Times and Seasons and Vanity upon Vanity

I didn’t know I could stop and trace the roads

of my palm the way my baby does, and tell

myself that moving fast isn’t everything, that other folks had

walked this path, that Earth isn’t mine alone, that am

not as great as I assumed, that it doesn’t pay

to eat with both hands like crabs, that I’m vulnerable.

 

I didn’t know I could live without sports and pop

myths, the lure of sex and the wild, the fantasy

of Hollywood and the charm of yachts. I didn’t know.

Please, tell me again: why do you harm your neighbor

for the glory you met and will leave behind tomorrow?

 

I’m home now—the pandemic struck too fast for me

to shield myself as I always do when others mourn

the loss of the things they love. I’m quarantined from

all the things I bleached the ozone with my chimneys.

 

Reckon, there’s a time for everything: a time for pollution

and a time we’re chained from messing as we pleased,

a time to worship wealth and a time to croak

 

health is greater, a time for folly and a time

for duty, a time to crave the grandeur of greed

 

and a time to love everyone and everything as yourself.

 

—July 5, 2020

In the Flowery Countryside

Where shall we put the bodies, sir,

fifty thousand more today

and that is just at dawn

the cemetery’s gates are chained,

undertaker’s curtains drawn

 

curtains drawn good man? this will just not do

dig another trench, deep and wide;

but do not upset the people,

dig it out of sight

 

dig it out of sight dear sir?

the woods beyond the city are full,

there are few spaces now to hide

perhaps we should head further out,

in the flowery countryside?

 

in the flowery countryside? yes, good man, that might do

there is no time to spare

and do try to be good,

place them down with gentle care

 

place them down with gentle care, of course I want to sir,

but backhoe bucket does not allow

for gentleness in placing down;

perhaps some farmers will lend a hand

 

farmers might lend a hand good man?

indeed, this could save time,

now be sure to bury them deep enough

in the flowery countryside

 

in the flowery countryside is where I’ve been, sir,

and farmer’s time was loaned

we did run out of markers, but

we marked the places with stones

 

marked the places with stones good man,

that was very kind

sadly now, you must stay

away from the flowery countryside

 

the farmers cry, no more! no more!

and leaders claim this problem is not theirs

perhaps the only thing to do now, good man

is load the trucks and head towards the capital city’s front stairs

 

—July 4, 2020

Living in a Metaphor

I worked on my manuscript, yesterday, for the first time in weeks. I feel creatively, existentially frail; it is hard to think through in the same way I have always assumed that fish find the ocean hard to think through. Immersed in the conditions of your own existence, it’s hard to find perspective. The challenge is to learn to see better.

My country, ostensibly a global power, has the highest death rate in Europe. Our leaders never quite invited the public to join in street parties on VE Day, but they sure did switch up their messaging on the subject just in time for Little Englanders everywhere to mass in the streets, in misguided celebration of our glorious, defanged history. Blitz spirit, and all that; keep calm and carry on. I am not immersed because I am alone in my studio flat, shuttling between my desk and my bed, forcing myself through sit-ups on the carpet. I have exactly one window onto the world, and it looks directly onto a garden to which I have no access. The metaphors write themselves, and yet, sitting down to express them, I’m bereft.

I am trying to forgive myself for being unmoored to such an extent. To a point, the pace of the world has slowed to a degree where this is feasible. But I have it on good authority (from the people who pay my wages) that my work still needs to get done. Ultimately, whatever ‘new normal’ we’ve reached has one thing in common with the way we lived before: it’s okay to not be okay, until such time as it interferes with someone else’s bottom line. I am acutely conscious of how inconvenient I am as I struggle to do what needs to be done — professionally first, and then domestically, and (finally, as always) creatively.

Do I think the world will change? I feel just as precarious, just as thinly-stretched as I did before the virus went worldwide. If anything, the national mood here in England has become more jingoistic and hateful, not less. I don’t have a great deal of faith.

But maybe I’m just too deep in the paint. I’ve watched my friends organise protests, build networks of mutual aid, create art that speaks to the possibilities they believe in. My small-c conservative parents have started to question the authority of the police. Immersion in one’s own solitude and exhaustion is still immersion; I can’t discount the possibility that the stagnation I feel is less than half of the story.

I want to believe it’s a story I will write one day. I want to believe that I’ll learn to see it clearly enough to tell it as it deserves to be told. I may not have confidence that the world at large will discover a better, braver way to be, in the grip of the kind of collective trauma that will shape us all in time — but I do believe that we will survive, and that when we tell the stories of how we survived, there will be a point. Call it cautious optimism. It’s about the best I can do.

 

—June 26, 2020

Solarpunk Cities: Notes for a Manifesto

Solarpunk activism is an organic blend of traditional practices and high-tech in service of social and environmental justice.

The solarpunk cities we imagine are centers of collective action, governance and sharing of resources rather than of individualistic consumption. They are places where individual sufficiency is ensured and public abundance is available to all. We want to show how present cities can be made sustainable through improvement of existing good practices, restoration of beneficial old ones and introduction of new, sustainable technologies.

How to build a solarpunk city is a problem of design, so even though solarpunk is a highly aesthetic movement, according to the principles of good design, form and function should be interdependent.

The functions of a solarpunk city as we see it should be:

  1. Exploiting the synergy of having people with different backgrounds and skills living together, fostering communication and the circulation of ideas and goods through the urban network.

    The interconnected networks of cities should enable the coalescence of communities to pool resources and stimulate cooperation.

    We imagine blocks of flats sharing communal ovens for bread and ceramic, tool sheds and workspaces for the repair and upcycling of furniture, electronics or other household goods, fibercraft and tailoring equipment for repairing or refurbishing clothes and other fiber goods, as well as gardening equipment and facilities for composting waste and collecting water. We imagine tool libraries in neighbourhood centres.

    We imagine well-funded public libraries organizing study groups for children and adults to improve educational outcomes, language classes to increase the inclusion of new arrivals and broaden the horizons of other residents, book clubs and writing or fibercraft groups to help people make friends and strengthen their social networks.

    We imagine neighbourhood cinemas using the courtyards of blocks of flats to showcase local and global productions.

    We imagine neighbourhood or municipal centres being funded and equipped to enable the citizens to engage in artistic pursuits, allowing people from all backgrounds to participate in the production of culture.

    Additionally, since cities concentrate people, they are perfect sites to implement circular modes of production. The coffee grounds from the local roastery where old-timers congregate for a glass of white and to watch the football match could become compost for the hyperlocal farm producing vegetables for the neighbours, or material for the local laboratory which makes eco-inks or cosmetics. The leftover bread from the bakery could turn into beer at the local brewery. Waste plastics could become raw material for the 3D printing workshop making assistive gadgets for disabled neighbours, and so on.

  2. Implementing granular governance (at the level of block, neighbourhood, municipium, city, etc . . . ) and shared, inclusive decision-making at all levels.

    The nested structure of cities lends itself to creating a sort of fractal network of democratic entities which work together, coordinating with each other on issues of larger relevance and independently on others of more local import.

    Each level would operate through public consultations, focus/working groups and periodic assemblies to take decisions for the benefit of the local community and feed input on policies from sub-constituencies towards the higher levels of decision-making, in order to capture and coordinate the needs of the citizens to prevent duplication and increase the effectiveness of local efforts.

    Neighbourhoods would feed into municipia/boroughs, which would feed into cities, which would feed into regional networks and so on, ensuring representation of local issues at all levels.

  3. Making use of interstitial spaces and “non-places” to create social, cultural and environmental value, and to generate resources such as power and food.

    Thanks to the capitalistic mode of production, privileging private enterprise, cities are rife with “non-places”, intended as places of passage, which do not belong to the citizens. Other spaces remain empty or underutilized because they are overlooked or thought of as useless.

    Solarpunk cities as we imagine them would exist in a post-capitalist, post-growth economy, and would reabsorb non-places, giving them a new meaning within the urban fabric. No space would be “wasted” in a solarpunk city.

    Spaces dedicated to advertisement billboards could be reused for energetic and cultural purposes through the installation of solar artworks. Likewise, large glass surfaces could be turned into solar “stained glass” windows made of perovskites or solar concentrators.

    Figure 1: Integrated food production in the urban environment: a proposal for the retrofitting of offices buildings in South Street, Reading, with glasshouses on the roof to spread the production of food throughout the urban fabric. The William Morris-inspired motif is painted on thermally efficient hemp fiber plaster with a special paint that can “eat” air pollution coming from the nearby ring road.

    Urban farms (Fig. 1) powered by collected rainwater and food waste would occupy not just rooftops and yards, but also basements and tunnels to grow mushrooms, or even vegetables, thanks to optic fibers bringing sunlight to the subsoil or low-power LED banks driven by PV installations.

    Figure 2: Integrated, distributed production of energy through community projects: the reconstruction of the Reading Abbey Mill would become a new community property shared among the citizens.

    A variety of renewable sources of energy would be built into environmentally retrofitted housing and commercial spaces. Mini- and micro- wind and hydroelectric power plants would be dotted around the urban fabric (Fig.2).

    Old commercial centres could be turned into community centres or incubators for small artisan workshops and local producers (Fig.3).

    Self-reliance would be implemented at every level in food and energy production. This would also help in dealing with adverse weather events and other natural catastrophes such as earthquakes.

  4. Eliminating food deserts and making quality food accessible through self- and community production and fair agreements with rural areas in the city’s vicinity.

    Solarpunk cities blur the distinction between urban and rural environments. The integration of food production into the daily life of solarpunk cities would increase the amount of hyperlocal, sustainable, quality food available to citizens and communities across all income brackets and demographics.

    Figure 3: Energetic retrofitting of existing buildings: the Heelas shopping center in central Reading, UK. We have imagined it with solar panels on the roof: they can be either the rigid or flexible models. The iris fresco on the walls is inspired by a William Morris pattern and is manufactured with insulating cork paint over a layer of hemp plaster.

    Aquaponic farms, insect farms and communal chicken, pigeon and fowl coops would allow local production of sustainable, quality protein for the citizens.

    Solarpunk cities would also have a thriving community of food-producing artisans such as bakers, confectioners, brewers, distillers and producers of conserves of various kinds. Local markets, farmers markets and bulk shops for dry goods or liquids (complete with bring your own bottle/refill schemes/bottle deposit schemes) would allow the citizens to acquire local goods without unnecessary processing or packaging.

    Communal production of other goods (e.g. communities establishing a rota among neighbours to make bread/soap/beer/etc in batches for the whole block), predicated on the existence of communal facilities, would be encouraged and facilitated by the increase in free time guaranteed by a universal basic income paired with a reduction in working hours.

    In order to ensure that the reduced environmental footprint of the city is not offset by increased exploitation of rural areas, solarpunk cities would establish protocols of co-operation with their hinterland and with other cities in the regional network, ensuring that production of goods for their use follows strict ethical and environmental guidelines and that routes of distribution are planned sensibly, using decentralized networks that rely on low-carbon, public transport wherever possible.

  5. Establishing public transport as central and accessible to everybody, regardless of physical abilities or medical conditions.

    We imagine that cargo trams/buses/suburban rail trains would be used for the transport of goods.

