“Ashes and Acorns” is my last-minute entry for the HardFork: Can You See The Future? contest (November 2017). The mother in the story is inspired by my mom’s cousin Lois (who loves the Grand Canyon) and by a Scotland physician and sci-fi novelist I love (to the point of fan-girling): Thank you, Libby McGugan, for permission to quote you. Your grasp of physics, your optimism, benevolence, and Zen-like insights inspire me, and your prose has completely won me over. Looking forward to seeing “The Fifth Force,” your sequel to “The Eidolon,” published soon–and can’t wait for the third book in the trilogy!
“Ashes and Acorns” by Carol Kean
“Scatter my ashes over the Grand Canyon,” she said.
That’s illegal, Mom.
“Promise me you will honor my last wish,” she said–long before anyone dreamed she was sick.
Mom. You want me to risk jail for this? Native Americans don’t want dead white people in their sacred place. People don’t get to pee in public, and they don’t get to scatter their ashes in–
“They don’t own that land,” Mom interrupted. “Nobody owns anything. Besides, they’re being ridiculous. You know how hot it gets before flesh and bone turn to ash. No germ on the planet survives the crematorium.”
It isn’t germs they worry about, and thanks, Mom, for that visual–your dead body dancing at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, flames reducing you to basic elements and dried bone fragments. People don’t get buried or cremated anymore if they can be recycled.
She must have guessed my true intentions: in the unlikely event of her death, I’d plant her ashes with an acorn and let her grow into a mighty oak tree. For sure, I’d skip the Canyon thing. How would she know? Dead is dead.
Early detection helped her survive the cancer she must have known, subconsciously, was killing her. Modern medical science not only cured Mom of cancer, it extended lifespans–hers, mine, and anyone deemed worthy or wealthy enough. A hundred-fifty was the new fifty. We could have gone on like this for a hundred years.
Then it started. “I miss your father,” she said. “I want to see Patricia again.”
Dad and my little sister were dead. D-e-a-d. All our modern technology still hadn’t connected us with our lost loved ones–because the dead are DEAD.
I didn’t say it, but she heard me, supposedly through our wireless implants, even though interpersonal exchanges like these were not supposed to be possible. Thought-sharing had to be enabled, on purpose.
Good mothers have always been good mind readers, Mom said. Telepathy has been possible since long before humans were modded.
Try telling that to the new regime, who required a full accounting of everyone “modded” (i.e., modified) with life enhancing techno-gifts. In our cabin surrounded by mountain, desert and forest, wireless could be spotty, which allowed us to slip under the radar more often than not. As long as we paid our taxes. What else could we count on but death, sooner or later, and taxes?
Those less fortunate lived shorter, more private lives. Modded, unmodded. Alive, or dead. A thousand years hence, would any of it matter?
Things were going well, but Mom grew more and more restless.
Your dad came to me in a dream last night, she said.
You know that means I was visited by his spirit, she said.
No, Mom, I know only two things, and that isn’t one of them. We can’t just go around believing things simply because we want them to be true.
Growing old and dying used to be a natural thing, she said, not some catastrophe we must avert.
That, I could not dispute.
My life has gone on long enough. I want to move on, she said.
Hold your horses, Mom. You’re needed here and now.
She didn’t look a day over forty. Her skin was smooth and rosy. Her pale blonde hair was full and thick, thanks to rejuvenated DNA, not dyes and chemicals.
Are you bored, Mom? We can move. All this solitude may be getting to you. Just don’t be in such a rush to die.
“You need a wife, Keith.”
Her eyes could pierce me like a sword when she turned seriously serious on me.
“You’ll never put yourself out there and risk breaking your heart again, unless I’m gone.”
That woman’s willpower could have fired up more cities than all the solar panels on Earth. Mere technology couldn’t trap her spirit in a prison of flesh. Not that I believed any part of us survived death of the body.
Staph germ, they said. The swift, resistant kind.
