A Little More Kindness

From space, the planet appeared blue-green and lonely. The Manithan decelerated through re-entry, exchanging speed for heat. I remained stretched in my pressure suit, suffering the shudders. Rajini lay beside me, emitting a series of blinks on the panel across his chest that reassured me the insulation cloaking our chamber was sufficient to withstand the plasma pummeling us from outside.

I’d made the photobot. His conviction was my handiwork. All those years cloaked in the warehouses of Arya-7, forcibly away from Alekha who was alone in the colony beneath the bridges reserved for the caste-less.

Seven generations of my family had been raised confined in those colonies, laboring through sludge and waste and the sweat of those who couldn’t prove their castes.

I gripped my unfinished letter to Alekha as the Manithan juddered in entry. Rajini tinkered with the controls. We had no planned landing site. It was near impossible to find one on an Earth ravaged by untamed wilderness and abandoned for four hundred and eighty seven years.

As the pummeling ceased, though, and the Manithan burst through layers of clouds, the father in me subsided and the photographer in me jerked awake.

I gaped even as my hands folded the letter back inside my pocket, while Rajini activated the trackers.

Earth. Beautiful, savage, ruthless Earth. Enduring in our absence. No—thriving. The jungle sprawled below us in spikes of unhindered growth, and as the Manithan sped across the skies, the seas blossomed out of land much like what we voyaged over back in the colonies, but so much more serene, so much more . . . regal.

I hesitated to get out my camera. Rajini, beside me, already commissioned for the same, was capturing the panorama. I was only baggage, the unwantedness of whose presence Rajini never held back from expressing every few hours, reminding me of the option laid out in front of me—to return. Return and remain beside my daughter who had come to love Rajini more than me. Who laughed at his quirks as much as she hated my time away from her in the warehouses, to a point where any effort at reconciliation appeared to be a pittance.

This illegal journey would be my apology. From securing a job in the endless grind of the warehouses to learning to build photobots and re-programming Rajini to condone my presence on a journey meant exclusively for the likes of him—every second away from Alekha in the last seven years had been dedicated to the singular purpose of smuggling myself into a ship bound for Earth.

Alekha and I were now one trip away from moving out of the colonies beneath the bridges forever.

“What is our destination?” I asked Rajini.

His chrome setup gyrated towards me. “We make for any airstrip around Delhi. My commission informs me of seven monuments within a two hundred mile radius of the capital that are worthy of significance to the Library and Universities in Arya-7. We begin there.”

“Including the Taj Mahal, no doubt,” I muttered, just loud enough for him to hear.

“Obviously.”

“Overrated marble junk,” I offered politely.

I had seen the pictures. The gallery of heritage sites and monuments whose images were captured before evacuation for the future generations to assimilate as remnants of their erstwhile home. As an example of marble architecture, the Taj Mahal was all right—I remembered rolling my eyes the first time and scoring it five and a half out of ten—but as one of seven wonders of the old world? Blasphemy. There were far more intricately carved temples and monuments in India worthy of that honor. Monuments not built by slaves who were blinded and had their fingers chopped off upon completion.

History, sadly, was not objective.

“I have my orders, sir,” Rajini said. My programming, with the quiet exception of my intrusion in this ship, had to conform to the regulations of the photobot codes. Rajini had executed half a dozen round trips to Earth under the command of a senior photobot before he could captain his own ship. This was his first solo. I was unsure how torn he was between a sense of achievement and annoyance.

“Of course,” I told him, secretly proud of how far he’d come. “Go on.”

The Delhi airstrip was unrecognizable. The wilderness had consumed it, as it had consumed all of Delhi, undoing centuries of engineering and toil. The Manithan whistled over the ruin. Beneath me, failed foundations and tumbled buildings were replaced with buckthorns and birches invading the crushed concrete. Roots heaved up sidewalks and split sewers until they furrowed the lanes and everything around them.

Rajini charted a course for an alternate landing site in Agra. I silenced my groan, put on some music in my headphones and promptly fell asleep.

Rajini nudged me awake with an alarm beep I was too familiar with from back beneath the bridges in Arya-7.

Light dazzled through the frame of the Manithan, and as Rajini steered the nose downward, I glimpsed the Taj Mahal choked in ivy and fern, one minaret altogether non-existent, the other three cracked or fallen into rubble, sunlight filtering into the dark within. I imagined the ruins echoed with the croak of frogs breeding in streams teeming with mahseers and trouts, and mussels dropped by seagulls in the lake that now thrived without the poison of washermen.

This was not waste. This was the life that the humans had refused to co-exist with during my ancestors’ time.

“You’re lucky.” Rajini’s voice box let out a chuckle. I wondered what his sarcasm meter was tuned to. “The monument is beyond identification. Results from my recordings state it does not fulfill the criteria for the Endurance Project.”

I hated the Taj Mahal simply for its popularity among the colonies, but for the first time, I disagreed in defense of it.

“It’s beautiful,” I mouthed, the breath escaping in a curling wisp. At the peak of its decadence, the Taj Mahal had represented something glorious, disparate from the tortured hands that had raised it. “Let me down, I need to get a picture from up close.”

Rajini let out a guttural beep. “That would be foolish, sir. And not recommended at all.”

“Yes, yes. I appreciate your warning. You’ve a heart of gold. Now let me down, Rajini. I have my pressure suit, insulated and completely sealed. You have scanned the area. There’s no viral presence, nor is there any radiation from the Narora power plant, which is . . .”, I glanced at the charts, “no less than a hundred and fifty kilometres away.”

Rajini appeared to process my response. In the end, there was only a muffled moan.

“I don’t understand why you had to accompany me in the first place, sir.” He stopped just short of expressing disapproval. “An image-grabbing mission has never occurred that wasn’t exclusively conducted by geo-satellites or photobots. Your presence is . . . making things awkward for me. I am questioning my limits.”

The Arya-7 engineer override. Rajini’s professional boundaries obscured his personal inclination for Alekha’s and my safety, coded beneath layers like a smudge.

For the first time since we broke into the atmosphere, the photographer pushed his seat back and allowed the father to lean forward. The father in me was a mild-mannered man, stocked with memories and longing and an ache to merge the past with the present. “I promised Alekha I would show her a picture of our ancestral home. This is the only way.”

If Rajini knew my true purpose, he’d abandon his mission and dispatch a signal of compromise back to Arya-7. I was aware of the failings of my own creation.

“So you admit this is illegal?”

I sighed. “You won’t be decommissioned, if that’s what you’re worried about. The modification chip was inserted post the control checks for tolerance. Arya-7 can be really blind sometimes, you know.”

“All this for for a few pictures?” Rajini asked.

“That’s it.” I straightened my lips and gestured to him to unlock the pod’s exit.

“You abandoned her in Arya-7,” he said flatly. The fact of it stung me, the word ‘abandoned’ lying in the air between us, cold and static. “Her survival rate dips by 6.5 percent in your absence.”

I was aware of the risk. “She has neighbors in the colonies, and friends.”

Lies. She had nobody.

“Why are you here, sir?”

I ran a hand into my pockets, feeling the soft touch of parchment. “I want my daughter to know who my ancestors were and where they lived. Is that too much to ask?”

Rajini did not reply. I laid a hand on his metallic shoulder, feeling the nanites within squirm and rearrange. “It’s just a few photos. We don’t have to do it now. We can keep it for the end, once we’re done with all the monuments.”

He only gave the briefest of nods before landing the Manithan on the patch of overgrown land, once the I of the Taj Mahal. I pulled the latch on the pod. A hiss and groan gave way to sunlight streaming in beams of dust. I wore the camera like a garland and ambled out, Rajini on my tail.

“Follow my lead, sir,” he said, one of his eye sockets rotating like a camera lens to unleash layers of focus, gleaming under the afternoon sun.

Acid rain had pocked most of the marble on the surface of Shah Jehan’s dedication to Mumtaz. From behind the Taj Mahal and across the narrow river, acres of woodland straddled the border. Groves of ash rose above an understory of ferns and massive birches and old banyans, bridging the river, their army of vines creeping up the walls of the Taj Mahal and shrouding it in a matted veil of thorn, tangled briars and withies. The smell of wisteria and honeysuckle, or so I imagined within the suit. I lifted the camera to my eyes and captured the side of the broken monument and the jungle mounting it. Retaliation, I named the picture.

