Before the insects died, people at large did not care what I did for a living, and in many ways, I did not care what they did, so long as they left me alone. After the insects died, people might have looked to me for answers, if they had understood that it all started with them. The irony is that, after they were gone, what would they have expected me to do? Anything of value I had to offer would have been in warning, and best heeded before it all went to hell. In any case, people didn’t look to me for anything of the sort. They wanted a mother, which was just the sort of woman I had decided not to be after all.
I was an entomologist, doing field research on insects and living for long periods of time in field stations, tents, and cabins, more often than not feeling antagonistic towards people, whose shortsightedness was causing irreparable damage to the world. Habitats were shrinking, weather was wilding, and species disappearing. Back then, we still thought about trying to save things, as if we could go back to a better time. By the time we started to think about a future where things wouldn’t be saved, our work started to become a memorial – we were becoming scribes of a disappearing world, recording things for posterity.
It’s funny how your perception of your life’s work changes, depending on who you’re doing it for. I have spent more time leading this rag-tag little kingdom of rural humans than I was a research scientist, and many view me as Mother, Chief, Wisdom-Keeper, though to me it seems that most don’t listen to the real wisdom I hold. More than anything, they needed a savior, and that’s what I became. They are all so young now, and happy, because they don’t know what they could have had. And I am old, and happy for them, all things considered. But mostly, I am alone, because few know what it was like, and when I die, the things I know firsthand will become legends.
I’m not sure where the story starts, so I will tell you about one place it began. My parents were a little different: not exactly Luddites, but they did not go in for things like phones and the internet. They always told me they were tools, but not masters, and they didn’t want me to grow up like a zombie, face in my devices all the time. My God, keeping friends was hard in school, because back then, that’s how you kept up with people. I begged and pleaded, so they let me have one eventually, with all sorts of rules for its use. I remember the day that Mom came into my room with the air of ceremony one would expect for a talk about sex, and gave me my first Communicator. She wouldn’t let me get an implant, but she allowed me a Wearable. She was happy for me, but somewhat sad and resigned. My mother told me that they didn’t want to make me a pariah, socially isolated, but I think they feared that they had lost the battle against society’s vices.
After all of my begging and cajoling, I saw something in my mother that made the Communicator not matter so much. It may seem silly now, but it was the first moment I remember feeling like an adult. I saw that my mother put aside something that mattered to her, even if she felt it was right – because she cared for me. Of course, she had spent her whole life caring for me, enduring much greater suffering than that. I had even appreciated her and loved her. But in that moment, I understood sacrifice, and it was the moment my brain and soul tasted what it was like to be an adult. I agreed to the rules and limits she set with utmost sincerity. The fact that I was not an adult yet eventually led me to break those rules many times, proving my parents right, but I accepted the consequences and turned out to be a much better student, listener, and thinker than many of my zombified pals. I could’ve been better without the damn thing, but then again, I had my fun, so I can’t regret it too much.
When I was 24, I tried to marry a boy named Theodore. He was sexually gifted and terribly romantic, and I will not apologize, even now, for being a total fool for him – to do so would only perpetuate the idea that one should always be sensible and practical in matters of love, and that’s not a world I ever wanted to live in. (I never wanted to live in the world I occupy now, but that’s an entirely different matter.) My grandfather used to sing an old song, saying, “I don’t care what they say, I won’t stay in a world without love,” and I strongly felt that living a scientific life should not overshadow the unquantifiable aspects of love and romance.
Theodore, however, was not a good choice for a lifetime, and I was happy not to marry him in the end. It turns out that the love that saved me was that of my parents and friends, who waited with me in my princess wedding dress as the minutes of his absence ticked by. Yes, I had a princess wedding dress, the flowers, the tablecloths, the hair with jewels and flowers tucked in. Does that surprise you? I was a very romantic girl back then!
Anyway, Theodore was beautiful and sensitive and passionate, prone to great highs and lows, and perhaps not as eager as I was to make a permanent alliance. I seemed to ground him and thought I was rather a good catch, as I could tolerate his moods, even admire them, without getting too upset myself. I had my own work, and was self-sufficient emotionally and intellectually, so that when my work or his separated us, I was happy enough on my own. I didn’t pine for him, but also happy to fall in love all over again after a separation of a few weeks. I knew his every unspoken signal, the change in the wind of his emotions. So when he still hadn’t arrived a half hour prior to the wedding, most people wouldn’t have worried – anyone could have gotten stuck in traffic, or taken too long getting ready; other grooms could have spilled coffee on their shirt, or misplaced the ring. But I knew Theodore, and I knew he had changed his mind. “Mom.” I said, and as I sat down, I gently removed the beautiful veil I had chosen, with butterflies woven into the lace, and placed it in my lap. All eyes turned to me in astonishment, and my mother asked them to leave the room and fetch my Dad.
