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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The week we were approved, Yoshi and Aroha shook the dust out of Tara’s old baby clothes and El travelled 10 days to Whangārei to talk to the medics.
We could have telecommed, but we don’t have specialist medics in Kirikiriroa and she wanted training at the hospital. Travel was an attraction, too. In our community, she’s the one who most likes time alone in the forest or the trailside gardens.
In typical energetic El mode, she gathered a good stock of herbs on the journey, spent days reading books and talking to their specialists, wove a wahakura for the baby in the evenings with the help of her host whānau, and brought everything back along with new stories of her trip. The flax bassinet was full of extra soap, meds, and cleaning alcohol from the Whangārei co-op. As a supercommunity, they manufactured medication right there. El told several stories and traded Aroha’s fabric weaving, and they willingly offered the rest for the new baby.
Unloading the waka, I almost hit myself in the face with the med containers. When I pick them up, they are so lightweight.
“El, is this … plastic?”
She grins, turning one over in her hand. “So eco, eh? We’ll have to take them up north when we’re done, but it’s easier than glass to carry. The old State Highway 1 isn’t in a great state to push a cart. It would have taken forever.”
New plastic is rare. Normally we find it in scraped, dirty pieces when we’re working the garden, or washed into the gully after a big storm. The Pukete boy she travelled with laughs when I press on the sides of a transparent bottle, watching it deform inward.
The kaumātua mulled over our application for two years, first observing us with little Tara. Watching us go about daily tasks, how we interacted with the community. They met in the library with kaumātua from small co-ops nearby, and telecommed with the supercommunities on the radio. We knew what to expect from Tara’s conception approval, but Yoshi became anxious as months passed.
“What if they approve it and then, you know.”
“What, turns out after all those times you suddenly stop enjoying sex?” We don’t completely ration contraceptives — better to generate unnecessary waste than unnecessary people. The former, we have ethical, albeit energy-intensive, ways to manage. But I prefer to limit resource consumption. It was no secret he minded the waiting more than I did.
“No, what if we don’t conceive? What if we’re bad parents?”
“What if they turn us down?” I answered, and he shrugged.
The sunny week before our final hui, the elders had telecomms every day, even international calls requesting up-to-date census stats. El said they stopped when it got cloudy only to conserve batteries. So much thought over a baby, but our kaumātua are more cautious about modelling responsible citizenship since we donated the plastotrophs.
It was the plastotrophs that saved the world from us humans — them, alongside their carbon-fixing counterparts. Amma always said our motivation to change the way we lived was stimulated by seeing the tiniest of life-forms fight to undo our damage. That it gave us the hope we needed to work harder.
But, thanks to another mistake — isn’t human history riddled with those? — we’d donated the Kirikiriroa digester to the cleanup of Tāmaki-Makaurau.
Tāne, one of our kaumātua, had suggested early on that they should let the microbial population shrink slowly as the initial remediation mahi eased off. But the rehabbers had been strong and eager, and a visiting group finished digging out the main city dump. Good for local decon, but suddenly there was little left to feed the thriving bacterial colony. When site remediation was nearly done the workers moved on and we were short of people to find and rehab the smaller dumps. The three Kirikiriroa communities that shared the digester were all in the same waka: not enough humans to keep up with the microbes. When they realized, it was too late.
So, years before I was born, they’d dismantled everything, paddled and carried it to Tāmaki-Makaurau, where the metropolitan cleanup operators gladly took the microbes.
“We learned once again,” Amma would say, “the risks of overconsumption. Don’t you forget, e hine.”
Not forgetting is ultimately part of the kaumātua’s role. They provide oversight, remembering what happened generations ago, reading books in te whare pukapuka. That is one building we do maintain. Local communities care for it, while other ramshackle blocks are left in anticipation of a time when they can be safely dismantled and recycled.
When the three of us finally sat on the first floor of the house of books, facing the elders, my stomach flip-flopped through the opening karakia. After a quiet ‘āmene’ I studied the tiled floor, the back of Aroha’s shirt, the humming mosquito on my knee — anything to avoid looking at Koro Tāne during his kōrero about guarding the land and what it offered wisely, about being able to support the workers who would one day come to dismantle the concrete city and its rotting suburbs.
