This story is part of Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors, a climate-fiction contest from Fix.
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Grandma Marne was the one who told Willa that the world was powered by ghosts.
“The oil. The coal. It all came from ancient things, dead things dug out of the Earth.”
Willa was raised to hold a healthy skepticism of extraordinary claims.
“Well, no,” Marne said. She set down her gardening shears and stood up, wiping her brow. To a layman, the garden around their home looked wicked and untamed. A mess of tangled gamagrass spilled out between trellises of tumbling vines; tomato plants heavy with fruit — most green, but some blushing red already — nestled among sprays of peppermint and bloodroot and bee-balm. But Willa knew that the garden was a system designed with scrupulous care, and everything down to the very last leaf was in its place. Milkweed to attract pollinators. Garlic and pennyroyal to repel pests. Marne Wynne was a scientist, and she brought a scientist’s mind to all endeavors.
Grandma Marne stood back, surveying her kingdom with a sharp eye, and found it to her liking.
“The dinosaurs came much later,” she explained. “The oil came from small organisms — algae and zooplankton that existed millions of years ago when all this was still an ocean.”
Willa imagined the big machines she had seen in books and movies drilling into the ground, opening up a hole of black carnage, unleashing millions of angry spirits into the sky.
“I like our way better,” she said, picking a ripe blackcap from a nearby bush and popping it in her mouth. It was sun-warmed and sweet.
Grandma Marne laughed. “So do I.”
They had then gone inside, where they made blackberry jam. They sealed the jars with steam and stored them in the root cellar, so later, when the berries were out of season, they could still have the taste of summer in pies or spread over fresh bread or even straight from the spoon. But the story of the old way lingered in Willa’s mind. She thought of the oil and coal ghosts — the way they roiled the world and pushed life on Earth to the brink, the countless victims of their vengeance. Had they ever been properly put to rest?
Years later, this memory percolated in her mind as she pitched her idea for her capstone project to Mrs. Menendez, her academic advisor. As she spoke, Mrs. Menendez rifled through the holodoc displayed above her desk, then looked up over the frames of her lime-green readers.
“I’m not sure I follow,” she said, “You want to write a book for your project? A history?”
“Essentially,” Willa replied.
“But surely this already exists. Your capstone’s contribution to the community has to be novel. Otherwise, you won’t pass the year.”
“That’s the thing — there are a ton of books written about the technical aspects of the Realignment, the upheaval of the 21st century, the suits against OPEC and oligarchs.” She took a deep breath. She had practiced this speech in front of her bathroom mirror all week. “But I want to write something from a more human angle. Informed by firsthand testimony — people who lived through it, who remember the Dark Decade or maybe even filling up their personal vehicles with gasoline.”
Mrs. Menendez grimaced. “Are there any left?”
“You really think they’d be willing to share their stories?”
“I think so.”
The counselor flipped through the proposal again.
“I don’t know, Willa. This is all rather … morbid. I would have thought the granddaughter of Marne Wynne would have come up with a stellar engineering proposal. You have a real advantage, with access to Sunfields Inc. and lots of resources the other students won’t have.”
Willa sighed. Her grandmother was the founder and CEO of Sunfields, the largest solar farm in North Carolina and the biggest single provider in the Eastern regional grid. She sat on the board of the Triad Energy Alliance and headed the Steering Committee of the New Army Corps of Engineers. Willa had lived her whole life in her long shadow.
“I understand that perspective. But, respectfully, Mrs. Menendez, I don’t want an advantage. I want to make my own way.”
Mrs. Menendez bit her lip. Willa could tell she wasn’t convinced. She had anticipated this. The Three Tribes Technical Academy of Buncombe County was one of the elite tribal schools established during the Realignment — preeminent among all of the Foundling Schools — and renowned around the world as a technical powerhouse. Prior capstones had yielded improved battery storage capacity, uncovered efficiencies in photovoltaic systems, or found new uses for Class E noncircular materials. Those projects embodied man’s highest ideals: ingenuity, resilience, resourcefulness. Her’s would hunt its demons.
