Category Archives: Short Stories (S)

Dissonance (S)

“What have you brought me?”

Ella’s grin and inability to stand still told me she was excited by her find. I would always congratulate her even when she brought me junk I couldn’t use because she needed the motivation to keep hunting. I’d tried to communicate what I wanted but it wasn’t easy because I didn’t always know until I saw it. The plastic bones from a Halloween skeleton ended up being re-buried, but the rusted lobster shell crackers found their purpose in “Daniel’s Bounty” as part of a life-sized tractor. I’d spent a lifetime creating art from discarded objects and had received accolades in my youth.

When I look at my art, I find it difficult to separate the overall idea from the function of the individual parts. I see lobsters where others see only metal. None of the children had seen a lobster and few believed me when I told them the tools were made to crack open their hard shells which turned red after boiling. Compared to these children, I’m ancient, and who cares what I know about the past anyway. It’s all useless, silly information. Even so, the kids seem hungry for more stories. I’ve become entertainment, but maybe that’s not so bad.

Ella slowly brought her arms around in front of her. Now I was fidgeting. When I saw it, my first guess was a salad spinner, just another useless device that made little sense in today’s world. Who would waste water washing lettuce? There was a scratched metal base and a lid with a handle and clamps at the edges. Ella looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to tell her what she held in her hands.

“I’m not sure yet. Let me have a look.”

Ella nodded and held out the bowl. She wanted a story for her efforts. Sometimes I made one up for her, but as she grew older, she knew when she wasn’t hearing the truth.

I worked hard to separate the lid from the bowl. If there was a basket inside, I could use it as a strainer. I looked up, and Ella’s tongue was sticking out the side of her mouth, mimicking mine as I concentrated. I closed my mouth and the lid finally squeaked off. No basket inside.

Instead, there was a carefully folded, yellowed newspaper. Maybe it was used for packing something important? I gently pulled it out of the bowl and unfolded it, but there was no hidden treasure. Ella sighed. She never spoke much, but her sighs were a language I’d learned to interpret.

“You’ve found a salad spinner, or part of one,” I said, explaining the purpose and watching her shake her head in disappointment. “The newspaper may say something interesting.” I tried to sound hopeful. “Look, it’s from 1918, almost 180 years old.” This elicited another sigh. “I’ll read it and I’ll tell you if I find something interesting, OK?” With a shrug, Ella wandered towards her friends.

After their chores were done, I’d watch the five of them playing, without words for the most part. Only Daniel spoke to me at length and had shown an interest in learning how to read real books. That meant I wouldn’t have to share the newspaper. I carefully refolded it and carried it into the shed. I spent too much time maintaining my small living space, but what else could I do at my age? The two boys had built their own shed over the hill, still within shouting distance, but the three girls were still pre-teens and would stay with me a while longer. I enjoyed their company but had to remind myself that lack of conversation gave me more time for peaceful contemplation.

I cleared off the breakfast dishes and lay the newspaper on the table. I’d found other papers, of course, but rarely a whole section. I read an ad that made me laugh. “The missing link of Darwinism has never been discovered, but we can tell you where some real good link-sausages can be found.” Usually the ads would amuse me for an hour or more, but today I was hungry for information or at least stories I could share with the kids. Neither was easy to find. Facts were considered boring, and fear sold newspapers. Eighty years later, nothing had changed in that regard except there were no more newspapers, just tweets born largely of unfocused imagination, not research.

I scanned the pages, my eyes alighting on an article that included a hazy reproduction of a drawing from a much earlier era. It described a séance, apparently in vogue in the early 1900’s, where the host of the séance practiced “table tipping”. The tipping or rotation of a small table was used as evidence of communication with the spirit world. Later it was attributed to unscrupulous behavior or, more generously, to unconscious muscular action by the spiritualist. The fascination with communicating with the dead was discussed at length in the article. I wondered what the children would think of this? All had lost their parents in the epidemic which is how I came to take on the role of grandmother. Bereavement could do strange things to the brain, but I suspected these kids would add this story to their list of reasons why they’d never want to go back to the so-called golden ages. Daniel had asked me why everyone was so crazy back then, as if we’d all been subject to a brain plague. I asked him if he thought I was still crazy. His shrug was non-committal.

As I flipped over the pages, I realized I was searching for stories to make them yearn for the past, the way I did. But who did that serve? I couldn’t tell them how to live on a devastated planet, or what to value and protect because my generation had been hopeless at that. The kids knew sharing got them further, and they rarely argued over tools or toys the way I had as a child. The concept of “mine” didn’t seem to exist for them. Funny, they were teaching me far more than I could teach them, but it was coming too late for me.

I continued turning the brittle pages, searching for insights. There was a short article on overcrowding in cities, and how it initially made people more tolerant of differences but later led to gang violence. No need to worry about overcrowding these days, I thought, but would the scenario keep playing out as it did in the wild? Prey and predator levels were rarely in balance. The next page held a gold mine. In 1900, A man named John Elfreth Watkins  predicted what the world would look like a hundred years later. He saw only improvements, and was able to predict digital photography, mobile phones, television, pre-prepared meals and hot house vegetables. Perhaps I can get the kids interested in imagining what their world would look like in a hundred years.

