Featured February 26, 2020 Science Fiction cli-fi soil science plants climate change

One Final Walk in the Dust and the Rain

By Anthony W. Eichenlaub
Feb 14, 2020 · 5,869 words · 22 minutes



From the editor:

As long as Sydney can remember, the upper Mississippi has been a deserted wasteland. But when a once-in-a-lifetime rainstorm appears on the horizon, she’ll be pulled into her grandmother’s quixotic quest to sow life into fallow ground—no matter the cost.

Author Anthony W. Eichenlaub himself grew up in the upper Mississippi, and his stories have appeared in Little Blue Marble, the anthology Fell Beasts and Fair and A Punk Rock Future.

From the author: This is a story of love and loss in a desert that used to be the upper Mississippi where I lived. The location is a place I visited many, many times, particularly the place where the road winds up into the bluffs. It was the road to my grandma's house and my dad drove us up those hills in all kinds of dangerous conditions. I guess the memory of that place stuck with me, because here it is in a story.

Syd stretched one skinny arm as high as she could reach to climb one more branch up the skeleton of a dead spruce. Dry bark cut into her calloused hands, but when her grandmother asked for a cutting, Syd delivered. The highest tip of the towering spruce still sported a tuft of bluish-green; its lanky branches still clinging to life as if there might be some chance at survival.
There wasn’t.
Trees died at the Eastern edge of the Flyover Desert. What made this one special? Drought and dust choked plants into kindling for the next raging fire, same as it always had. Even through her mask, air smelled the kind of dry that made Syd’s lungs crackle, and her goggles itched where grit worked its way in along the bridge of her nose.
The question was whether or not she would die out there; life cut short at the age of sixteen. She didn’t even want to be here. Her grandmother’s science expedition was about the last place in the whole world she wanted to be.
Well, except for home.
Syd heaved herself to the upper branches of the tree where she could finally reach the green. The dead wood cracked noisily under her weight, but she wasn’t heavy, and it held.
“You might as well come down,” said Alisha from below. “Dad says we’re calling it.” Alisha was short and pretty and soft. Syd didn’t think the girl would survive their two-week expedition, so she tried her best to ignore her. Even so, every time Alisha spoke, Syd caught herself listening, lost in those big brown eyes.
Syd frowned. She peered to the west where the dust-dimmed sun shone a deep red over the hills. The coarse, nearly-dry bed of the upper Mississippi slashed across the land, and her treetop position gave her a better view of the desert than she’d had the whole trip. Across the river stood the toothy bluffs; their limestone cavities grated against dust-softened crowns. “Doesn’t look so bad.”
Alisha fidgeted. “They say the dust storm’s going to hit in the night.”
Syd took her sweet time clipping green samples from the dead tree. Didn’t make sense to come all the way up only to fail to take cuttings. When she climbed down, her satchel bulged with cuttings and cones all marked with provenance, date, and species. She dabbed them with rooting compound and wrapped the cuttings in cool, damp cloth the way her grandmother taught her. Not that it would do any good, dry as the samples were.
Back at camp, grown adults argued in that way passionate scientists always argued—with childish tantrums and fits of petty rage. Syd’s grandmother, Donna, stared down a beet-faced man in jeans and a long coat while a dozen other scruffy scientists looked on. Donna stood tall and skinny like her granddaughter, but the older woman held her chin up in a way that reminded Syd of kings and queens—even though her eyes were sunken, and her skin was gray as the dust in the sky. The woman endured the man’s bloviating tirade, then offered a quiet, smug response which set him off again. With a loud sigh, Syd left Alisha and loaded her samples into the jeep.
She sat in the driver’s seat, waiting for the official word that their two-week trip would finish after only three days. They’d go back to East America to be ground down by the concrete molars in the great, wet maw of the New York coast. Syd thought of returning to her overbearing parents, the grades she failed to maintain, and Travis who she hoped she’d never see again. It all made her want to run off into the wilderness for good. Damn the dust.
