Issue 4: Climate

The Great Collapse

by Cass Richards

My name is Dr. Lex Grassian, co-founder of the MicroThalassa Institute, and this is my confession: I am the one responsible for the Second Collapse. But now that I have lost the love of my life, I don’t care what people will say about me.

Although I may have single-handedly caused a mass extinction, there is honestly not much to say about me beyond what’s already been said in the media. For most of my life, I was just a white-coated scientist amongst others. 

While some glamorously scrutinized the infinitesimal or scanned infinity itself, I found solace among my lab-grown, opalescent diatoms and nova-like hydrozoa. While others dreamed of finding alien life or miracle cures, I was but a lonely “micronaut” lost amongst luminescent geometric figures, iridescent veils and miniature monsters. 

So, when I first met Dr. Nayantara Sadri at an international conference on climate change and ocean life, I couldn’t have fathomed that, together, we would actually change the world.

*

Until I met Nayantara, I was, like most scholars, stuck in a rather typical paper/conference/grant routine. I had come, on autopilot, to present my research on DNA metabarcoding for recovering plankton populations and had never expected to find myself entranced by a bright-eyed, dark-haired attendee that stood out amongst the usual pasty and balding crowd.

I was so flustered when she came up to me after the question period that I have no memory of our first conversation. All I remember now is that, for a reason I couldn’t yet fathom, Nayantara kept on smiling at me and invited me to her lecture, which was scheduled for the very next day.

*

Nayantara Sadri’s Deep Neural Network (DNN) ocean-model was, by all accounts, as groundbreaking as its findings were shocking. Even I, the “plankton gal” had a hard time accepting its prediction that global phytoplankton populations were about to collapse, but I couldn’t help be intrigued by what it meant for my own research. So, when Nayantara offered, over drinks, to collaborate with me, I didn’t think twice before answering. 

It didn’t bother me, at the time, that where I saw plankton as beautiful geometric figures, she only saw a fleeting, drifting world. The simple fact that she had noticed me and that I was worthy of her interest had been enough. I didn’t yet know how much my love for her would bloom, illuminating the dark depths of my loneliness.  

It is now public knowledge that when the DNN’s prediction turned out to be correct, it was Nayantara who, quite literally, saved the planet. She is the one who travelled the world to seek the grants that allowed me to engineer a strand of “super-phytoplankton” able to survive both the warming and acidification of the world’s oceans. It was thanks to her foresight and perseverance that, when the First Collapse started to happen, we were ready.

Then, of course, came the Nobel Prize, the creation of the Institute and, from an outside perspective, a semblance of happiness. What very few people know, however, is that trying to save the world’s oceans while being on our own IVF journey cost us two miscarriages, my deepening depression, bitterness and, eventually, our drifting apart. 

It was a price that, had I known, I would have refused to pay, even if it meant putting the future of humanity at risk.

*

When after four months of constant travelling and unbroken silence between us, Nayantara reappeared into my life one fall evening, I knew something was wrong.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I was coming, but you really have to see this,” she said, before sitting at my desk and opening her laptop.

Even though I knew, deep down, that I needed to scream at her for abandoning me, I was so stunned by her raw, physical presence and by the sudden rush of memories of our time together, that I didn’t respond. I simply stared at her, feeling lost.

This is why when she first told me that the latest DNN data predicted yet another global collapse I refused to believe her. 

Is she trying to hurt me? I thought in confusion.

When she showed me proof that our own phytoplankton chimera had adapted too well to its environment and was now blooming all over the world’s oceans, poisoning the base of the food chain, I begged her to stop, for I knew that the end of our collaboration would be the end of us.

“Listen, Lex, we don’t have a choice: we have to destroy your chimera…” she said.

“My” chimera? WE created this together… I thought, feeling helpless, as if I had been punched in the stomach.

“Naya, please don’t…” I mumbled as I tried to pull her from the computer to prevent her from sending her findings to all our contacts and sponsors. 

She looked at me in anger and accused me of being afraid of losing our grants and the Institute. I didn’t contradict her for I don’t think she would’ve understood that I couldn’t let her destroy what we had made together.

“If plankton dies because of the strand you created, the oceans will die… and if the oceans die, we all die!” she yelled as we struggled. 

After that, the course of humanity changed, but not the way Naya had anticipated. As advanced as it had been, her DNN couldn’t have predicted that when I shoved her away from the computer, she would fall, hit her head on the edge of the workstation and die in my arms before the ambulance arrived. Nor could it have predicted that, blinded by sorrow, I would methodically destroy all of her findings, including the blueprints for the failsafe that would have saved us all.

In the end, it only accurately predicted what, to me, really mattered: that when the world ends and all is gone, the only thing that will remain will be our iridescent progeny, drifting like galaxies in our dark, empty oceans.

Born and raised in the South of France, Cass Richards has been living and teaching in Toronto, Canada, for the last 17 years. Their stories in English have been published under various pennames, in Sci-Fi Lampoon magazine and Bewildering Stories.
Currently reading: The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall.

Dirty Planets

by Carlos Ruiz Santiago

The rain drops were darker than the storm clouds that spat them. Filthy, oily, not entirely water. Disgusting, like everything in and around that planet. However, someone had to do the job. After all, salvation is something too cruel to deny.

Eve fell there, heavy and stiff. Little by little, the typical dizziness from the travel between the perfectly controlled environment of the Mother Spaceship to the rotting chaos of one of the Dirty Planets started to fade. The pressure, the temperature, the impurities in the air, the suit working as quick as it could. Eve felt a burning taste in her mouth, something acrid in her throat, before the suit completed its task. Soon, everything was aseptic again

Eve breathed deep and slow before standing up. She loved her job, as anyone in the Salvation Squad of Dirty Planets did, but some days were better than others. The days when they had to reestablish a dying population that would adore them like angels; the days she found out about another human colony that the Central Government didn’t know—a brother lost during the desperate conquest of stars. Even if they didn’t accept their help at the beginning, even if they had to be helped by force, even when that happened, for Eve, those were the days she was happiest to do her job

This, however, was a different kind of day. The planet was completely broken. The gravity it was supposed to have in relation with its mass was almost nonexistent. Corroded, it was decomposing from the inside out. She activated the artificial gravity of the already hefty robotic suit. Joseph talked to her through the radio and she let him know that she was okay. Not really any reason to be worried. In that kind of world, there was nothing left alive to hurt her or any of the advance party.

She started to walk, slowly, observing everything, no matter how hurtful it was. It was important to be immersed in that destruction, to remember why they were saving planets no matter what. Humans were a compassionate species, at least since the Central Government took control and things like race were completely obliterated, unified. No discrepancies, everyone the same, everyone equal. Heaven. 

The suit’s computer was puking data, showing her mathematical values that told the story she already knew: the world was dead. She knew it before getting near it, from the spaceship, the sight was depressing. It was like an egg with the shell broken and the content stinking from a distance; the clouds making weird shapes, like a horrid monster eating the planet. 

