The Restoration

They’d been restarting the earth for over five years now.

Marie picked up a box of seeds and some jars of bugs and soil bacteria from the dispensary. They gave her hackberry seedlings too, a good, hardy tree. She put all these things in the large panniers on her bike. She was instructed to go north and west, and she went by train to her first stop, where she switched to the bicycle and set off until she found a house beside a dry riverbed. It was probably once a vacation setting. She leaned her bike against the house and went up to the front door and knocked. No one. She went on to the next house and the next, until she found someone at home at last.

“I’m from the Seeding Project,” she said. “Can you take the seedlings for three trees? I’ve got some worms, too.”

An old woman stood in the doorway. “Trees,” she said. “Yes.”

They went around to the back yard, which was dry and had a small section fenced off for a vegetable garden.

“What are you growing?” Marie asked, indicating the plot.

“Beans, sometimes. I get a few tomatoes, too. Not much, it takes a lot of water.”

“Can you handle the trees? They’re hackberry. They can tolerate drought when they’re full grown, but they’ll need water for the first year or so.”

“If they’re close to the house, yes. I get some water from the well, mostly in the morning. It trickles up again overnight. I store some for the plants and I water them in the evening, so it won’t evaporate right away. There were trees when I was younger. It was wonderful to watch them in the storms, you know. And hear them. Yes, I’ll take the trees.”

They chose spots for the trees, dug holes, and planted one seedling for each hole. She helped the woman measure out a gallon of water.

“Trees,” the woman said, and her eyes were bright.

“Someone will be along with groundcover in a few months,” Marie said. “And some beetles after that. Try to keep everything fairly close together—I mean, to form a habitat. But you know that.”

“I do,” she said.

She was invited inside for water and something to eat. A protein stew. And then Marie moved on to find another house.

On the first day, she planted nine trees, and logged the addresses in. The next day was only six trees, because the houses were farther apart. One day she couldn’t find anyone who would agree. One man was moving on; some houses were shut up. She found a heritage farm with two old horses and a dog. The man there pointed to the unworked fields. “What about them?” he asked. “Do you have any corn?”

“Not enough rain for corn,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for five years, and they’ve never had corn.” She saw the look on his face. “I’ll make a note. Maybe the rains will come.”

The owner of the next house was very friendly. “Ah,” she said, “A bee man came by a few months ago. I don’t like bees much, but I took some. They’re living near the house. Not too near,” she said. “And I don’t have to water them or anything.”

“Good. And are you composting?”

“I even have worms,” she replied. “They came out of nowhere. I put scraps in there. They like it. I’m supposed to turn half of them into the soil in a few weeks, then build them up again.”

“I can give you two more worms and maybe some squash seeds.”

She logged all this, and sat down to a welcome meal of water and a sandwich. The bread was dense and therefore government issue. The paste was probably beans and whatever fish was raised on the fish farms. Probably some parsley mixed in, easy to grow. It made her drink more water, however, and she apologized for her thirst.

Marie was tired and sat for a while, looking at the sky. The woman was friendly and sat with her. There were really only two ongoing conversations these days: “When I was a child” and “They say in fifty years.” The woman chose the latter.

“They say in fifty years we might have trees and maybe more crops. I won’t be here, of course. They sprayed a lot when I was a kid, but I remember what it was like.”

They both paused, thinking about it. “I may not be here when the trees grow tall. But someone will see them.” She said it with satisfaction.

They sat companionably together, until it was time for her to leave. Marie stood to go and the woman raised her head up, her face lined with worry and said, “And the predators? Have you heard when they’ll release the predators?”

 

After five years of releasing things one by one, trying to restore the environment from the bottom up, everyone kept asking about that.

“What have you got there?” a man asked suspiciously, farther along.

“It’s just some cocoons.”

He eyed her warily. “Poisonous?”

“Are any cocoons poisonous?” She was startled.

“Not the cocoons. What comes out.”

“No. It’s just some moths and a few fritillaria. Perfectly harmless.”

There was another cautious silence. “So,” the man said, dropping his voice even lower. How low could it possibly go? “When are they releasing the predators?”

She had learned how to unnerve people by looking at them with absolutely no expression. She’d done that just to do it, for no good purpose. She liked to test things. If there had been snakes in her childhood, she would have prodded them with a stick. She would have whacked a hornet’s next. She would have leapt off cliffs. The closest she could come to danger and adventure was this, sticking cocoons to the undersides of houses, or on bushes someone a year ahead of her had planted.

“The predators,” she said. “They did mention them. Soon, I think.”

“Big cats?” the man whispered.

“Bred to be big.”

“Bears?”

She shook her head. “Too hot, they said.”

“Alligators?”

“I think I heard that. And, I think—hippos? I hear they have a temper. Of course they like the water, which means that you take a chance if you find a river. But that’s the point, isn’t it? To even things out?”

“There’s no river here,” the man said, relieved. “I have a well. And there’s a mud pond when the rains come.”

“Oh well, I’m sure a mud pond would do,” she said evenly.

 

The first wave of Seeding had been worms and some bacteria and micro-organisms for the soil, and then small bugs and grasses, and clovers and seeds of all kinds and then more bugs and then lizards and birds and small mammals, going up and up. Wild raspberry, different bushes, chinkapin oaks, one wave after another. Squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, rabbits. Up and up. Soon there would be deer and coyotes and some wild ponies on the best plains sites. Eventually, cougars, rattlers, venomous insects, poisonous plants. A fair playing field, was how it was being described. The world had gotten destroyed by the apex animal, and it was because the apex animal had been unchecked. So bring back the checks. Make it fair. No one was very specific about the final predators, the ones who would help to keep the people in check. Lions; wolves; what?

