This story is part of Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors, a climate-fiction contest from Fix.
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It’s early in the morning, but Neya and I are already racing to be the first one to lace up boots and tool pouches and then step out into the Alley. His leather boots are identical in make and wear to mine, but my canvas pouch is a deep blue to his sun-bleached bag, and my harvest scissors are always kept sharp. If I had my brother’s forearms, maybe I wouldn’t mind letting my tools go dull every now and then either. Builders can be such showoffs.
“Hey, do you have the list?” Neya asks, barely audible.
I do a double take, then shake my head. “Nice try getting me to slow down,” I say, punctuating it with the knot at the top of my left boot, confident this was my race to win. “No, I’m being serious,” he laughs and holds up his hands. “Time out?” “Okay, okay.” I also lift my hands from boot-tying and meet his concerned gaze. “I watched you borrow a quill from Grams yesterday, so I assumed you wrote it all down.”
“I know I’m the oldest, but why do you always assume I’ve got your notes?” I want to say it’s because I don’t feel well, because I’m a Pisces moon, because he likes taking notes — and because this time I asked him to — but I just raise my eyebrow at him. “Well?” I ask after a moment. “And you’re just barely older, don’t give me that.”
“Three years isn’t ‘barely older.’ But, yeah,” he grins. “I’ve got … it … right … here.” Neya draws out his words as he takes a paper from behind him and dangles it in my face. It’s our list in his distinct scrawl.
“Why’d you ask, then?” I suck my teeth.
“Cuz I made you stop…” With that he eyes his feet. His crow friend, Unbelievable, finished his lacing for him. I punch his arm again, this time harder. “Ow,” he laughs, Unbie cackling with him. “Hit me any harder and we’ll wake up Grams and Jidda.” His indignant smirk gets a rise out of me and he knows it.
“Ugh!” I shout in my loudest whisper. “I can’t believe you’re pulling this today — of all days!” I still can’t help thinking that having a sibling keeps me on my toes.
“Ashix,” Pa Opelie steps lovingly into the lamplight, his voice a drum. Neya and I immediately stop fussing. “There is nothing to be nervous about,” he continues. “Not today. I think ole Unbelievable here is merely reminding you to let others help you, baby.” I roll my eyes, but love my cheeseball Pa all the same. “And look!” He lifts his face to the windows behind us. “It’s a beautiful sunrise.” Faint light has just barely started filling the sky, and I let myself believe a good day is coming. After a moment, the shimmering bird gives a long caw. “You’re right,” Pa chuckles with the crow in understanding. “Singing is also good for a morning like this.”
I stand from my lacing chair. “Yeah, but you’re a morning person, Pa, and you’re not feeling nauseous to your toes.”
He chuckles and turns to Neya. “Will you help your sibling find good things to remember about today?” He’s speaking in a stage whisper, still smiling.
“Hey, I’m right here!” I say, shaking my head with a laugh. I feel lucky that my family is working so hard to make today easy for me, and I’m honestly looking forward to this little adventure, but come on, I’m less than a foot away from either of them.
“I’ll sing all their favorite songs,” Neya promises, as if I hadn’t interrupted. Pa nods wordlessly and gives him a gentle pat on the back.
The two have the same warm olive complexion, but look different in most every other way: Neya’s tall and wiry, Pa is short and stout; Neya always looks like he just rolled out of bed, Pa always looks like he’s coming out of meditation; and Neya’s eyes are gray-green like mine and our Nopa’s, Pa’s eyes are a bright hazel. I, on the other hand, have Pa’s build, Nopa’s wheat tone, and, mysteriously, the same raised, stone-shaped birthmark on my mid back that Nopa does. I just spent the sleepless night wondering how exactly a birthmark gets passed down like that.
Yet I have a cane that’s all my own. I considered taking it today, but I have a feeling my legs will manage on adrenaline alone. I lace my arms through my canvas pouch’s two arm straps, tying them across my heart, and let out a sigh.
Pa steps from Neya to me. “I love you, my witching-hour baby,” he says. I look into his opening arms and accept his hug. I murmur into his warm, cedar-scented sweater: “I love you too, Opelie.” Neya wraps both of us in his arms and gives a squeeze.
