Imagine 2200, Fix’s climate fiction contest, recognizes stories that envision the next 180 years of equitable climate progress, imagining intersectional worlds of abundance, adaptation, reform, and hope. Read the 2022 collection here.
I expected it to bite me. Mom said that it would. “First it will take your finger, then the rest of your hand,” she’d warned, but I didn’t trust her judgment. When she was young, Rwanda had no ocean, and no sea turtles. What she did have, was extreme paranoia.
As the turtle’s mouth started to close over my trembling finger, I feared she might’ve been right after all. Its serrated teeth brushed against my skin, but upon realizing that my finger was not synthetic material, it snapped its mouth back in a fashion that was strangely robotic for an organic creature. With a betrayed snort, the turtle hauled itself back towards the shoreline, where it began to pitifully dig around in the sand with its beak.
I squealed, quietly so as not to scare the lumbering beast, but loudly enough to release the ecstatic tension that was forcing my lips into a smile so wide that it was painful. I leaped to my feet and swept my grocery bag up into my arms. Either the extreme summer heat or the mix of my glee and nervousness caused my cheeks to throb with warmth and my entire body to sporadically twitch.
I knew I should’ve been going. Mom would be furious if I stayed out too late, even more so if I came home with heatstroke. If I didn’t want this to be the first and last time she let me leave the house by myself, I should’ve gone then.
But I couldn’t leave. I’d never seen a turtle before. They were still endangered, even after scientists genetically modified them so that the species could survive the warming, and the ocean acidification that came with it.
I hadn’t seen much of anything before. Well, I’d seen a lot of the same few things. White walls, some baby raindrops through my grimy window, the thick curtains that hid the world as soon as rain clouds rolled in. But I’d never seen anything like this; the cerulean, cloudless sky, fervent waves that fragmentized the layer of algae across the ocean surface just enough to allow cracks of the water underneath to peek through. A sea turtle, almost as large as me, with powerful fins and dark eyes. If the world didn’t want to be seen, it wouldn’t be so beautiful.
A cardboard carton of milk, three bananas, and a pineapple fell into the sand as I inverted the plastic bag, then crumpled it into a ball and tossed it at the turtle’s head. It cracked open its mouth revealing its teeth, which were eagerly sliding back and forth along its gums, like the blades on the antique electric chainsaw my mom used to have. The turtle pulled the bag into its mouth, where the plastic began to soften, then bubble. Some kind of clear fluid dribbled from its gums. I couldn’t see them, but I knew in its saliva there were millions of genetically engineered bacteria, chewing and grinding that plastic back down into its most basic, organic compounds. The turtle’s moving teeth were also the work of scientists. A sick, scientific part of me wanted to scoop up some of the spit and look at it under a microscope. But the larger part of me, the catastrophizing bit, imagined the bacteria corroding my finger off, and then conjured up a vivid scene of my mother’s explosive reaction to this potential incident.
The turtle gulped, and what remained of the molten mess — and any ideas regarding scientific experimentation — were gone. After turning its dark eyes towards me and grunting in what I’d like to imagine was appreciation, then hauling itself back into the frothing sea, the turtle too was gone.
After gathering the dropped groceries into my arms, so too was I.
“Hi momma.” With my free hand, I pulled the front door closed, squinting as my eyes struggled to adjust to the dim light. Anxious footsteps preceded the curling of my mother’s cold hands around my arms.
“Did you get lost? You were gone so long, and it could have rained and — ”
“Have you seen the sky today? It’s as blue as the curtains,” I said as my mom wrestled the groceries out of my arms, as if she feared that I would collapse and die if I held them for even a moment longer.
“You know how quickly that can change, and the forecast predicts rain all this week — did they not give you a bag for this?” My mother dropped the groceries onto the counter and leaned her dark forearms against its side. Her shoulder blades jutted out sharply from behind the straps of her loose dress.
“They only had plastic ones.”
“Yesu Kristo, ni ukubera iki abantu bameze gutya,” she sighed, flopping down onto the padded stool next to the counter and putting her cheeks in her hands. “You’d think that would be illegal now, you’d think people would learn. Greedy, frugal capitalists, umururumba, umururumba, umururumba.” While subconsciously shaking her head, she craned her neck to face me, making her look strikingly like a convulsing chihuahua.
