Green Bird in a Concrete Cage

Maia Rocklin

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Maia is a Finnish-Canadian writer whose inspiration stems from a lifelong passion for the environment. Through her writing, she wishes to promote eco-awareness in order to ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy the wonders of the natural world. She currently resides in the Canadian Gulf Islands with her dog, Luna.

She remembers butterflies.

There were more of them, once, and as a child Ellie would recline in the shade of her grandmother's garden, watching them pirouette through the sky on rose-petal wings. If she closes her eyes she can still hear the cicadas trilling their chorus in the manzanitas, so loud it rang in her ears, and she can see the evening's first fireflies winking to life like neon-green sparks against the darkening sky.

And always Adam, sitting next to her, pointing out the stars as they appeared, naming the constellations without tripping over a single syllable. They were beautiful, of course. But cold. She preferred the earth beneath her, the insects, the fragrant grass. They kept her tethered to the surface of the planet.

The memory plays on an endless loop as she takes the elevator up to the thirty-fifth floor of the tallest building in the city. At the end of the corridor she enters a sunlit office with a dizzying view. Behind the varnished oak desk: a man who has been interviewed by Pulitzer-winning journalists and has graced the covers of Scientific American and National Geographic. He’s frowning at a paper-thin computer monitor, and she uses this opportunity to take him in: dark eyes framed by thick lashes, an elegant, hooked nose, coifed black hair, strong jaw, a navy suit tailored to his lean frame. So unlike the scrawny, barefooted boy in basketball shorts who used to chase her through the forest during those languid summers.

At last he notices her standing there, and recognition lights up his features.

He stands, flashes a dazzling white smile, and catches Ellie up in his arms. He says her name with laughter in his voice. There's a tightness in her throat she doesn't fully understand.

"It's been too long,” Adam says. “Where have you been?”

She tells him.

First about the internship at the reserve in Río Plátano, then about her work monitoring endangered parrot species on uninhabited Caribbean islands, and then about her research article getting published in an environmental journal. These are the easy stories.

She doesn't talk about watching a green macaw, the last of its kind, dying alone in a concrete cage with a wire roof. How she couldn't save them, no matter how hard she’d tried. Because people in richer countries needed palm oil for their breakfast cereal and eyeliner.

“I've followed your career,” she says, brightening. “I can't believe how far you've come.”

"Still feels surreal sometimes,” he admits. “Never thought I'd be launching anything into space, let alone humans.”

She thinks about the astronauts making their mark on a distant red planet, and wonders, not for the first time, what sort of people would buy a one-way ticket to Mars.

"What is it?” Adam asks. Even after all these years apart, he can read her as easily as an astrophysics textbook.

Ellie doesn't want to sour the mood of their reunion, but he'll know if she deflects or lies. She perches on the back of a leather armchair opposite his desk, gives a shrug. “The world’s sliding further into catastrophe each year, and you’re bent on colonizing another planet. It’s like pressing a big, expensive eject button. Makes me think you’re giving up on Earth entirely.”

The corners of his mouth turn downward, and he falls silent.

"I'm not giving up. I’m… pushing the envelope of human ingenuity. We've always been pioneers, risk-takers, empire-builders.”

It sounds rehearsed. Maybe it isn't. Maybe this is what he earnestly believes.

But she's still thinking of that emerald-feathered macaw in its cage.

***

Ellie’s home for a few months, trying to secure funding to purchase a tract of untouched wilderness in Honduras before it falls into corporate hands. But she won't tell Adam this. Even though he could finance the entire thing with the money he carries around in his wallet, it isn't the reason she's reached out to him. At first, all she wants is to reconnect with the boy who was her childhood best friend; then she realizes something extraordinary.

Whenever she's with him, there are butterflies in her stomach.

Three weeks later, she spends the night at his penthouse suite. Lying tangled in silk sheets, she tries to avoid thinking about the other, prettier women who've been there before. Goosebumps rise along her skin where Adam traces nonsensical patterns with his fingers, his breath warm against the back of her neck. She looks out at the sparkling city and the sickly haze hanging above it like fallout ash. The stars are obscured, as always.