“The capstone criteria also states that the rationale for the project must be founded upon Cherokee values,” Willa continued. “Like storytelling and forging a connection to our past.”
She sat up straighter and spoke from her gut, the way Grandma Marne taught her. “My classmates have fabulous engineering ideas. This will be different. Unique. Please, I have a really clear vision for it.”
Mrs. Menendez seemed to be sizing her up. Then she cocked her head to the side and said, “Alright, Willa, I’ll sign off on this. But you better know what you’re doing. Your future is at stake here.”
Jumping up from her chair, Willa shook Mrs. Menendez’s hand. “I promise, you won’t be disappointed!”
Willa had been so busy researching her project that she had completely forgotten about Atonement Ceremony. Her mom rapped on her bedroom door and told her to be ready for the gathering in 10 minutes. Willa swore, powered down her desk, and pulled out the black jumpsuit from her wardrobe.
On the walk to the town green, she saw Phil. He looked somber, dressed in black, quiet, reflective. That was the point of Atonement Ceremony. But it meant more for the Bevins, of course. There were two kinds of scholarship students at the Academy — those like Willa, who had roots in the tribe, and those like Phil, whose family’s trade had once been in oil or gas or coal. The reservation kids were proud of their heritage — but for folks like Phil, it wasn’t something they liked to talk about much. Willa jogged up next to him.
“Osiyo, Phil,” she said.
“Don’t act like you didn’t see Baltimore skewer Pittsburgh last night.”
He groaned. “I was hoping you didn’t.”
“I’m happy to change out our names on the kitchen duties schedule for you.”
“The way this season’s going, I’ll be scrubbing dishes till I’m as old as my great-granddad.” He grinned, but Willa couldn’t help but notice that it seemed strained.
When they arrived at the green, Principal Chief Batista was already at the center lectern with a few other councilmen. At the minute of sunset, his voice boomed across the field through nearly invisible speakers hovering overhead.
“Welcome,” he said, “to the 46th National Atonement Ceremony. Today is bittersweet. All across the country, we honor those who shepherded us through the Dark Decade. Those who remade the world.” Willa stole a glance at Grandma Marne, who sat at the center lectern with a few other elders. Her face was impassive. “But we also remember the world we lost.”
Behind him, a stereopticon powered on. A whale swirled in the air, flipping its massive flukes.
“The world we lost to willful ignorance and greed.”
Behind the Chief played the iconic footage of the Manhattan drownings. People in the crowd shook their heads and clicked their tongues as the buildings that couldn’t be saved were demolished and crumbled into the swollen Hudson River. In the twilight, Willa saw Phil gazing at the ground.
“We renew our commitment to channel our utalawuhska — our rage against the past — to build a more righteous future on behalf of those who perished.”
The stereopticon changed again, and a coastline-altering hurricane swept away homes in one gust. Then again: refugees huddled in an encampment outside Poughkeepsie. And again: people lining up around blocks for food rations. And again: the drowning of Miami, Brooklyn, New Orleans. California hills on fire. Boats crammed with screaming migrants sinking into a boiling sea. Riots as soldiers fired guns into crowds. And then: bird upon mouse upon frog upon fish, in endless procession, species that Willa had never seen — would never see — except in pictures and videos, until the images seemed to blur.
If she looked hard, she could see through the screen to the glowing faces on the opposite lawn. If she listened, she could hear the cicadas starting to sing.
Grandma Marne was the first person Willa interviewed for her project. She booted up her desk as Grandma Marne, wrapped in a traditional shawl, poured them both a cup of sassafras tea sweetened with honey from the apiary.
“Do you mind if I record?” Willa asked.
Grandma Marne shook her head. Just as she had set up the mic, a crow outside the window shrieked. Grandma Marne rolled her eyes, rose, and shut a window to stem the noise. “He’s been out there every day for weeks now. Doesn’t know how to shut up,” she said. She sat again and cupped her mug of tea. “Used to be more than just crows, you know. All kinds of birds, each with her own song. You wouldn’t believe the music — an orchestra every morning. It’s funny, I can’t remember when it stopped.” She looked out the window.