“Damn the dust,” said Donna as she slid into the passenger’s seat. A storm brewed in her tangle of white hair. “And damn what that fool says about sticking together. We’re breaking from the group. The rest of them are heading back.”
Syd’s jaw worked. “Because of a dust storm?” She and her grandmother had weathered storms before.
Donna nodded. “And rain. First rain out here in years, and they’re going to miss it.”
“That’s going to cause mudslides,” Syd said. “It’ll be dangerous.”
“Do you want to go back with the others?”
Syd did want to go back. Her grandmother frightened her on safe expeditions into the desert, but with storms rolling in it wasn’t worth it.
The jeep’s back door opened, and Syd was surprised to see Alisha slide into the back seat with a big, puffy knapsack.
Donna grinned. “I’ve hired help.”
“Fine.” Syd pulled the jeep up onto the remains of a cratered asphalt road. At her grandmother’s direction, she headed north, parallel to the river. “But, dammit, Alisha, what on earth did you bring in that bag?”
Alisha hugged herself, trying to shrink further into the backseat. “Just my clothes.”
Syd pulled her goggles off so they wouldn’t hinder the intense rolling of her eyes.
In the rearview mirror, Syd watched the rest of the expedition disappear. It wouldn’t be much farther, she knew. Their jeep could only go so long before they needed to charge via the solar rig. She tapped a rhythm on the steering wheel, bobbing her head to her own phantom beat.
“That tree was dead,” she said after a while.
Donna didn’t so much as glance over at her. “Why’d you collect samples, then?”
Syd shrugged. “You told me to take samples.”
That hung in the air for a good long while. Donna finally said, “I expect you girls to think for yourself. Dead’s not worth anything, and you know it” She swallowed a sip of water from her canteen. Now that she was away from the other scientists, she seemed smaller. Hollower. “Sometimes, something will look alive long after it’s really dead, but if there’s green, there’s hope.”
Alisha said, “I told her not to bother.”
Syd shot the girl a scathing glance, but found it deflected by the other girl’s twinkling eyes.
“There,” Donna pointed at a small stone building.
Syd eyed the building skeptically as she pulled to the side of the road. Wind and dust had scoured its exterior clean: rubbed it right down to soft corners and etched its windows. The roof remained whole but sagged to one side.
“Is it safe?” Syd asked.
Donna barked a laugh. “It’s stood the storms so far. It’ll stand through this one.”
Later in the night, when the dust storm raged outside, Donna didn’t look so certain. Black dust, like the dark silt at the bottom of the Mississippi, streamed from cracks in the walls and pooled in wispy shadows at their feet. Alisha cried in one corner, damp cloth pressed tight against her face. Not much wrecked a night worse than a lungful of dust but listening to that girl cry was a close second.
The wind raged around them, crashing at the windows and howling over the roof. How much more comfortable would it be to put her arm around the shorter girl, pulling her close in a warm embrace? Together they could weather the storm.
But Syd didn’t need that kind of baggage, and she wasn’t going to fall for anyone. Not after Travis.
Donna coughed through the night, but she did that every night these days. Sickness from years of visiting the Flyover, she’d claimed.
When the old woman went worrisomely quiet, Syd whispered, “We’ll get the work done and get you home, Grandma.”
But the old woman only said, “I’m almost done here.”
Morning came, and the jeep sat dead as a block of wood.
“Look around some,” Donna said. “I’ll open the panels to get it charged.”
Syd led Alisha in a broad circle around the little building. After the night’s dust storm, the air held an eerie stillness in the bright morning sun. Rays played through the lingering black dust, refracting into micro-rainbows that danced across the sky like tiny wisps.
“Why’d you come with us?” Syd asked, finally.
“Your grandma hired me. Paid my dad up front and everything.” She flashed a quick smile. “She said she needed help.”
Syd kicked a rock and watched it tumble through the freshly fallen silt. “We don’t need any help.”
“Dad thinks exposure to this will make me love science, and it’ll be good for me.”
“No way this much dust is good for anyone.”
Alisha shrugged. “The money was good.”
After brief consideration, Syd nodded approval. There really wasn’t any argument for that.