In any unstricken, abandoned part of the world, Rajini and I would have to be wary of lairs of corrupted wolves, bears and coyotes even in the midst of a choked megalopolis. Initial attempts to return had resulted in attacks by mutated species clinging to life. I imagined what it would be like to have that virus course through my bloodstream, pick out strands of my cells and twist them into something malicious and unforgiving. Desperate and alone.

I’d glanced through reports of New York and Paris. And of Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. The predictor model had been quashed fifteen years into our evacuation.

Ah, the evacuation. If only my ancestors hadn’t been so hasty! If only they hadn’t left it behind.

I checked the viral meter again and was contented with a below-threshold signature. Indication of a severely truncated fauna. Whatever remained would have had to overcome repeated bouts of illnesses and atrophy. Chances were slim.

Rajini stopped forty feet from the entrance to the Taj Mahal—now a caved-in remnant of an arch. It reminded me of Buland Darwaza, which I preferred over this blanched dullness. The photobot raised his head—a series of clicks detonated around his eye in capturing the monument. I walked a few paces to the side, away from Rajini’s lengthening shadow, and held my own camera to my eye. The dark entrance, the cobwebs, the arching vines, the silence. The history erased and rebuilt by nature.

Click.

I named this image Better Dead than Alive.

The suit was suffocating. I was desperate to be rid of it, but despite the safety signals, there was no way Rajini would have permitted me to strip. There was a time before the photobot missions when he’d walk ahead of Alekha and me through the colonies, never letting anyone get close except those with whom we shared the pain. Now? Now was different. Rajini was not fully mine. Only Alekha was. I intended to keep it that way.

“Was it better the last time you were here?” I asked, as we strolled back towards the Manithan an hour later.

Rajini slowed his pace to allow me to catch up with him. We trod on high grass, the rectangular pool the Taj Mahal overlooked now entirely drowned in vegetation. “It was three years ago when I visited with Senior Kamal. So, no. Much, much worse. Some of the obscenities were still standing.”

“Come on, be serious.”

“I am,” he replied. “Contrary to your inputs, the Arya-7 engineers further programmed me to be ecologically oriented. Just because we are clothed in metal does not mean our minds cannot be tempered to care for soil.”

I looked around, at the diminishing state of humanity’s footsteps in that desolate wasteland of Agra. “Give it a few hundred years. After all the genetic degradation, they’ll stop sending you here. There won’t be anything left of our legacy to capture and study.”

“Quite the contrary, sir,” Rajini rolled over the ramp of our ship. “It becomes all the more necessary to visit this place once nature’s takeover is complete. It will be a reminder of what once was and what could have been, and that acts of humanity forced them to depart between those two states of time.”

“There was bound to be compromise,” I said. “It’s impractical for humans to be dominated completely by nature.”

“And yet,” he stopped to splay his aluminum limbs wide, bolts creaking. “Look who has come out on top.”

“Humans adapted,” I countered.

Rajini hissed. “To adapt and abandon is to be left with no choice.”

I was unsure if this existential dread was of my making, but I avoided questioning him further. I had come to realize that Rajini had . . . evolved since his inception in the feeble light of the warehouses. With each passing day, I had fewer and fewer options to modify in him. He was, in the end, a property of Arya-7, and I was only a royalty-earner who’d once tightened the screws. I feared the day was not far off when he’d walk into the colonies beneath the bridges and fail to recognize Alekha. Or worse, harm her.

I stopped, lifted the camera and my eyes and captured the bent metallic frame of Rajini as his silhouette lingered at the entrance to the Manithan, against a backdrop of the domination of jungle. I shrugged off my fears and named this image Guardian.

We visited Fatehpur Sikhri to capture the Buland Darwaza—the red and buff sandstone withered, the chhatris atop it enduring through the carnage on the ground. Greenery had swallowed up the arched entrance before flowing into the courtyard of the jama masjid. The spandrels of white marble had eroded without maintenance, gnawed at by creepers aiming for the cusped o
nament at the tip of the dome.

The structure itself, though, could be recognized for what it was—a gaping maw of a door chewed by bracken. It passed Rajini’s obscure metrics and earned a photograph. I took one, too, kneeling fifty feet from the door, capturing its height and width, then zoomed at the only Persian inscription that hadn’t faded: He who hopes for a day may hope for eternity, but the World endures but an hour.

I named the picture A Dead Door in a Living Planet.

The other monuments in Delhi—Humayun’s Tomb, the Qutub Minar, the India Gate and Safdarjung Tomb—had been completely submerged in the overflowing arm of the jungle, as though Earth had longed to cover up its errors and return to its state of origin at the earliest convenience.

“Where to next?” I asked Rajini, once the thrusters lifted us off. It had begun to grow dark outside, and no amount of comforting viral metrics would make me want to remain down in that wilderness.

Rajini seemed to analyze the guidance system, one eye roving at the vitals of the air outside. “I believe the Sun Temple in Konark is our next stop. Along the coast of the Bay of Bengal. Before we head south to Rameshwaram.”

Rameshwaram was near my hometown. My heart began to beat just a little quicker. “Sounds like a plan,” I said, before curling up on my seat and submitting to music once again.

We found a barren hilltop to land our vessel for the night, where sleep rushed to overcome me. Rajini stayed awake, analyzing the pictures taken, transmitting them back to Arya-7, and pretending to be busy. I knew he was waiting for me to react to being the only living human being on Earth at that moment. I didn’t, rather forcefully. Lest he get the impression that I was not suited to the neutral demands of this mission. The feeling never escaped me that Rajini was constantly looking to test me and my own limits. I was a bug in his otherwise perfect routine of interstellar travel and image-grabbing.

In truth, I did not wish to disappoint him.

Come morning, we landed in Konark, in the courtyard of the Sun Temple. The rekha deul—the main sanctuary of the temple—had been swallowed up entirely. The ground had cratered beneath a couple of sanctums and mandapas. The temple had already been half a ruin in colonial years. What survived had been bulldozed by weeds and torrents of underbrush, the Khondalite stone’s faster weathering accelerating the decay.

I felt a pang of pity. The sanctum’s raha rose above the pavilion, the sole, unsullied part of the temple, which, to Rajini, seemed worthy of a picture.

Otherwise, he was quiet. He rolled ahead into the ruin while I lazily followed him in my uncomfortable suit, stopping to take pictures of the carved stones, the walls ornamented with reliefs, the erotic sculptures and the stone wheels engraved in the pillars—slowly subjected to their end.

Ten minutes later, Rajini said urgently, “The inside of the sanctum is unsafe. We must return to the ship.”

The main temple and the jaganmohana porch lay within the sanctum.

“Come on,” Rajini urged me. “This is non-negotiable.”

I did not resist. We shuttled away, the indicators on Rajini’s chest glowing a faint amber, emitting a sonorous beep that faded as we gained altitude. “The corrosion on the walls interfered with my sensors until we were on the courtyard,” he justified, while I stretched my legs over the cockpit. “There are mutations down there within the sanctum . . . . I apologize. I put you in danger.”

I blinked and folded my legs. “You have nothing to apologize for, relax. I still have my suit on, if you noticed.”

“Irrespective,” he mumbled. “The well-being of the crew is my responsibility.”

Silence roosted between us for hours. Most of it I drowned in half a bottle of whiskey while filtering through my pack for the old letters that had pointed to my family’s ancestral home. I read them and re-read them until the words of my forefathers echoed in my ears. A distant calling I had ignored for years. Only now, with a daughter ostracized and stranded without a roof in Arya-7, I desperately responded to it. None of the seven generations before me had. They could not, not without the resource piloting the ship next to me, each minute growing more suspicious.

Rameshwaram lay submerged beneath the ocean. Only the ornate, sculpted tops of a handful of temples floated overland in a colony of reeds and driftwood. Paddies were barely discernible, transformed into pockets of marsh. Boats lay overturned around parts of the inner town that still lingered on the surface.

Rajini appeared satisfied.

“No photos,” he beamed, once the statistics confirmed what I had already concluded from his limited offering of metal-tinged expressions. “The monuments are beyond capturing. I hereby declare our mission complete, sir.”

“Well, yours, yes,” I interjected hopefully.

Rajini ignored me. “I can lower the hatch to allow you a couple of pictures, if you desire. This is magnificent. I only wish I had the permission to soak in this scene of the natural domination of our mother.”

I was tempted to remind him that I was his mother.

I stood on the precipice of the Manithan’s exit, one hand gripping the railing, the other clasping the camera through the gloves of my suit.

The pictures turned out remarkably well. I even managed to zoom in on a colony of red-crowned cranes, those revered portents of peace, gliding over bulrushes in perfect formation.