What a beautiful thing to let slip through our fingers, Willa thought. How could it have happened? She wanted so badly to understand.
Grandma Marne turned back and smiled. “So what would you like to know?”
“I guess we can go chronologically,” Willa said. “What do you remember about the Dark Decade?”
“Hmm. It was a hard time. I was just a little girl, and like so many back then, all we could afford was canned goods and nonperishables. I think that spurred my interest in organic gardening. I didn’t have a green thing for a year.” She paused, looking thoughtful. “Though I do still have a thing for La Choy.”
“How did you get by?”
Marne shrugged, “We did OK. It was a shock, though. Lots of things leading up to the Dark Decade happened gradually, but the food shortage happened all at once. We led very different lives before.” She lowered her voice. “I remember a time when stores stocked more food than you could ever imagine. And if it didn’t sell by a certain date, they would just throw it away.”
Willa looked up from her notes in disbelief.
“Why would they do something like that?”
Grandma Marne shrugged. “They thought they’d never run out, I guess. Anyway, we weren’t a people who were used to hardship or scarcity. So when all of a sudden a middle-class family couldn’t afford a bunch of bananas …”
“It was bad.”
Marne nodded grimly. “Eventually, they had to ration everything. One time, I went to the store with my mother, and the man handing out groceries said something in passing, like, ‘Lucky you, you got the last bag of coffee.’ The man behind us got angry and demanded we give it to him. Mom refused, and the employees and other shoppers backed her up — but then the man followed her outside.”
Willa’s stomach clenched at the thought. “What did you do?”
“We ran. I flung myself inside our car, and the next thing I knew, he was banging on the window. Mom just drove. I was terrified that he would come after us. When we finally parked in our driveway, I was so relieved, but my mother started sobbing — turns out she had dropped the groceries in the parking lot.”
Willa turned all this over in her mind. “So around then we made big changes to the energy mix.”
“No?” Willa was flabbergasted.
“It wasn’t until around the third year of famine that a critical mass of people recognized the problem had to be more than a fluke. Only then did people demand the end of fossil fuels — and our problems had only just begun. We hadn’t invested enough in energy alternatives, so once we pulled the plug on fossils, the grid became unreliable even as energy costs went up.”
Willa paused before she said, “But then the Realignment got going, and things improved.”
“Well, yes. But at the time nothing seemed certain — nobody was sure we were on the right path.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, take the Foundling Schools, for example. Now, it seems inevitable — but it wasn’t an easy choice. It’s hard to imagine now, but back then, Indigenous lands were mostly poor and struggling. It became about more than training workers to service the grid — we wanted to disrupt the cycle of poverty. But to many, it seemed like we were benefiting some at the expense of others. Others thought fossil fuel workers and their children unworthy of the opportunity. Hadn’t they gotten us into this mess? Why should they get a break? Still more thought it was exploitative to take students away from their families. That really divided the tribe. Sending Native children to what would essentially be a boarding school was … a loaded concept.”
Willa paused, then said, “Well, it’s a good thing those people didn’t get their way.”
“They didn’t go down without a fight. Some of the detractors threw stones at me and my classmates as we walked to our classes. Some of those people were Cherokee. That was the most painful for me.”
Willa reached across the table and squeezed her hand.
Grandma Marne smiled. “It’s ancient history.”
“So how were we able to move forward?”
She seemed to ponder the question. “I’m not sure I know the answer to that.” She poured herself some more tea from the clay pot. “It could have easily gone the other way, in my view.”
Willa felt the tug of utalawuhska in her chest. “They waited so long to act! People could have done something sooner, and they chose not to. They were so blind. And so many suffered because of it.”
Grandma Marne looked at her for a second, then got up from her chair and moved to a desk by a window. She took something out of a drawer and placed it on the table.
Willa’s eyes widened. “Is that —”
Grandma Marne nodded. “Coal. Anthracite, really. The industry tried to brand it as ‘clean coal’ before its downfall.”
“Where did you get it?”
“One of my teachers worked at a port. A shipment was delivered one of his last days there — but by then, its value had dropped so low, nobody came for it. The buyers just left it there. He picked some up as a souvenir. Gave this piece to me.”
