.

#

Every morning, before opening Wash’ashore’s doors, Corin went down to the dock to check if more mannequins washed up during the night. He thought of the trips as a way to clear his head before research. A few minutes alone in nature, the lap of waves, the flutter of birds skimming the shallows. Some days he found nothing. On others, he found entire mannequin families beached on the sand bar. Occasionally, a single white hand would emerge from the surf, but the bodies usually arrived in groups. Corin felt he was spending more time retrieving their bodies than researching them. The bulging disc in his back ached. Over the next month, he added fifty-three mannequins to the herd behind the museum. It was impossible to shield them from the public who flocked to the arrangement of barnacle-crusted models. Corin made up a sign. It looked the same as the others posted around the museum. It read Mannequins. Unknown Origin.

The questions he feared came in every day. He gave the same answers.

“Still haven’t found the place,” he’d say to tourists and locals. “Come back next week. Maybe I’ll have a better idea then.”

And they did come back. People visited the museum in record numbers to view the mannequins. Local news channels ran Corin’s story. The papers interviewed other experts on plastics and ocean currents. None of them could offer further answers, which only brought more viewers from neighboring states.

“Maybe I shouldn’t find the answer,” Corin said to Beth over dinner one night.

She laughed. “That would literally annoy you until you d
e.”

“I know. I just can’t believe I haven’t found anything. I’ve emailed college professors and librarians, map makers, and archivists. No one’s heard of the place. I’m starting to think it doesn’t exist.”

“Or maybe they’re from more than one place, you know, Frankensteined together” Beth offered, cutting into her veggie burger.

“Still doesn’t explain the manufacturer’s mark.”

#

“Have you ever seen anything like this before?” Corin asked a professor from Harvard visiting the museum. He asked the same questions of everyone with a remotely scientific background: faculty from UMass, geographers from Syracuse who stepped through the museum’s door, molecular engineers. Ever heard of Binnsend? Have you ever located an unknown territory? Have you seen this mark before?

Corin arranged the mannequins around the museum’s front lawn, some in clusters, others by themselves. They looked deep in conversation, laughing over a shared joke, ranting to the sky, pleading with those around to listen. Some seemed joyous in the tilt of their spine. Others looked pained from the slant of their shoulders. Two lay on the ground, their legs eaten out from beneath them by jetty rocks or the ocean floor. Families moved through the exhibit, examining their bleached pigment. Corin left one laying on a table, heel raised so people could see the markings on the foot. Binnsend.

“Sounds like an old English industrial town,” said a freckled woman from Oxford. “That’s not it, though. Not quite. Binnend. It’s missing the S. It was an old oil town that went under. Lots of refineries, but no production factories. I think it might have fallen into the sea.”

The professor pointed to the region of England where the town once stood on the display map. Of course Corin had heard of the place. It came up in every search result, but the woman was the first to note it. He’d researched the town for weeks, searching for mentions of mannequin factories, or any sort of factory for that matter, inside the town. No matter how much he wanted it to be the place, there was nothing. It hadn’t been misspelled.

“Did she find your town?” Beth asked after the woman and her family left.

“Close but no cigar,” Corin replied.

“Sorry to hear that. How many did you add today?” Beth asked, helping Corin move a pair of muscle-bound mannequins to the edge of the display.

“Fifteen.”

“How’s it possible they keep showing up and no one’s heard of this place?”

“Well, something is manufactured in India, stitched together in Taiwan, sent to Moldova to be dyed, then passed along to Spain for packaging. Maybe Binnsend is somewhere in between like you said, some stop we haven’t heard of.”

Corin imagined the sunken city of Binnend, Atlantis-like beneath the waves. Rows of barnacle-stuck factories churned out endless plastic bodies, the continual grind of cogs and gears unaffected by submergence. Waterlogged houses were plastered with seaweed and six-pack racks alike, families of crabs hunkering in eaves. Their rusting infrastructure was so congested with trash that sank from above, odd aquatic survivors sought revenge, letting their own manufactured junk float to land, to remind everyone of who they had been, the mistakes they made and continued making.

But Corin’s waking dreams were rarely accurate.

Corin knew there were probably books he couldn’t acquire and experts he couldn’t contact on the subject. His resources had been exhausted. He’d traced everything from Nikes to life-size Dracula figurines.

Only the mannequins defied identification. Their bodies arranged along the unkempt lawn mirrored the statistics he taught on tours, their overwhelming presence a visual interpretation of the tons of plastic collecting in ocean gyres.

“It’s like I said. You should never rule out a possibility,” Beth added. “That’s how I make art. Endless possibilities. Otherwise, you’re restricted and everything becomes contrived.”

“You’re right,” Corin replied. “I have no idea where these things come from.”

“What do you think of this?” Beth asked, stepping aside from a pairing of mannequins she manipulated. They were sensually bent together, hips interlocked, pelvises brushing. Next to them, on the lawn nearby, she laid a baby mannequin, one of the more recent additions to the collection.

“Plastic begets plastic?”

“Good title. We can work with that.”

“A little crass though.”

“People like crass,” she replied, stepping away from her work.

#

Corin guided his Boston Whaler on its usual route from dock to sandbar. He could see through the dissipating mist only four mannequins hung up that morning. Thank God, he muttered, rubbing his lower back. The day before it had been forty-three. The largest gathering yet. Some of them had been odd; extra limbs, a third arm, two heads, tails and wings, mythic appendages he could barely fathom. He piled the four relatively normal mannequins in the boat’s bow. One had a stunted arm, but that was tame compared to the previous collection.

He headed the boat upwind, cutting through the surf.

Corin hauled the bodies up the slope towards the museum, which was now completely ringed by the bleached models, naked in the early morning fog. They resembled photographs of galaxies, each body a star orbiting the central hub of the building, the building few people entered anymore. They only came for the mannequins, their own likenesses reflected in the thousands, strewn about, representations of what they didn’t want to acknowledge in themselves, but couldn’t ignore any longer.

The mannequins were only there because people wanted to see them, wanted them to exist. They were like the other garbage people subsisted on, the tenth pair of running shoes, the seven straws to match their seven drinks at the bar, iPhone packaging. Part of Corin wondered if it was their desire that dragged the mannequins out of the ocean. Part of him still hoped there was a place on a forgotten map somewhere called Binnsend, the sunken city ever churning.

He continued to ask visitors if they heard of the country, but their answers never changed.

He was surprised to find an ambulance parked at the top of the grassy incline, idling, the lights mute. The blue uniformed EMT he had met when he first mistook the mannequins for drowning victims moved through the gathered forms. Corin figured another false alarm had brought the paramedic away from the station.

The man stopped here and there, noting arrangements, laughing at the sexual couple, the onlooker turning away from the ranting preacher.