After dinner, I read the article to the children. Daniel asked to look at the pictures, and Ella gave me her usual frown. “What are all those things?” She placed emphasis on things since she saw them as useless.

“They came before the internet, Ella. Watkins didn’t predict the internet. But remember, it was a time when few had electricity. Can you imagine how things might change over the next century?”

“Change?” Daniel echoed. “Why do things have to change?”

“Improvements make our lives easier, more interesting.”

All the children were scowling now. Did they fear change?

“You tell us we must work in harmony with nature to survive,” Daniel said, “yet you talk about change as if it is a good thing. Change can be bad when it isn’t in harmony.”

I blushed. He’d hit on something I’d pushed from my mind. Humanity’s constant striving for novelty and our inability to contemplate limits to growth had disastrous consequences for the planet. Could these children avoid those mistakes?

“Daniel, I saw you make an irrigation system using buckets and tubing. Isn’t that change, and an improvement over watering by hand?”

“Yes, but first I thought about whether it was in harmony with nature, and it was.”

“But you, Ella, didn’t you make a net to catch more fish than you could with a rod and line? What if you take too many fish with your net?”

“Now I only fish once a week instead of every day. We all talked about eating too many fish, but we keep careful watch. If I catch fewer fish, I’ll stop fishing for a while till they come back.”

“Stop? What if people on the other side of the lake keep fishing? They will have food, and you won’t.”

“Why would they keep fishing? It’s like eating the seed potatoes.” Why indeed, I thought. I’d instilled my values, or some of them, but had I prepared these children for what they might encounter? Now it was my turn to frown. “We aren’t like you, Grandma,” Ella said quietly. “And the children across the lake think the way we do.”

“Did someone teach them?”

“We teach each other.”

I was confused. If they rarely spoke among themselves, how did they teach each other?

“We show each other and we think before we do things,” Ella said, correctly interpreting my silence. She took my hand and led me outside to the lean-to. The other children followed. Together we stared at my sculpture of useless bits and pieces that had no obvious function. I thought of pack rats and bower birds who fabricated elaborate nests of found objects in hopes of luring a mate. What was my purpose in creating this art?

“We don’t understand why you use your time this way,” Daniel said, looking down and shuffling his feet.

“It doesn’t hurt the planet,” I said, trying to justify myself. “Besides, I feel satisfied when I make a sculpture out of garbage, but I can’t tell you why.” Was creativity a bad thing for the planet, I wondered?

“Oh. We thought it was like a making a stone over a grave — something to remember the before-time,” Ella said.

“Or maybe it’s a warning not to make garbage in the first place,” Daniel said. The other children nodded in agreement.

Of course, I felt sad. Who wouldn’t if they viewed their life’s work through the eyes of her grandchildren. The tractor ended up being my last sculpture, but I still took pleasure in looking at it. Perhaps it was nostalgia, but if I tried to explain that concept to the children, they would scoff. They’d wonder why I would want to return to a time when people ate their seed potatoes. Still, the children have given me hope that we are moving in the right direction, and that, too, is change.

***

Graceland (S)

Why were the care aides whispering about him when he lay on his motorized bed not five feet away? Just because he didn’t understand what they said didn’t mean he was hard of hearing. He was only waiting for them to say something that made sense.

Jack felt relaxed enough to drool. Over-medicated, he’d heard them whisper. His dog bothered them because he wasn’t hygienic. Sure, Elvis sleeping on his bed wasn’t completely safe, but it was fine if he spent the night in soiled adult nappies.

“You wouldn’t mind if we take Elvis for a short walk, would you, Jack.”

“Try it, and you won’t like what happens,” Jack said, letting his evil smile loose. The two care aides jerked back when he displayed a new set of poorly-made false teeth that seemed too big and brilliant for his puckered mouth. He’d even scared himself when he smiled in the mirror. “Elvis stays with me.” He imagined delivering this line in a resonant bass voice, but his old man quaver didn’t cut it. That meant using the toothy grin, the weapon he saved for dire situations. Both aides narrowed their eyes and shrugged, deciding it wasn’t worth risking a bite from his choppers.

Jack patted Elvis and watched his pet’s adoring eyes turn towards him and blink several times before closing for a nap. There was an audible doggy sigh as contagious and satisfying as a yawn.

 

Someone had absconded with Elvis two nights ago, and Jack had worked himself into an uncharacteristic state of agitation.

“Where’s Elvis?” Jack shouted at the aide, his scrawny arms crossed over his pajamas. It was difficult to appear menacing in pjs, especially ones with silhouettes of Elvis dancing across his chest.

“You haven’t eaten your breakfast. It’s your favourite – poached egg.”

“Not eating until you bring me Elvis.”

“He’s in for repairs. I told you yesterday.”

“I told you yesterday that I wouldn’t eat until you brought him back.”

He could hear the two women whispering at the door. “How can he remember even owning that bloody dog?” the grumpy one said.

“His memory must be a lot better than we thought,” the pretty one said. Jack watched them leave, wondering if he was risking an injection of something nasty by acting up.

 

“Here you go, Jack. Elvis is back.” The grumpy aide tossed a plush collie on his bed.