Willa held it in her hand — it was hard, shiny, glimmering like some kind of Horcrux. She thought she could feel the thrum of the spirits that clung to it.
“Keep it,” Grandma Marne said, “as a talisman.”
Willa didn’t know if she wanted to keep it, but she slipped it inside her satchel. She didn’t want her grandmother to feel bad.
Willa arrived at the Asheville Amerorail Station at nine o’clock with a small backpack, a thermos of black coffee, and a tin of cornbread and jam that her grandmother had insisted she take with her. She always felt invigorated when traveling by Amerorail. The train was called the Needle because of the way it threaded through the countryside wildlife crossings, gathering the land like fabric gathered on a needle and thread. The crossings were designed to allow forests to migrate overhead — slow, giant, singular organisms moving across time.
Willa settled herself in a compartment and soaked in the moment. It was her first time on the rail by herself. She felt like an adult — utterly prepared and on-schedule. She gazed out the window, watching meadows and barns streak by in flashes as they passed under the hills, like watercolor stop-motion. Then she booted up her desk and busied herself with some reading and breakfast. In a little under an hour and a half, the Needle glided into Union Station. She marched through the main hall and ogled at the high, arched ceiling stamped with golden florets, the sounds of heels on tile click-clacking all over. She checked in at her hostel room, which was little more than a bed and small workspace — she was allotted a small travel stipend for her project, but she had budgeted to stretch it as far as it would go. Then she spent the rest of the day at the National Archive.
Hours passed in a blur of newspaper headlines, video testimonials, digital archives. By the time she left the din of the atrium, the morning’s glow had been replaced by exhaustion. She decided to take a break, and when she stepped out into the balmy D.C. air, she felt as if she had emerged from underwater.
The bleakest events of the Dark Decade were disturbing — the dissolution of governments in the Caribbean, Micronesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh. The refugees who found no respite in a world reeling from famine and economic collapse. The children who went hungry. The species that went extinct.
But the rosy stories about the way things used to be — stories she had come across almost by mistake — touched her in a way that was difficult to describe. A man’s account of his boyhood in a drowned place called Martha’s Vineyard, for example, where he once saw a blue whale off the side of his uncle’s fishing boat. “He came right up to me,” the man had said, “he really did! I reached out and touched his back, and I swear he was looking right up at me, sizing me up, see? Trynta’ figure out what I was made of. It was wild. You should have been there.”
It wasn’t loss that she felt. Martha’s Vineyard and blue whales were things that had never — would never — be hers. You can’t lose what you never had. Was it utalawuhska? Rage against the past? Righteous anger?
As she climbed into her bed later that evening, she vowed that she would channel this feeling into her project. To make sense of the past — to shape the future, even. She’d do it for her grandmother, who might have once believed that she would one day see a whale.
That night, her dreams were haunted by phantom giants, lost to the blackness of the sea.
Phil’s great-grandfather lived on the other side of town in a little square house made of yellow pine in a row of little square houses made of pine. She had been looking forward to this interview, but now that the moment had arrived, her nerves jangled and her palms felt moist. She rubbed them on her shorts, ignoring the part of her that wanted to turn around and go home. She felt the chill of ghosts at her back. The lives unlived. The whales. The dead drawn up from their resting places and burned. Didn’t they deserve answers? Didn’t she?
She knocked on the door. A dog barked. She heard some scuffling, and then Mr. Bevin was standing at the threshold. His face looked like it was carved from an oak stump. His teeth were yellow and his beard and hair as white and wispy as spun sugar. But his eyes were sharp, a relic untouched by age.
“Good to meet you, Willa.” He outstretched a broad hand and she shook it. “I’m Paul Bevin. This is Carly.”
A little white dog scampered over and planted two paws on Willa’s shins — she weighed almost nothing. Willa returned the greeting with a scratch on the head.
Mr. Bevin grinned, and his smile was like a gash. He gestured inside the house, and Willa followed him into a dim living room, taking a seat on one of three squashy armchairs. He offered her a dusty-looking hard candy from a dish, which she declined.
