This story is part of Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors, a climate-fiction contest from Fix.
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Mariska looked at the choice cards in front of her, wondering if her papa would have preferred merbau or jati if he had taken the time to choose before he died. Though if he did, he would have chosen something other than this for his final resting place. He had always been a practical man, always taking what he thought was the most logical route. But he was also extremely stubborn and could dig in his heels so deeply that the only person who could convince him to change his mind was himself, or his wife.
If he could have it his way now, he would have gone the way his wife did: burnt to ashes and scattered into the sea.
Mariska finally settled on the merbau. It wasn’t so much that she liked it more than the other. She chose it because its name started with the letter M. Also, because the merbau tree was native to the Land, though this came much as an afterthought, in case the first reason wasn’t valid somehow. The merbau was strong, hardy, and “was once the national tree of Malaysia,” boasted the choice card.
Mariska sounded the words out loud. Malaysian merbau. They felt foreign on her tongue, yet oddly comforting and familiar. It was as if ancestors from generations past had left little crumbs, clues of a native language long swept to the sidelines, used only on such special occasions to do with the dead.
She packed the choice cards back into the little box they came in, careful to put the merbau one right on top. Then she made the call.
“Hello,” a perky voice answered. “I see you’re calling from Water-Lands, North-West region, the Muds area. Am I correct?”
Mariska barely managed a whispered “yes” before the operator continued babbling the rest of Mariska’s home address, her voice bouncing off the walls of the room.
“With this call, I believe you have made your decision. Please place all the choice cards back into the box, with your choice of sapling put right on top of the deck. We will be there to collect the box, along with the deceased, very shortly. We thank you for choosing us, but more importantly, the Earth Mother thanks you for choosing to replenish Her after years of pillaging from Her bosom. Have a pleasant day.”
Mariska walked up to her papa’s body and placed the little box right above his right shoulder. His skin had already started to turn gray, his mouth impossibly frozen into an eternal frown.
“Papa,” she whispered near his ear. “Do you think we’ll talk again?”
“Greetings,” a gentle voice interrupted. Mariska turned to see two men no older than herself standing at the door, waiting for her to let them in. They counted the choice cards to make sure they were all there and checked with her that she had indeed chosen the merbau.
“That’s a good one,” the man with the gentle voice told her. “Not many of those these days. Since we’ve upgraded to Climate Control at the Back Yard, more and more are choosing trees native to the Americas, like fir and maple. It’s nice to see someone going local every now and again.”
They proceeded to cover her papa in a white cloth and carried him onto the roller-stretcher that was just outside her home.
“We’ll be laying him into the sapling pod of your choice tomorrow and burying it the day after. You should give it a week or two before visiting the Back Yard, if you so wish.”
The two men disappeared with her papa into the escalator. She closed her eyes, watching their movements through her mind’s eye. She saw them zipping down 62 stories in that small, confined space. She saw them putting her papa, wrapped in that innocent white cloth, onto the back of their Transporter before folding the stretcher and loading it in too. She could even vaguely hear the whir of the engine and splash of water as the Transporter sped away, creating gentle waves and drawing a line in the sea from her apartment to the Tower of Eternity Pods: Where Memories Lie.
Mariska parked her rented Transporter and turned off the engine. The silence of the city that she had grown accustomed to was replaced now by a constant low-pitched hum, almost like a buzzing sound. It should have annoyed her but, strangely enough, the hum helped calm her down.
She took off her shoes and lined them up neatly before stepping off and grounding herself. The earth was cool, a little moist, and shifted ever so slightly under the weight of her body. She wiggled her toes, allowing the sensations to flow from the soles of her feet right to her heart. Then, feeling ready, she walked toward the arched entrance way of the Back Yard.
The earth underneath her was uneven, so different from the perfectly flat floors that they had everywhere in the city. It made her feel clumsy, almost as if she could easily lose her balance just taking another step. Yet humans are nothing if not extremely adaptable. By the time Mariska reached the large boulder by the archway, she could not recall what it was like to wear shoes on a concrete floor.
There were words carved into the boulder. They were so worn from being under constant rain and shine that it took Mariska a good moment before she could make them out.