When she arrived, the sight didn’t get better. The ground was black slit. The trees weren’t there, not even as famished carcasses of wood. The water flowed slow as molasses with heavy metallic sediments in it. Sometimes, between the ashes and the mud, black as demon’s blood, Eve could spot hunks of steel—twisted structures that, in other times, could have been constructions of some kind. But now, the planet was withered as a flower in winter, making it impossible to discern anything about the civilization that once thrived there. The radiation was abhorrent, the temperature gelid, the sun just a faint, loveless hug.

It was obvious that a planet like that was far from any kind of salvation. In fact, it didn’t seem like they would find anything to save at all. Nothing could have adapted to that ecosystem. Usually, worlds that ended like that had lost the wildlife God gave to them before completely destroying their homes. Their homes, their worlds, often, the only ones they had. Planets don’t die in a colored explosion, but in a pathetic decadence, as slow as it is lethal. No one used to have the vision that the Central Government has. Unenlightened by Almighty God, they failed to consider the future. That made Eve sad. 

After walking for a while, she reached a singular point where a huge structure was still standing, more by luck than by strength. Impressive nonetheless, it was an intricate colossus of steel, pointing to the sky as though it was cursing God for creating the planet’s inhabitants flawed, for not sending his divine purification before. 

A rusty steel board was there. Eve cleaned the filth from it with her hand and read it. Bienevnue à la Tour Eiffel. Eve bit her lip. A dead language, impossible to translate to the New Gothic that the Central Government imposed after the Revelations of the year 567 of New Times. She scanned it, hoping that the Mother Database could help. The scout observed the horizon with an uncanny melancholy. It was gray, dim, unhurried—apocalyptic. 

“Joseph, can you hear me?” An affirmation. “Dirty Planet JKF45678, Sector B4 is abandoned and far away from any type of help.” A short pause. It would always be hard to say that, but it was especially upsetting that time. “This place has been dead for more time than any other Dirty Planet. Not even heretics here. Take me out of here. Soon, please.”

There she waited, happy because humans had learnt from their errors, sad because the inhabitants of that planet hadn’t in time. 

Back to her paradise. Funny to think how thin the lines between heaven and hell are in some places. Funny if you are really twisted, of course. 

The spaceship arrived soon after her call, cutting the black cloud in half. Eve was happy to live in Heaven, where all errors were corrected long ago.

After all, perfection is the definition of a paradise, isn’t it? 

Carlos Ruiz Santiago is a Spanish fantasy, science-fiction and horror writer. He has stories published in various websites, like ”Horroraddicts.net”, anthologies and magazines. He has published two novels (Salvación condenada and Peregrinos de Kataik). He is editor of the websites “Dentro del Monolito” and “El Cementerio de Espadas”. Furthermore, he organizes talks and workshops around cinema and literature.
Currently reading: The Eyes of the Dragon, by Stephen King
Twitter: @OneWingedDarko

The Stars, Unfixed

by Elaina Weakliem

The hissing of the water pump wakes me up in the middle of the night and for a bleary moment I grope through the sheets, trying to find the soft shape of your back. When the bed next to me turns up empty, I sit upright, panic clanging the primal alarm bells at the base of my skull.

I reach over to wake up your mother— and there you are, curled right up in her arms, your head resting on her collarbone. The two of you cling to each other unconsciously, your tiny hand pulling at the strap of her shirt. She rolls onto her back, bringing you up to her chest.

The water pump’s hiss turns to a faint gurgle. I scrub my hands across my eyes as I fall back onto the mattress. The room hasn’t started to show even the faintest signs of dawn, which makes me want to check the time, to see how long we really have left. The digital clock on the dresser is blank— the President made good on his promises and cut the power grid to most of our county yesterday.

Even on this last day, morning chores pull me out of bed and through the kitchen. I grab the flashlight off the counter. The rituals are different from the ones I performed as a child, but since I turned thirteen, not a single morning has found me sleeping in after dawn.

It used to be cows that we raised out here— grazing stock, mostly for beef. They were the first to go, seeing as they used the most water. The government was willing to subsidize our transition to an easier living, and the governor paid the bills while we tilled up the back pastures and seeded them with corn. Still, I’d be up at four, five o’clock, fixing the robotic harvesters, trying to memorize sections of your mother’s programming books so she could sleep during the afternoons instead of sitting out in the shed, tinkering with the same malfunctioning thresher. She was tired all the time, and her doctor recommended bed rest. We knew from the beginning, Little One, that you’d be a force of nature.

Sometimes I wonder how I’ll explain it all to you, how I can get you to understand words like “subsidy” and how I’ll find ways to make the history of this land relevant to you when it’s not yours to keep anymore. I don’t think they have cows in the Gulf colony. I think the scientists there have moved past animal meat.

The pump lets out a low wheeze and I stoop down to check inside it with the flashlight’s beam. Just as I thought: no clogs. The thing’s just run dry.

Movement on the edge of the porch startles me and I smack the flashlight into the pipes trying to stand upright. Your mother steps out into the beam of light, hands out in front of her in a silencing gesture.

I offer her the flashlight and she leans in to confirm the same thing as me. When she stands, she pulls me into her arms, the flashlight pressing into my back.

“You heard it too?” I rest my forehead against her neck. It’s no cooler outside than it was in the bedroom, and we’re both starting to sweat.

“Yeah.” She rocks from one foot to the other, swaying the two of us gently from side to side. “I’m sorry, Isa.”

“It’s not your fault.” I wonder again what time it is, how long we have left.

Little One, I know already that your mother will adjust fast to the colony. She’s good with computers and kids, and her cousin’s managed to get her a job in the settlement. She’ll fit right in, make friends with our neighbors. She’s not even discouraged by the lack of sunlight. She’s been trying to get me interested in the logistics of plankton cultivation. I couldn’t care less about deep-sea fish or whale food, but I haven’t said that aloud. She’s trying her best; both of us know that I belong up here.

“I guess that’s the last of the groundwater,” I say, my mouth dry. “I should go check to make sure we’ve got everything in the truck. We don’t want to have to come back for any of it once we leave.

“Hey.” She catches my wrist, and tugs me towards her, off the porch and into the dusty backyard. “Come sit with me.”

Your mother knows everything about me, Little One. She’s good at comforting people too, but you know that already. As much as I want to see pieces of myself reflected in you, I hope that you’ll inherit this part of her

She wraps me in her arms again and we sit, watching the lights in the sky enact their spinning celestial ballet. Most of them are satellites, a few might even be shuttles for the Mars program. It’s been so long since I lifted my eyes from the crumbling dust of these fields that I forget how multitudinous the lights have become. They all look like stars to my untrained eye, having come unfixed from their eternal places in the heavens.