“So did you find an answer?” the EMT asked Corin after he offloaded the newest acquisitions.

“No. I mean, if you pulled out a map, I can’t point to a specific place,” Corin replied.

“That’s surprising.”

“Yeah, I was pretty disappointed at first, but I’ve gotten used to the idea of not knowing.”

“Well, at least they aren’t in the ocean anymore.”

“There’s always that.”

The EMT nodded, checked the radio clipped to his belt, and looked off across the field of mannequins.

“Do you mind if I look around for a bit even though you’re closed?” the EMT asked.

“No worries,” Corin replied. “It’s not like you’re disturbing anyone. Spend the day, or come back tomorrow, or the next day. I’m sure more will show up.”

“Hope you don’t run out of space,” the EMT said, walking off through the naked bodies. He was the only dark shape among the white models, pausing momentarily to admire their design, before moving off across the hill. The edge of the group was still far off beyond the museum, bodies drifting back towards the water and the endless pull of the current and the sandbar beyond, empty for the moment.

Corin doubted that would last long.

when the coral copies our fashion advice

bleach blonde was the look of the summer: 

colorless skeleton of polyps and aging fish spines.

rocks smoothly slate gray as salt water

grinds it down; it had no algal coat to protect and

nourish, no obsidian shelled mussels hanging off

the edges, beating themselves to the rhythm of the tide.

 

the moon rises and so the tide flows, warming waves

crashed, blue hypoxic seafoam gurgled a last 

lament. when the seagull cried out for the last time,

it took the flock with it. once upon a time,

if you cupped blue with spread out fingers, either sky

or sea, you could observe life teeming in between your knuckles.

 

you can’t help but paint old histories in pink watercolors:

take the brush, cover the blemishes, brighten the hues,

you don’t know what parts are real and which parts you wish were.

 

a truth: bleach blonde did not stay after summer. girls found their hair

was too crackly, brittle from constant treatment. we started

thinking maroon silk was better than sulphureous wires stuck

to scalps with elmer’s glue. life breeds life, their hair was already dead

but the reef still clung like a damsel in distress. if it was rapunzel,

it would’ve let down its hair for anyone, if only they’d climb the tower.

 

you replant a polyp, a seedling you nurtured to life, it is its

time to fledge. you lace your fingers together and

cautiously peer into the snowglobe you have shaken back to life:

 

tangs so bright they turn chartreuse

at noon, cinnabar anemones with squirming tentacles,

emerald seagrass plush to the touch. tilt your head, 

and see the terns circling, wide white wings casting shade

as a warning. they are the most polite predators

 

you think you have ever seen; when smog clogged 

city streets and winter air turned tepid, we sent

no heads-up: perhaps this might be your last century;

best prepare your trembling lungs, your hummingbird hearts, bleached

platinum is our new gold. painting the color back into

coral’s white skeleton is our apology. we try so the message we 

never sent will not come 

true.

A Song Born

I.

What do the ravenous settlers know of faith? Praying on their knees under wooden roofs, without the wind on their cheeks and the sky over their heads, away from the roar of the rivers and the whispers of the leaves? How much is their faith worth when they persecute and murder for a metal cross, in the name of someone who never joins them in song nor dance?

No. Water is not to be walked on, just as mountains are not to be swum in.

 

April 1695

Finnmark, Norway

Despite his mother’s orders, Kvive ran out onto the snow-covered lake. The warming weather of April had turned the snow on top of the ice to sludge, and the flat light from the overcast sky of clouds turned the world in front of him to a carpet of whitish-grey, where you couldn’t tell where the lake ended, and the sky began. 

Kvive had snowmelt to his shins as he ran, a spray of water in his wake.

“Eatni!” he yelled to his mother as he ran. “Look, it’s safe! Imagine the time we can sa—” His words turned to a shriek as he fell into a frozen crevice on the lake. The flat light removed all shadows, so he didn’t notice the drop before it was too late.  

He landed on his stomach. Stretched out like a starfish he gasped for breath on the thin and dark sheet of ice, and the right side of his face pounded with pain. Lines like broken glass shot in every direction from his body and the ice groaned beneath his weight, like old limbs stretching.

Web-like circles ruptured in the ice under the weight of his hands and knees as he tried to raise himself up, and with a crack his arms breached through the ice into the freezing water.

“Oh, biru!” he said.

And with another and louder crack, the entire sheet of ice burst and Kvive fell into the dark water.

He gasped for air as the cold weighed down on his chest. Every breath was a fight and he trashed and flailed as he gulped water until his thick clothes of reindeer fur and skin pulled him under.

Through the ice above, he saw dark silhouettes move when people gathered around the crevice. Some—stripped of their clothes—jumped into the water, but he had sunk too deep for anyone to reach him.  

His screams turned to fist-sized bubbles as the light of the crevice got smaller and smaller as he sank towards the bottom. Kvive held his breath, his lungs burning, even though he knew this was it. This was how he died. His body would never be recovered, and his mother would cry each year they moved their herd over the lake, and his body would still rest at the bottom, the flesh picked away from his bones by fish and other creatures.

He looked up towards the light one last time, before he prepared to take a deep breath, to let the lake fill him, and let the depths claim him.  

Then he heard a whisper, and a hum vibrated from the bottom; the faint and intimate sound of someone speaking close to his ear, and tiny bubbles floated past Kvive towards the surface.

Free your soul, the voice said.

The whisper and hum clung to his body even closer than his wet clothes.

Kvive did as the voice said, at least his best attempt at it. He closed his eyes and let his limbs fall loose; his arms and legs trailed behind him as he gave himself to the lake.

Eventually the tiny bubbles from the bottom pushed him from the deep and up towards the light. But whether it was the light the priests would preach about, or the crevice in the ice, Kvive couldn’t tell, and he didn’t care. Both were better than the bottom of the lake.

Free your soul, the voice whispered again, you’re still too heavy.

How? Kvive asked inside his mind.

Let go.

Kvive gave in to his instincts, and his lungs took the deep breath they had been craving. The dark and freezing lake filled his body, and his chest burned with pain as everything turned to black.

#

Kvive fell in and out of consciousness as his lungs emptied themselves of water. His chest burned, and he couldn’t see a thing, but he felt the warm and familiar comfort of being swaddled in thick reindeer furs.

Everything, and everyone around him, were quiet, only the trees rustled as the wind moved through the pine forest.

Then he heard his mother, “Oh, my little—” But a man interrupted her.  

Shh, or you’ll scare away the small sliver of life that remains in his body,” the man whispered.

“Can I at least remove the blindfold?” she whispered back.

“No, his soul is still on a knife-edge between this world and the other. We must warm up his body before we remove it. Get a reindeer, make an incision behind its shoulder blade and let the blood pour into a waterskin. Quickly!”