Looking back on this now, it seems like nothing at all, but back then, when we had our ways of doing things, our communities, careers, status – it was quite a big deal. But once it happened, my heart was relieved and I knew I would survive the embarrassment and rejection. I found that a jilted bride actually gets quite a lot of sympathy, and Dad simply made an announcement while Mom and my girlfriends took me back home and to bed. When Theo called me a week later, he expected wrath, but received none. That emboldened him to hope for reconciliation, but just as I knew him, he knew me: All I said was, “You’re one of my butterflies,” and he understood. In my grad work, I had devoted myself to cultivating some endangered species of butterflies, raising them so that they would be safe from parasites and predation, to increase their numbers and genetic diversity of their species. Letting them go meant that they would be at risk, but they weren’t meant to be kept. I always knew it was the right thing to let them free. Theo wasn’t meant to be grounded, and I wasn’t meant to be his keeper. I never spoke to him again.
When I was 30, one of the butterflies I had cultivated went extinct in the wild. My grief was unbearable. I set off to hike the Appalachian Trail for 6 months, to immerse myself in nature and to get away from the knowledge that gnawed at me: that perhaps it was all too late.
When I was 34, the bee numbers hit a crisis point, and by the time I was 40, the angiosperms had begun to fail – the bees and other pollinators had been so reduced in number that there weren’t enough around to help them reproduce. One by one, crops, then industries, began to fail, and after that followed economies and political systems. Grandpa used to have a droll saying: “Sometimes in life you’re the windshield, and sometimes you’re the bug.” I started to wondered if my lifetime would be one in which I would be a witness, or a victim, of civilization failing. I never thought it would be my destiny, but I wondered about people who lived at the end of the Roman Empire, or who ended their lives in concentration camps in World War II. They probably never expected their lives to go that way, either.
I remember that I was out on a field research assignment, about 3 weeks in. I was in a high meadow, inventorying whether some native plants had declined in the absence of a particular beetle. Though it seemed that my work had become more of a requiem than anything else these past few years, I reveled in the sunshine and the sweet smell of the grasses in the wind. It took me half the day to realize that something was different: the distant buzz of delivery drones that sometimes flew through the valley below had ceased. And then I noticed that I had not heard any planes overhead. I looked up and saw no contrails, no glint of sun shining off a silvery fuselage in the distance. I remembered my mother telling me about being a young girl on 9/11, having been sent home from school, and the strange, sad days that followed. She said she had never thought much about the flight path over her town, taking for granted the constant and invisible presence of jets whining across the sky, gleaming in the day and blinking their lights at night – until they weren’t there anymore. That week that the FAA grounded all flights was unprecedented, and in a world turned upside down with horror, the absence of the airlines was held by more than one person as an unnerving symbol of a changed world – like the silence of a kitchen at midnight when a clock that has always been there stops ticking.
That day in the meadow, I was hardly out in the true wilderness – I had a cabin and there was a town down in the valley. I had my A/R connector for work, but in those days, going into the field was a respite from the bad news, and I kept the connection off most of the time, using it just to log my data. All those years after I had begged my parents to get connected, I had wholeheartedly adopted their ethos. Staying plugged in, especially with an implant, you would get the news whether you wanted it or not, and all you would hear was about the riots, or the apple farmers marching; there was the beginnings of a pandemic in Asia that had shut down intercontinental travel. The blight in the Smokies was being attributed to a die-off of detritivores five years previously. Without these decomposers, plant matter was piling up on the forest floor, simultaneously depriving the forest of nutrients while spreading the blight instead of breaking it down. Rory Musk, son of the famed inventor, had unveiled a plan to send out millions of nano-drones as pollinators to save the crops, but I knew that it was impossible, and unsustainable – even millions was nothing compared to the biomass of the insects Earth had lost. Before entire species started dying off, there were 10 quintillion insects at any given time. Quintillion! And that didn’t even include other invertebrates, which matters to an entomologist, and should matter to you. If I’ve told you anything of worth, please make sure to pass this on: worms, spiders, and millipedes are not, and never were, insects!
In any case, these are the things that make me quiet sometimes, even now. I am sorry. And back then, I could not bear to hear them all the time, so before I went off on that last field assignment, I checked in with my mother and father, and confirmed our meet-up place in eastern Pennsylvania should disaster strike, as we had taken to doing in recent years. I didn’t connect the A/R device until I noticed the drones and planes, and by then, it wouldn’t connect anymore.
