Imagine 2200, Grist’s climate fiction initiative, publishes stories that envision the next 180 years of equitable climate progress, imagining intersectional worlds of abundance, adaptation, reform, and hope. This short story is part of our Imagine 2200 Editors’ Picks collection.
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Happy birthday to me. Happy birthday to me.
Breathe in, breathe out, in, out.
Happy birthday dear Tai-iiii.
Caress your attention around the sensation of oxygen in your nostrils. Eventually, you get lost in it. Like you’re doing backstroke in the middle of the Pacific. Hopelessly lost, or hopefully lost, I guess it depends who you ask.
Happy birthday to me.
The bell’s ding-ding is sharp, makes my chest spike. Feet shuffle, elbow joints click, a few murmurs bubble as everyone opens their eyes. I grab the frayed edges of my mat, start to roll it up, make sure one end of the cylinder doesn’t poke out more than the other.
Dad does the same beside me. In fact, the way we adjust the mats is almost identical, our movements almost rhyme. Like we’re related or something.
He doesn’t return my glance, his chin tucks as he stands up, ducks under the exit door into the field outside. I squeeze between two women I can’t remember the names of, chirp my ‘excuse me’ after I’m a meter past.
Meditation is meant to calm you. The space in between inhale and exhale is meant to be the drainage pipe for your bouncy thoughts: wondering what Skittles tasted like, rugby players from sixty years before I was born, that one library dance scene from The Breakfast Club.
They’re all meant to disappear. And they have.
They’re all meant to be replaced by a neutral bliss. And they haven’t.
My mind buzzes not with movies or sports, but with a question for — “Dad! Excuse me, Dad!” I call out.
It takes him five seconds to turn around, almost like he’s analyzing whether the noise is his own son’s voice or a trick of the wind through this ankle-high grass.
Yes, I count the seconds. No, it’s not sad. It’s just a fun game I’ve started to play recently. Record’s thirteen.
He leans his rolled mat against the side of a whare, pinches his nose’s bridge.
“Don’t use the tongue of foreigners,” he sighs. “Our ancestors have gifted us a perfectly functioning one of our own.”
I switch from English to Māori, jog up to him. “Sorry, sorry.”
“It’s becoming a habit,” he says. “What are you spending your VR time on?”
See, our village is cute. We’d rather let hypothermia take us in the night than use oil or gas for power. But overcast days are a thing and the wind is more bipolar than even me, so we only generate a certain amount of electricity a day.
Therefore therefore therefore, we’re only allowed fifty-nine minutes of VR time a day. You’ve got to make the most of it, I reckon. Don’t spend your seconds on studying herbal medicines, fishing techniques, natural pesticides. The carrot life cycle simulator is one that’s recommended by local parents a lot. A recommendation I passionately ignore.
“I don’t know,” I scratch the back of my neck with my free hand.
“People only mumble ‘I don’t know’ when they fully-well know, but just have no intent of sharing.”
“Maybe, like, William Shakespeare, George Orwell, J.K. Rowling …”
He shakes his head, flings his eyes up at the passing clouds. “And what has Romeo and Juliet taught you about potato farming? Has Harry Potter used a spell yet that makes your bait speak lies in salmon?”
A response snaps the back of my tongue. Something about salmon not being an official New Zealand language. I clench my teeth to stop it from bursting out. I don’t need a sandal outline on my ass today.
There’s over one billion different experiences in the VR metaverse. I know this, because Google says so in unskippable ads before all of their popular ones.
I could explore craters on Venus, scuba dive with blue bottle jellyfish, skrrt Ferraris through the streets of 10 AD Jerusalem.
I could. But I don’t.
In a green armchair on the seventy-fourth floor of the Google Library. Candles always flicker, a cuckoo clock always ticks and it’s always, always lightly raining. That’s where my happiness is.
In turning pages, even when I pinch the paper or dogear its corner after fifty-eight minutes, I know there’s nothing really there but 010101s on some American server. That’s where my excitement is.
“Tonight, you’ll start to be a man. Tonight, you’ll take your place as a leader in this iwi,” Dad continues. “Don’t find yourself getting lost in the imaginations of colonizers when you could be getting lost in the serving of our people.”
