Bear
Illustration by Gustav Mützel

Illustration by Gustav Mützel

I am stopping more than my legs and lungs demand to look around and see where I am. I am tasting the air and I am listening to the way the wind moves around me. I can hear things sometimes, prophesies, warnings of cold nights or rain or the kind of wind that grabs fire from lighters and tent stakes from loose soil. There are stories in the sky too, clouds that speak of future storms and of snow and of days so bright and wide-open that you hunger for shade and shaded things to look at with sun-tired eyes.

I am just learning how to use my eyes and my ears, my tongue and my fingertips, my legs and my lungs and my slow human brain. I am looking at things and I am seeing a part of their story. I might watch the way that snow bends a pine tree and I might begin to understand something about snow and something about pine trees. I might see bear scat next to the trail and not know the red berries in it or if the bear was young or old or male or female or sick or happy. I think that if I saw enough bear scat that I might begin to understand something about bears. The woods tell stories with things I have been trained to ignore, and there is magic even in refuse.

I have sat and watched a bear dig up ants in a small meadow. I have wondered at his heavy, cinnamon coat and the muscles bulging beneath it, and I have smiled at the upturned corners of his lips, the wandering mountains of fur above his eyes lending expression to his strange face. I have tried to think bear thoughts and I have tried to dream bear dreams and I have awoken in the night, warm in the down and sheer nylon of my sleeping bag, and I have felt melt away the contours of a fur coat, the musty warmth of a well-dug burrow.

I have imagined these things and I have seen a bear differently than the bears I saw before, on television or while camping, at the zoo and in books I read about the woods. I did not understand then that there are stories happening all around me, and I had not yet imagined the strange, long lives of furred creatures rambling through dense forest and along the rocky banks of creeks, pawing at tree stumps, climbing the branches of tall trees. Thirty years a black bear might live. Thirty writhing springtimes full of green grass and cubs and rushing water. Thirty golden summers spent pulling blackberries from thorny vines with soft, furred lips. Thirty cold winters spent dreaming in the snow-covered dirt. Thirty years is less time than was needed to make heroes out of Kurt Cobain and Ilya Zhitomirskiy, to make legends out of Jeanne D’arc and Caligula. It is all the time I have lived and it has felt like many lifetimes.

This is a beautiful thing to hold inside your head - the life of a bear. I have held his three decades in my mind and imagined his life: hot, roaming summers, pawfuls of larvae, buzzing insects and sunsets. These are the things you can see when you see a bear in the woods, and this is the way that a bear can look - like a thing with a life, a creature made up of habits and desires and memories.

The world is big, and strange, and filled with stories unlike my own, and to know something of the lives happening around and without me is to know something bigger than myself. I would live an eternity in the paw prints of a black bear. I would drink deeply of his rivers and I would hold his bleached bones in my hands and imagine his whole life unfolding around me. I would chase him in the night, and I would wish him gone, but I would know also the magic of his fur in the light of my headlamp, his panting breath, his musky smell, his strange life - rich and foreign, unlike mine, and precious.

Kelly Kate Warren
#10 - The Girl Before Time
1-cave-of-the-hands-argentina-javier-truebamsf.jpg

Far, far back some soft-bodied rodent crawled deep into the damp soil of a bountiful earth and lay there with her heart pounding as violence unfolded above her and a billion beings were struck dead by a meteor. More died slow deaths in choking dust and heat, and still, she followed food and water and dug dark, deep homes for her children and a few million years passed. She lost her tail and climbed down from the lush, green safety of trees and she fashioned stone into tools for killing and for eating, and over time she stood naked and lithe-limbed in a home fashioned from skin and sticks and she brought forth sons and daughters who would invent the world. All of them filled up with the story of her luck and her skill, some blue-eyed or dark skinned, and others with large lungs or soft lips or a crooked smile. Wit and shyness and a keen sense of smell. A billion renditions of the same script written at the moment life coiled itself into the spiral of protein that has flowered and mutated into hospitals filled with healthy-lunged screaming children. Doctors and lawyers and candlestick-makers.

For a thousand thousand years we stood on our two legs and pawed at the earth and shaped everything we saw into something comely and comfortable. And we burnt forests and filled the ocean with plastic and styrofoam and we killed the things with 4 legs or 6 legs or no legs at all. We turned our shells and beads into bits of green paper and we spent a few hundred years chasing dreams built out of man-made things. We invented a new world, and it was terrible, and it came crashing down a hundred times, a thousand, before we learned something about balance and about love and about patience, and maybe it took seeing all that we know and love from 100 lightyears away away, the whole earth hidden in a small twinkling star of hope and pleasure and war and cancer and birth and sex, floating in the empty black of space.

And so, a girl sits dirty-legged on some strange mountaintop imagining dinosaurs and great blue whales and what girls must have felt like when they were all still trapped on a dying earth. Her pupils are schools of fish, her teeth are snow-capped mountains. Her skin is the rich, dark red of a tree they once called mahogany, and her hair is a shadow curtain that ripples in the wind, concealing and then revealing the graceful outlines of her bone structure.