I wish I could tell you the history of what happened, so you’d know, but all these long years we only have our own experiences to piece it together. We know there was a pandemic from all of the quarantines, which kept us out of the populated areas, and kept us from finding each other for a long time. Even out in the wilds, the smell of death came to me on the wind for a month, at least. I’m sure there were natural and man-made disasters, as well – abandoned structures, even whole cities, leaking all of their vital fluids, causing fires… maybe there were wars, if there was anyone left to fight them, but I couldn’t know.
Afterwards, it’s not as if we lived like cave people – if only it were that simple, living off the land like our ancestors. We still had our knowledge, some of our technologies, and modern resources that we adapted as best we could. I used a manual truck for as long as possible, siphoning gas where I found it, as the self-driving and electric cars were all off-line. I stayed out of any settlements, even though there was no one to man the sawhorses that said, “Stop: Quarantine Area” on the road into towns. In a way, that was far more frightening than the first time I had gone down the mountain. I had made my way to the first town, but was stopped before I reached the checkpoint by National Guard pointing machine guns at the truck, barking “Turn around!” I tried the empty interstate, but the first three exits had concrete barriers across them. Terrified, I turned around on the median and headed back, not knowing when I could next find gas, and decided to head back to the cabin, where I holed up for a few weeks.
There, the solitude I usually cherished almost drove me mad – the world had fallen apart, and I didn’t know anything about those I loved, whether I would survive, or anything at all. I knew I had to try again.
My destination was the meet-up point I had decided on with Mom and Dad. I packed up some gear and all of my food. This time, I tried the opposite direction of the town, and came to an abandoned service station. Remember, this was a more rural area, so most of the people were still using manual gas cars. The power was off, and there was no way to work the pumps, but there were several cars parked, for repairs, I guess, so I siphoned enough to fill my tank and put the rest into some old-fashioned gas canisters that I found in the shop, and was on my way.
I had never really thought about it before, but the activities of people invisibly maintained civilization. It had only been about 3 weeks, but without cars driving on them, or road crews to maintain them, the local roads had a thin covering of debris on them already. I recalled a few thunderstorms in recent weeks, and the evidence had not been worn away by constant traffic. A few miles down the interstate, a tree had fallen across the right lane. I saw a snake sunning itself in the middle of the warm pavement, and a minor rockslide had redirected a small stream to run across the highway. And everywhere, leaves and sticks from the last storm had pasted themselves sporadically along the highway.
Yet all was passable, and I eagerly ate the miles away, each exit barred and eerily quiet. I looked for signs of life in the houses along the way, finding none. And then, ahead, even though I couldn’t believe there were no people, I also could not believe that I was seeing one. It was the tiny figure of a little girl, pulling a wagon, with a dog by her side. She had turned as soon as she heard me, and stood staring. It was the first time I met your mama, Chelsea.
She doesn’t even remember this, and so I’ve carried the regret my whole life – but when I first saw her, I was afraid. I stopped a hundred feet shy of her, and she started towards me. I opened the door and called for her to stop, trying to be forceful, but not frightening. She did, and must have told her (very obedient!) dog to sit, as he did so even though his tail would not stop wagging. Dear old Charlie… he must have been older in dog years than I am now, but had the heart of a pup. Chelsea and Charlie were peas and carrots. I like to imagine that Charlie was her parent’s baby before she came along. Maybe they called him her “brother”; maybe they were a happy family…
I did not want to be infected, and I wanted to get to my parents, but I also could not leave this child. I remember thinking that she must be frightened; I remember softening my voice, and gently called to her that “I don’t think we can come near each other just yet, but I want to help you.” She nodded her head seriously, and I called out questions and instructions to her, which she did her best to answer. I told her to be brave and set out a plan. I set up my tent at the side of the road, and kitted it out with blankets and food. I told her that she and Charlie could live in the tent, and I would live in the truck, and after a few days, we could get together. Then I withdrew the truck about 50 yards back on the road.
It seemed like a sensible plan, but even as I tell you now, I am so ashamed. I could see her and keep an eye on her, but she was so small and so alone. For the first few hours, she kept calling to me, statements and questions that grew increasingly heartbreaking. As darkness came on, she called out, “Lucy, I’m scared. Can I just come be with you?”
And finally, I said “Yes.”
With Chelsea and Charlie in tow, eventually we came to a bigger town with 2 or 3 exits, where you could see the town and several houses off of it. That’s where we found Kyle and Evelyn, but mind, they weren’t “Kyle and Evelyn” yet – they were just the last 2 refugees from the town, and after everyone else was dead and quiet, they had each made their way to Route 80, hoping to flag down anyone who was left. They wouldn’t have had much in common beforehand, including that Evelyn was 12 years older than Kyle, and looked even older, having had a couple of kids in her late teens that were already grown and gone. But you know as well as any that they became one of the happiest pairs we’ve ever seen.
