by Ana Cristina Rossi
Translated by Allison MacKey
For Patricia Marraco
Lalia scratched the place between her eyebrows. For months there had been a stinging feeling, sometimes just a tickle. What could it be?
But why worry about that, after everything else …
She could hardly believe it, so fast it had happened. And yet they always known it would be like that. Had she been left alone just in order to tell the story? But tell it to whom?
The Research Center where I found myself – alone – was on the skirts of a volcano in a country to the south of Central America.
From the observatory I could see the two seas a great many kilometers away. There did not appear to be any life other than an orange-colored moss. No more plants, no animals old or new, no humans. Not one living tree was left. The sky had turned something between red and orange. At night the stars looked reddish. And it kept raining. Not continuously, as before, but on and off. The water collected in the Center”s tanks. All I had to do was clean them with a brush because they formed algae. Yes, some things stayed the same, like the formation of algae. And my breathing. My eating, drinking. Though not like before. I ate little, I ate flowers, the only species to have survived, like me. Back in the village we called these flowers “chinese”, because they were from the Asiatic genus vinca. They tasted good but the most nutritious, the most important thing, were the seeds packed inside green pods that burst when ripe. I had to take care to pick them before they burst open, dispersing the tiny globes that made me feel extraordinarily good.
I was totally alone and felt at peace. That was strange.
What”s more, I need less and less water, I thought while scratching myself again (something odd was sprouting there between my eyebrows). There were weeks in which just a few drops were enough or I would simply go outside and let my skin absorb the humidity. I felt it penetrate my pores. My skin had changed. I did not want to accept the fact but yes, my skin was strangely smooth and almost rubbery, like the skin of certain frogs. Besides, there were no frogs anymore, no anything.
But I loved getting wet, getting under the rain. The air had turned warm and then hot since the catastrophe. I stripped off, surrendered to the downpour and stuck out my tongue. It was the water absorbed along the tongue and the skin that most kept me going.
But in fact, the strangest thing of all was my breathing. I had to inhale far less. The intakes of breath were longer, deeper, but at really great intervals. This act, breathing, had been the defining process, the change that made me a survivor. I didn’t have slightest idea why or how this had come to be. I had seen others die gasping like fish out of the water.
The change in the air had been sudden, but that we had expected too. It happened over a couple of nights. Two nights, because it was when we were going to sleep that we felt it. Not me, but just after going to bed I heard my parents and sister coughing. And little by little the uncontrollable cough of the other researchers and staff. Afterwards they were afflicted by a sort of asthma, heaving for air they could not reach. Only me, of all of us, could breathe normally. But nobody noticed, so wrapped up were they in their own distress.
About an hour later the troubles had calmed down and the next morning everyone seemed better. But nobody had any illusions. They got in touch with other centers and sounded the alarm to the world. It was their duty to do so. The world had to know what was happening: oxygen levels were sinking dangerously low.
We called the people still in the village, got together and then said goodbye, each thinking “Well, this is it.” Because once started, there was no way of stopping it.
Twenty years back, probably yes.
Twenty years. What did twenty years signify?
The solar panels were still functioning and would keep going for a while. They were excellent and I knew how to look after them. I used their energy to read at night. I re-read my library, my parents’ books and those of the Center that I could understand. But, what did 20 years mean? How many years had I been alone in the station?
I went out into the old garden looking for the trunk where I used to make incisions, recording the passing years by their shortest day. Because there were no seasons anymore.
Even as a child I lived by the rhythm of the Pacific coastal zone of Central America: rainy season, dry season.
I well-remembered the year in which the seasons disappeared. It was when the village was still intact, with its schools, colleges, and its twenty thousand inhabitants. I was in fifth grade. It was the year of the last campaign. I had seen my mother frequently go down to the capital with other researchers. From there they would take planes, hopping from country to country, staying a month in each of the Empire’s capital cities.
My mother: not very tall, dark skinned, long black hair, straight and soft, turned up nose, almost too much so, showing her nostrils, which made her look nice and friendly.