She is deeply human. The concentration of a billion blood lines left to combine for a few million years. Her strange eyes peer out at a world outlined in gamma rays, twinkling with the light thrown by radiation, all lit up in vivid hues of ultraviolet and infrared. Her bones are slender steel and her skin of her palms deep cream, the half moons of her fingernails opalescent. Her body rumbles like a hot river of blood when she moves, the muscles in her long legs rippling beneath the wrappings of flesh, and she is standing now, a tall shape slipping between tree branches and across granite. Her feet are bare, the soles of them stiff as leather, but warm, alive, and padding across the coarseness of gravel and whispering softness of fallen leaves with equal grace. She moves like a mountain cat, her limbs loose and limber, her muscles smooth under her twitching hide. She wears her skin like it’s all made of fingertips; reading the wind as it caresses her shoulders. She feels the dampness of the soil seeping up through her calves, and she senses crushed leaves as they flick across her toes. She twitches, the snub of her nose always moving even as she pauses, frozen, slipping invisible into the brush and trees and broken rock. She disappears for 30 seconds, and emerges when she blinks, rapidly, her body moving beneath her like river water, insistent, fluid, rhythmic.

She moves through the woods with practiced grace. Hiding in the shadows, to stride, deliberate, through moon-lit meadows with her head held high. You could hear the night exhale as she passed.

-----

When we hacked evolution we dragged out the oldest of sales pitches: self-improvement as the path to enlightenment.

And with it came the thrill of innovation, and designs coaxed out of bits of phosphate and sugar. A great orchestra of human stories, sky-blue eyes and weak ankles and strong vocal cords. And human bodies began to change at the same rate we untangled the human brain, fatty and lit up with the starlight of 100 billion neurons. Bodies melt like candles now, pores small and perfectly designed to sweat out toxins and excess heat. Hair follicles translate the wind into prophesies, lungs filter out the toxins in unfamiliar atmospheres. And so we rode through time with our fingers tangled in the long, silky mane of evolution's supple neck. We stepped from generation to generation with the fluid, thrumming steps of a dance troupe, bodies moving in unison, stories woven out of movement and time. And we took pills and powders and bitter liquids, swallowed wincingly or with vigor, pushed through hollow metal needles into the hot, bloody waterfalls flowing through our veins. We took hammers to the world around us, and created a place to live, but it was only when we turned the hammers onto our own bodies that humanity found its purpose.

Creation. All of it. We partook in the story of life in the universe. We learned to swim and then rode the waves like fleshy, pink dolphins. We controlled. We coaxed. We fucked and fed and found ourselves failing.

What do you wish to be? What do you wish to see and hear and feel? We thought long and hard of these things and began to trim the fat with the simplest of stone tools. Knapped for scraping meat from bone, and nothing more, but in time we tool steel and bent it into the shape of a scalpel, and we crafted tools in the forms of potions, pills, liquids injected into veins and flesh, and viruses altered to carry messages into the very manual depicting human potential. We grew stronger, and our lives grew longer, our bodies hale and hearty.

---—

“What is it?” he asked.

“Earth,” she said.

“What is that?”

“The planet my people came from.”

He watched the blaze of light in the night sky.

“I feel that,” she said, “don’t pity me. I never saw that place, no one in my family did for 100,000 generations. No one’s lived there for a few billion years. It’s a trash heap.”

He turned towards her, fur lit up in the moonlight, the disks of his eyes flat and liquid. He cocked his head, “it must be hard.”

She scoffed, “Not really, I’ve been there in VR. It was nice once, but we ruined it.”

Whrl looked away, and ruffled his feathers in a pattern her translator whispered meant that he was unsettled. She said nothing.

"What was it like?" Asked Whrl.

"We know, mostly. We recorded everything, but there are gaps, and I think most about the Girl Before Time."

"Who?"

"My mother from a long ways back, before we recorded things, and her daughters from the time of the Datawars, and all the other girls who lived and died without leaving an imprint.”

He said nothing, only turned the white disk of his face towards the light.

"You can read about it, look at pictures, sometimes listen to audio, but there were a billion lives lost to the dark before technology was developed for documentation. People lived one life and were forgotten. I am haunted by that, always, the billions of milkmaids and beggars and slaves, painters and brothers and lovers, alive and then dead on a glowing green earth.”

"I'm sure you have simulations?'

"Yes, but they are fiction. Representative of generalizations.” She paused, "I am of my people. We must climb things because they are there, and so to find unexplored territory, a chunk of time unaccounted for, I can't help but wonder."

"Your people are very strange."

"We cannot leave things well enough alone."

They watched the stars, named, and known, and thought for awhile.

"What do you think she was like?" Asked Whrl.

She thought for awhile, and then spoke in the tone of prophesy.

"I think that she took great joy in things that were beautiful. I think that she liked food and music and dance and to sleep well and have good dreams. I think that she was born and she loved and was sad sometimes. I think that she bled once a month and consumed large quantities of water and looked forward to the summer. I think that she hoped that she might live a life so wonderous as to be remembered.”