Memories Lie Beyond
Pergunungan Titiwangsa, Tanah Air
Mariska recalled from a history class that the Titiwangsa Mountain Range was also known as the “backbone of the Malay Peninsula” a long time ago. This was before the sea levels rose so drastically that the mountains became islands separated from the mainland. This was before Malaysia, her ancestral country, formed a union of convenience with Singapore and Indonesia, its two neighboring countries. This union allowed them to share resources and prevent each of them from shrinking into ruin and oblivion.
Tanah Air was a compound word each of the countries shared in their respective native languages. It meant the homeland: the place you were born, where you pledged allegiance to, and where you would finally lay to rest. It was also a quirky coincidence that the individual words translated to mean Land and Water.
Mariska gingerly made her way under the archway into the Back Yard. Immediately, the air around her took on a different aura, shimmering around her as she moved inward. The air felt lighter, drier, cooler one moment, then heavier, wetter, warmer the next. She held out her arm so that her fingers could graze, just barely, the barks of the trees that surrounded her. Trees of all types, all ages. Trees as far as her eyes could see.
And then she heard it. The voices. The spirits. Softly at first, but gradually taking up so much space that the low hum of the forest simply faded into the background.
The first time Mariska had heard the voices was when she was 10 years old. Her mama had come home one day, excited about what she had heard from her friends at the Writers’ Club. They had talked about a new medium who had holed herself up in the Stone Caves and Mariska’s mama was curious.
Mariska’s papa was not as keen.
“You know as much as I do that there’s no science to what these mediums are supposedly able to do,” he argued. “We should be looking back to technology to propel us forward. Machines! Artificial intelligence! Things you can see and touch and program! All this hocus-pocus, spirits-in-the-air thing is just, well, nonsense.”
Mariska’s mama hushed him. “There’s so much more to technology and advancement than robots,” she said, and that was the end of it. They were going.
The Stone Caves were not too far from where they lived. It took them an hour on her papa’s work Transporter, and soon they were parked by the long jetty. Mariska had looked up at the Stone Caves in awe, astonished to see such a majestic formation of rocks and greenery towering over her. Even more startling was the flight of stairs they had to climb to get to the entrance of the Stone Caves.
Mariska had never seen more than 10 continuous steps in her life, so she made sure to count as they went up. Eighty-four to the top. There were more inside, leading to the middle of the cave where sunlight somehow found an opening amidst the rock formations and its surrounding trees to shine onto the roof of a small temple.
Mariska followed behind her mama as they quickly made their way toward the temple. Her eyes darted around, looking at the various statues of women in curious dresses staring back at her. Some of them looked like they were frozen in dance. Mariska wondered if they had once been unfrozen, and if they had enjoyed themselves then.
Then suddenly she heard whispers in the air. Mariska paused and stared hard at the carved figures to see if they were in fact humans posing as statues, but none of them flinched. The whispers became louder the nearer she got to the temple, and soon they were tangible voices that took up space in her mind. She didn’t even hear her papa coming up to her until he physically bent down to tug on her hand.
“Come on, Mari,” her papa said. “Let’s get going.”
The medium was seated cross-legged on a small pillow in the middle of the temple. She had a kind face and was dressed in a long, beige-colored robe so different from the colorful dresses on the dancing figures. Mariska’s mama walked up to the empty pillow in front of the medium and sat down facing her. They both closed their eyes, and everyone around them hushed.
For Mariska, this silence simply fueled the voices. They were now so loud they were practically echoing off the walls of the cave. She tried covering her ears, but the voices just penetrated straight into her. It was terrifying. She grabbed on to her papa’s pant leg and held on for dear life, afraid of what might happen if she let go.
Just then, one of the voices rang louder and clearer than all the others, so clear that it shocked her. She was confused until she realized that the medium was saying the exact words that she could hear in her head.
Minah? Minah. It’s Mama, can you hear me?
Mariska’s heart skipped a beat. This stranger was calling out her mama’s name. Minah’s head snapped up and her eyes flew open, initial disbelief quickly melting into something between relief and heartache.