Kvive had no sense of time as he fell in and out of consciousness, and without the ability to see, he wasn’t sure where he was, or if he was dead or alive.

Eventually someone raised his head and pushed a waterskin against his lips, and a thick and warm liquid was poured into his mouth. Kvive choked on the blood, and the waterskin was taken away. This process happened several times until he must have emptied the waterskin.

Beside him his mother mumbled a prayer.

“Eatni,” Kvive said weakly, “am I alive?”

“Yes, my dumb and reckless little boy,” his mother answered. “He says you’re going to live. Thank God for that.”

“I . . . I just wanted to help . . . we’d save so much time crossing the lake.” Kvive fell asleep, but his chest didn’t burn, and he no longer felt cold.

#

The second thing a Sami learns was that the siida—a nomadic community of families—moves only as fast as its slowest member, and it is up to the stronger and healthier members to help the weaker ones keep up the pace. That said, it wasn’t unusual that the elders that were too old and fragile to keep up with the ráidu—the line of people and gelded reindeers and wooden sleds—were left behind to die alone in the snow.   

Because the first thing a Sami learns is that the reindeer herd always comes first—even though you almost drowned in a lake the day before.

Kvive had known thirteen of these migrations, six completely on foot and skis, and they didn’t get any less backbreaking as he grew, nor did the blisters on his feet and hands—or the frostnip on his cheeks—stop emerging, even as his skin got thicker. He was always wet and cold and tired.

One day had passed since his miraculous swim back to the surface, and Kvive already drudged in the deep snow on his skis. Above him, greenfinches teased him from the sky as they flew and sang. He wished he were one of them; their migration seemed so easy.

The siida rushed towards the snow-free calving grounds for their reindeer herd near the coast; they had to be there before the middle of May before the reindeer cows started giving birth.

But at least he had Sara to share the long and tiring way with.

“Don’t you sometimes wish you knew how to fly?” Kvive asked Sara.

She was a girl the same age as him, and they had lived together their entire lives.

“Fly?” Sara asked. “Where’s the fun in that? How would our parents torture us then if we could just fly away? Besides, a dumb boy like yourself would probably get himself killed against the trunk of a tree if given wings.”

“Now, hold on—” Kvive started.

“Running across a lake in the middle of April, without even a pole to test the ice with.” She shook her head.

“I just wanted to help. I am a man now, and I should be with the other men and the herd. Instead, I’m stuck here with the mossbacks and you women and those damned sleds.”

“What do you mean, you women?”

“Don’t twist my words like you always do.”

“I can tell you one thing,” she said and poked Kvive with her wooden ski pole. “No woman would ever run out on the ice like a bull in heat and almost drown herself.”

“Quit fooling around both of you,” Sara’s mother snapped, “go help your mother at the back. It’s getting dark and we still have a way to go.”

Due to Kvive’s attempt at crossing the ice, the siida had wasted a day beside the lake. The April air was getting warmer, but a thick carpet of white still covered the ground, only punctured by tall pine trees stretching to the sky. They raced the weather, and they moved from sunrise to sunset trying to outrace spring.

The past years they would have crossed the lake, but in the past years they would have arrived at the lake much earlier. The siida moved slower because the church had arrested every Sami they suspected of blasphemy. Every siida had lost people, but probably none more than Kvive’s. It didn’t make any sense of course. What other religions were there? It seemed more like another attempt to punish the Sami, for being Sami. 

“Eatni, can’t I ride in the sled, just for a little while?” Kvive asked his mother after he had helped her get one of the sleds free from the deep snow. He had after all almost drowned the day before.

“And tire the animal that’s pulling what we need to survive?” Around his mother’s neck, tucked into the gietkka—a hollowed-out cradle of wood, lined with moss and pelts—his little brother cried. “Just be glad you’re not behind with the herd, watching for wolves like your father.” She rocked the gietkka. “Or lying in your own piss like your brother.”

“I wish I was behind with the herd,” Kvive said.

“Hah, you think you do. You should thank God me and your father have not been blessed with more children, or you’d be there, and your younger sibling would be helping me here. You think this is hard work? Hah!”

“But do we have to hurry so much, the weather is getting warmer anyways . . . .”

His mother sighed. “What happens when the snow is warm, like it is now, and then the weather gets cold?”

“It gets hard.”

“Exactly, it turns to cuoŋu. The kind of snow that will cut your hand if you fall, the kind of snow that will hinder the reindeer from reaching the lichen they eat, the kind of snow that makes it easier for wolves and wolverines to stalk our herd.”

Kvive’s mother looked up at the darkening sky. “Not to mention how dark the nights are. Your father and the other men are already struggling to keep the herd safe without being able to see their own feet in front of them.”

Kvive didn’t respond; he always knew when a conversation with his mother was over.

A man snickered from behind.

“What are you laughing—” Kvive started. It was the old man that had been travelling with their siida. He had been with them since they started moving the herd from the permanent winter pasture inland, but Kvive had never talked with him; especially not after he had learned he was the one who poured fresh reindeer blood in his mouth and tied a blindfold around his eyes.

He had a dark-tanned and coarse face, from half a life inside the smoky lavvu, and the other half outside in the sun and snow, with deep furrows whipped forth by wind and hail and piss-freezing cold. A reindeer trotted beside the old man. It didn’t pull anything, and all it carried was an oval leather bag. It was the only animal he owned; an ungelded bull older than seven years, a nammaláhppu. His coat was white as snow, except for his brown beard and black hooves. They never used a nammaláhppu as a draft animal because they were impossible to tame, but the old man seemed to have complete control of the animal.

The old man laughed again.

“Lost your words, boy? It’s your voice that loses a language first, but I hope you still have it in your mind,” he said, tapping his temple.

Kvive ignored the old man and his reindeer, which seemed to be amused as well.

#

Three days later, the warning of Kvive’s mother came true. Winter had its last freezing breath of life before giving in to spring, and the soft snow turned to cuoŋu—the kind that will cut you if you fall.

It forced the siida to quicken its pace even more, and they moved long after the sun had set. And worst of all, it hindered Kvive from seeing Sara. She thought of him as just a boy, and he wanted to prove to her that he was a man, but that’s hard when you are stuck behind in the ráidu, taking care of your little brother and helping your mother.

Instead, walking behind Kvive was the old man, who must be dim-witted. Apart from his blindfold and blood nonsense, the old man had been whispering in his reindeer’s ear and laughing, frowning, or nodding, as if it answered, the entire day.

“Why are you talking with it for?” Kvive finally asked, unable to ignore the old man any longer. “They are too stupid to understand human language, you know.”

The old man smiled at Kvive, like he had been waiting for him to say something.