I recalled Amma’s story of King Dasaratha. He had to do a whole yāgam, summoning the spirit of fire to get his three wives pregnant with four sons. That was only the start of the whole saga, because Kaikeyi became jealous and wanted her son on the throne instead of Rama. At least we only had to meet with the elders.
They talked about Amma’s contribution to the co-op. How a lizard conservator from Te Waipounamu had been willing to uproot herself and her infant daughter to meet their needs. Amma spent her childhood with little blue penguins, her early career with cold-blooded reptiles, then moved across the Strait to try being an ecologist.
I’m hardly a credit to generations of scientists. One tipuna worked on the possum sterilization campaign down south. A great-grandparent led the native parrot rescue. That’s about all I know of my whakapapa. And here I was, reluctantly planting vegetable gardens and harvesting orchards in a land to which I had no whānau or ancestral ties.
The kaumātua addressed each of us and our backgrounds, but Aroha and Yoshi were proud to hear theirs. They belonged to the local hapū. They belonged here.
I ended up staring at my torn nails, trying to love a future spent looking after someone else’s child, picking at a callus in the crease of my thumb and …
“Malar!” Yoshi grabbed my hand, his crooked-toothed smile the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
“We look forward to welcoming our newest mokopuna,” Tāne finished. I was too stunned to talk. Aroha responded with an eloquent acknowledgement of their concerns and our gratitude for a chance to contribute to the future of our people.
The kaumātua gave us their blessing and suggested waiting a few weeks so the baby was less likely to be born in midwinter. Aroha’s kuia remembers feeding the last synthetic sleeping bags and jackets to the composter when they fell apart too much to salvage, and though summers are warm we do see winter frosts. They say it’s a harder life in our small co-ops, but we have the satisfaction of contributing that experience to the supercommunities as they make their slower transitions toward living lightly. That’s what brought Amma here.
El stood in the shade chatting to a young guy who’d just joined the Pukete co-op up the river. She asked, “Well? Will I visit the medics up north?” and hugged the three of us in turn.
The Pukete boy had business upriver too. Once he’d offered congratulations, he suggested they travel together. “Cen’t be arsed the planting,” he said.
El said he was lovely. She’d spent the hour outside learning to understand his accent, so we took her word for it. He did skive off planting the next day to go trading, likely landing himself in trouble with his own co-op, then waited for El camped by te awa near Mercer while she continued her journey on foot.
I envied her the peace of the forest, although I knew after the winter rains she’d be trudging through swamp, tall flax and fluffy toetoe and mud, from when she left the canoe until she got up onto the hills. They rowed back to our landing at the Old Gardens a few weeks later.
As we unpack, with them laughing at my reaction to plastic bottles, El tells us about the megacity dotted with small volcanoes that haven’t erupted for hundreds of years, how you can walk up onto the highest, still clear of the regenerating forest, and look all around at the remnant metropolis. How they have giant wind-gens, and sail around the harbour as they’ve been doing for two-and-a-half centuries. Most are temporary workers with family in Whangārei or Te Paeroa-a-Toi. “We could go too, Malar,” she says. “Some stay years, but some only stay three months.”
Yoshi and I haven’t travelled. He says it’s ancestral memory; our families came escaping what their homes had become, while El’s came because they were navigators and explorers, or thought life would be better in the colonial frontiers, and that’s why she’s always in search of something new. I never tell Yoshi he’s talking nonsense. Some of his tīpuna came to escape rising seas and it makes sense to him that’s why he belongs inland. My ancestors, those I know of, were in Aotearoa twice as many generations back, but I’m still a foreigner, especially without Amma. I have to justify my presence, my appearance, the traditions no one here recognizes.
Yoshi likes to stay home, digging in the garden, and I stay too. This morning, mid-January, I’m turning over the compost. The others go off whenever they want. Upriver, up the mountain; whatever they want to do, they ask permission when they need with the confidence they’ll get it. Today, though, we all have mahi here.
