This story is part of Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors, a climate-fiction contest from Fix. Learn more about the power of imagination in Fix’s Climate Fiction Issue.
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“Your great-grand-abo 10 times removed was the last of the Danakil Afar,” I say, settling back against the cushion. “And the first to construct the towers.”
A breeze passes in through the open door and dries the sweat on our brows. Tonight is the first time the temperature has been cool enough to leave the windows open, and the rooms fill with the humid aroma of the day’s harvest.
“Before the Great Drying swept across the land, the Afar were a nomadic people of the Horn, shepherds mainly, who kept to themselves. Afterward, they became builders and salt traders. Your great-grand-ahde 10 times removed came from the highlands.”
Senait fidgets. Matters of ancient history hold little interest for her. She asks to hear about the Cloud Weavers instead.
“Let your ahde finish, little one,” abo Limi gently chides. “It is important that you know where you come from.”
But I smile down at my daughter. I draw her hair away from her eyes and ask, “How do you know about them?”
“Tes told me. He says we are Sky People, and that our rightful place is with them, weaving the clouds.”
“Tesfay,” Limi murmurs. He rolls his eyes, but gives me an amused look.
“Your brother’s head is already in the clouds,” I say, chuckling. “But I will make a deal with you, Senait. I will tell you about the Weavers, if you promise to go to sleep right after I am finished.”
“And also the Thief of Sand,” Senait says, sitting up straighter in her bed. Her eyes sparkle mischievously, belying the exhaustion she tries so hard to hide.
Abo Limi bellows out a laugh. “Our daughter! I do not think that she wishes to sleep at all tonight!”
But I know she will slumber, and soon, for the Weavers and the Sand Thief are part of the same story, and it is not very long in the telling. And afterward, maybe then she will understand why her older brother’s audacious claims are both right and wrong.
As for abo Limi, he is less anxious about our daughter’s weariness than for my own work yet to come, for there is so much still to do and too few hours before the sun will next rise.
In the history of our people, there has never been a land more inhospitable than the Danakil. Even in the time before the Great Drying, in what was known as the Afar Triangle of the Great Horn, there existed a place so hot and so parched that almost nothing grew. Sulfur springs bubbled up from the ground wherever you stood, spewing poison that painted the rocks yellow and turned the sky a sickly gray. And yet, in such an inhospitable place, isolated and against all odds, a humble people thrived for 1,000 years.
But the world was changing, growing hotter and drier, and soon even the hardiest of the Afar were driven away by the intolerable heat. They migrated inland, for the only other direction was the sea, and they surely could not go there. They ended up in the midlands of the Great Horn, which was a place of many different climates. In some areas, where the temperature had long been cooler and the air wetter, forests stood thick and tall. In others, the land was flat and suitable for growing crops. But it was in the dry lands there, among the towering termite mounds and the scorpions, that the solitary Afar found familiar surroundings. So that is where they settled, even though it was not their home, for I think you will agree that it is always better to take shelter in a stranger’s house than to refuse to leave your own when it is burning to the ground.
At the same time, the people of the milder midland climes, farmers mostly, were being forced deeper into the interior by the heat. There was once a beautiful city called Asmara, high on the Kebessa Plateau, a mile and a half into the sky. Asmara was a wondrous place, where for 100,000 years the clouds drenched the air each night and rains nourished the soil. The rivers that flowed down its escarpments fed the lowlands and eventually emptied into the sea.
The ancient name Asmara comes from the phrase arbate asmera, which in the original Tigrinya means “the four women who made them unite.” Many centuries before, this land had been under constant threat from a common enemy. Now, as before, it was the women who brought the clans together to defend against this new danger. For a while, Asmara became a sanctuary to anyone seeking refuge from the Great Drying.
But the heat and drought were unrelenting foes, and they drove more and more people to the city on the plateau. Week after week they came. Year after year. And because there was only so much land to hold them all, war became inevitable.
For 100 years, the fighting waged.
Now, just as there is no amount of conflict, no matter how bitterly fought, which can alter the course of nature, no volume of human blood could quench the thirst of the Great Drying. The deserts continued to expand, spreading until they reached the very ankles of the beloved city on the plateau.
It is said that necessity makes us do what we must in order to survive. Eventually, the rains began to evaporate before ever reaching the ground, and the rivers dried long before spilling into the sea. So, the women of Asmara rose again and taught themselves how to harvest the nightly mists with threads spun from molten glass. For a while, it helped.
But the thirst of the Great Drying was like that of the hyena’s: never slaked. Not satisfied with stealing the fog from all the lands beneath Asmara’s feet, it reached up and took them from her, too.