They came to a ridge overlooking the Mississippi. Dust-caked black earth stretched out in front of them, flanking the trickle of the once great river.
“Doesn’t seem like much,” Alisha said.
Syd raised an eyebrow at her. “It’s the Mississippi.”
“Thought it’d be bigger.”
By the time they made it back to the jeep, Donna had relieved the poor vehicle of all its luggage. Two huge backpacks leaned against one wheel, and all the digging and geological tools were lined up on the ground.
Donna looked up from where she sat, her back against the building. “What do you think we should bring?” she asked.
“We’re walking?” Syd said.
Donna shrugged. “It’s going to take all day for the jeep to charge. We have work to do.”
Alisha eyed one of the packs. It was nearly as tall as her. “Do we have water?”
Donna said, “We’ll have plenty of water tomorrow when it rains.” She patted the canteen on her belt. “Take a few of these in the meantime.”
“Rain?” Alisha sounded genuinely confused.
Syd smiled. “The dust storm was just the front end of a rainstorm, according to forecasts. That’s why we’re here. I hope you’re ready for some really serious weather.”
Alisha swallowed, but didn’t say anything.
Donna struggled to her feet. “Come on, then.”
The old woman heaved one of the packs up onto her back, her skinny legs trembling under the weight. Syd took up the other, trying her best not to show the strain. It took her a few minutes to adjust to the change in her center of gravity. Alisha took a shovel and an unwieldy pack of soil-testing gear. Everything else they loaded back into the jeep next to the cooler containing the spruce samples.
They descended onto the mud flat that was once part of the Mississippi. Their footsteps sounded hollow on the dry earth, but the riverbed held strong as stone. Alisha rushed to walk next to Syd, but her foot caught, and she tumbled to the ground. Syd knelt, instinctively gathering Alisha up in her arms. Leaning forward as she was, her heavy pack pressed painfully against her spine.
Alisha looked up at Syd, weak smile on her face. “Tripped,” she said.
Syd helped the girl to her feet, taking the shovel from her. Their hands lingered together, but Syd pulled away. They fell in step next to each other.
“What do you do back home?” Syd asked when the silence grated on her.
“I play chess,” Alisha said, “but Daddy says anything that isn’t ecological science is a big waste of time.”
“Maybe he’s right.”
“Yeah, well, not everything’s about being useful.”
Syd snorted. “Tell that to my parents.”
“Why are you out here if you hate it so much?”
“It’s better than being back home.”
Donna reached the tiny river at the center of the mud flats and sat on a large rounded stone.
“What’s in there, anyway?” Alisha asked, poking at Syd’s pack.
“Grandma’s life’s work, is all.” When Alisha didn’t seem impressed, Syd continued. “It’s seeds. She collects genetically drought and dust resistant seeds and tries to find places where they’ll thrive in the desert. Sometimes she modifies them so they’ll carry better on the wind.”
Donna sat on a stone by the river ahead of them and pushed herself up on shaky arms when the girls approached. “About time,” she said.
Syd had never seen her so old—cheekbones gaunt under her thick goggles. Her hair caught the noonday sun like a wispy halo.
“Come on, then,” she said, making it clear there would be no more discussion on the topic.
Syd exchanged glances with Alisha, but neither of them had any ideas, so they followed Donna across the muddy river. Flat stepping stones formed a narrow path across the shallow stream, and they managed to cross without much trouble. On the other side, the bluff rose high above, limestone towers against a muddy sky.
When they got to the base of the first bluff, Donna took a t-shaped tool from Alisha and drove it several feet into the ground. When she drew it up and opened it, it contained a soil core sample.
“What do you see?” she asked.
“Dirt,” Syd said.
Donna shot her a weary look.
“It’s different at the bottom,” Alisha said. “But black and heavy at the top.”
Donna nodded. “Black silt, from the river bottom,” she said. “Too much silt and clay make for poor root penetration.” She handed the corer back to Alisha and lead the way north along the bluffs.
They repeated the process, finding much the same soil everywhere they looked along the base of the bluffs. Every time they stopped, Donna reoriented herself, as if she searched for something. When they scaled a sandy slope at the base of a limestone cliff, they found rocky soil unfit for growth.