But I’ve been speaking Māori since I was on baby formula. I lead junior haka practice twice a week. I row waka ama and I’ve memorized our myths and I don’t see the harm in reading one or two stories by an English woman.
“I’ve got a request,” I tuck the front of my shirt in. “For a birthday gift.”
I realize it’s a bit late to ask for a birthday gift on the day of your actual birthday. Thing is, you can’t chat shit about it. It’s an unwritten rule of the universe you’ve got to be nice to me today.
He raises his right eyebrow. “Birthday gift? As in, a gift … a gift for you?”
“Yeah,” I say. “It’s what everyone used to do, back when we lived in cities. Right?”
He frowns. “The boy who’s got everything wants even more. What? Whiskey? A fur coat? A ta moko?”
“A book. An actual, physical book. Like, maybe Macbeth, or Nineteen Eighty-Four, or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s …”
I’m not interrupted, by the way. I’ve only got a feeling it’s best not to go on.
He runs two fingers across his clenched jaw. That’s feeling confirmed. His own ta moko spiderwebs out. Thick strings of green ink, green like pine needles, curve from his cheekbones to the intersections of his lips. I still remember the nonchalance of the seventy-something year old man who did it, the stench of his fingernails, the tap-tap-tap of wooden mallet onto stone chisel onto the skin of my dad.
The one word is used more by him as a command, less of an offer. I thought turning eighteen would’ve gained me some of that mutual respect, some of that adult shit. Sike. No number on a birth certificate will make my arms thicker than his, my presence bigger than his, my first name worth more than his.
He grabs the top of the whare, pulls himself onto its roof, motions for me to leave my meditation mat by his. I try to copy him, but when my triceps quiver he hurls me up by my sleeve.
The corrugated iron is rough, bumpy. I guess it wasn’t a priority of shipping container companies to make their products comfy to sit on.
“Can’t you remember?” he asks. “You are getting a gift for your birthday.”
“You can’t refer to a girl as a gift, Dad. It’s 2122.”
“I was talking about the ring, not your wife-to-be.”
It takes all my willpower not to groan. Okay, maybe all my willpower is a bit of an over exaggeration, but at least 92.3% of it. The chief’s son always gets married off to some neighboring chief’s daughter. Midnight, eighteenth birthday, it’s tradition. Part of the peacekeeping game, our diplomatic dice roll.
I blame it for all my high school party hook-ups, yoga dates, midnight rendezvous on the beach. It’s amazing how quickly alcohol and a sloppy handjob can turn the future to a blur.
I consider asking which iwi. A girl from Ngātiwai, Ngāti Hine, Tainui, but what does it matter? I won’t get a word in and neither will she until we both start to murmur “till death do us part.”
His legs dangle over the edge, I hug mine against my chest. I’m not sure whose house we’re on, but I hope we’re not interrupting anything important. I personally would be slightly distracted by two ass-shaped indents in my ceiling.
Rows and rows of whare stretch out, pretty much every shade on the color wheel. Red, blue, even beige. Not by our choice, just by what we happened to find at ports that haven’t greeted a cargo ship in decades. The logos on the side fade more and more each year. Some companies I recognize: Apple, Tesla, NextEra Energy. Some companies I don’t: BP, Hummer, Kmart.
“This is what we’ve fought for, this is what we fled for,” his eyes trace across the acres in front of us. “The British robbed this from us, and after almost 300 years, we can smile and say we’ve got it back.”
Ride-on electric lawnmowers sing as they scythe across rugby fields. A girl tinkers over the final weaves of her basket, ready for a fresh haul of shellfish. The sound of gossip, the smell of yeast floats from the bakery section nearby. Solar panels glisten and windmills whir and it all seems like just a facade.
So perfect for some. So repetitive to me.
* * *
If you want expert advice on how to skim stones, don’t go to me. Ihaia’s record is seven, Makareta claims he got nine, and I swear Wiremu fluked a twelve when we were younger.
Unfortunately for you, there’s no one else here. So I’m your local authority, with a lifetime high of four.
Welcome to my tutorial. Hopefully you’ve got a notebook on hand.
Light stones with a smooth surface skim the best. Any bumps are ehhh, they make it jitter off in random directions. Heaviness is just anticlimactic, sinks it before it can take flight.