That year of the intense campaign the dry season failed to arrive, the harvests rotted, there was little to eat. When I was born the bees had already died. All of them, wild or domesticated. They said it was the agrochemicals or excess of civilization’s electromagnetic waves that killed them off, but nobody knew for sure. Loads of other pollenizers died too: bats, hummingbirds, bluebottles, small cockroaches.
The only sure pollenizer was the wind. And the human hand. In the village people told ancient stories of massive harvests of papaya, peaches, strawberries, oranges, apples and melons, of exquisite pumpkins and courgettes. I had trouble believing them.
“With the death of the bees and other pollenizers half of the world’s population died too,” my father told me. “And everyone thought that was the solution, that with less people things would be better. But things got worse.” This was the world into which I was born, a “worsened” world, but the only one I knew, and I loved it anyway.
Yes, a world of heat, constant storms, and either drought or non-stop rain. A world with little diversity in food, organisms and systems, but I had my dogs, my rabbits, there were trees and rivers and this “worse” world pleased me. People had adapted. I helped them to pollenize fruits and vegetables by hand and did not miss the bees or lament them because I had never known them, only in photos and videos.
When the dry season failed our crops rotted. There was hunger and we grew very thin. A long time back the Research Center had entreated the small farmers in the area to get rid of cows and pigs because their farting and breath were among the major causes of the worldwide disaster. The farmers consented to a point: but they kept their goats, claiming that they did not fart as much as cows. Goat cheese and milk – and even goat meat sometimes – helped us survive that year. And subsequent years. Because from that moment on there were no more seasons. In some tropical regions the dry season predominated; and when it came to ourselves we mainly had rain due to living in what is called, or used to be called, the Intertropical Convergence Zone.
But again, people adapted: we began to cultivate fruits and vegetables in greenhouses so that they would not rot and to regulate their growth since the rains could be both continuous and intermittent, erratic. To the despair of my parents and the folks from the Center, the year of no dry season saw the farmers go back to pigs and cows, semi-stabled, feeding them with genetically modified grain pollenized by the wind and resistant to excessive water.
In that year there was no dry season on the flanks of our volcano, nor were there any seasons in the rest of the tropics or in the temperate zone, only a change in the length of daylight, shorter or longer days. That’s all that was left of this worsened world, the world my mother had traveled alone and in company, pleading with leaders to make a last effort and to decree a state of emergency.
Lalia recalled the Great Resistance and a group that had invented a new, simple and revolutionary communications technology called the Assange technique. I remember it because they were happy and used the Assange technique to unite the resistance, those ever more numerous dissidents who chose to leave the system. The Great Resistance began and spread quickly inside both capitals, the Asian and the American.
The American resistance was an enormous coalition of communities that had taken over urban terrain left vacant – the masses of empty plots and houses fallen into decay due to population shrinkage. There they had set up greenhouses and plantations, becoming self-sufficient through an ingenious barter system. Certain communities pollenized cotton fields by hand and exchanged that crop with food-producing communities. They spun the cotton into clothes, they were potters and with the wood and materials of the ruined houses they handmade everything they needed. They made paper from vegetable fibers and their own ink too. The communities had their own sources of water. The movement grew rapidly for a very simple reason: it made people happy. And the Assange system meant that were always in communication.
Backlash and revenge came quickly. There was no planetary system of justice and so, as happened with the death of the pollenizers, it was impossible to say who was guilty. But since the resistance fighters were the only people who did not buy cell phones, did not buy meat or bottled water or antidepressants or neuroleptics, and they never got ill, people suspected the Great Corporations were guilty.
First, they poisoned the fresh-water springs of the resistance fighters. Then they eroded their fragile agricultural ecosystems. Without food and water, they were crushed.