A few earthworms drop onto the grassy patch beside the heap and I gather them one by one, poking a stick under each wriggling body, thinking my clumsy fingers will squash them. Yoshi laughs at my caution.
He and Aroha had to talk me into applying to the co-op, even though I was the one who was supposed to have the baby. As the last worm slinks into the soil, I wonder if having a baby raised by people who belong here will make me feel like I belong. I wonder if that’s why they suggested I should do it, or if that’s why I agreed to — because a pregnancy on behalf of the co-op would make me feel like I’d earned my right to live here. I put the shovel back in the lean-to and go to build the fire.
Pongal was a harvest festival for Amma, even though it’s summer in Aotearoa. It was the only thing she celebrated, other than a 200-year-old Martyrs’ Day for a war her tīpuna had fled, and Matariki that we all observe when Matariki, the Pleiades constellation, or karthikei, as Amma called it, first appears in the midwinter sky.
In the old days they boiled rice, milk, and jaggery — fresh produce of the land. This country was once known for its cows’ milk, though the other ingredients would have been imported. Now, we grow rice in the wet peatland soils that used to be a reservoir for effluent. They still keep captive cows overseas, in small numbers. We chose not to keep them at all. Amma was vegan so I never sweeten the rice with honey but, as I do every year, I watch the pot of plain rice froth over and say “pongal o pongal.” This time, I wonder if our baby will one day do the same.
Someone, somewhere on the other side of the world, must celebrate a traditional Pongal, know how to say, “When Thai is born, a way is born” in Tamil, have people around them who’ll understand. They must remember the stories Amma told me. Properly, not vague fragments of the Ramayanam, or why Pillayar had an elephant face, which I’ve forgotten. At least no one will know or care if I do a half-arsed job of the celebration. Traditions change, right?
El joins in, saying “pongal o pongal” with us, and takes a handful of rice before going for a swim, while we spend the afternoon cleaning and rearranging the rooms. Aroha shakes out the mats, I sweep, and Yoshi goes down to the river to wash the linen. We are fortunate to have the three of us, and all the extended whānau. Amma hadn’t found it easy trying to care for me and go about her work. I remember Aroha’s kuia putting me to bed and feeding me my morning porridge almost as clearly as I remember Amma doing the same.
My pulse has been fluttering in my stomach for weeks, since the hui, like it has only done once before when I fell in love with Yoshi. This summer day, putting our whare in order, is the most I’ve ever felt at home. We hang the washing together, and Aroha buries some potatoes to cook while we lie in the evening sun waving away midges and singing.
Yoshi sleeps late the next morning. We leave him, take apples and machetes, and go with others from our co-op to clear a trail south of the river and scope out the old railway line. One day, when the rare earths problem is solved, we are supposed to have public transport across the country. None of us believe it, not when we see the rusty iron tracks and collapsing embankments, but our job is to monitor and advise, not make decisions for someone 100 years from now.
We return sweaty and scratched from tugging at gorse — one of those invasive species we haven’t yet got under control — and jump in the river. The water is cool. I could float here forever listening to the tūī warbling, until Aroha starts complaining about bugs. The two of us say ka kite and walk back over the hill, the Earth sun-warmed under our feet, and at home we find Yoshi huddled on his mat with a fever.
Infections aren’t uncommon, but Aroha catches them so easily that I send her to stay in the marae in case it’s contagious. I spend the evening brewing mānuka infusions for Yoshi and contemplating the cooking fire. Moving away from fossil fuels sent us back to burning dry wood, but El says in some supercommunities they still have induction hobs. In the long wait for the pot to boil, I try to imagine one. It seems as magical as an island fished from the sea, or a talking monkey that flies, or hundreds of people in one place, travelling in metal airplanes that crisscross the sky leaving long trails of condensation. I’ve seen a photo of that in the archive room, and of a graveyard of grounded aircraft somewhere up north. I guess no one cared to preserve a picture of a piece of metal that invisibly heated water.