We used to read books about downfalls and post-apocalyptic life, and people in those stories were always suspicious of new people and tended to get all “Lord of the Flies”. The one good thing I discovered in my second life was that when we found Others, we were so happy, so relieved. It would have surprised me before, but once it actually happened, it seemed like there was never any other possible way to behave except like when a pet dog sees another pet dog and they run over, bouncing, wagging, and sniffing. That happened time and again, which only made me so ashamed of how I had treated Chelsea at first. We mostly found people in pairs or small groups, so if anyone had ever done the same thing with the very first person they found, they never said anything, burying it like me.
Kyle and Evelyn joined our tribe, and my mission to find my parents. But over that 100 mile ride, we found just a few more, and I couldn’t bring them all, so by the time there were eight of us and a dog, we picked a camping spot at the side of the road and I set off on my own, promising to return in a few days. I don’t know why I said that at the time; Chelsea would be looked after, and if I found my parents, I’d be with my people, so to speak. But we were in this together now, so I promised.
I drove around the barriers at Aunt Carol’s exit, one of which had already half fallen down, and made my way 20 miles to her house. Uncle Gavin’s farm truck blocked the driveway longways, and he had laid a piece of plywood against it. Clever man that he was, he had secured it with a bungee so it wouldn’t fall over, and tied a patio umbrella to the truck to protect the sign. I held little details like that to my heart – that at the end of the world, people I loved were still themselves, clever, loving. I wondered at what point he had attached the umbrella. Was it when he was the last one left, knowing that the sign had to last?
The plywood had big spray-painted letters: “STAY AWAY”. Underneath, written in marker were the names of family members and other people they knew. My Aunt Carol’s name, followed by “Died” and the date. My cousins, their children – two of which had died in far off places, reported to them before communications cut off. Delilah, Brian’s wife. He must have been the one to tell them, so he was at least alive then, but who knew now? Oh, and the baby…the baby.
Knowing that they were the meeting place for my family, I soon found our names. My mother, and the date she died.
And me. Lucy Caldwell. “Unknown.”
Underneath the names, “Love to all Caldwells, Martins, and Nagys. God Bless.”
So now I knew. Mom was gone, and Dad was brokenhearted, or dead. He wasn’t here, and so I thought he probably was dead. But I took a marker and wrote next to my name. “ALIVE! Will return again until I find you, Dad. I love you more than you can know. Stay safe. Food in truck,” and dated it. I was running low, but left some canned food in the cab. I felt so selfish keeping my can opener, but I only had the one, so I left a hacksaw blade, and headed back to the rest of the tribe.
After we set up camp on the side of Route 80, and later, right on it because the pavement made a very good foundation for some of our endeavors, I would return to Aunt Carol’s from time to time. I thought I would go back forever, but it only took about a year to make it hard to justify. Others in the group had their own ghosts to chase, and I could no longer call it “my truck” or “my gas”. And each time I went back, it got harder and harder – trees blocking the road, washouts, and eventually, the fear that I would be stuck out there alone, stranded. The message that I had written was weathered, and I freshened it and added a new date every visit, but no reply ever appeared, and the cans were untouched. I wrote, “If you’re alive, head west on Route 80. Love you always.” I know if he were, he would have, but sometimes when I get in my quiet moods, I think, “Maybe I should have gone back, just one more time.”
All we did in those first few months was try to survive, so when I think of my life, it divides into “Before,” “Survival,” and then, “Anil.” I think maybe I would have just gone on Surviving if it hadn’t been for him. Our original eight had grown to twelve by the time I had returned from my first trip to Aunt Carol’s, and by the time winter set in, we had swelled to 25. We were easy to find, in the middle of the interstate; people joined us in dribs and drabs, sometimes on foot or bike, two on horseback, and a late few who had watched our lights and fires from a distance for weeks, approaching us like feral animals after having been alone for so long – alone and frightened, on the edge of madness. It was two of these ones who didn’t make it later. I think sometimes people survive when it’s a matter of purest instinct to find food and shelter, but once those needs are met, the things that are broken inside them are what kills them.
The winter came, and with it, the trickle of people stopped. If there were any more, perhaps they had gathered in other groups where they found each other and formed their own tribes. In any case, it would be a while until our tribe grew again, and those who had come together formed a family of circumstances. The things that would have separated us Before stopped mattering, and we just built and gathered, and kept each other company. Your Grandpa Anil was one of these, but it took me a little while to notice him – apart from any of the others, I mean.