When I returned to my seat, Rajini regarded me with careful precision. I imagined if he had human eyes, they would have narrowed, and if he had human lips, they would have curled to utter his next words in a patronizing monotone.

“Valliyur, is it?”

I gulped, trying to regain my composure. My ancestral hometown.

“Yes.”

“You will have fifteen minutes.”

“Thank you,” I blurted.

From hovering over the debris of Rameshwaram to the soaked jungles of Valliyur took us less than an hour. Along the way, my eyes roved over the thriving wilderness beneath us. Civilization had ended, and I had little emotion to spare.

Out there on Arya-7, faith was geographically challenged. It came out twisted and misshapen, its roots on Earth long forgotten. We had to submit proof of caste to be eligible for a roof. The ones who couldn’t were given the colonies beneath the bridges, where death was but a hiss away. I told myself what I always told Alekha: the spirits of the gods we prayed to were too distant for our screaming hymns and chants.

I need not have tried to guide Rajini across the plains towards the speck of Valliyur using the stained map in my hand, the territory familiar only in name and in the haunting of memories. The forests once bordering Valliyur had swept over the town. In fact, until Rajini pointed at an accidental clearing, I couldn’t tell that I was home.

When we touched down, the sensors began to flare.

“Ignore it,” I bumbled, in a hurry.

“The parameters are over the threshold by four percent, sir. The Kundakulam Nuclear Facility is less than eighty kilometres away. There is leaked radioactivity. And there’s definite presence of virulent particles in the air.”

“I have my suit. You promised me fifteen minutes,” I said. I imagined Alekha shivering beside the fires alone these last four months. Clinging to hope, clinging to the idea of Rajini and me returning. How much longer before her disappointment in me transformed into indifference? How much longer before she was forced down the path of many around her who sneaked into tents and crouched in the shadows of the sludges to steal and kill? Her caste should not have mattered. And yet, so far from Earth and its pious atmosphere, it mattered more than ever. Arya-7 had been constructed on the societal evils that should have been left behind like the millions who couldn’t make it into the shuttles.

Rajini’s head vibrated in a formidable shake.

I gulped. “I . . . I need to do this. Please. It’s for my daughter. Sh-she does not deserve the bridges. Ten minutes. Just ten.”

A signal choked out of Rajini. “It’s a poisoned land, sir. It is my priority to safeguard your life and the life of any crew on board.”

“Five minutes,” I begged. “Maybe fewer given there’s a good chance my ancestor’s house does not even exist anymore. It’s probably all jungle already. Let me just check.”

The improbability of the existence of my ancestral home at least temporarily stumped Rajini. I suspected the sentiment about my daughter, the first honest statement I had uttered to Rajini since smuggling myself into the Manithan, had no impact.

After a long moment, his sensors changed color.

“Five minutes,” he repeated. “Just photos.”

I nodded in relief and pressed the button to release the hatch. The other hand I held to my chest where my bloated suit’s outer pocket contained the letters.

“Tighten your seals, sir,” Rajini added as I strode past him and down the ramp.

Home was a clusterfuck of tangled wood and leaves. The co-ordinates on the letters matched the location where I stood. Around me, a few collapsed houses. I did not know if one of them belonged to my ancestors. There had been a name and number on the gate four hundred and eighty seven years ago. Plot 11. Pavithra.

The walls were buried under a thick knot of briars. I skulked around like a fox, the suit increasingly a hindrance to my need. Ahead, more broken homes. Roofs caved in. Gates overgrown in tendrils of greenery. Vines enveloping entire floors. Branches piercing the windows of cars. Leaves breathing everywhere. There was so much life it was overwhelming.

Ahead, I glimpsed a wall still standing. I crept closer, crawling through a hole and tumbling out on the other side, clearing condensation from my visor before squinting at the inscription on the wall.

The 11 had been scrubbed off. Only the ‘itra’ remained of the name.

Home.

I lifted the camera and held it against the suit’s visor. Click. I named the image Legacy. Another click. Purpose. A third, of the verandah and the porch leading to a door scratched and holed into darkness. A Gift to a Daughter.

My five minutes were up. I glanced back and my breath caught as I realized I had walked almost a hundred metres from the Manithan. It was barely visible through the thick forest cover.

I climbed the wall and bundled inside the home. Gave the door the barest of nudges and watched it collapse. Pollen rose from the floor in an oppressive cloud. The walls were wet; the floor was wet; the banisters on the stairs were wet. The boots attached to the suit’s membrane were moisture-proof but wet. I climbed the stairs, two at a time, wet and lost and full of longing for a world I had no part in either creating or destroying.

There were three rooms on the first floor. I waded into the smallest, where I hoped they’d buried their greatest secrets. Coated in brambles and ivy. Branches broke through the lone window, leaves of the banyan as large as coracles. Insects crawling upon them. An owl hooted in the distance.

The roof had begun to cave in. Cracks on the floor. A cratered sink on one end. The bed had broken and lay a ruin. Only a safe endured at the end of the room, as though it had been moved in yesterday.

Sheesham at first touch. I traced its contours and then, using the code from my letters, opened its drawers. More letters, untouched for centuries but preserved. And a document. I opened it.

A will.

Immediate transfer of property to the colony, drafted post the accords and after the evacuation ships had been prepared. My heart galloped, my hands tracing an inlaid wooden box that lay beneath the forgotten will. I pocketed the letters and the document, then lifted the box. It felt heavy in my hand.

The latch clicked open at my touch. Inside lay an ancient pocket watch, with a man’s and a woman’s face shaded in sepia, the dials stuck at twenty seven minutes past nine. A necklace beneath it, and a smaller box of turmeric and sacred ash. And dried sandalwood paste. Worthless in Arya-7. Just a memory, preserved and then abandoned under the duress of an emergency. And yet, it was suddenly everything. Worth a journey through hyperspace, through a fiery atmosphere, past submerged cities and ruined temples and monuments with their histories erased. I glanced through the will once again and smiled. I could easily prove my ancestry. The names would suffice. Alekha suddenly had a line connecting her to this ruin. A malignant caste that ought to have been erased. Our lives in Arya-7 depended on it.

I placed the box in the largest pocket of the suit and zipped it up.

Then I turned to leave, and froze.

The beast at the door had been a wolf at some point, of that I was certain. What the virus had mutated it into I did not have a name for. It snarled at me from beneath the doorway, drooling, teeth as long and sharp as kitchen knives. It had no hair, only rough, bronze skin, pockmarked and swollen, with pus releasing every few seconds as it breathed.

It took one step inside, and I backed away, tripping and falling, fortunately, only over the broken bed’s frame. My elbow made a crunching sound, but my fear was reserved for the monstrosity looming in front of me.

When it leaped, I closed my eyes.

The sound of the bullet exploding across the chamber filled my ears and my chest, setting the heart cornered in it ablaze. I opened my eyes and watched the beast stagger, stumble, and fall two feet from me, a gaping hole in the back of its head, black blood seeping out in a miasma of all that was wrong.

Rajini stood in the doorway.

“You’re late,” he said. I managed to stand up, one hand clutched around the letters and the wooden inlaid box in my suit. Time began to thaw. I lumbered past the beast and followed Rajini out of my home, through the tangles, the mess of nature, the order of it, the majesty of it, until the Manithan came into view, like a savior. My smaller savior ambled ahead and up the ramp.

And there he suddenly stopped and turned.

His weapon, unmistakably, was aimed at me.

“Sir, I think we may have a problem.”

It took me a few moments to understand. The will was safe.

I glanced down at the blotch of blood that had stained my pale-white suit. Dripping from the elbow. A piece of wood remained lodged just at the end of my forearm, jutting through the suit and the insulation and finding skin like a magnificent treasure hunter. How hard had I fallen on the bedpost’s stump?

“It’s—it’s nothing,” I said weakly, even as I unzipped the outer lining of my suit where I had stored the inlaid box, the will and the letters.

“I am afraid I cannot let you inside the ship, sir. Or back to Arya-7.”

Rajini was calm, his aim solid and decisive. I did not want to move and provoke him. On a winter night fifteen years ago, I could have compelled him to lay down his weapon, marched up to him and disabled his consciousness. His imperatives.

Slowly, I slid my hand from within the holder and removed my ancestor’s property.

“We can rectify this.”

When Rajini did not reply, I sensed his resolve and continued, “I am going to pass these on to you. I want you to take them back to my daughter.”