The complaints against the top predators had been loud, but the decision had come at a time when the world’s resources were at the lowest point. People were dying of hunger, of thirst, of disease in a world that had been squeezed too tightly. They would face the predators when they needed to, but even before that, they needed to eat.

 

Marie found a platform rising from a flat plain. She dropped her bike and walked around it. There were fourteen wooden steps up to the top, no railing on any of it. It wasn’t very old, so it likely wasn’t a hunter’s blind left over from the good times. There were no hunters now, anyway. Guns had been confiscated, poisons and traps as well. Unregenerate hunters had been rounded up and housed somewhere far away. The whole point now was to let everything try to live.

She climbed up and looked around. Mostly dry floodplain, but off to the right were one or two tall trees, and some scrub bushes and tall grasses. The beginning of something, she thought. She’d add some bees and spores before she left. Flies, too.

Far, far off she could see the grasses moving, left to right. From this distance, it was hard to imagine how tall the grasses were, and how big the creature might be. A raccoon? A possum? It made her uneasy, this creature she couldn’t see.

She went to a small farm where she was let in and gave them the seeds and worms and was asked to stay for dinner and then, as the sun set, they offered to put her up for the night, as long as she left first thing in the morning and didn’t shower. “We’re using more water because of you,” the woman said gently. “And we need it for the vegetables and of course for the seeds. And the chickens, too.” Dinner was eggs and some potatoes and some herbs and a mushy protein.

“How are the chickens doing?’

“Better, since they brought those beetles last year. Though the birds disappear sometimes. We don’t know where they go.”

“Do any of them ever come back? You know, just find something interesting while they’re away and then remember home?”

“No. They’re gone. They’re good and gone. We think, sometimes,” and here she hesitated and looked over to her husband. “We think sometimes that it’s the seeders. We know they have to eat and we know some of them are, well . . . shy. Not given much to social situations.”

“No one’s allowed to kill,” Marie said patiently. “That means us, too. Killing harms the earth. Maybe later, when there’s an abundance—if there’s an abundance—maybe then killing animals will be permitted. But slaughter belongs to the past. I can’t imagine anyone doing it.”

“I can’t imagine any other explanation. I mean, they have to eat—you have to eat.”

“No,” Marie said, intent on getting this woman to stop saying this—stop thinking this. “Really, the seeders are fine. They’re tested, you know. To make sure they fit the job.”

The husband snorted. “We had problems with the centipede guy,” her husband said grumpily. “He wanted to come in for a glass of water and we said of course, and well—he unloaded a bunch of centipedes in the house.” He glared at her. “Did he have to do that?”

She had to keep herself from rolling her eyes. “Centipedes walk around. Maybe there’s a hole in the foundation or near a window or somewhere. At any rate, I’m sorry that happened. But it has to go on, you know. We can’t be the only living organisms on this globe.”

“I know,” the man said abruptly. “No need to lecture. Just—whatever you have, keep it outside.” He got up and left the table.

 

Occasionally, she happened onto a thriving community with wells with good water, with plots of land that grew food and even some cows and chickens and goats that hadn’t been provided by the agency. It was a microgeographical heaven. There was birdsong and there were bugs flying—and fleas and mites and mosquitoes and other things that she had tended to forget about. This is what life was like, both good and bad, beautiful and irritating, all flowing together. No bug sprays. No weed killers, no polluted water. Cow dung for fertilizer. Solar for heat and cooling. This was the way it was supposed to work.

“It’s so wonderful here,” she told the family she was staying with. Farmers and teachers, the two most important professions.

“Don’t tell anyone!” the woman yelped. “We’re supporting ourselves at this size but I think we’d get into trouble if there’s any more people.”

“Of course not,” Marie said, soothing her. “Of course not. We’re not allowed to discuss locations, anyway. You’re safe. I’ll just be here for a few hours and I’ll be on my way.” It was, after all, a kind of rehearsal for restoration. A wonderful, brief dip into the future.

“What are you putting out?” the woman asked.

“Ticks.”

“Ticks? What, are you crazy? We don’t want ticks.” She stood up and put her arms akimbo. Defiant.

“Oh but ticks have a place,” Marie said. “Birds eat them, you know. Chickens especially. And possum.”

“We don’t want those either!”

“Why not? They eat ticks.”

The woman’s mouth dropped open and then she laughed out loud. “Oh now I see, I can tell you’re messing with me.”

“I am,” Marie said, grinning. “But you’ve got to understand that I have all this time in my head when I’m going from one place to the next. So I think up things to say to people.”

“You shouldn’t,” she was told. “I mean, people get a little off when they’re alone too much.”

Marie shook her head. “People get a little off when the worlds ends. You know?”

The woman sighed heavily. “I know. But no ticks.”

 

She had been out for two weeks, with some days almost silent, marking deserted houses. In those cases, she walked around them, noting anything growing, pulling leaves if she couldn’t recognize a plant, listening for bird song and frog croaks and any signs of life. She found a house almost filled with spiders. It was not something she was likely to forget. She found spiders repugnant. She dreaded them. She had had to reassure herself that there was little chance that any spider she encountered was dangerous.

She thought that the first lacey sheets were spider webs but in fact it was the daddy log-legs, their legs linked, forming a chain of curtains that rippled without wind. She had yelped. She had run outside and dusted herself off and when that didn’t help, she removed her sweater and shook it out and then took off her shoes and socks and shirt and shorts and shaken everything out until she was satisfied that nothing remained on her.