When your grandfather walked into our camp, I was starting to be a leader and he was just another refugee – he fell on his knees and wept as we ran out to greet him, and like we did with all of them, we took him into our hearts. He was only 33 to my 42, which would have been out of the question to me Before, when I would have been too vain to be with a man who would see me age before him. But at the time we met, none of that was even a question: he was simply a person who had been through hell, and reunited with humans who had also been through hell. All I thought about in those days was organizing supply runs and building things to withstand the winter rains and thunderstorms, and hope this wasn’t a year with snow. You have to understand that it snowed more often back then – we’d see it every three or four years in that area, unlike these days, so I was a bit worried about it. I was also busy not noticing that I was now Chelsea’s mother. I could call myself a fool, but I wouldn’t be so unkind now to someone else who had been through the same.
Anil thrived fairly quickly. He was a people person who saw the value in everyone, making them laugh at the smallest joys, showing interest in their cares. His deep brown eyes fixed themselves on you, listening intently to whatever you had to say as if whatever was important to you was important to him, too, if only because he cared about you. Unlike some of us, he spoke freely about his loved ones – his beloved Opa from Germany, who lived in India and met Anil’s grandmother there. Anil hadn’t known her but she was the love of his Opa’s life. There was Nani and Dadi, his grandparents from Gujarat; his lively parents, two twin brothers who finished each other’s sentences and apparently married two different women who were both named Nina; and a radical anarchist of a sister, who was last advocating for coastal refugees in the New Miami camps. He had been able to learn that all of them were dead, except for his sister, Awni. She lived and worked in the camps, and he had not been able to find her so far away. He hoped she had survived, but held no hope of ever knowing. I asked him about it at the time – how he could talk about them so openly, how he lived with not knowing about her. “It’s alright,” he said. “I know that our love for each other is real, alive or dead. She knows this, too. There is nothing else I can do.”
Anil quickly became my right-hand man, ready and able to help me solve a problem or organize logistics. I think because I was one of the older survivors, and because I was the original Savior With The Truck, everyone seemed to look to me. And I looked to Anil as sort of my lieutenant, which he would later on mock me for. While he was falling hopelessly in love, I was giving orders and confiding in a buddy. I was too busy for love, excepting that the best part of every day was at night, when Chelsea wanted to go to bed. She would not sleep alone, and I didn’t know any therapists who could relieve anxieties related with the apocalypse anyway, so every night, she nestled snugly against me, and Charlie laid against her other side, head stretched out on the pillow. I can still remember the soft thump of his tail every time I reached over Chelsea to lay my hand on his silky side.
Throughout that winter, our tribe helped each other, and when we weren’t Surviving, we started to tell our stories. Anil listened as I told him of my work, and how most of my career had been a tragedy – a passion that allowed me first-hand knowledge of our impending doom, of watching the web of life pull apart and die; the joy of knowing creatures who had taken millions of years to evolve, and the pain of seeing the last of them. And we started to wonder about the rest of the world, and our place in it. Once we were safe, the questions started to come: what had happened to others, why did we survive – were we all immune, or were some of us just isolated when it happened? There had to be others in the world, right? The unspoken question was, Is this the end of people? I suppose the others had thought it, but I had answered it in my heart, if not my mind.
Having decided that firmly, it was a devastating blow when Astrid and Marcus told us all their news. We were in the habit of gathering around the campfire in the evenings, and their announcement certainly got everyone’s attention. The two of them had been keeping company for some time, and while it seemed a sweet and good thing that they were finding comfort and companionship, I was foolish to not see the next step coming. I just assumed everyone was thinking about things they way I was. Astrid waited for a quiet moment, and then, grabbing Marcus’ hand and shyly focusing her glance on him, announced, “We just wanted to share that we are going to have a baby.”
Oh, if I could take back my reaction, allow them to enjoy that moment, I would, I would. What I really did, amongst the shocked but sincere congratulations, was to get up and walk off with one hell of a pissed-off look on my face. I brooded for days, barking orders, and when Astrid tried to approach me after a few of them, I blurted, “What the hell were you thinking?” Thankfully, she just withdrew and later, never held it against me. Because she is a gentle soul, and thank goodness for that.
It was Anil who broke through in the end. We had discovered a DroneEats warehouse in the industrial section of the town, and were using it as our food source, figuring it was safer (and frankly, less disturbing) than looting a market or homes where people might be dead inside. I was going on a supply run and Anil insisted on coming along. After a days-long black mood, I was getting so tired of being angry, and sad, and was glad to have him along. Anil had become my best friend, my salve. I needed company, and I knew it. However, he ruined it quickly by bringing up the baby issue.