Rajini’s sensors seemed to capture the haze in the environment, the virus’ potency latching on to my body, slowly devouring me. It would take days, weeks, maybe months, or if I was really unfortunate, years. In the end, I’d be like the un-wolf whose remains lay splattered in the smallest bedroom of my ancestor’s home.

Slowly, my creation nodded. Gods, he was perfect! An image flashed in front of my eyes. Of Rajini walking beneath the bridges, carrying Alekha on his shoulder so that she could glimpse the protests. Where was I? Why couldn’t I remember? Maybe this was for the best. My presence after all this while would be difficult to explain. Alekha would find it easier to forgive Rajini. He had never betrayed her.

I inched closer to him. I had exhausted my quota of foolish acts, though. I remained grounded and passed on my belongings.

I also carried two letters I had penned for Alekha. I opened one, read it and then cast it aside. It floated down and silked into the undergrowth. The other letter I had read a dozen times. I heaved a sigh and placed it in Rajini’s hand, blood from my fingers staining his aluminum.

“And this,” I said. “Tell my daughter that she now knows who her family was and where they lived . . . . And what they left for her.”

Last went the camera. I lifted it over my face and garlanded Rajini with it. He did not display discomfort. “Show my daughter my pictures. Do not speak to her of the wolf. Tell her it was a beautiful home, and that the day isn’t far that she’ll return to Earth. And tell her, maybe treat it with a little more kindness the next time out.”

For the first time, my words seemed to have an emotional impact on Rajini. He weighed each letter, the integrity of them rising from the depths of my tainted soul, and measured them for meaning. For hope.

“Just a little more kindness?” he asked.

Tyrni

We were prickling

pine     we were humming

horn     we were sand

smudged     by sea

we were weed     wrapped

and swallowed     antler crowned

hum of rubythroat    before we were

 

White       is not a color is        the absence

 

a result of our eyes        the reflection

    a scatter

                of everything 

 

Here is where we lost         our moon

songs         our fox        tale  rooted dance     

how to say     sandthorn     sallowthorn     sea buckthorn

 

                                Tyrni

 

Where to find orange flecked 

fruit        how to snake

arm through thorns        clutch

avoid the colorless          bury

fingers in flesh      the ripest squish

outstretched        juiced

See how my hands       remember

the weight of this            kind of gold

What’s To Like?

A granite skull rose from the desert floor,

symbol of our demise,

in the 115 degree searing Egyptian heat.

 

We took a selfie with the Sphinx

for the fun of it, and titled it,

our seven thousand mile carbon footprint.

 

And then, we were off to Paris, to dine

near the Spanish Steps, and

post a photo of our dinner on FB.

 

From Paris to our favorite restaurant in Seattle

for clams, before clams die out.

Remember clams? Their beds forever buried deep

beneath the oil slick. What a pity, such a waste

when the pipes burst.

How many miles and tanks of gas lost,

spoiled, ruined?

 

Buenos Aires for breakfast with our dear friends.

But mostly, what we do is eat delicious meals

prepared with imported ingredients

from home sweet home.

 

Do you like my website, how we wrecked the world?

That’s me, the amateur ecologist standing

before the Sphinx

in the land of dead pharaohs and pyramids.

Crisis

We are not doing anything about it because we have to help our parents pay their mortgage. We are not doing anything about it because the children want dogs to play with. We are not doing anything about it because I cannot stop thinking about a girl I sat and watched at a coffee shop six subway stops away. We are not doing anything because who believes that stuff anyway? When I close my eyes I do not see oceans breaking over Miami or San Francisco but green eyes from a sooty dream in a café. We are not doing anything about it because her hair is dark and heavy like carbon dioxide and likewise pungent and cloudy by memory. We are not because it’s too hot in the summer. We are not doing anything about the world of our children and grandchildren because we have not made them yet. I want a family and three children and a yard and a gabled roof. We are not doing anything because all I can think of is sex. We are hungry students. We are poor. We are not doing anything about it because she answered the phone and said yes and we met at the café where I first saw her and we went for a long walk near the river and that day we could not imagine the footprints we made would one day fill with water and the sediment of youth. We are not doing anything about it because I am writing a novel. I have work tomorrow. I found a job forging college essays for teenagers. They are thinking about the future. We are saving money to travel the world and see the endangered places tipping into the edge. We are not doing anything about it because she hasn’t answered her phone in a week and the space between rings and the rings are the rising knife of not her. I am distracted. I cannot read news articles like this. I cannot feel guilty like this. We are not doing anything about it because I want to own a home and pay bills and eat cereal in the morning and wake up to her on her side facing away from me knowing she has not moved in the night. I want to make enough money to buy her happiness as best I can. We are not doing anything about it because we have to pay our mortgage. There’s a new cell phone out. APR is lower for Christmas deals. We are not doing anything about it because I usually take public transportation. I use CFL bulbs and wash my clothes in cold water. We are not doing anything about it because she has put on weight. Her hips and breasts are round like the curve of her lips. We are not doing anything about it because she’s sick. We are not doing anything about it because she looks beautiful in white. Like a fragile rounded egg. We are not doing anything about it because we are on vacation. We just bought gym memberships. I have to clean. While making protein shakes I heard a gasp from the bedroom and spilled yolk and powder across the floor. We are not doing anything about it because it’s a boy and he has ten toes and ten fingers and cried when the doctor held him and he already looks like me. We are not doing anything about it because we live inland. We are not doing anything about it because I don’t mind mosquitoes. We are not doing anything about it because our baby is sick and hospitals need fuel and electricity and that is where our baby is. This is now the land of our children. But our children want dogs to play with. We are not doing anything about it because his hair is soft and hot like molten string. Outside on the pavement our grandchildren fry eggs in the sun. We are not doing anything about it because where are the car keys? We are not doing anything because sometimes at night her thighs remind me of her thighs years ago. It’s trash night. There is going to be a storm and the Bhatnagars need to trim the rotten branches on their linden tree. There is a book I might read. I’m starting that diet again. Her father’s funeral ran late. We are taking continuing education courses on kitchen sanitation at the community college. I haven’t had coffee yet. We are not doing anything about it because Harold is sick. The Bhatnagars invited us over for dinner. We’re vegetarians now. But she’s staying late at work again. I spend my afternoons remembering how I used to play baseball in the field behind my house where bums lived in deserted dugouts. We are not doing anything because our friends are dying from other things: cancer is bad Lyme is bad high cholesterol is bad car accidents are bad alcohol poisoning is bad suicide is bad. We are not doing anything because I do not actually believe she will sign the papers. I have not slept well for thirty-two years. We are not because I stubbed my toe on the new Ikea desk that I will use to do my writing about which I had forgotten but it’s not too late yet. There’s still all the potential in the world. I was twenty-three years old, once, you know. I want to, but I don’t think we will. I want to, but I have work tomorrow.

The Coral Trees of Matsushima

translated from the Japanese by

Along the shoreline, the mineral trees have risen from the sea like jeweled hands reaching for the sky. Further out, long branches of coral have joined above the waves, spiraling together into bright red and blue and green—fingers crossed for some imagined future.

Today is the day the world will come. From the window, she can see the media unloading cameras, plotting locations for coverage as they wait for her to arrive.

Her husband stands next to her as she prepares, watching the boats of fishermen gather around the trees, throwing nets and cages into the sea. Only three years ago, the ecosystem had nearly collapsed, the seas empty of the fish and oysters that once built their local economy. But her methods of salt-water electrolysis and bioengineered reef construction have changed all of that. Somewhere below the waves, grafters are fixing coral fragments to the mineral-rich cathodes of rebar and wire-mesh, enabling a new ecosystem to grow.

“You have a lot to be proud of, Mio,” Takeshi says. He can still remember when the trees and the reefs were nothing more than concept drawings, scribbled notes on pages. But they had risen out of that dream, enduring quakes and storms and the wars of neighboring countries, his wife’s lifelong ambition growing like the reef itself.

“I wish Keiko was here to see it,” she says, taking her mother’s gift out of her pocket and turning it through her fingers: a fragment of coral carved into her own likeness. She remembers how proud her mother had been, watching the city grow back to life, even as her own health had been failing. “This is all I can give you,” she had said, handing her daughter the coral piece. “But it contains all my love, my dreams, and my hopes. Someday you’ll pass it on, give it to someone you care about.”

She hadn’t understood that at first, telling Keiko that she would never let it go, that she would hold onto it forever. But then she realized what her mother had meant—inspiration had to endure.

From her window, she looks further out, where colored corals weave together like a mosaic between the islands of the Matsushima coastline. Out there, the waves surge against the trees, each impact sending a pulse of energy down through a rebar-mesh core to generate the output required for her coral structures to continue growing below the waves.