The Great Resistance also broke out in the Asian capital. The world population had been slashed in half but there were still so many Chinese that millions joined the Resistance. I remember seeing videos of men and women manually pollenizing acres and acres of apples and pears in a special area where the climate was more or less stable. This was before we lost the seasons. I also saw them doing collective exercises in the public squares and the fields – thousands of people beautifully synchronized, and my mother’s words came to my mind: “It’s a type of Tai-Chi”. The empire used planes to eliminate the Asian Grand Resistance: poisoning them from the air.
Of course, none of this was let known. We knew it because of what remained of the Assange system and from the videos. The world’s press said that a strange bird flu had killed half a million gringos and a million Chinese, what bad luck.
The result was similar but not the same in both capitals. In the Asian capital it went fast and there were no survivors. In the American capital there were survivors who rejoined the masses and continued to resist in their hearts. That’s why there were some, like my mother, who carried on the campaigns. They appealed to the masses exhausted by subsistence living. But how was one to convince them not to eat meat when all they had was filthy scraps of cow and pig flesh? The mass production of these animals in subhuman conditions had skyrocketed since the extinction of the bees and the masters of that industry were as rich as the old petroleum magnates or the moguls of the day controlling pharmaceuticals, bottled water, gas, and the latest generation of millimeter wave technology and cell phones.
Lalia has horrible memories of the last campaign, the year in which the seasons came to a halt. Mama, who was never depressed, for the first time looked worn down. I remembered the conversations – my brothers and I were always present – at meals times with Mama saying: “The leaders won”t listen to us.” “They have eyes but don’t see, ears that don’t hear.” And then, after going to bed, I listened secretly and heard whispers, Papa saying to Mama: “We must prepare them.”
Mama replied, anxiously: “No, they are too young, we cannot condemn them, there’s still hope.” And Papa: “But it”s a mad hope, like believing in God.” Little by little I had begun to grasp, from bits and pieces of their talk, that what they hoped for was a new ice age that would arrive when the Gulf Stream was blocked due to a surfeit of fresh water in the Atlantic. But the longed-for ice age never came and so when everyone started coughing and coughing for the second night in a row, when I heard them sinking into a terrible sort of gooey asthma, seeking air but unable to breathe, even when going out to the street or into the garden, we then knew that the oxygen levels had plummeted to the point of no return.
Lalia was the only one who managed to keep breathing and with no warning that this would happen to her.
I was twenty years old, tall and strong. I got my height and physical strength from my father. From my mother came my black eyes, brown skin and long, straight hair.
I sensed them in the night, stretched out on the ground, mostly outside in the gardens and the street. Men, women, chickens, beasts of burden and domestic pets. All dead.
I picked up a lantern and went into the village. I wandered through the districts that had been empty for a long time but in which, up until that night, some families had still been living. I was hoping to find someone like me, some survivor, a frog or a dog. Not a thing. Nothing was alive. Not even the rats.
I knew that in the rising heat the bodies would start rotting immediately and poisoning the air even more and, even though I could breathe it, the stench would be unbearable.
I could not stay a minute longer.
I grabbed a shovel and in the night by lamplight, began digging, spooked to find dead worms.
In that moment knowledge flooded me and I was no longer afraid: nothing could survive because the whole planet needed oxygen. Everyone but me. I buried Mama, Papa and my little sister in the garden and chanted to them: “Earth, be soft on them.” Then I filled a knapsack with food – oatmeal bars, dried meat, powdered milk –, put on a cloak, a sweater and climbed to the top of the volcano.
It was not hard going, I felt doubly strong. I arrived as the sun was setting. I saw the corpses of the park rangers in the hallway of the welcome center. Dragging the bodies to the edge of the crater in the waning light, I rolled them down into the volcano. “Ashes and acid be smooth on them,” I said aloud, crossing myself, a gesture I had seen made by the woman who had cared for me when I was young, the woman who gave me a Bible.
In the volcano, Lalia had the welcome center to sleep in. She ate a handful of the rations and drank sulfurous water from the creek. She felt healthy.
I stayed there for weeks, on the summit, next to the crater. When the stink of dead animals on the bleak plateau finally abated, I began thinking of going back to the Research Center.
Up there on the volcano I came to the realization that I hardly needed to eat or drink.