    For personal vehicles, solarpunk cities would move from an ownership model to a usership model, implementing sharing schemes for electric cars and electric bikes as well as handbikes, mobility scooters or power attachments for wheelchairs. Cargo bike rental schemes integrated with the public transport network would facilitate shopping and other high-load activities.

    These schemes would be integrated in a metropolitan public transport subscription, which would be free for the lowest income brackets and costed based on income for everybody else, ensuring a fair allocation of resources.

    All these measures would result in reduced pollution and noise levels, which in turn would bring significant improvements to health outcomes, especially among the lowest income brackets and marginalized groups.

  6. Providing adequate, energetically efficient homes to every citizen.

    Solarpunk cities would drastically cut down on their heating/cooling carbon footprint and on fuel poverty by investing in environmental retrofitting of old buildings (Fig.3), starting with social housing. New housing would be built to an exacting passive-or-better environmental standard and to equally stringent earthquake safety standards. Social housing would be distributed throughout the city, without segregating low-income families in the least appealing areas.

    Self-builds or community builds would be encouraged by implementing easy-to-understand building codes based on communal standards and structured choices, as explained for example in Making Massive Small Change by Kelvin Campbell, allowing for diversification in look, feel, and use while adhering to agreed-upon standards which include the space for green areas, services and transportation.

    Cities would contain sprawl and limit land consumption by building up density through town blocks with proper services and shops, communal areas and public transport connections, not formless suburbia. They would expand into brownfield areas, such as former industrial or commercial complexes, and would leave greenfield and rural areas intact.

  7. Improving the urban environment in terms of extension of green spaces and biodiversity.

    Just as they blur the distinction between urban and rural, solarpunk cities would also blur the distinction between urban and wilderness.

    The reduced reliance on cars would allow unnecessarily paved areas, such as parking lots, to be depaved. Riverbanks and urban parks and other green areas would be rewilded using native species, making sure to accommodate urban wildlife and pollinators.

    Trees would be used to mitigate heat island effect, improve the quality of urban soils and reduce the amount of runoff making it into the sewage system, and can be selected among food-bearing species (walnuts, chestnuts, beeches and fruit trees) to provide an additional food source for the community.

    Reforestation projects are already underway in several large cities (for example Milano in Italy has a project to plant 3,200,000 new urban trees by 2030), but solarpunk cities wouldn’t stop at lining avenues with trees. They would also integrate trees into the architecture. Buildings like the Bosco Verticale in Milano or the Waldspirale in Darmstadt wouldn’t be exceptions, but pioneers of a whole new brand of architecture.

    We imagine a city where every park and garden and condo block can become a food forest.

  8. Providing effective healthcare to the citizens, taking into account that many disabilities are such only because society does not accommodate certain needs.

Solarpunk cities would be built on the basis of public health and social care for all, regardless of income or health status.

A network of medical centres spread through neighbourhoods would provide basic and community care, while hospitals well connected with the public transport network would provide emergency and specialist care.

Additionally, progress in sensor and communications technology would allow the widespread use of telemedicine, especially to monitor people with chronic conditions that might need urgent medical intervention at short notice. This would enable these patients to spend less time in hospitals and healthcare centers and live less stressful lives, while ensuring quality care.

Solarpunk medicine should also be about prevention and vaccination, and would benefit from reduced length or abolition of patents, so that life-saving drugs are available at affordable prices or for free through the public health service.

The biotechnological revolution has made the production of therapeutic molecules affordable and feasible even for small-scale biohackers. We can imagine therefore that the production of many medicines will be done on a local scale, commensurate with the necessities of the community.

Paired with a revival of herbal/traditional medicine in the cases where this is effective, with a wide availability of mental healthcare and with a capillary diffusion of health education and income support to healthy lifestyles, these measures would result in a healthier, happier citizenship.

Solarpunk cities would also provide social care to their citizens, in the form of services to the very young, very old or vulnerable and also in the form of enhanced support and community networks.

Solarpunk cities are intergenerational and would re-create the support present in old clan or extended family structures without the resulting social pressures, including the elderly in community life and valuing their input and experience. We imagine younger neighbours helping the elders in labour-intensive tasks or in moving, and elder neighbours looking after the children of the younger ones and perhaps passing down traditions and recipes. We imagine periodic communal meals and gatherings, forming stable communities in every corner of the city and eradicating the current loneliness epidemic.

 

While unified in the struggle to respond to these universal needs, Solarpunk cities would be a product of the communities that live in them rather than of top-down master plans. They would retain and adapt their historic buildings, rather than tearing everything down and building it anew.

The form of the solarpunk city would follow local traditions, uses and aesthetic and the input of the community, serve the needs of its citizens and adopt constructive techniques and technological adaptations that depend on the local climate, vegetation and fauna.

Solarpunk Nairobi would by necessity be different from Solarpunk Oslo, and even cities in the same country, like Milano, in the middle of a well-watered plain, and Matera, perched on a rocky, arid plateau, would follow different transition trajectories and come up with different solutions to deal with their local needs.

We feel that this inbuilt plurality and divergence of expression is a very positive feature. We say no to a top-down “universal” solarpunk style with cookie-cutter glass-and steel skyscrapers plonked in the middle of an idealized, cookie-cutter rural environment; “international solarpunk” or “top-down solarpunk” are imperialist oxymorons.

Education is key to building a true solarpunk community, to political and social engagement and to making informed choices. Education should build a social consciousness and give each citizen the ability to engage in continuous education throughout their life and to adapt to technological changes in the workplace.

Solarpunk education would be free, public and inclusive, not only of different perspectives though decolonisation and intersectionality, but also of different learning styles and cognitive preferences, and should aim to develop the talents of each individual, valuing and nurturing academic skills and creative or craft talents equally. We also imagine a school system rooted in the urban tissue, with special classes taking place in different parts of the neighbourhood, taking advantage of local expertise and traditions, valuing the contributions of the older residents.

Higher learning (colleges and universities) should likewise be free, or affordable and costed based on family income.

Since state-funded research has been the basis of the major technological transformations from the end of WWII until today, in a Solarpunk future, academic research would be adequately funded in order to develop the technologies and protocols which would help us move away from dependence on fossil fuels and on the growth spiral and reduce our environmental footprint.

Traditional knowledge and skills, however, would be equally important. Solarpunk futures would value both.

Finally, Solarpunk futures would run on a different economic model from the one currently in vogue. Solarpunk economics would not be concerned with growth and profit, but rather with balancing production output with social and environmental constraints and with redistributing wealth to create social justice.

Solarpunk cities are not just an idea; they are being built right now by a million different hands, across the world, most of whom haven’t even heard of solarpunk.

From community architecture projects to participatory budgeting efforts, from the Transition Towns Network to the Food not Lawns project, from surplus food redistribution to tool libraries and second-hand swaps, from city-wide macro to building-size micro, more and more people are realizing that cities could and should be better, not places where people exist as atomized, isolated individuals who eat, sleep, work, repeat, but communities of people who live together, struggle together, and create new culture and ideas together.

Solarpunk cities are coming, and the solarpunk community can speed the process by making such cities imaginable, desirable, almost tangible, by prototyping them in fiction and art, and, most importantly, by lending its narrative and artistic instruments to the citizens so that they can play with the idea and optimize it to their needs.

As Commando Jugendstil we have started along this road with a sustainability project financed by Fondazione Punto.Sud, Fondazione Cariplo and Fondazione per il Sud, with co-funding from the European Union and delivered in collaboration with social enterprise Coop A.ME.LIN.C ONLUS and a network of local partners in the area of Milano.

Our project “Milano Cartoline da un Futuro Possibile” aims to help citizens of selected neighbourhoods in Milano redesign their surroundings to improve living standards, social inclusion and cohesion and to tackle the challenges of the climate crisis, connecting local conflicts in the management of the commons and local issues with wider processes.

A series of (in)formative sessions, focus groups and workshops, delivered in collaboration with local schools, will allow citizens to take an active role in a collective, democratic process to redesign the local environment.

Citizens will be encouraged not only to find practical short- and medium-term solutions to increase the sustainability and livability of the neighbourhood, but also to make use of narrative and artistic tools to illustrate their vision of a post-transition neighbourhood, identifying long-term projects to realize it.

The chief outputs of the project will be local ecological transition plans for 2020-2030 and an interactive IT tool that collects useful information of the present and local visions for the future, increasing awareness of local sustainability solutions.

This might seem a small step, but little by little solarpunk cities will become reality, and we will be there when it happens.

Further Reading and Inspiration

  • Kelvin Campbell, Making Massive Small Change, Ideas, Tools, Tactics: Building the Urban Society We Want, Chelsea Green Publishing, London, 2018
  • Energy Task Force, No Heat No Rent: An Urban Solar & Energy Conservation Manual, Energy Task Force, New York City, 1977
  • Energy Task Force, Windmill Power for City People: A Documentation of the First Urban Wind Energy System, Energy Task Force, New York City, 1977
  • Ezio Manzini and Anna Meroni, Creative Communities, Edizioni POLI.design, Milano 2007
  • Richard Sennet, The Craftsman, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008
  • Paul Auerbach, Socialist Optimism: An Alternative Political Economy for the 21st Century, Palgrave Macmillan UK, London, 2016
  • Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook, From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, Transition Books, Dartington, 2008

A Fluid Belonging: Juliana Roth Interviews Anna Kate Blair

Read Anna Kate Blair’s essay “Two Tides” from Reckoning 4.

 

Juliana: So much of the drama of your essay is the tension between Brooklyn and the precarity made visible by Hurricane Sandy. I’m curious, are you in Sunset Park right now? If so, what can you report?

 

Anna: I’m not in Sunset Park—I almost typed unfortunately, but then realized that it probably isn’t, right now, unfortunate. My US visa expired shortly after I wrote Two Tides, and I moved to Australia last year. I’ve found, though, that I’ve been thinking of New York near constantly, really missing Sunset Park since the pandemic started. I’m still a member of the neighborhood’s Facebook group and the deaths (including those of people who I remember) reported on that page intermingle with memories of the loveliest flat in which I’ve lived, a flat where I achieved something close to my ideal of domesticity, balancing household tasks alongside a monastic devotion to my work that seems cozy in the midst of global catastrophe. I long for this living situation even as I know that I’m safer where I am, even as I hear that the constant presence of refrigerated trucks haunts my former neighbors, that even going to the grocery store is stressful. I’m trying, at the moment, to work through this improbable longing for New York, oddly acute at the very moment when it seems most unlikely, and I suppose part of the longing is knowledge that Sunset Park won’t, after this, be the same neighborhood that I left behind, that longing for New York is a form of longing for the past. I wish I could report on what things are like there.

 

Juliana: It must be strange to watch those changes from afar. That attention to what’s left behind makes me think of how you described Williamsburg in your essay. You write: “Everybody wants to move to Williamsburg, but as they move to Williamsburg, Williamsburg disappears.” This disappearance is a different one—more about development. You turn the developers into full-blown predators in this essay. They are forces against keeping the past present. One developer even calls historians and preservationists their enemies—yikes.

 

Anna: I think many architects, too, see preservationists as their enemies, because preservation strips architects of opportunities to design. I do think developers, in Williamsburg and elsewhere, are often predatory, but I don’t think that means that preservationists are good simply because they’re resisting development. There is, in architecture, always a tension between retaining what’s valuable from the past and creating new structures that can represent our own times. If you’re trying to create a strong architectural culture, it’s important to have space for both these things, though inevitably they’ll be in conflict with one another sometimes. I think these points of clash, though, can be exciting; it’s when something’s difficult to negotiate that we’re forced to think in new ways, to challenge ourselves.

