|Jan/Feb 2015 Fiction|
The Panamanian golden frogs died first. Extinct but for a few stray specimens stored with hermetic zeal in zoo laboratories. Scientists fretted, as did some intrepid reporters from National Geographic, Smithsonian, and the New Yorker. The Panamanians were devastated. They considered the golden frog their national emblem and put its likeness on their key chains and coffee mugs. No one else cared. After all, the golden frogs were frogs, not puppies, and other things were golden: daffodils, tomato blossoms, the sun, Big Bird.
I used to watch Sesame Street with my youngest daughter Harper when the two older children left for school. I worked from home after she was born. I finally had the professional standing. We'd cuddle on the couch for an hour before the babysitter arrived and count and spell right along with those puppets.
"What's the point?" my husband said one morning when he was running late. He liked to needle me back then. "Bert, Ernie, and the Cookie Monster are shadows of their former selves, and Baby Bear, Abby Cadabby? What the hell are those?"
"Don't judge the puppets, Harris," I said.
"There's no continuity. They don't follow the number nine or the letter "g" through an entire episode anymore. Generations of children have stunted attention spans, and Elmo's a whiny little freak."
"I can't argue the Elmo thing, but ratchet down the hatred," I said. "It's basic education, not a portent of doom."
Silence. Harris tended to find Mommy-me a tad prosaic.
All the other frogs and toads died. Again, a global yawn. Amphibians didn't inspire Save the Animal campaigns in quite the same way that polar bears and wolves did.
Honeybees disappeared. People shifted in their easy chairs and grumbled. Even the meanest intelligence knew that bees did something important for plants. Still, plenty of other flying insects were on the job. Honey's status as a universally enjoyed golden element faltered under the weight of modern lifestyles. Most people deemed zero-calorie sweeteners developed in test tubes to be an equal if not superior substitute.
Harper's favorite snack was honey on buttered toast. I was a good mother, limiting that treat to twice a week. The rest of the time, she had to eat fruits and vegetables. She was desolate when honey production ended. I searched the stores, standing in line to buy cane, sorghum, molasses, maple, agave.
"Yucky," she'd say. "Bad."
She stopped eating toast.
"Be glad she's not freaking out." Harris kissed me. "It's out of our control."
The bats went next, expiring en masse as they hibernated. Scientists hiking through their home caves watched the last ones drop from the ceilings and flutter sluggishly before they joined the thigh-deep decay on the cave floors. The scientists named the disease white-nose syndrome because the dead bats had a heavy mustache of white crystals. They identified a fungus as the culprit but didn't connect it to the frogs and bees because the corpses of those animals decomposed too quickly for the autopsies to find the white. The scientists also thought hibernation played a key role in the disease's development. "Bat flu" wasn't destined to be a true newsmaker like humanity-imperiling bird flu or swine flu.
Even when Harper started walking, she kept me at the center of her world. Several times a day, she would toddle into my office, her babysitter trailing behind her.
"Mama!" she'd cry, goofy with pleasure at finding me. "Dance, Mama, dance!"
If I had time, I'd flip on some music, Noot d' Noot or Purkinje Shift usually (my brother's bands), and the three of us would twirl around the room.
Vultures. Hundreds of thousands fell out of the trees where they roosted. Autopsies showed they died from visceral gout, aka bird kidney failure. White crystals coated their internal organs. The fungus had evolved.
Harper pretended to be a bird sometimes, inspired by the congregants eating at the feeder outside our kitchen window. She'd zoom around, flapping her arms, singing "Tweet, tweet, tweet!"
"What a pretty little bird!" I'd say. "Hope a kitty-cat doesn't get you, sweetie bird!" Throwaway words purloined from the mouths of cartoon characters, ill-equipped to last a lifetime.
Then I'd grab her and tickle her stomach. How she laughed.
Hyenas, monkeys, bears, wolves, deer, larks, pelicans, whales, animals ad infinitum. White Death spread. Sometimes visible, sometimes hidden, the white fungus turned up everywhere. Average humans began to express concern but wouldn't concede to all-out alarm. Maybe natural selection was involved. Maybe wild animals were just past their cosmic due date.