When we let go, I bend down to kiss the top of Unbelievable’s head and we head off into the Alley.
I’ve been enjoying the birds-at-dawn chorus, letting the music fill me, but not yet ready to sing like Pa suggested I should. Even with the sunrise barely peeking out, even after only 15-some-odd minutes in the Alley, I already see someone we know coming toward us down the corridor. She’s walking easy and waving hello. Immediately, I cover my face and duck behind Neya, but I know it’s too late. “Mornin’, Laurel!” Neya shouts. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”
Now we’re face-to-face, so I straighten up, pretending like I wasn’t just hiding from her. I’m not smooth, but I’m too flustered to care.
“Yeah, shit,” she replies in a low voice. “How you been, Neya?”
Her mellow voice settles in me warm and sweet. I blush. I was afraid of this interaction, afraid it would make me second-guess everything, but I want to be part of this conversation too. You got this, I silently tell myself.
The corvids of the alley are gathering on a nearby cable line, sharing gossip-glances with Unbie and unabashedly listening to Laurel. She easily keeps pace with Neya’s chit-chatting, but her eyes stay on me, and I blush deeper red. “Hey, Laurel …” I finally pipe up. “What are you … what brings you to the Alley so early?” I gesture awkwardly with my arm, like she’s never seen the Alley before. Amusement dances at the corners of her lips, and I duck my head into the turtle shell of my shoulders. Neya gives me a curious glance like, Why are you talking like this, nerd?
“The Alley is the shortcut to the River from my house,” she answers calmly. I’m zeroed in on her presence. “I meet the fishermen down there on Tuesdays to talk Maroon business.”
The Maroon Society has independent affairs, networks, traditions, and happenings. Non-Black folk like Neya and I know that much, and we also know to respect Maroon privacy. I kick up some mulch knowing I have no right asking her to go another way and still wishing we hadn’t run into each other in the thick of my current … tasks.
I so want to tell her everything. I want to hear Laurel’s laugh again. But I’m not ready to see her yet, and everything that could’ve been is hitting me all at once. “Well, I hope you enjoy the sunshine by the water,” Neya is saying. “It’s going to be a beautiful one.”
“Thank you, Neya,” Laurel says, moving easefully past us. My eyes begin to sting as I turn to watch as she continues on her way. I want to run up and ask to hold her hand. I want to go back to Springtime. Before we knew I’d leave.
And before I had to come back.
Neya nudges me and we walk the other way for a few minutes, his arm still around my shoulders. Neither the crunching leaves underfoot nor the morning cacophony above us is loud enough to drown out my racing heart.
He finally asks, “What was up with you back there? You were almost scared to be seen.”
“Akhi, I really don’t wanna talk about it right now.”
“Laurel is the girl from across the Creek who came to all the summer mud parties by the River, right? Double Sag?”
“Neya,” I warn. “Change the subject.”
Silence lingers for a second before Neya elbows me hard. “She only talked to me cuz I was walking with you, Ash. You should go visit her sometime.”
“I don’t even know …” I pull my cowl over my nose.
“I do,” he interrupts, using his I’m-being-helpful voice. “She’s up on the East-West road that runs past the swimming hole. You’ll know her house by its lavender door.”
I try not to show that I know where she lives. It’s how to go back that I haven’t figured out yet.
I need something to distract me — and to keep Neya from asking anything else. “OK, OK, let me see that list again,” I say.
He shrugs, then slides out of his left pouch strap, slinging the canvas to his front to reach in for the prized paper. As he hands it over, he says, “I think our first stop is the House of Grandmothers.”
Old Mellie is also lovingly called the Mint Queen. When people were still proposing ideas for the first wave of repurposing old state buildings, Mellie was there with her pun cap on: “What if we turned the old moneyhouse into a greenhouse?” she’d asked the gathered neighbors. The stories say that some people laughed in delight, and some people laughed because they saw a young Boricua with a cane steadying her stance. People didn’t see the magic in so many of us back then. Some people still don’t.
But our family does. “Mellie’s eyes were full with a clear, serious vision,” Grandma Sylvia has described. “There would be dozens of these gatherings around the city, where everyone’s ideas were given room to breathe. Hers is one of the many visions we celebrate today.”