“She would’ve been proud of what you’ve accomplished here,” Takeshi says.

“I wouldn’t be here without her,” she says, remembering her mother’s stories of floods and famine, of struggling to survive for so many years. A few months before she was born, Keiko’s father and brother had been swept away by the sea. Her mother had been left without a home, cared for by her cousins in Tokyo for ten years, but all she’d wanted was to return to Matsushima so she could rebuild.

Mio had been driven by that same need, and for her mother’s dream not to be in vain. And here was something she would’ve been proud of, a city rising out of the sea itself, self-sufficient and strong.

She looks at herself in the mirror. There’s a light threading of gray hair now and creases in the corners of her eyes. There you are, Keiko, she thinks.

“Look at all those houses,” Takeshi says, pointing out to another part of the sea. “They’re growing very well.”

A long row of newly formed houses can be seen emerging from the sea. After the recent tsunami, thousands of local residents are already living in bio-rock homes and many more are needed. Only a few years ago, every kilowatt hour of electricity would produce .4 to 1.5 kilograms of growth, but with new methods of bioengineering, that rate has been accelerated. Now, they grow below the waves like shells in an oyster bed. When they reach maturity, they’ll be lifted out of the sea and given to those without homes.

She notices a film-crew gathering along the shore now, taking footage of the floating farms, where rice and other crops are growing on mineral encrusted plates.

“They’re waiting,” she says.

“I’ll be with you,” he says, reaching out for her hand.

She turns her mother’s gift through her fingers again—her love, her dreams, her hope for what their city could become.

“And I’ll be with you,” she says, placing the coral piece in her husband’s hand.

It gives her strength as she turns to face the world.

松島の珊瑚の樹

金子瑠美著

プレストン・グラスマン:訳

海岸線では、鉱物の樹がまるで宝石をちりばめた手のように海から立ち上がり、空に向

かって伸びている。さらにその先では、珊瑚の長い枝が波の上で繋がり、鮮やかな赤や青や

緑に螺旋を描いている。

今日は世界がやってくる日だ。窓から見えるのは、カメラを降ろして取材場所を決めな

がら、彼女の到着を待つ報道陣の姿だ。

漁師たちの船が樹の周りに集まり、網やかごを海に投げ入れるのを見ながら、準備をす

る彼女の隣には夫が立っている。わずか3年前、この海にはかつて地域経済を支えた魚や牡

蠣がいなくなり、生態系は崩壊寸前だった。しかし、彼女が開発した塩水電解法と生物工学

に基づくサンゴ礁の建設は、その状況を一変させた。波の下のどこかで、鉄筋や金網のミネ

ラル豊富な陰極にサンゴの破片を固定し、新しい生態系を育てているのだ。

「ミオは誇れるものがたくさんあるね。」とタケシは言う。彼はこの樹やサンゴ礁が、

単なるコンセプト・ドローイングや走り書きのメモに過ぎなかったことを今でも覚えてい

る。しかし、地震や嵐、隣国との戦争に耐え、妻の生涯の夢はサンゴ礁のように大きくなった。

彼女は母にもらった贈り物をポケットから取り出し、指で回しながら「ケイコに見せて

あげたいわ」と言う。それは、ミオの似顔絵を彫った珊瑚のかけらであった。母は自分の体

調が悪くなっていっても、街が元気になるのを見て誇らしげにしていた。「私があなたにあ

げられるのはこれだけなの。」そう言いながら母は娘に珊瑚のかけらを手渡した。「でも、

これには私の愛と夢と希望が詰まっているの。いつか、大切な人に渡してあげてね。」

彼女は最初それが理解できず、絶対に手放さない、ずっと持っているとケイコに言っ

た。しかし、その時彼女は、自分の将来に希望を感じている母の言葉の意味を理解した。

窓の外には、松島海岸の島々の間に色とりどりの珊瑚がモザイクのように広がってい

る。波が樹々にぶつかると、その衝撃のたびに鉄筋網の芯にエネルギーのパルスが伝わり、

サンゴの構造体が波の下で成長し続けるために必要な出力が生み出されるのだ。

「彼女は、君がここで成し遂げたことを誇りに思うだろうね。」とタケシは言う。

「母がいなければ、私はここにいなかったわ。」彼女は、洪水や飢饉、長年にわたって

生き残るために苦労した母の話を思い出しながら言う。彼女が生まれる数カ月前、父と兄は

海に流された。母は家を失い、東京の従姉妹に10年間世話になったが、松島に帰って再起

を図ることだけを願っていた。

ミオも同じように、母の夢を無駄にしたくないという思いに動かされた。そして、母が

誇りに思うであろう、海から立ち上がる自給自足の逞しい都市がここにあった。

鏡に映る自分を見る。うっすらと白髪が混じり、目尻にはシワが寄っている。こんなと

ころにいたのね、ケイコ。と彼女は思う。

タケシは海の向こうを指差して、「ほら、あの家並みをごらんよ」と言う。「よく育っ

ているね。 」

新しくできた家々の長い列が海から顔を出しているのが見える。先日の津波の後、何千

人もの住民がすでにバイオロックの家屋に住んでおり、さらに多くの人が必要としている。

ほんの数年前までは、1キロワット時の電力で0.4~1.5キログラムの成長が可能だったが、

新しいバイオエンジニアリングの手法により、その速度が加速された。今では、牡蠣の殻の

ように波打ち際で成長している。成熟したら海から引き上げ、家のない人々に提供するの

だ。

今、海岸沿いには撮影隊が集まっていて、鉱物を塗った板の上で米などの作物を育てて

いる浮き畑の映像を撮っている。

「彼らが待ってるわ。」と彼女は言う。

彼は「一緒にいるよ。」と言いながら、彼女の手に手を伸ばす。

彼女は母の贈り物を再び指で回す。母の愛、母の夢、母の都市への希望。

「私もあなたと一緒にいるわ。」と彼女は言い、夫の手に珊瑚の破片を置く。

そして、彼女は世界に立ち向かう力を得るのだった。

Osprey’s Sky

White wave heads were making a line that stretched northward parallel to the coastline. A gentle sea breeze changed to an updraft on the sunshine-warmed land and pushed an osprey’s wings up softly. The osprey rose higher and higher into the sky in wide circles. The bird felt the heat on its back. It was not uncomfortable. Its feathers held the warmed air, and it flapped its wings powerfully. The sky above the bird was endlessly blue, white tiny clouds slowly drifting in the wind.

The ocean below was rich and fertile. Cold and warm currents mingled, stirring and pulling up the minerals from the bottom. Large schools of small fish fed on the explosively growing plankton, and many seabirds had been attacking the schools.

On land, there was a deep forest. On the shore, there were harbors without ships and settlements without people. A brand new road ran straight ahead, and a high-voltage line was stretched beside it. Not a single car was visible. Beyond the road, something glistening and reflecting sunlight looked like the water.

The flying osprey reached the glistening place. It flapped its wings once and then stopped moving. Suddenly it began to fall. It wasn’t the sharp descent of a predator aimed at a fish, but the fall of an object trapped by gravity.

Away from its nest, which held two small eggs and its spouse, the osprey, swept by a slight change in wind direction, would never return.

Leaning my elbows on the dining room table, I looked out the window in a daze. The sun was setting, and the sky was orange. It must have been a lovely afternoon.

“What do you want me to do?” It was Mizuki, who had returned the food tray already. I didn’t know if it was his breakfast or dinner. Eating at dusk always made me feel odd.

“Oh, please do it.” I took off the integrating dosimeter around my neck and handed it to Mizuki.

Mizuki was handy. He took off the panel on the back of the dosimeter with a small screwdriver and fiddled with a tiny switch. There was no one else in the cafeteria, so no one would see him.

“It’s about time, don’t you think?” Mizuki said behind his long bangs, poking at the back of the square, black box.

“When I make a little more money,” I answered vaguely, as usual. I didn’t have a clear goal in mind, and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to make money elsewhere.

“Tomoya, you are greedy.” Mizuki wanted to get out of here. I knew that.

“Is it done?” I ignored Mizuki’s words. I was a coward.

“Perfection,” Mizuki replied.

The yellow and black markings on the chest of his tight-fitting white T-shirt indicated a radiation control zone. It was a sick joke.

“It’s on edge.” The integrating dosimeters were at a critical juncture.

“It’s been four days in a row. It would be strange if it was low.”

Even if the number was just below the limit, I could go to work. I was sure the company had applied generous safety margins anyway, so it shouldn’t be a problem even if it was a little over.