“Hey! That’s a stuffed dog. It’s not even the same breed. What do you take me for, a senile old man?”

 

“Jack, I understand you haven’t been eating.” The doctor was pretending to care, pouting like his old Mum when he wouldn’t eat his peas.

“Your people stole my dog.”

“You have a dog? In a care facility?” Now the doctor tried to look shocked, but that didn’t hit home either.

“Don’t play games, Doc. You know Elvis came here with me two years ago.

“When you arrived, you thought Elvis was real. Do you still think so?” Jack frowned and squinted up at the doctor. Maybe they should trade places.

“I know Elvis is a robot, but he’s my robot and I want him back.”

“Do you mind if I run a couple of tests.” The doctor pulled out a little computer and started poking at it.

“Darn right I mind. No Elvis, no tests.”

 

“Here’s your dog, you old fool.” The grumpy aide dumped Elvis on the bed. “You got us all into trouble.”

“As if I care,” Jack said. He ran his hand over Elvis’s stomach, felt the comforting heat radiating from the battery pack, and checked to see if the dog’s eyes turned to look at him adoringly when he stroked him. For the first time in days, he could relax and enjoy being pampered. Lunch was a mystery but it never tasted better.

 

Then the doctor showed up with his tests and asked a bunch of meaningless questions. Can you remember three items from that picture I showed you? Can you tell me the time from this clock face? Jack shrugged and waited until the doctor said something that made sense.

“Jack, I can’t help wonder if you’re playing games with me. Yesterday you were lucid. Today you can’t answer simple questions.” Jack’s eyebrows were hitting each other. He couldn’t understand a word.

Elvis moved his head to look at Jack, blinked his eyes, closed them, and sighed. Good plan, thought Jack, and he imitated the dog’s actions and fell asleep in an instant.

 

“What do you mean, the dog’s doing it?” The doctor banged his pen up and down on his iPad as if it were a bongo drum. He was glaring at the pretty aide.

“I tell you, Jack’s a zombie when that dog’s around. Take it away and he’s almost normal.”

“That’s ludicrous.”

“Sure, but I’d bet I’m right. Try it and see what happens.”

 

Jack sensed something was up. The aides were snickering and saying things that made no sense. He heard the word Elvis, and something in his brain clicked. He started to shake. His hand wobbled on the warm battery pack, and he stared into Elvis’s glossy black eyes, looking for help. Slowly his shaking subsided and he felt a lovely calm descend. When the doctor entered with the pretty aide, Jack was asleep. They took Elvis.

 

“He’s not upset?” the doctor asked.

“I wouldn’t say that. He’s stopped eating again, but he’s not talking rationally the way he did last time. He just sits there drooling.”

“You’ve changed his routine. That’s why he’s not eating. Now I’m worried about your mental state. Really? Suggesting the dog was making him senile?”

“Sorry, but I thought Elvis was affecting his brain.” There was a long silence when Jack wanted to open his eyes and see what was happening.

“Can we give him back his dog?”

“Why not? See if he starts eating again.”

Jack heard it all, but he didn’t let his face muscles tense or his eyes react. Funny thing was, he enjoyed listening to them talk. He could tell there was a budding relationship between the doctor and the pretty aide. He wanted to know more, but if he let on he wasn’t senile, everything would change for the worse because they’d evict him from the care home. Whatever it took, he wasn’t going back to that filthy hostel to fend for himself, and no way would Elvis turn him into a drooling idiot, either. That care aide had the brains to figure it out.

 

“Everything’s back to normal,” the pretty one said. “Jack’s eating again, so the doctor was right. We must have upset his routine. Funny though, Elvis has stopped doing his companion thing – you know, wiggling, blinking and sighing. I offered to change the batteries, but when I tried to take Elvis away, Jack bared those awful dentures and growled at me.”

“If he doesn’t miss that bogus pet affection, why should we care? Let him enjoy his plushy germ-ridden toy.” The grumpy aide shrugged and left the room with Jack’s empty dinner tray.

After they had gone, Jack wondered how Elvis had managed to make him act demented. He knew it had something to do with the battery he’d removed and shoved in the diaper pail. What really bothered him was not being able to remember which one of his wretched relatives had given him the dog as a present. Jack released a big sigh which was almost as satisfying as hearing one from Elvis.

 

***

Blood Memories: The Prequel

“From: Doctor John Forbes
H.M.S. Rossamond
Havana, 16th February 1854

My Dearest Anne,

My last letter to you left here yesterday morning in the American steamer “Isabel” for Charleston and if it goes safe I calculate it will reach you in a week. I am now beginning another letter to you; my dear Anne, next to receiving a letter from you my greatest pleasure is in writing to you. You see I don’t put off much time in beginning a fresh letter – the English mail steamer has not arrived here yet but is hourly expected and I suppose soon after that we will take our departure from Havana…”

 

A tell-tale squeak from the rocking chair drew Donald to the chilly front room. Mamma’s lap was covered by a warm woolen blanket that nestled the only one of Penny’s kittens to survive their harsh Niagara winter. As his mother lifted a letter to the last light of the day, her auburn hair caught the rays of sun that were streaming through the frosted front room window. She had failed to notice him staring at her until he touched one of the patches of bright orange fur that speckled the kitten’s coat.