“We’re going to make something new for her.” She means you, Little One. And she’s right— even as she says it, I know she is. We might have to live in the undersea colony for fifty years or five hundred while the Earth above tries to heal, but I know that one day you’ll come back to the surface, maybe even to this spot.

We’re making something new for you. That’s why we’re going to a place with no sun, a place far from our family’s land. We’ll give you a fighting chance, even if it means redefining everything we’ve come to understand about ourselves. I can study plankton farming, and your mother can teach you the names of fish instead of land animals. Together, we’ll re-make the world for you.

Elaina Weakliem is a young writer from Denver, Colorado, but currently studying in Oregon. She has work published in The Round. At the moment, she’s reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, and City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Something in the Water

by Fiona Moore

 

The campground showers smelled of lake, old bathing suits and mold. Swearing under my breath, I dumped the handheld lawn sprayer unceremoniously in a corner of the nearest stall, where it sloshed accusingly, and set to work.

Turning the faucets elicited a small flow of water, choking and spurting. I’d checked the tanks on my way in and they were fine. Which meant there was probably something blocking the pipes. Turning them off again, I unscrewed the shower head and peered up. 

“I didn’t expect that,” I said to the dark, faintly glittery mass inside it. 

I switched on my little flashlight, examined the inside. I took the nearest long object to hand, namely a Phillips-head screwdriver, and prodded the mass.

The mass erupted.

I swore and waved the screwdriver around, backing clumsily away from the buzzing stream of pearly-white wings that was pouring out of the pipe and filling the cramped little cubicle, then the moldy wooden building, getting in my hair, my ears, my eyes, crawling inside my Parks Service uniform.

Then, abruptly, the swarm diminished. The buzzing took on a more urgent, hungry tone, as they all converged on a single corner of the showers. Without stopping to question my luck, I rushed for the bright rectangle of the door, dove out, staggered a few steps and collapsed on to the rough wooden bench outside, breathing welcome gasps of cool, Scotch-pine-scented air.

I looked up, as the swarm followed me out; the vibrant, shining storm cloud paused for a second, then rose over the tall, even stands of pine and drifted in the direction of the lake.

I looked back through the door, saw what had drawn their attention in the showers.

I looked down, where a few bewildered stragglers were still clinging to my shorts. Ordinary black blister beetles, Nemognatha nemorensis, except for those odd, beautiful, opal-coloured wing-cases. The kids in the nature programme had been bringing them back from wildlife hunts for weeks now, mostly from the trails by the lake.

Remembering why I was there, I looked up again, this time, into the shocked and bewildered eyes of the graduate student—standing there on the pine needles in her scruffy lavender fleece bathrobe, clutching her shampoo and soap—who had only wanted a shower.

“You go find your supervisor,” I told her. “She’ll be down at the lake collecting samples at this time of day. You tell her that I know why two-thirds of the farmers in the county have cashed in, sold their property and moved West. Why Dougie Fitzsimmons, the one with the big apple orchards and the pick-your-own-strawberries stand on the eastern border of the park, came storming down to the research station, ranted at her for twenty minutes, then went home and blew his brains out with his shotgun. You tell her that that entomologist friend of hers was right, but even more than that, it’s not just going to devastate the local economy, but potentially the entire agricultural system of half the planet. And you can also,” I said, looking at the tattered remains of the lawn sprayer, where the beetles had literally torn through the flimsy plastic of the tank to get at the Atrazine inside, “tell her that I know why this lake has, for some previously unexplained but now perfectly obvious reason, got the lowest levels of pesticides of any of the waterways in your sample.”

Fiona Moore is a London-based, BSFA Award-shortlisted writer whose work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov, and Shoreline of Infinity, with reprints in Escape Pod, Forever Magazine, and three consecutive editions of The Best of British SF. She has also published one novel, three stage plays, four audio plays and a number of guidebooks to cult TV series. Full details can be found at www.fiona-moore.com.

The Barber 

by J. F. Salocin

The shop opens at six, and a horn sings the news to the world, “Open! Open!” loud and mechanical, yet vaguely human-like. Then the lights turn on, white illumination on the ceiling that reflects off the furniture-less, waxed floor. The walls of the building open like an eye. Box-shaped robots wheel on through, parking exactly at their designated spot in front of a mirror where they unfold like origami into cushioned seats, thrones for the customers to watch the metal servants at work. A tray extends out from the right armrest of each of the twelve chairs. 

A larger robot, an android woman that wears human skin and stares through human eyes, swings open the back door and walks out gracefully, tip-toeing like a ballerina. It carries refreshments and snacks in the cradle of it’s wired, tin-can arms. 

“Pretzels and lemonade!” The android begins to set a bowl of pretzels and an iced-glass of pink lemonade out on each armrest tray. The drink would be kept at a constant cool—no ice melts, no lukewarm beverages. 

The mirrors glow with a tint of orange, mimicking a warm sunrise, to offset the rainy day. Out from under the mirrors, tables flatten out, directly ahead of the chairs. Clippers, razors, shaving cream, blow dryers and fungicide canisters emerge from slots, aligned, sterile and ready for use. The fungicide’s green liquid sloshes around like an algae-ridden river.

The same android that served the delicious snacks dances over to the cash-register, connecting its hands to the computer, its face becoming an ATM. Simply swipe your credit card through its lips and the funds would be processed. Give the android a kiss on the cheek and you may get 10% off your next haircut. 

Later, a middle-aged man with a long, brown mullet enters the shop. The door that he opens flips a switch which sends four child-sized robots to the floor. 

“Greetings Sir! Greetings Sir! Welcome to the Barber Shop of Tomorrow!” Their voices weave gracefully into a short three-line song. They like to be called The Cache Quartet—at least that request is programmed into their data-logged craniums; how many people actually call them that is unknown. 

“Hello,” the mullet man says awkwardly, scratching his chin and itchy overgrown stubble.

The kid robots whirl and shake the man’s hand eagerly, taking off his rain-jacket and hat, placing them on the coat rack for safe keeping. They lead him to the first chair and velcro the hair cloth around his neck. 

“Please, help yourself to the snacks,” they sing, returning back to their wall compartments, until the next customer requires a welcome. 

The mullet man drinks sour-sweet lemonade and chews salty pretzels as the barber marches up behind him. 

“What will it be today? A little off the top? Complete shave? A modest trim?” The barber asks, wearing an apron with a drawing of a smiley face on it. Between its aluminum-bolt fingers are a pair of scissors. It clips at the air, waiting for instructions. 

“Can you get rid of the mullet? Wife said she’s tired of it.” The man laughs, shaking his head. “I love her, so I listen.”

“Smart man,” the barber says, eyes shining a pretty red, for it knows the feeling well, as it is in love with the android woman. It doesn’t know how, but it knows it is. Its CPU enamored, motherboard smitten, a thousand viruses couldn’t pull them apart. 