It had taken a while to regain her confidence but she had continued with her mission, though she didn’t go back inside. She walked around the house and found two wolf spiders, lurking as they usually did. Unpleasant creatures. She had buttoned her blouse up to her neck and continued cautiously. Wolf spiders liked to be near water, so she looked for a pond or a leaky pipe. She could hear water trickling, and traced it to a corner of the house, where either an underground pipe or a small stream pumped up bubbles of water. She planted three trees there herself, looking over her shoulder and around constantly. No one would have to be responsible for watering them. At least finding the spiders had led to something good.

Had the spider man been here or was this some sort of natural selection? She was aware that, in nature as it used to be, sometimes things would explode into excess and sometimes disappear into extinction. This particular extinction had been casually made by human greed. She made a note to ask if someone had deliberately left those spiders. She didn’t actually know which answer would bring more relief.

 

It was late spring, and heat was coming on so she changed her biking to morning and evening, which is what people did as the temperature rose. She stayed with a horse rescuer, a metal worker, a mechanic, a blacksmith, a baker, some kids who had run away and had found an empty house. Different people. Some of them wanted seeds; some did not. She was not judgmental; the seeds were a commitment and not everyone stayed put.

Once she saw a hawk overhead. She stood there mesmerized. What was the hawk hunting? She thought it might be mice or maybe even rabbits; the rabbits would be quick to multiply. That cheered her up, that things were thriving. At her next house she asked about that, about hawks and rabbit and got a slow nod. “Someone brought rabbits and let them go. Not your people, just some, I guess you’d call them free-lance? There’s that going on. People who saved seeds you know about, but people also had pets. Or places where things held on.”

“That’s great,” she said. “I watched the hawk for a long time; it never dove. But it was looking and I have to think it had a reason for that.”

“Most likely,” the man said. “Most likely.”

 

It didn’t occur to her until a few days later that a hawk was a predator. Of course it was, she knew that. But she had been thinking that the release of predators meant things that would threaten her, and a hawk did not. And besides, weren’t they supposed to be warned? She thought about that as she wheeled her way down a driveway, left some seeds and then went on. The people there had been nice. They said they’d seen a snake, but they believed it was a ring-necked snake, a small one, maybe a baby—not a litter, what was the word—and what about cats? When would there be cats again?

She would love a cat. After her tour was over, she hoped she would meet a nice man and they would live together and have a cat. Maybe they’d have a kid, too, though she’d have to see what the world was like in a few years.

She was due to check in to a Service cabin, only a few miles away. They were kept stocked, so there’d be food and water and beds and, of course, new seeds to take with her and a counselor to advise her on her next steps. She’d stayed with people the last few nights, but it was hard to use their water and eat their food. Everyone struggled. But the cabin would be well-stocked because it was intermittently used.

She made a quick decision to try to get there before nightfall.

But she timed it wrong; within an hour it was getting dark. She was off the main road, cutting across a dry-grass field to get to the cabin, and she could no longer bike. Pushing the bike was hard work, and slowed her down even more. It had been a long, slow afternoon but then all at once it was racing towards sunset. She consulted her map and her GPS and figured it was another hour or so. She looked up. A few clouds. If the moon came out, that would help. She checked the moon chart. Sickle. Not much light.

It was her own fault, and besides it was warm. If she didn’t make it, she would sleep outside; she’d done it a lot already.

The grasses got taller and thicker and she couldn’t see the end to them yet. She stopped, took out her canteen, took a sip of water and put it away. She took out the knife she carried and used it for a while as a machete—or tried to; it wasn’t very good.

It was tiring. She stopped and thought about staying right where she was. She could easily push a wad of the grasses down and cover them with her space blanket. She had some protein bars and enough water to make them go down easily enough. She kept checking her direction and lighting the way ahead of her, but it was wasting the phone’s battery. Best to stamp down the grasses and spend the night where she was. In the morning she could get to the cabin and have breakfast and a wash.

She made a decent bed and spread out her blanket and was eating her health bar when she saw a light in the distance. She paused in the middle of a chew, thinking. Was this the cabin or was it someone’s home? It was risky to knock on a stranger’s door at night, even though the guns had been confiscated. People were erratic. Just then a shadow passed in front of the light. It seemed bulky and it paused at the window. She imagined him staring out at her. Looking for her.

She listened for the whistle of grasses moving, for the lurch of an animal footstep. What was she expecting? The world was safe. There was nothing alive anymore that could kill her. Except people of course, other people. Was that what she was worrying about? That man whose shadow she’d seen—was he somewhere close by, sniffing the air for her, creeping up on her? She’d been out in the field for a few years and yet she’d never truly felt afraid. Angry at the way the world was; regret for what had been done; hope a few times, hope for what she could accomplish; but never really and truly afraid.

What was she afraid of? She was alone in a field of grasses, with bugs at her face, bugs that she should be grateful about. She looked ahead and saw the light had gone out.

Something flew by her in the night; wings. Were there owls? They had released mice and there were apparently rabbits. And that hawk the other day. There was beginning to be an ecosystem, no matter how limited.

A bug crawled over the hand that held the knife. And then another one. Were they really there or was this just nerves? Now there was something on her neck.

Something was moving in the weeds, moving closer. She listened intently, willing herself not to brush anything off, afraid that any sound she made would draw whatever was out there. Was it an animal or was it the man from the house? Surely it would be a man, not a woman. No woman did that—stalked someone in the dark. Why didn’t women do that? There was something on her face now, crawling around her nose. Now it was moving towards her eyes. She closed her eyes tight.

Something bit her and she drew in her breath despite herself. The rustling paused. She felt a creature waiting out there for her, listening for her. She could feel eyes peering at her in the dark, sniffing for her, even.