“First of all,” he said, “he’s not an ‘it’. His name is Gappas.” The reindeer nuzzled his hairy snout in the old man’s neck at the sound of his name.

“That’s forbidden, you know,” Kvive said, “using Sami names. And an unoriginal one as well, naming it after the colour of its coat.”

They were not allowed to take Sami names, not that there were any Sami names for humans.

“Oh,” the old man laughed. “I didn’t name him.”

Before Kvive could respond, the old man spoke again. “Do you know how the first reindeer came to this earth, Guivi?” Again, he didn’t wait for a response.

“Before Beaivi—the father of everything that lives and grows—shone on this earth, it was a world without light or living things. Just a barren rock enveloped in darkness, like a pebble inside your fist. And as he blessed us with his light, the lichen our herd are dependent on grew, the pine and birch trees that surround us reached for the skies, and the places we fish from filled up with water. But there was nothing there to graze on what he grew, nothing to take cover beneath the trees from the snow and rain, and nothing to drink from the waters and rivers. So, on his rays of sunshine, the first herd of reindeer migrated to this world.”

“But as the herd grew, all the lichen disappeared, so he sent down other animals to keep the balance. Wolves, bears, eagles, and wolverines. And when the scales tipped to the other side again, he sent us, the Sami. To control and protect the herds and thus, restoring the balance.”

If the old man wasn’t dim-witted, he at least was a lunatic. Kvive knew his religion as well as any other boy his age, and it was God, the father of Jesus, who had made everything, and made man—even the Sami—after his own image. Despite no paintings of Jesus looking like any Sami he knew. In fact, there’s no mention of any reindeer in the Bible to the best of his knowledge, but he knew all animals boarded Noah’s ark.

“Okay . . . old man,” Kvive said, “can you ask your sun-god to help us make the night less dark and the snow less cold?”  

The old man looked at Kvive with pity.

“Don’t be sad about the moonless nights, or the sharp snow, Guivi. They are all there to keep the balance. If you want to blame someone, blame the ravenous settlers. It is them who killed our gods by forcing us to forget, and it is them who forced a new god on us that doesn’t know our land or our people. And it is them who have stolen our best pastures and taxed us to beggars. Again, the scales are unbalanced, and I’m afraid there is little Beaivi, or any of our other gods can do. No, in the end, this will be our fight.”

Kvive couldn’t challenge the old man’s point about the settlers. Despite his young years, the frustration from his parents around the fire in the lavvu at night was unmistakable.

“Who are you?” Kvive asked. “Who are you really? They say you told everyone to shut up when I was unconscious, and then you talked about another world and poured blood in my mouth.”

The old man’s face fell.

“I have said too much. Run back to your mother now before she starts yelling at me as well,” he said.

Kvive started humming the song he had heard under the ice, under his breath, so only the old man could hear him.

The old man grasped his shoulders. “Are you trying to get us killed?” When the old man spoke, there was a shift in his voice; it resonated around him, like an echo bouncing off surrounding hills.

The sudden shift in manner made Kvive scamper back on his skis.

“Never do that again!” the old man said.

“But—” Kvive started.

“Never!”

#

Later that night there was a swift change in the weather. A warm wind from the south caught up with the siida, and in a day or two spring would be on its way proper, and the hard snow gone with it.  

But that’s not what woke Kvive up. A green light seeped through the smoke-hole of the lavvu, permeating the entire tent with its shine. Apart from the fading embers of the fire, it was the only light in the lavvu.

Kvive’s mother and little brother still slept, and his father would be sleeping with the herd and the other men. Kvive threw a couple of logs on the fire to keep it alive until the morning, then he cleaned the smoke of the lavvu from his eyes and sneaked outside.

The entire sky was awake. Large rivers of green and purple moved in the night sky like ribbons in the wind. You aren’t supposed to stare at the aurora—that’s how kids get lost—but Kvive couldn’t take his eyes off the spectacle.  

You could see as far as you could hear a dog bark. Every lavvu, even Sara’s at the other end, in the siida was visible; silver trails of smoke escaped towards the sky from the cone-like shelters dug into the snow.

The men watching the herd would have an easy time looking for predators and making sure parts of the herd wouldn’t get lost in the night.

Kvive had known the aurora for as long as he could remember, but never of this intensity in colour, extent in size, and animation in its movement.

Then he heard it. A rhythmic drumming, and the faint sound of a hum, like the one he heard under the ice. It came from the outskirts of the siida. From the old man’s lavvu.

Kvive walked towards the sounds.

Outside the lavvu—untethered—Gappas watched the sky, his normally black eyes now a vivid green.

“Hello?” Kvive whispered, but no one answered.

Kvive had to find out what was going on. The whisper and the hum he heard underneath the ice had never left his mind, and even though he didn’t remember how he got to the surface, the sounds he had heard felt as real to him as the ground beneath his feet.

He took a deep breath and pushed aside the flaps of canvas made from reindeer-skin and entered. On the inside it looked like any other lavvu, with its fire—now just embers—in the middle, with reindeer pelts circled around it.

The old man sat at the far end—where the father would sit if this were a family lavvu—cross-legged with a big and oval drum in his lap. The drum had red drawings of Samis fishing and hunting, reindeer grazing, and wolves, bears and wolverines. At the edges it had symbols depicting snow, rivers, mountains, and in the middle a big circle with rays around it, which had to be the sun.

The old man’s eyes were rolled back in his skull, and he gnashed his teeth as he moved his jaw back and forth. He hit his drum with a t-formed reindeer antler, and there was clanking from inside the drum. It sounded like pieces of metal.

Kvive turned to leave, hoping the old man hadn’t noticed him. This seemed like devilry, and a young and innocent soul like his was valuable to the devil.

“Stay,” the old man commanded. He stopped gnashing his teeth and his eyes rolled back to their normal brown, but he kept on drumming.

Then his hum transformed into singing. But not like any singing Kvive had ever heard; wordless sounds reverberated from the tip of his tongue, to the back of his mouth, and down to his chest.

Children of Beaivi, the old man sang.

Kvive looked up, and instead of the ceiling, the wide night sky stretched itself in every direction towards the horizon.

In the sky the aurora fluttered and danced to the sound of the old man’s voice and the beating of his drum. Kvive didn’t understand the sounds, but they grew in his chest, they danced inside his head, left a taste in his mouth, and they spoke in his ears.

Come,” a voice whispered. “Dance with us.” It wasn’t the same voice he had heard underneath the ice, but it felt the same, as if it came from both outside and within him.

“How?” Kvive asked.

Free your soul.

Kvive took a deep breath and closed his eyes, but nothing happened.

How? Kvive asked the voice.

Let go.

He took another deep breath, but he didn’t close his eyes this time. He arched backwards and his eyes rolled back like the old man’s as he gave in to his mind; which craved to leave, and like jumping in a lake, he left his body in the lavvu, and entered the sky.