“How can I help you?” he asked, popping one of the hard candies into his mouth.
Willa explained the concept behind her Capstone. Mr. Bevin nodded, listening intently.
“I’m trying to get a range of testimony for the project, and, well, there aren’t many people left from your generation who — ah —”
“Well, what would you like to know?”
There were so many things she wanted to know, but she decided to start easy.
“What was it like working for Fox Fuels?”
Mr. Bevin scratched his beard and looked off. “Boring, for the most part. We were one of the last operational coal mines in the country. By then most of the job was automated. I was one of the stragglers who hung on. Mostly did administrative work, but occasionally conducted inspections of the equipment, went down into the mines.”
“What were the mines like?”
He grunted. “Dark. Big hole in the ground. Nothing to write home about.”
For a moment, silence buzzed about them. Carly trotted around the armchairs and sat at Mr. Bevin’s feet. He picked her up, set her in his lap, and said nothing. The room was dusty and suffocating. The silence rolled on, and Willa squirmed until she couldn’t hold back any longer.
“Did you know what it was doing? The burning of the coal?”
“You mean to ask, did I willingly poison the Earth?” he chuckled, and Willa felt her insides freeze at the sound.
“If the shoe fits.”
He stopped laughing and sighed.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound flippant,” He looked down at his dog and scratched her behind the ears. “You’d think 99 years would be long enough to shake off your petty insecurities. But I suppose I still get a bit defensive about certain things.”
“So did you know about the carbon pollution? The climate shift?” Willa repeated.
“Of course we knew,” he said, “Everyone knew.”
“How did that affect your attitude toward the job?”
He paused for a moment, thinking.
“Do you want to know the honest truth? It affected my attitude very little. Almost not at all.”
Willa felt like jumping out of her chair.
“Why?” she finally asked.
“Of course,” he said. “I just didn’t see what all that had to do with me.”
It took a second for Willa to remember to close her mouth. Not even as the oceans rose. As millions of sea creatures washed up dead on beaches. As floods washed away all the wheat and corn in the Midwest and people around the world starved and the old cities drowned. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t understand that.”
He leaned forward in his chair, and Carly leaped down onto the floor.
“Listen,” he said. “I don’t expect you to understand. But you came here to talk to me, so I assume you want to hear what I have to say. By the time I’d gotten into mining, human-caused climate shift was pretty much common knowledge. That being said, the full extent of the fallout hadn’t yet become obvious. Now, you can say that we should have done something before it started getting bad — and you would be right. But at the time, the consequences of what would happen seemed insubstantial compared to our insatiable need for energy. That isn’t something to discount. Do you think I’d have been mining coal if people weren’t buying up electricity generated by Fox Fuels? Everyone was using our energy. Even the Greens and the activists. Even the politicians who insisted that we needed to be shut down. Was I more culpable than they were for what happened? I was giving them what they needed, wasn’t I?”
Willa felt stiff. Unyielding. “Why did you choose that profession?”
He laughed bitterly. “By the end, I wished to God I had picked something else. We were punted around like footballs. One day, our jobs were safe, the next, we were told to start looking elsewhere.”
“Weren’t there job-retraining programs?”
“Eventually. I was open to that. But I think the way we were initially approached turned a lot of people off. Dragged things out longer than it had to be.”
He got up and walked around the chairs to a bar where he poured himself a cup of iced tea from a glass pitcher. He offered her a cup, but she shook her head even though her mouth was as dry as the desert.
“Well, there was no acknowledgement that we were being asked to make a sacrifice. Like I said, I would have worked for a solar or wind farm. The old-timers had more trouble. They were already established in their careers, and moving to a new company with a new product — well, it was tough. And we were treated as if we should be groveling on bended knees for the privilege.”
He took a long drink from his glass and set it down on the bar with a clink.