At nine years of age, Donald was a small version of his father. Light brown hair fell over a broad forehead above curious green eyes. He pushed a lock of unruly hair from his eyes and gently lifted the kitten to his chest. The kitten opened one eye briefly but remained determinedly tucked in a ball. Donald smiled and squirmed as he felt the vibrations of the purring right through to his skin and he inhaled the sweet milky aroma of the kitten’s breath. In spite of rarely seeing his father, Donald had tried to adopt his father’s mannerisms. He would wait until Mamma looked directly at him before beginning to speak, but this time he could not contain himself.

“Where is Papa? Will he come home soon? Does he ask after me?” he said, his questions running out on a single breath.

His mother’s eyes moved to him, softened, and returned to the letter. “He is still in Cuba, he should be home in a few weeks, and I don’t know because you haven’t let me finish his letter.”

The mild rebuke reminded Donald that his father would return home exhausted from his tour as ships’ surgeon with the Royal Navy. He was always too tired to spend much time with him and he had to plead to hear a sea story at bedtime. Mamma said that Papa would take his retirement soon but then they would need to be more careful with money because he would receive a half pension, whatever that meant. He thought it would be a good thing to have Papa home all the time, even if he would no longer be called the man of the house. He’d earned that title by feeding the horses and milking Annabella, but he didn’t care much for feeding the hens and reaching for eggs guarded by fierce beaks. He sighed when his mother finally finished reading the letter and turned to him.

“Papa sends you his love and hopes that your school work is going well.”

“School work? Doesn’t he ask after the calf? You told him I birthed him didn’t you?” Donald tried to make his brow furrow in annoyance, just like his father’s, but his mother only smiled.

“I think Annabella did most of that dear, but yes, I did tell him you contributed to a good outcome. It’s a fine calf, but I’m sure your father has much on his mind. You can tell him all about it when he arrives home.”

Donald placed the kitten back in her lap and frowned at the roughness of the woolen blanket compared to the kitten’s silky coat. Disappointed with the letter, he stomped from the house, grabbing his coat and felt cap from the peg beside the door. Seeing his mother watching him through the window, he tugged at the small oak tree that Papa had planted several years earlier. It had stubbornly withstood many of his tugs of frustration. Then he saw Mamma rise up and walk towards the kitchen, and he hoped that she would make a cake for his birthday. His favorite was White Mountain cake piled high with icing and decorated with strawberry preserves. He licked his lips in anticipation, and the image pushed the disappointing letter from his mind.

 

Warmth from the animals engulfed Donald as he pulled open the barn door. He lugged the wooden water bucket towards the stall, managing to slop very little. He felt proud of his efforts to muck out Annabelle’s stall that morning, and he imagined his father saying that it looked ship-shape. But he dropped the bucket when he saw the calf lying ominously still in the fresh straw, its mother looming over the limp form. Donald’s skin grew moist then cold as he wondered how this could have happened. The calf had been bright-eyed and feeding well that morning.

When he tried to move closer to the calf, Annabelle refused to let him. She swished her tail and mooed a warning for him to keep his distance. Talking in a slow lilting voice, the one he used when milking, Donald slowly calmed her and then led her to the back of her stall. He secured her halter to a ring in the post and returned to kneel beside the calf. His little belly was swollen but the calf was cool to the touch. Blood had dribbled from the corner of his mouth and created a shiny pool under his muzzle. He touched the surface of the pool and then quickly lifted his finger, drawing a red thread with it. His stomach turned when he thought about the loss of the little creature. Papa would be vexed and would blame him for sure, especially if the calf had swallowed something it shouldn’t. If only his best friend Jessie were here. She might know why the calf had died.

Just as he was considering how to break the sad news to Mamma, Rhoda appeared silently at his side. His sister was five years younger, but she missed very little. “Just like you to show up right now,” Donald muttered.

“What’s wrong with the calf, Donny?” Rhoda asked, looking more perplexed than upset. Small for her age, she had auburn hair like her mother’s and a nose just a bit too big for her face. Papa’s nose, Donald realized. “Why is he so still?” she persisted, touching the calf tentatively with one finger.

“The calf is dead, Rhoda, and I don’t know why,” Donald sighed. “Annabelle is very upset, so you should stay away from her for a few days.” As if on cue, Annabelle emitted a mournful bellow, and Donald realized that the pressure of the milk meant for the calf must be paining her. He turned to his little sister. “Could you go get my wagon?”

My wagon, you mean,” her eyes wide. “You said I could have it.”

“Of course, your wagon,” he sighed. “But I need to borrow it to move the calf from the stall.”

Before Donald could get an answer, Rhoda had streaked from the barn, yelling “Mamma, Mamma. The calf is dead.”