From the sky the entire siida was visible, and its surrounding rivers, lakes, and mountains.

The old man wasn’t singing about the aurora—he sang the aurora itself. With his voice he made it dance and move, and he brought Kvive with him.

For the first time in weeks Kvive felt rested. He felt comfortable and safe, like sleeping in the gietkka tied to his mother’s shoulders and waist.  

The song grew in his chest, and it made him feel whole, like the song was a piece that had been missing; like filling your stomach when you are famished or drinking from a river when you are parched. Except, until now he had always had an aching hole in his chest, a drought in his throat, and a wanting in his soul.

Kvive’s body in the lavvu shook, and tears poured down his cheeks.

The old man stopped his drumming, and his song faded out. And like resurfacing from the lake, he was back to shivering in his own body, despite the warmth of the lavvu.

“What was that?” Kvive wept, his tears trailing in light streaks down his smoke-stained face.

“That was the aurora,” the old man answered. “They only show themselves in the night sky when the sun is strong. And today I asked Beaivi if he would be strong for your siida, and let his children dance for us. But I would have never imagined they’d let you dance with them . . . most peculiar.”

“Also,” the old man said and pointed a finger at Kvive, “you are incapable of doing what you’re told, aren’t you? But I suppose this was inevitable . . . .”

“What do you mean?” Kvive asked.

“You heard it once under the ice, and now your body and mind will never stop looking for it. That’s what brought only you here tonight, and no one else. Since you are bent on killing us, I suppose I have no other choice than to teach you before you do something really stupid.”  

Kvive nodded and brushed away his tears.

“What you heard was a joik. No Sami is whole without the joik in their life, just as no Sami is whole without the wind on their face, or their herd in front of them.”

“I want to learn,” Kvive said, “and how to use the drum.”

“The drum is a rune drum. But you are not ready to travel to the spirit world, nor talk with the gods. One does not call on the gods on a whim.”

Kvive’s face fell.

“But,” the old man said, holding up a finger. “I can teach you how to joik.”

Kvive nodded again, but his face wouldn’t smile even though he wanted to.

“But you must remember, Guivi,” the old man said, and his face darkened again, like it did the night before. “The joik is forbidden, and just being seen with a rune drum is punishable by death. Perhaps a few of the elders in your siida will have heard of the joik¸ but they will not speak of it. If the ravenous priests and settlers knew what happened here tonight, they’d burn the entire siida down, your parents and all.”

“Why do you call me Guivi?” Kvive asked. The old man had used that name many times now, and it had been nagging at him.

“Because Kvive is the bastardized and norwegianized version of your true name. Our true names are stolen, forbidden, and soon forgotten. And if the day comes when you reclaim your heritage and Sami soul, you will never want to go by the name given to you by your suppressors.”

“Are you sure you want this? Remember, not a word of this to anyone, about what we have talked about or what I have shown you. Not even to your mother or that girl you’re always chasing,” the old man said.  

“Yes,” Kvive answered, reaching out his hand. He could never go back to singing hymns under a wooden roof again.

“Then introductions are in order, Guivi,” the old man said, taking Kvive’s hand with both of his. “It is a pleasure to finally greet you, Guivi. I have seen how you act without thinking, I think we’ll become great friends. My name is Huika and I’m the last noaidi.”

II.

Before the ravenous settlers we had our paradise. A paradise we broke our backs for, blistered our hands for, tasted blood for.

It was the ravenous who invented sin in our life; in our joik, in our names, and now in our language. It was them who said paradise is preserved for the afterlife; an afterlife they would give us if we didn’t fight against their theft of our lands, our religion, and our song-filled souls.

We knew what blood tasted like, but it is them who showed us it was an iron cross. 

 

July 1695

Finnmark, Norway

The fickle weather of spring, with its bouts of rain, snow, and hail, had given way to summer, but life this far north was still rough, and getting caught in the harsh weather above the tree line could still mean your death. The days were never-ending, where the sun circled above your head, never setting. It was a trade the Sami did with the sun, because in the deep winter, the sun never rises for two moons.

The summer had been anything but prosperous for the herd. The weather had been unusually warm, and the insects thrived; they produced larvae in the reindeer’s nostrils, ate the fat in their eyes so they went blind, or dug into their backs which would result in their death when autumn came.

With insects like black clouds above them, the herd had fled higher up in the mountains where it was colder and windier, but where there is neither grass nor lichen for them to graze on. The frustration in the siida hung in the air like the smell of rotten meat. The settlers didn’t care how many animals they lost, they would demand the same amount of tax when winter came, nonetheless.

Kvive’s father and the other men were away for days trying to regain control of the herd. The herd, his father had explained him, is not something you can keep safe like a precious stone held in your fist. Herding a big flock is more like having a piece of ice in your palm; only with an open hand can you delay it from melting and pouring out over the sides. 

Huika had spent the summer near the coast showing Kvive how to do small rituals and sacrifices, and where to do them, and why you did them.

“See that?” Huika asked Kvive. They sat on a reindeer pelt laid on the ground, while Gappas grazed on the white lichen that surrounded them.

“Yes,” Kvive said. He watched Sara feed and talk with the gelded reindeers.

Huika sighed. “No, not Sara. Do we have to do this every day?”

Kvive would rather be watching Sara than listen to whatever Huika wanted to talk about today, probably another lecture about the god who lived beneath the fire. Kvive and Sara were like family, but then again not by blood. It wasn’t unusual that people in the same siida got together. That gave him hope.

“I’m talking about that!” Huika pointed to a couple of the elders in the siida who greeted the ground, as they exited the lavvu after waking up.

“Hello, mother ground and lands on which we live,” they said, pouring out the rest of their blood gruel, which they drank to wake up in the mornings.

Kvive nodded. This wasn’t new; it was something the elders did each year in the summer. Except they usually only did it at the beginning of summer, and not long into July. The herd was dependent on a successful summer, where the calves must eat and grow big enough in time for autumn.

“They have forgotten,” Huika said, after another cup of gruel was poured to the ground. “It is the gods they are pouring their blood out for. They are asking them to take care of the herd, to help the calves grow.”

“The gods? Like we’ve been doing?”

“Yes, but they don’t know why. The knowledge of why they do it died generations ago. But this custom survived. Besides, blood gruel won’t accomplish a task as big as helping an entire herd. That would require at least the sacrifice of a white calf at a sieidi.”

Before Kvive could ask, Huika explained. “An altar for offering. A place in nature that’s so beautiful they must have been shaped by the gods themselves. It can be anything. A forest, a boulder, even an entire mountain.”

Kvive knew about a place like that. He had taken Sara there a few times; a waterfall that always made a rainbow from its mist on sunny days.

