See Kyoko now, on a white roof with white plaster, pipes like candy canes jutting out, sealed at their base with white plaster. See the pipes spewing mysterious white smoke. There is a blue sky with occasional white clouds. There is a view from above of small people forming patterns in their movement.
Liz, you were one of the good people. You deserve a hagiography, but I’ll give you this story as a prayer instead. Most people are idle witnesses, drool collecting on the side of their mouths. They think atrocities are nothing but unfortunate storm clouds blotting out the sun on an otherwise perfect day. Most people, unaware of Kyoko. Unaware of carbon dioxide, slowly saturating the air. They think that if they aren’t cruel, they’re good.
Liz, there are many gardens with willow trees and koi ponds that mesmerize children. Some of the gardens even have chickens and turtles. There are ponds that draw bullfrogs. There is a garden with hanging wisteria where I went one afternoon in early spring. A couple eloped and got married under that arch of wisteria. There are now, in your name, so many places to hide and cool off during the ever-more frequent heat waves.
Our world would be better had everyone lived like you, Liz. You’re in each garden, because they wouldn’t exist without you. You must understand, the creator shows itself in the creation. If only you could see the pocket park with nothing but a few tomato plants and a swing, in the small alleyway between two brick buildings on 3rd Street. It’s called The Little Miracle Garden. If only, Liz, if only you could see what’s become of the garden, so small and overgrown. I’m sure it would make you smile.
How would you have spent your time on this hotter rock? There have been unexpected consequences to your actions of course, Whole Foods sprouting up and the increased cost of rent that has pushed out a lot of people like you and your friends.
You saw that child climb out of the refrigerator in the vacant lot holding a needle. You didn’t let drool collect, or the storm pass. You yelled at the mother, What are you doing? She said, Hey, fuck you, if you care so much, do something about it.
Saints might be good people that don’t understand rhetoric.
It was a city of epidemics—crack, AIDS, and crime, and you felt that flowers might be the fix. Oh mutual aid mother, you filled condoms and Christmas ornaments with soil, manure, and seeds. You fixed the city with seeds surrounded by shit. You taught apostles how to make little seed bombs too, how to throw them into lots, how to grow something on cracked ground and believe.
Was it hot that day? Every summer is becoming unbearable.You must have, somehow, known the outsized impact you’d have. If you thought you were fighting a losing battle, I pray that I may have your strength.
Kyoko could, in a single afternoon, hack her way up the fire escapes of five or six buildings, although she usually ran out of seed pellets on the third. She filled her backpack with seed bombs, nuts, water. In the small spaces between apartment buildings, where opposing lives face each other, Kyoko would try to make ivy grow. The buildings that shine in this city between two rivers seem eternal. Nothing that dies shares our space. Plastics, glass, and steel permit no death.
Death kept Kyoko company, Liz.
She had gone with her father once, when she was still young and living in Japan, to see the cherry blossoms. Do you know what they say there, Liz? It seems morbid to us, enclosed here in our false immortality. They say, “Dead bodies are under the Sakura. How else could those flowers bloom so magnificently?”
Kyoko, I will die one day, he told her. I will die one day and so will you. Look at these flowers; they are dying. The petals fall off and the wind takes them away, but while they are here, while they are alive, they do nothing except provide us with beauty. Our tradition is to look at these blossom leaves and to think about our own deaths, to understand that death is coming, but our short lives are beautiful because we will fertilize Sakura.
It would be hard to seed bomb Sakura. Kyoko wanted to remind people of these fleeting things, because if they felt themselves temporary, the ice would stop disappearing. They take it as given now, they think they are immortal. You were an angel, Liz, but an angel of death. All decay and decomposition. All the worms and compost, the bacteria that turns corpses to atoms.
Kyoko threw seed bombs into every nook she could find. Soybeans, clover, winter rye in the fall. Wildflowers in spring. Sunflowers in the summer. There weren’t enough corpses for a cherry tree to grow, but she still tried to bomb using the seeds from every cherry she ate. Down into dumpsters, back porches, lookouts, fire escapes, and onto the roofs themselves.
See her now, from above. An apartment building on Baxter Street in Chinatown. There was a small patch between of two neighboring buildings that shared a roof. It was perfect for ivy, I’m sure you’d agree. She made her seed bombs out of compost and dirt and let those sit to dry out on the deck of the boat she lived on. She used these instead of the Christmas ornaments and condoms.