“So, want to tell me why you are so mad about this baby?”
I looked at him like he had three heads. Like he had betrayed me. I could not believe how he could ask that – it was so obvious! But that open-hearted man’s eyes returned no aggression, and asked the question honestly.
I ranted. “Look at what humanity has done to the world!” We had blown it, not only for ourselves, but for the other life on it. No other animal had had such a devastating, irreversible impact. All other extinction events in the course of history were natural, not the result of greed and carelessness. Maybe we were a virus that gave the Earth a fever, and she killed us off to survive! Perhaps we humans were a mistake and we didn’t deserve to continue! But even if we couldn’t resist the impulse to replicate ourselves, who would have children in such a world? What would become of them? Was there no end to how selfish we were? Even if they survived, maybe in another 2000 years we’d make a comeback and just finish what we started!
If I tell you I was foaming, that wouldn’t be the half of it. But I spewed it out, and spent, finally sat against a rock and cried. He came and sat next to me. After a while, he held my hand, and I let him. My anger subsided, and I wondered what he was thinking. I dozed against the rock, and he closed his eyes and dozed with me. The afternoon passed.
Anil spoke, finally – carefully. “I know that one of your greatest pains is all of the species that will never again exist. Everything that evolved, changed, mutated, survived its way through eons; all of the living things that depended on them, their own unique beauties. They are gone forever.”
I nodded; this was a central truth of my life, too terrible, too unbelievably huge to be the legacy witnessed in my short span on this planet.
He continued, “Well, what do you think of everyone you ever loved? Everything that made humans a unique species? Aren’t we one more species in danger of extinction?”
It’s not that I hadn’t thought about that, but there was still the question: were we the one species too dangerous? It’s not like I was advocating for genocide, but we didn’t have to propagate ourselves, either. Maybe we had our chance, and we should know that we botched it and make a graceful exit. Before I could respond, he gave me another look, and I paused.
“I’ve been doing the math, and figuring that if we have 25 survivors in this small part of the world, there are probably hundreds or thousands of other little colonies in the world. All the people who were on ships when the epidemic hit, the people on islands, out in isolation… Tell me, if you put the last male and female Monarch butterflies in the world in a jar, would they mate and lay eggs?”
“No. They’d need to lay eggs on a milkweed plant. It’s the only food the larvae can eat.” I said like a pedant, knowing full well what he meant.
Patiently playing my little game, he said, “Ok, how about the last two spiders?”
“What kind?” I said, just to be difficult.
“I don’t know. A wolf spider?”
“They’d mate. But then she’d eat the male,” I said truculently.
“Forget the wolf spiders. How about two dogs?” I thought of Charlie and if he was ever lonely for other dogs, and if there still were other dogs.
“They’d probably mate. But what’s your point? Animals do a lot of things humans don’t do, and probably aren’t a good idea to do.”
“Why? Because we have a different idea of being in the world?”
“Exactly. That’s what makes us human. We have certain moral codes about things…” I trailed off, realizing I was walking into a trap of my own making.
“So we are more evolved than animals?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“So animals are better than us?”
“I didn’t say that either. I’m just saying we have different ways of looking at things.”
“Unique ways of being?”
I couldn’t believe I walked into this. But he wasn’t being triumphant – he was serious, sincere.
“Look, maybe I am making a point that humans are just another species that doesn’t have to go extinct, but what I’m really saying is that doesn’t matter. What matters is that there are going to be hundreds of jars around the world, full of the last few people on earth, and you’re not going to keep them from laying more eggs, so to speak. It’s not even about you, really, except regarding what’s going to happen in your own jar. Chelsea will grow up, and if you have your way, she’s basically going to be all alone in her old age, with only Alex for company whether she likes him or not.” Alex was a twelve year old boy, the only other child in the camp. I hadn’t really thought about that.
“Or, you can accept that people are going to be drawn to each other and have babies, and maybe one day we’ll travel again between our jars, and we’ll mix our genetic pools, and humans will survive. And you can either help and love them when they do, or try to stop them. I know you think you’re the boss, but you have quite an ego if you think you can. No offense,” he said, looking away nonchalantly.
A few moments passed. I thought. The rightness of his words struggled with the truth of my own, and I still couldn’t reconcile the gap.
But then he said, “It’s not a question of whether we will survive, or even deserve to. It simply is. The question is, do you want to take part in living?”
That’s how my life went from Survival to After Anil.