“Momma, plastics weren’t the main cause — ”
“All of it together was the main cause. You weren’t there when it happened. The attitude this generation has …” She shook her head again. “Just, when it happens again, then you’ll understand. We thought the exact same way as you when I was young.”
I think she saw the skepticism on my face, because a wave of panic shot through her amber gaze.
“My love, you’re only twelve,” she continued, opening her arms. I moved to her embrace, pulling myself up into her lap and nestling my nose in the space just above her collarbone. She squeezed me tightly and sighed in that way that she did. A sigh laced with the tension from years of holding tears down in her chest. “You haven’t experienced enough, and school can’t teach you this sort of thing.”
Something in my chest clenched violently, and I bit back bitter words. “How am I supposed to get this fabled experience, the one that would make my opinion worth something, apparently, if you won’t let me outside except to get groceries because you’re too scared to go yourself,” I thought. I almost said it.
“How’s dad?” I asked instead.
“Last I saw, he wasn’t enjoying the heat.” Mom kissed my head, and shimmied me off her lap, then stood up. I filled the void on the chair and watched her cut pineapple with my chin resting on the countertop.
She would have been quite pretty, once. With dark, dewy skin, angular features, large lips, and round, youthful eyes, she could’ve passed as twenty years her junior — that was, if the scars didn’t give her away. Tiny swollen circles, randomly scattered up her arms, legs, and around her chest. Lumps of poorly healed tissue on her nose made it appear hooked, and the once clear skin on her cheeks and forehead had become flecked with long, thin white streaks. There were some under her eyes too, like permanent tear tracks. Everyone from her generation, the ones who survived the warming, had them — acid scars.
An overly methylated atmosphere purged the unwanted compounds in the only way it could; by sending it back down to Earth’s surface in the form of abnormally strong acid rain. That was the cause, according to my science teacher. Mom would never speak of it.
What gave away her age more than the scars though, were the shadows. The ones exacerbating each wrinkle, the ones that lived under her eyes, and below her cheekbones. I called them worry bruises.
“Keza,” she said, “why is there sand in this pineapple?” If I could see speech, I know there would have been shadows wrapped around those words.
“I don’t know, I guess the grocery store people didn’t wash it very well.”
“Did you go down to the beach?”
My mother told me that when I was in her stomach, she could feel my heart beating just as well as she could her own. It was like she still had that power, to sense the changes in my pulse. My human lie detector.
“I wanted to try a new route home,” I mumbled.
“I wanted to see the ocean. I’ve never seen it before, we’ve never been.”
“Because it’s pretty?”
“Why would you risk your life to see water?” She flung her trembling arm towards the sink, which was half full of dishes and decorated with a few pathetic soap bubbles. “We have water here. The ocean is just big water. Big, dangerous, acidic water!”
“Momma, the sink is not the same as the ocean.” I turned my eyes to the wooden countertop to avoid her gaze, boiling and bubbling like the plastic bag in the turtle’s mouth. “The house is not the same as the world,” I mumbled, “and I wasn’t risking my life. The sea is safe now, my friends from school go swimming in it all the — ”
“Please tell me you did not go in.” Her words were calm, never rising in volume above the drip, drip, drip of the sink’s faucet. She started to say something else, louder this time, but her voice hitched then receded, like the ocean before a tsunami.
“I didn’t. I swear, I just looked. I didn’t want to disobey you.”
“You already disobeyed me,” she interrupted. “That’s natural for your age, but if you’re going to listen to me on anything …” her voice cracked again, “listen on this. Listen to what I’ve told you a hundred million times. It’s not safe.”
“But things are better now!” I cried. “I saw a turtle on the beach, a real turtle!”
“Did you touch it — ”
“You’re missing the point. It was on the beach looking for food, looking for plastics. Why would it be on land when it’s so much easier for a sea turtle to hunt in the ocean? There must be no food there, there’s no more plastic in the ocean! Things are better now momma.” I looked back up at her, expecting to see relief, or joy, or anything but rage, still simmering in her eyes and in her shadows.
“Or it means the ocean’s becoming uninhabitable once again,” she snapped. “It’s been the hottest summer since the official end of the warming. It’s barely been eight years since it officially ended, that’s not enough time to declare it’s over with certainty! Even after all the action we’ve taken — the reforestation efforts, the bioengineered bacteria that eats PET, the worldwide zero emissions commitment — the world is still burning. We don’t know when it will ever be better. We don’t know if it can ever be better. We don’t even know what better looks like, because we’ve never seen it before. Everything will seem fine — ” Mom stalked over to the window and yanked open the drapes, revealing a sky cluttered with behemoth, grey clouds, “ — and then it rains.”