“Mama,” Minah called out. “Minah is here, Minah can hear you. Can you hear me?”
The medium answered, but for Mariska, it was like having double hearing. Everything the medium was saying, Mariska could hear in her head, too.
Yes, Minah. I can hear you very clearly. Oh, I have missed you.
That was the only time Mariska had ever seen her mama weep.
Mariska tried to focus now, willing herself to add filter after mental filter, sifting through the spirits swimming around her to locate the one voice she was looking for. She made her way deeper and deeper into the Back Yard, and then she realized that the trees in these parts were smaller and shorter. Younger.
Mariska quickened her steps. Younger trees meant only one thing: these Eternal Pods had been buried more recently than the ones by the archway.
She was breathing heavily when she finally reached the valley. She knew the Back Yard extended far beyond the green hills in front of her, but right now, she had gotten to where she wanted to be. This was where the youngest saplings were.
Mariska looked around, silently chastising herself for choosing a tree that didn’t have any uniquely identifiable features. Maybe the people who chose fir or maple knew what they were doing.
She willed herself to calm down. She waited, keeping still as she allowed the spirits to overwhelm her senses. She closed her eyes and focused inward, searching and searching for something to lead her to where she needed to go.
It came as a soft whisper, then disappeared amidst the other spirits. Mariska gasped, and in that moment, she understood completely how her mama must have felt all those years ago at the Stone Caves. The dull throbbing Mariska had carried in her heart the past two weeks lifted ever so slightly, and then turned into a sharp, pulsating pain that reached every inch of her body.
Mariska drew in a sharp breath. The cool air stung her lungs, but it also cleared the fog in her head. Suddenly, she had clarity. She didn’t need to search anymore — she knew exactly where it was. And the nearer she got to it, the stronger that spirit’s voice became. It was humming “Delta Dawn,” the only song her papa knew to sing to her when she was younger.
He was humming this song that day, too, as he went about the kitchen preparing dinner for the three of them. Mariska had been helping him, picking the chives from their Plot Pot on the balcony while he cooked the water spinach and pounded the chili. The clock then made a beep, and Mariska turned to look at the door expectantly. Her mama always came home at the same time. Every day, without fail.
Every day, except that day.
They found out later that Mariska’s mama had been involved in a three-way Transporter crash and was one of the four who had drowned as a result. Mariska had begged her papa to keep Mama whole, to let her have an Eternal Pod so that they could go visit. She pleaded, she threw tantrums, she even threatened to never talk to him again, but her papa would not budge.
“But I want to hear her voice again,” Mariska had said to her papa. “If you burn her, what happens to her spirit? Where will it go? How will I get to speak to her again?”
“Mariska.” Her papa never called her Mariska. “I don’t want to listen to this nonsense anymore.” Finally, it was the sadness she saw in his eyes that swayed and silenced her. It was a sadness that never left him, and he never sang “Delta Dawn” again.
The humming stopped as Mariska put her fingertips on one of the small branches of the merbau sapling. There was a moment of absolute silence. The spirits faded into each other and the forest crickets froze.
Mariska hadn’t realized she had been holding her breath. She opened her mouth and tears just came tumbling down her cheeks. She tried to call out to her papa, but her breath could hardly catch up with her accelerating heartbeat. She wanted to calm down, but she couldn’t find her center.
So, she let go. And she wept like she had never wept before.
When Mariska finally found her voice, it was hoarse and nasally. “Papa,” she whispered. “Papa, can you hear me?”
“Papa,” Mariska tried again, louder. “Papa, can you hear me?”
He could not.
Mariska looked down from the top of the stairs, then at the faded paint on the top stair. Two hundred and seventy-two. She had counted them this time, too. Eighty-two was a far way off from 272.
She made her way to the temple in the middle of the cave. The dancing figures had been given a fresh coat of paint and looked like they were having the time of their lives. There was a short queue in front of the temple this time. The medium had gained popularity as the people became more “spiritually attuned.” It was all the rage now.
The spirits around Mariska were more varied than she remembered. Many of them spoke in a language Mariska could not decipher, but she understood the underlying feeling each of them had. They were spirits of longing, of memory, of a history and a past that they could not let go.