It wasn’t long after that that I started to live again. Like all species, we are both fragile and resilient, and if we are not killed off, the business of living requires us to adapt and move on. It had seemed impossible once that any of this had ever happened, that the upward trajectory of human society could ever stop, but when it had all gone, it seemed as ephemeral as tissue paper in the rain. Nations had been built on mere agreements that abstract things like money and authority were real, until it all fell apart and the only things that were real were food and rain, and the person next to you. While it would always be a part of us, it started to seem like that was the dream, and surviving was the reality. But like I said, we were resilient, and we weren’t starting from zero as if we were shipwrecked in ragged pants with only coconuts and an inadequate amount of skill at spear fishing. We had access to packaged food, items we could salvage, clothing and fuel and the like. Even though there were still houses in towns, we built our own crude homes – it was just too likely that each house was occupied by corpses. We no longer had interconnected computers, automation, or the systems that ran them, but we could access raw materials and had knowledge to use and create things that we needed. It was a bit like camping, without the ability to go home if you got tired of it.
Stakes were higher when there was no longer an “out,” which focused our priorities and what we valued, so that changed us, crystalizing what mattered. I had studied Buddhism and other paths when I was younger, and intellectually understood how the prospect of mortality was supposed to focus you on the present moment, but without any real possibility of death in my Before life, it just never made its way past my mind into my heart. Now, we had people die when they got sick, for want of medical technology we simply didn’t have, and that changed our perspective. It’s really the only way you young ones have ever lived, and I think it has made you happier. You are more present in your lives than my generation was. I think that me and the ones who were left had a great shock and had to go through a lot to become something like how you are naturally. We had to learn to live, and so I married your Grandpa pretty soon after that conversation. Astrid and Marcus had the first Hope, who you never met, but she was a lovely child and we all loved her. And believe it or not, I had only the third baby of the new tribe not long after – me, who had been so against it! I certainly did not name her Hope: once we started having babies, every teary-eyed parent wanted to name every girl child Hope. I even remember “Hoper” being tossed around for a boy once. No, I chose Rosie, because that beautiful little baby brought me such joy, and I wanted her to be named after something beautiful. One of the greatest accomplishments of my life was being able to find a rosebush and give her a real one. She was 27 years old, and still sweet as a child – I showed her how to dry the flower and keep it preserved, and it was her most treasured possession. When she died, we buried it with her.
You didn’t know Rosie was my natural-born daughter? No, I guess there aren’t many who would remember me actually having a baby; all of the rest of our children came to us. But where I was previously trying to socially engineer our society and make sensible decisions, once Anil came along, my perspective changed and we just enjoyed life. We treasured Chelsea and our friends. Music and books came back into the lives of our tribe, and the first spring we all saw together was like the first spring that ever was. We made love all the time, and hoped something would happen, and it did! Well, not at first. I was older and kept losing babies, so it took a while.
When Rosie came along, she arrived with Down syndrome. While it would have been something that had worried me Before, I did not give a rat’s ass about it, not one bit. Anil was the one who had the hardest time with it. It really tested his philosophy of letting life happen and not being able to control things, which was what he was all about – what our life was about.
When Rosie was born, he could not stop worrying about his baby girl. He worried about her future, about what would become of her as an adult, after we were gone; he worried about the health problems that come along with it – whether she could see, or her heart; about whether she would be taken advantage of in her adulthood, how we would raise her without the developmental resources from Before. My assurances about everything just didn’t seem to reach him, and I realized it was my turn to bring him back from the edge, just as he had done for me. Our whole life had been based on that one talk, where he convinced me to choose to live.
I will tell you something that I hope you will hold gently, for your Grandfather’s memory, as it was such a vulnerable thing for him. It seems silly now, how everything turned out. But when I finally reached him, I uncovered the real source of his pain. He was being eaten alive by guilt. He cried about whether we had made a mistake, and what a hypocrite he was, ashamed for even thinking such a thing. It made him question who he was.
Not everything has an instant moment of healing. But knowing that I didn’t judge him brought us even closer, and every day brought some new joy – Chelsea cheerfully bringing a flower for her baby sister, a first medical crisis come and gone, laying her in the grass and getting happy gurgles when we tickled her tummy with a catkin. Bit by bit, the guilt and pain wore off, until none of us really remembered it. In fact, I hadn’t thought of that crisis in years – it was replaced by the life we shared with her. Once she was just a little baby, but she became a big sister to the many that came later. And all of those worries? Well, the only one that ever came true was that she died too young, but she died in her sleep and was never afraid of anything.