Her eyes were blue. Not bluebells or sapphires, those Cinderella fantasy colors. An aqua overlaid with a hint of gray, like a lake on an overcast day. Inventive yet practical, part me, part Harris. The eyes of a future scientist or physician, of someone who could have found a way to save us even if Sesame Street hadn't given her appropriate mental discipline.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" I'd ask her.
"You, Mama, you!"
Chickens, pigs, dogs, cows, humans. White Death went up and down the food chain—except for cats. The Family Felidae escaped unscathed. Every other species teetered toward extinction. Some, though, climbed out of the biological ruins with a spark of life intact. That survival instinct is how I ended up in this hollow in the north Georgia mountains, fenced in with Harris and our two surviving children on his family farm.
Harris socked me in the jaw. He's not an abuser. He knocked me out to get me in the car to leave Atlanta. Harper had gone to a birthday party, by herself like a big girl. I was about to go pick her up when one of the other mothers called and said everyone had gotten sick. I phoned the hospital, on hold, on hold, on hold. Finally, a harassed woman.
"Don't come," she said. "Too many sick. Infection."
"Tell me where Harper is," I said. "Is she okay? What's going on?"
"She's already dead. Turn on the news."
I was busy screaming, so Harris switched on the television and we saw what was happening. I planned to go to the hospital anyway. I couldn't leave Harper there, alone, without her mother. That's when Harris hit me.
The human world—what remained of it—divided into three camps: people who ate cats; people who worshipped cats (the lion-headed Egyptian goddess Sekhmet experienced a resurgence in popularity); and people who befriended cats. Thanks to a modicum of intelligence, Harris and I could see the folly of the first two options. We took the third route, and that friendship saved us.
We have six cats. I don't know if they see it, smell it, or hear it, but our cats can spot the infection anywhere. They yowl an alert if White Death comes near, ensuring we know who or what to let on our land, when to put on our gas masks and hazard suits, and when to institute disinfection procedures.
With few insects, we pollinate our fields using paintbrushes dipped in pollen. Gold means food, survival, so people pay attention to it now. However, gold also can bring death since insects no longer eat their share of the pollen. The excess combines with severe thunderstorms to create pollen events that verge on tornadoes. You can choke to death in minutes if you're caught out in one. The cats help us there too, sounding a warning.
My favorite cat is Brownie, an orange-striped beast who likes to rub his furry brain box on my forehead. He's named after Harper's teddy bear, a handmade toy that wasn't backed by a brand or a marketing campaign. I thought its anonymity would foster her creative spirit—Harris' concerns about Sesame Street had wormed into my mind. Brownie was the color of a Hershey's bar, with a low-pile pelt perfect for snuggling without causing sleep-time sniffles. Harper was prone to allergies.
"Kisses for Brownie, too," she'd say when Harris and I tucked her in at night.
"Three apiece, that's the going rate for baby girls and brown bears," was Harris' standard reply.
One, two, three from us both on each soft cheek. Sometimes proper kisses, the ones that live the name smack or smooch. It's the pecks I regret. Rote kisses, but at the time they seemed a product of multi-tasking efficiency. Now I wonder if she heard our silent screams: "I have to unload the dishwasher," or "I've got to finish my presentation," or "I haven't shaved my legs all week—just go to sleep."
"Why did so much die?" my son Danny asked last night during dinner. "I miss Harper and Grandpa and Grandma. I miss my friends. Why did this happen? When can we go home?" He laid his head down next to his plate and cried into the tablecloth.
My other daughter, Emma, appeared stricken. Harris held out his hand. She got up from her chair and went into his arms.
"Gold and white, Danny," I said. "The colors of angels. We didn't think they'd let us down like that."
I reached over and smoothed his hair. I felt a little silly offering parental comfort. Danny and Emma had seen its fallibility first-hand. Mommy had let their sister die. She couldn't always make things better.
"We should have new colors, for new angels," Danny said. Tears and fabric muffled his words.
"We'll work on it," I said. "Hush, now. Don't disturb the cats."
Late at night when the odd feline footfall is the only sound breaking the stillness of the house, sometimes I see Harper. She's in a cotton-candy heaven. Generations of family members surround her and try to keep her safe. The White Death has crossed dimensions. It looks like a Santa Claus convention, white beards blooming from every mouth. But Harper dances. She spins, swoops, and tiny golden frogs keep time 'round her feet.