Once more, necessity made the people do what they must in order to survive. The peaceful Afar had long since retreated into the clouds by building towers that reached even higher than the Kebessa Plateau. Now it was their brothers’ and sisters’ houses burning to the ground. And so they welcomed them all into the sky, where the mists were still plentiful and ripe for harvesting.
Semhar Ibrahim was a weaver of webs. Each night, she assumed the skin of a spider and set out from her little hole to spin her delicate threads. High above the ground, where the clouds formed, she carefully laid out line after endless line, each as thin as a hair and as long as a mile. To harvest the dew that condensed upon them, she gently plucked each string, sending them vibrating along their entire length. Each wire carried its own unique note, and when played together they sang the song of the Weavers. As the droplets traveled down the wires, they merged and grew fat, creating a delicate river suspended in the sky. This is how the people harvested the clouds so that all might live. And each night, when you heard the tune, you would know how heavily laden the wires were with mist, depending on how melodious or melancholic the notes sounded.
Semhar was still a young woman when her dear friend, Alimirah Kadafo, fell to Earth.
Ali, as he was known by her, was an orphan. His mother and father had died when he was still but a child no taller than a grown man’s hip. He knew only of his parents’ trade from the faintest memories and of the stories others told him. But as soon as he was old enough, he donned the skin of the termite, just as his ahde and abo had, and also as their forebears had done before them, all the way back to when they first raised their homes into the sky. Only the descendants of the Afar were allowed to wear the termite skins, for no one else dared to erect the towers so high, where the air was so thin. And no others could make the long and treacherous descent each day to where the air was oven hot and desert dry, to collect the sand they needed to build their houses and to harvest the salt the people needed to survive.
For months, Semhar had been weaving longer into the night than she was supposed to, constructing larger and more intricate webs in order to better capture the dwindling mists. The air had been growing drier, which the leaders said was due to the yearly shift in seasons. But she felt in her bones that this time was different. The capricious clouds seemed less willing than ever to relinquish their bounty to her web. Yet for all her worrying, the leaders of the Council did not seem very concerned.
One morning, several weeks before Ali’s fall, as Semhar made her way back home, she encountered him preparing for his daily descent to the ground. Usually, she would only see him in the evenings, after he had already made his rounds trading with the growers for food and the weavers for water. The two young friends would sit together and eat their supper, watching the sun drop onto the barren Kebessa Plateau far to the west. The darkness would settle in and the mists would rise toward their backs. And when the fog overtook them and blanketed the stars above, he would go off to bed, whilst she would don her spider skin and begin to spin her web.
Seeing him that morning, she realized just how late she was in returning. He warned her to be more careful, for the rising sun would melt her threads, and she could fall. He did not wish for her a fate similar to the one his parents had suffered years before.
As she watched him descend into the morning mist below, she had a thought. Tonight, I will spin my web down there, for that is where the clouds have gone.
But her parents told her no. “It is too dangerous,” they said. “It is too hot and the winds are too unpredictable. And besides, how can we collect the water if the webs are below the cisterns? You must continue to weave the clouds as we have done for generations: high above us.”
“But the clouds are thicker below.”
“Above us, Semhar,” they repeated. “Each year, the Great Drying chases the clouds higher and higher. It has been this way for 200 years. And it is why we must build our towers a little taller each day.”
Semhar was defiant. She knew the clouds were no longer rising. In fact, they were falling.
“This is a temporary change,” they assured her. “We are Sky People, Builders of Towers and Weavers of Clouds.”
“But we were not always so,” Semhar countered.
“Our dearest wulad, listen to your parents. Do not look below for answers, for you will not find them. Our ancestors have taught us this valuable lesson.”
But the ancestors had also taught that necessity made them do what they must in order to survive. Semhar believed the Sky People’s very existence, like that of their forebears, lay once more in the balance.
“The clouds are shifting,” she told Ali, when she met him for supper that evening. “They are no longer as high as they used to be.”
Ali ate his injera thoughtfully, but did not reply. His was a simple life of climbing and gathering and climbing and bartering, day after day. He did not like to think about change. Change was what had happened when his abo and ahde died. In fact, he disliked it so much that his first instinct was to refuse to acknowledge it at all. But Semhar was his dear friend, and he loved and respected her, for she had a keen mind and always spoke the truth. Also, he too had sensed the shift in weather, and it was not the same seasonal cycle he had witnessed in years past. Each morning, the mists wet the tower bases longer and lower, and it took him extra time to make the treacherous climb to the ground. More than once, he had nearly slipped and fallen.
“Today,” she told him, “I will need an extra allotment of sand.”
“I have already given you all I can spare,” he replied. “How much more can you weave?”
“I wish to spin a whole extra web.”
“You already use up every minute of darkness on the one.”
“But I haven’t used up all the mist.”
“Semhar, if I let you have more, the builders will begin to notice the deficit.”