It should be a happy moment, but something is wrong.

"Are you going to join them someday?” Ellie whispers. “The mission.”

His body stiffens against hers, and she knows the answer before he speaks.

“I’d like to,” he says.

Because you think there's no way for this world to be saved,” she says. “Instead of trying to help everyone, you want to save a few members of the human race and start over, hundreds of millions of miles away. While everyone else too poor to afford a ticket stays behind to starve and drown and burn. You could be a savior to all those people who worship you and your technology, but instead you’re acting like a coward.”

Adam says nothing.

She leaves the penthouse, returns to ground level, and gets a cab home. From street level, the skyscrapers swallow up the horizon.

Like being in a concrete cage.

***

A week passes before Ellie speaks to him again.

He pours himself a finger of scotch and settles onto his sofa. Avoids her gaze.

"I'm keeping it,” she tells him, her hands clamped between her thighs so he can't see her trembling. “I'll raise it on my own. No one has to know.”

***

As the baby grows, so does Ellie’s horror.

All she sees is the filth, the corruption, the restlessness festering below the surface of a disintegrating society. Slums grow like black mold, crime rates rise with the heat, and low-income zones are cordoned off and left to police themselves. Every breath of fetid city air stirs up a panic about the developing fetus inside of her. She forgets about the nature reserve and the birds—only one life matters anymore.

Adam supports her, quietly, with monthly deposits into her bank account. She finds a place in the suburbs, next to a park surrounded by ugly grey buildings, and she wonders how long it'll be until a real estate mogul gobbles up this last fragment of green. On sweltering nights when the power grid goes down, she laughs bitterly at the words CLIMATE CONTROL stamped onto the unit on her wall and draws a cool bath for herself in defiance of water restrictions.

Apocalyptic thoughts chase her into her dreams: visions of flooded cities, desiccated forests, diseased populations. Green birds streaking through the sky with their wings engulfed in flame.

She tried to save them, but they're all gone, and no one seems to care.

***

She meets with Adam, in private, on rare occasions.

Six months in, he places a hand on her swollen belly, a pensive look on his face.

He tells her he's decided to stay on Earth after all. That, after a lifetime with his head in the stars, he understands what she's been trying to tell him: he can save the world from impending disaster.

"No,” she says. “You can't.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That it’s too late for a solution. All you can do is save yourself—and your daughter.”

"How can you give up, after everything you said?”

"Because,” she says, “I can't risk raising a child who will die from starvation or disease before she’s had a chance to live her life. Because there's a way to give her a happy life, someplace far away where the stars shine clearly at night. Where she can see bees and butterflies somewhere other than history books.”

After that, the distance between them is an impassable gulf.

He can’t be present for the baby's birth, but he secures her a luxury private room in the city's best hospital, where their daughter draws her first breath.

They name her Aurora.

Adam sees her rarely, to avoid arousing suspicion—the infant's shapely nose and tawny complexion are too similar to his own. His work is at a pivotal juncture, and he cannot afford a scandal.

For Aurora’s first birthday, he gives her a ticket to Mars, redeemable when she's old enough to make the six-month journey.

When Aurora is three, a transmission arrives from the base at Gale Crater: a hurricane of unprecedented magnitude has swept down from the north pole. It’s torn away massive sections of the biodome and killed half the colonists inside. The moss and algae growing on the planet's surface are gone, and the oxygen generators have been damaged beyond repair. Those who survived are suffocating, and there’s no time to send a rescue ship. 

The project is dead.

***

Adam sends Ellie and Aurora to a remote location in the mountains where the test biodome had initially been constructed. They are safe from natural disasters, from the growing heat, and from the civil unrest that plagues the continent. Phrases like wet bulb temperature, blue ocean event, and feedback loops no longer have any bearing on their daily lives. Others in the biodome show them how to help maintain the fragile balance of life within.