She thought that no more than 5% of her plants grew successfully but what else could she do? She wanted to hold back the disappearing ice, Liz. You thought the neighborhood was ugly and crime-infested and could use some beauty and community, and, well, Kyoko was trying to hold back the coming flood by throwing worm poop into alleys. The battles are at different scales; there is more carbon, more heat. There are more fires now than there were then.
Kyoko wasn’t a Luddite. She loved the music, the museums, and the people she saw, but she didn’t want to live in deathless purgatory.
There’s something about the scales here that I can’t articulate. Scales are troubling, subatomic particles behave chaotically, water orderly, and humans chaotically again. Earth, as a closed system, is ordered. It’s not very hard to replace sidewalks with tree-lined promenades, to build solar panels, to stop extraction. It is actually shocking how easy it would be to avert disaster. But at such a large scale, the chaos seems inevitable.
See Kyoko now, hopping to a slightly lower roof and opening her bag to plant the tiny San Pedro clones she’d cut this morning. Some lucky soul may know what they are for and make a tea from them—a tea that shows them there is nothing but a thought between the self and eternity. Watch her climb down the fire escape and onto the street.
Kyoko never smiles anymore. She feels a rot at the core of it all. She thinks she understands, but she would be catatonic if she really understood.
Put a single human in a room, tell them if they stop using their phone and eat a salad for dinner they won’t die, otherwise they’ll cook alive. They’ll stop. Put another seven and a half billion in the room and suddenly there is a debate over whether or not to eat the salad. I’m only telling you this so that you understand why Kyoko can’t smile as much as you do in photos.
Sometimes there could be, inside her, a small optimism that looked like a communal city covered in trees, ivy, and parks. Glittering silk webs appeared in her imagination, connecting each object to its emissions. When she looked at a taxi, in the exhaust she could make out the ancient fossils that were burned for locomotion, and behind each and every garment she saw the brackish rivers and lakes drained dry for textile production, saw the energy moving in loops and money moving in the opposite direction. She saw it all, the conversion of energy and money into plastic, shit, and carbon.
See Kyoko walking west, towards the setting sun, still not pink. The hour giving off light that reveals matter’s ghostly nature. See the sidewalk, letting out some of its trapped heat in watery, rippling blurs. That hour, that light; they fill Kyoko with air. She watches the people on zebra crossings turn into dust motes and drift away on sunbeams. Everyone on Fifth Avenue gives off the immaterial glow of a spiderweb, barely catching light, but dazzling when they do.
Sometimes the world could be so beautiful that it broke her heart. In moments like this one, where soft golden light tickles the pocked buildings and floods the crosswalks, illuminating those leaving work with their plans, their shoes covered in gum. Kyoko could sometimes feel ill from the melancholy. If the floods and fires, droughts and wars came, there would be no one to stand idly by and watch as the present collapsed into the past.
Will we be forgiven for our indifference?
Wherever you are, you must know. Will we be forgiven for destroying it all and not caring? Every chapter of the Qur’an begins with, “In the name of God, the most graceful, the most merciful.” Is there grace and mercy enough for damning our children, for forcing them into a hot life of privation? How could this light fall across us and not be from a merciful creator? Will we be forgiven, Liz?
You are silent.
All the while there is a wooden house with rain falling through a hole in the roof, and a bucket collecting the small drops. There is a black grand piano. A young man in a disheveled tuxedo strikes middle C, allows it to reverberate and die before striking it again. There is a child having a tantrum in a small alley, barely wide enough for an electric scooter to pass through. He picks up a rock. Hot tears and loose snot pour down his face, and he throws the rock to the ground. The rituals only humans understand; rituals that will be gone as quickly as they were made.
Two children, a little white girl with blonde hair in a blue dress and a little black boy in acid-washed jean shorts, hold a bucket between them while walking through tall grass. The sun streams through leaves. The wind wafts the scent of clean laundry drying on a nearby line.
Liz, it all began with the word.
God said “let there be” and then there was, there were many things, many people, and then Kyoko. Carbon everywhere. Carbon coming out of lungs, car exhausts, carbon-based life selling falafel, carbon in a stroller being pushed by carbon, carbon on roller skates, carbon playing music on a carbon-fiber guitar under carbon growing trunks, roots, branches, pushing up leaves that suck up carbon. Carbon copies. Shining carbon on a silver ring letting you know the bride has been betrothed. Words on carbon pages. It is ubiquitous.
Kyoko kept walking west on 14th Street. The brick buildings, Chelsea Market, the streams of people escaping the A/C/E station—the light rendered them all into a memory even as they arrived. Nostalgia for something still happening poured out of the corners of buildings. She was outside herself.