“You asked me why I picked mining as a career. I suppose because it was what was available to me. But I grew a community through that place. We offered something useful to people. We were proud of that,” he continued. “And you asked me how I felt about the product. The coal. I know it’s taboo to say these days, but despite the side effects, I’m grateful for the stuff. It made a lot of things possible for me. It put food on my table, my daughter through school. It was hard to reconcile, you know, it being so harmful to the environment. Anyway, boo-hoo, right,” he said, then took another swig of tea. “You sure you don’t want any?”
This time, Willa relented, and he passed her a glass. It was cold and bitter.
Willa stared outside the train window, watching the landscape, thick and green, until suddenly, it gave way to silver, amber, and chartreuse. They were passing through a Sunfields solar farm. The artificial trees stretched upward, soaking in photovoltaic energy that would power nearly everything on the Southeastern grid.
Don’t bother trying to improve Mother Nature’s design — that was Grandma Marne’s philosophy. In rethinking the solar panel as a tree, she had not only made them more effective, but gentler on the planet. In theory, they could be “planted” anywhere, without having to raze an acre of woodland. Of course, in reality, it was more economical to group them in single high-sun locations. But even then, Grandma Marne had envisioned them as a forest, an ecosystem. Sunlight was converted to power in the leaves, transformed inside its trunk, transmitted through a complex root system — there were even spaces carved into the bodies for wildlife to nest. It was a Cherokee way of thinking, she said, and that Native people had always been makers and inventors. She said that Willa would be that way, too.
The train glided into the Avery Creek station, where she was the only one to disembark. From there, she got into a communal transit vehicle — CTV — and overrode the automatic destination input for a set of natural coordinates. The CTV zipped out of the station and out through the Asheville suburb. She looked out the window and fiddled with her camera lens and took a few practice shots to get accustomed to the controls.
When the CTV slowed to a stop, Willa stepped outside into the middle of a grassy field. She’d have to walk the rest of the way, but she could already see her final destination. Across a land bridge through a churning offshoot of the Tahkeeosteh River was what remained of North Carolina’s last coal-fired power plant.
Willa ignored a sign posted that warned DANGER: KEEP OUT, squeezing past a segment of a fence that had fallen in. She surveyed her surroundings, snapping photos as she went. It had once been a large compound, but almost everything had been carried away long ago. The concrete was cracked and riddled with scrappy weeds. To one side, there was a large steel drum. She didn’t know enough about old power plants to know what it was used for. Past that was the station itself.
It was the very same plant to which Fox Fuels would have shipped its inventory. Perhaps Mr. Bevin had come here to meet with utility personnel back in the day. Then, it would have housed massive, heavy machinery, but it had long since been hollowed out. The sun streamed in through giant, empty window panes, filling up the belly of the station with golden beams. Tendrils of ivy snaked up its walls. Air moved through it as if it breathed. She started as something moved behind her — a fox scrabbling up a pile of rubble from a caved-in wall. It turned to stare at her for a moment. Before she could think to photograph him, he disappeared.
This place, she realized, was alive. Despite a faint, rancid smell she noticed only briefly, the plant had been reclaimed. Nature is resilient, she thought. We are resilient.
Principal Chief Batista had said during Atonement Ceremony that we must channel our utalawuhska to ensure that we never repeat our mistakes. But maybe utalawuhska is only half of the equation. Given the past, how do we live in the present? Can we allow ourselves to do so with joy and gratitude? What would that be called?
Nudahvundiyv, she decided. Kindness toward the past.
Willa dug through her satchel. The anthracite Grandma Marne had given her blinked and glimmered. It felt strangely satisfying to hold in her hand. Kneeling, she dug a small hole, where she placed the anthracite and whatever spirits it contained. Then she covered it and said a short prayer.
“Wado. I am grateful. You’re free now.”
She stood there a moment longer. Then she made her way back to the CTV, and home.
Abby Rashid (she/her/hers) is a grant writer for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C. Her writing has also appeared in the Silk Road Review and the Hartford Courant.
Amelia K. Bates is a Wisconsin-based illustrator and the senior designer at Grist, and holds a certificate in Natural Science Illustration from the University of Washington-Seattle. She draws inspiration from birds, plants, and other denizens of the natural world, and is currently at work on a tarot deck featuring Wisconsin’s flora and fauna.