“I’ll be fine.” I got out of my seat. There was still some time before the meeting, just enough time to brush my teeth and go to the bathroom.

Having left Mizuki sitting at the table and looking out the window in a daze, I went back to my room. From the window of my room, I could see the incinerator towing a pitch-black shadow into the setting sun.

The foreman came to the workers’ waiting room and began his nightly roll call. He checked that everyone was present and checked the numbers on the integrating dosimeters that hung around each of the workers’ necks. He punched the data into the terminal in his hand. Three workers were instructed to stay in their rooms tonight.

“Silly them, they could have adjusted it a bit,” I whispered to Mizuki and got a glare from the foreman. It was easy to adjust the dosimeters if you knew how to do it. But it was forbidden. Because it was dangerous. The foreman knew what we were doing, but as long as we didn’t make the numbers too weird, he didn’t say anything. It was not easy to get people to work in the field, and if we didn’t have enough people, the job wouldn’t be done by morning.

It was already dark outside the window. “Power transmission stopped. Safety confirmed. You can start the work,” the foreman’s radio receiver said. A power-generating satellite in geostationary orbit had stopped power transmission following the decreasing use of electric power at midnight.

“Workstation 3, copy that.”

The foreman’s language into the radio was always polite. The foreman was also a temporary employee, not a permanent employee. Permanent employees were on the other side of the radio.

“All personnel must wear protective clothing and assemble in front of this vehicle. We’re leaving in 30 minutes. Don’t forget to check the charge of your helmets. And don’t chat in front of me. I’ll take half a day off your paycheck if you crap your pants.”

The foreman was glaring at me.

“You were stupid,” Mizuki said as he put protective tape over the velcro on the front of the suit. The boots, with lead sheets in the soles, were weighty, and the dust masks smelled strange. Still, the daily wage was so high. I would work here, and when I had saved up enough money, I would go into town. I’d always talked about this with Mizuki, who I’d known since junior high school. There were no good jobs in the area.

“You’re not putting it in the right place,” Mizuki said. He was good at noticing this kind of thing. I shoved the hem of my pants into my boots and wrapped the protective tape around them tightly once more. If I didn’t get it neat, the foreman would turn me away, and I would lose my day’s earnings.

“Thank you.”

“Okay, check me.” Mizuki spun around on his right foot, using it as an axis.

“Okay. Perfect.” Now me. I spun around once.

“It’s perfect,” Mizuki said.

I cut the seal on the sticker type dosimeter and put it in place on my chest. Then I looked at the indicator on the helmet and made sure it was fully charged. It was a shared one, but a small skull sticker indicated that I usually used it. Otherwise, it was a pain in the ass to adjust.

Dressed tightly in protective clothing, we left the changing room. In front of the workshop, a microbus with a wide bed in the back was waiting for us. We lined up in front of it. There were twelve of us in total. The foreman, dressed in protective clothing like us, inspected each of us one by one.

“Today, we’re going to the Western Thirteenth District. Be sure to report when the dosimeter turns orange. That’s a highly polluted area.”

The integrating dosimeter that we always wore was designed to display the total exposure in a week. In addition to this, a sticker-type dosimeter on top of our protective clothing kept track of daily exposure. It started in green, then yellow, then orange, then workers had to stop working. If it turned red, the worker had to go to the hospital for a checkup, and he would lose earnings for the days in the hospital.

“Come on. Get in the car.”

We boarded the microbus at the behest of the foreman. It was his job to take the wheel, but he did nothing when we arrived at the scene. He just sat in the driver’s seat, which was shielded from radiation.

He started driving in the dark. Mizuki and I were sitting in the front seat, so we had a clear view of the outside. The glare from the headlights cut out the concrete road from the dark. The road had been rudely constructed. The workshop itself was in the controlled area, so there was nothing around it. There was nothing but bare ground.

The nuclear accident happened before we were born. It left behind complicated pipes and fuel rods in the core and debris and contaminated soil. In the end, it was decided not to dispose of the low-concentration dirt and debris, and the plant was left as was, with only a dispersal prevention process in place. Of course, it was impossible to simply leave the vast, contaminated area vacant, so it was decided to use it as a receiving grid for a power generation satellite. It was now a significant power generation facility, providing fifteen percent of the metropolitan area’s peak power.

I remembered seeing it in a satellite photograph. Only this corner of the archipelago was dark, a gaping hole in the night light.

After a short drive, a vast concrete and metal tree appeared in the light of the headlights. These were the poles of the power grid. Thousands of pillars made up a vast forest. The microbus entered the forest.

The contaminated area where the power receiving grid was located should have been unmanned. If it had needed maintenance, maintenance robots would have been used. If all had gone according to plan, there wouldn’t have been any work to do by humans. But there had been an unexpected job.

That was the job of our cleaning team.

First, it was birds. Birds that wandered into the receiving area and were boiled up like a cat in a microwave oven. If it was a common seabird like a seagull or a petrel, it was no problem, but if it was a rare species like an osprey or a goshawk, it was a different story. The power receiving grid itself would be criticized by NGOs who were fussy about environmental protection. So we had to clean up all boiled birds’ carcasses before they caused problems. During migration season, one person could collect three large garbage bags of dead birds. That was what we did.

“I have a feeling there will be one today,” Mizuki blurted out.

“Do you want to bet?” I said.

“You’ll only owe me more.”

The losses had been pouring in until now. Mizuki was strangely perceptive about these things.

“I guess I shouldn’t. I have a feeling I might have one too.”

The conversation froze as we recalled the warning from the foreman. The microbus drove silently through the forest of concrete and metal.

“Here we are. What are you waiting for? Earn your day’s wages.”

The microbus stopped, and we each grabbed a trash bag and got up from our seats.

When I turned on the light on my helmet, a gray world unfolded in front of me: crushed concrete and rusted steel frames. If I had pointed a Geiger counter at it, it would have sounded like scratching. We started walking in groups through the designated area.

The first object was similar in color to the concrete but different in appearance and texture. The soft gray mass was a seagull. Bending down increased radiation exposure, so I used large metal tongs to pick it up. As my eyes adjusted, I could see more of them. I hadn’t been here in maybe two months, and a quick look revealed that quite a few seabirds had fallen since then.

Most of them were gulls and terns. They didn’t have the brown feathers of ospreys and goshawks, but there were large unfamiliar birds that had fallen too. There was the carcass of a large black ibis, which must have escaped from a zoo somewhere.

Our flickering lights were all that was visible in the dark concrete forest. Mizuki would be the one closest to me on the right. The distance was too far to talk.

The power receiving grid’s struts were arranged in a regular pattern, each one numbered, so there was no need to worry about getting lost. I strained my eyes and looked around to pick up dead birds. The garbage bag in my left hand became heavier and heavier.

When I saw it after midnight, I knew I had been right.

A red boot behind a strut.

“Shit, it’s a double suicide.”

They were lined up on a blanket, not that old, well boiled but not mummified. A sharp beeping sound echoed in the darkness as I sounded the buzzer hanging from my belt.

“I knew I hit it,” Mizuki said, his voice muffled through the dust mask.

“You both are talking nonsense.” It was another old worker who said that. Efficiently, he took a few pictures.

There were five people within earshot of the buzzer, and eventually, six workers gathered around the two bodies. Just three of us for each one dead. One of us held both legs while two carried the bodies by their arms.

At some point, the receiving grid had become a suicide spot. They took sleeping pills, and while they slept soundly, the power-generating satellites would transmit microwaves that slowly boiled them. There were no ugly scorch marks on the corpses these days, as the public had been thoroughly informed that all metal had to be removed.

We threw the bodies into the back of the microbus, where several trash bags were already piled. Three workers sat in the bus idly. They were all orange.

“You hit it!” One of them looked back over the seat at Mizuki.

“I was hoping I’d be wrong,” Mizuki said with a grumpy voice.

“Don’t waste time. You guys go and fill up a garbage bag quickly. Then we’ll leave for today,” the foreman declared, and honked the horn of the microbus three times in rapid succession. Then there was a different, sharper sound in the darkness. The dosimeter on my chest had turned an infinitely yellowish-orange.

When we returned to the workshop, we placed the two bodies on the floor of the morgue. The cold concrete floor seemed an uncomfortable place for them to sleep. The police would be there in the morning to take them in, since the foreman would have called them. It wasn’t our job to lead them to the scene where the bodies were found. We couldn’t and didn’t want to know why these two people wanted to die.