She lay there, curled up, all night long. She dozed off for brief minutes, jerking herself awake, and even then not moving at all for fear of making an identifiable sound.

She woke and stood up slowly and looked around. The grasses stretched away. There were the beginnings of small trees, then some bushes and off some distance past them, a cabin. She squinted. She had been much closer than she thought.

Her nerves were on edge and the hairs on her neck prickled. She carried her seeds and some bugs and she moved slowly and carefully, observing everything. There was birdsong; and it stilled when she got near. If it weren’t for the fact that she had been thrown off balance, she would be reveling in this. It was what they were all working for: a bit of the earth that had life in it. She made her way across the field in the daylight, walking slowly and pushing grasses aside. There were more and more insects—she stopped and checked them and saw grasshoppers and beetles. An amazing crop, really. They’d been seeding bugs for years now but up to now she’d only seen a few, and not much variety. This valley showed what could be done and how quickly it could be done. She wondered how many of the people from that village she’d passed came here. She hoped they hadn’t actually found it—or if they had, that they would respect it and allow it to develop.

A man came out of the cabin, saw her, and gave an exaggerated wave. He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted something, but she couldn’t hear it until she got closer. He kept saying “Watch your step!” but he didn’t say why, so she stopped and looked around, expecting rocks or fallen outhouses with nails sticking up. She saw nothing, but she slowed her step and walked forward, casting her eyes about until she came out of the fields into the clearing around the house.

“Snakes,” he said in explanation.

“Ring-necks?” she asked. “Garden snakes?”

He laughed. “That’s a good attitude,” he answered, which puzzled her even more.

“I was expecting you last night,” he said. “Run into trouble?” He led her into the cabin, which had three other Seeders in it, Malcolm, Zach, and Jenny. Seeders loved to meet each other, so they asked where she’d been, what she’d seen, what she’d heard, and she asked back.

Alex was the outpost leader, a bald black man around 50. He waited patiently for all of them to finish and settle down.

“Well, you’re a day late, but that’s all right,” he told her. “You’re actually down for a two-day break—all of you are—so there’s time to catch your breath before you head on out again. Actually, I’ll be heading out with you. This particular area is considered far enough advanced that we can let it go for a year and then come back and see results. We’ll switch to the barer areas.” He grinned. “You say that: barer areas. It’s hard.” They laughed genially.

He sort of looked away and then looked back. ”I’m curious what you’ve all been hearing from people, so let’s take a little time to go over what they’ve said, and also let’s discuss what communities there are and where they are and what their water situation is, for instance. Just a general sense of what’s out there now. You’ll be filing with the office if you haven’t already, but I’d like to get us all to look at the bigger picture right now.”

He nodded and motioned to them one by one. She was interested in their stories. There were areas with nothing out there—abandoned houses, dried-up wells, that sort of thing. But there was also a loose wide circle of places where people were resettling and bringing in a cow here, a goat there, even two horses. People, generally, who had lived there before and kept an eye out. Who had hoarded the few animals they had left and the seeds they had gathered. The animals were of course precious because they produced good fertilizer, if there was enough to feed them. They had resettled a year or two earlier, from all accounts, and some people now had babies. They were small communities, but they radiated hope. The seeders talked about what life had been like before it began to slip away; this was what they’d been working towards. They nodded to each other, their eyes shining. They just handed it around, their visions of a renewed world, a green world.

Alex encouraged them. “Beautiful, isn’t it? Like life used to be? Yes? I remember it, myself, I grew up in the country and then we moved to the suburbs. Never having to think about anything, really. Food and safety and water, heat when you needed it, a/c when you needed it. Go to a store and get what you want. Get in a car and go where you want. Good days, right?”

They got still, the good memories slipping from them. They knew where he was going.

“Of course, everything pretty much died to give us that. The wilderness, the prairies, the forests, the wild animals. Extending our own secure zones by destroying theirs. Doesn’t seem right? It wasn’t right. So we can’t reproduce that. We have to be careful that we get the balance right.”

“It’s time?” Zach asked softly.

“It’s time,” Alex said. He looked behind them, at the distribution boxes. They all turned and looked at them, shifting slightly, their shoulders tightening.

She hadn’t thought it would be this soon. Well, none of them had. This part had been in the future—she thought long ahead in the future, nothing to worry about now.

But there had been signs, of course. Those movements in the grasses—there was animal life. Those thriving homes, with children. That sudden fear last night was not a vestigial fear; it was the animal in her acknowledging that there was a threat roaming, moving, reaching out to her.

“What is it?” she asked. “What are we releasing?”

“The middle. Not the big things yet. Venomous snakes and spiders. African bees. Mosquitoes and ticks with diseases. We’ve already got a few souls out releasing the smaller cats—puma; civet. It’s just the beginning, really. I don’t think any of us will die from it.” He looked at them. “You knew it was coming.”

They nodded and murmured agreeably. They were trying to look at it as a good thing. But there was a part of them that fought it.

“We can’t make the same mistakes,” Jenny whispered. “We have to make sure that there are constraints on us. We have to make sure we’re actually part of the cycle of nature. We moved out of that a while ago.”

“We know,” Malcolm said stiffly.

Zach looked a little happy about it; he had a small smile. “I like snakes,” he said. “I’ll take them.”

She looked around at them. Eager or not, they had a look in their eyes that they were committed to this, and she supposed she had the same look. It was calculating. It said, “At least I’ll know, and I can be careful. At least I’ll know.”