In the morning Aroha leaves two bowls of kai and a deck of cards on the porch, but I can’t remember the rules for playing solitaire. By lunchtime I convince Yoshi to sit outside with me and drink his lukewarm soup. “I’ve got the worst headache,” he says. Two mouthfuls in, he clutches his stomach and returns to his mat. To distract myself I build a house of cards in the front room and go to pick tomatoes. It’s so warm they’ve begun rotting on the vine. Tedious weather for Yoshi to be wrapped up in blankets, but it’s no better when his chills give way to a sweat. He asks for cold water, “instead of that aluppu leaf tea.” One more reason to love him: He comes out with forgotten Tamil like that, words he picked up from me and Amma years ago, though I’ve not spoken it with anyone since she died.
River water’s good, but the rainwater tank is safer since his stomach’s unhappy. But when I go to fill the earthenware jug, it’s swarming with a quiet hum from big mozzies, not just sandflies. I leave the boiled infusion to cool in the shade instead. He doesn’t complain at the taste or the warmth, and that bothers me. I sit next to him with a wet cloth, humming waiata, to which I’ve forgotten the words in three languages.
El and her mother visit in the evening with a glass thermometer and med supplies. The draft blows my card construction over when they walk in. Yoshi grumbles at being woken, and when they leave again in 20 minutes to radio up north.
A ruru’s hoot rouses me from the porch. I’m too tired to do more than check on Yoshi inside and chew on a twig to clean my teeth before sleeping. They don’t return until morning, when they wake him calling from the porch. I’m out back cooking the watery rice kanjee Amma used to make when I was sick.
“The good news is,” El’s mother begins cheerily, “they had ideas of what it might be. But you’ll need a blood test.”
Neither of us has taken a blood test before. They’re used in supercommunities where labs are available. Isolated co-ops may have shared facilities for emergencies. But who ever heard of taking a blood test for influenza, or a cold?
El and her mum, apparently. Though Yoshi has enough appetite for his kanjee this morning, they insist he should be tested.
“He’s improving. If he has to travel, he won’t be able to rest.” The nearest place with a laboratory would be one of the cleanup camps at Tāmaki-Makaurau.
“He’ll get better medical care there, Malar.” El’s mum rubs my back and I flinch away.
“What if it’s contagious? Will we all have to go up north for tests?”
Yoshi adds, “I’d rather wait it out here,” and gives me his bowl before returning to his mat. “I want to sleep. Not paddle up the river, and walk what, two days?”
El and her mum exchange a look. Auntie says, “The difficulty is that it might not be something that you can wait out so easily. Wait until you feel a little better, yes. It’s fortunate your symptoms are mild.”
“This is mild?”
“You’ve noticed the bugs this year, no? There are mosquito-borne parasites and viruses they have on record, and …”
That makes no sense. “Malaria was eradicated centuries ago,” I protest. “Like smallpox and polio and …”
El corrects me that malaria only disappeared 150 years ago, and there are, she says, a googol type of infections and ways they could spread. A couple of cases have been reported up north, so we don’t have much choice. The medics have to see for themselves. Her mother adds that it might be a good chance to get some tests myself since we haven’t conceived yet, have we? She’s probably snooped around back and seen my menstrual cloths drying outside.
“Oh look, El, she may as well have the tests. We can’t be purists about downscaling tech. We’re not pioneers or colonists. We can actually ask for help.”
I stand, taking the bowl to wash. “They told us it could take months to get pregnant anyway. I’ll talk to Yoshi about all that later.”
El leaves some ginger that she says is good to make tea for nausea. “Sorry about Mum. Let me know whenever you’re ready to go.”
It’s a week before Yoshi agrees to travel. His fever has been coming and going, but he has more energy now. El and the Pukete boy take the oars to start, and we swap during the day. Waikato Te Awa flows fast, offering a calm I never find elsewhere. A flock of rosellas — those colorful squawky parrots brought from across the ocean in the 20th century, sometime between the invasion of the English and the welcome swallows — flies past. Yoshi, who rarely comes on the river, finds the energy to point out kōtare, long beaks and turquoise-blue feathers with a flash of orange, on overhanging branches. Eels in the water. Koi, too, gleaming gold but another introduced species. Aroha always says she hates these exotic pests, but what does a fish know of 400 years of colonization? For that matter, what do we?