“Bless the vision of our elders,” Neya and I recited decorously.
“You know, starting something you’ve always wanted to do is exhilarating,” Grams continued. “But starting something new can feel frightening.” Mellie must have been so brave to propose an idea in front of everyone like that. “Some people would say something so experimental it would feel impossible.”
The last word was an invitation for Neya and I to speak with her, to imagine what impossible felt like back then. We’ve heard her story before, but speaking important words together helps us become the spell.
“Hearing so many new ideas out loud would give me goosebumps,” Jidda Warda added. “Mellie’s proposal was like that: It was life, children. In the parks and halls we gathered in, people usually couldn’t sit still, and they wanted, wanted, wanted. But when Mellie spoke, we gulped like a thirst had been quenched.” She inhaled deeply like she was drinking in the air. “My whole spirit said yes to her idea, and it made me giddy.”
The two of them get wistful telling us this story, no matter how many times they share it with us, because their generation was the first to really change course. They changed how we build, how we treat life, and how we treat ourselves. Witnessing them is the gift of our generation.
Old Mellie has since handed off her passion project to younger folk downtown. A building that used to press metal into coins for a whole country donated its tools to our builders’ guilds. The Builders then installed glass walls, and only the sprawling mint family were planted inside: Apple mint, peppermint, basil, skullcap, thyme, bee balm, sage, oregano, hyssop, horehound … Too many to name.
During the warm seasons, the doors are open on all sides of the Mint, so you’ll find pigeons and sparrows in the vaulted ceilings, groundhogs exploring for the fun of it, flies and bees buzzing around, and always a new variety of mint.
Grandma Sylvia is partial to Mellie’s home apiary because you can always trust a witch who talks to bees. And when the nut harvest comes in, Jidda Warda always brings Mellie her first tray of baklawa because desert is medicine too. I can hear Grams cooing to Jidda after a family trip to the Mint last year: “Mellie really hasn’t lost her sparkle in all these years. You and me,” she tutted, “we can get cynical. But Ole Melissa, she’s only gotten more curious about the world.” They leaned into each other as they walked ahead of me.
A few days ago, I was with Neya and Pa in the apothecary, and Pa was dictating our errands in a meandering order when he finally remembered honey. “Oh, oh!” Grandma hollered from the kitchen next to the apothecary. She had been pretending not to eavesdrop, but we all knew she’d pipe up at some point. “Opelie, you know she’ll have the best pennyroyal and motherwort.”
Pa looked quizzically at us, so Neya leaned in, covering his mouth from Sylvia’s view. “They’re both types of mint,” Neya whispered, giving Pa a concealed you-got-this thumbs up.
They’re also exactly the medicine I need.
I set my mouth in a grim line, but Pa mouthed, “Ooooooh,” and nodded cheerfully toward Neya’s handwritten list. “We’ve made a note, Mama,” he said aloud to Grams.
The morning is thick with fog, dew frosting the row-home windows that face the Alley and soaking the vines we wade through. I peer through jeweled webs to wave at a couple doing tai chi in their yard and can’t help but laugh at the squirrels romping up tree trunks. Unbelievable has flown off after catching up with the other Alley crows. Everything is velveted by the wet air.
We wade through Mellie’s chin-high borders of rosemary, leading from the Alley to her kitchen. As the leaves gently scrape past us, we slow down and remember to receive the spell of protection — from beestings and the evil eye.
“Good morning,” we say to the buzzing elders around us. Mellie affectionately calls her bees the “Neighborhood Grandmothers.”
“Good morning, sweet ones!” Mellie sings grandly from her chair in her open doorway.
I give a small wave. Neya gives a dramatic bow. I roll my eyes and elbow my brother’s side.
“You’ve come to help me find something,” Mellie says.
“Yes, please,” Neya says.
“Good, good,” she replies offhandedly, wheeling back into the warmth of the House of Grandmothers.
In no time flat, Neya is climbing up on top of a worn stool, pantry doors wide open in front of him. He wobbles on his tippy toes to reach the next shelf, and I have my hands out to spot him. We’re helping Mellie find … something.