I’ve already scouted out one, don’t worry, done the hard yards for us. It shone between a clump of marram grass and reeds. Like, no joke, literally shone. I took it as a sign from the heavens. I toss it in my palm. It weighs less than a handful of hay, its texture is like a more earthy stainless steel.
I wind up, count to three, whip it across the water.
It plops, sinks without bouncing.
Come on, universe. The sound effects rub it in. I bark out a curse.
“Careful, your highness. Potty mouths don’t make for good husbands.”
I turn around. A girl dumps her basket onto the sand, outside the brown outline of where the waves stretch in. She rolls her harem pants halfway up her shins, tiptoes into the ocean, no splash. She bends over, her almond hair drips over her ears, its edges sway with, soak in the current.
“Please don’t call me ‘your highness’,” I cross my arms. “It makes me sound pretentious.”
“And are you?”
“No,” I shrug, pause. “In my unbiased opinion.”
The joke only earns me the hint of a grin. She dips her hands into the water, pulls out one pipi, two pipi, three pipi. I come over to help her scavenge, but my footsteps kick up sand like Godzilla’s would kick up dirt and the water turns murky.
“Be delicate, your highness,” she tuts.
“It’s Tai,” I say, wait for her to respond with her name.
She reaches back in.
She cradles the pipis in her arms, their shells yellow like a used sponge, they piss salt water onto her skin. She heads for her basket, spills them inside, hoists it over her shoulder, trods up the beachface.
I shouldn’t even be talking to her, anyway. The fuckboy life is a fun one, sure, but I’m about to graduate from it. Step up to become a married man.
I’m a proud daydreamer. Zoning out for me is less of a phase, more of a lifestyle. But the ones where I flirt like I’m running off a script or a girl blushes over a spontaneous haiku, they’ve got to go. Be replaced with fantasies of TV channel arguments, a black coffee addiction, raising a set of twins …
Okay. I’ve taken it all into consideration, and actually, my verdict is fuck that. I’ve still got, like, seven hours.
I’m going to hit on the pretty girl in harem pants.
Save your judgmental thoughts, your holier-than-thou attitude. Go write a complaint to the tribe’s marriage board instead. Well, first, you’ll have to create said marriage board. But then, go crazy.
I catch up to her by a beech tree. Its branches stick out of it like a coat rack, bunches of leaves as fresh green bowler hats.
She squints at my forehead as I come up beside her. “You’re sweating.”
“You’re a fast walker.”
She starts off again, I lightly grab her arm. Key word being lightly. I want the world to know it’s bullshit if anyone accuses me of something like —
“Assault. That legally counts as assault,” she tilts her head.
Something like that.
“Take me to court, then,” I shrug, let go. “What’s your name?”
We don’t have a court system, either.
Her eyes flit to her fingernails. They’re blunt, edges chewed into semicircles, specks of mud caught underneath.
“Jasmine,” she says. Her voice drops almost into a whisper, even though there’s no one else around.
So melodramatic. It’s not like she’s disclosing the code to the discovered nuclear bomb laptop of Kim Jong Un.
I purse my lips. “Such a Western name.”
“Yeah, maybe it’s not Hūmārire or Pīwari or Waiwaiā,” she replies. “But I guess Mum was worried they wouldn’t have macrons on the city hospital’s keyboard. A messed up birth certificate isn’t a great sign of things to come.”
My eyes widen. “City hospital? You were born in a city?”
“Born and raised, seventeen years of motorway traffic, billboards, and office blocks,” she nods, makes eye contact again. “She wanted to move back here, though. The smell of cow shit is so freeing, apparently.”
I try to imagine it. This girl, with skin like acorn husk, skin like mine. This girl, with eyes that perk slightly at the edges, eyes like mine. This girl, with a heart that beats our people’s blood and DNA that holds our people’s genes and lungs that breathe our people’s air, strolling down a main street with noise-canceling headphones and a frozen Coke. Maybe even a, what’s it called, a library card in her purse.
The scene is grainy, like a YouTube video loading on poor WiFi. It doesn’t comprehend.
Next issue. I can’t comment on frozen Cokes or library cards, but I can’t think of anything else except her being from the city. She takes a step away, almost challenging me. Come on, dude. Less than a minute of chat and you’re already out of things to say?