The barber puts down the scissors, grabs hair clippers and plugs the power cord into its chest outlet. The tool hums like fed up wasps, cutting the man’s hair. It finishes in less than five minutes, with an accuracy of style that can’t be matched by any human hand. 

“Feet up,” the barber says to the man who now sports a clean buzz cut like a private in bootcamp. 

The man complies.

Suddenly, the floor radiates a fiery heat, each individual tile is an electric stove, burning at over five-hundred degrees Fahrenheit. The fallen hair begins to crisp and shrivel into stale carbon, soon enough disintegrating completely. A burnt keratin smell floats in the man’s nostrils and he gags. 

“So sorry,” the barber says, its left arm transforming into a vacuum that sucks the remaining ash away. Its right arm grabs a perfume from the table and sprays a generous amount around the man, until the stench is camouflaged.

The man gets up from the chair cautiously. Once he’s sure the rubber of his shoes is not melting, he puts his full weight on the floor. 

He walks to the register to pay.

“Twenty dollars please,” the android says. Its lips pucker into a smooch.

The man twists his wrist around and presses firmly on his hand-watch. The glass emits a red laser and reads the microscopic creases of his fingerprint. A moment later, the ticking time illuminates and mists into a foggy hologram. He swipes at the projected airy screen, stopping at a green-lit section with a label named “Finances.” He thumbs to the Debit Card category.

The man plucks one of the seven holographic cards out and exposes it to reality. Within seconds the card made of light transforms and hardens into plastic, solid matter.

“Here’s the card,” he says, putting the thin plastic between the android’s lips. He slides it quickly and uncomfortably. His face blushes into splotches of pink. 

The android silences, processing the payment. “Insufficient funds,” it says, staring at the man, waiting to finish the transaction.

“My apologies,” the man says. “Let me try another. The cards can get wacky sometimes.”

He returns back to the hologram and takes each debit card out, stacking them in a wobbly pile on the counter. He tries each one, swiping, swiping, swiping.

“Insufficient funds,” the android woman repeats, each time its voice loudens. A hot, electrical anger builds up inside its circuits.

“It seems my money isn’t as organized as I thought.” the man laughs dryly. “I’ll run home really quick and borrow one of my wife’s cards.” he says, thumbs up, turning around towards the exit. 

The android grabs his shoulder and pulls him back aggressively. “No, that won’t do. Pay now, please.”

The man glares and pushes the android off. “As I just said, I need to get my wife’s debit card,” he speaks slowly, in a condescending manner. “Stupid machine.”

The barber comes behind the man, blocking him from the door with a body of dense steel. “Pay now please,” it says, grabbing his throat, gripping his Adam’s apple like an armored gorilla picking fruit from a tree.  

“I’m the customer, dammit!” The man chokes out. He kicks the robot’s right leg in and a loose bolt flies off like a poorly shot bullet, causing the barber to buckle and lose balance. The man races towards the door and pulls the handle. But it is locked. 

The android helps the barber up and they passionately kiss, clanking metal, exciting fuses. 

Their faces become rigid and expressions change as they focus on the man. The barber takes out the scissors once more, freshly honed, sharp enough to slice flesh and bleed veins. 

J. F. Salocin is an 18-year-old short-story writer and poet, as well as a newly graduated high school student. He will be attending Middlebury College to pursue a degree in Creative Writing and Education.
Currently reading: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury and The Pearl by John Steinbeck.

Shit Left Behind

by Matt Zandstra

 

I met up again with the old man at an abandoned warehouse in the gray zone. We knocked phones and the coin transfer rang out with a jolly kerching, just like the adverts. We left through the old office. A coffee cup sat on the desk where it had lurked, most likely, since the day of the evacuation.

He stopped dead still and just stared as if at a prehistoric beaker. He peered in. “You can still see the dregs.”

“Come on,” I said.

There’s a ditch round the back. It disappears into a low tunnel which leads in turn to a big old sewer pipe—tiled with ledges like banks along both walls. It’s practically an underwater canal so we neatly avoided the checkpoints and eventually slipped out through a manhole into the abandoned region.

That was more or less solid ground, but the waters are sly and patchy. You can be fine on a pavement, but up to your ankles or worse if you step off into an old garden. I knew the patrol schedule and we marched boldly enough straight down the old high street.

The old man looked about with wide eyes.

“Weird, right?” I said, meaning the quiet, the rot of it, the smell of the water–which was like bodies and oil and burnt rubber.

“I just keep on seeing last times,” he said.

We came upon standing water right by the park gates.

I keep the boat and kit locked up and hidden in an old shed round the back of a betting shop. Pretty soon we were whining through the upside-down world of half-submerged buildings, then buzzing along a street of upper floors and roofs.

“There!” said the old man. He was checking against his map but he added, “I recognize the sticker on Danny’s window.”

We tied up at a drain pipe. Inside, I could see the remains of a bed and some tatters of what had been posters on the wall. Someone had set a fire in the corner, but it had been a half-hearted effort and hadn’t taken.

“You know where to go?” he asked.

“Front room on the left,” I said. “Black sports bag with a big swoosh.”

We laid old carpet across the window cavity to protect against the jagged edges and I clambered through. He passed along the air tank and flippers.

The water began black and brackish just below the top step of the staircase. I fixed my mouthpiece and pulled rubbery air into my lungs. I descended, tensing against the cold, and pushed myself under the upper landing. I sank past school photographs, holiday photographs, wedding photographs, somewhat well preserved thanks to the layer of glass in their frames, and on to the mess and tangle of daily life the evacuation had interrupted.

Sometimes, when I explore a zone house, I imagine I’m a ghost; that the world darts on there as bright and clear as ever and that the muffle of the water makes me one of the clumsy dead peering in to catch—but forever missing—the quick reality around me.

I was diving now, breathing hard. I found the family room. It was dominated by a table, places still marked with rusted cutlery. A dead computer stared emptily at me from a corner desk. Charger cables billowed like fronds of seaweed from a bar plug. And there, just where he said it would be, was the bag.

“What was it like in there?” the old man asked as we droned back towards the shore.

I shrugged. “It’s always the same in the zones. People thought they’d be coming back after the evacuation. So it’s like everyone just stepped out and moved on.”

“I packed this that morning.” He patted the bag. “And then the police and the wardens were banging on all the doors in the street, so I just left it there. I forgot about it for nearly forty years. You think you can move on. Just keep on moving forward. And maybe once that was true. Used to be every generation got richer, more free, so they always had somewhere go on to. But we just grew smaller and smaller. And eventually it got so all I could think about was final times and shit left behind.

“So you came back for the bag.”

“Just so.”

I nodded but I did not understand. Not really.

Back at the warehouse, he sat on the loading dock staring at the bag. “You want to see what’s in it?”

I nodded.