 

Outside, there was just enough light for him to retrieve the wagon that was leaning up against the leeward side of the barn, but when he saw the wooden toboggan hanging on a hook above it, he lifted it down instead, realizing that it would be easier to pull over the fresh snow. He would leave the calf under a tarpaulin next to the fence so that their hired hand could help him deal with it the next day. Returning to the barn, he bent down, grabbed the calf’s legs and began to drag it slowly backwards from the stall. His face warmed and he felt a wet drop slide down his cheek. Sweat, not tears, he told himself. As he pulled the front legs onto the toboggan, he spotted something shiny in the hay where the calf had been lying. He tugged the stiffening body onto the toboggan, draped a tarpaulin over it, and dragged it out to the fence. Then he returned quickly to examine the shiny thing in the straw.

A curved metal shard, about three inches long, had been lying beneath the calf. He kicked aside the hay and found two more pieces, one much larger. Knowing that calves would eat just about anything they found, he wondered whether the calf might have swallowed a bit of the metal that cut his insides. He searched all around inside the stall, then outside, checking the small rakes and spades hanging on the wall. Some of their tools were made of wood, but the spade, pick and hoe were hand forged of steel as was the pitch fork he’d been using that morning. None of the tools was missing bits of metal. He turned over the small fragments in his hands feeling their smooth curved surfaces. It looked like the broken rim of a small wheel. Perplexed, he walked back to the house to show his mother.

She was waiting for him in the kitchen and consoled him with a pat on his shoulder. “I wonder what could have happened to that calf,” she said. Donald handed her the metal bits.

“I found these in the stall, but they weren’t there this morning,” he said, anticipating her question. His mother was joining the pieces together and looked concerned. “What is it Mama? Could it have killed the calf?”

“Yes, Donny, if he swallowed something sharp like this. They look like pieces of a slave neck ring to me.”

“A slave neck ring,” Donald repeated, his eyes widening as he remembered his father’s story of the injustices committed upon the slaves transported from Africa. They were shackled to their berths for weeks at sea and often died on ship before seeing the new world. Papa had said that dogs were treated better than slaves. He was proud that his father helped stop these ships and free the slaves. “There is no one in the barn now,” he said.

“No, I suppose whoever it was just kept running, poor soul. He’ll be miles away by now. Although I do not begrudge that poor Negro from removing this tormenting device, it is unfortunate that the calf had to suffer for it, if that is what happened. There is nothing you could have done, Donny,” she added “Your father will be disappointed, but he will know that you are not to blame.”

“Would I find a piece of metal inside the calf, do you suppose?” he asked, wanting to know for sure why the animal had died. It would be something to tell Papa.

His mother smiled and patted his head. “Perhaps, but first you would need to develop your skills in surgery. That would please your father.” Donald looked up at her and set his mouth in the way his father did when he was pleased but trying not to show it.

“I’d like to be just like Papa. Then maybe I could have saved that calf.” Before he could savor this thought, a bellow from the barn reminded him that he must return to milk Annabelle.

***

 

Loosely based on letters written by my ancestors, this story takes place in 1854 on a farm near the village of Chippawa, now part of Niagara Falls Ontario. It provides a background to my novel Blood Memories, a historical “coming of age” story about Donald Forbes and his childhood friend, Jessie MacKay growing up in Ontario and Virginia during the American Civil War.

Blood Memories was short-listed for the 2015 Cedric Literary Awards. It was published with Kindle Direct Publishing in October, 2016.

 

White Mountain Cake

 

3 cups of sugar
1 cup of butter
Whites of 10 eggs, beaten stiff
½ cup of milk
1 tea-spoon of cream of tartar in the milk
3 ½ cups of flour
½ tea-spoon of soda put in the flour
Flavor with lemon. Makes 3 layers
 
For Frosting:
1 lb of sugar
Whites of 3 eggs

***

Who will save us from ourselves? (S)

Seen from the door of the upscale cafe, three women sat frozen in a ‘tableau vivant’. Heads together, hands clenched in their laps, only their scarlet lips moved, and those movements were barely perceptible.  Renada’s friends wore colourful print dresses and their hair was beautifully coiffed.  They epitomized the new middle class of educated working women, and they shared a deep concern for environmental protection.  Renada glided to the vacant chair, hating to disturb their concentration yet anxious to hear what so enthralled them.

“…the fetus was normal. She didn’t want to chance it.  Many babies look normal on ultrasound, but you can never be sure,” Andrea said, sotto voce.

The three young women looked up and smiled as Renada sat down. She was the only one of the group with a baby with a small head. Microcephaly, it was called.  Max was born before the health authorities had warned the public about the virus.  She thought Max was perfect, but later her doctors told her his head was smaller than normal and his brain would be affected.  What was normal, she had wondered as she studied her beautiful baby boy. She hadn’t brought Max with her today, hating how these women stared at him and angry at her hypersensitivity.

“We’re not having a child until they discover what’s happening, or someone makes a vaccine for that virus. It’s just too risky.” Maria said.

“No one with a brain is getting pregnant,” Andrea said, eliciting an abbreviated laugh from the other women.

Renada wasn’t upset. She had her own ideas about what was happening.  In Brazil, almost three million babies were born annually.  The number of babies born with microcephaly was typically under two hundred per year, but that number had risen to over four thousand in association with the recent appearance of Zika virus carried by mosquitoes and possibly transmitted through semen. Controversy erupted in the medical and scientific professions.  What was the evidence for the virus causing this increase in microcephaly?  Could it be caused instead by the pesticide used to kill mosquitoes?  Why had the criteria for classifying microcephaly changed?   Could the virus really be transmitted through humans?  Lacking answers, the authorities had still issued warnings against travelling to infected countries or becoming pregnant if living there.