“But we can help!” Kvive said. Even though they had arrived at summer pasture in time for the calves, he still felt bad for the incident at the lake. Besides, what was the point in learning these things if he couldn’t use it to help those he cared for?

“If only,” Huika answered, smiling sympathetically. “The things I have shown you are as far as I dare take it. Just the joik that we’re practicing is putting all our lives at risk. If the ravenous found out that this siida made an offer of anything, they’d be after our heads for paganism and blasphemy, and they wouldn’t stop chasing us until they executed the one responsible. You must know, Guivi. Me and you are to the best of my knowledge, the last who remember. And if we want to keep on remembering, we must be smart and stay alive, so that we can give away our knowledge, when the time is right.”

Kvive didn’t respond. All he wanted was to help his family and the siida. Autumn would be here soon, and then, the dark and deep winter.

#

Two days later, shouting in Norwegian roused the siida.

“Out from your tents!” a voice shouted. “Out, now!”

Kvive stirred on his reindeer pelt from the noise.

“Kvive!” His mother threw a lump of reindeer cheese at his head. “Kvive!”

“What—what is it?”

“Wash your eyes. I think a priest is here.” She threw a skin of water at him.

Kvive left the dark lavvu still rubbing smoke from his face.

The priest was the tallest man Kvive had ever seen. He wore a black cassock caked with mud, and a white collar. Dark and wavy hair reached him to the shoulders, and around his neck hung a silver cross. It wasn’t unusual that priests visited the siida’s—it was how the church kept the faith with the Sami as they moved their herds.

What was unusual was the armed soldiers behind him.

There were at least 20 of them, tall and pale men wearing black uniforms with silver buttons, with swords fastened to black leather belts. Except for one, who held an axe over his shoulder.

The priest spread his arms, the sleeves hanging like black wings, and he said, “I wish I were visiting you under better circumstances, my children. My name is Bishop Niels, but you might know me as Niels the Righteous.” He had a soft voice, and his words left his mouth with the monotony of a stream.

Everyone knew about Bishop Niels, and he was anything but righteous.

“We are here on an assignment for the church and our king. We are looking for a man, and we hope you will be able to assist us.”

Kvive’s mother spoke, “The men are away trying to gather the herd, higher up.”

“Ah, but the man we are looking for won’t be running after any herd.” The priest examined the crowd. “We are looking for a witch. A pagan. Someone who serves false gods.”

Kvive’s eyes widened, and he barely suppressed a gasp. But no one shouted or pointed fingers at Huika’s lavvu.

Kvive’s mother spoke again, “There are no men here left for you to arrest. That sounds like blasphemy, and we know the laws. Everyone in this siida are devout Christians and loyal subjects of the king. I promise you that.”

The priest smiled at her, his face looked like the grimace a child makes the first time it tastes reindeer marrow sucked from the bone.

Then he nodded at the soldiers. “Look for him and look for anything . . . blasphemous.”

Some of the soldiers worked their way through the siida, questioning the old men and turned every lavvu upside down. The rest inspected the surrounding area.

A scream from outside the siida stopped the search.

Shortly after the soldiers came back with a girl dragged behind them.

It was Sara, and she had blood all over her hands. “I’m sorry! I just checked if it was still alive! I just wanted to watch the rainbow, please!” She wailed and wept in the strong arms of the soldier.

Kvive looked down at his own shaking hands, they were still red from the night before. He had tried washing the blood off in the stream, but blood doesn’t remove easily; and there was blood on the cuffs of his shirt. He hid his hands inside his sleeves away from the scrutinizing eyes of the priest. Sara must have gone to the sieidi alone. Kvive’s mind was blank, and he had no idea what to do. What could he do?

“Sara!” Her mother ran towards the soldier dragging her daughter.

The priest ordered, “Bring the girl to me. And control that woman!”

A different soldier grabbed Sara’s mother. He clamped his arm in front of her face, muting her protests and wails.

The soldier threw Sara to the ground before the priest. The priest put his arm around her shoulder and whispered in her ear. Sara shook her head and nodded at his words, before she pointed to the place she was dragged from.

The priest said to two of his men, “That way, find a white calf with its throat slit near a waterfall. Bring it to me.”

A while later the soldiers came back with the dead calf in their hands. They laid it down before the priest.

The priest whispered one more question in Sara’s ear. She shook her head. Then he nodded at the soldier with the axe. Sara got picked up from the ground like she was a stick doll and forced down on a tree stub used for chopping wood by her neck.

Kvive had to do something. Anything. “Wait!” Kvive screamed. “It wasn’t her, she only checked if it was still alive. It was me!”

At the same time Sara’s mother broke free from the soldier holding her and ran towards her daughter, screaming, “Sara! Sara!”

The priest looked at Kvive with lazy eyes and nodded at the soldier with the axe again. The axe fell and cut Sara’s head off in one sweep.

Bewildered, and not knowing what to do, Sara’s mother kneeled in the blood of her daughter that pooled a dark red on the ground. She grabbed Sara’s shoulders and lined her body up with her severed head; she stroked her daughters back and heaved voiceless cries.

Some of the mothers started screaming and shouting, others picked up their babies from the ground or grasped the shoulders of their elder kids to turn them around. A few of the mothers and older men ran at Sara’s killer with their fists raised, but with little effort from the soldiers, the men and women were thrown, beaten, or kicked to the ground.

Kvive fell to his knees and hands. He tried to force out a why, but his voice failed him. His vision swam, and his body swayed, bile surged up in his throat and he felt like throwing up.

“Order!” the priest said. “There will be order!” Apart from the babies crying, the sobbing of the elder kids, and the people on the ground moaning in pain, it became quiet.

“You,” the priest said, pointing at Kvive who still shook on the ground on his hands and knees. “You said it wasn’t her.”

Kvive looked over at his mother. Around her neck his brother cried in the gietkka. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she shook her head. Kvive didn’t answer the priest.

“He wanted to save her!” his mother pleaded.

“We will continue taking lives,” the priest said, “until someone points us in the direction of the witch. The last siida we visited saw three of their own die. Please, be smarter than them. That white calf is all the proof I need to execute everyone here, with the support of the church and our king.”

“He doesn’t know anything, please, he’s just a boy!” Kvive’s mother said.

“Bring him to me,” the priest said.

Kvive’s mother—with his little brother still in the gietkka—moved in front of Kvive to shield him, but with the hilt of a sword she got knocked to the ground.

“Eatni!” Kvive said as his mother fell to the ground unconscious, and his little brother cried, still tied across her chest.

A soldier grabbed and dragged Kvive along the ground, just like they had done with Sara, only minutes ago.

The priest laid both of his hands on Kvive’s shoulders and stared into his eyes, as if looking for something in Kvive’s brown eyes with his unnatural bright blue ones.