He tugged at the zip and retrieved the objects one by one. A sodden paperback, its cover showing a spaceship orbiting above a greenish planet. Several schoolbooks: French, math, chemistry. A gaming device. A pencil case. A rolled-up PE kit. He laid them out on the dock in a grid—like evidence or archaeology. He furrowed his brow as if the configuration should change something for him. For a long time, I thought he’d speak, but he just stared and stared, so I left him there with his soaked treasures.

I returned a week or so later, meeting up with some campies bound for Spain. I found the sports bag abandoned in a corner of the warehouse. As far as I could tell, the old man had not taken a thing. When I led the way through the back office though, I saw that he’d snagged the old mug from the desk. Perhaps it’s less painful to hold on to someone else’s last safe moment than your own. Or maybe he just wanted a mug.

Matt Zandstra is a writer and a coder. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from UEA. He won the Curtis Brown prize for his novel in progress. He lives in Brighton, UK. He is currently rereading The Three Californias Triptych by Kim Stanley Robinson.
Twitter: @inflatableink

The Aspiration Project on Colony IV

by Nicola Humphreys

 

Gemma poked her thumbs through the holes in her sleeve cuffs, then crossed her arms over her chest. Mum told her that she could sulk and regret it, or make the most of the few days they had left together. If she wanted to be taken seriously and be treated like an adult, then now was the time to start, and to try to appreciate that difficult decisions weren’t taken lightly. Gemma couldn’t understand why Laura had picked that stupid, greasy, lanky boy over her own sister. It wasn’t fair. Dad was dead. Laura was leaving. Every penny they had went to Mum’s medicine, and it wouldn’t be long before Gemma was on her own. At least she would get to keep most of Laura’s clothes, including the jumper she had on. She looked at the fabric composition label: 60% Recycled Polypropylene, 35% Recycled Acrylic, 4% Recycled Viscose and1% Reclaimed Wool. Almost everything she had ever owned—clothes, toys, books—was second-hand, vintage, hand-me-down, used, pre-loved. Colony IV was brand new and Laura would get her own apartment, and everything in it would be straight from the factory—shiny, clean and white. Gemma imagined how Laura would peel off the plastic wrapping from the front door and it would make a sucking sound as it opened. New intakes always moved into a hermetically sealed zone for the first two years, so they could acclimatize and be monitored for disease. All those teenagers taking classes together, being trained for something important. Good food and free medical treatment.

Early Colonizers had worked hard to set up The Aspiration Project, which made reliable fresh air a real thing now. There were enough trees growing to make it a renewable resource. She’d heard that people could run outside—on purpose—and were still able to breathe! It sounded amazing. No wonder she felt so jealous. Mum told Gemma that she would get her chance soon to apply and to not give up, and that everyone has to make the best life they can with what they’re given.

Laura’s Farewell Event was in nine days’ time, and then she would be allowed only five minutes’ worth of video calls for the rest of her life. Due to the physics of space travel, it would take Laura six months to reach Colony IV, by which time, Gemma would have aged by eighteen years. She doubted that Laura would care enough to ever call her again, and she would bet that she would sell her video slots to other people who were actually going to miss their families. But there was always the small chance that sometime in the future, Laura would contact her. Gemma might even recognize her on one of those Colony documentary shows.

What neither of them knew, or the majority of people on that dying planet would ever know, was that the voyage Laura and her boyfriend were about to take, was not to The Aspiration Project on Colony IV, but to a human recycling plant. Those who actually got to live on one of the Colonies were not the most fertile, physically strong or genetically healthy specimens like the adverts showed. Prime humans at the start of their adulthood were not enjoying their best lives on Colony IV or any other Colony for that matter. 

Colony IV was designed as a hospice paradise for in-bred, sickly offspring of legacy investors and their extended families. All of the spaces were permanently reserved for those who could afford them. But to avoid any cause for a rebellion or civil unrest, the lottery for tickets had to be seen to be a fair system for everyone. People could not be allowed to give up hope.

Nicola Humphreys is a writer who lives in a damp, rented house in Leicester, UK. Published in anthologies by Storgy and Retreat West (also nominated for a Sabateur award), she was a delegate in the 2021 ‘A Brief Pause’ writers’ development programme with Dahlia Books. Hear her on @podcastmicro. All of her dresses have pockets.

Reading: little scratch by Rebecca Watson

Twitter: @nicolawitters

A Thought Experiment About Spiders

By Owen Bridge

 

I begin with a question. It would be vain of me to consider the possibility of an answer, but I shall endeavour to find some degree of truth. 

If one were to imagine which would have the greater impact on the planet; either humans shrinking to the size of spiders; or spiders growing giant to the size of humans, how would one begin to assess the potential impact? 

1: Tiny Crappie People. 

Of course, it would be absurd to consider all of humanity’s infrastructure, and technological baubles also shrinking, so one could predict that our capacity to harm the environment would be considerably reduced—assuming tiny nuclear engineers were able to prevent our reactors from going into meltdown. Theatres would have to be remodelled, the majority of gyms would become useless, our phones would be far too big to be of any use, and none of our Halloween costumes would fit. Naturally our clothes would shrink with us—whatever we were wearing at the time, would become our default outfit. Culturally this would serve as an anchor point. You could recognise someone’s previous employment and intuit potential skill sets unless the shrinking happened at night, in which case everyone would be in their pyjamas or underwear, or naked. 

Food would be bountiful but also quite frightening. A green pea would be the approximate size of a human head, and cauliflowers would require mountaineering equipment and an expedition team of at least twelve people in order to be brought to market. Sweet potato harvesting would require a special licence and years of training to be performed safely. Rodent hunting would become the principal source of meat and would be a fairly glamorous occupation, until a ferret came along and ate everyone you knew.        

2: Spiders Enlarged. 

The principal issues facing those of the arachnid persuasion would be practical. Many would be crushed in the initial enlarging, as the nooks and cracks many spiders occupy would no longer offer adequate space for their rapidly expanding frames. Flies would stay at the same size as they are now, and so would not present the bounty of nourishment they currently do and spiders would have to look elsewhere for the majority of their calories. (This experiment does not take into account bird eating spiders) Given that spiders outnumber humans 2.8 million to one, humanity would be reduced to the status of walking canapé’s, the most likely outcome in the early stages of spider gigantism, would be a mass wave of spider cannibalism. A genuine Hobbesian nightmare, where life would be nasty’ spidery’ and not very long at all. 

Spider culture is somewhat more limited than humans. They have no art or entertainment as we know it. One could theorise a spider taking pride in the quality of their web, though that would be a separate area of inquiry and would require further research. 

3: Synthesis. 

This experiment becomes infinitely more interesting once we merge our two scenarios together, and consider the possibility of a giant spider, cowering in a corner, or jumping into the arms of another spider, covering their face with their hands and screaming, ‘Squish it!’ 

Owen Bridge is a writer based in rural Wales who is currently working on a PhD at Swansea University and a front line care worker. He is currently reading Through the Arc of the Rain Forest by Karen Tei Yamashita.