"She sounds like you," said Whrl.

"I know. We haven't really changed very much. We are sick less and live longer. We are smarter and less possessive. We have suppressed our rage. But we are still the World Destroyers.”

And she shrank, radiating shame.

“Evolution takes time,” he said.

“I know,” she responded, “I know, but it doesn't change that which has been.”

She was quiet for some time, and so still as to disappear into the landscape. When she spoke she did not move and it was if her voice came from the air.

“We would have done it to you, you know. We would have come and sold you lies for access to the resources we wanted from you, we would have pushed you into work camps in factories we built from your homes, and we would have worked your children dead. We would have sucked your oceans dry and cracked every one of your mountains open. And in a few thousand years, we would have left nothing but dust and astroids where there was once your whole world.”

"But you didn't," said Whrl, "you exhausted your planet and destroyed 872 others, until enough of your kind deflected and you fought the Last War."

"Who won?" She asked.

"No one. Everyone. But many people had to die first. Your kind often requires death in payment for change."

She sat. Watched the way moonlight poured over the mountains, watched the way lights twinkled amidst the trees of the valley, the way a million lifeforms had been coaxed into collaboration to build a Forest, a City, a City in a Forest on a planet writing with life. A planet built from space trash and hope and ingenuity.

"I'm sorry" she whispered.

"I know," said Whrl, "because of the things that you do.”

Kelly Kate Warren
#0: Sinking
Illustration from an 1852 icelandic translation of the Grimm fairytale "Snow White."

Illustration from an 1852 icelandic translation of the Grimm fairytale "Snow White."

There is a violence to the waking that never becomes familiar. It has been 100 years since they last woke, and those years stretched on endless and dreamless and utterly unmemorable, only to crack open, egg-like, and spew forth a sticky awakening.

Harlan gasps. He takes deep breaths of thick liquid, and choking, doubles over amongst a spiderweb of wires and tubes. His bed is a bath of clear, viscous liquid, draining quite quickly now, and it perches, nest like, in a vast white room filled up with many stacks of beds like his, the lower level of which are popped open like seed pods, and sprouting many sleep-sick humans, their skin hairless and ghastly-pale.

It is hard to shake 100 years of sleep, and Harlen spends a great deal of time vomiting up saline, silky dollops of preservatives and nutrient gels, his skin bleached pale in the blue light of cryosleep, and his thoughts pulling like taffy through the morass of a long-stilled brain. Around him shudder the bodies of his crew mates, they, too, wire-wrapped and groggy, eyes pulled towards the gentle pulsing of holoscreens hovering like thick mirages of color and light around grey human bodies. Harlan listens as a gentle voice explains the story unfolding around him, and the nature of his life and sleep, and the task at hand that renders this ugly awakening glorious and good.

Love does not dissolve during cryosleep. Nor does hate, nor shame, nor sadness. 100 calm years do not bring order to one’s thoughts, or acceptance of one’s choices, or resolve to one’s life. Harlen fell asleep in love with a ship and a crew and a hope, and as he wakens, he feels himself fill with the memories of this love, and now his eyes are pawing over the familiar shapes of his crew mates, and he is drunk with the idea of 100 years spent waiting, bodies motionless in blue-lit beds, witch-cursed by technology and the hand-wringing of a species trapped on a small planet, shrunk into invisibility now by time and distance.

“Hello Harlan,” chimes a soft, feminine voice, “I hope you had a good sleep.”

Harlan pauses. “'arlan,” he says, the word heavy and familiar in his mouth.

His eyes pull upwards from the dancing light of the holoscreen to the sun-lit face of a pleasant woman who smiles down amicably from her place at his bedside. She extends a hand to his wrist, her expression one of love and concern, and he feels the warmth of a soft, dry hand caressing his own, and finds his body relaxing.

“My name is Maria, and I’m a nurse. I have administered a shot of some medicine that will help you relax, ok?”

Harlan nods, his head a deadweight on his spindly neck, and Maria smiles indulgently and gives his hand a squeeze.

“The year is 2222, it has been 100 years, 0 hours, and 27 minutes since you entered cryosleep with your crew. You are on the good ship “Hope,” currently at a location [xx] lightyears from Earth, and [xx] lightyears from Betelgeuse, in the [xx] quadrant of the [xx] galaxy. Your name is Harlan Gatekeeper and you are one of 10 engineers who volunteered for a sleep-dependent mission. You have slept for 100 years, will wake for a month to work with your team and myself, and then sleep again. “Hope” will arrive at her destination in approximately 917 years, a planet that we have determined to be habitable. You have been chosen to keep the ship running on her long mission, and are one of the few humans who will experience both launch and landing. In 917 years, you will be step onto the soil of a new world.”

He chews each word like bubble gum, his tongue heavy and strange in his mouth and his thoughts like schools of fish dodging his grasping mind as they would a large, graceless predator. He opens his mouth to respond and a waterfall of clear liquid pours out with a gurgle.