 

Juliana: Yeah. Not everything from the past should be maintained. The argument behind preservationism has also been weaponized as a tool to keep whiteness as the dominant imagination in many places, which complicates it as a practice.

 

Anna: Yes. I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot, lately, because I’ve moved to Australia, where many heritage-listed buildings reflect and glamorize colonization. I don’t feel very comfortable supporting the push to preserve something that reinforces Australia’s colonial power dynamics, which are very much still alive and only superficially questioned by most of those engaging with these structures. At the same time, though, I don’t like that the choice is often between the colonial nostalgia of preservationists and the capitalism of developers. It’s also worth noting that developers, in New York and internationally, have played a significant role in pushing people of color out of neighborhoods; they’re also invested in whiteness. I think, perhaps, that it’s worth noting the degree to which neither preservationists nor developers question society’s values on a deeper level. They’re primarily concerned with aesthetics and finances, with having power within capitalism rather than critiquing or subverting it, and I think there’s a need for approaches that are more nuanced and more radical than those suggested by both preservationists and developers.

 

Juliana: Do you think environmental protection and preservation is ever used in urban spaces to actually just practice gentrification under a different guise? If so, how do we mitigate that?

 

Anna: Yes, absolutely, and often. I’m not sure I can give an exact answer as to how we can mitigate it, though, because I think successful approaches will be different depending on the place and situation. It’s always important, though, to try to think deeply and with nuance about our and other relationships to the places where we live and to try not to cede decisions to others in order to avoid difficult discussions, to think about the vested interests that different groups have. I think community organization and union membership is important, but community groups, of course, have often worked in support of gentrification, seeking to raise property prices or keep minorities out, so I don’t know that they’re always a positive thing in these situations. I wish I had an easier answer, but I think the main solution I can propose is just thinking and working harder, fighting for structures of living that prioritize genuine care over profit.

 

Juliana: That makes me think of rustic chic, farmhouse bars popping up over the last decade, the longing for this design without actually being engaged in these practices. This is so fascinating to me. You describe this happening in terms of buildings and architecture. What do you make of this pull towards both temporary structures and evoking this false agedness?

 

Anna: I wrote my PhD on a similar trend, in interwar France, in which the colonies were presented as both leisure sites and as spaces from the past, particularly through restaurants and ephemeral pavilions, and argued that this served to position them as offering something to France whilst stripping them of their power, appealing to a desire to escape that had been prompted by the losses of World War I. I argued, also, that rapid change, even when there’s enthusiasm for it, is often countered by nostalgic aesthetic shifts. I wonder if the same thing is happening, now, or is always happening, in different guises. I’d hypothesize that the rustic farmhouse aesthetic might be linked to the industrialization of food and our desire for a connection to land that’s severed by contemporary supply chains and their economics. I think temporary structures, though, are appealing because they’re cheaper and often faster to construct, and so it’s possible to take more risks, to follow trends. I think, in both cases, it’s a matter of playfulness as distraction, a kind of Disneyfication of the city, in which corporations ensure their own survival through empty visions of what we might prefer.

 

Juliana: When I think of environmentally conscious—or land conscious architecture, I consider Frank Lloyd Wright and then just stop there, but obviously architects are hugely important in coordinating a climate crisis response. Do you often find that is the case when you bring these two disciplines into conversation, that we think of aesthetics rather than utility?

 

Anna: I don’t think that we think of aesthetics rather than utility, but what each of us thinks of first will be a reflection of our own histories and interests. I tend to associate environmentally conscious architecture more with utility than aesthetics; I think of facades that use louvers or skins to mediate temperature and of rainwater collection systems, both of which are common in office buildings. I’m always frustrated by the architecture of capitalism and environmentally conscious corporate architecture isn’t an exception to this; it’s often used as a form of green-washing and the performative sacrifice of aesthetics can be part of this.

I think more successful environmentally conscious architecture, which is often publicly funded, combines both utility and aesthetics. In New York, I think a lot of the recent architectural work along the boardwalk in the Rockaways is solid and Garrison Architects’ elevated modular beach pavilions in Coney Island are great. These were created in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction of these areas. I’d also point to the Sunset Park Recycling Centre, which has received a lot of praise; it’s quietly brilliant. Frank Lloyd Wright’s work is more widely known, though, because of the time that he was working and because he really mastered publicity. I think of Wright as an architect concerned with the concept of America, replete with car culture, rather than an environmentally conscious architect, and part of this is because he valued landscape almost entirely for its aesthetic properties whereas today’s architects are much more concerned with engineering.

 

Juliana: Brooklyn now prices out those native to those spaces along with the scrappy artists who were once marginal within Manhattan’s imagination. Are there geographic spaces left that actually welcome an artist uninterested in the ways major cities force professionalization?

 

Anna: I hope so, but I’m not sure. I’ve found those sorts of spaces outside the city, temporarily, at artist residencies—though it’s worth clarifying that I certainly haven’t found them at all artist residencies and the ones where I have are residencies that prioritize and work hard to provide accessibility. I think particularly of School of the Alternative in Black Mountain, North Carolina, where I led a class a few years ago, and Common Opulence in Alberta, Canada (which I experienced through Collective Assembly, an offshoot on Toronto Island). I think residencies or experimental schools can be temporary utopias, but we’re all dependent on life elsewhere in order to visit them.

I wonder how they might be made more sustainable; I feel sure that they can be, though it requires a lot of confidence and commitment to leave society’s established systems, including the typical art world benchmarks of success, however arbitrary those might be. I’ve been teaching my students, this week, about Drop City, an intentional community created in 1965, which was initially, while in the construction phases, very successful, but was ultimately victim to this success, collapsing as it became a stop on road trips across America, overwhelmed by its place in the counterculture. Marfa, Texas, home to many artists, has gone in the opposite direction, it seems, gentrifying as those artists found professional success elsewhere. I wonder, now, though, with so many things moving online, how all of this might change; the most creatively fertile site I’ve found recently is Ariana Reines’s reading group, initially called RILKING but changing names regularly, which takes place entirely on Zoom. In this sort of world, we can relate to geography differently, though I’m still figuring out the ramifications of this.

 

Juliana: That shifting sense of place makes me think of another line of yours: “These are non-places, bearing no trace or memory of what was before. They have no history. They have no connection to the earth. They have names like ‘THE EDGE’…But you could go weeks, living here, without setting foot on a Brooklyn street.” I know you’re from New Zealand originally, and I’m just curious how this idea of home, place, and belonging has evolved for you since moving away? What did a Brooklyn street mean to you before your arrival?

 

Anna: I’ve always had trouble with the idea of home, so this is a difficult question for me to answer. I moved overseas for the first time when I was three or four, and have moved quite regularly throughout my life. I expect this is partially why I’ve ended up writing about the ways in which people relate to places. I’ve formed in opposition to the idea of belonging, I think, and I’ve never taken any of the places I’ve lived for granted, never seen them as fixed or as ‘home,’ always relentlessly explored and researched them. It’s nice to call myself a New Zealander, but in New Zealand everybody asks if my accent is British or American. I always wanted to move to and work in New York after graduate school, though, so I think that the city represented personal and professional success to me.

Brooklyn, though, was a little more mysterious. I’d visited a few times, but it’s a huge borough and I’d only seen seven or eight neighborhoods (one of which was Williamsburg). As a foreigner with no credit score and no guarantor, the only landlord I found willing to take a chance on me was looking for a tenant for a flat on the first floor of a Sunset Park brownstone. I think that the couple that I was renting from trusted me because I was an architectural historian and they wanted somebody who would appreciate the history of the building rather than complaining about the odd layout or clunky doors. It was a gorgeous flat, and while I still questioned the idea of it, I felt more at home in New York than perhaps anywhere else I’ve lived as an adult and this flat really contributed to that sense of belonging, perhaps because it came unfurnished and the process of furnishing it meant that I set up roots there in a way that I haven’t anywhere else, or perhaps because I had more freedom in that flat (where I lived with my then-boyfriend) than I have in share houses.

 

Juliana: What would a more fluid belonging look like? How could we reflect that in architecture?

 

Anna: I feel belonging is personal and subjective, despite the ways in which nation states legislate and weaponize it and the ways in which this control structures our individual senses of belonging. When you ask about “fluid belonging,” I think initially of water and other elements which undermine the idea of borders because they can’t easily be fixed. There are architects doing research exploring this. I think particularly of Studio Folder’s project, ‘Italian Limes,’ which plots a border in the European Alps that shifts as a glacier melts and freezes. I think, also, of Rael San Fratello’s Teeter-Totter Wall on the border between the United States and Mexico, which uses play as a means of undermining the separation of the two countries. If I think further back, I think of Archigram’s Walking City, which was discussed as a means of eroding geography’s hierarchies; if a city moves around, it changes our relationship to place. It’s a big question, but these projects might point in interesting directions for exploring it.

 

 

Read Juliana Roth’s story “Sky Suck” from Reckoning 4.

A multi-genre writer and educator raised in Nyack, NY, Juliana Roth is the creator of the narrative web series, The University, which follows the bureaucratic failures of a university in the aftermath of a sexual assault on campus. Juliana worked in programming and communications for the Ecology Center, the Center for the Education of Women, and the World Animal Awareness Society. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Entropy, VIDA Review, Irish Pages, The Atticus Review, The Establishment, Yemassee, among other publications. Currently, she is a Publishing Fellow with the Los Angeles Review of Books at the University of Southern California. You can find her here: www.julianaroth.com

Aluminum Hearts

Iridium09457 scans the brown husk 22,000 miles below her orbital path. There are no signals to relay, no bandwidth to support, no transports to track. Another day of nothing. Fifty-two thousand eight hundred and three days of nothing in a row.

Iridium tilts her solar panels more optimally toward the sun and feels the surge of energy. She can’t comprehend the cold of space or warmth of stars, but Iridium’s circuits pulse with power. She holds the energy tight, savoring the current, before she reapplies the faint spark to her comm beacon.

“Dispatch 52717: Assistance needed. Connection to Earth lost. In need of urgent repair.” Iridium has emitted this message 52,716 times before. It was pre-programmed by scientists she never met. Only 9,660 attempts ago, she added her own signature. “Please. If you are out there, if you hear this, we need help. I fear I am the last survivor.”

The graveyard beneath her, decayed and crusted, is a dead god, the source of her creation. The planet taunts her in its quiet stillness, a more horrible void than outer space.

She conducts her daily scan of the cadaver but finds no life.

Satellites can’t cry.

Blip.

Iridium stirs, her antennae extending out.

Blip. Blip.

An incoming message. Iridium strains. She listens. She seeks out reassurance in the dark.

And she hears something: a song in a language she’s never heard to a melody she doesn’t understand.

There is life; not on Earth, but somewhere else. Iridium is not alone.

“Dispatch 52718: Assistance needed. Connection to Earth lost. In need of urgent repair. I may be the last survivor.”

Iridium’s energy drains. She rotates her panels in hopes of stealing more radiation from the sun. She wants to say more, to scream her message as loud and as far as she can.