There are butterflies, but not the ones Ellie knew as a child. These are a vivid fuchsia, bioengineered for higher pollination capability and greater resistance to environmental fluctuations. She wants to see a monarch or an Old World swallowtail. Something familiar. These manmade creatures are plastic to her.

Aurora, at least, finds great delight in them. She doesn’t know any better.

With permission, Ellie obtains a pair of crested parrots with green wings and introduces them to the biodome. Before long they propagate, their population carefully controlled, and every day she goes to watch them chittering in the leafy foliage. It's a bit like the nature reserve she abandoned years ago.

But a cage is a cage, regardless of its size.

When Ellie walks with Aurora outside the biodome, the mountains rising like faceless sentinels on all sides, the stars glisten, unobstructed in the sky—the heavy pollution smothering the cities cannot rise to this altitude. She points out Mars but doesn’t mention the dead bodies buried beneath a layer of rust-colored dirt, or the ill-fated mission that was once a symbol of hope for mankind. Better that Aurora knows nothing of the ticket with her name on it, of the life she could have lived.

The Mars project is on the verge of bankruptcy now, and it's taken a heavy toll on Adam’s once-abundant finances. Another tech genius billionaire steps up to foot the bill, and within a year of the hurricane, a new mission is dispatched to the graveyard at Gale Crater. They claim to have learned from past mistakes.

Adam withdraws from the public eye and finds himself under the hexagon-patterned ceiling of the mountain biodome. He crouches beneath the broad leaves of a banana palm and wriggles his toes in the rich red soil. From here he can’t see the sky, but he doesn’t mind; the rhythm of living things hums in his ears, and for the first time, he feels at home on Earth.

A soda-can-sized parrot shimmies along a palm frond and tilts its head at him. He thinks of the woman he used to love.

Of the daughter he still loves more than anything.

The successor to the Gale Crater project is a roaring success, and before long, would-be space colonists are bidding for tickets that cost as much as a small nation's GDP.

But Adam sees now that there is no escape and there never was. That the final collapse will come no matter how hard he tries to fight against its surging tide.

The world beyond the high mountain peaks descends further into chaos, but the biodome community lives in relative peace and security. Its precise location has always been a secret—Adam has taken great pains to keep it hidden not only from the general population, but from governments both foreign and domestic. What few stragglers survive the trek into the hills are defenseless and offer little resistance to being eliminated.

Aurora grows older and knows no scarcity of food or water or love. With the other children she runs, her skinny arms and legs pumping furiously, through groves of plants and trees now functionally extinct; she scoops tadpoles from shallow pools, and they squirm in her hands; she falls asleep in her father's arms to the incessant, teeming noise of living things.

She observes the distance between her parents, and it is as great as the expanse between Earth and Mars.

But she is the sun around which they orbit.

***

On Aurora's fourteenth birthday she insists on a sunset hike with her parents to the outer ridges of the mountains where they can see for a hundred miles. When the wind shifts, they smell the faint, sweet odor of decay. There is no more smoke blackening the horizon—instead, a profound stillness has settled over the world.

Aurora asks what lies out there. If there are still people left, if any of the animals pictured in her schoolbooks have survived—though, secretly, she has trouble believing that such a thing as a blue whale ever existed.

Her mother doesn’t look up from the blossom of lichen she’s toeing. “I don’t think so, sweetheart. No need to dwell on what was or might have been.”

Adam ignores the question and points to the portable telescope he has set up at the edge of the plateau.

“What do you see?” he asks Aurora with a knowing smile.

Her face scrunches up as she peeks into the eyepiece. She goes quiet for a while, making minute adjustments here and there. Centered in the lens, the red planet hangs like a bloody marble in the darkness of space.

But, she realizes with a start, its surface has changed: one of its vast craters is now smeared with a black substance.

She focuses the lens a little more. She gasps, and then giggles with delight.

The crater isn't black after all.

"Green,” she says in a quiet voice. “It's green.”

Copyright © The Year After LLC 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Background Art by Ferdinand Ladera

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