I sit down by the trunk; she glances back to the village before joining me. The bark digs into my lower back.
“Which city?” I turn to face her.
“Auckland. Come on, I only do it big time.”
“Tell me about it.”
“You know,” she notes, whistles in between. “The first thing my mum taught me was good manners.”
I bite the inside of my cheek. “Please tell me about it. Everything. I’ve got until sunset.” She hmmms. I’m not sure what she’s chalking up my interest to. Curiosity, boredom.
I’m not sure what I can even attribute it to. Maybe it’s just desperation for a distraction. Maybe all I want is a hint of what life is like outside of farming and fishing, baking and breathwork.
And so she talks. And so I listen.
Every detail she mentions, she spins it into a 3D world, a 3D world private for the two of us. It’s like she’s the developer for a VR experience, and I’m her beta player.
The minor details are the most vivid, the things she squeezes onto the end of sentences or middle of stories as an afterthought. They stick. Fire truck sirens, chalkboards, revolving glass doors.
Here, in our tribe, we’ve got maybe fifteen thousand people. There, she says they have over one million. Puddles to oceans. Enough people to fill stadiums and justify skyscrapers and provide you with the chance to meet someone new every bus ride.
“So, you’ve read books, right? Like proper, paper books.” I rest my chin against my knee.
She laughs. “No. In my whole time there, I never once touched a paperback.”
My shoulders drop, and she touches my forearm.
“It’s sarcasm,” she continues. “Of course I have. Although, barely ever with consent. The only thing that got my eyes to pages was the threat of failing my English essays.”
“Read all seven.”
“Oh my Lord,” I press both palms to the sides of my face. “How does it feel to be living my fantasy?”
“That’s your fantasy?”
“Well, there’s some other ones, but I shouldn’t mention those while my fiancé gets ready somewhere.”
Her elbow nudges my side, I nudge back. She pauses, wrinkles her nose.
“It’s kind of fucked, don’t you think? That your dad’s going to marry you off for the sake of it?”
I think back to taking my shoes off before stepping onto the kitchen vinyl, mouthing worship songs on Sundays, doing homework at the back of a party. It’s just what has to be done, what’s always been done, what always will be done.
But that answer won’t impress Jasmine, so I nod and say “yeah” instead.
She picks up a fallen leaf, uses its stem to sketch hashtags, crescents, diamonds in the dirt. “I could take you to the city. Tonight.”
My chest tightens. “What?”
I ask it not because I didn’t hear her. Every syllable cut into my ear drums like carvings into oak.
I ask because it sounds like a joke, a white lie, a tease. It can’t be, it can’t be an offer.
“This isn’t some mindful concentration camp. I can still talk to my old mates, you know,” she traces out a trapezium. “They’ve got cars, electric motorbikes, one’s dad even owns a boat. Give me the word and you can switch shellfish for strip clubs.”
I flinch. Is this bark rougher than normal bark? Is the angle of this sunset steeper than yesterday’s? Because the back of my neck prickles and I have to squint to see her face. But even squinting doesn’t reveal any telltales of “hey, haha, I’m just kidding” on her lips.
I’ve watched this sunset thousands of times, and always it rises with the knowledge that I’ll be here in the village, waiting for it.
Not that the sun itself would be massively worried about my specific location. Still.
This is where I was born, and where I’m expected to die. From dust to dust, from sunset to sunset.
But the dust I’m interested in is coated on a bookshelf somewhere. I want to feel the crease of a broken cover spine, the edges of a page, the sting of a papercut. See its faint red outline on my skin.
She stares out, past sand, waves, the volcano range that naps on the horizon line. “A boat. The beach. Three hours, and we could be gone.”
I know it’s more than just the books tempting me. But trying to comprehend one million different noses, one million different vocal tones, one million different souls would freak me out, kick awake my common sense, probably stop me from blurting out —
“I’ll be there.”
So I just focus on the books instead.
* * *
I tug my suit’s lapels, squeak the leather of my right shoe against my left, fiddle with the ring on my finger. It’s a titanium band, pinches like a vice in the school’s woodwork center, its glow is dim under the lamplight.
It’s him, yeah. I know for a fact it’s him. Not because he’s in sight or he’s called out, but because it’s less of a proper knock and more of a signature percussion performance: seven evenly spaced bangs against the metal.
