We march forward, just the three of us, winding through the endless maze of the toxic jungle. My brother’s boots squelch in the sucking mud, pools of dark liquid earth cast with a purple, oily sheen. Unnatural, and yet completely normal, as common as the sporous air we cannot breathe.
We’ve walked this way so many days the seasons have twice changed on us, bringing unbearable heat, then monsoon rains. Each day that passes, we find ourselves more deeply embedded in this mass of growth; the jungle landscape is one of enormity, of deformity. It wriggles with mutated creatures of every dimension, from miniscule and breathtakingly delicate blossoms to unsightly winged insects the size of a hound. They see us but don’t attack so long as we don’t strike first.
The trees, however, shimmer with poisonous intent, ready to strike down the next human to disobey their new world order. I gaze upward toward the vast canopy, so high it’s invisible, so dense it prevents sunlight from touching the ground. These trees reach heights never before achieved by another species. They remind me I’m small enough not to matter. That the things I want won’t cause even a flutter in the undergrowth. Wilderness on a global scale has put us back in our place.
Even now, so late in this game of life versus life, it’s impossible to say whether homo sapiens were ever winners, or simply losers on a short winning streak. They may have ruled the planet for a few centuries, but even years numbering in the thousands barely surpass infancy in a forest. Humans had their chance at stewardship but failed so epically they were forcibly removed from the planet. The earth was embraced by new gods that spoke an ancient language long forgotten by humans. Unimaginably, these new keepers of all things living polluted the land beyond habitability… at least for the likes of us.
What does that make us, then, those who carried on into this new era, surviving despite the worst odds? Do we represent a new kind of human better suited to an inhospitable biological home? Not likely. A thousand years wouldn’t be enough time to alter our makeup so completely. Stories tell of a few awakened to the impending destruction of our kind, who prepared for the inevitable consequences of bad behaviour. They made the toxic air breathable, the polluted water drinkable. Their reward was survival and living offspring, ensuring one more generation. And then another. Slowly but resolutely imprinting their genes on the future.
Though his words are muffled by the mask, I understand when my brother says, “We’ll break here.” I nod, happy to let him make our critical decisions. He has the training, the skills, the intuition needed for survival. I’m merely a tagalong, a replacement so inappropriate that neither of us speaks the name of the woman who should be walking beside him instead. I adjust the living bundle secured to my chest. His child. My niece.
A slug as big as the child and twice as juicy rests on the palm of a flat leaf, it’s pinkish brown body clinging with invisible suction. I sidestep the leaf and my boot slips in the oily mud, capturing my leg for a breath-taking second. My brother turns, gives my hand a yank, freeing me and the precious life I carry.
Our resting place is a particolored carpet of leaves set high on a rock flank. The leaves are damp, but what isn’t? I craft a nest for the child while my brother organizes a meagre meal: dried grasshopper and a handful of wild berries I collected along the way. For the child, a cup of watery porridge. I’m grateful her mother survived long enough to wean her. Though our small band draws closer to death-by-starvation, around us infinite species of fungus, fern, and flower fight over nourishment in the energetic display of the well-fed.
The child sleeps again, her eyelashes kissing the soft pillows of her cheeks. My brother and I keep watch, neither wanting to close our eyes to the screeching, thunderous night-song of creatures anxious to feed.
“How much farther, do you think?” A useless question. There’s no way to tell. Maybe we’ve been spinning in loose circles this entire time. I ask anyway, craving the comfort of his assurance.
“Not much farther.” His confidence sounds almost genuine.
“You’re sure there’s a commune on the other side?”
“Why ask now? Isn’t it a little late for that?”
Of course, it is. I would’ve followed either way. “Why won’t you name her?” I ask. “A name is your identity, the only thing anyone has a right to in this world.”
“This world is wretched,” he says, and we fall silent.
After a bout of breathing sickness claimed the lives of most everyone in our village, miraculously passing over my niece, the newest in a short line of hopeful births, many families divided. It was my brother’s idea to set off into the jungle, the one place we’re told not to go from the time we learn how to listen, like a lullaby all new mothers whisper. But he’d heard another tale, of a human settlement on the far side of this treacherous forest, where people outnumbered trees. The thought seems inconceivable, so unlike the world I’ve known. In the past, people lived in groups so large it was impossible to know every neighbor. Or so they say. I can’t imagine how such a group could feed itself. Then again, the soil was unspoiled back then, before plants developed a killing urge designed to exterminate the human species.
I lay my head against the craggy bark of a tree, one I pray wishes us no harm. Will we disappear into a jungle as big as the earth? Or will we make it out? Who’s to judge but the new gods? I, for one, plan to keep marching, surviving defiantly. I have no place else to go.
Before she became the owner and lead scientific editor of Grand Literary, Emily Grandy did orthopedic research at The Cleveland Clinic. Her writing has appeared in both scientific and literary publications and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She regularly contributes articles, recipes, and photography to Chickpea magazine. She has lived in many places, both in the US and abroad, but has always gravitated back to the Midwest and its Great Lakes. She currently calls Milwaukee, Wisconsin home.