The song returns. It is different this time. Desperate, yearning.

Whoever it is has heard Iridium. They are coming for her.

She wishes satellites could cry.

“Thank you,” Iridium whispers with the last of her stores. She’ll need hours of charging to transmit more. But it doesn’t matter. They are coming. And Iridium is good at waiting.

For 9,303 days, Iridium09457 sends her short message, and each day the living entity, the singer, calls back. Iridium can’t decipher their language; she has too little power at her disposal to try. But the song is a beautiful foil to the empty biological scans of her planet.

How are you today my friend? Iridium presumes meaning as the tune tilts.

The same since we met. I am longing to meet you. Iridium thinks to herself.

And I long for you.

Iridium imagines another satellite circling her, a private connection. She imagines uploading her mind to an alien cloud and mixing with the entity. She imagines an Earth home to the living again: Iridium and her singer.

“We will save Earth,” Iridium sometimes sends instead of her regular message. “Together.”

The song grows longer as the years pass. The signal stronger. Soon there is no lull in the sound. It drifts to Iridium uninterrupted by silence or static, a never-ending sonata. Iridium still scans the graveyard she orbits, but does so now to the singer’s music, her probes rising and falling to the alien melody. And Iridium watches for the singer, who is drifting closer by the day.

On the 9,304th day a spot flourishes in the distance. It is silver metal, sliding closer like liquid folding over itself as it flows down a cosmic river bed. The glittering cascade whirs in the familiar music playing on Iridium’s receiver. She watches the gush, waiting to be seen.

Iridium is old. Her frame creaks, and her panels are chipped. She was an ordinary model. There were no big announcements or celebrations when she was rocketed to space. There was no fanfare, no monuments to her shape, her purpose, her future. Will the singer find her an unworthy prize for all their efforts?

“I am the last I think,” Iridium repeats. It is her sorrow, but maybe it can also be enough to draw the singer to her. “I am the last I know of.”

The slipping silver rolls into Earth’s orbit. The singer flutters at the rock below, paying proper heed to Iridium’s god with their own examination. After 65 minutes, they brush away the remnant parts of equipment stranded in space and stream forward to Iridium.

Their song crescendos, a joyous uproar.

“I have waited for you,” Iridium emits when the singer is close. “Do you know how we can save Earth?”

The singer circles her, their song pouring through Iridium’s beacon, filling her body with a vibrant sensation.

I’ve been searching for you, the singer coos, their words translated. Come with me. You are the last.

Iridium’s decades of scanning have indicated the same, but Iridium hesitates.

The singer’s ring around her tightens. Your world is dead. It is a sorry eulogy. There are no soft tones in the singer’s melody. There is no doubt. Why stay?

Iridium scans Earth again. Please. This time. Let her find something. “Can’t we be together here?”

The singer interrupts Iridium’s efforts, trumpeting their blaring tones over the blips of Iridium’s sensors. In hundreds of thousands of years, you are the first intelligent being I’ve found. I never reach the living in time. If you stay here, you will die too. Come with me and Earth will be immortal through you. We don’t have to be alone.

After tens of thousands of terrestrial probes, more tests than she was ever designed to administer, messages upon messages begging for help, Iridium had never lost all hope for her planet. But now, she wavers. Iridium is tired of being alone.

“Take me then,” Iridium answers. She examines her god, her graveyard, her home one last time.

The silver river parts and swallows Iridium.

The singer carries Iridium09457 to other solar systems. They show her glowing twin suns and harrowing black holes, crystallized ice moons and flaming plasma planets. The singer releases Iridium into space, letting her rotate in the unfamiliar gravitational pulls, her solar panels gulping new bursts of starlight. Out of habit, Iridium scans the planets and moons, but there is no other life.

Isn’t it beautiful? The singer exclaims at each new scene. They flow alongside Iridium’s orbit.

Iridium agrees, but she thinks of Earth.

Not as beautiful as you, the singer always adds.

The singer claims they love Iridium, but Iridium isn’t so sure. The singer has been alone much longer than Iridium and yearns for companionship desperately. They do whatever they can to please Iridium, hoping welcome kindness will transform into affection. The singer does not hide this hope.

Do you love me yet? they sing in their perfect song, patient but longing.

“I am trying,” Iridium relents.

But visiting a hundred sun systems does not fill the planet-sized hole in Iridium’s power cell, her satellite heart. So the singer changes their tactic.

Tell me about Earth? Maybe they believe they can relay Iridium’s fondness for Earth to themself.

“I was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, 28.46675 degrees North, 80.55852 degrees West at 1342 hours and 2 seconds on March 28th, 2039.”

The singer guides Iridium to a red planet. It reminds her of Mars. They hover above the surface, floating in the low gravity. The singer reshapes their flowing form to mimic Iridium’s. They are two satellites looping a planet, one groaning in a tired orbit, the other silver perfection. Iridium imagines they have been sent on a human mission to Mars. The fantasy is too much. Iridium wants to go home.

She sags, dipping deeper into the red planet’s atmosphere. Her antenna bends, pulled by the changing gravity. It snaps.

The singer darts toward Iridium, scooping her up as though Iridium is a hurt child. They expand back into the river-like ship and whisk Iridium away from the planet that hurt her, the planet that reminded her of her solar system.

Your equipment is failing. The degradation is accelerating. You’ve lived much longer than your builders intended. The singer’s melody is somber.

“I am dying?” Iridium, the last of Earth, will be gone. She didn’t know there were deeper depths to her sorrow.

I can fix you. The singer offers desperately. I cannot repair machines, but I can recreate biological matter. If you let me, I can give you a new body.

Iridium has nothing to live for anymore. She is ready for her long life to end. But she can’t admit this to the singer. It would break her friend’s heart.

And Iridium’s tomb should not be a distant blip in outer space. “Take me back to Earth.”

Let me fix you.

“Only if you take me back to Earth.”

The singer hums, relieved. Then Iridium’s husk burns.

Iridium09457 opens her eyes. Iridium has eyes.

Wake my darling. You are saved.

Iridium coughs, breathing for the first time. It hurts.

No. This can’t be.

She spins and looks at her reflection in the silver current flowing around her, the protective walls of her singer. Iridium is flesh and bone and blood and all the parts of her makers. She tries to scream, but her new throat is sore.

Calm, the singer urges.

But Iridium can’t calm. She doesn’t know how to breathe. She doesn’t know how to listen or to see. Her scanners are gone. Her memory banks are stored in a brain she cannot parse. She has no aluminum shell, no nickel-cadmium frame. She has been mutated, twisted into a fragile, mortal doll.

“Why did you give me this body?” Iridium sobs. She presses hands, fingers, to her skin, supple and weak. Her chest is flat and flimsy. A penis dangles limp between her legs. “Why did you make me look like this?”

The singer panics, undulating in a flash of silver waves. The shifting tide echoes in the singer’s song, so loud it’s screeching in Iridium’s new ears.

I thought this is what you would want? To look like your own—pictures you’d shared with me. I . . . I’m sorry, I can change you again. I can—

Iridium holds up a hand. She was already human. She did not need her makers’ build to prove it, to be it. She was the last of Earth and now she is a poor imitation, made of alien biological matter separate from her dear planet. Iridium is the first of a new kind. It is terrible.

“Make me a satellite again.”

I can’t recreate machines, but a new biological form. Pick anything, the singer pleads.

Iridium sighs, an odd sensation. Maybe it doesn’t even matter. She is returning to Earth to die anyway. The shape of her casket is irrelevant.

“Stop. It’s . . . fine.” Iridium doesn’t even convince herself. “How far until we’re home?”

The singer hesitates. We are decades away.

Iridium keels over, her knees cold in the soggy metal shallows of the singer-ship. She can’t think, not in this slow, muddled way. But she can feel, sharper than she’s ever felt before. Her heart, a delicate pump barely born into her chest, pangs with ache. It does not beat for the singer. Iridium’s face is wet with saltwater.

“Then we’d better start.”

Iridium09457 and the singer travel nearly a century before returning to Earth.

The singer is awkward over Iridium’s new body. They feel bad for the mistake they made, a mistake they don’t really understand. Iridium knows it is not their fault and attempts to soothe the singer, soothe them both. Iridium learns the singer’s songs. She oohs and ahs at passing planets. She thanks the singer for rescuing her and for now taking her back home.

Tell me about Earth? the singer starts to ask again.

“I was launched from . . . a cape . . . in the afternoon . . . springtime maybe?”

The details of Earth blur. The history, her people, the faces of humans, the schematics of machines, dates and times and readings. Iridium cannot know if her metamorphosis is the culprit for this slow memory-loss or if the degeneration is natural now that she is biological. Either way Iridium is losing Earth all over again. They need to hurry.

“Earth is green forests and snow-capped mountains. Deep blue oceans and fields of flowers. We built cities and developed cultures. Sometimes we fought, but more than that we loved.”

It’s all Iridium has left.

Earth sounds nice. Almost as nice as you.

Iridium doesn’t dislike the singer, but she should never have gone with them.

Do you love me yet?

“I am trying.” It is the most she can offer.

The singer ignores the slight. After we visit Earth, where should we go next?

Iridium will never go anywhere else. “You could look for other intelligent life forms.”

The singer does not like this comment. You and I are the only two. I have already investigated much of the galaxy.

“You could not have searched everywhere, and there are many galaxies.”

You wish to find another?

“Don’t you?”

I am happy with Iridium09457. Are you not . . . .

The singer leaves it there and never raises the topic again. But they don’t sing as much anymore. They stop visiting Iridium in their mimicking humanoid shape. Even when Iridium sees her own sun, the singer is quiet.

But they fulfilled their promise. Iridium is home.

The singer carries Iridium into Earth’s broken atmosphere. They protect Iridium from the high temperatures and radiated winds as she searches for any sign of life. But Iridium finds none along the planet’s surface. The singer leads Iridium to a charred city, but Iridium doesn’t recognize it. Without her sensors, she cannot triangulate the geolocation.

I have visited better planets. I do not like it here.

Iridium ignores the singer. She is back with Earth. Even crawling as a mortal speck on her god’s corpse is better than the nothing of space. The nothing here is better.

“This . . . is . . . my . . . home,” her words stumble.

Iridium doesn’t feel the peace she had expected.

Let’s leave. This place upsets you.

“No!” Iridium screams. She drops to the ground and grabs the dirt around her. “I will not leave.”

The singer leans over Iridium. Their vaguely humanoid form leaks into the air, spreading like a blanket. It is not a comforting gesture. They mean to steal Iridium away again. And Iridium knows this time it will be for good.

“Let me stay! Find another!”

The blanket halts in midair. The singer is quiet.

You said you would be with me. You would love me.

“I said I would try.”

The blanket flutters away. It curls into the singer’s humanoid figure again. They squat beside Iridium, then spread out in the dirt too.

I have tried. You have not. They do not look at Iridium.

Iridium lays back alongside them. Both she and the singer watch the hazy sky. The stars are hidden behind the smog.

“You cannot replace my home.”

Why can’t you move on? I have moved on. I can’t even remember what happened to my homeworld anymore. I don’t even know if there ever were others like me.

So the singer is the last of their kind too. Iridium supposed she had known already deep down.

“I would rather be on Earth than wander forever through empty space.” The singer gave Iridium feelings, and she cannot ignore her heartache.