“'ool,” he chokes, and Maria laughs and wipes his mouth with a soft handkerchief, and gives his hand another squeeze.

“Don't fret, Harlan, you have been asleep for a very long time and it will take awhile to regain full use of your body and mind. I am monitoring your vial signs and will help guide you through this difficult time. I’m going to provide some stimulation just to make sure everything is working alright, ok? You can lay back now and enjoy the show.”

Harlan lays back, grateful to rest, and above and around him swirl colored smoke, and shapes like letters and animals, and sounds like birdsong and laughter, and across his body he sense the tickling of a breeze, and the poking of fingers, and warmth and coolness and wetness that appear and disappear, dream-like, his body relaxing and recoiling in a pattern that he finds soothing, and as the smells of hot asphalt and wild sage and baby powder wash over him, he finds himself slipping back into sleep, this time vibrant and memory-choked and full of lush dreamscapes from a world now far gone.

Harlan sleeps, and the world around him bustles and whispers and moans in anticipation. A great many things need fixing, and the ship is waiting.

———————

The morning comes with a cacophony of birdsong and golden sunlight pouring like honey across tousled bedsheets. Harlan wakes with his head sick from hangover, and his body rippling with weakness and pain, and assumes that he must have fallen on the way home from the bar and is now paying for a night wasted in drunken indignity. He remembers, blurredly, going out to drink with his crew mates, someplace nice for dinner and then some shitty, basement Chinatown bar where they would drink and dance when they were 10 years longer, and 10 years less inhibited, and students, still, at the best damn University in the world. But last night was different. Last night was the last night on Earth, for any of them, ever, and there is a strange thing that happens inside people when they say goodbye to everything they’ve ever known, for a future not just far, but also a long ways away from the lives of their peers and mothers and sisters and friends, and this is a feeling best tamed with legal whiskey and synthetic marijuana, and some illegal powder cooked up in the University labs with a taste like rancid rubber and a high like a warm bed on Christmas Eve.

The night floods his sick body with memories of light and laughter, and as he escapes the grey shade of sleep he begins to remember things that confuse him, like a woman named Maria and a job assignment on a ship bound for a strange future. He is filled with relief at the sound of footsteps, and the tinkling of glassware on a tray, and the breakfast smells of hot butter and oatmeal and citrusy-sweet orange juice. His bed reshape itself as he pulls himself into a seated position, and he notices that his vision is strange, blurry, and he struggles to focus on the shapes and colors that fill his visual field. The woman who enters bearing breakfast and a beauteous smile is familiar enough but unnameable, and Harlan is relieved to see that she is wearing a name tag, on which, with some difficulty, he reads:

Maria, AI, Crew Assistance Personnel

ID #326-R57-2771

Model #G3V-D2X-4529

“Hello Harlan,” she says, “My name is Maria, I’ve brought you breakfast. Don’t worry too much about talking yet, it’ll be hard, to start, and I’m plenty chatty for the two of us.”

“Helo, M-rea,” mumbles Harlan.

“He speaks!” she beams, “well you are damn tough, mister, after 100 years of silence most people can’t say much besides mumbles, but we’ll get you fixed up real soon, and talking like a regular chatterbox.”

Harlan tries to remember if he was ever a regular chatterbox, and in the haphazard piles of memories that make up his past, he finds a man who doesn’t speak much, and never speaks loud, and he wonders for a moment if this Maria woman will someday cry and yell things like “talk to me,” and “you can’t just sit there and say nothing,” and “I’m not a fucking mind-reader, Harlan, and I’m not the one who’s leaving.”

These memories bark like angry dogs, and his heart breaks a little at the thought of a mouth like 3 winter berries, a small, red gift arranged beneath silk-draped bones he once held to his hot, panting mouth, and loved, and left. He brushes these thoughts away, and refocuses on Maria, who is humming as she arranges his breakfast on the tray in front of him, and tutting like a mother hen over her chicks.

Harlan knows that Maria isn’t real. Or at least not a real girl - not even a real person. Maria was built by people like him, out of memories of people like the girl with a mouth like 3 winter berries, and she’s got guts made of gasoline, a brain made from lithium and iron, and a personality punched out in 0s and 1s. But she’s sweet, and her face glows with blood-lush human warmth, and her hands feel like hands should, and do the things that hands should do. Harlan likes her, immediately, and wonders who built her, and how much of her behavior is a reaction to his personality profile, and if she remembers who she fussed over before he woke up from his long nap.