The first spring, I taught everyone how to pollinate. If the human race was going to survive, we were going to need food. I was astonished at how little my tribe knew about the natural world, even though the news had covered all of the natural disasters that had led to our current state – how climate change had brought about the first Zika pandemic back when I was a girl, to sea level rise wiping out coastal cities, the extinction of so many species and ecosystems, and the crop crises. Even though these had led to our near-extinction, they just did not understand the cause and effect. So I taught them about flowers.
Our first garden was in the median of Route 80. It was a wide, grassy swath, and made a bit of a valley in the center which had managed rain runoff when it was a highway. Now it made a good water source for our little farm, and we planted crops that needed a lot of moisture near the bottom, and hardier ones further out. The tricky part was getting crop seed – the DroneEats warehouse basically had only prepared food and household goods, so it necessitated our first foray into the town proper. I could tell you more about that, but this is a story about flowers. I will tell you that our fears about what we would find in the town were less gory than expected; I imagine that once the pandemic hit, most people wanted to be home with their families. The businesses had been boarded up as if in preparation for a hurricane, and we avoided the ones with the most aggressive signs, worried that the owners had perhaps installed booby-traps inside to thwart looters, before the end stages made that irrelevant.
Fortunately, the local Feed-and-Seed was one of the not-too-fortified ones, and we were able to peel the plywood off and break the lock. Now, keep in mind, all of the bad stuff had happened in the previous summer, so by that time, they didn’t have a stock of garden seed. We really had to dig around in the back room to find some leftover stock that hadn’t been sent back, but we did find some. Tomatoes, beans, squash, carrots – all sorts of wonderful things. And tools! The seed was over a year old, and some of it did not grow, but it was enough to start. That foray also opened our eyes to more resources, so we kept returning and looting other stores for years to come. We got medicines, clothing, propane, and quite importantly, canning supplies.
Then, I showed everyone how to become a pollinator. I wrote it all down for when I’m gone, because I worry that in a generation or two, they might not remember the hows or the whys, the science behind it. I told them that many plants evolved in conjunction with insects and animals, attracting them with beautiful flowers, scents, and nectar; in exchange, these critters would then carry pollen from flower to flower as they fed, fertilizing the plants so they could produce seeds, and of course, fruit. The fruit worked much the same way: it provided food for animals, who would then disperse the seed in their droppings. Sure, some plants had other methods – corn is pollinated by wind, for example – but so many plants relied on pollinating insects that entire species were dying off, just like the insects that they depended on. Existing trees were still there, but there was a shortage of young trees to take their places in a generation. Many flowering plants, such as the ones we depended on for fruits and vegetables, were having a hard time. So when our farmed plants started to put forth flowers, we spent just as much time delicately transferring pollen between flowers as we did weeding and watering. I taught every person to see the importance of pollination, so that even when we walked out of the village, through fields or woods, or down the town street, we took the time to pollinate trees, flowers, anything that needed it. Our children grew up with it as much as previous generations learned the sounds that animals make.
Today, I continue to teach pollinating to everyone I can, including the travelers that make their way to us, and through our own young ones that have set out on the networks of old roads. Overgrown but established, they carry news and resources much like the trade routes of medieval days. It’s a matter of our own survival, but also a way to help the earth thrive again. I know we’ve lost species – insects, animals, plants – the forests look different today than they did 40 years ago. But there have been times where travelers have brought us some plants or seeds that used to grow here, and we help them to grow. I’m always on the lookout for insects, and some that I haven’t seen in decades have started to show up again. Even ash trees have made a comeback. And while it gives me hope, it’s not the whole story. The land has changed, and other ecosystems have taken the place of older ones. It’s hard to say anymore whether one kind of life should displace another. How can you complain about life growing in front of you, except that I remember all of the diversity, all of the beauty, and the balance, and that what I see now is simply the best nature can do, after humans did their worst.
Nowadays I spend a good deal of my time teaching science in the village. I see children who are happy in their ignorance, because they never knew what we had once. I’ve told them about the Monarch butterflies and the hemlock trees. I’ve shown them pictures from the books we’ve acquired over the years, animals they’ve never known. The children are awed by them as if they were dragons or unicorns, and they might as well be.
I think they sense my sadness as well. Your cousin Mariposa is a devoted pollinator, and I think she will be my next apprentice.
She said to me once, “Grammy, maybe we can bring them all back!”
Inside my heart, I said, “No child, we can’t bring back the ones that are gone. They took millions of years to evolve and interact with each other, building interdependent webs. The ones that are gone, are gone forever. All that is left is what we have left.”
But she is only six, and her eyes are full of hope. So I said, “Perhaps we can, my love. We can try.”
I sent her back to her mother’s house, watching her skip happily.
And I wept.