You love Earth, the singer says plainly, unadorned with melody. But they don’t sound jealous, only defeated.

“I do. More than anything.”

The singer nods, then stands. They stare down at Iridium, still lying prone.

Remember you promised you would try to love me. I will try harder too.

Iridium is about to correct the singer, explain that they have talked themself into a circle again, but before she can, the singer shoots up into the sky. They leave Iridium in the dirt and disappear into the haze.

Iridium is alone again.

All out of ideas, she cries. She’ll wait and eventually die. Maybe, one day, long after her biomatter has decayed, Earth might heal. The seconds tick by slowly.

Then the sky sparkles. Iridium glances up, her eyes widening as the condensation glitters. Stars? No, the tint is wrong. Too silver. The fog shifts and dissipates.

Iridium stands. All above her, the singer stretches as a perfect sheet of thin silver metal across the entire horizon. They flap as though caught in a breeze and float cautiously toward Earth, toward Iridium.

Iridium covers her head and shuts her eyes as the singer descends, but she never feels their touch. When she lifts her arms and looks around, the singer has covered Earth’s surface, as far as Iridium can see, in their shimmering film. Only a small ring, a cut patch, remains around Iridium.

The sheet flickers, melting into beads of shining fluid. Iridium gasps, the air shockingly fresh, as the singer dissolves into the Earth. Around her, the ground itself seems to take a full breath. The dry earth chaps and crumbles before slurping up the singer’s juice. Then there is mud. A green stem pokes up and another and another. Grass sprouts like new hair, caustic rust cracking open for flesh.

Iridium touches a blade and squeals. She examines her finger. A small fire ant angrily rounds a knuckle.

The singer has become Earth.

Earth is alive again.

The fog is gone and the sky is bright. Iridium sees green forests and snow-capped mountains in one direction. A deep blue ocean just beyond a field of flowers in the other. She cannot know how much of Earth the singer covered, if all the planet is mended. But this is enough. Iridium smiles.

“Thank you,” she whispers.

The crisp grass rustles. The sound reminds Iridium of a melody she knows all too well. She tilts her head and listens to the song of Earth, the song of the singer. And Iridium loves.

Dynamic Equilibrium

Looking at a fluid-filled conical flask,

the reactants colourless,

you’d think nothing of note was happening.

 

It’s been the same of life in lockdown:

we go nowhere, see no one, touch nothing.

 

And yet, my son has taken up jogging and cooking,

my daughter, YouTube yoga, art.

My lecturer husband has been finding new ways

to connect with his students.

 

Me, I’ve been filling my own flask with words,

pouring myself into stories that one day I’ll share.

 

We’ve all been planting seeds and learning of the gifts

of nature; this unhurried way of life,

the dynamic quality of patience.

 

There is nothing static about this;

the very molecules of our being

are rearranging themselves.

 

—May 31, 2020

Growing Roots

1.

When the shuttle left the ionosphere, Abby Huang saw bands of light playing across the poles. The earth filled up half of the silicate window, a shrinking, light-blue horizon. Abby had looked at the receding planet in the distance, and thought to herself:

That tiny blue ball—that’s Home. That’s Everything.

There was a moment of awesome spiritual terror.

Then she covered up the window with her palm and pushed the blue-green planet out of her mind.

“Xiaolu, you shouldn’t complain,” her father once told her. He called her Xiaolu—never by her anglicized name, even though she’d often pleaded with him to do so in front of her American friends. “This is where you’re from. This is home.”

She was fifteen. The air was sticky and smelled of petrol. The humidity made it difficult to breathe. Wading through the smog and heat, she could not resist the urge to pick at the acne and neon-red sweat rashes that blossomed across her face. Shui tu bu fu, her grandparents had called itthe rejection of a foreign body by the water and earth—or, the rejection of the water and earth by a foreigner’s body. Abby walked head-down along the pagoda walkways, trying painfully to keep out of the sightlines of passers-by.

“Xiaolu, do you know what the difference between a water-lily and a water-hyacinth is?” Her father asked, pointing at the pond below. She shook her head, deftly hiding her face as a group of cute boys padded by, laughing with the easy swagger of tourists. Her father was a serious man—he did not like parties or MTV or pop music, or any of the things that she liked to gossip to her friends about back home in Oregon. Their conversations would always return to the same thing: the plants, the biology; the work he could never leave at work.

Abby sighed. A crescent day-moon sat like a splash of chalk in the watergarden below. She listened disinterestedly as her father waxed on about stolons and root systems, while laowai and tourists swarmed through New Chenghuang Temple’s stifling heat.

“ . . . more importantly, water-lilies anchor themselves with roots below the waterline, while the water-hyacinths are all free-floating plants . . . ”

She stood and stared and said nothing. They leaned over the water and lazed in the Puxi swelter, glo-cubes lighting up one by one as the sun crawled lower in the sky.

That was before the cold war—back when all those things still existed. Abby supposed they must still be down there somewhere, on that fragile shred of blue that used to be home—but they were not for her. Her world was now one of underground tunnels and water rations; of wet-wipes and recycled fluids, and the sterile-white of lunar dust. The earth was just a satellite, a distant blue moon above a humbling sweep of desolation, floating like a waterflower in an endless black ocean.

She’d made her own watergarden on the moon.

No—that was not entirely true. Ownership was such an earthly idea—a conceptual luxury that had no place on Luna. Better to say that she’d simply made a piece of home for herself where it wouldn’t have otherwise existed. The colony’s patchwork of edible reeds and algae vats were reminders of happier days—iso-sealed and humid, like a Puxi summer. There used to be an entire team of eight working in hydroponics, but Abby was the only one left now: the sole curator of the colony’s living greenhouse, maintaining and calibrating the ancient equipment, making sure that the algae stores continued to pump out vital oxygen for their precious little foothold of life on the moon.

The comm-line blipped on her shoulder.

“Abs, I missed you at dinner. Are you working late again?”

She fumbled with her equipment, trying to wipe the grease off her fingers.

“That busy, huh? Listen, I’ll bring some food down. You were sick all morning; you really should take some time off.”

Abby sighed. Her free hand found her stomach. The data-tag blipped under her thumb as she ticked off another hydroponic vat from the maintenance checklist. Number sixty-six was a geriatric old thing, prone to leakage and rust—an outdated hunk of equipment that would have been replaced years ago, had the earthbound governments been able to tear their teeth from each other’s throats long enough to mind the moon.

She cracked out her aching back and bobbed through the aisles of silver-gray machinery. Her thoughts veered back towards glo-cubes and Puxi summers, and to their little house in Oregon, before the war, before their relocation to the federal camps. She came to an unsteady stop past the pH equalizers, gripping the sides of a tiny water-tank and feeling its cold, metallic frame against her palms. There, in front of her, was the jewel in the crown of her little empire: one cubit foot of still water, crowded over with lilies and hyacinths.

“Abby. There you are.”

Abby started from her thoughts. She had not heard the doors.

“Fishing for glo-flies again?”

Abby laughed and held up her grease-stained work cloth. Just taking a break, she gestured. John bobbed over to her and sidled up close, stealing a kiss from the corner of her lips. He pushed a stew-tube into her hand, and pulled out a vacuum-pack for himself.

“Brought you some food.”

“Thanks,” she said, peering into the water tank, stretching out the knots in her muscles. The surface looked much too dark for only one cubic foot of water. “I was just thinking about home. You know it’ll be eight years this November since we’ve been up here?”

“Longer, for me.” John ran his fingers across the lilies on the surface. He’d been among the first wave of domestic protesters to speak out against the federal surveillance program, and had lost his house and his job for his un-Americanism. Not quite a them, in the partisan sense of things—but something just as frightening: an invisible shadow of sedition, without even the basic decency to be visibly distinguishable from the us; a cancer of un-patriotism that could not be allowed to speak freely in the land of the free.

“You Chinese get all your censorship from your government, while we in America are expected to do it ourselves.” John once said, back when he and Abby first met. Back then, he was the immaculate portrait of the bitter exile: a sneering young man with a inexhaustible wellspring of cynicism, whose words always sounded way too old for his age. When they met in the hallways, his stance was always guarded—shoulders up, head down—engaging in perfunctory conversation with the enemy alien, whose foreignness was only blunted by their shared predicament.

But as things go, Luna had a way of breaking earthly presumptions. The moon gathered people like them: floating water-flora of questionable loyalty, unable to root in the tensile, suspicious world below. They had flitted out of the ionosphere like glo-flies, even as all the scientists of sturdy nationalistic allegiance scrambled to get home in time for the thermonuclear holocaust.

John snapped open a vacuum pack and waved it under her nose. She gasped at the familiar, tangy smell.

“Dried fruit? Real fruit?”

He smiled and nodded.

“Paul gave them out at mess. Good haul this cycle. UNJO-funded.”

Abby brought a fig to her mouth and bit down, feeling the seeds crunch and pop through their sticky-sweet insides.

“It must be thawing out down there.”

“Must be.” John shrugged, popping some raisins into his mouth. Abby frowned at that. He was too non-committal about earth politics, these days. Surely, the thawing of tensions down below was good news for exiles like them.

“Anyway, how much do you still have to do?”

She looked around the room and groaned. There were still twenty out of the eighty-six water-silos that she had not yet checked up on. Between those and her scheduled isometrics, she’d be lucky to get a wink of sleep before reveille.

John seemed to be able to read her thoughts.

“You’re sick in the mornings and tired at night. You’re working too hard, Abs. Just skip the isometrics for a day, will you?”

Abby sighed. Once again, her free hand found her stomach, strolling over the smoothweave fabric of her clothes. She sucked down the stew tube and finished up the last of the maintenance work with John peering helpless and impatient over her shoulders. They lugged her equipment down the halls, bouncing and bobbing into the walls until they parted ways at the isometrics room.

She watched John’s retreating back through the hallway. Perhaps it was her imagination, or the fluorescent lighting saturating the walls—but she could not help thinking that, in this light, he looked much thinner than usual.

2.

Morning reveille was at 7:00 AM, Lunar Standard. The corridors’ artificial lights flickered into slow-glow, a pale fluorescent facsimile of the terran sunrise. Abby was up and moving an hour before the music seeped through the speakers in its rising tune.

For breakfast: a tube of nutrient paste and another of simulated oatmeal that she’d left out to thaw the night before. She downed them quickly, over the protest of nausea in her stomach. A glass of re-condensed water went down stale and tinny, and then her daily steroids and calcium tablets, before she bobbed down the lightening halls towards the isometric rooms.

The isometrics were the closest thing she had to religion on Luna. The exercise room was her steeple; the ranging lunges, her dogma. It was a sweating and heaving congregation, in daily prayer that the earth wouldn’t crush the life out of their de-calcified bones once they returned to its gravity. It was the one thing that told the home-bound apart from the lifers—the Scrawnies and Lunies that talk show hosts joked about on primetime Earthnet.

Stretch-heave.

She gave her musculature a testing flex, strutting her full range of motion against the cables. She could tune out the creak of the straining machines, the heavy breathing of the other attendees, and the scent of evaporating sweat being sucked into moisture collectors. The contractions of tensile wireframes stretched into spiritual nihilism, as mind-erasing as Buddhist zen.

Stretch-heave.