“Genetek will find a way to fix you,” I insisted. “You know they can, and they will.”
In no time at all, the sparkle had dimmed from her blue eyes, her hair had gone limp, and her skin was ashen, but she spoke with all her former tenacity: “They can’t recycle me if I’m infected. They’ll have to cremate.”
I thought she’d forgotten all about that dreaded long-ago promise, but fools dream.
A promise made is a debt unpaid, Robert Service had groused in the Ballad of Sam McGee, that epically long, frost-bitten poem Mom had inexplicably memorized and recited to me at bedtime in my most-tender formative years. Was she psychic, after all? Had she intentionally conditioned me to make a foolish promise, and would she really guilt-trip me into keeping it?
She would indeed. By the time a Genetek crew reached our cabin in the Kaibob Forest, south of the Canyon, my mother was beyond their skills.
With VR images of her, with voice recordings, shared memories linked in a multiverse of users, it shouldn’t have seemed like she was gone. Not the way Dad and Patricia were gone, with none of the tech to recreate them, lest we forget the indelible details. How often I found myself holding still, in hopes of sensing her spirit in the cabin, on the forest path, under the red rock or the juniper, but then the black truck came, and a man in uniform delivered the package that contained my mother.
She was gone. Beyond my reach, beyond my senses. Completely and forever, gone.
With papers signed and notarized, I dug a hole for an oak tree near the cabin. Ashes and acorns, circle of life, dance of dust. Have fun in the hereafter, Mom. If you can find one.
I’d poured a loving spoonful of my mother into the Earth when another woman’s voice came to me, clear and strong: “A promise made is a debt unpaid.”
Of course it wasn’t really her. Everyone knows that! Memories deceive. Why else would I still be obsessed with a girl I hadn’t seen since college?
Merrin was an idealistic, unmodifed idiot, protesting the ethics of Genetek, which had saved my mother–the first time, anyway. Yes, other mothers died of cancer, leaving small children behind. These things happen. Only in comic books does anyone save the world overnight.
I finished planting a bit of my mother with a little black acorn, then saved the rest of her to pay off that debt, as soon as we had a good snowfall in the forecast.
Nobody in his right mind would hike the Canyon in November, snow swirling through the air, almost blinding when the wind gusted, but that made it the perfect time to unload the burden of illegal ashes.
More than a million acres of Kaibab National Forest bordered the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon. Dad used to quiz us on the flora and fauna: pinyon pine, ponderosa pine, aspen, oak, yada, yada. Patricia and I knew white-tailed deer from mule deer. We all knew a clear blue sky was no guarantee against a lightning strike, but that’s what got them during a father-daughter hike. A bolt from out of the blue.
The weight of Mom’s ashes surrounded me, inside the lining of the most waterproof, subzero parka ever to challenge a northern Arizona snowfall. Sam McGee could have used one of these.
Her voice played in my head as if on cue:
On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! Through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
Slowly, I liberated the last of Mom’s ashes from my parka while the entire poem played in my head, from memory, not circuitry. Surveillance drones made their usual rounds, but I couldn’t imagine they’d detect microscopic particles of Mom mingled with snowflakes, drifting from the promontory I stood on, halfway up from the bottom of a five-thousand-foot-deep gorge, 277 miles long, five to fifteen miles wide. Plenty of room for the molecules of one small woman enthralled by the red rock carved so long ago by the Colorado River, long before any humans claimed the sacred place as their own.
I felt a weight lift from my shoulders–until the growl of a helicopter passed overhead.
Oh, come on. They couldn’t detect those ashes. I’d filed my itinerary. Told them I was testing out some new nano-fibers and solar heaters in this high-tech coat.
I took one last, long look at Mom’s final resting place. With a shiver, I started to sense the spell this canyon had cast on her.
You need a wife.
Mom! Jeez! You’re dead, remember?
Yet I heard her voice saying what she said every autumn–as if falling leaves didn’t already remind me of the one who got away.