We stay overnight in a hut El knows from previous trips. The boy jumps off onto a narrow trail, to let the neighbors know we’re passing through. It’s a half-hour walk and they won’t notice we’re here, but it is tika to inform them.
While Yoshi goes to rest, we pull the boat onto shore and unload. I begin searching the bush for dry wood, gathering it into the base of my shirt.
“Malar, I have to tell you something.” El isn’t smiling.
I drop the kindling. “Is it about the infection? Is it serious?” I hadn’t been too worried, even after they said that about mosquitoes. Stressed about the trip, about making Yoshi travel, sure, but he seems happy. They didn’t make it sound dangerous, only like something that needed study …
“About the two of you, then?” I should have known it would be about that boy.
She sits on a knobby tree root and rubs her hand over it. “No. Sort of.”
It might be the way she talked about the ginger tea, or how she exclaimed, “Mum!” when the topic of conception came up, but I’m not that surprised when she says, “He doesn’t know yet, no one does, but …”
For the tiniest moment I want to stop her, as if not hearing it would make it OK. I don’t want to deal with a disaster someone else has created.
Aren’t we all dealing with the disasters someone else has created?
She finishes, “I think I’m pregnant,” and though I’m expecting it I stare as if I’m not. What does she want from me? Reassurance?
“A couple of months. I’m sorry,” she adds. From her trip to Whangārei.
The kindest response would be that she doesn’t have to apologize. In another country, even in some of our Aotearoa supercommunities, it might not matter. They have leeway — unexpected births and deaths, arrivals and departures, and don’t wait for one to allow the other, only track that it balances out. Those in our co-ops are invited through their parents’ application for a birth or through a request for a worker, like Amma had. Couldn’t she have waited until they were back home with contraception? Or had theirs failed? We’re told it can happen.
Does it make any difference why? We knew it might take months to conceive, that it might not happen at all. But that was a possibility, not a certainty. What’s certain is that El’s having the next baby in the co-op.
I take a few steps away. There’s nowhere else to sit among flax and brush. I don’t want to ask these questions. I want her to have told someone else first, to not know about it until I stop getting my periods, too, and no one could expect us to give up our chance.
Amma taught me to think carefully. Sometimes it means I think too much. Sometimes it means I know how to respond. “Give me some time, yeah? Don’t tell Yoshi until he’s better.”
My hands shake when I start gathering twigs again. El continues silently, staying well away. Another thing I don’t want: to keep secrets. The worry starts piling up so that my hands sweat against the bark and my linen shirt is too stuffy. If this is going wrong, what else? What about Yoshi’s illness? What will Aroha say? We’ve always been close. Even more so in the last years, planning to co-parent. She doesn’t want a partner, but she does want a baby in her family. I dump my kindling beside the firepit, letting twigs bounce and scatter, and go to wash in the river.
Yoshi doesn’t notice anything wrong during the meal, so I know he’s exhausted. I’ve hardly talked to the Pukete boy. I’d had a vague idea that I should earlier, because El cared about him. Now, I don’t want to see his face. It’s not his fault any more than El’s, but when the rain starts to pour that night and I’m stuck in the hut crying into my arms I wish he’d stayed where he came from, not answered whatever need Pukete had for a guy who wanted to skive off planting, spend all his time on the river, and donate sperm where it wasn’t needed.
Yoshi’s snuffling in his sleep, and what is normally endearing makes me want to hit something. This little hut can only support so much of my tension. I go outside, sheltering among trees whose names Amma would have known, and water drips down them so I’m wet anyway. Amma would tell me to go back inside and dry off before I get sick. That’s what I want to tell my pillai one day: stories of many-headed gods and nonsense about the cold making you sick. I want Aroha to tell her kuia’s myths about the taniwha in te awa, and Yoshi to teach the language of plants. But our hypothetical child might never exist, and that’s what I think about in the rain.