“… now we won’t worry about getting too much done today, just a bit of PT and some mind exercises, and of course you’ll want to know about how the ship is doing… but let’s not worry about that today, we just need to get you hale and hearty again! I know your favorite breakfast is a Classic American Breakfast, and I hope I remembered everything, I’m a good cook if I know what I’m doing! But the 3D printers have been on the fritz and we're so glad you’re back to give things a look over. Today I printed out 2 chicken eggs for frying, but they’re really about the size of duck eggs, so I printed out 2 more, but don’t you worry if that’s too much food, we’re going to have to be gentle on your tummy for a little bit, no coffee or bacon yet, and I adjusted the Ph balance on all your foods, added probiotics, and you’re still getting the same nutrient cocktail you had while sleeping. We’re did some of the work while you were still out, body modifications, steroids, and strength enhancement exercises to get those atrophied muscles working…”

Maria’s chatting and familiar smells of food are soothing. She is carefully spooning oatmeal into his mouth, and it’s hot and thick with butter and cream and cinnamon, and now he is sipping at a glass of orange juice, and it’s like liquid sunlight, and his mouth is awake and his guts rumbling with hunger, and Maria is beautiful, and kind, and alternating spoonfuls of breakfast with flicks of her handkerchief to catch the dribbles of his slow, stupid mouth, and Harlan has not felt so loved and cared for in a very long time, and the knowledge of this stabs at him a bit, but not enough to ruin a damn fine breakfast after a 100 year fast.

“Now Harlan, I know you just woke up, but there are some people who really want to see you, most especially the Captain, who was hoping that after a restful day you might indulge a visit, you need not even worry about getting in uniform, or standing, they just wants to check in on you and make sure you don’t need anything. But we’ll get you cleaned up first, it’s not just your insides that need fixin’, that skin of yours is going to get real itchy if we don’t teach it how to behave, so we’ll get you in a nice shower, and rubbed down with some reparative cream, and I’ve got a fine-looking robe for you that would make even the most sickly of engineers look dignified.”

The fussing and primping that followed is ecstatically pleasurable, and Harlan finds himself falling into the murmur of Maria’s musings, and the feel of her hands on his body, and the soothing rhythm of her heartbeat, and the sensations of dense, lavender-rich clouds of warm steam, and pools of silky bathwater, and the scent of rain on dry soil and spring foliage.

There are many nice things to enjoy in a life, and the benefits of leaving your home planet and everyone you ever knew or loved a million lightyears behind you manifests itself in bathrooms that include hot springs and spa treatments and long hours sprawled naked in fecund heat, body stretched and kneaded by a person with the skillful hands of a massage therapist, a chiropractor, a doctor, a beautician, a nurse, a lover. A mother pouring water through soapy hair, her hand a visor to keep shampoo from sensitive eyes, her mouth making sounds like seagulls, like laughter, like a foghorn to lead ships through cloudy night. Harlan is a loose pink shape in the arms of Maria, her sturdy, sweet body wrapped in a soft dress, unflinching under the weight of a carried adult.

It is strange as an adult to be picked up and swaddled and carried effortlessly as a child. To listen to the gentle breathing of a glorious machine, and fall deep into the sound of its heartbeat, and know that you are loved because of the way it says your name and touches your skin and kisses your forehead. There is something slanted about this love, and Harlan sometimes finds himself watching Maria with the trained eye of an engineer, and it is in these moments that he glimpses in her something dark and sad and self-conscious, a lowering of her face and a looking sideways through fabricated eyelashes and the buckeye brown of her eyes, and a flush of pink to color cheeks and forehead. It is the look of someone being watched from behind a mirrored glass, and there is something there not unlike fear that fills Harlan with shame and love and the desire to ignore reality for a kinder fiction.

Maria carries him from the bathroom back to his bed. The room is not large, but it is comfortable, with floor to ceiling windows that look out on pastoral farmland or dense, green Appalachian forest, or the flat, starlit black emptiness of space, or nothing at all. Harlan does not know how these windows operate, only the codes that direct their changing landscapes and breathe morning light into the darkness of dawn. Earth’s sun has been carried from its solar system in 10,000 rooms that remember the way sunlight slides across a hardwood floor, or sneaks through shuttered blinds to lick warm tongues of morning light across bedsheets. There is sunlight caught up in the very ebb and flow of the ship called “Hope,” who spends her life between times called day and night, and is lit from within even in the dark, unchanging quiet of space.

“‘ank ooo,” says Harlan, as Maria tuts and frets and arranges pillows and blankets into a comely nest.

“My pleasure, sweetheart, I’m here for you.”

“‘ime?”

“It’s just past noon, and you’ll be needing some lunch. The Captain won’t be by until 4pm or so, so we’ve got time for a leisurely lunch and a nap and a quick briefing. Just want to make sure your gears start churning for the task at hand, but you can’t rush a cryowake.”

These words are still difficult to understand, he remembers the Captain, and favorably, but “lunch” is a new word that seems to float just beyond his grasp, as is “churning” and “cryowake,” and beneath his exterior calm, there tickles a desperate frustration with the murkiness of the world around him, and a flicker of fear over what things will look like once the smoke clears. Maria is permanently cheerful, with an expressive face that reads as easily as any emoticon, but Harlan feels familiar confusion over her actual wants and needs and feelings, and worry over his ability to read these things in general, most especially in a human not expressly designed to be easily read and understood and enjoyed.