When I was halfway down it began to rain.
By the time I got to the facilities of the Research Center it was coming down in torrents. I thought of Noah but then laughed. This was no Genesis – it was climate change.
But this time it rained more, continuously, not like a universal diluvium but enough to clean the bones and remains, for which I gave thanks, not knowing to whom or why.
All that had happened exactly six years, three months and five days ago, I told myself, feeling with my fingers the grooves for the years and the smaller incisions for the months and the days in the dead tree trunk.
And then I thought it was time to move. To go down to the coast, to the capital, to the interoceanic canal.
I spent several days gathering flowers and seeds. I put these and some clean clothes in a knapsack, took a hat, a waterproof, an umbrella, a lantern and sunblock.
Then I went down.
It took me time. As I followed the blacktop road littered with the skeletons of buses and cars. I noted that nothing was as I had once known it to be. The trees and all the plants, with the exception of the vincas and some rare ferns, had all died. A kind of moss covered everything, like orange seaweed. The sky at night was blacker than ever, the stars and moon redder. But most oppressive was the silence. Before you would have heard the sounds of vegetation with its thousands of insects. Now the only sound was the wind or the rain, when those were present. Not one croak or buzz was left, not one miserable frog or bird.
The birds were what I missed the most.
It started raining again. I put on my raincoat but did not open the umbrella.
I was thinking of what I would encounter down there and remembered when the sea level had risen. It was a year or two before the slump in oxygen. It had risen 130 centimetres, but that had not stopped the canal from working, they simply built dykes to protect it from tidal surges and had reinforced the installations. Part of the capital had been abandoned and some people had died, but the rest of the city dwellers moved their activities to higher ground and life went on. Life went on all over the world. The New York subway became permanently flooded, part of New York was deserted, hundreds of thousands had died. Yes, in the coastal cities and above all on the islands the death toll was large, but the global empire was cheerful because less people meant less problems, the scientists in the Center told us and I was musing on that while descending to the capital.
Then I saw it. The capital. In ruins.
The water level had risen several meters and the canal installations lay underwater, only the tops of the cranes visible. Who knows what else lay beneath, I thought, since half of the city had disappeared? There were houses sill, only on the hillsides though, but these dwellings were in a terrible state, doors and windows fallen in, tile and zinc roofing shattered.
It was very strange seeing the Paitilla skyscrapers looming out of the sea. The sea’s color had become yellowish in parts, red elsewhere. There must have been a huge increase in sargasso or other algae, I thought. A strange, very strong smell blocked my throat. But even more asphyxiating was to gaze at such a desolation and I felt the need for a living being – woman, dog, child, little fox – to share what my eyes beheld. But after a while the movement of the sea, the sound of the waves crashing against the debris was soothing and helped me to overcome sadness.
I walked to the wooded hill whose trees now lay flat on the ground and whose flowing water had dried up. That’s when I realized that if there was no more oxygen, then the rain could not be water. What was it?
In the high parts of the hill lived the rich. I could see their immense mansions: collapsed, fallen to pieces, broken down. The only building still standing was a luxury hotel, its billboard intact: Gran Hotel Ancón.
She took the walkway to the Gran Hotel Ancón when she saw her brother Abel coming the other way. Abel! What was he doing here? He had gone to study in the Asian capital of the empire years before. How come he was not dead?
They ran. Hugged each other.
When we pulled apart, I noted something odd between Abel’s eyebrows. It was like a tiny boiled egg. I stared at it and asked him if it itched
“At the beginning it itched, but no more.”
I felt my heart beginning to thump and remembered I had one of these government allotted neuroleptic pills in my trouser pocket. I took it out and put it under my tongue.
Abel saw me.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing, I took a pill, don’t be so nosy.”
Abel shrugged his shoulders. He was four years older than her. His skin now tanned like leather, the rims of his eyelids burned, the hands wrinkled. But he was not thin. Lalia observed his breathing. It was like hers: slow, deep, widely spaced. Suddenly he said to her: “You are pretty, Lalia.”