Kvive’s bottom lip quivered, and tears streamed down his face. What had he done? Sara was dead because of him. And now he either gave up Huika, or he would die as well. Maybe the entire siida would be burned down, like Huika had warned.

“Have you seen that poor calf before?” The priest nodded towards the dead animal.

Kvive didn’t answer.

The priest made a show of looking at Kvive’s hands and shirt, and his eyes narrowed. “Do you know the punishment for paganism?”

“Death,” Kvive said, swallowing a cry.

“And what about the witch, do you know him?”

Kvive shook his head, fearing his words would fail him.

Again, the priest nodded at the soldier with the axe.

Kvive kicked and punched around himself in a frenzy when the soldier grabbed him and carried him to the tree stub. “I hope you burn in hell, you bastards! In hell! Eatni! Áhčči!” he yelled at the soldier, and after his parents.

An elbow to his face silenced him; Kvive gasped for breath as blood filled his mouth. The soldier tore off his shirt, exposing his neck. Then he forced Kvive down on the tree stub. Sara’s blood was warm and sticky against his throat, and the pungent smell of iron invaded his nose.

Why was no one running to his rescue? His mother was still on the ground unconscious, but everyone else just stood there, paralyzed. Some cried, others had their face turned away, and some watched with dead eyes; people Kvive had known his entire life.

“I’ll give you this last chance, boy, that’s more than I gave the girl,” the priest said. “What do you know about the—”

A lightning strike in the distance interrupted the priest, and the westward wind that had been blowing all day stopped. And for a few seconds, everyone, including the weather, got quiet.

As abruptly as it had stopped, a wind blew in from the east; it grew fast in strength, taking every pelt laid outside, and clothes that were hung to dry, with it. Following the wind, black clouds roiled in over the mountains against the siida, like smoke from a fire that has been extinguished with water. The sound from the thunder and the flashes from lightning caught up with each other fast as the storm charged at them.

The priest raised his hand at the executioner. He lowered his axe to the ground but kept his foot on Kvive’s back.

“Finally,” the priest said, “we found him.”

The wind roared in Kvive’s skull and the rain whipped his face. Echoing around him he heard a drum and the clanking of metal.

Riding with the storm Huika and Gappas descended the sloped mountainside that overlooked the siida. With wide sweeps of his arm Huika beat at his drum with his t-formed antler. Like a cacophony of different songs, there were several joiks in different tones at the same time from the sky.

Children of Ipmil and Beaivi, the voice in the storm roared.

The song clung to Kvive’s body with the wind and it roared in his head.

Unleash like a spring river, the voice continued in the sky.

The priest clutched his silver cross with both hands and said, “God will punish you!” He bent his head and mumbled a prayer, while making the cross on his chest. Raising his head again, he ordered the soldiers, “Seize him you cowards! Seize him!”

The soldiers exchanged looks, fear painted on their faces.

“Kill him! Kill the witch!” the priest ordered. “For your king and God!”

At that, every soldier ran towards Huika and Gappas, with their weapons raised, screaming like they were possessed.

Huika raised his arm and struck his drum with his antler.

Biegga! The sky roared. Gusts of wind slammed the soldiers to the ground.

Huika struck again.

Arvi! And the rain turned to fist-sized hail clobbering the soldiers huddling on the ground.

And again.

Álddagas! And a single bolt of lightning struck the executioner in the head. His head blazed like a fire, and fiery lines split in his face like cracked ice before he fell.

Gappas trotted towards the priest, not acknowledging the soldiers scattered before him and Huika.

A couple of meters away from the priest who still clutched his cross, Huika’s eyes rolled back and regained their colour, and the storm and the wind died down.

“Leave,” Huika said in Norwegian. “Leave now, and I will spare you the humiliation of reaching your afterlife because of what you call false gods. Leave now, and I will let your men live.”

That was a fake threat. Huika had talked with Kvive about balance. The gods would only help take a life responsible for the theft of another.

The priest didn’t respond. He turned on his heel and ran in the same direction they came from, his wavy hair and black clothes flailing in the remnants of the dying storm.

“I’m sorry,” Kvive sobbed. He ran to his mother and little brother and buried his face in her arms.

“I didn’t . . . I didn’t know, what . . . oh, Sara. It’s all my fault,” Kvive cried to Huika.

Huika didn’t respond, he just walked over to Kvive and stroked his back as he cried.

III.

The ravenous built prisons on our lands and called them churches. They filled them with our voiceless faces stripped of all colours of home and squelched the song in our souls. There, the rattan cane clapped over coarse hands, for not speaking their language.

We knew what it was like to hurt, but not the word for help.

 

September 1695

Finnmark, Norway

Cloudberries had coloured the ground orange, and the warm winds of summer had given way to the freezing wind of autumn. The gelded reindeers pulled the sleds on the bare ground over rocks and pouring rivers, as the siida moved inland towards the permanent winter pastures again.

Kvive had let the ráidu move ahead in advance. He sat on a boulder overlooking a river trying to joik Sara, as birds flew from tree to tree around him, and he drummed his fingers against his lap pretending it was a rune drum. Huika said that the best way to remember someone was through joik.

He waited for Huika to catch up with him. After the priest and the soldiers had run back to town, Huika had left the siida before he was chased away, but he still followed, knowing it was only a matter of time before the settlers came back for him. And the first place they would look was Kvive’s siida.

“You’re getting better, Guivi,” Huika said as he and Gappas approached Kvive. “But you are still joiking about Sara. Tell me about her, how does she talk?”

Kvive thought for a few seconds before answering. “She talked fast, as if her mind outran her mouth. She would end a sentence before it was over, just to start a new one, and she’d answer her own questions as if she found the answer as she asked them.”

“And how does she sound?” Huika asked.

“Beautiful. Carefree like the song of a bird.”

“And what does she want?”

“What, how should I—”

“Just answer, don’t think about it.”

“She always tries to help those she cares for, even if—”

“Great,” Huika interrupted. “Now, joik her.”

Kvive cleared his throat.

At first his voice was barely audible, like the pitter-patter of a bird on a branch. Then it grew; the sound of his voice leaped, it went high and low and back and forth like a bird in flight. The joik was fast, and just when you thought you could follow it, or thought you knew where it was going, it started in a new direction, with new sounds.

Huika joined Kvive with his drum.

Kvive grinned as he joiked Sara even louder in time with Huika’s drum, and in that moment, he was grateful for knowing her.  

Above, birds joined them, both in song and in flight. They flew like they were one being, in a cloud-like pattern, to the tune and in time with Kvive’s joik.

Kvive stopped when tears trailed down his cheeks. “Why are you teaching me this?” he asked. It was like a gift he had done nothing to deserve.

“Did you see her?”