“Tomorrow morning,” she pressed, as if she hadn’t heard a single word he said, “I will build a second web. This one will be lower, while the mists are still beneath us and the sun hasn’t burned them away.”
He scoffed. “And how will you harvest the water then? The drops will fall uncollected to the ground and be wasted. The desert does not need the rain as we do.”
“I wish to prove a point to the Council. And if I am to be confident that I am right, I must first prove it to myself.”
“If they find out, you will be punished for breaking the rules. The leaders are like lions, always hunting the weak to make way for the strong. They will take your skin away from you and let someone else weave the clouds instead. What will you do then?”
“There is an old saying: ‘When spider webs unite, they can capture a lion.’ The leaders are stubborn, this is true, but they are not stupid. I will spin my webs to capture their attention. Only then will I make them see that things are changing, even if they are changing in ways they might not want or expect them to.”
“They are comfortable with their life up here in the sky.”
“But we cannot keep building higher and breathing thinner air, while chasing clouds that are no longer there.”
Ali considered this for a long time. As he did, Semhar turned her back to the sunset for the first time and instead watched the mists rolling in from a distant sea she had only ever seen in her dreams. Finally, when the first delicate drops of dew began to reach up and caress their skin, Ali told her what he would do.
It was a tremendous amount of extra work for him, but Ali believed in his friend. It also helped that he shared her concerns. The clouds were shifting, and if the trend continued, as Semhar believed it would, they would eventually have no more mist to harvest.
The extra thousand pounds of sand he carried threatened his skin’s grip as he climbed the tower that evening. It took him far longer than usual to return to the top, and he was exhausted when he arrived.
“Why are you so late, Alimirah Kadafo?” the builders demanded. “We were worried you had fallen, just as your parents did.”
“No reason,” he told them.
“No reason? Are you embarrassed for falling asleep whilst gathering sand in the desert? You must be more careful, or else you will dry up like the salt.”
“Will you trade for your allocation or not?”
“Why should we? You were late,” they repeated. “We have already traded with someone else for tomorrow’s work.”
“What am I supposed to do with the sand I have today?”
“We will take it anyway, but give you nothing in return. Tomorrow, make sure you are back in time, or else we will tell the Council that you no longer deserve to wear the skin.”
This will not work, Ali thought, as he left the builders. I will just have to tell Semhar at supper that I cannot get her extra sand for her wires.
But it was too late to see her that evening, for the sun was already beginning to set and the mists were coiling at their feet. Semhar would have finished eating by now, and Ali still had salt yet to trade for his own dinner.
He went looking for her the next day, after he had returned from the ground at the usual time with his usual load and had given the builders their sand and traded his salt away. She was flush with excitement, and barely allowed him any chance to speak while they ate.
“I have not seen so much water in a very long time,” she told him. “If this continues, as I expect, then I will soon tell the leaders.”
“You cannot do that.” He told her what had happened the day before. “It takes me too long to gather the extra sand and far more effort to climb the tower, so that by the time I have returned, the builders have already received their allocations from the other gatherers. They still take my sand and give me nothing in exchange, so that I am left with little to show for my efforts. I am sorry, Semhar, but I have no extra sand for you this evening.”
Ali lay in bed for a long time without sleeping that night. He couldn’t get Semhar’s disappointment from his mind. High above him, the weavers built their webs to harvest the mists, and the songs their webs sang were the saddest he had ever heard. He decided then that he would leave earlier the next morning, an extra hour before sunrise, to gather Semhar’s sand. The towers would still be slick with dew, and the climb would be especially perilous, but he knew that she was right. If she was willing to break the rules for her convictions, then the risks he took were worth it.
Every morning for the next month, he rose long before dawn, donned his termite skin, and climbed down to the desert below. Every day of that month, he toiled in the baking-hot sun to gather the extra sand for his friend. And every evening, he told her where he had stashed it, so that she could spin her extra web. She did not care that the water she collected spilled unused to the ground. “I am doing this to be certain that I am right,” she told him.
“I hope it will not take too long before you are,” he replied.
“It won’t. Soon, the lions will have no choice but to listen to reason.”
“And why do you think they will?” he asked.
“Because the water in the cisterns is beginning to drop.”
She was so proud of her work that he would not tell her how many times he had nearly fallen, or how the extra burden was wearing on his skin. He made his repairs as best as he could, but he knew that it was only a matter of time before it would fail.
The morning before Ali’s last day on the towers dawned especially hot. After less than an hour on the ground, he was forced to begin his long ascent carrying only his usual burden of sand and none of salt. As he climbed, he told himself that Semhar would just have to do without tonight. But when he reached the place where he had been hiding her extra allotment, he decided to give it all to her. He could not bear for her to be disappointed. And what she was doing was just too important, not just to her, but to all the People of the Sky.