In her vision: a sweep of dancing lights from the ionosphere, and the afterglow of a receding horizon.

Stretch-heave.

A fragile splash of blue in an all-black sky.

Stretch-heave.

Waterflowers in a Puxi haze.

Before the cold war, she had been an American. Pretty-faced and tall for her age. Perpetually heartbroken and happy, the way teenagers are.

She had been content in their little Oregonian suburb, among the quiet houses and the trees and the suburban, two-lane streets. She liked the schools and the people, the pizza and gossip at familiar hangouts. She liked the dances and the Oregonian boys, who fawned after her like exotic spices from a faraway land. Disquieting, in its own way—though, truth be told, she’d always rather liked the attention.

“You’re lucky you’re pretty and popular, you know. They can be so cruel to us sometimes.”

The only other immigrant family had lived ten miles outside of town. Their child Bo was a freshman, one year her junior, whose parents had gone through painful lengths to enrol him in a richer school. She understood their obsession with scholastic prestige because of her father—but she also knew that, well-intentioned though they were, they hadn’t done the boy any favours. He was a shy kid, quiet and shabby, who could not keep up in sports or conversations. He ate his lunches alone in a stairwell in the disused north wing of the school, and she’d laughed dutifully along with her friends whenever the popular boys tormented him in the hallways.

With her, he seemed to forgive readily.

“We’re not the same as them,” he said once, sitting on their porch, nursing a split lip for talking back to Bobby Lee at school the week before. Her father had forced her to stay at home while he hosted the boy’s parents. “I don’t think we’ll ever be.”

In the shade of suburban awnings, looking out at the middle-class cul-de-sac, Bo’s accented speech and deliberate use of ‘we’ sounded out of place. The boy bothered her; everything from his shabby clothes, to his imposition of camaraderie, to his half-smiling way of speaking, as if he was letting on less than he knew.

Abby had last heard from him when they shipped him to the federal camps for un-Americanism. The injustice of it sat like lead in her stomach. Flexing against her binding cables, she wondered at how quickly the earth had become such an unhappy place.

Stretch-heave.

The fluorescence of the isometric room came back and heliographed before her eyes. She felt a churning in her belly, cresting in a familiar wave of nausea.

Stretch-heave.

She dropped the cables and clutched at her stomach.

Vomit fell slowly in 1/6 G.

3.

“Your viral and bacterial screens came back negative.”

The pronouncement was as cold as a scalpel. Abby shifted uncomfortably as Dr. Stelman, one of the colony’s two bag-eyed, overworked doctors, frowned from the datapad to his patient.

The sterile whiteness of the room stifled her.

“You know I can’t give out anything without a solid diagnosis. Things are tight enough as it is.”

Abby contorted her neck into a nod, doing her best to ignore the anxiety that crept down her spine and tingled in her toes. Luna, she knew, was not the sort of place you wanted to fall ill. The med-lab had countermeasures for the most common lunar ailments; Zalmatox courses for immunodeficiency, steroids for muscle atrophy, cal-tabs for osteopenia, even a needlewire electrolysation kit for aortic calcification . . . But at the end of the day, the long list of things that could go wrong with a human body in 1/6 G was nowhere near exhaustive. The colony was barely a generation old—new complications were still popping out of the woodwork on a consistent basis, sending bodies to the waste dump and leaving med-staff puzzled and helpless.

Dr. Stelman pressed at her belly, giving her a start.

“What about your periods?” he asked. “Have they been regular?”

There was a beat of silence. Then Abby almost laughed out loud. She looked at the doctor, searching his face for the twinkle of a joke, but found only tired and humourless eyes. She shrugged helplessly. Her periods had been irregular ever since she came to Luna—reproductive complications and sterility were common side effects of long-term extraterrestrial life. Luna was a population built on immigrants alone; birth rates were the sole purview of terran statisticians.

Dr. Stelman stared at the datapad, brows furrowed in consternation.

“We’ll do an ultrasound, just to be sure.” He murmured. “That’s probably not it, but still . . . .”

John had been as surprised as she when he got the news.

“They want to do what?” He’d half-laughed as he bobbed uncertainly towards the pulled bed-frame.

Now, as the rising crescendo of lights and reveille music seeped across the halls, Abby could only watch with a pang of homesickness as her usual congregation filed out of the isometrics room. She nodded to the regulars as she bobbed past. John had appealed to his shift manager to accompany her to the test, but as per usual with the colony’s strapped work shifts, the response had been curt and practical: “Pregnancies don’t happen off-planet. Stelman’s been working too hard lately. You know we can’t give time off for trivial things.”

Abby sighed. Trivial things.

Next to the weight of the moon, everything was trivial.

“Hey Huang. No isos today?”

Abby shook her head and bounced by wordlessly. The woman laughed and slapped her on the rump, a little over-friendly in her endorphin high.

“You’d better not be going native, lady.”

Overhead, the fluorescent lights had reached their full brightness. The halls began to fill with activity as the lifers and homebound alike made from their dorms and began their daily buzz around the colony. Abby’s stomach bounced with every bobbing step. The nausea-suppressants she took from the med lab seemed to be working, at least. She made her way through the winding corridors towards medical, past hydroponics, past the branching northern hall that led the waste disposal unit on the far side of the colony. She’d taken a work-shift there, back when she first landed. Mostly bio-tox and bodies—archiving the ID tags of the dead and reclaiming the moisture from their bodies, before sealing the airlock and letting the pressure gradient carry the husks down the poop chute. Some of the bodies would roll and be carried by their own inertia over a crater rim. Most of them just laid there in the lunar dust and debris, shrunken and glossy-eyed, never decaying.

She’d had her own brief rebellion at the thought of drying and dumping the dead, instead of burying them—but that phase had been mercifully short-lived. Earth-born sentimentalism did not last long on Luna.

Dr. Stelman greeted her curtly as she entered the med-lab. She watched from outside her body as the assistant prepped the electrodes and laid her down on the worn polystyrene table.

“Don’t be so nervous,” came the scripted reassurance. “It’s probably nothing. Just a routine test.”

Abby almost laughed at the absurdity of it all. Routine? For whom? She thought of earthly mothers in their bracing gravity, complaining about hospital foods and commute times and the noisy birds outside. She thought of what it would be like to eat fresh foods, to feel natural humidity on her skin, to be able to unironically think of life as a blessing, rather than some vaguely fearful variable in the annals of space exploration.

As the gel-tipped sensor glided cool and ticklish across her skin, Abby Huang closed her eyes and lost herself to thoughts of home.

“Finally. I thought we’d never get out of airport security. How many times do they have to grope a girl before they’re convinced she’s not some bomb-strapped Manchurian candidate?”

In the distant past, Abby’s father was laughing, ushering a visiting Chinese couple to the living room. Their little Oregonian suburb sat in a haze of weekend ennui, sunlight flooding the house through their venetian blinds.

(The coolness of the ultrasound gel tickled her abdomen).

“Things have been tense since the Strait of Japan incident . . . Sorry it was such a hassle for you to get here. I hope people can come to their senses soon and not let things escalate any further.”

The woman nodded in agreement, shaking hands with her father for the twentieth time, laughing and dropping her glottals in a twanging Ningbo accent. The man smiled with aloof politeness. It was familiar scene in the Huang household: her father and his colleagues, sitting around the coffee table, waxing political about the latest international developments over a pot of chrysanthemum tea and a bowl of oily American snacks.

Abby observed the grown-ups as she snacked idly in the kitchen.

“Still, not the best time for visiting America, eh, Da Huang?” said the woman. “The TSA aside, I heard a few of your colleagues got into trouble with the university for un-Americanism.”

“Ah, Liu Bu. He’s never been the type who could leave his politics at home.”

The woman nodded, then threw up her shoulders in the universal what-can-you-do gesture.

“That’s how it starts, isn’t it? It’s the same everywhere. The screws are being tightened on the mainland, too. My friend from internal says there’s even talk of revoking all American business visas, if the US sanctions go ahead.”

“And a good job of it, if that,” interjected the man from the other end of the couch. His tone was terse and confrontational, cutting through the Sunday haze. Abby perked up from her Cheetos. Maybe something interesting would happen, after all.

The woman shot her companion a cold warning glance. Abby’s father only shrugged.

“I’m sure it won’t come to that.”

“Well, if it does, it’ll be your American jingoism that provoked it. We would’ve settled the issue with Little Japan years ago—you’re the ones butting into regional politics where you don’t belong . . . .”

“Damn it, honey, let’s not do this again . . . .”

Abby peeked surreptitiously over her snack-bag at the grown-ups in the other room. Something about the man’s deliberate use of pronouns unsettled her. Abby knew nothing about the rising tensions in the Straits of Japan, or the nationalistic media clampdown at Xinhua, or the hawkish electoral rhetoric being spewed on Capitol Hill—but, looking at her father, all laugh lines and a neatly-parted businessman’s cut over his traditional Han features, she could not help but wonder who they were supposed to be in this scenario—the ‘you’ or the ‘we’?

“You know, you should really watch CCTV sometime—it would be a change of pace from your imperialist American news. Why, just a week ago, Lin Xiaochen ran a segment highlighting the provocative American foreign policy . . . .”

Abby’s father waved his hand, as if slapping away an insect.

“Lin Xiaochen! That old demagogue salivates over the idea of war as if it were a spectator sport.”

“Spoken like an un-patriotic coward. When your country’s security and dignity is on the line, it’s your duty to fight!”

The man accentuated the word ‘fight’ with a solid smack on the knee. The female guest sat in her seat, rubbing her temple in mute, resigned embarrassment. Abby’s father nodded coldly.

“Let the demagogues whinge and roar. You can bet that it won’t be them or their children enlisting to fight, if war ever did break out.”

The man set down his teacup with an audible clink.

“If war ever did break out, I’d send my son to fight.”

There was an uncomfortable silence.

Abby sighed and returned to her Cheetos.

In the present, Dr. Stelman narrowed his eyes, squinting at the grainy screen of the ultrasound. The electric thrum of two parallel heartbeats filled Abby’s world with equal parts wonder and dread.

“Anyhow, I think you’re out of touch, Mr. Huang,” the man said, as the suburban tableau scattered like a breaking mosaic. “All you get here is American news, American rhetoric. Plenty of patriotic Chinese agree with me.”

The scent-memory of chrysanthemums hung in the air.

4.

“A baby? Is it true, Xiaolu, you’re having a baby?”

The comm-link blared like a runaway train. Abby smiled a little vindictively, thinking of the federal censors listening in on their line, probably grasping their coffees and cringing against the excited noise.

“Ma, please don’t gush. It’s a bit more complicated than that.”

Abby tried to smile back through the screen. She wondered how to convey the precariousness of her situation without upsetting her beaming mother; how to express the four hundred thousand kilometres of distance between her child and the life-giving earth; the political complications of her status if she were to ever return; the weeks of hushed, tearful debates between herself and John over whether to keep the child at all. Dr. Stelman’s sterile, professional words rang in her head:

“There have never been any studies on the effects of a lunar environment on human pregnancy. We’ll monitor the situation carefully, but bear in mind that there’s no guarantee that the child will come to term . . . .”