“Are you sure this isn’t a ploy to reduce the birth rate?” Renada asked. Her husband believed that a declining birth rate would be the end of the growth economy.  He made it sound like a bad thing, but she couldn’t agree. Never-ending growth was illogical.

“Why be concerned about the population here?” Emilia said. “Brazil’s fertility rate has declined a lot. On average, women are having fewer than two babies now.”  Her large dark eyes looked disappointed, not angry, Renada thought.  They’d had this argument before.

“You know it’s not just the fertility rate,” Renada said. “It’s the numbers. Brazil’s population is four times higher since 1950.  We’re the fifth largest country by population in the world.”

“Population density in the north is ten times lower than the coast, but we have more microcephaly here in the north,” Emilia said, smirking. Renada shrugged, feeling defeated once again.

She couldn’t win the argument because Emilia was right. Reducing population growth in Brazil, where the ability of the land to feed the people was still greater than the population, wasn’t as important as reducing it in India or England.  Brazil had plenty of land, if you included the rain forests.  Still, maybe that’s why the outbreak had started here.  Maybe it was a testing ground.

The unsubstantiated threat of damage to the developing fetus had been enough to slow conception rate, or so the papers said.  She’d read an article about couples choosing not to have children because of concern for an uncertain future on a planet that was facing ecological collapse within the century.  Although few people were swayed by distant threats, the Zika virus was here right now.  With a vaccine said to be two years away, most women, like her friends, would wait to conceive.

Earlier that week, Renada had an epiphany when she read that El Salvador, the most densely populated country on the continent, had asked women to delay conception until the outbreak was contained. No government had ever warned its citizens not to get pregnant, and this would be very difficult in a Catholic state where the poor could ill afford contraceptives but were most likely to be infected.  To support their recommendation, the government had made a commitment to increase access to family planning resources as part of their emergency response to Zika.  This was the beautiful part of the plan, she thought.  When over fifty percent of births were unintended, access to free family planning would reduce population growth even after a vaccine was developed.  Was this also happening in northern Brazil, she wondered?  Could this be a the start of a global plan to reduce the population?

That’s why she’d come to the café today. Emilia’s husband was a font of knowledge on Brazilian politics and population growth, which was why Emilia had effective counter-arguments to all of Renada’s positions.  But could she worm this information from her friend?  She decided to pose the question directly.

“Do you know if the government has instituted access to free family planning?” she said, looking around the table but expecting Emilia to answer.

“We all use it, of course,” Andrea said. “It costs so little.”

“For us,” Renada said, “but for the poor, the cost is a reason not to use it.” She saw Emilia squirm, fighting an urge to speak.

“Yes, they’ve opened clinics and asked doctors to provide free condoms and pills,” Emilia said. I suppose we’ll all be paying for that.”

“Odd. I’ve seen nothing in the papers about free birth control,” Maria said.

“That’s because of the Church,” Emilia said, and Andrea nodded. They’d all seen the articles advising against abortion for women infected with Zika, but the Vatican had been silent on contraception so far. Renada thought it far more likely that the corporations would object if the number of consumers dropped.  She suspected Emilia was too cautious to suggest that there was a long-term plan by governments to contain population growth.  Once contraception was freely available, babies could be planned, and this was a good thing, she believed.  “Naturally, they’ll only provide free contraception for a couple of years, until the vaccine is ready,” Emilia said.  She was smirking at Renada, as if reading her thoughts.

Renada smiled back. If this virus were truly being used as a ploy to reduce population growth, perhaps it was only meant to be a delaying tactic until a better solution emerged.  “There could be other reasons for the microcephaly,” she said, “or the population may demand that free contraception methods be continued.”  Arranging her expression to try to appear innocent, she said, “It’s not possible to see into the future, but you have to agree that population growth must cease eventually.”

“Of course, and it will. Most countries show declining population growth rates already, if you discount immigration.  There is no need to invoke some scheme by our government.  I’m surprised at you.  It’s  tourism that’s suffering the most, and you haven’t mentioned a conspiracy there.”

“What do you mean?” Renada said, feeling her face warm under the scrutiny.

“Airlines and cruise ship lines are waiving cancellation fees for pregnant women. More than half the people in the United States said they won’t vacation here or Central America until this outbreak is contained, and I doubt if they’re all pregnant.  I’m waiting to see what happens at the Olympics in Rio, whether fewer tourists will attend.”

“Ah,” Ranada said, “and cruise ships and airlines contribute huge amounts to global warming. Any global pandemic will reduce travel, and especially if people believe the virus can be transmitted between people and not just by mosquitoes.”

“Why are you smiling, Renada? That’s terrible.” Andrea said.

“Because she wants there to be a conspiracy,” Emilia said. “You thrive on them, Renada, but I have no idea why.”

