Today we have a dystopian short story by Tan Ruey Fern. In this version of the future, main character Songthrush tries to cope with her guilt and climate anxiety.
Up and down the garden fence, she strung up the corpses of cans. Cans from the vending machine, cans from the stores, cans from every street corner clanging and clattering together when the evening wind swept past and ruffled her mint green skirt. Overhead, the sky bled. Songthrush stood up and shielded her eyes with one hand.
Sunset drew streaks of red along her arms, spilling over to the browning grass below. She admired her handiwork. She had filled each can with soil, bits of earth that she had scooped up from the roadside, from where lorries came thundering down so recklessly towards construction sites.
Now one of them was here. Headlights glowered down at the small patchwork house. Her heartbeat quickened. It was time. She scrambled for her shovel. She slipped out through the gate. She squatted by the roadside and harvested the heavenly heaps of thrown-away gravel to use for her plants. Then, with her bounty, she escaped into the sanctum of her property, watching through the grille as the metal beast roared away.
Songthrush squinted at the number plate. She had no idea that division was constructing something new. A wave of anxiety rose in her chest. She knew the firm had been growing recently. Sometimes it scared her that she didn’t know how and where.
Her secretary had promised to call if there was anything big, but he was young and careless, and often glossed things over with his slurring baritone.
The last thing to disappear was the red logo glowing on the spine of the lorry. A snake eating its own tail. It frightened her more the longer she looked at it, so she closed her eyes and chose to turn away.
Once inside, Songthrush locked the door and then leaned back against it, sighing. Her eyes adjusted slowly to the darkness. She could pick out grey outlines of the pneumatic recycling tubes she had installed in her house. After all, she was a busy person and could not be expected to bring her recycling to the centre on foot. And she didn’t trust anyone else to do it without dropping one glass bottle or the other into floodwater and wasting precious resources.
The old family photograph materialised as she grew used to the dimmer surroundings of her home. Songthrush found herself approaching the picture, running a finger along the carved wooden frame. It was the most ancient thing in this house of hers. She looked at the honey-caramel faces of her father and mother, each crinkled with a smile.
Her parents had called her Songthrush after a memorable museum trip, when they had seen a bird skeleton with bones small like needles. That museum had since been shut down. Songthrush remembered the news report, where a reporter on a boat had bobbed anxiously near the marble roof of the main atrium, rattling off the list of names to whom the exhibits would be sold. Mostly bankers.
Just as the museum had left her a name, her parents had left her heirloom seeds when they died, spawn for crops that otherwise would no longer exist in this world. She had moved to New Venice, bought a property outside the looming glass suburbs and spent months rehabilitating barbed wire fences.
Through a crack in the door, she could see the half-moon shapes of roofs where the middle class lived. Rose gold cut off to reveal vast swathes of black-tinted window, more window than anyone would need, even for stargazing. It was a good thing she recycled her glass, she thought. She turned her back to the wooden panel and felt for the locket around her neck.
She needed the seeds. She pried the gold clasp open. The three small pods rolled gently into her palm, casting rivulets of shadow into the creases of her hand. They were the last of the original batch. Songthrush contemplated the lance of sunlight that came through the door as she opened it again. By the time of the next monsoon, none of the seeds in her garden would be those selected by her parents. In a way, they would all be new.
New was what they needed now, she thought, as she stepped, barefoot, out on her cobbles, on her pebbles. Songthrush had seen a documentary once, about how shoes were made in the factories. She tried to avoid wearing them nowadays. She could do that. She knew what was on her own floor.
Carefully she did her planting, measuring the spaces between the seed and the wall of the can. The loose planks in the fence rattled slightly when the cans brushed against them. Songthrush turned, before padding away to retrieve her tablet from the picnic table.
She recorded the time of sowing, the day, date, humidity. By the time her work was done, the sky had gone inky with night. The gravel had gone to good use. She smiled to herself, feeling a great tension seep away from her shoulders. Maybe – just maybe – she would sleep that night.