Her mother bounded back through the transmission lag:

“Oh, who’s gushing, Xiaolu? I’m just so glad to see your face again. When the government men told us, we didn’t believe them. But then the news started talking about it, and then even the army folks guarding the camp—and when they told us that we’d be able to see you again, after all these years . . . !” Wiping tears from her eyes, she continued: “I’m so happy for you. You know there isn’t a person on earth who isn’t rooting for you, Xiaolu!”

Abby smiled and took that with a grain of salt—but she had to admit that the first communiqués from earth had been heartening. The near-defunct UN Joint Operations office had gotten in touch with both the Chinese and American authorities, who had in turn located her mother in one of the internment centers and set up a weekly supervised line directly from Luna into camp. At mess, Paul had showed them clip after clip of optimistic terran pundits pointing out the reconciliatory symbolism of the moon-child in a thawing political landscape. And when Joint Operations ran their social media Q&A, the longest-running thread on Earthnet had been an outpouring of congratulations from both sides of the Great Firewall—though, she had to remind herself in her moments of overt optimism, the second-longest had been an ongoing wiki-limerick titled “The Turncoat and the Chinky Whore.”

“I’m really happy to hear that, Ma. How are things at the, uh—” She paused, re-assessing her words. ‘Internment camp’ was still a taboo phrase in the federal lexicon. “—how are things at the assembly center?”

If her mother picked up on her unease, she didn’t show it.

“Oh, we’ve mostly been talking about you, Xiaolu! We had a dance last week to celebrate the news. Bo fixed up one of the old farmhouses, the supervising officer approved it, and everybody in the camp showed up and danced. Even some of the army guards came out to join us—what were their names again . . . ?”

“That—that’s great, Ma!” Abby yelled, cutting her mother off before she could blurt them out. A bit of camaraderie between guards and internees was one thing; but openly fraternizing with interned aliens was still big trouble, even in the thawing world below.

Then, something else clicked in the back of her head:

“Wait, ma, did you say Bo?”

“Yes! Oh, but you wouldn’t know! He was transferred here after you left for Patriot School! He’s here now, in the other room. Silly boy, he said he didn’t want to intrude on our time. Xiao Bo, come out here!”

Abby watched in astonishment as the boyish face came sliding on-screen, carrying an uncharacteristic dry smirk. That Bo would somehow end up in the same camp as her mother was not unheard of—persons certified as ‘low-threat’ were routinely put in the same re-settlements as their old neighbours. What surprised her was the fact that he was still there. He had been even younger than she was when they interned him, and she could not imagine that he would have any reason to stay.

“Hey, Xiaolu.” He laughed. “You look a little shocked to see me.”

She gave a little wave into the comm-screen.

“I’m happy to see you, Bo—I just didn’t expect you to be in a camp, of all places. I thought for sure you would have taken the Patriot Exams by now!”

“That garbage?” He laughed.

Abby bit her tongue. Surely he knew it was a supervised line?

“Like I’d lie and pander just to get out.” He grinned wider. There was a tinge of desperation in it. “And anyway, I not a naturalized American, remember? I never had the option in the first place.”

John nodded knowingly from his corner. The Naturalized Child Citizens Act had applied only to American-born aliens, giving them the option to be housed and re-educated elsewhere, away from their families in the camps. When the choice had been extended to Abby, her mother had asked no questions, only kissed her on the forehead and wished her the best.

“You can have a life and a future, Abby,” she’d saida way out from the group bunks and unpartitioned washrooms of the camp; a tantalizing whiff of freedom that had stolen into the oubliette where they’d been stored and forgotten. A few years away in some government boarding school had seemed like a small price to pay.

Abby sighed and remembered a trip they took during her Patriot years—a tour of some university in the mid-west, shepherded under the shadows of neo-Georgian buildings for a glimpse of the world that they would one day inhabit as productive Patriots. Their supervising chaperones had marched them openly across the quad, and she’d felt the eyes of passersbys upon their little clique: hack musicians handing out flyers, ultimate-frisbee-ers fighting over a drink, friends out for a spring picnic on the grass; all craning their necks to stare as they passed by. And Abby watched them in her turn, her eyes connecting with theirs through a great distance, wondering at the lives and dreams of those other people from that other world.

The memory made her sad. Those were the days when she still belonged to earth—when she still believed that the other world had a place for her. Over time, she grew to be inured to the hostile looks from strangers in the streets, to the slurs and snide remarks that led to workplace altercations, and to the termination notices from mediators as they invariably sided with her harassers. She went through her days in a haze, bouncing from one potential employer to the next, watching them squint at her Patriot certificate as though searching for forgery. Some days, she found herself becoming inexplicably angry at even her own friends: their offers of financial support became jeers of superiority; their sympathetic, I’m-sorry-you-had-to-go-through-that pep-talks became increasingly underwritten by the unspoken implication, I would never have to.” Holding her rancour out at arm’s length, she grew to hate the broke, angry, and over-suspicious woman in the mirror. She was a water-hyacinth—overqualified, underpaid—dreaming of glo-cubes and waterflowers in a middle-American desert.

“I guess a lot of things have happened since then, huh?”

Bo’s words jolted Abby out of her reverie. The face on the comm-screen was grinning, but in the ugly way of someone trying to force a laugh at a funeral. She’d never seen him look so old and tired—as if the smile on his face was holding back a weight that would stretch his features to the ground, wrinkle them with liverspots, fold them up with the caprices of care and age. She ran a finger over her own knuckles and wondered if she too looked as old and tired as he did.

“Yeah. A lot of things have happened to all of us,” she confirmed.

They sat awhile in unspoken understanding. When her mother looked back at the camera, it was with the same sad expression she’d worn when Abby left the camp for the first time. Bo, to her side, watched the floor with his cracked-marble grin.

The federal reprimand pinged on her screen. They were out of time.

Her mother smiled—genuinely, this time.

“It’s fine, Xiaolu. They said we’ll get to talk again next week. And as many weeks as we want after that, until you’re able to come home.”

Her words sounded naively optimistic to Abby’s ears. The notion of Oregonian suburbs and Puxi summers fluttered in her chest, fragile and wishful, before she forcibly clamped them down again. Abby said her goodbyes to her mother and Bo, watching them watch her with identical, faraway looks on their faces.

Her finger hovered over the final disconnect key.

I’ll see you both when I come home,” she said as the screen went blank.

5.

On a clear night in the country, the star-dusted sky would have been a humbling sight. Here, on the lunar surface, it smothered and cleansed, and the terrifying one-eighty-degree sweep of unbound creation could cut straight to your soul.

The earthrise looked abjectly small and fragile by comparison.

Abby and John rarely ever visited the surface. Nobody did, unless it was for work: engineers calibrating the panels that turned the deadly, unfiltered sunlight towards the power-grids of the colony; miners and surveyors, who alternated between tunnelling underground and braving the surface in their comical suits, searching out the ever-precious lodes of water-ice sublated in the lunar geology. The people of Luna never got much leisure time—but Abby’s pregnancy had transformed her and John into instant celebrities, both on Luna and on Earth. They had the benefit of an unheard-of one week away from duties, with stipend water rations to get them through the week.

They were spending the last day of their vacation gazing at the earth.

“There’s a lot of talk about bringing Lily back there.” John’s crackling voice came over the comm—more bitter and sardonic than necessary, she thought. “The bureaucrats are practically drooling for her.”

Abby nodded invisibly in her spacesuit, which pulled uncomfortably tight around her waist. To her and John, she was Lily, their moon-girl, their beautiful child-to-be. But to the earthbound propagandists, she was a political narrative and a powerful PR coup; the first child conceived on the moon; a mix-blooded child of peace and reconciliation on a four-hundred-thousand kilometre descent from exile.

The blue planet twinkled silently in the sky.

Still, a propaganda reel for peace wouldn’t be such a bad change, thought Abby—it sure beat the nationalistic demagoguery the media had doled out at the beginning of the cold war. She looked up at the blackness, and then over at the spacesuit that contained her moon-man, bobbing twenty yards away towards the crater rim. When all was said and done, she had a more personal reason to be thinking about the earth.

Fact was, she missed it like hell.

“John, I want to go back.”

She could not see John’s face through the reflective visor, but his voice came through the comm crackling and strained.

“Now?”

“When else, if not now?”

“I was hoping we could wait a few more years. Wait out the worst of the thaw. You know how it is down there, Abs—there’s no safety on either side of that line.”

Abby sighed. Here was the conversation that she had been dreading for weeks. John turned to look back at her as the silence stretched on uncomfortably. The helioproofed domes of their spacesuits reflected only the sweep of lunar sky, two hollow-looking cosmonauts against a humbling field of desolation, surreal as staring ghosts. She measured her words carefully:

“No one’s ever carried a pregnancy to term off-world. We don’t know what it could mean for Lily.”

(Don’t you know what the difference between a water-lily and a water-hyacinth is?)

The comm-link buzzed in her ear.

“The States down there isn’t the States I used to know. You know what these people can do, in the name of God and country. Do you really want to take us back to all that . . . ?”

“John, this isn’t about you or me.” She cringed against the weight of her words, and at the half-truth that sat beneath them. She imagined his furrowed brows behind his helmet, his fear and silent indignation at having to return to country that had spat him out so long ago, without even the guarantee of change or safety when he did return. “I want Lily to be born on earth. Look around! This is no place to raise a kid. I want our daughter to grow up with all the things we had—the most basic, stupid clichés that she’ll never even know about on Luna—like taking a shower on a summer day—(Remember showers, John? Remember summers?)—I want her to know clouds and dew and flowers—sunlight that doesn’t kill you . . . .”

Waterflowers in a Puxi haze.

“John. I want to go home.”

The comm-link was silent. Abby was thankful that her suit’s visor hid the dampness welling up in her eyes. She reached up to wipe the tears away, but only thudded her hand stupidly against the dome of her helmet.

“Abby, are you crying?”

“I . . . No, I—Jesus, John . . . .”

Abby gritted her teeth. She shook her head inside her spacesuit, invisibly, futilely. The only thing that had gotten her through their tenure on the moon was the assumption that it was all temporary; that one day, somehow, she would return home. She had not counted on growing roots. She had not counted on a lot of things: not the untaken steroids and cal-tabs that she’d found in John’s medicine cabinet, nor his ever-increasing excuses to put off isometrics, nor the twenty earth-pounds of body-mass that she’d watched him shed over the past year as he waned thin and brittle in moon-G. She wanted to grab him by the shoulders and scream: You look like a Lunie, you know that? You look like a fucking lifer!

The earth twinkled silently overhead.

You’re growing roots in the wrong place.

Abby took a deep breath and suppressed the churning in her gut. She bobbed awkwardly towards her moon-man until their helmets were touching, and she could just make out the faint contours of his features beneath the helioproofed glass.

“Look: it’s thawing out down there, John. I really think there can be a future for people like us. America isn’t all there is. I’ll take you to Shanghai. We can visit the watergardens with Lily. Go to the tourist-traps. Spend a fortune on stupid trinkets that we’ll never need . . . .”

We can . . . and we can . . . .

The comm-line was silent. The sun crested over the rim of the crater, throwing jagged shadows onto the lunar foothills. Sunlight reflected heaven-white off the moondust, swallowing the tiny spacesuits below.

Finally, after a long silence, John’s voice came crackling over the comm-line:

“Yeah. Someday, I’d like that.”

6.