Lalia felt sick.
I felt nauseous.
“They all died,” I explained, “Mama, Papa, Lucía, the people who stayed in the village, those in the Center…”
He stopped me with a raised hand.
“Yes, Lalia, I guessed as much. I knew.”
“How did you get here? Haven’t you been in China?”
“No. I was in Siberia studying the permafrost. Do you know that the imperial chiefs finally listened to us and put up cooling towers …?”
“That didn”t work,” I said.
“No, it didn”t work. They would have worked thirty years earlier.”
“Before we were born,” I said, for no reason.
“When I was just born,” corrected Abel.
“Was it the methane trapped in the permafrost?” It was a pointless question.
“Yes, and then the methane from the sea bottom was freed up.”
“That’s right,” said Abel with a sour smile.
“How did you get here?” I repeated
“I survived because I had a mask and because methane is lighter than air and rises fast,” he told me.
“No. That’s crazy! It can’t have been the mask. It was something else.”
“Yes, something else, but remember I was in the permafrost. The bubbles could have burst in my face. If I didn’t have a mask …”
“But if it’s lighter than air the bubbles would not have burst in your face. It was not the mask that protected you. What did you do afterwards?”
“Afterwards I took my compass and walked. We walked for months. There were fifteen of us at the outset. All with masks on. There were violent electric storms and intense lightning. One after the other they all died. After six months I was alone. I kept walking.”
“You walked through Siberia and crossed the Bering Strait and came down here, all by foot? I can’t believe it, it’s impossible,” I said.
“It was not easy,” replied Abel. “Water everywhere. I crossed the Bering Strait in a solar powered vessel. The whole trip took years.”
“It took you approximately six years and four months,” I told him.
“How do you know?” asked Abel.
“I have been keeping count on a tree trunk up there in the center,” I said, feeling threatened.
“What happens is that not only ships, but also solar powered cars were working, those that had not been damaged or vandalized. I covered large stretches in cars. Crossed the whole of Canada.”
“Now I understand. Tell me, was there nobody else?”
“There was no other living thing, Lalia. Nothing, nobody.”
“Are you sure, really sure?”
“Completely sure, my little sister.”
Even though the pill was having an effect, I was frightened.
“So, the magnates must be hidden in Antarctica,” I said. Ever since we were kids my father called the world’s richest people ‘magnates’.
“For sure, together with the scientists who sold their souls to the devil, so to speak, surrounded by oxygen soon to give out. In any case, they will soon all be dead, if they aren’t already,” said Abel grimacing.
“Lalia,” he continued, “let’s find a place with some shade. That hotel we saw might be the place, the Gran Ancón. We could spend the night there.”
I agreed and, hiding my reluctance, followed him.
The Gran Ancón was a mess of garbage and damp, but otherwise in one piece. Of course, nothing was working, including the lift. We found rooms on the first floor. Finding some plastic brooms in working order we swept and cleaned two rooms. Luckily, they could be locked from the inside with a solid chain. But how strong could Abel be?
We went out. Abel looked for the terrace. I followed him with my lantern, since night had fallen. The terrace looked out on the sea, now closer. The tables and chairs, also made of plastic, were dirty but in good shape. Abel cleaned them with a cloth. We took seats.
“Turn off the lantern,” he said.
“Don’t have to. It’s solar and will last a long time,” I replied.
“Put it out I said,” Abel sounded authoritarian. “I have candles.”
“Don’t be silly. Candles won”t light or burn without oxygen.”
“Ah yes, what a fool. It was a childish idea. These I took from a First Nations crafts shop in another country, up in the north,” he said, excusing himself in embarrassment.
“I suppose the First Nations also succumbed,” I commented.
“Yes. Why would they have survived?”
“I don’t know. Because we are still alive?”
“I have my theory.”
“Don’t tell it to me now,” I stopped him, my heart fluttering even though the pill had worked. “I’m worried about this ugly thing you have between the eyebrows, Abel, like a boiled quail egg.”