Without another word, she went back to cutting pineapple. I turned my head and looked out onto the empty streets, watching steam rise off the cobblestone as it became dappled with the rain.
It poured the whole rest of the week. Mom preferred to keep the windows closed and the curtains drawn, but when I heard screams through the glass, I couldn’t help but peek.
Children were running in the streets, all shirtless, some just in their diapers or underwear. Squealing, they chased each other with sticks, or long stemmed flowers. Their once curly hair was slicked to their faces by the water, covering their eyes, but not their gummy grins. Adults sat nearby. Some rested underneath the trees that lined the street, just watching the chaos. Others sat criss-cross in the middle of the road, banging away on cowskin drums. Droplets of water splashed off the drums up into the players’ faces, but their skin remained glittering and unharmed. They were singing something in Kinyarwanda, a language that my mother knew, but was mostly lost on me.
She told me that everyone in Rwanda used to speak it once, but during the warming, cultural preservation played second fiddle to the need of Earth’s independent nations to all work together for once. Collaboration required communication, so everyone everywhere turned to English.
“Cry, cry, pretty sky. We’ll love you, it will be alright,” my mom said from where she sat hunched on the floor next to me. “That’s what they’re singing. Then ‘fata umwanya wawe, fata umwanya wawe, urire usukure ikirere cyanjye cyiza.’ Take your time, take your time, cry yourself clear, my pretty sky.” She peered out the window from over my shoulder. A loud clicking sound nagged at my brain as she aggressively gnawed on her nail right beside my ear.
“See momma, it’s safe,” I said. Just like it’s been safe every time it’s rained for as long as I can remember. I didn’t say.
“For this moment, it looks to be. But it could change.” Her full body trembled as she struggled to her feet, then yanked the curtains closed once more.
I spent most of that week, like I had spent most of my life, in my room. I’d watch the sun rise in the mornings, and in the days, I’d observe the habits of the sunbirds that lived in the tree in my otherwise untouched backyard. I watched worms as they wriggled up from the grass, saw the beautiful world, experienced the smell and the feel of rain. They would lay there in utter bliss until the sun came out, and then they’d wither and rot and end their existence as nothing more than an inconvenience on the sidewalk. Maybe that’s what mom thought would happen to me.
After a few days of blue, cloudless skies, mom joined me in my room, holding a clay pot full of compost. She uttered my favourite phrase.
“Keza, do you want to come see dad?”
She took me down the normal route. Out the back door, down a long alley, which was covered from above by a series of colourful awnings, across a street teeming with vendors, round the corner, up a hill and into the park. In her left hand she held a bag containing the compost, an umbrella, bear spray, medical-grade face masks, and a small vial of emergency oxygen that was purchasable at any drugstore. In her right hand she held — no, clenched — mine. The ends of my fingertips were turning white when she finally dropped my hand and ran over to a little acacia tree with a large stone resting against its trunk.
I found her with her forehead pressed against the stone, muttering something in Kinyarwanda. Something, I guess, she didn’t want me to hear, but I could decipher a few words.
Urukundo rwanjye — my love. Ububabare — pain. Gutwika — burns. Ubwoba bwinshi — a lot of fear. And Keza, Keza, Keza, repeated and repeated.
She ripped her head away, and retrieved the bin of compost, hiding her face in hope that I wouldn’t see the fears in her eyes. To prevent her embarrassment, I focused down onto the tombstone instead.
July 17, 2037 – June 3, 2072
I traced my finger around the engraved death date; exactly 10 years ago today. I hadn’t even known that it was the anniversary of my father’s passing. Unsure of what to say, I silently helped my mom spread the compost around the tree’s roots, then cover it with dirt. All the victims of the great warming were buried this way, with dirt and a tree seed nestled inside their chest cavity.
“For a while, greedy humans killed many trees,” my mom had told me years ago. She helped 5-year-old me lift a watering can and tip it towards my father’s sapling. “Now, we use every dead human to bring back a tree. It is only fair.”