On the boat ride to work, she felt well-rested. She leaned against the railing and watched the bubble-shaped houses float by. They cast a glowing pattern of blue lamplights onto the floodwater, as if alien creatures were swimming beneath.
It was easy to grin and tip the old man who ferried them. He accepted the money with a bare nod of acknowledgement. His ears were plugged into a small sound system, second-hand, rusting, but just enough to block out any outside noise.
Songthrush waved at the retreating boat as it revved away from the platform.
Her office block was less a block and more a large pink dome. Focus bubbles, she remembered, is what they called this style of architecture when it was still in conception. Now that it had become the norm, this name was meaningless, forgotten.
Only protestors ever brought it up.
There was always a group of them, no matter how small, outside the company buildings. Today was no different. Songthrush brushed past the shouting and the colourful banners. Since Songthrush attended every green seminar at work, she decided she could ignore the gaggle of children. If they wanted, they could scrape up the fee to pay for a slot and speak on stage.
Each day, she rushed between such seminars. She even visited two or three over lunch break and knew them well enough to recognize familiar faces. Today was no different. Through the early morning darkness, she groped around to find a seat in the main hall. She heard the muffled footsteps as techies put a campaign video up on the projector. From her seat in the far back, she could see a tense, hunched-over grey figure and knew it was Rhino from manufacturing.
As the video played, casting a blue glow over the audience, Rhino curled in on herself further and further.
Songthrush got up from her seat. A cramp was forming in her legs and she needed to move about.
She approached Rhino, put a hand on her broad shoulder and smiled. “I’m sure it won’t happen again!”
The ‘it’ in question was the event on screen, from where the light glared behind Rhino’s half-turned head. Sea creatures swam through dark orange muck, images of an oil spill that blended in with plastic horror, as a baby dolphin surfaced belly-up, head cocooned in a diaper package.
“How do you know?” Rhino had thin cynical brown eyes sitting in a warm beige marble. She was tall and frowned down her nose at Songthrush.
She tightened her grip on Rhino’s shoulder. She knew some parents had started naming their children ‘Dolphin’ or ‘Jellyfish’. A few named their young ‘Cod’, which was creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was one way to deal with it, Songthrush thought. She scanned the employee up and down, until she found the little crumple of a takeaway bag hanging around Rhino’s wrist.
The plastic was a subtle rose, but Songthrush latched onto it with her gaze until heat rose to the stern cheeks. Rhino looked down at it, then back at Songthrush with shame. Maybe she had been in a hurry that morning. Maybe she had not the money to ride the boat, as Songthrush often did. But Songthrush was not in the mood to make excuses for another person, though for her part, the polite smile never left her face. If she withdrew her hand from Rhino, who was to tell?
She pulled her tablet from the folds of her bamboo-weave purse. Songthrush showed Rhino the plans for the finished garden. They had been updated eleven times in the past eight hours. The device stalled and lagged as she scrolled through all the different parts. Something about the look Rhino had given her earlier was nibbling at Songthrush’s chest, so she felt the need to explain herself.
On her device, there were ten more tabs open. Each was a plan for further projects. There were recycling centers, self-funded by merchandise, even if the finances would take longer to accumulate. After that, there could be a reserve surrounding them, with smaller parks inside, children’s activities. A coloring competition – all digital, of course. Deforestation had to end.
“These are just my personal projects. It’s what I do in my free time.” As she said this, Rhino’s eyebrows shot upwards. Songthrush put on a reassuring smile. She danced through familiar questions and answers. No, she would not get too tired. No, she did not need any help. She let herself bask a bit in Rhino’s fretting, but not for too long, because she had to get to her desk on schedule.
“It’s great, what you’re doing, only . . . “Rhino chewed on her lip, hesitant.
Songthrush motioned for Rhino to follow, and together they walked away from the dissolving crowd, out of the seminar room. They weaved past the cleaner and his wide-faced mop, Songthrush’s heels clicking like a stapler against the polished tiles.