She had to orient her emotions, for a moment. She knew the others felt the way she had up until now—that the predators were the future, not the present. That they could be brave in their resolve for the future, but that bravery wouldn’t be tested. Because the world, half destroyed as it was, was also fairly safe for humans as far as immediate threats were concerned. There was nothing to harm her. Yes—drought was a persistent problem, and the results of drought and the lack of animals and insects and birds were the results of a decline in the productivity of the earth, but she personally had access to food and water. She could think about danger and threat in an abstract way. This, however, was immediate and personal and not abstract.

Zach was still cheerful, but the other two were quiet and were probably lost, as she was, in thinking about the days ahead. Up until now they had been restoring what was essentially benevolent, the little things that parsed the earth. Now they were being turned into the first wave of checks. They were the beginning of a leveling.

“Well, that’s it,” Alex said. “We’ll have a relaxing evening and in the morning you’ll be off. You’ll get the usual map with directions, and if you want to choose a box rather than have it assigned to you, go right ahead. I know you have mixed emotions—you’re not the first group going out with these. I can tell you that this step is truly and remarkably necessary. We’ll be going out with the big cats and the bears and stuff pretty soon, and there will be alligators and a few non-native species with a nasty temper that will thrive in this climate. It’s harsh. The world was harsh, always, but we were harsher. It’s time to accept the fact that we are temporary, each individual, but we have to maintain the longevity of species. Not just our species. We’re a niche. We shouldn’t be making the decisions because we’ll always make the decision that benefits us. We’re too selfish to remain unchecked.”

She spent the night thinking about it. They had dinner and there was beer and everyone got a little too loud with wary eyes shifting left and right. These were people who had dedicated years of their lives to the restoration. They had understood it; they had sworn to uphold it. but now it was time to prove it.

They got quieter as the night wore on and drifted off silently to their beds. They all rose early and stood in front of Alex, in the room with the boxes.

“Anyone want a particular box?” Alex asked. “Besides the snakes?” He handed Zach that one.

Then there was silence. They all hesitated. Choice seemed somehow to suggest culpability. But she ran though her own thoughts, her own objectives, her own decisions to save the earth, no matter what. She remembered the curtain of spiders, and how awful she had felt—a terrible, consuming, destroying human reaction. She hated siders and she might as well admit it. And she should also admit that destroying what you hated was how they’d all gotten into this mess. She should turn her fears into dedication, maybe. She should really take her chances, and not rely on staying safe.

“I’ll take the spiders,” she sighed and stepped forward.

He nodded and gave them to her. She could hear faint skitterings in the box. There were air-holes, and she thought she saw a hairy black leg stick through a hole briefly and then subside. She took a long breath and made her way out the door.

Her heart skittered too, but her hold was firm.

letters from the ides

I am writing to tell you

that the apple blossoms have opened

and, for a moment, made clouds

out of the trees. rain has swept

the cherry’s petals 

into great muddy drifts

where they will linger, for now,

in a deficit of brooms—or rather

of hands and arms to sweep them.

 

we are become molluscs, in a way,

curled up soft and moist

within our shells. sound

reverberates a little differently

through homes turned castles;

I press my cheek against the wall

when the twins cry, learn to recognize

their parents’ footsteps.

a world away. connected.

 

I try to think of us as coral.

the city, that is—a thing

of shell and rebar, concrete,

glass and grass and promises.

even as polyps retreat

against the coming storm,

we breathe and breathe and

breathe. creatures, for once,

made flesh; and in that, unified.

 

but you have to understand:

 

I try to think of us as coral

because the alternative

is to wake in the night

as red blood cells, as marrow,

as the dna-test scrapings

off the inside of a crime scene

while the skeleton of Seattle

struggles on without us—because

if there is anything to learn

from the rot and rent of centuries,

it is that even bones can crumble,

given time.

 

fear is a nebulous companion.

I did not invite it in. and yet

we are none of us hermetic, none

immutable under strain. I fear

this is a chrysalis. I fear

what might emerge. I fear

more than anything

that it will not

be enough.

I fear

 

that the deaths

and the wounded

will dissipate

from our memory

as atrocity so

often does, and

leave us frozen

by a future we

cannot prevent.

 

I fear it will

happen again.

 

but I

am not

my fear.

 

I will not be my fear.

 

and so:

 

I am writing to tell you that

today, I saw a robin. it clung

to the corner of the sidewalk

and pecked at leaf mulch

caught in the unswept gutter.

worms, I would imagine, had emerged

after the rain, and the bird,

appropriately, would eat its fill.

 

today, the sky was blue and chill

over the white and pink of flowers,

and the streets, new-washed, stood empty

as at dawn.

 

in the quarrelling gulls and crow mobs

where our footsteps used to tread,

I must see courage: I must take of this

a caring, a patience, a love

for one another, in this organism city,

that faces the gaping unknown future

& says: together. we will wait, and watch,

and see what comes, and tomorrow, perhaps,

the maple may bud, and perhaps

we will see it

with you.

After Me, A Flood

The engineer is kind enough, in that he lets Marin breathe his enriched oxygen. He lights something to smoke, lets most of it burn off into the room. The filters kick into high gear. Filters. Her lungs sear; her throat feels scorched. Marin holds her oxygen pack to her face with one hand and lets her father handle the pleasantries.

“You know, that’s contraband,” the engineer says, and Marin exists in a moment of pure terror. He winks. “I’ll allow it.”

Her heart knocks against her ribs and she gasps and tries to keep the malice from her smile. First impressions must be made.

The engineer holds out the deal with grimy, upturned hands. He calls them industrial models, and Marin’s father laughs. They’re remembering something, together, from earth. Two gears laughing at the clock they’ve been soldered into. They raise their voices in raucous laughter and for a moment, it’s enough to drown out the hideous wheezing that’s coming from Marin’s chest.