Then, Donna fell, toppling down the short hill and landing hard on her back. Syd scrambled down a slope to tend to her fallen grandmother.
“Let Alisha take that,” Syd said, pulling at the straps on her grandmother’s pack.
“Nonsense,” said Donna, shrugging off her granddaughter. “I’ll carry it as far as I can carry it.”
“I can take it,” Alisha said, her voice small. She couldn’t, though. Syd was sure even Alisha could see that. Alisha was too short. Too soft.
They moved on.
Little survived this far into the harsh desert. The desert choked away the last remnants of life as surely as if they walked on the moon. Farther west of the river, they could still see signs of the fires that had ravaged the land. Black incisors jutted from ragged gums, the last remnant of mighty oak forests. As the sun set red in the western sky, Donna motioned for them to break for camp.
“It’ll rain tomorrow,” she said. “But we’ll be fine tonight.”
They made camp in the broken remains of a library with limestone walls, the only remnants of a tiny town along the river. Syd passed her time bristling around her edges and poking at the fire. There wasn’t much to burn, but parts of the building and some weather-faded books had survived the forest fires, and Syd didn’t feel right allowing them to get away from the fate of every other combustible thing in the Flyover.
“I don’t see the point in coming here,” Syd said, under the pretense of talking to herself. “Nothing lives this far out, and if there’s anything alive we’re just going to chop it up.”
“There are plenty of opportunities for life,” Donna said. “Even out here.”
Alisha bumped up next to Syd. Too close, but too close felt nice. “I saw a lichen,” she said. “Down behind the bluff.”
Syd waved a hand dismissively. “Lichens don’t count.”
Donna set down what she was doing and took a spot across the fire. Syd didn’t look up, but she could feel her grandmother’s eyes on her.
“Plants are funny sometimes,” she said. “They have ways to cope with stress.”
“Yeah, they die, and something better moves in.” Syd regretted her words when she saw the hurt look on her grandmother’s face.
“They do. But sometimes they go dormant, or sometimes a tree will partly die, then drive new roots down into its own dead trunk, splitting it right down the middle. That changes it. Turns it into something different. Any part of a plant, even down to a single cell, can form a whole new organism. A clone. Plants that are good at that tend to survive conditions like these.”
Syd stared into the fire. “Even those plants don’t survive here. This place is dead.”
“They can survive in a good microclimate.”
Syd choked back a sharp laugh. She’d heard her grandmother’s optimism too many times to be taken in by it.
Alisha didn’t have such experience. “Are there microclimates like that around here?”
Donna shook her head sadly. “I don’t know. I thought we’d see one or two good ones today. Theory is that they’re all along the river in amongst the protected pockets and coves.”
Syd slapped one of the two big packs. “Why do you think we’re hauling around all these seeds?”
When Syd finished glowering at the fire, she curled up next to one of the packs and watched Alisha doze off until the other girl caught her looking. Then she stopped and couldn’t sleep for a long time.
Later that night, Donna coughed so hard that Syd got up for a walk before the sun. She scuffed her boots along the dry silt of the Mississippi, where cracked earth spread out barren for miles. There weren’t any microclimates here, only dust and ash.
When she got back to camp, her grandmother stood waiting for her. “You were right. This won’t work. It’s a waste of time.”
Syd opened her mouth to agree but thought better of it. Something about the sunken, defeated look in her grandmother’s eyes told her this might be their last chance. Syd was used to seeing her grandmother fail, but she wasn’t used to seeing her give up.
“There’s time,” Syd said. “If we head back at noon we’ll be fine.”
“Did he hurt you?” Donna asked.
Syd blinked at the sudden change in subject. “Don’t they always?”
Donna didn’t take her eyes from her granddaughter. “All right, then. We’ll work till noon.”
They took a soil core under the remnants of a low bridge along the river. The bridge separated the dry bed of a small pond from what used to be the Mississippi.
Donna pointed at the core when she had it out. “What do you see?”