“Don’t tell me all of you can’t see where our country and our planet are headed. There are too many people consuming too much, and we show no signs of controlling our addiction.” Her friends were looking at her wide-eyed, not because they didn’t agree with her but because she rarely displayed her passion. “I need to believe that we will be saved from the worst that’s coming.  Andrea, you say we’ll be saved by technology, but there isn’t enough time.  Now I’m wondering if we have evidence that our behaviour is being manipulated in our own best interests.  Fear of Zika is leading us to control our population growth. We know there are corporations that manipulate us to achieve their goals, but surely there are others with benevolent motivations who work silently against them?  Believing in a conspiracy helps me maintain my hope and sanity.”

Emilia’s eyebrows were raised, and she was no longer smirking. “You surprise me again, Renada. Most people who imagine conspiracies see malevolence, but you see good intentions.  Unfortunately, I’ve never heard of a secret group manipulating people for their own good.”

“What about the Church?” Ranada said, and heard a sharp intake of breath from the three women. Maria and Andrea began speaking loudly, angry at Ranada for even suggesting this, but Emilia looked thoughtful.

“You’re talking about people in positions of power but not accountable to anyone. That eliminates organized religion, government, and even corporations.  If I were imagining a secret group, arrogant enough to believe they know best how to run our world, I’d put my money on the old, guilty, ambitious and extremely wealthy,” Emilia said.  “There are many who have made fortunes over their lifetimes, but now, as the end approaches, they may feel the urge to leave the world in a better state than they found it.”

“You mean, after a lifetime of plundering the environment for profit?” Maria said, looking doubtful. “It would be difficult to replace what’s been poisoned and consumed.”

“But not impossible. And changing the course of humanity?  What could be more satisfying to an oligarch with visions of ultimate control?” Emilia said.

“People who leave a legacy will want others to know about it,” Renada said. “If this is a secret society, their efforts would never be acknowledged.”

“Not to be the bearer of bad news, my dear, but my husband says that we have already left it too late,” Emilia said, “so if there are altruists working behind the scenes, they aren’t working fast enough.”

“You talk as if money was enough to change our course,” Renada said, “but it’s only a part of the solution. We need to be led to stop consuming, just as we were manipulated to start down that path in the first place.”

“That won’t work,” Emilia said. “The reason we were made to believe consumption was wonderful is that we were being promised something better.  A new car, a refrigerator, whatever.  Giving up what you have enjoyed or believe you deserve doesn’t make anyone feel better and provides no motivation for change.”

“Then we need to sell the benefits of a simple life,” Renada said.

“Most on this planet already lead a simple life,” Andrea said. “They want more of what the wealthy have.”

“Besides, Renada, you argue against yourself. If we had no ambitious, greedy people, who would save the planet for you?”

This time, all the women laughed.

***

A 2009 study by statisticians at Oregon State University found that the climate impact of having one fewer child in America is almost 20 times greater than the impact of adopting a series of eco-friendly practices for your entire lifetime, including driving a high-mileage car, recycling, and using efficient appliances and light bulbs. But what if your greatest contribution is not something you do but someone you raise?

Brain Drain (S)

I don’t know how I got myself lost. I’d driven there with no problems the week before.  OK, I had a GPS telling me where to turn and admonishing me when I overshot an intersection.  When my car battery died that morning, I had to borrow my neighbour’s fifteen-year-old Prius to get to my volunteer job at the school.  “Don’t be late, Rhonda.  You must show up.” The woman who organized the volunteers was a retired teacher.  Retired or not, teachers can still make me fall in line in a hurry.

The car told me how much energy I was using, but it didn’t come with a GPS. I stopped at the side of a road I couldn’t recall, and I wondered how much energy had been saved by using GPS devices to lead us directly to our destinations. GPS was brain-saving too since we didn’t have to bother using our internal navigation systems and didn’t need to remember landmarks.  The GPS  did the remembering for us. That freed up our little gray cells, but for what?  Apparently to ask for directions.  I found the nearest driveway, pulled in, and knocked on the door of a lovely small house snuggled under an umbrella of orange-barked arbutus trees.

“Oh dear, should you be driving? With your memory problems and all?” a twenty-something said when I asked for directions.  She was covered in paint, but it was dry.  No, her outfit was tie-died, and that was the latest rage on our island.  I’d been there, done that, fifty years earlier.  It looked horrible then too.

“Memory problems?” I said.

“Yeah. You were here last week asking me the same thing.”

“Oh no. That couldn’t have been me.  I had the GPS last week.”

“Yeah, you said it wasn’t working.”

I stared at her hard. Was she imagining things or was my memory fried?  “Well, I’m sorry if that’s the case. I still need those directions.”

When I got to the school parking lot, I saw an old green Prius just like the one I was driving. A woman who looked a little like me was digging in the trunk, and I walked over.

“Hi, my name’s Rhonda, and I’m a volunteer here. By any chance, did you get lost coming to this school last week and stop to ask for directions?

“Yes, I did. My GPS wasn’t working.  How did you know?”

“I’m driving a green Prius today, and I found a small house in the woods this morning to ask for directions to this school. The young woman who answered the door almost had me convinced I’d been there last week asking the same question.  I can’t tell you how relieved I am to realize she was talking about you.”