The builders were furious, and they threatened to tell the leaders of his indolence. Ali didn’t care that they were wrong. Soon they would see what he and Semhar were doing, and they would have to acknowledge the truth. The clouds were shifting. The cisterns were drying. But most important of all, the Great Drying was drawing to an end.
Instead, they caught him the next day hiding the sand he had collected, and they took him straight to the Council.
“Alimirah Kadafo,” the leaders said, “why are you stealing sand from the builders?”
“How can I steal sand that I have collected? It is mine to trade as I see fit.”
“That is not how it is done. We are all essential parts of this community. Each of us plays an important role. Some grow food, some make clothes. Some harvest water, and others build. You collect sand and salt. Without these things, how can we do what is necessary to survive? When you break this chain, you steal from us all. When one of us fails, we all risk falling.
Semhar did not hear of Ali’s banishment until she returned from her weaving the next morning. All night, she had suspected something terrible had happened to him, because he hadn’t met her for supper, and the cache where he hid her sand had been empty. When she learned of his fate, she went straight to the Council to beg for a change of heart. But Ali was already gone, and the leaders would not be persuaded to allow him to return. “Someone stronger now wears his skin,” they told her. “Someone else who is willing to do the work as it has been done for generations.”
“You have made a terrible mistake!” she cried.
“Semhar Ibrahim,” they scolded, “your job is to collect the water, not to worry about the sand or those who would steal it from us.”
“But how can I collect the water if there are no clouds?”
“By continuing to weave. Be patient, for the mists will return. Every year, the Great Drying pushes them higher, which is why we must build our towers taller. Without sand, we cannot do that. Without water, we cannot survive.”
“The cisterns are falling because there is no water to collect.”
“The air is dry, this is true. But it is nothing to worry about. Soon, the seasons will shift again, and the clouds will return. Build your webs as you have been taught, and before you know it the wires will once again sing a joyous song. Then you will see that we are right. Are you not a Cloud Weaver, after all?”
“I am,” she declared. “But it is also true that I am the thief of sand, not Alimirah Kadafo. I asked him to give it to me, so that I might weave an extra web each night.”
The Council members glanced one to another in puzzlement. “It is not stealing, when you are using it for the betterment of the community. Your extra work is to be commended.”
“The mist I gathered was never collected. I let it fall to the ground.”
“How could this be?”
“Because I wove my lines below the cisterns, where the nightly mists have lately formed.”
“There is nowhere for the water there to collect,” they said in astonishment, for they still did not comprehend her intent. “Why would you do such a wasteful thing?”
“To prove that we must stop looking ever higher. The answer is below us. The Great Drying is over.”
“We are the People of the Sky, young Semhar Ibrahim. But if you wish to forsake your birthright, then that is your decision. Tomorrow, at first light, you will be taken to join your friend on the ground.”
It took her nearly the whole night to descend the tower in her stolen spider skin. The machine was not built for climbing, but for dangling and spinning. She found Ali sitting in the shadow at the base, his mouth open to capture the drops that fell from the tattered remnants of a month’s worth of secret webs. It was the only thing keeping him alive.
Each night after that, she climbed to where the mists rolled in and wove a new web, using the sand that he brought her to spin into glass each day. Together, they collected what water they could, although most of it fell uncaptured to the ground.
They found the first seedling a month later. And within six months, the ground beneath the towers had turned into a garden.
“She is asleep,” abo Limi whispers.
I kiss my precious daughter on the cheek, and she doesn’t even stir, for she is exhausted from her hard work. I know that when she harvests the crops each day, she looks to the skies and thinks that what we are doing here on the ground is not so exhilarating. She takes after her brother in that way. Someday, she will stay awake long enough to hear the story to its completion. Maybe it will be tomorrow, or perhaps next year. Maybe it will even be before the Sky People’s cisterns empty for good, and they realize the Great Drying is finally over. Then they, too, will come down from the towers, and she will understand that this is the day for which we have been preparing. It is why I don my skin each night and weave my webs in clouds that no longer form so high in the sky. We need the rain. But so does the Earth.
“Ready, Semhar?” my dear sebai Alimirah asks, as he finishes checking my harness.
I eagerly nod, for the mists are already forming, and they look to be especially thick tonight. “Sleep well, my children,” I whisper. “And dream of the Weaver’s song, for tonight the wires will sing with joy.”
Saul Tanpepper is the author of the popular book series Bunker 12 and Zpocalypto, as well as the clifi stories “The Green Gyre” and “Leviathan.” A former combat medic and retired PhD scientist from Northern California, he is the co-author (as Kenneth James Howe) of the Eritrean diaspora memoirs “Relentless” and “I Will Not Grow Downward.”
Born and raised in suburban New Jersey, Grace Abe is an illustrator and designer based in Boston.