Syd huffed, leaning against the bridge to take some weight off her sore back.
Alisha answered. “There’s not much dust on top.”
“That’s right.” Donna opened her pack, which Alisha now carried, and drew out a bag of seeds. She scattered them on the ground. “Jack-in-the-pulpit was native north of here, and this variety should handle the shade under the bridge without too much trouble.”
Syd wanted to tell her grandmother how crazy she was. She wanted to yell about how stupid it was to plant anything here where the plants wouldn’t see rain for years. Dust would choke the life out of everything they sowed, just like that spruce on the edge of the desert slowly succumbed to its choking death. But she stayed silent. Things were bad enough without Syd poking at hornets.
The next microclimate they found sat in the nook between two towering bluffs. A road wove through the hills, a crumbling remnant of the people who lived there long ago. Halfway up the bluff, where the road cut deep into the hill, there was a place where the soil still crumbled when Donna ground it between her fingers.
“Feel that?” she said. “This soil is still alive. It hasn’t had the organics baked out of it yet. There’ll be life here if we seed it right.”
Syd’s jaw tensed. “What’ll it be?” she said, proud of herself for not complaining.
“Soapwort,” Donna said. “And coral bells.”
“Not jack-in-the-pulpit?” Alisha asked.
Syd scowled at the other girl, which only seemed to amuse her.
“Not here, I think,” Donna said. “But it never hurts to drop a few seeds along the way.”
After setting the seeds, the trio continued along the high ledge. The trees jutted up like spears piercing the earth’s thin flesh. They’d burned long ago, but enough remained of the charred stubs to shatter the wind as it howled through the valley.
“We should head back,” Syd said. “It’s getting colder, and once that rain comes, we won’t be able to cross the river.”
Donna didn’t slow. “Not far now,” she said between labored breaths.
Syd exchanged worried glances with Alisha, but there was nothing they could do but follow. Donna didn’t stop, despite the rattling wheeze in her every breath. Syd watched as her grandmother plodded along, feet sending puffs of dust in the air with every step. For a long while she didn’t slow, but as they neared the top, her grandmother’s pace faltered. Syd walked up beside her and put an arm under her shoulder.
Donna leaned into her, frail and light. Syd wondered how the woman had anything left in her at all, with the long walk and all the dust.
When they crested the hill, Syd almost let her grandmother fall. The land stretched away for miles, and the whole western sky darkened with the oncoming storm. A wall of clouds stood on the barren plain, tall as the sky above and angry as hell.
Donna dropped to her knees and tore off her goggles. Tears made mud from the dust on her cheeks.
“We have to go,” Syd said.
Her grandmother didn’t listen, oblivious to the danger. She peered around, and her eyes widened when she spotted the foundation of a small farmhouse. “I thought I’d never see it again,” she said.
“See what?” Alisha asked coming up behind them. She stopped when she saw the wall of clouds. “Oh my god.”
“When I was just a little girl, I lived here,” she said. “Corn, knee high by the Fourth of July every year. Then higher and higher, and always corn until the soil died and the dust drove us away.”
Syd pulled her grandmother’s arm, but the old woman wouldn’t move. The struggle sent Donna into a coughing fit.
“Stop, stop,” the old woman said. “This is as far as I go. I’m staying here with my seeds and you two can go back to the jeep. If you hurry, you’ll get down there in time to cross the river.”
A cold wind blew across the barren field, kicking up a wave of dust. Grit irritated Syd’s skin and itched at her eyes soon as she took off her own goggles. She swallowed back a gulp of water from her canteen.
“I mean, wow,” Alisha said, still in awe of the storm.
“How could you grow anything in the desert?” Syd said.
Donna said, “Eighty years ago, this was green, before the air turned hot and the soil burned.” She heaved a sigh.
“Grandma,” Syd said. “You’ve never given up before. Come back home. You can teach me things. Teach me what to do to collect plants the way you do.”
Donna shook her head. She crawled a few feet to where a granite field stone lay and pulled herself up to sit on it. “I’ve taught you all you need, but all you see is a dead future, so that’s all there’s likely to be. Won’t be my problem either way.”