Harlan isn’t sure, who, exactly, he is, only that he is an engineer on a ship, recently woke, and he is bolstered by Maria’s love and acceptance in ways that are difficult to explain, but easy to integrate into the design of an AI personality profile, and he is somewhat aware that there are dark things waiting for him outside the outsized love of this robotic woman, and that soon, he will be tasked to finish a job he was ambivalent to commit to in the first place.

To be continued.

Kelly Kate Warren
Corn Girl
Sacred Corn Mother by Susun Weed

Sacred Corn Mother by Susun Weed

Margaret holds many patents: corn, wheat, rice, yams. Things built to be better than they once were, more tolerant of heat and pollution, less needful of sunlight, more productive of oxygen. The things that Margaret builds are beautiful, true masterpieces in the medium, subtle and graceful and bounteous. Wheat that rains down from its stalk in glorious golden abundance, it’s nutritional value so much higher than the wheat of the early 2000s, higher still than the wheat still consumed by most of the world’s population. You see, it’s expensive to switch crops, so why bother? Why bother when your government keeps paying you to not grow soy. The market is flooded. It would screw up the whole game. We’ve invested so much time already. It’s a shame to quit. 3 hours into Monopoly and no one wants to be the first to call it - that last roll was a game changer, you bought a house! Why rock the boat when you’re on a winning streak? And why look like a sore loser when the odds have not been in your favor?

Margaret was a sore loser. Margaret had created miracles and no one wanted them, and she kept getting doxxed by vegan yoga instructors and she was tired of being harassed by the Coalition of Parents who don’t understand what it means to genetically modify an organism. She has known monsters. Ugly, purposeless creations like the Red Delicious Apple. Red, and as undelicious as an apple might be. And therein lies the problem: a world where salesmen make things bust or boom is a world where people let their government be run by people with firm handshakes and a gift for public speaking. Margaret has neither a firm handshake nor a gift for public speaking. Instead, she has lab reports. Research papers. Submissions to academic papers. Applications for grants. Hours and hours and hours spent with her head bent over microscopes. Nights spent talking to plants, watching them, listening to them and knowing how to write something to convince them to behave in a new and productive manner. Margaret knew how to talk to plants. She also knew how to listen to them.

And something wasn’t right. Plants didn’t act like plants should, and even those that did, like her plants, weren’t wanted. People wanted to seek shelter in the familiar, the ancestral, the tried and tested and heirloom, and Margaret didn’t fit into that dream. Not the dream of the people who bought rice and beans and corn and wheat, and not the dream of the people who sold them. And so Margaret slept at the lab or in her car or in the places near work where she could lay down amongst creeping vine and grass and fungus, and be understood.

And so it is midnight. And Margaret is asleep in wooded park. And the dreams begin.

“When Kloskurbeh, the All Maker lived on earth, there were no people yet. But one day when the sun was high, a youth appeared and called him "Uncle, brother of my mother."

This young man was born from the foam of the waves, foam quickened by the wind and warmed by the sun. It was the motion of the wind, the moistness of water, and the sun's warmth which gave him life - warmth above all, because warmth is life.

The young man lived with Kloskurbeh and became his chief helper.

Now, after these two powerful beings had created all manner of things, there came to them, as the sun was shining at high noon, a beautiful girl. She was born of the wonderful earth plant, and of the dew, and of warmth. Because a drop of dew fell on a leaf and was warmed by the sun, and the warming sun is life, this girl came into being - from the green living plant, from moisture, and from warmth.”*

Is she awake? Is this real? She pinches her arm. Turns a light switch on and off. Shakes her head and squeezes her eyes shut. Her lab remains. She peers at the screen in front of her. There is script floating there in a language made mostly of numbers. There are objects made up of words in this language. She moves her fingers and manipulates the pattern in front of her. She is writing, a story, a story in a language that is in shapes and colors as well as letters and numbers. The story is about Corn, and it is a version of a story that Margaret heard when she was a little Girl.

"I am love," said the maiden. "I am a strength giver, I am the nourisher, I am the provider of men and animals. They all love me."

Then Kloskurbeh thanked the Great Mystery Above for having sent them the maiden.

The youth, the Great Nephew, married her, and the girl conceived and thus became the First Mother. And Kloskurbeh, the Great Uncle, who teaches humans all they need to know, taught their children how to live.

Then he went away to dwell in the north, from which he will return sometime when he is needed.”*

Margaret opens her eyes. She is asleep at her desk again. She is asleep and her screen is blank and her lab is empty. Margaret should not have been sleeping, she should have been finishing a research report on the development of a new strain of corn. She should have been working a 18 hour day to process data to produce enough content to convince someone to give her enough money to keep her lab open. Corn. She needs corn.

Margaret knew a lot about corn, more than me and probably you and most definitely a majority of the people solely dependent on the calories produced by it’s most recent offspring.

Corn was broken. And it was breaking people. It accounted for 89% of the world’s calories and provided very little nutrition for all its popularity.