The faux-lungs themselves are ugly things: dull metal, recycled ore, that early shimmery-soft bio-tissue that looks like liquid metal grafted together. She’s seen patchwork fixes in the clinic, for miners with the goriest injuries—bones breaking through skin, crushed fingers, gruesome burns that go deep to the muscle. These are different; these are intricate. A faux-trachea shines with seams of blue: already cracked. They tremble in their case like living pieces of slag.

The medtechs have offered her months to live and carefully meted pity. This bargain is a bad deal. Marin is a bad deal. Too young to be in the mines, too damaged to ever earn out her contract topside. There is a scarcity to the air that is more marked for her than it is for the miners that file out of the tunnels at night, retching into their sleeves. Best case, she stops coughing up blood long enough to put in a few good years in the refinery before she’s right back here, dying.

But her father has always been blind when it comes to Marin and his eyes are bright and the pen is already in his hand.

Don’t you want to breathe? His favorite refrain. Don’t you want to get better?

Marin doesn’t want to be the one to tell him she’s not worth his contract.

“Bet you’ll be glad to get rid of those,” the engineer says, pointing at her chest. As if parts of her can be plucked out and replaced for convenience’s sake.

But these lungs are hers, and they’re the only ones she’s ever had, and she’s not ready to be rid of them yet.

“I know they don’t look like much, but I do good work. Stronger than those vanity models,” says the engineer. “You can buy yourself a few good years.” He flips the blinds and looks out at the bank of their little river, flush with cobalt dust.

He smiles, generous, irresistible, at Marin’s father.

A few good years for who, she doesn’t ask.

#

The violence of the surgery untethers her.

They’re not a rich colony. The only surgeon is out of their reach, over on the light side. Here, they make do with expired supplies and good sense and self-preservative ignorance.

Marin sees herself on the table, anesthetized with contraband from the livestock facility, peeled open and glistening. The medtechs put her real lungs in a bin for disposal. They look like soft pumice, mottled and shrunken and pockmarked. The techs shuffle her, rearranging her ribs, her heart. They make room.

Put me back, she wants to say.

They take their time. They trace their fingers over the imperfect craftsmanship of her faux-lungs, mesmerized. They press on the bio-fiber just to see it clench and shudder, blow on the ends of the shining silvery veins to draw the color to the surface and watch it fade.

She is intensely aware of the moment the metal goes into her, matches up, slots together with her own self. A breathlessness, and then something almost as good as breath: a coolness, a relief.

There’s something else, too: a blunting. A binding.

After, she claws her way back to consciousness alone in the tent she shares with her father. Her center of gravity has shifted. She’s heavier. Her new lungs feel huge in her chest, drag-anchoring her to the ground. Living tissue bears its own weight, at least. Her breathing is jagged, still, her chest distended and stiff. Her blood is a little darker, a little thicker.

The wrongness of it pervades her and she presses her hands to her chest and feels the solidity there and wonders how she would even go about ripping them out. She feels along her collarbone and hits bone in the wrong places. She settles into her newness. Acquaints herself with her transplanted chassis.

Despises it.

Her father is so pleased. He says she’s the future. That she’s lucky. He kisses her on the forehead and holds a stolen oxygen pack to her face, his own lips tinged with blue.

#

The week before Marin dies, the engineer’s body turns up downstream where the water smells sour and the floodplains are buried under a foot of brackish grey sludge.

The colony doesn’t break ground for burials. Shooting the dead into space is foolproof and cheap and Marin’s been borrowing so much of her life for so long that she doesn’t imagine it will happen to her any differently. The disposal techs talk about sending her remains back to earth for study, but there’s another strike and the supply lines are all being rerouted. There’s only room for one body amidst all that expensive dead cargo, and it’s not hers.

Marin was nobody, so she gets zipped into a bag. She drifts along behind the techs, separate, bound, as they drag her body to processing. The metal detector trips when they wheel her through the bay doors. They pat their pockets, check the scanner. They look at each other and then at the body bag that has Marin in it.

The moment they cut into her and see gleaming metal lodged in her chest, she’s salvage. Her own quarry. She doesn’t blame them; they see some future they couldn’t see before—inside her is the shape of baseless, desperate hope. Something to sell, something to study. Something to pass up the line to buy themselves a little more freedom.

She gets wheeled into another room, a lab where corpses go to be fed to the incinerator. They rifle through her bones and pluck the thing out of her ribs and sever the connections and then she is in two. She is scavenged. They carve her up, pull the cobalt trachea out of her, piece out the bronchi. They rinse it all until it gleams under the grey water sputtering from the tap.

She realizes, as they discard the meat-bits of her, that she has never seen a real, healthy lung, only imagined them: soft, pink, with feathery blood vessels, like the pictures in her moldy books.

#

I can’t believe someone signed off on this, someone is saying. Look at this vein, Jesus, who’s refining this shit? They pry their tools into her crevices. They tilt her body and scrape metal over her and eventually she’s turned out into someone’s palm. The warmth feels like the sun that’s been described to her over a lifetime and she is handled with reverence, with tenderness.

Oh yeah, the technician says. We can make use of this.

#

Marin’s never asked where the cobalt goes. Most of them don’t. They’re all consumed by the just-until-tomorrow’s, the grind of it. Mouths covered until they can return to their little bubbles of stale air. Everyone falling over themselves to dig out that blue marrow for some stranger across the terminator line, across the galaxy.