“I’m sitting out on the bridge to enjoy the height of it all,” Mellie says to no one in particular. Her voice is like a throaty cormorant: a little shaky, a little distant. She goes on: “When a very brave cat nuzzles my back, ‘Mmmm,’ I say, ‘what a good cat, what a lovely cat, up on my chair, so high up where no one but Old Mellie likes to go.’”
Neya shuffles glass jars around in the cupboard and pulls out another unlabelled sack, plopping it on the counter in front of Mellie. “That the one?” he asks, only a little winded. We’ve been trying — well, he’s trying — to find Old Mellie’s “special flour” for about 20 minutes now, and it’s work getting a bruja what she wants.
Neya shifts his weight back and forth with impatience, but I motion for him to cool it, pointing to the wobbling stool.
“I notice this cat’s swollen look, oh, yes I do,” she continues, not responding to his question. “I ask to feel kitty’s belly-pouch, ooh silky soft. Sure as sure there are firm, little would-be cats in there, all the way up on the wide, long bridge.”
My nausea crashes over me.
I aim for a nearby mop bucket and watch breakfast leave my body. My face feels flushed and sore.
Neya surprises me with a glass of water and an encouraging smile. I wish I had stayed in bed. That night … I wish I’d thought … I don’t know what I could have thought. I made my choices based on a feeling.
The air in this kitchen is swamp-heavy, but for a moment, I could feel the ocean breeze from that night tickle the back of my neck.
And I puke again. I know this doesn’t faze Mellie, but I feel bare on her floor like this.
Mellie’s eyes are closed to receive the warmth of first light from her doorway. “Me-yow!” a tabby calls, bounding through the rosemary and jumping into her lap. They nuzzle the arm of the chair and look at me, still bent over the bucket. I gather myself enough to say, “How do you do?” Not at all my normal voice — why do I put on airs around cats?
Neya giggles and simply says, “Hey there,” when Mellie’s companion jumps down to welcome us into their home.
“Hmmm,” Mellie continues, turned again toward her impossibly deep cupboards. “Tabitha, won’t you help me? I’m trying to find that dang flour — you know the one that we only take out on special occasions?”
The cat — Tabitha, I assume — rubs against Mellie’s ankles, and the crone reaches down a hand to scratch her friend’s chin while she uses her other hand to take the sack Neya last put on the counter and draw it into her lap.
“Maybe it wasn’t all for nothing,” Neya whispers to me.
I reply with a quiet grunt. Maybe it wasn’t all for nothing. Is that what I’ll be saying in a moon’s time?
“You know, that’s a good point,” Mellie says, probably still to Tabitha. “I was just thinking, if only I remembered where I put my old broom.”
Tabitha tilts her head out and Mellie nods seriously in reply. “Hmmm. Gracias, Tabby-nabby.” The cat slides her body along Mellie’s leg, eyes closed and satisfied before Mellie turns from the cabinets toward the door again.
I’m leaning against Neya, regaining some strength. I’m in no hurry to get off the floor, enjoying the cat-witch banter keeping me from my own thoughts. “Meow?” Tabitha asks.
“Sí, mira, I promise you’ll get fish tonight. Now, where was I …?”
From her broom closet, she tosses a large paper bag of twigs over her shoulder, a clear shot through her open Alley-facing door to the top of the compost pile on the side of her ramp. Then she wheels closer to the back of her closet and pulls the light chain to appraise her shelves up close.
“Bruja Melissa,” Neya says, in a voice that betrays his impatience, “how can I help?” He stands just to the side of the open door.
“Take this home,” she says directly, digging out a small wooden box from the back shelf.
I’m standing with Neya now, peering into the small space. There are a dozen boxes like it, lined neatly, if a little dusty. Mellie gives an ahem and we make room for her to back out of the closet.
Once she’s out, Mellie hands me the little box with the sack of flour on top. The case is held closed by a blot of beeswax at the top; it smells of honey and is marked with a crescent moon seal. I can only hope it has what Grandma Sylvia meant for us to find with Mellie.
“Ash,” Mellie says, putting her hands on mine. “Put your memories in the box when you’ve emptied it.”