“What’s up?” My voice spikes at the end, I keep eye contact with my mirror.
“The economy.” There’s a rustle of cushion tassels, a relaxed huff.
I almost snort. “I’ve never even seen you buy something with a credit card, let alone make comments about economics.”
“Women love a good sense of humor, Tai. Work on it.”
I know. Mine just tends to lean more towards penis jokes and puns rather than finance.
On second thoughts, maybe I do need to work on it.
The muscles at the base of my neck urge me to face him, but I tighten them, try to distract myself by running over every feature of my reflection. One strand of hair splits my eye, my lips are slightly chapped, I watch my shoulders sink.
I trace my ring finger across the crack that zigzags from the top of the glass. Titanium drags across it, then skin. It’s sharp, but not enough to pierce, only teases with the pain.
No, I haven’t met the bride-to-be yet. I’ve been told her name a few times. That’s all. Over dinner, passing conversations, a congratulations letter from Aunty Kura. But I let its syllables drag through my mind’s desktop, straight into the recycle bin folder.
There’s no clock in here. Might be a good thing, because it would be fucking blatant that I’ve got something planned. I’d check it every time the second arm ticks. All I can do now is wonder how long it’s been since Jasmine and I parted ways at the beech tree.
“Reverend sent me to fetch you. So, are you ready?” he asks.
Way to drag out the moment. Some quality father-son time before the wedding here. Every swallow feels like a gulp. Each is thicker than you realize once you’re aware of it.
“Yup,” I lie.
Or, at least, that’s what I want to say.
I’ve never wanted one word to come out of my mouth more than that. No difficult answer in class, no perfect flirting dialogue, no sentence or phrase or sound seems more enticing than “yup.”
But I can’t. I don’t know whether my vocal chords are seizing up or if not telling the truth to him is just too fucking intimidating, and instead all I can murmur is —
I scratch my chin, even though he made me shave this morning. Now, he’s meant to say something next. I’ve had one or two or a million conversations in my life, and I’m pretty sure that’s how they work. I go, you go, I go again, table tennis with our facts and feelings.
But the silence doesn’t break. It digs into my gut instead, turns it hollow, into a gap.
“No,” I repeat, as if an extra two letters will fix everything.
Those two letters might be able to change a novel’s ending. They might even be able to stop a war. Change the path of history. But the ring is still on my finger, too tight for even those letters to tear it off.
These shipping containers are never spacious. They were made for crates of bananas, belt buckles, lots and lots of BMW spare parts. Not dressing rooms.
But we switch out the hubcaps and handbrakes for a sofa and a mirror, hook it up to the solar power system, and call it what we want. So that’s what it becomes. No questions, no queries, just acceptance via “oh, nice, new dressing room.”
They’re not spacious to begin with, but even now the corrugated walls seem to creep inwards. Maybe another few inches and there won’t be enough oxygen left in here and we’ll pass out until morning comes.
My face prickles with a warmth, an uncomfortable warmth. I stand up, make my way over to the door. But to get to the door means I pass Dad on the sofa. To pass Dad on the sofa means I feel like checking if there’s any marks on my shoes for a strange length of time.
His fingers grip the hem of my shirt, but their tug lets go just as quickly.
“I forgot something,” I say. “At the meditation block.”
There’s no response. None quick enough to catch me before the door creaks close, at least.
I’ve always had this thing where I think everyone I pass by is judging me. It’s not just a romantic thing, either. It could be someone’s grandfather, or grandchild, and something in my brain triggers. Like they’re scanning me for all my visual pros and cons. Call it insecurity, call it ego, call it human nature.
But now, I’m genuinely like an extra who turned up to the wrong movie studio. Everyone else is wearing hoodies and flannel shirts, not suit jackets. Jandals and gumboots, they double-take at my dress shoes.
Most people know what’s happening tonight. I get a few well-wishes along the way. None of them register as anything more than soundtrack noise.
For every step I take towards the beach, the eyes on me matter less and less and less. Because if this is the last time they’re going to see me, I’m glad it’s an image that’s easy to remember.
A hand grabs my shoulder, a grip that’s more like a leash, swivels me around even as I try to resist.