Syd shook her head, dropping to a knee in front of her grandmother. “You haven’t taught me everything. What about the trees that make roots into their own trunks? What about plants that tolerate the dust?”
Donna stared out into the coming storm. “I’m dying, Sydney. You’ve known that for a while, but now it’s here. Three months ago, the doctor said I wouldn’t last a month.” She gestured at her surroundings, at the two packs. “Everything I want is here. Now it’s time for you to leave.”
Syd turned to Alisha to plead for help, but Alisha stared at the wall of clouds like it was God himself.
“Help me with the packs before you go,” Donna said. “Just open them up so the wind can spread the seeds.”
Syd obliged, her fingers numb with grief. She pulled the straps on both packs, spreading them open to the wind. Feathered seeds rose up, carried by the wind.
Donna watched on, running a finger along the edge of the bag. “My desert beauties all drop seed in the rare rain,” she said. “Flycatchers, monkey pods, creosote. Most will die, dear, but some won’t. Some will live. It’s not so cold up here as it used to be, so some of these plants just need a little nudge. Maybe…” The old woman swallowed.
“Maybe,” Syd said, and for the first time she shared a shred of her grandmother’s optimism. “Maybe.”
“You never believed in my cause, Sydney, and I don’t blame you.” Donna took her granddaughter’s hands in her own. “It’s always been a long game, pulling life from our almost-dead coasts back into the Flyover. Too long for one lifetime.” She kissed her granddaughter’s hands. “Now go, get back to the jeep and drive home.”
Syd kissed her grandmother’s tears and hugged her tight as she dared. “I love you, Grandma,” she said. “This will work, won’t it?”
Donna clutched Syd’s two hands in hers. Her eyes darted to Alisha. “Sometimes, all we can do is trust ourselves and do what we know feels right.”
Syd and Alisha left, and when they reached the edge of the bluff, Syd turned to see her grandmother. The old woman cast seeds into the wind, a tiny figure against the backdrop of a boiling storm.
They rushed down the bluff, moving fast without the extra weight of the packs. Syd charged with the wind at her back. She ran, her muscles aching with a pain she wouldn’t let herself feel. She’d left her grandmother to die alone.
They passed the place where the bluffs met. Syd wondered if anything would grow there and swore she would return the next year to see. As they passed the little bridge, a cool wind blew a spray of rain at their backs. Alisha kept up the whole way. Soft, small, lovely Alisha kept up.
Rain hit in a brutal torrent as they stepped onto the mud flats. Cracked black earth turned to muck. Together they waded across the river, not bothering to find the crossing stones. The water surged up from the rain, and cold water tugged at their legs, threatening to topple them both as they crossed.
Syd slipped, and Alisha caught her. Syd felt the girl’s strength as she pulled her to her feet.
They made it across. On the far side, they knew they could get to the jeep, so they slowed. The rain hid the tears in Syd’s eyes, but Alisha must have seen them, anyway. She took Syd’s hand and pulled her close for the deep hug that Syd so desperately needed. They walked together holding hands. Syd never wanted to leave Alisha’s side.
When they reached the jeep, Syd drew Alisha in close and kissed her. The girl melted into her arms like she was meant to be there. It wasn’t Travis’s rough, scratchy kiss, but rather something fierce all its own—and Syd liked it. The kiss came from desperation and hurt, but something felt right about it.
They sat in the jeep a long time in silence. Syd looked out at the bluffs, imagining the array of seeds her grandmother dispersed across the bluffs. They’d find those tiny microclimates, nestling in and germinating while the water still soaked the dust into muck. Most would die, but maybe this would be the root that pierced the desert’s trunk.
Syd reached into the back seat and drew her spruce samples from the cooler where they still stayed damp and cool. She unwrapped them from the towels and showed them to Alisha. A tiny nub of callous tissue formed on the cut end of the branch. Soon, the tissue would form a new root, and from that she could grow a new tree.

Anthony W. Eichenlaub

Anthony W. Eichenlaub writes science fiction, bringing madness to the masses at any cost.