I nod my head and accept the spell. “Thank you, bruja Melissa. I will.”
“Kiddo, you warm enough?” Pa’s holding a folded blanket.
I’ve been staring at the moon, running the day’s errands through my mind. Did we get everything? Am I ready?
Pa’s question pulls me back to my body. “Yeah, I’m alright,” I say, rubbing my arms across my chest. “It’s less than a moon past the equinox anyway.” “Suit yourself,” he says, shrugging slightly. He piles the blanket back into his lap and faces the fire again. “Omi, this is a beautiful fire. What a good idea.” He smiles and slumps a little in the warmth.
Jidda Warda gives a nod of acknowledgement from the other side of the pit, reserved as always. “Mmh. Fire is good for circulation, and circulation is just what Ash needs right now.”
Pa replies by tapping his temple to say Got it. I won’t be the last one coming to him, the new apothecary apprentice, for help like this.
Looking at our family, a dozen or so of my relatives around the fire, my chest tightens. I wanted to be grown up by now, not to need so much support navigating life. I’m eating slower than everyone else. My head hurts, and my stomach definitely hasn’t been cooperative lately. My jaw slackens and sobs tumble out of me.
Everyone stops their chattering to witness me, and I wish they wouldn’t. I want to be held and I want to be alone at the same time. How is that possible? How is any of this possible?
How had I been so reckless?
Jidda Warda throws eucalyptus in the fire and joins Grandma Sylvia under their blanket. The fragrant smoke means something to them in their secret language, invented during decades of shared ritual. I know that some of their language is my inheritance, a special thing for us family here to witness and make our own meanings from. The incense reminds me of the first spells I was ever taught to cast, and I let myself be enveloped by it.
At first, the blood comes easy, like a regular period. But now it is hot and thick, and tearing out of me like I’ve never known before. My pants are unbuttoned and stuffed full of rags. My shirt is at the foot of my bed with my favorite wool sweater, tangled up with my bedding. My insides are messy right now; it feels right that my outsides should be too. In a clay dish at the windowsill, mugwort ash is piled high from many nights of burning before bed.
Jidda Warda places a jar on my bedside table, the sturdy glass brimming with well water, and she wordlessly settles beside me. She tucks loose strands of hair behind my ear as I reach for a drink. It’s freezing to the touch, so I clench the glass tighter and tell my hand to take the shock head-on.
The well is sweet to drink from, its chill rushing into my chest and falling into my belly. Down, down the water goes, and with it, relief washes over me. From the temples of my forehead, through my unclenching jaw, then down into the spaces between my shoulders, my ribs, my toes …
All-encompassing relief settles in me as I gather between my legs this confirmation that I am no longer pregnant.
Jidda Warda rubs my back with rosemary oil from Mellie’s kit and whispers blessings, her calloused hands slow as she speaks:
“Sweet Ash, you will never have to host Life you do not welcome.
“You will recover to strong and hearty years ahead.
“You have a sacred commitment to listen to your bodymind.
“You inherit the magic of good witches before you.
“You will remember this blood and it will give you your own Life back.
“You are magical. …”
Her words wash over me, ocean waves lapping the shore of my thoughts. Her meaning makes itself known in her healer’s hands, and in the way the rhythm and soft tone of her voice steady my heartbeat. I let breath flow back into me.
Dusk passes and Jidda kisses my forehead before asking, “Habibi, would you like to go the rest of the way by yourself?”
I nod, suddenly crying tears I didn’t know I’ve been holding back, and I mouth, “Thank you,” boogers running down my face.
She laughs and pulls an embroidered hanky out of her vest pocket. Yes, thank you to my family. Thank you to badass, healing grandmothers. Thank you to Fate for helping me let this go. Thank you to the blood that is so vivid and reassuring between my thighs.
Jidda softly gets up, sure not to rock the mattress, leaving me propped against the wall beside my bed. She stretches her hands a little as she turns back to me, saying, “If you need us for anything, you know where to find us.” And with that, she silently pulls the door closed behind her on her way out of my room.
I want to curl up in bed, but I take my instructions seriously and wait for the first run of blood to pass before lying down again. I hold pillows to my chest and sprawl my legs out in front of me, trying to hold in the shuddering sobs passing through me.