Kaikeyi demands, in the Ramayana, that her son become the next king. That his half-brother Rama, the rightful crown prince, be exiled to the forest. Kausalya, Rama’s mother, has to let him go. Who do I become if I demand to keep our right to raise a nonexistent child over El’s, sanctioned or not? Who do I become if I don’t?
There’s limited space. For my anger in that hut. For children in our co-op. For bacteria in the digester. El will have her baby. The rest of us might be packed off like the plastotrophs to Tāmaki-Makaurau, where they can afford to support another child. I begin shivering.
There was a slogan in the old days: “There is no Planet B.” As kaitiaki we still make mistakes. Inside our co-ops, we forget the world outside isn’t an endless resource.
In te marama’s rising light, rain turns to mist and a cricket croaks in branches overhead. Our experiment is failing. We co-ops are reliant on the resources of supercommunities. We, who are supposed to lead the way, cling to them, treating them as our Planet B. Medical help, lab tests, overflow when we can’t feed our digester, factories to make what we aren’t ready to cope without. Amma left them, thinking the future was devolution. But if we in the co-ops refuse to live independently, kaitiakitanga will be left to the supercommunities. We’re failing as guardians. Failing, and modelling failure.
No one comes to find me. Shivering, I return and dry off. The moonlight is bright through my eyelids, but I can’t sleep anyway.
The next day everyone pretends not to notice my tears when I’m paddling. Or maybe they really don’t notice. But when we stop for a break on the riverside Yoshi asks quietly if I’m ill. “I’m feeling better, if you’re worried.” He squeezes my hand. “You’re worried about something.”
I hate not telling him, more than I hate what’s happened. As I break up the rēwena bread, I talk instead about last night’s thoughts. That we’ve wasted the effort of generations denying themselves luxuries of technology, children, whatever else they have in supercommunities to live in the middle of nowhere thinking we were leading the way forward.
“Why wasted? Because we’re going to their medics for help?”
“That, and needing people like Amma coming from supercommunities to help us, and because we couldn’t even keep our digester.”
He picks up his chunk of parāoa rēwena. “You’re worrying about what’s next. That’s not wrong, but it’s a balance, Malar. Everyone living as we do won’t work perfectly. Look at anyone who needs meds or tech to get by. We’re finding out what’s truly essential, yes. It’s taken this long already, though.” He takes a mouthful and I watch him chew, wondering how I’ll tell him. “You know it won’t happen overnight. We need to worry about the world as it is now, not only what it becomes in a year or 100. You think whatever it was that crawled out of the primordial ooze and evolved us gave a shit about what you’d become?” Another mouthful. I’m glad he has his appetite back.
“Even the digester,” he says. “We could watch it die as a matter of principle, or we could realize we screwed up and give it to someone who could use it. Treating our rohe as too much of a closed system is as dangerous as considering the world an endless resource.”
He understands me, one of the infinite reasons I love him. And he’s right. I don’t kiss him, because he’s chewing, but shift closer and watch the ducks ignoring us on the other side of the river.
The plastotrophs showed up when we needed them, an ecosystem responding to the world around it. The carbon fixers might have been there all along. Now they are symbiotic communities working together in equilibrium, to solve our problems. Els and Yoshis and Pukete boys, even Malars who think they don’t belong. Supercommunities and co-ops.
There will be places we’re useful. Back in Kirikiriroa. Or anywhere. Each place holds a different future. I’m not tangata whenua and don’t have land to belong to, but I belong with Yoshi and Aroha, in any land with people who’ll have me.
I lead us back to the water. There’s gray light through clouds, the current of the river, and new places to see.
Tehnuka Ilanko (she/they) is a second-generation Tamil tauiwi volcanologist from Aotearoa (New Zealand). Her short stories and poetry have been published in Mermaids Monthly, FlashFlood, Apparition Lit, and Memento Vitae; she was a finalist in the 2020 Dream Foundry short story contest and highly commended in the NZ Sunday Star Times short story competition.
Carolina Rodriguez Fuenmayor is a 31-year-old illustrator from Bogotá, Colombia.