Margaret knew this about Corn, but she also knew stories about the Corn that her grandmother would dry and grind and press and fry. She knew about the stories her grandmother, her real live Grandmother and not just the Grandmother that would visit her in dreams to prattle on about Corn Girl, would tell her about what corn used to be. What it tasted like. What one could do with it. Who one could feed. Margaret had tasted corn, strange, bulbous, brightly-colored and chewy, She had tasted the grey fungus called hongo de maíz that grew, kernel-like, on the crop of a farmer lucky enough for a gift.

There was a time when plants appeared, miraculously, and we would fee giddy with our good fortune. When the rain foretold a good harvest of strawberries or the death of a whole field of asparagus and after that strawberries never tasted the same, nor did asparagus, but now Margaret could order either by drone delivery and neither tasted like much of anything. Sweet. Big. Pleasing to the eye. Difficult to digest. Margaret's stomach ached like everyone else’s did these days although less-so because Margaret was a scientist, and she knew how to make potions.

Margaret learned to make potions from her Grandmother, the one in real-life who was dead now, and the Dream Grandma who would visit her now with increasing frequency. The Dream Grandma was always going on about Healing. Healing meant many things to the Dream Grandma, some that Margaret remembered from her real-life grandma, like garlic for sickness, and warm socks when it gets cold, and some that didn’t seem to make sense. Sometimes the Dream Grandma wanted Margaret to listen, but Margaret couldn’t understand her. Sometimes she would be shouting but Margaret couldn’t hear her, or she was separated by water or mist or darkness. Margaret would wake up with a start from these dreams and then the discomfort of confusion.

And she would work. Turn her face and attention to a screen and draw stories about Corn in pairings of letters and numbers, arranged in shapes, pulsing with light and color and hope.

gggattggtactgtgaggatctgtagaaacttctgttgtatgatcccacagagtgataccccactcaggtatgatcctctcaggaacctttcctacgagggttctggacacttgacatacgtctggcccacaaatctcctggttgtcgacttagttagcgggtgtagtgagccgcactcgaaaacattgtcgagcgggaataccttggccttgacccgtacgtcaggctagtgagcgtctcctagttttcgtaaacactttgtgcgaaatgttaacccggagcaccagagttccgggctacgattaggtgtgcgcgcaggctaggccgtcgcaatcatgggcgtgataattctccg

And the screen stayed on even when Margaret was near sleep, filled with words and pictures and sounds about a time and place before even her grandma was born, when Corn told a different story. Corn, much like people, has changed over its lifetime.

“Now the people increased and became numerous. They lived by hunting, and the more people there were, the less game they found. They were hunting it out, and as the animals decreased, starvation came upon the people.

First Mother pitied them.

The little children came to First Mother and said: "We are hungry. Feed us."

But she had nothing to give them, and she wept. She told them: "Be patient. I will make some food. Then you little bellies will be full." But she kept weeping.

Her husband asked: "How can I make you smile? How can I make you happy?"

"There is only one thing that can stop my tears."

"What is it?" asked her husband.

"It is this: you must kill me," she said.”*

Remember, says the Dream Grandma, about Corn Girl. And her flowing hair, and her tall form, and her need for structure. Remember about the rainbow. About the size of kernels and the texture. Remember tortillas, and chapparado, and tamales. Remember a Metate, rough and heavy, rubbed with dry corn, the feeling of a palmful of course meal, and hot fat, the smell of it heavy and heady throughout the whole house, and then dinner, and laugher, and the satisfaction of satiation.

Sometimes the Dream Grandma shows this to Margaret, and she wakes with her mouth full of dream-tastes, and those strange, just-out-of-reach memories of things witnessed while sleeping, brain processing a whole day full up with thoughts and feelings. Margaret wishes that she had a break from it all during the brief hours she finds time to sleep. She would smoke pot, or drink beer, and will herself into the blank, restorative, dreamless recharging she pined for. And instead, the dreams.

The dreams started the night she spent in Golden Gate Park trying to hide from the police. Margaret did a lot of hiding from the police in Golden Gate Park, which required no small amount of intel, which Margaret collected through her abuse of her position as a researcher at USF. She knew the folks at the Botanical Garden through her volunteerism through her lab at USF. When she wasn’t staring at a screen, she was talking careful meansurements of any of the thousands of plants housed at the Park accross the street from work. And so she knew the security gaurds, and when and where they checked the premis, and what she didn’t know from them she learned from the beatnicks roving around the Park in search of an unsupervised bush to camp under and drink 40s. Margaret did her share of drinking 40s under a bush and so she knew the inside scoop about which bushes were best for unsupervised consumption. And so one night, under a bush, after a 40 and a joint, Margaret fell asleep and the dreams began.

"I could never do that," he said.

She said, "You must, or I will go on weeping and grieving forever."

Then the husband traveled far, to the end of the earth, to the north he went, to ask the Great Instructor, his uncle Kloskurbeh, what he should do.