The nutrients from a corpse can only last so long. Now our compost, and I’m sure many of my mother’s tears, go to him. Including the ones that were now rolling off her thin cheeks and onto the dirt. I pretended to ignore them.
“Do you remember him?” she breathed. I shook my head. It would hurt her more to lie. “He died with so much love for you. He died with so much love for the world … ” She turned back to the grave, “Mbabarira, oh, mbabarira, mbabarira.” I knew that word too. I’m sorry, it meant. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
“It’s not your fault,” I whispered. She looked up at me, shame riddling her features. And then she burst into ragged sobs. She curled into my chest like a frightened child. I played with her hair and just waited. It’s what she had done for me when I cried, and it was all I knew to do for her.
“He died for this stupid, stupid world,” she wailed. “He just wanted to save it, and he thought he saved it, and I thought he saved it, and then — and then — ” she hiccupped, “that’s when the warming got him. The heatwave came, it killed thousands, it … it murdered him. It came just when we all thought it was ending.”
Mothers weren’t supposed to cry. Something about seeing mine do so felt innately wrong; eerie and unnatural and soul shattering. The warming had burned her in more ways than one. And as she grieved, I grieved with her, and the world grieved with us. My father’s leaves drooped, the birds that had been previously chattering went silent. Strong wind echoed my mother’s wails.
As my mother cried, I cried with her, and the world cried with us. My face was so wet with tears that I didn’t notice the first few drops. But then it was in my hair, in my mouth, and running down my back. The rain.
My mother started to scream the scream of a dying woman. The type of scream that came from the gut and walked the line between shout and gag. The type of scream that would leave one’s throat permanently scarred and inflamed. She threw her arms over her head, kicking wildly and screeching for the umbrella.
I expected blinding pain, like a million little leeches. But there was nothing except the unpleasant feeling of my shirt being suctioned to my skin, and the cold battering of raindrops on my hair.
“Momma. Mom!” I screamed, grabbing her shoulders. “There’s nothing! It’s just rain! It’s just water! We’re okay!” She wailed silently now, choking on her own breath, eyes scrunched together in agony. I grabbed the umbrella and flared it open over our heads.
“It’s just water,” I repeated. “Dad’s been battered with this rain for ten years, and he’s just fine. He’s fine. He’s growing and thriving and healthy, because it’s just water. It’s just water. You’re okay.”
And we sat there like that for a long time, her trying to regain her breath, me repeating — more begging — “You’re okay.”
“We need to get home, now.” She eventually gargled. “We need to go home.” She didn’t move.
“Momma,” I whispered, brushing a strand of her curly hair behind her ear, “It’s not hurting you, right?”
“It’s not hurting me,” she confirmed.
“You said dad died for the world. It’s too beautiful for us to keep hiding from. What was the point of all the work you, and him, and the rest of the world did, if not to experience the planet we saved?” I passed the umbrella into her trembling hands, and stepped back into the rain. I closed my eyes and tilted my head towards the sky, relishing in the feel of the cool, crisp water on my face. I wiggled my toes into the grass, understanding the bliss experienced by the worms. I wasn’t worried about the sun coming out. Maybe that was stupid, but I was happy.
A cold hand wrapped around my wrist. I looked down, and there was my mother, without the umbrella, standing with me in the rain. She looked to me, then the sky, then the acacia trees with a weak, watery smile.
“Could we go home now?” she rasped. I took her hand.
“Of course, momma.”
The night was cold, and the beach was empty. I sat nestled in the sand, examining some large, coiled shell I found nearby. The algae glittered in the moonlight, and the ocean’s gentle waves cooed a soothing lullaby. Mom was standing tentatively at the very edge of the beach, her hands clasped together at the nape of her neck. She sighed, a light and dainty thing.
Then she ran into the sea.
Read more from Imagine 2200:
- The Lexicographer and One Tree Island
- A Holdout in the Northern California Designated Wildcraft Zone
- Winning story: The Metamorphosis of Marie Martin
Ella Menzies (she/her) is a 19-year-old student from Calgary studying biology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. This is the first time her work has been published.
Amelia K. Bates (she/her) is an artist in the Pacific Northwest. She specializes in digital illustration and dabbles in painting, sewing, photography, and other creative hobbies. Her art is primarily influenced by the natural world, as well as anything mythical and otherworldly. Amelia holds a certificate in Natural Science Illustration and currently works as the senior designer for Grist.