Join With Me Tomorrow by Emma Burnett
You imagine, or remember, a little girl. She is eight, or ten, or nine. You remember, or imagine, her clothes, handed down, so old they are nearly in style again. You ignore the teasing from your classmates.
You stand on a patio, or porch, or veranda, and stare out over the field of hay. You try not to listen to your parents who are talking to each other so civilly that it’s worse than yelling. You can feel the banister under your hands, the roundness of it pressing into your hipbones as you push yourself up, lean against it.
They discuss your father moving upstairs, taking over the empty rooms at the top of the house, empty since Mam’s sister moved out three years ago and they couldn’t rent them because who would want to live in this godforsaken corner of the ass end of nowhere.
You remember wanting to escape the porch, go to your little garden where you’ve planted vegetables and small fruits and have a little house for two hens, where the soil is damp and smells of rotting things and growing things, and where you pour your heart out even if no one is listening (I’m listening).
You climb over the railing and slip, crush your ankle as you fall.
No one notices and you don’t say anything until later when it’s swollen up like the melons in your little garden. Mam asks you why you didn’t say when it happened, wraps it up while you sit on the kitchen counter, silent as the soil.
You imagine (remember) a girl trapped between two parents who loved you but never heard you. You wonder if the world hadn’t been ending whether they could have been better together (they couldn’t).
You remember a girl, older. Fourteen, maybe? Old enough to bleed every month, skinny enough that she doesn’t. Is this you? Or your daughter? (It’s you. You’ve always made sure Dawn had enough to eat, that’s why she’s pregnant with her third and you only ever made her).
You stand in the clothes you’ve outgrown, clothes that would have been cool again if they weren’t four inches too short.
And if there was anyone left to care.
The field burns. You can smell the cooking sweetcorn, hear the popping kernels, the crop Pa said was a sure thing.
You walk slowly off the porch and sit on the ground, dig your fingers into the earth. It is still cool from the shadow of the house and the careful watering you did this morning. The smoke passes overhead, and you dig your fingers deep and apologise in case the burning hurts (it doesn’t, but thank you).
The memory smells like popcorn and despair.
In your memory, you are brave and bold. You are quiet, too, and fragile, but you’ve forgotten the fragility over the years. You stay on the farm long after Mam dies from contaminated grain dropped in food aid parcels, grey and mouldy, which you refused to eat. You stay after Pa wanders off, looking for your brothers who couldn’t call once the mobile network went down. He never returned. (He died in a freak tornado that wiped out three towns, him and a few hundred thousand others. I’m sorry I couldn’t help).
You feel the soil beneath your fingernails as you remember planting again and again, small plots of different crops raised from seeds saved from season to season, seeds bred for this patch of earth (heritage seeds, a legacy you create). You remember a girl who collects animals from nearby houses or farms, animals that survived the fires or the diseases or the panic slaughters. Scared animals and lonely ones, animals that needed shelter and would give what they could in return.
You can feel the wind blow your hair as you drive the old car with the windows down, a scared, quiet girl who nevertheless risks her life to venture out and collect water butts and fuel and medicines and tools and clothes from collapsing buildings and the nearly empty town over 30 miles away.
You feel the creases in your cheeks from smiling gently at broken people, remember a tranquil girl who collects people, this girl who became a woman. A woman who is in charge of a tribe, a tribe of leftover people.
You imagine digging the earth. You remember digging the earth. You feel gratitude.
You plant roots, physical roots and metaphorical ones. Your family grows while the rest of the world withers.
You remember a girl, a woman who speaks softly but surely about safety in numbers and rebuilding community. When people listen, they feel safer. If they don’t, well, they can try their luck elsewhere. At the coasts which were washing away. Or in the cities overrun by sickness and warfare. Not that you knew this, then. Out here in the ass end of nowhere, you just want a quiet community and the tender earth.
The ones who follow you are the ones you want here, anyway.
People live and work in small houses dotted around the old farmhouse, in this sheltered little valley in the ass end of nowhere, nurturing a blessed garden.
You remember (imagine) an argument about babies. Have them? Don’t have them? Who would bring an infant into a broken world? But it’s too late, because you’re four months pregnant and you’ve felt her move. The doctor and three nurses who live in the big house have better things to do these days. You tell them to save the herbs for other women who need them more. You decide to hang on to this one.
Later, you’re glad you made this decision. Dawn was the only child your body could bring through to term, a tranquil, thoughtful child, a perfect fit for your tranquil, thoughtful tribe.
You teach her to love the earth. (The earth loves her back.)
You wear rings of woven grass, rings of carved wood, rings of gold that you’ve found on bodies in the now-empty towns. You keep the rings and bury the bodies, a gift to the earth and the best you can do. Ashes to ashes, bodies to soil.
You can feel them slide the rings off your fingers, your toes, your wrists. They slip one off your neck. Some of these are rings that will go to your daughter, still quiet and thoughtful, but powerful, a mighty woman. There are rings that mark you as a leader, the tribe once said, rings you should wear. They tried to crown you. Their saviour. Their quiet earth goddess.
But rings have meaning. You all decided, together, what they were. It helps to have symbols. The symbols are imagined, important. Rings on certain fingers to show who is medically skilled, who is lactating, who is a teacher or a farmer or an earth singer. Lots of people become singers, and wear a ring on the fourth finger of their left hand — married to the earth, their hearts connected to the land. They think singing will help the harvests, that it makes the plants happy (it doesn’t, but it makes the people happy, and that’s enough).
You are the only one who wears a neck ring, though, a long woven thing made from the scraps of clothes you wore as a child, the ones that some child isn’t running around in, clothes nearly in vogue again, again.
It’s a choker, you sometimes think. Not a crown.
It’s a relief when they take it off you.
You built a community where you are heard, though you were quiet. You imagined, created a place where people sing to the earth or talk to the earth or just live calmly with the earth. I couldn’t help much, maybe just nudged some storms away from your garden, maybe just herded a few extra earthworms your way, maybe just convinced the wind to blow the smoke in the other direction. Just sometimes, little things. I wish it could have been more. But I will keep doing these things for you, for your daughter and her children. Because you have loved me, and I have loved you.
You will join me tomorrow, or maybe the day after, child who weathered the storms. No point putting it off anymore.
I will be your forever cocoon. You will feed future generations. I will cradle your body as we become one.
Originally published in the August 2023 issue of Utopia Science Fiction Magazine.
Emma Burnett is a researcher and writer. She has been published in Elegant Literature, The Stygian Lepus, Roi Fainéant, The Sunlight Press, Fairfield Scribes, Five Minute Lit, Microfiction Monday, and Rejection Letters. One of her stories won second place in the 2022 Hammond House Publishing International Literary Prize, which was exciting. You can find her @slashnburnett or emmaburnett.uk.