Pull My Finger

by Robert Walton

 

A veil of smoke-colored snow fell from the moon’s shoulders onto slopes of hills already wearing a crown of stars. A lantern’s golden light bounced and bounded through a tree-shadowed valley. Its light grew brighter, came nearer and finally revealed a large object with odd angles and curves highlighted by mysterious gleams. 

With bells tinkling, harness creaking, and reindeer puffing plumes of silvery steam, the sleigh slowed. Santa pulled a thermos from his bag, opened it and sniffed. The cinnamon tingle of hot mulled wine tickled his nose and made him smile. He swigged from the thermos, then put it aside. He plucked a scarlet-bowed, gold-wrapped box out of his bag, grinned his merriest grin and offered it with both hands.

*

“That’s enough, Mom.”

“But the holo-vid isn’t done yet, honey.”

“I know.”

“Is there something bothering you?” Ella smoothed her son’s dark hair.

Jonah looked down. “It’s just that… well, I never get to open the present.”

Her face fell into that harassed expression mothers have when events conspire to keep their children from being happy. “You know Amazon can’t deliver during attacks.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“I’d have gotten you something—something good—but this shelter-in-place order was a surprise.” She glanced at the environmental monitor. “And this attack seems worse than the others.”

“It’s okay.”

“Maybe Amazon will get through when the all-clear sounds,” she offered.

He detected the dispirited note in his mother’s voice and looked up. “But, I really like the part before the gift.”

“I do, too, honey, I do too.”

“Could you start it again?”

“That would be the third time today.”

“Please? Just until Santa opens the thermos?”

“How about, The Uncles?”

He thought about this for a moment. At last, he nodded. “Yeah. The Uncles are fun.”

“I’ll put it on.”

“Mom?”

She manipulated the remote. “Yes?

“Do I have real uncles?”

She froze, her mind awash with memories. “No, dear—not for some years.”

“But, I had some?”

She glanced at the bookshelf against the far wall, at the peacock-blue bowl from Istanbul her brother-in-law Derek had given her for a wedding gift. 

“For a few months… they died shortly after the war began and you were born. They never saw you.”

*

Colonel Ivan Andreyevich Peshkoff studied the glowing screens. “The attack is at its peak.”

“Yes,” Professor Ivanovsky grunted with satisfaction. “The old submarines will surface and burst like soap bubbles.” 

“These radiation levels are quite high.”

Ivanovsky nodded. “The highest we’ve yet achieved and the winds are exactly right.”

Peshkoff again glanced at the radiation level readouts. “You’d think that these repeated attacks would crush domestic resistance.”

“Not by themselves.”

“Why not? The guts of forty sub reactors will be spreading across their skies.”

“No.” Ivanovsky paused. “The Americans’ defenses will stop simple radiation assaults.” 

*

The monitor’s light blinked green. Ella sighed with relief. She knew this was a bad storm, but the building’s filters were keeping out the poison. They would be confined to their apartment for weeks, well past Christmas, but thank God for the filters.

A hopping, leaping tune sounded from the hologram uncles. Uncle Bill had a nose flute plugged into his yawning right nostril. Uncle Tom buzzed his kazoo. Uncle Ed sang:

Oh, I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee! Going to Louisiana, my true love for to see.

“What’s a banjo, mom?”

“It’s something like a violin, I think.”

“Why does he have it on his knee?”

“Maybe that’s an easy way to play it?”

Oh Susanna! Oh, don’t you cry for me! For I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee!

“Why should she cry?”

“Who, dear?”

“Susanna. He’s coming from Alabama with a banjo on his knee. Why should that make her cry?”

She pointed at the hologram uncles to deflect—as all mothers do—a question for which she had no answer. “Look, it’s time for them to tell their jokes.”

Bald Uncle Bill leaned toward Jonah, grinning. “What do you call a sleeping bull?”

“I don’t know.” Uncle Tom winked around his red turnip of a nose. 

The corner of Jonah’s mouth quivered.

Bald Bill roared, “A bulldozer! HA! HA!”

A half-smile creased Jonah’s lips.

Uncle Ed, with his white hair catching a gleam from the monitor lights, extended his right index finger. “Pull my finger.”

Jonah looked at him.

Ed smiled encouragingly. “Go ahead, pull.”

Jonah wrapped his small hand around the imaginary finger and pulled.

A proud fart blatted through the quiet room. Bill and Tom and Ed howled with laughter. Tears leaked from the corners of Jonah’s eyes as he gasped for breath.

Ella smiled, not at the crudity, but at her son’s pure laughter.

*

Peshkoff snorted. Why make these attacks if they are futile?”

“Because today we have something new.”

“We do?”

“We’ve engineered specialized microorganisms.”

Peshkoff shrugged his indifference.

Ivanovsky smiled. “Imagine nano-piranhas, tiny monsters that devour filter fibers. They will allow this attack to succeed. Final victory is at hand.”

“You truly think this?”

“When we defeat New York, they will have no choice but to surrender. Tens of thousands are dying to save millions more. That’s war.”

Peshkoff chuckled. “Tens of thousands will die so that millions more may die—that’s war.”

“You’re a nihilist, Colonel.”

“I’m a soldier. You’ve deployed your nano-piranhas?”

“Billions.”

*

Ella sat at her apartment’s table, bent over, head resting on her right arm. Her face was relaxed, but dark blood trickled from her right nostril, across her lips and pooled on the table’s green surface. The filter monitor’s pulsing red light reflected from her unblinking eyes.

Jonah sat in the easy chair, his chin resting on his breast.

Uncle Ed smiled slyly and extended his right hand. “Pull my finger.”

Jonah didn’t move. The hologram flickered. 

Uncle Ed again murmured, “Pull my finger.”

Robert Walton is a retired middle school teacher and rock climber with ascents in Yosemite and Pinnacles National Park. He’s an experienced writer with published works including historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy and poetry. Walton’s novel Dawn Drums won the 2014 New Mexico Book Awards Tony Hillerman Prize for best fiction. His Sockdologizer won the Saturday Writers 2020 Everything Children contest.
Website: chaosgatebook.wordpress.com

Lost, Presumed Melted

by Thomas Lawrance

Ten years ago today, the North Pole ran out of skin. The last iceberg came loose from the shore of Greenland like the final shred of eczema. Scientific observers (from the team I funded, I might brag) raised the alarm. They followed desperately with their binoculars as the berg receded toward the horizon, a gigantic white wart, the last imperfection, at last flaked off for good from the whittled Earth. 

As the news spread, the last berg drifted down the once-busy Iceberg Alley, receiving a hero’s farewell. You’ve seen photos of the Apollo 11 ticker tape parade—imagine something like that, except Neil Armstrong is on his way to melt.