“Yes.”

“Exactly, I did as well. We remembered her. Not only her face, or her ambitions, but her very soul.”

Kvive smiled at that and wiped his tears away.

“You see, Guivi, there was a time when the Sami were free as the birds above us, chasing the best pastures with our herds. Now we step with care on our own lands, like beggars trying to cross a river without getting wet for a piece of stale bread on the other side. I had given up my calling as a noaidi before you forced me to remember again, by trying to kill yourself under that ice. And then, that night under the aurora, you heard our song, and you joined me in the night sky. You have given me hope again, and I am teaching you so that someone will remember when I am gone.”

“You’re not that old,” Kvive said.

Huika smiled at that, the deep furrows of his face wrinkling around his eyes and mouth.

“I have seen the future,” Huika said after a long silence. “It will become much worse before it gets better. But it will get better. You, and those you help remember will start it. We have already lost our lands, our names, and our gods. All we have left is our language, and that we must fight to keep to the very end. What do you think the ravenous call the snow when it melts and then freezes? We call it cuoŋu, and they call it snow. Or snow that has turned to coarse pebbles? We call it seaŋáš, and they call it snow. They have never led a life where the difference might mean the loss of a livelihood. And if we lose our language, we will lose our understanding of the world that makes us Sami.”

Huika fell silent with a pained expression on his face, as if he weren’t sure if it was smart to tell Kvive what he told him next.

“I saw the future in you, Guivi, that night under the aurora. And when the time comes, you won’t be ready, but you will put your nose to the wind and do your best. And in the wake of your life, a new future for the Sami will start.”

There was another long silence, before Kvive said, “I have to leave. Mother has been watching me like a hawk since we lost Sara.”

“Just promise me you will remember what we talked about,” Huika said solemnly.

“I will.”

Kvive jumped from the boulder and ran after the tracks of the ráidu.

#

Kvive caught up with the ráidu faster than he had thought. Even though the ground was bare, this area was flat, and the sleds should have been moving faster.

In the distance there was shouting and movement.

The cause of the commotion were soldiers between the people in the siida. The same kind of soldiers that had visited them that summer, wearing black uniforms with silver buttons.

Nearly every man and woman in the siida had a blade to their throat. At the helm of the cluster, was the same priest from summer. Still as tall, and still as pale, clutching his silver cross as he talked with his soft voice. “Summon the witch, or we will cut every throat here and claim your herd as property of the church!”

The pleas of mercy, and the explanations that Huika had left them, were ignored.

“Summon the witch, or we will cut every throat here and claim your herd as property of the church!” he said like a chant, over and over again.

“Stop!” Kvive ran straight up to the priest, avoiding the hands of soldiers that grabbed at him. “The old man is gone. We haven’t seen him since summer. Leave us alone!”

“No!” Kvive’s parents protested, but with a fist to their stomach the soldiers silenced them. On the ground, in the gietkka, his little brother slept, oblivious to what was happening.

The priest smiled at Kvive, recognizing him. “Ah, but we got you. I think you will be of immense help.” The priest nodded at one of the soldiers.

A soldier put a blade against Kvive’s throat. The cold steel sent shivers down his back, but this time he didn’t cry.

“You will tell us where the witch is, or we will hurt you in ways you thought unimaginable,” the priest said.

“I don’t know, and that’s the truth. I swear it on the cross around your neck!”

“Your promises mean nothing to me, boy.” The priest pulled out a knife from his wide sleeve. “I think we will start with your fingers. One more chance boy, before you lose a thumb. Where is the witch?”

“There,” Kvive said, as surprised as the priest.

Moving at a slow trot, Huika rode Gappas through the mass of people towards the priest. He held out his arms wide while humming a song. None of the soldiers dared approach him.

“Careful, witch,” the priest said, “one wrong move and my men will start cutting throats.”

“I’m not here to fight,” Huika answered. “I’m here to let it end.”

“Oh, we can end it for you.”

“It’s only me you want. Release these people and I’ll be your prisoner. You don’t want to kill an entire siida. You might consider the Sami as beaten dogs, but hit hard enough, and often enough, and even a beaten dog might bite back. Or do you want repeats of the riots this land is bloodied with?”

Now the earlier conversation made sense. Huika knew this was the only way for this to end, and that was by turning himself in. But how could he do that? Kvive wasn’t ready, what about all he hadn’t learned yet? But knowing Huika, he probably had a plan.

Huika gave the priest a wide smile.

“Besides, I have the ears of many powerful beings, and if you break this agreement, you will know their wrath.”

The priests face twitched. “Fine,” he said. “Hand over your drum and we’ll take you with us.”

Huika dismounted Gappas and unclasped his leather bag. He handed it to the priest and turned his back to him, so they could bind his hands.

The priest whispered in Huika’s ear, “Do you repent your sins, with all of your heart and body?”

“No,” Huika said.

“Will you ask of me, on behalf of God, to forgive your sins?”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“Then you leave me with no choice.”

With his knife still in his hand, the priest reached around Huika’s neck and slit it. Huika fell to his knees, blood spilling from his throat, before falling face first into the dirt. Seconds later, Gappas stopped breathing, and fell beside Huika.

“No!” Kvive screamed in Sami. “Someone, please help him!”

But none ran to Huika’s rescue, as if no one understood him.

Desperate to save Huika he roared, “Beaivi and Ipmil, take my sacrifice!”

Then he pushed his throat against the sharp blade and threw his neck along the edge of the sword.

Horrified, the soldier pulled away his sword from Kvive’s throat.

Kvive fell to his knees, with blood streaming down his chest.

#

Guivi sat on a reindeer pelt atop a boulder, overlooking the siida. The first snow of winter fell around him like the tiny white feathers of a grouse’s winter coat. He had regained most of his voice, and the wound across his throat had healed, even though it had been only a few days since he had tried to sacrifice himself for Huika.

The elders now called him imašgánda—miracle boy. First because of his miraculous survival in the lake, then his wound across his throat—a certain death—that had healed in a matter of hours. His sacrifice had done nothing, except scare away the priest and the soldiers, and hopefully they thought he was dead and wouldn’t return for him. But his sacrifice must have been refused by the gods, so they gave him his life back.

Guivi started humming, and he drummed on the rune drum the priest had left behind as he fled the siida.  

The sound of his voice resonated around him, like an echo bouncing off surrounding hills. It permeated the entire siida, and soon everyone, including his mother, father, and little brother, listened to him.

Then he joiked Huika.

It didn’t have many words, but it filled the soul of everyone there, like a piece that had been missing; it felt like filling your stomach when you are famished or drinking from a river when you are parched. Except, until now they had always had an aching hole in their chests, a drought in their throats, and a wanting in their souls.

And for the first time in centuries, his people felt whole.