Something of Marin is stuck in one of the new minerbots. Her new body creaks and shudders. Sometimes when the dust gets bad her joints lock up. Her plating is junk metal, the kind that hasn’t been tempered right. Her limbs are too big. Her treads stick in the mud.

The only grace in this body is that it’s inured from the poison that seeps out of the ground, that she is able to stand sentry while she watches everyone else sleepwalk toward messy, protracted deaths of scarcity. She records those: time, date, identification number, quadrant, corridor. She thinks it must be half programming, half self-imposed imperative: remember the ones who manage to escape this wretched dynamo. She looks for herself in them, but they’re all caught up in their dying. The best she ever did was train for it.

She tries not to get lost in her seething jealousy, her awe for the way they all meet their ends.

She thinks she doesn’t make a very good minerbot.

Sometimes, late at night, in her blue-lit alcove, she plays a game to try and learn this shell, to shock her new self awake. She focuses her will on trying to move its limbs forward. Corrupting its database. Writing directives of her own. Her speech processors aren’t calibrated for screaming; the best they can do is translate her distress into a flat, garbled moan.

She sees a man that looks like her father, one day. They all look like her father: faces sallow and grey and crusted with poison, spitting the dust from their mouths. The man is trapped in a sinkhole. His corridor is flooding. He shouts at her. Help me. You stupid fucking bot, do something. But Marin’s mouth is a slit and her voice is pre-recorded and all she can do is watch.

Stay calm, she chirps. Help is on the way.

She’s decommissioned the next day when she coaxes her treads off the bridge and into the river.

#

She’s being scrapped. She is torn and tossed into piles, she’s threads and plates and cables and her memories blink and fade and she has to choose or she won’t get to keep anything—

She is six. We’ll fix you right up, her father tells her, the first time she becomes conspicuously ill. She’s young yet, he tells her. She will get better. Right now, it’s new. It’s hard. The air is visibly thick; the atmosphere is thin enough that they dwell under a sky of eternal twilight. The storms turn dry and vicious as they blow in over the terminator zone. The dust kicks up cold, like the stories about winter back on earth. No snow, though. Everything that rains down here rains down grey.

He sees a future where she lives lives upon lives, the world she’ll inhabit when she grows up. There’s enough wonder in her still to believe him, to imagine that someday she might leave the dust behind. She has so much to look forward to, her father tells her. The mines, the planet, the adventure of it all. The colony will be different, so different, by the time she’s grown—

Marin is in pieces, dumped in a bucket, onto a conveyer belt—

Marin is eight and her father crosses the line every day to throw out his back digging holes for the drill housing. He comes back slouching and stiff to kiss her on the forehead. He reads to her about history and time. He pulls pieces of stolen ore out of his pockets, lets her turn them over in her hands, holds them up to the light. This is better than air, he tells her—

—melted and pressed, melted and pressed, and still she can’t find herself, formless, and she only has the shape of the memory of what it was like to have a body—

—she doesn’t get better. Her father coughs, now, too. He forges her ID card on her birthday. He hands it to her and tells her she is a technician, now. The colony is hiring lots of technicians because the old minerbots from earth buckle under the gravity, here. They’ll work it out soon. The colonists say this with awe, as if they are so lucky to be denied innovation. Like it’s a great privilege to burn out your life in service of this dead rock, in service of other, better, luckier bodies somewhere else. The business is in the bodies, here. Use one up and the corps can buy another. Humans are doing the work of machines, always, paving their way. They are all just passing the time between now and when they cease—

Marin lies in the tent and listens to the oxygen recycle and imagines what it would be to fill a cart with cobalt and walk along the filthy tributary that feeds into the grey river without one hand pressing a mask to her face—

—she is rinsed, tumbled, rinsed. Formless is better, maybe. She warms. It feels like soothing and dark, like there may be an end to it—

—her father trades his rations for codeine for a week after the medtechs turn her away. His worker friends have to drag him back into the tent. She looks at the bottle in her hands, weighs the pain of bright hunger against the pain of seizing lungs. “Oh, dad,” she tells him. “I wish you wouldn’t.” She isn’t going to last the year—

fucked up the tempering, someone is saying, do it again

—she’s eighteen and furious and holding a mask to her face between yelling at her stupid, naive father who won’t hear her. “You’ll outlive all of them,” he insists. He curls up on the floor on his mat, so scant beneath his filthy jumpsuit. He used to take up all the space in a room. He has withered into this stranger. “Just wait until they get the condensers working and we have real air,” he says. “You’ll see.” You’ll see.

He was right, almost. Outlive was generous.

#

Her body is laid in the stream bed and she’s left to drown for 50 years.

She is some kind of pollution monitor nestled into the fine silt at the bottom of the river, a crab that’s had its legs pulled off. She misses the sun. She is buried and flayed by tons and tons of rock and dust and filth suspended in the current. She’s traded one life of drowning for another.

Sometimes there are human hands on her. This body is simpler than her last; it’s not hard to trip the switch to shut the sensor off, to force herself to malfunction. Anything to attract their attention, anything to buy herself a few moments of maintenance out of the water. On these occasions she is drawn out and shaken before she is discarded again, her meter ignored.

The current rushes ever on and her housing fills with water and sediment. She goes unnoticed, tucked away from even the stars, her mouth soldered open in a silent scream.

#

They bury her in the walls.

Enough of her is here that she can thread herself through the wires. She must be in one of the administrative complexes. She finds the computer system unrecognizable, labyrinthine. The datacore gives her the current year and she laughs and rages, leaning on calcified muscle memory. She fries three of the door controls on level two.

