This is the final half of a story about a world in which the entire planet has been turned into a mass of rock and steel after global warming and other planetary fallouts killed off all natural habitats. At this point, complexes with specialized plants are being used for oxygen harvesting. The two characters, X and Y, have both read almost all of Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac, where they've gotten almost all of their knowledge of nature from. This part of the story picks up after the brothers have set off on a journey to find a structure unlike any that they could imagine seeing in their day and age.
By Ty Owens
X and Y arrived at what seemed to be a building, but had a metal cage-like ceiling with mesh over it. From further away, it seemed to blend into the homogenous landscape, just like everything else, made out of steel and concrete. It was no larger than a house. As they approached, they saw a double-doored, metal gate directly in front of them, undoubtedly leading into the main area of the sanctuary. They stopped before the structure and checked the map to ensure that they were in the right place.
“Finally,” muttered Y in an awed whisper, as he closed The Sand County Almanac and put it in his bag.
“Hm. A prison fit for something so dangerous to the stability of society,” X said, looking for a laugh to cut the tension.
Y was too caught up in working his way up to the doors, though, to hear a word X was saying. He had this eyes set on the handles. Each step was so slow and heavy that it seemed centuries were starting to weigh his shoulders down as he got closer to a time long passed. Knowing how much this meant to his brother, X didn’t mock him for how long it took Y to get to the gate. Once there, the brothers examined the doors and found an inscription on them:
Long ago, we stopped living off of the land and started living on top of it. It was only our steady and ruthless destruction of nature that reminded people of its significance and beauty. Upon its grave, we place this flower – a remnant, plucked from it with its last breath. Please enjoy and respect what we were able to save.
Note to the keepers: refill the feeder every week.
“Feeder?” X asked.
“Screw it,” said Y. “Let’s see what ‘progress’ has been driving us away from this whole time.”
They pulled on the rusting doors until they split apart. X and Y walked into what, at first, looked to be indistinguishable from empty darkness, but a powerful smell saturated the air. After they shut the doors and walked in, their feet settled in a material softer than cement that seemed to make up the entire floor of the complex. From the ground came a thin carpet of green, hair-like material. It gently brushed along the legs of the brothers as they started to trust that the ground wouldn’t give way with every step they took.
X was so busy looking at the ground that he nearly ran into a column as tall as the top of the cage. He put his hands out to stop himself from hitting it and found them on a rugged surface – solid, but not unyielding; rugged, but still fragile. Looking up, he saw a collection of leaves similar to those he’s seen on plants they use for O2 harvesting.
“Y, this must be a tree! Look! Look! It stands at least ten feet tall and that green blanket of leaves is so dense that the light from the sun is barely filtering through! Look how they even seem to take the sun’s light and glow with it! And its skin is so intricate and strong, but it isn’t invincible like steel. Are you seeing this, Y?! It’s just so-“
“Wrong. It’s all wrong!” Y screamed, kicking at the green carpeting the ground. “Look around us, X. How many trees do you see? Four? Five? Now, stop and listen for a second. Nothing. It’s empty. Where are the animals performing their morning rituals? The conversations that carry for miles? The goose music? The wild- where is it, X!?”
“Here, Y, here it is,” X pleaded. “The ground isn’t paved and these trees weren’t planted just so that we could reap the benefits of their O2. Here they’re free to live, it’s just not completely wild.”
“Free? Don’t you see the trick they pulled? The words they spun to make themselves heroes of the natural world? They locked this plot up like a prisoner in its own home and killed everything else! These trees should stand for miles beyond this cage that was made solely for our viewing pleasure. Of course, it’s just another showpiece, a meadowlark that humanity found to praise itself over when they were all out of pheasants to slaughter.”
“You don’t even know what those are, Y! You’re so into that book that you’re trying to pretend it can apply to us. The boundless forests, the marshes, Leopold – they’re all gone and you can’t pretend that he could possibly know how to handle what we have to work with, now.”
Before Y could open his mouth, they heard a movement on the ground – quick, light thuds moving closer to the clearing they were in. A strange feeling came over the two of them as something in their blood sent their skin crawling and their muscles tensing up. Their breaths quickened as the feeling of being watched spread down their spines. Y saw it first, a set of yellow ovals, holding still in the shadows of the trees.
When Y took a step back, the figure emerged from the shadows with a low sound coming from its throat. It walked on four thin legs, had matted hair covering every inch of its body, and bared large, pointed teeth sticking out from behind its raised upper lips. Despite the threat of the beast, Y smiled and slowly picked up a rock from the ground.
“Wolf,” Y whispered, “I recognize it from The Almanac and some posts I found about the book. They were aggressive and dangerous. Maybe that’s what the keepers were supposed to feed before the buyout.”
“Okay, let’s focus on the wolf, then. If they were so dangerous, what do you think you can do with that rock?”
“The flame. The green flame. It lives in that wolf, X. It’s the one wild thing that mankind didn’t take from me yet. This is my last chance to finally connect with the nature that humanity so thoroughly murdered. To answer your question, I intend to see that flame go out, just like Leopold did!”
He shouted and ran at the wolf, whose thin legs barely looked like they made an attempt to do much of anything in the face of Y. There was a thud, and brief shrill cry, and then silence. X walked up to his brother, and saw him looking deeply into the blank stare of the body, just as lifeless as a picture. Only up close could X notice how taut its skin was around its bones, how many bald patches were on it, and the blue cloth around its neck with the word “Lupa” stitched into it.
“The fire…. That was supposed to be my connection – that was going to be my enlightenment,” he said as he frantically stared into the carcass. “I was supposed to be able to think like the mountain, X.”
“Y....” X said with a defeated, sunken voice, “That was the only animal we’ve ever seen, possibly even one of the last, and you took it upon yourself to destroy that life so that you could feel better about yourself?”
His brother didn’t take his eyes off of the animal’s face. The life was draining from it before, but now it seemed to be just completely lifeless, exactly what civilization seemed to specialize in at the time.
“You’re so angry at the things that mankind did in the name of progress that you’re a product of it, now. You’re trapped, Y, and until you can accept this world for what it is, you’ll never be satisfied.”
A breeze came through the prison-gate ceiling, flowing through the networks of leaves at the preserve’s roof. X stood there and listened to the music, waiting for this brother to say something. Nothing.
“I’m going home,” X told Y, “See you on the Round River.”
From the Paperback 1986 version “With essays on conservation from Round River”
Author’s Note: This is part of a story about double this size. If some world-building details are unclear, that’s why.