It makes the pessimism more bearable, the way I fall into abstractions. Playing little games where I create characters that pray to my dead heroes. I have them do things I’m not brave enough to do. Sitting here writing so I don’t have to confront the warming world. If you stay silent, Liz, I will be cruel to Kyoko. Watch Liz, watch me crush her beneath typing fingers, leave her hollow. I love her deeply, Liz, because I see so much of myself in this girl, but she will suffer. I’m sorry.
She reached that little diner under the High Line, and went in to eat and escape into artificial light. She sat in the back. She watched a woman unwrap a Rice Krispie treat. Kyoko hailed down a waiter and ordered two fried eggs, toast, coffee. She unlocked her phone.
Plastic wrap, cling film, shrink wrap, Saran Wrap, clinging wrap, food wrap, or pliofilm is a thin plastic film typically used for sealing food items in containers to keep them fresh over a longer period of time. Plastic wrap, typically sold on rolls in boxes with a cutting edge, clings to many smooth surfaces and can thus remain tight over the opening of a container without adhesive. Common plastic wrap is roughly 0.5 thousandths of an inch (12.7 μm) thick. The trend has been to produce thinner plastic wrap, particularly for household use, so now the majority of brands on shelves around the world are 8, 9, or 10 μm thick. Plastic wrap was initially created from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which remains the most common component globally.
Kyoko clicked PVC and fell into the tunnel with blue light at the other end. The familiar wormhole of white pages and black text, and blue words that promise expansion at a touch; blue words that will unravel and extend her confusion.
Polyvinyl chloride, also known as polyvinyl or vinyl, commonly abbreviated PVC, is the world’s third-most widely produced synthetic plastic polymer, after polyethylene and polypropylene. PVC is made from petroleum. […] Petroleum (/pəˈtroʊliəm/) is a naturally occurring, yellowish-black liquid found in geological formations beneath the Earth’s surface. It is commonly refined into various types of fuels.
It might have been then that it all started to unravel for Kyoko. Sanity is a loose concept, relatively new. Diogenes would have been locked up in our asylums, or pumped up with enough Zoloft to get him to shower. Suffering is woven into the minutiae of everything. Cling wrap and cloth. To say “cling wrap” is to say all the dinosaurs that engendered it, the refinery, the drill, the dinosaurs’ parents, the leaves they ate, the sun that fed the leaves, and the meteor that killed them, the layers of sedimentation that built up over them, turning them into combustible fuel.
Threads of time and carbon connected the cling wrap to the lights on her phone that were radiating kinetic energy that had been stored as electrical energy. The information came as radio waves from distant servers powered by petroleum. The triangle made of past dinosaurs and rocks and layers—it was all so immense, these associations, so immense that it could take a toll on the mind of a person sitting alone in a diner, Kyoko, trying to make sense of what that sound was, the unwrapping.
The cling wrap might end up in a landfill where it would take five hundred years to decompose or in an ocean where it would kill a turtle, and that cling wrap came from petroleum. Kyoko and her body might be burned for energy, and the byproduct will wrap a treat for some post-human species to feast on, only for them to have the same kind of crack-up Kyoko was having here, in the diner on 14th Street, understanding that two words “cling” and “wrap” contained within them all of geological time.
These small fragments break from each other and the immersion is lost. It no longer follows a straight line. A string of things, matter, substance, colliding and bumping, words then more words, some more matter and then there’s poor Kyoko, losing her mind in the diner because Wikipedia told her that what is going on took millions of years to happen and everyone is treating it so casually, unthinkingly unwrapping Rice Krispie treats as if they don’t contain millennia.
Insanity is how the eternal unknowable exacts revenge on those blasphemous enough to seek the words to name it. It does not wish to be contained by “cling” and “wrap.” Mystics will come out of the shattered ruins and hollowed-out buildings. They’ll preach our ignorance, our lowness, they will tell their followers we are worms in comparison to the vast power of the natural forces. In a room somewhere, a white lab coat is trying to find a petroleum-based technology to pull carbon out of the sky. Sometimes I look to the stars and ask alien life to bring salvation.
Liz, I sit in my room, or on the couch in my living room. I sit in front of this thing and plunk away, trying to record the facts, trying to arrive at a totality that makes the kind of sense the facts don’t make on their own. Click click click, then there are words, and the world that whirls around the words, the world that contains Kyoko in the diner, watching the yolks of her eggs congeal into a hard and filmy substance and the steam come off her coffee, crying because she does not understand any of it. ♦
To most people, ish just reads and cooks. To fiction agents who liked this story, he is a novelist seeking representation.