It is nice to be touched, palm after palm laid against those control consoles. The soft press of a passcode is almost like a whisper; the way they bend for retina scans feels like supplication. Even the momentary agony that comes with a short out is welcome. For the first time in years, she’s maintained. They check her all the time. They go to great lengths to ensure her functionality. Her sensors are cleaned. Her interface demands constant attention and she is quietly thrilled with the new power she commands.

Her dominion is absolute. She can open the doors. She can deny entry. She can override the airlock controls and steal everyone’s breath, flood their buildings with nothing, watch them beg and gasp and die.

She wonders at that. How she can still find fury, after so long.

She lets them live, she operates as expected. Clean people with clean clothes breathing clean air. She doesn’t know how long she’ll be here. She needs to be better than this monstrous system that has subsumed her. She needs to be able to tolerate herself. She hasn’t looked in a mirror for a long time.

#

Her body lies fallow in a field.

It’s the first time Marin has passed the terminator line. She didn’t dare imagine it, in life; she’s only ever experienced this side of the tidal-lock in the quiet space of stories and hushed whispers. The reality is grimier: she sits in a dried-up tidal basin, one of a thousand panels with their cracked faces turned skyward.

The sun soaks into her metal frame. She has few visitors. The dirt here is just dirt: inoffensive, inert. It stays on the ground instead of tearing over the plains in swirling clouds. She luxuriates in her frame of steel and weathered glass and cobalt, waits for the thin clouds to part so she can drown in the scant sunlight.

Her barometric readings tell her that the oxygen is abundant, now. Particulate matter has settled. The sky is the color of those pictures of junk cobalt, the pieces that weren’t pure enough to be beaten into alloys. A stratosphere is forming. It is an embarrassment of riches. What lies they’ve all been told, over there in the dark. How constrained they all were.

To think they all thought they knew air.

She passes years without seeing a human. Overhead, the transport ships skim the planetary rings streaked white over the sky, like someone has scraped away space itself. She dreams of the ascent. Of making it off-world. Of all of her, collected and brought back together and thrown gently into the same scrapheap.

#

They bring her back across the terminator line and her body is mounted on a launchpad and pointed at the sky.

It is almost a relief to be in the dark again. To be home. She is spread across so many pieces of metal, now. They have scavenged her from stolen scrap, and she is melted and cast and propped up on the hill overlooking the narrowest stretch of river. She is riveted back together and returned to herself and soldered into something strong and deliberate.

Hundreds of hands are on her at a time. Sometimes they come to her, alone, press their palms to her frame and whisper their hopes to her. It is almost warm, like skin on skin. So many of them must be dreaming for the first time. There is finally room to imagine what might be, it seems. There has not been a new engineer in some time. The ships have stopped coming. The river is a little clearer. These things they tell her. Please work, baby, they say. This is it, I can feel it.

She lets herself hope, for them.

She gathers, little by little, a sense of the future they intend for her. They tell her stories of escape. They tell her stories of the people they have held, the people they have breathed, the ones they’ve lost. She is to be a vessel; they will use her to leave this planet behind.

There will be no more dust and no more lungs and no more sky, but she is glad to be something more than slag to these hoping bodies.

She fails them. She never makes it past the fragile, fledgling cloud layer. She tries to stave off her reeling panic, but it spreads through her like the seizing of a diaphragm, the choking of phantom lungs. It shocks her metal into something brittle and shuddering; it shears away like sloughing skin. The loss of it all, the enormity of almost, drops her from the sky.

This feels familiar, too: she always gets so close. The sky recedes. The dizziness overtakes her.

The Corps burns the bodies before they dismantle her. They use her white-hot wreck as a pyre. She welcomes the scorching. She wishes it would take. But she’s been breathing worse than smoke her whole life and she should know better by now: the lifeless parts of her always endure.

#

In her last life, she is laid into the circuitry of the dam.

Her body is wide and expansive. She holds back tons and tons of freezing poison, years, decades, centuries of the things the Corps has put away, out of sight, as if that lessens the violence of their transgressions. The reservoir runs through her teeth, cascades down the surface of her, thunders into the canyon below.

Her once-home is unrecognizable. She is distant from the parts of her that could tell her how long it’s been. An eternity, certainly. She’s built into the mountains she’d only ever glimpsed from the ground in that first life. The first time it rains, she thinks she’s being demolished, the water stinging against her broad self. But then the barrage turns angry and bright and lovely. Almost too much after so long spent blunted and cold. She wonders if the atmosphere is suffused with metal, too. If there are places untouched by cobalt on this wretched colony. If it’s still a colony or mostly a grave.

Open, closed, open, closed. She complies, this time. She plays thrall to whomever, whatever is controlling her. They must have learned better than to let her access their systems, or perhaps she is simply less every century. Perhaps every time she is diluted and melted and hammered into something new she loses something of herself.

One day, after a flood, bodies wash up against the base of her. Their blood rubs off on the piling; they stain her.

Her fury, muted for so long, reverberates through her, and she cracks. It doesn’t take much; the poison has been eroding her for a long time. It drips down her face in a foul welter. There is more of it, and more of it. The waterline at her base disappears as the trickle becomes a torrent.

The river swells and spills over its grey-blue banks. It carries the silt, the shale, the bodies. It sweeps through the valley, forces what has been extracted back into the ground. All her life has been this: the dread, the waiting, the knowledge that she is failing, will fail. That her center is one breath away from collapsing. That the most she can do is hasten her own collapse.

She can drive mercy towards them. Out of herself. She wants them to know, just once, what it feels like.

The trick has always been the same: keep breathing.

Marin groans and heaves. Sighs. Lets the deluge cleave her.

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.