“They say we might have to cut down.” Rhino’s tone was deeply thoughtful. “Cut down on production. Make the company smaller. Stuff like that.”
Songthrush shook her head. “That’s just nonsense,” she said. “Our own experts say otherwise.”
She looked up to watch the emotions swim through Rhino’s face. Shadows danced like seaweed as they passed the brightest of the fluorescent lights.
“But I – “
“Look.“ Songthrush looped her arm around Rhino’s. “We all have to stay productive, don’t we?”
Through the windows in the corridor, they could see the assembly lines. Songthrush gestured towards the workers wearing plastic masks. “People need jobs. People need money, food, shelter. Who do you think is giving all of these things to them?”
She took a handkerchief from her purse to dab at the sweat trickling from her temple. Outside, thunder cracked violently. A storm was brewing.
“You’ve got to be realistic,” she told Rhino, staring up into surprised eyes. Lightning flashed. White light cut across both their faces.
In reply, a toneless hum. Rhino’s dark brow evened from its usual worried furrow.
They walked through the canteen. Rhino might have noticed that Songthrush was collecting more and more cans off the side of the tables. There were so many of them, they bulged against the fabric of her purse like some writhing, never-ending beast.
As it was, though, her eyes were distracted by a smile-laughing ruby-colored mouth.
Finally, Rhino slapped her worries into Songthrush’s shoulder and smiled slightly.
“If you say so, boss.”
They stopped at the bottom of the stairwell. A freezing gust blew from the air-conditioning upstairs, swirling down and chilling their sweating hands.
When the factory worker waved her goodbye, Songthrush strutted up the spiral and pretended not to see.
It stormed all throughout their working hours, keeping everyone inside. The digital display recorded a productivity boost of twenty-percent from the previous day. Songthrush sighed with relief and set the tablet down on her dark teak desk.
Before she could switch it off, it beeped.
“Ms. Songthrush.” Her secretary’s voice was cheerier than usual. “Congratulations.”
Songthrush waited for him to go on. It was nice hearing someone talk to her and only her. She didn’t even have to put effort into these conversations.
“New Venice Daily has listed you as one of the top female leaders in the past fifty years. It’s all over the web now.” His approval warmed her. “By the way, your aunt called. Says she wants to talk about expanding the family estate.”
“My aunt . . . “
She had not heard from her aunt in years. Though she should have reached her by her personal number, Songthrush was still happy she had bothered at all. When the report ended, she was smiling. Songthrush pushed away from her desk and stood.
The CEO’s office had curved glass walls. It perched on the highest floor, overlooking the entire industrial complex. Swift robotic arms were wiping away the rain drops from the morning’s shower. Meanwhile, rich sunset began flooding in.
Songthrush crossed the room to her cabinet and picked out a wine to match. Outside, the silhouettes of drills dipped and then cracked backwards, infinitely, like the necks of clockwork kingfishers. The sound came through muffled. She balanced the wine glass in one hand.
She tried to imagine what it would be like to dismantle some of the machines.
She couldn’t picture it, she thought, thumbing the rim of the glass. She couldn’t. If you couldn’t picture something, was it possible to do it?
She wondered what Rhino could picture.
Before the thought could become an idea, however, Songthrush strode to the bundled-up curtain. She yanked it closed. Darkness swallowed the room. By the time she’d sat down at her desk, her mind was already elsewhere – wandering, wandering, looking for the kinds of things she could keep in a planner and be awarded for. The kinds of things she could finish.
She tapped on her tablet and scribbled, in big orange letters:
About the Author
Ruey Fern is an undergraduate student who loves learning language, living language and listening to language. She believes in the power of words to develop one’s thinking, to understand people deeply and to synthesise different perspectives. She hopes readers can get something enriching out of her writing. You can find more of her work here : carboniferouschronicles.wordpress.com (Poetry) and eaterofwords.home.blog (Prose and personal blog).