“It’s part of this whole thing. Look, you have one coming out too. Like a membrane.”
I touched myself and it was true. Soft, filmy. It didn’t sting any more.
“What types of climate did you pass through?”
“There were no half measures. In some zones it rained all the time, in others never. But you know what, I hardly need water.”
“How do we know it’s water? It can’t be water. Well, whatever it is, I don’t need much either.”
“Tell me, how were Papa, Mama and Lucy at the end?”
“They were fine for many years, surprisingly fine, as you’ll know from their letters. But later they took antidepressants and sedatives. By imperial order the government bought them and distributed them for free, to everyone. The Center was opposed on principle. Eventually, they accepted it.”
“Lucía took them too? How old was she when it all came to an end?”
“Seventeen and yes, she took them too.”
“Me no. I never needed them. Papa towards the end talked a lot but I don”t know if it was the effect of the pills. He talked about what he called the best time of his life, you know, when he was still single and helped our country to unite with this country of the interoceanic canal, after the total disappearance of the bees, when most of the population died. There was no point having two depopulated countries, better to join them together. He was extremely proud of having lent a hand to that end.”
I did not like the look of Abel’s eyes. But I was hungry. I took out the small box of flowers and seeds.
“I eat this, would you like some?”
“I also eat those things. I discovered them in the United States.”
Abel took out a small bag and opened it.
After eating they felt very sleepy. But Lalia wanted to keep talking, despite Abel’s insistence that they should go to bed.
“What do you think was the tipping point? The death of the bees?” I asked.
“Yes, the bees dying was one …”, Abel’s eyes were closing.
“And the other?” insisted Lalia.
Abel was almost asleep …
“When they crushed the Great Resist …”, he murmured, face against the tabletop.
“Let”s go to sleep,” Lalia begged, shaking him. She didn’t want to have to lift him to his bed nor leave him outside.
Lalia helped him to his room, where he fell on the bed. Then she went to her room and after making sure the security chain was in place, lied down and fell asleep. At some moment by dawn she heard footsteps in the corridor, someone forcing the door. But the chain did not yield.
That’s when the terror she felt on encountering Abel became a certainty. This was the future lying in wait for her. Like in the Bible. Because it went beyond climate change. Her brother was going to force her to reproduce with him. Like the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.
No, she would not accept that, nothing would induce her to copulate with Abel. She would not have children with her brother. Not even if it were the only way to save humankind.
Stealthily she left the room barefoot. On tip toes she approached the door to Abel’s room. She heard him snoring.
She went down to the ground floor. After searching for a while she found it.
She went up again. As she had suspected, Abel had not locked his door.
He was deeply asleep, lying on his side. Immobile.
Lalia moved rapidly and sure. When she felt the knife sink into his neck, cutting the artery, she vomited and vomited, pressing it in even deeper.
She had always hated killing animals.
Anacristina Rossi was born in Costa Rica and studied in France and The Netherlands. Her first novel Maria la Noche (1985) was published by Lumen in Spain and was translated into French by Editorial Actes Sud. Her second novel La Loca de Gandoca (1992) is considered the first ecofeminist novel of Central America, has sold more than a million copies, and is required reading in high school in Costa Rica. It has also been read in universities abroad. Her third novel Limón Blues received the Latina American prize for Narrative from Casa de Las Américas, Cuba, and it is recommended reading in high school in Costa Rica. Limón Reggae, her fourth novel, was translated into Italian by Aracne Editrice, Rome. Her fifth novel La Romana Indómita tells the story of Julia, the daughter of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. Her sixth novel Tocar a Diana is autobiographical, narrated from the couch of a psychoanalyst and tells the story of how her maternal grandfather abused his children, his grandchildren, his nephews and nieces in total impunity. Rossi has received the National Novel Award many times in Costa Rica and Chile distinguished her with the Presidentail Medal of the Birth of Pablo Neruda, for the social scope of her work. She has also written many short stories. Some have been translated into English and French and published in anthologies abroad.