Mizuki stood still, looking down at the corpses. I grabbed his elbow and pulled him away. As long as the rumors of a clean death in this place wouldn’t die away, there was no stopping suicidal people from scaling the barbed wire fence. The length of one side of the power receiving grid alone was twenty miles.

We returned to the microbus and took the heavy garbage bags to the incinerator behind the workshop. The incinerator would turn the burnt birds into white smoke rising to the sky. But we wouldn’t see it because we wo
ld be asleep before the sun came up.

“How long are we gonna be here?” Mizuki said, looking down.

“We’ll figure it out. Don’t worry about it.” I lightly tapped Mizuki on the back.

Once in the workshop, I took off my protective clothing in the changing room. I put my dust mask in place on the shelf and set the helmet on the charger. I shoved the peeled tape, protective clothing, and gloves into a plastic bag and shut the bag tightly. This was going to the incinerator too. They said it had the latest filter, so no radioactive material would be dispersed.

It was a shit terrible job. Even though I was microwave-disinfected, I felt the smell of death seeping into every corner of my body. When I finished, I went to the shower room before anyone else to wash away the smell. I shampooed my hair thoroughly and washed off the fine particles of death.

When I saw a generous amount of hair tangled in the drain, I wondered if it was time to go. Still, if I woke up again, I would probably ask Mizuki to adjust the integrating dosimeter.

I lowered my head under the shower, thinking of the birds returning to heaven in a puff of smoke.

The water, just the right amount of warmth, ran down my neck, down my back, and fell slowly to my feet.

The indelible sin of comfort. When the sun eventually would rise, the grid would begin to send electricity to the city.

The city always forgets the existence of sin.

Footnotes from “Phosphates, Nitrates and the Lake A Incident: A Review.”

1. Following the conventional naming system created by the Court of the Five Silver Moons.

2. Estimates derived from a survey of original documents and scholarly papers. The claim of 77,777 watermaidens by the Ambassador of the Court of the Indigo Sun, frequently cited by later scholars, may be safely dismissed as propaganda intended to convince Court members that this method of imprisonment was perfectly safe, as can the rumor that glimpses of multiple watermaidens are either an optical illusion or an enchantment cast by a single watermaiden to hide her precise location. The lake is not of sufficient size to support more than a few dozen watermaidens, and their skills in illusion and enchantment are limited. For more, see the comprehensive surveys by Thiten Amhranai on the history of watermaidens and their abilities and limitations.

3. Indeed, escapes from supposedly secure imprisonments appear to have been more common than actual secure imprisonments in ancient times. Even the most inaccessible, remote underworld areas were frequently breached by monsters and mortals.

4. Research conducted by mortals and others confirms that the limestone cave systems beneath the lakes are of fully natural origin.

5. As with their guards and jailors, the exact numbers are unknown, but at least 13 were confirmed to have been transported to the limestone caves, and possibly 64 more.

6. Cold iron, in addition to its other issues, would easily rust in the warm waters.

7. The slits in the grills were large enough to allow cave fish and other natural creatures to slide in and out of the caves, ensuring that they would suffer only limited effects.

8. This would not be a problem until centuries later, when mortals began searching the underwater caves with scuba gear. The resulting scramble to enchant and hide the grills and divert curious mortals nearly drained two different Courts of their yearly supplies of liquid moonlight; see The Fae Bulletin for a detailed if somewhat sensationalistic report of the struggles to swiftly replenish those supplies.

9. Though notoriously fickle, watermaidens are capable of living underwater for extended periods of time, and thus have often been entrusted with equally perilous items.

10. The use of such fertilizers is common among mortals, who remain without access to other methods for encouraging plant growth.

11. Although increased algae growth had been observed in waters close to heavily fertilized areas, the effects of this growth were not well or widely understood by mortals or Court scholars at the time.

12. 19th century photographs taken by mortals show crystalline clear waters in the lake, along with abundant fish, birds, and other wildlife. The lake bottom could easily be seen even in windy and cloudy conditions. Thanks to the freshwater spring, also tended by watermaidens, the lake remained at a near constant temperature year round, even in freezing conditions and in the peak of summer.

13. Ironically, the heavy use of phosphorus and nitrogen may have come about in part from an increased demand in many Courts at the time for mortal juices made from citrus fruits.

14. Phosphorus and nitrogen occur naturally in the mortal and nearby worlds, requiring no special enchantments for use. Because of this, they are often overlooked as potential hazards, and it is quite possible that the watermaidens never noticed.

15. The first reports of brown-tinged waters came from mortals in the 1940s, before any Court regularly reviewed mortal news or correspondence. Even now, many Courts decline to do so, citing concerns about the effect of such news on their denizens.

16. This may not have been the first attempt at communication; the drops of water used by watermaidens to send messages are notoriously fragile. Attempts to update these communication systems have been sporadic and ineffective; even enchanted paper breaks down at their touch, and so-called waterproof electronics can only be used for brief periods.

17. It was not an illogical conclusion; although large die-offs of birds have often been associated with monstrous activity, they have been linked to mortals as well.

18. Supernatural involvement has been suspected, but not proven, in the 1980 dumping of DDE in the lake. It should be noted that mortals are perfectly capable of releasing pollutants on their own.

19. Scientific studies conducted by mortals cannot, of course, be entered into official Court records, but were and are still read and understood by Ambassadors and other Court interests. Many such studies can be found in Court libraries.

20. Photos taken by mortals in 1985 confirm that by this time, it was nearly impossible to see anything in the lake. Even large alligators could often only be spotted by the nearby movement of water.

21. By this time, the original white and grey sand at the bottom of the lake was completely covered in brown and black muck.

22. A search of mortal records suggests that the first deaths may have occurred in the late 1970s. A supernatural origin was not suspected until the mid-1990s.

23. The marks were not readily apparent on an initial inspection, but became visible under a mortal MRI machine, or when viewed through a moonlit-treated sapphire.

24. Although the enchantments could be enhanced to allow recipients to breathe for longer periods, such enhancements often left the recipients unable to move their arms for weeks or months afterwards. Understandably, most declined.

25. A later investigation ordered by the Queens of the Court of the Indigo Sun and the Court of the Five Silver Moons found neither the maps nor an explanation for their disappearance. Some have theorized that interests hostile to mortals, and unaware that the monsters imprisoned in the underwater cave systems also posed a threat to denizens of the Court, purposefully removed the maps to make it harder for anyone to find the gates—and thus notice their destruction.

26. At the same time, enchantments were hastily being replaced and replenished at the other cave systems, to strengthen the defenses against both escape and mortal detection.

27. The legal issue is somewhat murky. Watermaidens have never, of course, pledged allegiance to any specific court, and have thus argued that they are not required to respond to any fee decree or Court summons, and may use their own judgement to manage any perceived or real threat, without consulting a Court. Interactions with mortals, however, typically fall under the regulation of the Courts, and these particular watermaidens, of course, had been charged with the guardianship of the lake and the monsters in the caves below by three separate Courts.

28. An Ambassador at the Court of the Seven Red Stars, argued that drastic measures—for example, restoring the lake to its earlier, crystalline state—could potentially cause more harm than it would mitigate, since even the most dull-witted mortal would question the rapidity of the change. Other officials at that Court argued that it was only fair for mortals, as the instigators of the pollution in the first place, to suffer the consequences—even if some of those consequences were originally of supernatural origin.

29. This official count is probably an undercount. Other estimates suggest that over 7000 mortals and others died as a direct or indirect result of the predation, which may have occurred over a period of forty years.

30. As of this writing, muck continues to cover the bottom of the lake, and the waters remain brown and obscure. If the gates to the underwater caves have opened again, allowing the denizens there to depart, this cannot be determined from the surface. Birds and other wildlife, however, continue to return in greater numbers every year, and watermaidens have been spotted at the north of the lake, filtering some of the water through their translucent hands.

Rooted

The mangroves inhale her, a buzzing, air-thick, knotted world. She has seen eighty-one years of their change—

Eighty-two? Perhaps eighty. The decades, like the roots, tangle themselves together, extend into murky depths. In her best sturdy shoes, Sik pads as quickly as she can over the silt. Her soles squelch in the softened edges. Brackish water laps at her feet, languid but somehow alive, thrumming with far-out currents. She thinks she catches the glint of crocodile eyes, but it sinks beneath the surface before she can be sure. Around the mud-flats, mottled brown crabs cling to the trees, make her mouth water with the pickled-vinegar memory, the porridge dinners. But no time for hearty meals now. She scuttles along.