The people of Ferryland, Newfoundland, had their cosy township trampled by tourists and cameras. I was there, I watched the iceberg heave by, oblivious, a huge gem of dead cells. Dogs howled at the sight. A drone collided with an obsolete Fox News chopper as they jostled for the best angle, and the wreckage obliterated Ferryland’s oldest stone church. To quote a witness on the day: oops.

Around this time—amid live reports, irreverent memes, and stoic opinion pieces—the berg gained its famous moniker: Lonesome George. Humanising the thing lent its passage down Iceberg Alley an even blacker funereal air. People even dressed up, and a few sobbed bulbous salt tears that they would’ve frozen and donated to the Arctic Circle if they could.

Lonesome George wound his way out to sea, chaperoned now by a coalition of naval ships. This colossal skull of ice floated on, surrounded by a pride of spiky grey vessels, all bristling with flags and guns turned outwards. Sleek white yachts followed at a safe and legally enforced distance. I went and sat at the prow of one such yacht (I could walk back then). George would glow at sunrise and sunset—as when a bright light shines red through the flesh of your fingertip—and the yachts rocked with all-night parties. Corks popped and landed in the Atlantic, tiny porous brown tributes trailing in George’s wake. Efforts were made to keep George from drifting too far south, into the heat traps that would accelerate his demise. We cheered whenever the specially adapted aircraft carrier was drafted in to nudge him northward. 

But there’s only so long you can dance at sea. The parties wound down, the yachts turned back, and the navies steamed on with George to their vanishing point on the horizon. The helicopters gradually peeled back to shore. The news was no longer live. Twelve months later, the fatal report came in: Lonesome George was lost, presumed melted.

That was that. Like the bees and the Bornean rainforest. Back to work.

Six months on, I attended a party on the island of Turks and Caicos. It was an exclusive party; there were armed guards on the door, and Tufty, an expensive-looking Greenland Dog with an expensive-looking diamond collar, seemed poised to remove the throat of any would-be miscreant. 

I moved around with a drink in my hand, trying not to look like a miscreant. 

It happened shortly after midnight, in the VIP lounge (I’ve just realised: I haven’t told you who I am, have I?). Our party’s host sat himself down, with hired girlfriends perched on the arms of his chair. At his command, the drink was brought out on a golden platter.

A tall glass of Russo-Baltique vodka, with a single ice cube. 

A special single ice cube, deep-frozen for the last six months.

A spotlight was focused on the glass, its pristine white beam picking out the perfectly planed edges of the ice cube. The crowd hushed. Our host plucked the glass carefully from the tray and examined it closely. A few phones snapped, but he waved them away. I got as close as I could. He continued to stare into the glass for a painfully long time. We stared at him in silence. It seemed he was waiting for the ice to melt, to suffuse completely with the vodka before ingesting it. 

Well, this was what I’d been waiting for. I’d spent months following this. This was my moment.

I leapt forward, and—surprising even myself—I managed to grab the glass without spilling a drop. The cube rattled softly against the side. 

I walked backwards as though holding the vodka hostage. Nobody dared move. 

From the beginning, I knew I’d be arrested, or battered, or tossed into the sea, but it didn’t matter, the world was done. I only wanted to go down in history as the person who drank the last iceberg.

I raised the glass. Fifty mouths gasped, one hundred eyes widened. Our impotent host went red. The first ripple of vodka touched my lips, and I felt the ice cube bump gently on the tip of my nose.

I heard the shatter before I realised what was happening. I looked up into the bared teeth of Tufty. Between us, the ice cube glistened on the tiles, despairingly remnant, George’s last fingernail. It was only a couple of inches away. I moved my face toward it, but Tufty yapped and I obediently withdrew. The crowd closed in, but it was too late. I watched the final moments play out in close-up, from my privileged position on the floor.

As Tufty lapped up the vodka and its tiny, final piece of Lonesome George—and in the last moments before the savage beating that would render two of my limbs forever useless—it briefly occurred to me that Tufty’s own ancestors might once have trodden on George’s glacial back. 

A strange sense of peace and justice descended then, and—as her big pink tongue flapped back and forth over the puddle, and men and women in golden clothes cursed and cried—I knew that Tufty was only reclaiming what was rightfully hers.

Thomas Lawrance lives in Ireland, where he writes fiction and performs stand-up comedy. He was recently shortlisted for the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize.
Twitter: @_ThomasLawrance

Climate & Environment

 

We chose the theme of Climate and Environment in response to Earth Day which happens on April 22 each year. The events that EARTHDAY.ORG planned were deeply moving and we were excited about the opportunity to use Ab Terra as a platform to help create engaging conversations about the climate crisis, as well as explore potential solutions to the myriad challenges we collectively face.

We applaud the authors of these stories, who, through their beautiful writing, help raise awareness about the issues of climate and environmental change. These imagined scenarios are at times funny, thought provoking and genuinely terrifying. We hope that you enjoy reading them as much as we have and if you feel inspired by some of the ideas, don’t hesitate to increase your civic engagement—we can all do more to help save this beautiful planet!

But for today, we’ll let these amazing stories speak for themselves.

From earth,
Dawn and Yen

All images in this issue were sourced from Unsplash.com.

Cover: Muhammad Numan 
Dirty Planets: Janko Ferlič 
The Great Collapse: Kevin Wolf 
The Stars Unfixed: Isaac Quesada 
Something in the Water: Melanie Celine 
Shit Left Behind: Chris Gallagher 
The Barber: Chris Knight 
The Aspiration Project on Colony IV: Bill Jelen 
A thought Experiment about Spiders: Hannah Voggenhuber 
Pull My Finger: Anatoliy Shostak 
Lost, Presumed Melted: Hao Zhang 
From the Editors: Markus Spiske 

The Slims River Is Gone

This is true.

Last spring, the Slims River in the Yukon’s Kluane National Park abruptly disappeared over the course of four days. A team of geologists and geoscientists that had been monitoring the retreat of the Kaskawulsh Glacier, the source of the Slims River, arrived to find dust where the mighty glacial river (one-third of a mile across at its widest places) had tumbled boulders and tree trunks just days before. Because the Alsek River, the glacier’s other outlet, had swelled to sixty times its usual flow, the field team concluded that the glacier’s intense, rapid melt had forced all of the water into the Alsek and away from the Slims.

This is the first time this kind of “river piracy” has been observed in recorded history, though the geological record indicates that it probably happened millions of years ago during other periods of extreme warming.

This is the first time this kind of “river piracy” has been observed in recorded history, though the geological record indicates that it probably happened millions of years ago during other periods of extreme warming.

What matters: the Slims River is gone. What once roared toward the Kluane River and into the Yukon to the Bering Sea now spills south into the Alsek toward the Gulf of Alaska. Instead of river in that once green valley, the wind whips up dust storms; the air is oddly silent.