Funny how wisdom might change expression over the eons, but its truth is constant.
Mom? The voice was hers, but these were not the well-worn words I remembered.
Life is living us, not the other way around, she threw in for good measure.
I blew a cloudy breath into the November air. No one can fool you as easily as you can fool yourself.
Time to head back up the long, dusty trail. Or, not dusty anymore, but slick with snowfall turning to ice. I watched for park rangers, but an hour after the helicopter, no human trespassed on the trail but me.
The parka wasn’t going to get any rave reviews from me. Halfway in my hike to the top, I shivered. And couldn’t stop stop shivering. The same glitchy rocks and trees that kept my nanotech under the radar were now depriving my coat of its techno-wonders.
Darn it, was I ever cold. My big fear had been getting caught with illegal ashes, not freezing to death on my way up Bright Angel trail. I sat for a minute, then another, thinking how easy it would be to just close my eyes and never wake up.
Get up. Get going, Keith.
I willed myself to move. When at last the rim came into view, so did a vision in white. Good God, an angel? I slapped my legs and didn’t feel anything. Me, dead, but still seeing and walking in the same old body? No sir, not buying it.
This angel looked exactly as I remembered her, with red-gold hair and a light sprinkling of freckles, green eyes, and a smile that would melt glaciers.
Merrin. How could this be? Last time I saw her, she was heading to an ecovillage and picketing the new Life Enhancing mods. My own mother was one of the “damn modders” Merrin denounced.
“So how’s that parka working out?” Merrin asked, as if she’d seen me only a few hours ago, not years and years ago.
My lips didn’t move when I tried to answer.
“How,” I managed, finally. How did she get here. Now, of all times.
“I had a nice talk with your mother,” Merrin said.
“My mother is dead.”
“I know. I’m so sorry, Keith.” Her smile faltered. “She’s where she wants to be, though, and she wants you to be all right with that.”
Bees in a hive mind, Merrin and my mother.
We walked the deserted pathways, across a snow-white parking lot. With a flick of her gloved hand, Merrin brought a hybrid car to life. Spotlighting us in low beams, it drove itself over.
Instant heat inside. The car worked better than the coat.
“So,” I began when my face had thawed. “How does an anti-modder come to look as young as the day I last saw her storming off all those years ago?”
She winced. “O God! I am a hypocrite. There was a roadside bombing, and half the people on our bus were killed. I’d be dead, if not for a Go Fund Me and years of work with Genetek. I’m practically a cyborg.”
Was she blinking tears away? She looked sincere. I remembered Merrin for her drama, all right, but not for her acting skills. Never one to hide her emotions even if she tried.
Like my mother.
Merrin’s smile came back, slowly. We stared at each other, letting the nano-circuits of our implants do their dance, exchanging bits and bytes of information about the years that separated us.
Nothing was ever separate to begin with, Mom said. It just seems that way.
Merrin raised her eyebrows, and I knew she’d heard it too.
“Life is living us,” Merrin said.
“Not the other way around,” I added.
Her laugh sounded like sunshine and rainbows and butterflies unfurling their wings, and I seriously began to worry that my brain had short-circuited with my parka.
Mom would like that.
And I wasn’t in any position to argue with her.
# # # #
Maxfield Parrish was an American painter and illustrator active in the first half of the 20th century. He is known for his distinctive saturated hues and idealized neo-classical imagery. His career spanned fifty years and was wildly successful: his painting Daybreak is the most popular art print of the 20th century. Wikipedia
@sunravelme – Minnow Support Project- Curation for Creatives
I was honored to be asked to help curate creative writing minnows for The Minnow Support project. Here are my choices. My first three choices are entries to @hardfork-series “Can You See the Future Contest” . They challenged their writers to create a story of what life will look like in the future. “Ashes and Acorns” by @carolkean is a beautiful depiction of the relationship between the living and the dead, and what lives on through technology.