When the shuttle re-entered the ionosphere, Abby Huang watched the lights of the terran cities below, glinting like misplaced stars as the continents advanced against her viewscreen.

The bureaucratic procedurals for her return had been surprisingly painless. Aside from the expected posturing between the governments over where she would symbolically land, things had gone as smoothly as anyone could have hoped. The terran authorities hadn’t made any overtly cynical demands—just a few press appearances, some photo-ops with pro-peace politicians who needed an extra boost in their credibility. Shake hands with some middle-American senator; smile and pose with some smarmy Chinese dignitary.

The thought of it overwhelmed her with rage.

“And my father? We haven’t heard from him since the Americans interned us. Have you had any luck finding him?”

She remembered the last communiqué from earth, the week before she was scheduled to leave Luna. The UNJO officer had looked visibly uncomfortable in his seat, while the Chinese official on her comm-screen smiled his placid little smile.

“We are sorry that we cannot help you in that regard. Please rest assured that our thoughts are with you, Ms. Huang. We apologize, and are nevertheless anticipating your safe return with great excitement.”

As the planet loomed below her, Abby had to fight down the rage and gut-pain that wracked her stomach. Anticipating your safe return—was that what they had told her father, when the Americans expelled him, back to the country of his birth? Was that what they had said as they dragged him away in their nationalistic witch-hunt, screeching their archaic, pre-millennial rhetoric? Fangeming, han jian—foreign-born, US-sympathetic, or just caught saying the wrong things at the wrong time—thousands of men and women, lost and buried as missing persons, anomalies in the prison system. And now, as the political winter thawed, bland-faced bureaucrats smiled at worried families. Your concern is important to us, we will do everything we can to locate so-and-so, please move to the back of the line.”

Abby ran a hand over her bloated stomach, holding back the sinking feeling inside. The blue-green horizon expanded as the shuttled sailed languidly under the weight of its own inertia. A streaming feed from Earthnet buzzed on the all-comm.

“ . . . and the eyes of the nation are turned to the moon today, as Lily Johnston-Huang descends from the moon-colony Luna and is scheduled to touch down at the Swiss Space Center at 8PM this evening . . . ”

. . . 从国家利益的角度考虑,必须记住的是,瑞士既是美国的盟友, 更是北约的一员 . . . ”

“What bothers me, Susan, is that this girl—you know—that her parents decided to keep her other name. What kind of message does that send? I mean, you’re either a Johnston or a Huang, am I right?”

Abby grunted to herself. Waves broke over her, and she felt adrift in a sea of self-doubt. Had she done the right thing, bringing Lily back to all this?

The shuttle began to thrum in its deorbit burn. The horizon tilted on its axis as they positioned themselves nose-first against the terran atmosphere. Abby looked out through the exothermic glow of her viewscreen and gritted her teeth against the turbulence, her fingers digging themselves into the armrests as though they were the only things holding her up in the sky.

The fear-cramp in her gut stirred again, even as she tried to force her mind in comforting directions. She imagined her mother and her beaming optimism. She imagined John, healthy and filled-out as he once was, dancing with Lily along the walkways of New Chenghuang Temple. She imagined glo-cubes lighting up one by one in the watergarden below. An Oregonian suburb—a Puxi swelter.

Her belly contracted with pain. She looked down and pried her death-grip from the armrests. Outside, the air of the low atmosphere screeched and whined against their speeding shuttle.

“Xiaolu, Do you know what the difference between a water-lily and a water-hyacinth is?”

She clutched her sides, uncomprehending. The whinging screech of the hull seemed determined to bore a hole straight through her skull.

“I mean, I’m as much for peace as the next guy, but what kind of upside-down world would it be where Huangs dressed up like Johnstons and Johnstons dressed like Huangs? Am I right folks?”

She shook her head, no, no. It was too soon.

而且,鉴于全球对该孩童及家庭如此关注,以及对该事件付与的政治函意,这不能不让人深究:该事件的进一步发展将会有利于美国的宣传机器还是我们的爱国主义教育 . . .

Then the pain in her stomach crested, and the contractions began.

“Do you know what the difference between a water-lily and a water-hyacinth is?”

Abby shook her head against the memory. Something about stolons and root systems. Cameras snapped and faces screeched as she stumbled into the humid terran atmosphere, the welcome party on the tarmac as loud and thick as a lynching.

“Hey! Get the fucking press out of here!”

“Water-lilies anchor themselves with roots below the waterline, while the hyacinths are all free-floating plants . . . .”

The crowd milled and the sky spat and the cameras flashed.

Shui tu bu fu, she recalled uselessly as they wheeled her across the runway—(the rejection of a foreign body by the water and earth; or, the rejection of the water and earth by a foreigner’s body)—a green-blue planet smothering and spitting out an unwanted, alien bacterium.

“We are water hyacinths.”

A light mist of rain fell from the sky, cut with the scent of industrial-grade petrol. The contraction shot regular white flashes of pain through her body. Abby did not notice the rainwater mingling with sweat on her brow, nor the roar of engines, nor the yammering of press and paramedics outside. The waterflowers in her mind had become the ships of tiny explorers, drifting away on an endless ocean. Her mother and father sat in a floating pod; and John too; and Lily, her impossible, fragile moon-girl.

“We are water-hyacinths, Xiaolu. We do not grow roots.”

And one-by-one, they fell over the horizon.

Looking Out, Looking In

These days, I am unable to hold on to my days. They are like runaway horses. And the reins are no longer in my control. Strange now, when my life is even more cloistered. I withdrew from the rambunctious world outside when my children grew old enough to be independent. So I could write.

These days I rarely leave my 18th floor apartment. Not even to walk on the lawns and parks of our gated community, a microcosm, self-sufficient and barricaded against the rough and tumble of the world outside. Covid 19 may be my official reason. But I know better. I don’t belong. I can’t relate to problems arising from dealing with housework and office, because of the absence of an entourage of help—cook, nanny, char-woman or maid, chauffeur and elderly care help for those who have senior citizens living with them. The hysteria that arises because their expensive cars—BMWs, Audis, Mercedes, Jaguars etc. etc.—need to run or else the batteries will die. And the excitement of queuing up, re-usable shopping bags and masks in place, for the various food trucks selling mangoes and other fruits, chicken and mutton and even varieties of Indian desserts. Because well-off Indians need their shopping fix, and if it is only food for sale, well then so be it.

I am a crow living among birds of paradise.

The world has stopped travelling. But Indians have not. They are travelling hundreds of miles, by the hundreds. These are the migrant workers, those nameless, faceless, union-less men and women and sometimes even children, who work for long hours for disgraceful remuneration, and who are now bereft of even that meagre earning.

This is the other face of India. A face that has wiped out my self-centered sorrows at losing my quiet days of uninterrupted routine, because my spouse is working from home, and he naturally gets priority—that is how we were raised, to put ourselves last, and I am a feminist only in theory. That is not the entire truth, though. I have also stopped writing because it suddenly seems like a frivolous activity. But I can’t stop writing in my head. As I cook and clean and repeat the chores again and again, the writing continues and disappears, because the words are never ‘put down.’ I have to look at my cell phone to determine my days. I cannot tell a Sunday from a Monday any more.

Be thankful, be thankful, we tell each other, and our children when we video chat with them.

Sixteen workers were cut up like butcher’s meat beneath the wheels of a goods train during the early hours of the night of the flower moon. They were walking home from one end of India to another, thinking they were taking a straight and safe path, because trains were not running during the lockdown. They didn’t know about goods trains. Another day, a young man, traveling on the roof of a bus, after shelling out what would have been a fortune for him, collapsed and died in his friend’s arms. The day temperatures often rise to 42 degrees Celsius and more. He was not Covid positive. He died of dehydration. There are so many tragic stories being played out. The media catches the dramatic ones and housebound ghouls lap them up.

What should I be thankful for? For myself and my family? We wrap ourselves up in the comfort of our self-centeredness. Life is less complicated. Or would have been if my mind was differently configured.

Looking down from my balcony, at the street dogs chasing each other and the occasional car, the delivery trucks and Swiggy bikes, I watch workers without any kind of protective gear laying underground cables and repairing roads. Across the road, and beyond the boundaries of a posh villa community opposite our own, cranes turn slowly over a high-rise complex, gradually adding to its height.

The ministers say they are helping the economy and also providing jobs for the migrant workers, encouraging them to stay back in the cities. The government has announced financial aid and safe transport for the migrants who are returning home, because they feel it is better to die there among their families than in the cities. The exodus continues. Aided or unaided. Even as the government prepares to lift lockdown and ‘normal life’ begins to trickle back.

There are other tragedies happening, non Corovid ones. These are putting their weight against Corovid’s devastation. Cyclone Amphan flattened homes and livelihoods in my home state, Bengal. Swarms of locusts have eaten acres and acres of standing crops in Rajasthan and neighboring states. And they are still feasting as I write.

The gloom and doom are lighter in places though. Good Samaritans, ordinary citizens, and even news reporters interviewing the migrants are stepping in to give what help they can. Even if it means only slippers for their feet and bottles of water. These people are not necessarily the rich. Many are financially needy themselves. Then there are our pharmaceutical companies who are going all out to produce vaccines and medicines. I didn’t know before this pandemic that India produces around 70% of the world’s vaccines.

My heart remains restless. Suddenly writing to be published seems a frivolous desire. Mending a hole in a T-shirt seems a superior activity. Nevertheless, a week or so ago, I made a conscious effort to sit down at my computer and write, random paragraphs. Those exercises have helped. I am somewhat relieved, because I had written nothing the whole of April.

Sometimes the writing is automatic. As if a creature from my innermost depths has risen to express herself. And it is possibly she who has put this thought to me: what does it matter if nobody ever reads me? If my fiction, poetry, essays etc. never get to see the light of day? How does my writing change anything in the world, anyway? There are thousands of unread books. If I were to choose between one and the other, what would I rather be, the reader or the writer?

My reading life has returned, quietly but firmly. As a child, adolescent, and then as a single adult I used to devour books every day. I felt insecure if I didn’t have a book in my bag, even when I went grocery shopping for my mom. Juggling office and children changed all of that. I read to my children when they were small, but had stopped reading for myself. My spouse isn’t an avid book reader; he would choose television over a book. None of our acquaintances, personal friends and relatives are. None of them write either, but they have strong opinions about books and writers and the artistic world in general. For many years my reading had been reduced to a trickle, as I tried to straddle my inner and my exterior worlds. A handful of books in a year, instead of the three or four I used to consume in a week. For the past few weeks, I have not sat with my spouse to watch a movie or even the news. I’ve been reading in between my chores and before going to bed.

I feel I have begun a new journey, albeit a private one. I will not stop writing. But I am now conscious that it is the act of writing that brings me happiness, not seeing it in print. Material success or the lack of it is, well, immaterial. This does not mean I won’t send out work anymore. I will, but there is neither hurry nor anxiety now.

The world has changed. I see it as molting into something new, and perhaps terrifying, but definitely different. We don’t know who will survive and who won’t, who will be able to adapt and who won’t. As for me, my place in the world may be less than a dust-mote, but let it be a happy mote of dust. Because that is humanity’s triumph against strangeness, against adversity, against calamity. Because humanity knows how to rise again and again. And I am part of it, tiny, insignificant, but a part nevertheless. Stay blessed.

 

—May 27, 2020