“Well that would be scary. And we don’t look a bit alike, really, aside from the gray hair and the same car.”  She looked put out, perhaps offended by being mistaken for an older, shorter and heavier woman. “That girl should have her memory checked.”

“I’m with you on that,” I replied.

 

I’m only telling you this story because that’s how it began for me. The girl giving me directions started me wondering about memory problems in young people.  A few years later, everyone was talking about how difficult it was to deal with youth because they had such poor recall.  At first, inattention to details was blamed on the devices they all carried that acted like portable storage units and reminded them where they were and what they were supposed to be doing.  They didn’t have to remember things because it was all on some hard drive, or in cloud storage, whatever that is.  Maybe young people were no longer aware of their surroundings so they failed to recall places or conversations.  Tests were done that proved otherwise, and there were attempts at memory enhancement that met with limited success.  Most people now believe that something had happened during brain development, like damage by a virus or chemical that wasn’t around when we were growing up.

What surprised most of the older generations was that youth weren’t particularly bothered by their lapses in memory. None of their friends seemed to mind if they had to repeat things, and besides, there was always Facebook or Twitter to keep up with what was happening.   What interested me most was the widespread belief in living in the present moment.  It was like a mantra for them, and I could see how it would reassure people with questionable recall. The past and the future are illusions. Only the present is real. I heard that over and over from my grandkids, often accompanied by a disparaging look during another pointless conversation with Grandma.  The generation gap when I was a kid had nothing on this.

Some professions were devastated, particularly those working in the health sector. Fortunately computer programs had already taken over much of the diagnosis and record keeping, but nursing was a problem, and lots of mistakes were made and then covered up.  People started demanding that only older nurses be hired, and older bus drivers and airplane pilots.  Mandatory retirement disappeared without a fuss, especially when salaries were bumped up for elders.  What a joke that was, and everyone could see it would be a recipe for disaster eventually.  All the young people out of work and living with their parents or grandparents didn’t seem fussed by any of it.  It was lucky that the era of constant economic growth had come to an end so that everyone was getting used to leading simpler lives, demanding less stuff, and now, capable of doing less.  Young people spent their time tending chickens and rabbits in their parent’s backyards.

“It’s like they’re a new species,” my daughter Brenda said.

“Yes, and that reminds me of that cartoon with the apes shuffling along, evolving to man, and then devolving back again when technology comes along,” I said. “I remember, oh sorry, remember is a politically incorrect word these days isn’t it?  I read that we’ve lost more than ten percent of our brain capacity since the Stone Age. One theory is that we’ve been domesticated, and like domestic versions of wild animals, our brains have shrunk.”

“Lovely thought,” Brenda replied. “I wonder if we’ve seen the end of major technical innovations.  Some say it’s not necessarily a bad thing if we don’t move forward at break-neck speed.”

“Do you mean the Luddites among us who worry about technology outpacing our ability to apply it wisely? I suspect they’re right, although I’ve heard that not all young people have reduced recall.”

“It could be an immunity to the virus or chemical,” Brenda said, “although maybe it’s just luck that some infants avoided being exposed during a critical time in their development.”

“I guess we’ll know ahead of time who will be our next leaders.  That’s a lot of pressure for a kid to deal with,” I said.

“Yes, and I’ve heard that some kids pretend to have poor memories. That wouldn’t surprise me.  Adolescence is difficult enough without standing out as a “brain”.  She looked so sad as she said this.

I should have told you about Brenda. My daughter was brilliant, no thanks to me, and she’d made some really important breakthroughs during her career. So when she’d said that we were the last of our species, I believed her.  There was little chance of new discoveries because that required making connections, and you need a memory to make connections.

 

I wasn’t surprised when Brenda disappeared. Hundreds of people went missing that year, and they were all older and brilliant, like my Brenda.  Everyone speculated on where they’d gone.  Some were convinced there were government think tanks that were busy organizing everything for the planet, trying to keep it operating until the memory problem was solved.  I liked to believe that was true.  Others were sure that the missing geniuses had been put to work identifying the virus or chemical that caused the memory failures and working to reverse it. There were space ship theories, cloning theories, and some scary ideas that brain extracts were being prepared from the missing people that could cure all the memory problems.  But no one was able to figure out where the geniuses had gone and no miracle cures appeared.

 

The grandkids forgot my birthday this year. Their electrical devices and the power that feeds them aren’t that reliable any more, and their alarms with reminders about birthdays and such don’t always work.  At ninety-six, I still have better recall than those kids.  But I feel the Grim Reaper approaching, and I’m ready: prêt à mourir, so to speak. The last few years, I gave up trying to help young people with their memory issues.  It all seemed so pointless, especially when they’re happy enough the way they are.  You want to know the big joke?  There’s a lot to be said about living in the present moment, and it’s easy to slip into that mindset at my age.  The best thing about it is my grandkids talk to me a lot more now.

 

***

 

 

Yes, human brains are apparently shrinking. Watching a PBS series on the brain, I learned that connections between are neurons are maximum at about two years of age and then decline as we learn to focus on some abilities and discard others we don’t use. Kids under two are now using iPads, and that made me wonder where our brains are headed.  In the Age of Ignorance, the author of this essay argues that keeping the population ignorant solves a lot of problems.

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