I didn’t know what to expect from any of this. I know there’s nothing to do but wait.
After letting the night deepen and sitting in the dark a while, I slide out of bed and light a candle. I see the stain on my sheets and know it’s past time for me to change my rag. I struggle to steady myself on my way to the door, taking my cane from its resting place against the wall.
At that moment, I hear Neya’s signature rat-a-tat on the door, and I holler hoarsely, “Come in!” He opens the door just in time to catch me as my legs give out. “Thought it was time to check in on you,” he says, his arm under my armpit. I laugh weakly, stuffy and trying to pass it off. “Stop gloating and help me, goofball.”
“I’m trying,” he laughs, “but I don’t want to get your snot all over me.”
“Hey!” I’d shove his side, but I’m saving my strength to get to the hall.
Pa’s best curry must be brewing downstairs, because I can smell his spice blend from the top of the stairs. Every curry is Pa’s best.
We pass the open door to Neya’s room, and I see one of his guitars on the bed. Before I could ask Neya what he’s been working on, we’re at the washroom. “I’ll wait outside, okay?” he reassures me.
I look from the doorway to my brother and quickly back again, eyes wide and mortified, but I nod quickly.
“Just … holler if you need help up or out of the room,” he adds. “Nothing I haven’t seen before.”
I shift my weight from him to the doorframe and pause.
“What’s up, sib?” He’s let go but is still spotting me with a steadying arm as I straighten.
“Would you be down to drive me to the Creek after?”
“You … you sure you wanna leave the house right now?”
“I know. I just think being closer to the water would be comforting as I … go through this.”
“Hmm,” Neya thinks aloud, in this over-dramatic, over-considerate way that he enjoys as the eldest. “I guess if anything gets too … challenging, I can always drive you back home.”
“Exactly. Whaddya say?”
Neya does borrow a neighborhood car share while I rest against my wall again. Less than 10 minutes of driving pass before we’re at the Creek’s edge. At an intersection not far from Laurel’s house, no less.
I can’t help but notice her porch light, a little uphill from the Creek and to the right of our resting spot. There are dozens of porch lights in the neighborhood, but Lor’s is in a purple glass and it suits the autumn leaves so well. Longing fills me, then memories, and then I get dizzy.
I crouch down by the Creek and close my eyes. The water rushes along where Grams says there was once a street, then sinkholes, and finally reverence. People here used to pave over the water, but Indigenous stewards taught us to listen when the pavement gave way. Listening to Road Creek isn’t like listening to the Ocean or our gentle River. Road Creek has places to go, people to see — and is phenomenal at clearing my thoughts in a pinch.
Sometimes our Creek brims the banks by the street, but tonight there are a few feet down from the street to the surface of the water. After some breaths, I take my boots off, gather my skirt around my knees, and let my feet dangle over the soil’s clay-red edge.
Sitting puts pressure on my second rag, and a small trickle of my blood runs down to my ankle, quickly chilling in the night air. I won’t be able to stay long like this, but I feel comforted that some small part of my moment here will eventually make its way back to the sea. The smell of my blood seems tinged with salt, as if it knows where it’s headed.
Neya starts humming something he played at the bonfire a few nights ago. The sound of his voice behind me and the Creek’s voice in front of me is a sound of memory and strength that seems to hold me up from either side. I close my eyes again to pray.
“Dear Life,” I say with all the confidence I can muster, “I am just one of your zillions of cyclical creatures. I am forever thankful to you for all you teach and make possible. Thank you for knowing it is not your time …” My lips are quivering and I force a breath through my lips. Hearing the words makes them real for me. Neya hums on steadily, witnessing me.
“It is not your time today,” I repeat with a tearful whisper.
I let everything go.
I let it hurt.
I let my blood do the talking.
Ailbhe Pascal is a queer, disabled, mixed-SWANA, storytelling witch who lives in occupied Coaquannock, Lenapehoking. Find Al writing poetry for their prayer tree, laughing at their own mistakes, or sharing moon meals with their chosen family.
Carolina Rodriguez Fuenmayor is a 31-year-old illustrator from Bogotá, Colombia.