When it was Mariska’s turn, she sat on the pillow in front of the medium the way she remembered her mama did. The medium still wore the same long, beige-colored robe, but there were now lines around the sides of her eyes, and her hair had taken a dignified shade of gray. She looked at Mariska for a moment before a light of recognition came over her face.
“I know you,” the medium said. “You came once before, and I knew you then, as I know you now.”
Mariska remained silent. In her head, she was replaying a conversation she had with her mama after their first visit here to the Stone Caves.
“I heard voices today, Mama,” Mariska had said as her mama tucked her in for bedtime. “At the temple, I heard so many voices.”
Her mama was startled. “Voices?” she asked.
“Yes, so many voices. All around me. Even the one you talked to.”
“Oh, Mari,” her mama said softly. “Those are spirits. They belong to the dead, their memories, and our memories of them.”
“Did you hear them too?”
“No, I couldn’t. Not everyone can hear them. That’s why we had to visit the nice lady at the temple today. Because she can hear them too, like you.”
“I tried to tell Papa about the voices. He didn’t believe me.”
Mariska’s mama stroked her hair and planted a gentle kiss on her forehead. “It’s okay, Mari. I believe you. And I’m sure Papa believes you too. He just doesn’t understand yet. He will one day.”
“I promise. As long as you don’t give up, he will understand one day.”
“You want to be able to speak to them,” the medium was saying to her now.
Mariska gave her a small nod, but her movement was so slight, she was worried the medium hadn’t caught it. “Yes,” Mariska answered out loud, her voice cracking.
The medium smiled, and Mariska thought that she looked just as kind as she did those many years ago.
“You already can,” she said. “You just need to listen. Be patient. Be there.”
The medium reached out and held both of Mariska’s hands. “Don’t give up. Don’t give up.”
Mariska felt her eyes welling up with tears. She pulled herself away from the medium’s gaze and hurried to her feet. Mumbling a soft thank you, she bolted out of the temple and down the stairs until she got to the jetty.
The medium had been soft and gentle when she held Mariska’s hands, yet her touch had also sent a huge jolt through her body. It reminded her of how she had felt when she put her fingertips on her papa’s Eternal Pod sapling, like she was hit by lightning and everything just fell away. The clarity of the moment was so pure and so brief, it scared her that she might never have it again.
After that, Mariska went to the Back Yard every single day. Every day she parked her Transporter, took off her shoes, and grounded herself on the soil. She stood there looking at the trees towering above her, listening to the sounds of the crickets mixed with the voices of the spirits, and she found herself rooted to where she was.
Some days she made it as far as the archway. But that was the extent of it. Mariska heard the spirits and felt an uncertainty creep into her heart.
The trees in the Back Yard grew and grew, as did Mariska’s fear, until one day she simply stopped going.
There were no spirits in the city. No voices to grip at her heart and tie her to her memories. In the concrete jungle of Towers and Apartments rising solidly from water, Mariska slowly grew into a practical woman. She had a Memory Plaque made for her papa, just like the one her papa had made for her mama. She placed it next to her mama’s Memory Plaque on the shelf in her room. She gave them each a minute of her mornings before leaving for work, and a minute of her nights before tucking herself in for bedtime.
Mariska learned the words to “Delta Dawn.” She sang them every time she was in the kitchen, just like her papa did. Sometimes, she felt her papa’s voice coming back to her, but every time it disappeared before she could grab onto it, and her papa’s voice seemed lost to her forever.
Every once in a long while, she found herself remembering that feeling of clarity she had when she was standing in front of her papa’s Eternal Pod. She wondered how much bigger the Back Yard was. She wondered how tall the merbau tree was now. She wondered if her papa liked it, this final resting place that she had chosen for him.
She wondered if he was still singing “Delta Dawn.”
Michelle Yoon (she/her/hers) is a freelance writer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Her writing has been published by Fixi Novo and MPH Publishing.
Rebekka Dunlap is a Brooklyn-based Illustrator specializing in sci-fi dreams and digital mindscapes. You can find more of their work at rrebekkaa.com.