The insects whine in a pulse; Sik absorbs it and her own blood hums in response. The paper flutter of wings, somewhere in the speckled canopy. She catches its tailstream the way her mother once taught her; her soul soars for a heightened breath and a flash of vivid, blurring colour before ripping away. She doubles over, groaning. Suddenly she is sweating more than she already was. That is a muscle she has not stretched in many years. Why, when there are now cameras and film and radios to bring the sights and sounds to you? She imagines what her mother would say: Careless. Arrogant. Rootless. Jam bhoi sang tao lai. You can’t have it both ways.

Still, in that one soaring glimpse through the crow’s eyes, she saw what she needed to see. They are coming.

She catches her breath and then picks up her pace, hobbling through the swamp. Her hospital gown snags on branches. The roots attempt to trip her; she drags one foot and then another over. Those muscles are also not what they once were. But she will not need them for much longer. Kuh, kuh, kuh. The bird coughs out its own song, but Sik hears familiar Teochew syllables. Go, go, go.

She goes, goes, goes. There was a time the mangrove forest grew every year, but there are few saplings now that the islanders have set their sights on more romantic plants to populate the land. All these trees are as old as she is. Older. As comforting as that is, it makes her ache. Not many choose to come here any longer. What will happen when they are outgrown?

Her foot catches on a jut of rock and she falls. Her knees nearly crumple with the impact and she hisses under her breath. Even now worrying about the future, she scolds herself, dusting off the sand and pushing herself to her feet.

The fall and the thoughts have cost her a precious minute, however. A hum of an approaching disturbance vibrates through the roots, sending the water shivering. Loud, clumsy, but too-fast footsteps, faster than she is. As she hobbles deeper into the swamp the trees seem to lean in—embracing, shielding, capturing, their earthy, slightly saline scent turning the air viscous. She does not know what she is looking for, exactly, but she will know it when she sees it. Hurry, hurry. An owl hoots low overhead. A flutter of white feathers. The shape of a woman sailing into the corner of her eye. Sik whips around, but it’s only her own shadow racing over the water’s surface. Her heart pounds nonetheless.

Then she looks across the bank and sees it. The spot at the edge of the water. The trees around it bow gently away, skirting the copse with their many legs to create a waiting little bay.

Hurriedly she finds the shallowest part of the water and splashes across. Some slithery brown creature jolts away from her in a panic. She scrabbles onto the opposite bank and drops onto the soil, panting. When she’s collected herself, she lets the swamp sink back in, and she knows she’s found the place.

The island has changed so rapidly her memories are stuttered instead of smooth. Suddenly, skyscrapers. Suddenly, condominiums. Suddenly, no more kampungs and only trishaws for tourists, and suddenly her children are speaking English and going to holidays in Japan every year, and suddenly, the city is unrecognisable. She does not always know if it still has a space for her, too old to learn the new ways, left behind in an island that no longer exists. But the mangroves have a place for her. This place, for her. It recognises her, the soil moulding soft around her limbs and the trees around her protecting.

She shuts her eyes briefly to the hum and chirping, the slosh of the slowed tides. She remembers times out in her father’s fishing boat that the waves were not docile like this. They roared, black and spitting, threatening to upend the world. But the mangroves keep them safe from those waves; they tame them. She remembers a time when the mangroves wrapped the island. Now they cling in scraggly patches to the coast, replaced by factories and farms and slim pretty trees with concrete-stunted roots, and the dragon tides lick their lips at the land.

“Ma!”

Sik’s eyes fly open. Bursting onto the opposite bank, tripping and cursing and sweating and wide-eyed, are her three children. She swears under her breath. She has to do it now.

She yanks off her shoes as her oldest son, Ah Seng, starts making his way across the shallows. He lunges forward, but she thrusts her feet into the water before he reaches her. The mud closes around her ankles.

“Go away, Ah Seng!” He’s reached her now; she bats him away as he tries to pull her up. Her daughter and her youngest son, Ah Mui and Ah Yik, have started across as well, although Ah Yik’s face twists as his expensive shoes touch the water.

“Ma,” Ah Mui pleads from a distance. “Please come home. We already prepared the plot.”

“I told you I don’t want that plot right! I told you I wanted to come to the mangroves!” She finds the sudden strength to wrestle Ah Seng. A renewed energy has begun seeping into her veins, a new solidity firming up her muscles so badly ravaged by the illness. She sucks in a vicious breath. She has not felt this strong for many years. “You never listen to what I say, and you still dare be shocked.”

“Who wants to come to the mangroves!” Ah Yik throws up his hands. He has abandoned his wading attempt and returned to dry land. His fancy shirt is soaked through, and it reminds her suddenly of him as a little boy wet from playing in the rain. She knows all his business partners call him Richard, but he will always be Ah Yik to her, the chubby child with his singlet turned translucent, wet hair dripping into his Milo. “You don’t know what they’re going to have to do to them in ten, twenty years—”

“In the park you have protection; we can look after you there,” Ah Seng says, but his despairing expression, and the way he steps back from her, knows it is a lost battle. He can see the roots already twining up her legs.

Ah Mui is still trying. “We paid the shaman for a beautiful flower tree—”

“Flower tree! Flower tree do what? Let people pick only. Look nice nice in the park, hor? Let lightning strike only.” Sik thumps her chest, which echoes like a drum. “My ah gong died in the war, you know! He fought against the Japanese. He never get to choose his path, but he die to protect the island, you think I want to be a flower tree! I old already, don’t care about being beautiful. I don’t need you to protect me.” Ah Mui opens her mouth, but Sik cuts her off. “Need shaman somemore. Here, the old magic all connected, don’t need anything but your spirit. Huh? You watch. You learn. Maybe when your time comes you will choose to be useful also, instead of become those trees that will blow over in a monsoon! Burden everyone only.”

Her children exchange wary looks, one eye still on her as though surrounding a wounded animal. Sik sighs, even as she feels her spine straighten, her ribs begin knitting together. The magic has not yet reached her soft heart. “Come, lah,” she says gently, reaching forward as much as her stiffened torso will allow. “Don’t fight already.”

After a fractured pause, Ah Mui is the first to stumble forward and fall awkwardly into her mother’s browning arms. Sik kisses her forehead, the way she did when Mui was a girl. When Ah Mui pulls away her eyes are glistening and she sniffles.

Ah Seng gruffly holds her for one, three, five seconds, tucking his head in the crook of her neck. “Bye, Ma.”

Ah Yik hesitates. Then, finally, he puts his feet in the water and trudges over to her. He brushes against her roots, but it doesn’t hurt. His arms go around her, and by now she can’t feel his chest rising and falling against hers, but she feels his chin shuddering against her shoulder. “Aiya,” she croons, patting him stiffly on the back. Her hands are starting to harden, grow rough. “It’s okay one, Ah Yik. The path not so hard. Can always come see Ah Ma.”

When Ah Yik steps away, they are all three standing in front of her. Mui’s arms are wrapped around her; Ah Yik has his hands shoved in his pockets. Ah Seng worries the hem of his shirt. Sik smiles at them as her fingers knot and lengthen, as her hair thickens and spreads, as her roots sink deeper and further into the swamp and the land. Her view of the children fades, and in its place rises a warm wind of greater consciousness. She sees the crocodile lazy on the water’s edge; the hornbill that watches for prey; the spider weaving its web. She sees the island curving into the horizon. The boats that bob against the skyline; the buildings that perforate it. The bustling port and the floating market, the dusting of trees along pin-straight roads.

Faintly, as she sinks into the swamp, she is aware of hands gently resting on her sides, cheeks against her branches, and three soft, steady pulses merging slowly into one. An old instinct swims hazily to the surface, melds into the new. I will protect you, she murmurs, and then she slips and twines and tilts her head upward, roots steadfast in the earth and arms reaching toward the sun.

Nature’s Chosen Pronouns

*after Greta Gaard’s Toward a Queer Ecofeminism

But maybe nature isn’t even

a “her” . . . . When nature is feminized

and thereby erotized,

and culture is masculinized*,

the trouble starts, and it’s the bad kind.

When the girl puts on a summer dress:

“she’s asking for it”.

When the soil is “too rich not to steal”:

“she’s asking for it”.

When the non-westernized have (better)

non-reproductive sex and more

than two genders:

“they’re asking for it”.

So stop

the farther occupation of flesh,

of bodies made of earth.

Cut the virile organ

of colonization

before it brings more death

and the death of desire:

compulsory heterosexuality,

the age of the missionary,

with the conqueror “on top.”*