Even when Dad lets go, he doesn’t actually. Sure, the physical contact’s gone, but there’s so much more to touch than just physics. It might stop on our skin, but it can pulse through, into everything else. Just as long as it’s someone you love, or fear, or a healthy/unhealthy mixture of both.
His eyebrows scrunch. Three toddlers stop for a second, observe, skitter away. He clutches a paper bag to his chest.
Eighteen years of breathwork and each breath still feels forced. Eighteen years of North Island air and it still feels cold. Years turn into decades too quickly and I don’t want to count the decades I’ll spend in a fake love.
Jasmine and her city friend will almost be ready. Her hand on the anchor’s rope, one eye on the gap between two volcanoes, the other on the path leading down to the shorefront.
I take a step backwards. He hands me the package.
“I know individual gifts aren’t part of our culture,” he crosses his arms behind his back. “But I thought we could make an exception, just this once.”
Should I sprint? Sigh? Neither feel grateful, neither feel right, so I distract myself by trying to guess what it is instead.
Chocolates? A framed family poster? Some sort of ornamental box? But the weight is weird. Too light for metal, for stone, for wood.
I reach inside. The top’s material is almost sticky and the corners are rough and when I drag my thumb across it, it separates and rustles and …
I fling the bag onto the grass, hold the gift up until it touches my nose. The corners of my mouth pull into a smile.
On the cover, there’s a boy. His spectacles are nerdy-as-fuck, his cape is too big for his neck, and he looks like the sort of kid you’d have a moral dilemma over defending or not at lunchtime.
I turn to the first page.
TE TAMAITI I ORA
Ko Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, o te nama tuawha, Privet Drive, i whakahīhī ki te kii he tino noa, ka nui te mihi. Ko ratou nga tangata whakamutunga e whakaaro ana koe ki te uru atu ki tetahi mea ke, ngaro ranei, na te mea kaore ratou i mau ki nga korero poauau.
I flick through the rest of the pages. All the same. All in Māori. Every Google Library session, they’ve always been English words. But the macrons above the letters, the way the vowels dip in tone, the rhythm of the sentences: it’s sweet, rich, more beautiful than anything virtual candlelight has illuminated for me so far.
Dad tilts his head, waits for my reaction. But what reaction works when these 300 pages override 300 years of history? Harry Potter’s meant to be a boy from Surrey and I’m meant to be a boy from Waikato and our paths weren’t ever meant to cross so intimately, so smoothly, so casually.
I look around. Look out. Look at this place my great-grandfather brought the first shipping container to, my ancestors discovered on tamanu trunk canoes.
The solar panels glisten, the barley fields bend, people walk around with content in their faded forehead lines and relaxation in their shoulders.
And for a moment, I wonder if this is where I really belong.
The city might have bouncy music playing from mall speakers, but we sing waiata in groups by bonfires and dining tables.
The city might have frappuccinos, but we have lamb hangi and fried bread.
The city I’ve dreamed of, the future I’ve dreamed of, it fades to black. And the black becomes more purpley and spots of light start to dance and I realize all I’ve done is look up.
My wedding ring glints once as I raise my hand over my eyeline. Would it shine just as bright if I tossed it up? High enough for it to get caught outside of Earth’s gravity, to hang with the rest of the universe.
My uncle once taught me all the constellations that lead our tūpuna here. He waited for cloudless nights to take me out to the hilltops, we took a flask of hot chocolate and some ginger biscuits. Isn’t it kind of cool, how our ancestors found them all without telescopes or observatories?
The constellations. Te Kakau, the rest of the world calls it Orion’s Belt. Matariki, the Pleiades. Te Waka-o-Tama-rereti, Scorpio. I can spot them all now, connect the invisible lines, feel the energy of my ancestors in their patterns.
The city might be full of bright lights, but we’ve got the stars at their full potential. Actually, we don’t even have them.
Technically speaking, we’ve just got old light. A memory of where the stars once were. And maybe that too is more than enough.
Anthony Pita (he/him) is a student from New Zealand, studying at both the University of Auckland and the University of California. Alongside finishing his first novel, his work has been published in Huia Short Stories, Narrative Imperative, Signals Journal, and more.
Carolina Rodriguez Fuenmayor (she/her) is a 32-year-old illustrator from Bogotá, Colombia.