I walked along the Slims River twice. Once, in June of 2005, my friend Lia and I backpacked up the trail that followed its west side. We intended to hike all the way to the toe of the great Kaskawulsh, but the first day — a grueling fourteen miles that included an intense crossing of the swollen Bullion Creek, a grizzly bear encounter on the edge of some willows, a trudge through sticky glacial silt, and a scramble up and down a trail the park ranger at the Sheep Mountain information center had described as “more or less flat” — had nearly defeated us. We set up camp at Canada Creek, in full view of the massive river of ice, and poured vodka into orange Tang for supper. In the rose-red light, we grinned at each other, giddy with weariness and whatever was blossoming between us, which was not mere friendship anymore, and which seemed as raw and gorgeous as that landscape. Did we notice the Slims River? It roared, gray-blue milk, just yards to the east of our tent all night, as impassable as the steep walls of rock on either side of the valley. It roared, and there was never darkness; the sun set close to midnight; we could still see to trace each other’s faces in the early hours of the morning.

Painting by MK MacNaughton, used with permission.
Painting by MK MacNaughton, used with permission.

In the rose-red light, we grinned at each other, giddy with weariness and whatever was blossoming between us, which was not mere friendship anymore, and which seemed as raw and gorgeous as that landscape. Did we notice the Slims River?

Eight years later, in June of 2013, I backpacked alone along the same trail on the west side of the Slims River, climbing up Sheep Mountain to a place where I could trace the braided curve of the Slims in the vast valley up toward the place where we had camped in view of the Kaskawulsh. In my two hands, I clutched a plastic Ziplock bag that contained some of Lia’s ashes. Not just ashes. Bits of bone. A piece of metal. When I sank my fingers into the bag, the white dust clung to my skin. I concentrated on the flowers that bobbed their heads in the wind on that rocky edge: the purple Ogilvie Spring Beauty, the yellow Maclean’s Goldenweed. Beyond, the Kaskawulsh curved in its frozen S. I knew the glacier moved, that it retreated daily, melting fast into the Slims and the Alsek, but I could not observe that action. I could barely breathe. When I filled my hands with Lia’s ashes, my fingertips remembered how soft her skin had been in the alpenglow at Canada Creek; when I opened my fingers, the wind swirled bone fragment and dust and threw it, laughing, into my eyes, my ears, my nostrils. Later, I crouched on the shore of the Slims, sinking my hands into the gray-blue milk. Ash swirled with silt, turning my hands to clay.

When I filled my hands with Lia’s ashes, my fingertips remembered how soft her skin had been in the alpenglow at Canada Creek; when I opened my fingers, the wind swirled bone fragment and dust and threw it, laughing, into my eyes, my ears, my nostrils.

Sometime after Lia died, I wrote: The Kaskawulsh Glacier in the Yukon’s Kluane National Park moves forward in the summer at an average velocity of 16,380 meters per day. The current glacier reached to its furthest extent in the early 1700s, when Bach wrote cantatas, Louis XIV of Spain ceded world domination to Great Britain, the slave trade between Africa and the American colonies increased, hostilities between Native American tribes and the colonists increased, and the Persian army sacked Delhi. Scientists know the age of the Kaskawulsh because they have conducted dendroglaciological studies. “Dendr-” = “related to trees.” Ring series from white spruce trees divulge the advances and retreats because the Kaskawulsh sheared, tilted, killed. Velocity, simultaneous events, exact day and time. Shatter the ice, break the rock. I want to know what is inside.

The violence of the glacier fascinated me with its unpredictable advances and retreats, its ancient insistence on destruction. On the alpine ridge of Sheep Mountain that day in 2013, I stood feeling insignificant, aware of the mountains that rose ancient on all sides of me, of the glacier that told me time does not move as human beings believe it does. What is eight years, after all? I wondered, briefly, if the mud flats and the meadows purple and white with Alaska cotton remembered our footsteps, but I barely considered the braided river.

But now, when I visit that place again, I’ll find a valley of dust, sculpted by wind into phantom shapes, as if the Slims River never was.

This is what a death is like for those who continue living. Once, a person stood there, infuriating or enamoring us with a face alight with anger or sadness or frustration or joy. Once, a person reached out arms to embrace us or threw up hands to ward us off. Once, there was skin to caress, a mouth to kiss, a mind to question. And then, very suddenly, no matter if the person dies at forty-two, as Lia did, or at ninety-eight, as my grandmother did, there is an eerie, silent absence. As if the person had never been there at all.

This is what a death is like for those who continue living.

The body is cremated or buried or donated to science. We stand in an empty room and try to remember how a voice sounded, exactly what a face looked like. Photographs are flawed historians; our memories tilt, filtered. If only we could ask her one more question, touch her cheek one more time, look upon her face just for one more moment. Only absence answers.

The Slims River in the Yukon is gone. I could walk across the entire broad valley from west to east, now. Lia is gone. Her raucous voice, her wild hair, her sacrilegious sense of humor, her paradoxical softness and edginess will never ripple in the world again. And others that I have loved are gone: Fern, John, Ida Ruth, Bill. I stand on a shore and close my eyes, straining to remember.

The Slims River in the Yukon is gone… Lia is gone… her paradoxical softness and edginess will never ripple in the world again. And others that I have loved are gone: Fern, John, Ida Ruth, Bill. I stand on a shore and close my eyes, straining to remember.

Years ago, when I wrote the first drafts of Grief Map, which releases from Brain Mill Press today, I was still desperate to recreate what was gone. I wanted my words to do what reality refused to do: bring back flesh, restore breath. Fiercely, I imagined myself walking that trail west of the Slims again: When I study the mud, I know I might find the overlapping footprints she and I left here in 2005 . . . Here in this air our laughter and our words exist, still. Here are the descendants of the same plants – lupine, penstemon, fireweed — that we flattened with our steps, touched with our fingertips, picked for each other’s hair. Here is the same grove of aspens, grown a little taller, and the same spruce forest . . .

What I did not yet understand was that I am still alive. It is not time for me to sink into the glacial silt and disappear from this world. I have more walking to do. I have other river trails to explore; I have others to love well.

In her poem “When Death Comes,” Mary Oliver writes that we can each make a choice about how to live until that inevitable moment when we must “step through the door” of death. She says:

When it’s over, I want to say all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this

world.

In my dreams, I do sometimes walk through a meadow of Alaska cotton on the west shore of the Slims. I do sometimes taste orange Tang and vodka. I do sometimes hear Lia’s infectious laugh. But when I wake, I snuggle close to my wife, Meredith, delight in her soft warm skin, treasure the crazy energy of our ten-year-old daughter and the dog leaping onto our bed. I am here, though the Slims River is gone. I am here, and I do not plan to merely visit this world.

***

Sarah Hahn Campbell’s book of linked essays, Grief Map, published by Brain Mill Press, releases today in print and ebook, available from sellers and distributors everywhere, and in fine first edition print and ebook directly from Brain Mill Press.

top photo by Iler Stoe on Unsplash