"You must do what she wants. You must kill her," said Kloskurbeh.”*

It had been 6 months, and what had started as an annoyance had become an obsession. The Dream Grandma was relentless and increasingly upset. She appeared every night now, sometimes barging in mid-scene to ruin a perfectly good sex dream. Nothing was sacred. The pot didn’t help, the sleep meds prescribed by her doctor didn’t help, and it was getting worse. Margaret found herself nodding off at more and more these days. At her desk, on the Lyft home from work, in the middle of eating dinner and watching Netflix, It was inconvenient. Embarrassing. People were beginning to notice.

“Are you ok?”

“You coming down with something?”

“Gluten makes me super sluggish, have you tried going paleo?”

Margaret would nod and explain she was just working too much, and it wasn’t a lie, and they mostly just left her alone. With the dreams, and the Dream Grandma, and her frantic stories about Corn Girl and her sisters.

To be continued.

*From Corn Girl, A Penobscot Legend - https://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/CornMother-Penobscot.html

Kelly Kate Warren
Tales from a Dying Planet, or, 11 Stories, or, Mythology of Future Earth

These are stories about addiction, and cults, and ignorance, and immortality; about syncretism and agnotology; about children, shadows, and doors.

… at best. I guess we'll find out.

#0 - Sinking - An engineer repeatedly wakes from cryosleep to repair a ship on a 1,000-year-long journey. He pieces together the changing culture of the ship through these brief glimpses, and in-between, he dreams of strange worlds.

This is a story about religion and collapse.

#1 - The Ships Came - Alien immigrants navigate a hostile Earth. They offer a promise of salvation - wealth that humanity seems unwilling to accept.

This is a story about xenophobia.

#2 - The Witchy Woman - A tree-sitter befriends a Park Ranger and shares her memories of the last Wilderness of Earth.

This is a story about burning books.

#3 - The Ark - A false prophet struggles to control an Arc full of White Nationalists floating in the tepid Atlantic Ocean of a post-apocalyptic Earth.

This is a story about tyrants, marijuana, vomit, and racism.

#4 - Ivory Tower - Twin sisters balance their mania and depression to work a high power job in the global climate change initiative. The rich live in luxury in a declining America, where denial, blame, hate, and prayer color attempts to halt climate change.

This is a story about coping.

#5 - The Lost Boys - This one is still congealing, but it’s something about young men living in tech serfdom, law enforcement officers, systems of oppression, and gender.

#6 - How to Live with Dignity on a Dying Planet - A generation plagued by societally-induced anxiety and depression seeks meaning and purpose on a dying planet.

This is a story about millennials.

#7 - Take Me to Your Dealer - An injured alien visitor makes first contact with a homeless man, and navigates downtown San Francisco with the help of a reputable drug dealer.

This is a story about drugs.

#8 - The Walk - Long-distance hikers explore the Wilderness of an unfamiliar planet, where advanced technology is being used to monitor their health and cognitive function.

This is a story about the Pacific Crest Trail.

#9 - A Bit of Sacrifice - In an unrecognizable future, immortality comes with some unnerving sacrifices.

This is a nightmare.

#10 - The Girl Before Time - An alien girl explores the history of the human race.

This is a story about permanence, the World Destroyers, and redemption.

-----

I have some stories to tell. It has been 4 months since I broke my leg and I have written almost every day during that time. I wrote the skeleton of a whole damn book before realizing how big a project I was taking on, and returning to the wisdom of Ray Bradbury, who said “you can spend a whole year writing a novel and it might not turn out well, because you haven’t learned to write yet. The best hygiene for beginning writers is to write a hell of a lot of short stories.” So I wrote a lot of short stories - bad ones, good ones, and ones I liked well enough to flesh out into something maybe worth sharing. Right now there are 11 of them under the working title “Tales from a Dying Planet,” and in the spirit of Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man,” the first story encompasses the rest. They are stories about addiction, cults, cognitive abnormalities, agnotology, syncretism, hate, and immortality. They take place in the future, some on Earth, others in unfamiliar worlds.

I’m not finished yet, I’m not even completely finished with a single story, but the collection is about half written and each story now lives and breathes in my subconscious with the intensity of memory. They are wonderful things to write, and writing them has entailed research into science and technology and human psychology and a myriad of other topics that have woven themselves into the telling of these stories. If this project produces nothing more, it has fueled my desire to learn and understand the world, and given me fictional worlds to explore with enthusiasm.

I have no idea what I’m doing and will be searching for readers and editors and cheerleaders and providers of constructive criticism and advice in the coming months. I have no allusions of my work being very good or very well-received, but I hope it’s good enough to be published somewhere in print, and if not, I’ll try again.


I owe my mom and enormous debt of gratitude. She provided me a free place to live while I healed, and in doing so gave me the opportunity to work in earnest on my writing. This experience has been life changing, and I am so grateful to have had a place to learn and grow, practice my craft, and outline several writing projects I hope to finish in the years to come. By the end of this month I will have written for almost 1,000 hours, 9,000 more and I might even get good at this shit.

Kelly Kate Warren