The Days Before
A Story About the Future, and the Past
Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say.
I was spinning through that very vacuum; orbiting an unnamed planet on a man-made moon, under a mile thick, impenetrable dome that made it even less likely any life form in the vast universe might hear my howls of grief.
I screamed anyway.
I lifted my face up to the sky and screamed. I screamed at the galaxies, stars, and planets I could see through the dome, and the black holes, deep space, and deeper emptiness beyond. I screamed until my voice was a rasp of dry sand against the back of my throat and my head ached with the effort. Then I let myself sink to the ground and I cried myself to sleep.
I woke to the humming of tiny drones crisscrossing the sky above the field where I lay; voiceless, featherless birds that spread seeds and devoured pests with mindless efficiency and not a shred of the joy and music that my Saba told me all the species of birds that lived in the days before had brought to those tasks.
I felt hollow and empty. Jacob Khatib, my Saba, my grandfather, was gone. The last person left who still remembered how things were in the days before, was gone. He had lived a long and productive life of more than one hundred years and died peacefully in his bed. I had held his hand while he took his last breath. I had told him I would be strong. I knew I had no right to expect him to live forever, but I mourned his passing with every fiber of my being.
I believed his spirit had already flown up into the boundless universe. There was no room on Sarid to bury the dead, so his ancient body, wrapped in a white burial shroud, would be released into space, perhaps someday to fall back down upon the ruined planet where he was born.
Meanwhile, I was left without him on this escape hatch from oblivion that was the only home I had ever known.
Why had I been such a fool? Why had I gone all sixteen years of my life pretending he would always be with me? Why had I not asked more questions, demanded more answers? I was spinning through the blackness of space on a tiny refuge, a fraction of the size of the world from which he had come, a computerized, electronic orb, devoid of most of the things that had made life in the days before so extraordinary. And now, the only person who could tell me all I still wanted and needed to know about what life was like then, about the oceans and mountains, deserts and jungles, animals and people, insects, and microbes, about the millions of living and growing things that had existed in the days before, was gone.
I had not grown up with parents who could tell me stories about the days before. My mother and father had come to Sarid as children. Their memories of the days before were vivid but limited to a child's view of the world where they once lived. Five years after I was born, they volunteered for an expedition into even deeper space, to find a larger and more hospitable place for those who had escaped destruction, and their progeny, to live and prosper. They never returned. My memories of them were faint as the mist that sometimes brushed up against the plastic dome holding in the atmosphere that kept us alive; a thin, wavering cloud of bits and pieces of my childhood, floating just beyond my reach.
I heard a rustling behind me and turned to find Ben, my dearest friend, coming towards me through the small pocket field planted with oats, peas, and canola.
"How are you doing, Becca?" He asked gently. He gathered me in a tentative embrace, then stepped back. "Your grandfather was a very special person. I will miss him...though not as deeply as you will..." he added quickly.
"Thank you," I said. "I know he thought of you as a member of our family, Ben, and I know how much he meant to you."
"You and your grandfather are...were...all the family I have...well, now...I guess it is just us, Becca."
I smiled. Ben had lost his parents on the same expedition that had taken mine from me. We had spent our childhood together helping my Saba in the gardens. We were best friends, and maybe more than that. But I couldn't think about what Ben was to me right then. I had to focus on the chores that needed doing. I had to ready my grandfather's small house for the visitors who would come to offer me comfort in my grief.
My stomach grumbled with hunger.
"I'm hungry," I said. "I never made it to dinner last night."
Ben and I walked to a row of vegetables growing on twenty-foot-high plastic latticework at the edge of the field. The lush vegetation grew vertically because there were no acres of farmland on Sarid.
I grabbed a tomato and a couple of white cucumbers. The cucumbers had a satisfying crunch and the red juice of the tomato dribbled down my chin, small vestiges of the wonders of nature that had filled an entire planet, in the days before.
Ben pulled a bandana from his back pocket and reached out to wipe the juice from my chin. I flinched, then worried I might have hurt his feelings.
Feelings. I wasn't sure what mine were for him, or what his were for me. I tried to think of something to say, but before I could come up with a witty remark that would let him know I cared for him, that I appreciated his kindness, but maybe wasn't ready right now for us to have anything more than a deep caring friendship, Ben took my hand.
"I'm sorry, Becca," he said, "for your loss, and for intruding on your solitude." He pushed his bandana back into his pocket, "You know where I am if you need me." He smiled, a lopsided, wistful smile that always touched my heart, and turn to walk back the way he had come.
I almost called out to him. I needed time alone, though, and I had to pull myself together. The Ruling Council, all members of my parent’s generation, would allow me just a few hours to mourn my Saba. There was much work to be done and few of us to do it. The council members, like my parents, were only children, some still toddlers, when they came to live on Sarid. Their memories of the days before were faint and far overshadowed by the needs of the colony they now ruled. They were less concerned with how things had once been than with how things must be now for us to survive.
I whistled and Max, a miniature border collie, came running from somewhere nearby. One of the few animals on Sarid, he was my sometime companion, when he wasn’t with the small herd of sheep and goats that provided our milk and cheese. Max’s job was to keep the herd together as they grazed up and down the narrow strips of fescue and white clover planted between the towers of vegetables. Every living thing in the colony had to contribute something and Max always put in a good day’s work.
“Good boy, Max.” I ran a hand over his silky coat and scratched gently behind his ears. “Looks like it’s just the two of us now,” I whispered, “Saba is gone.” Max looked up at me with unblinking eyes. Was there sadness in those deep pools of brown, or reproach? Was he telling me he understood my loss, or reminding me that I still had Ben?
I took off down one of the empty rows between the produce towers and Max followed, barking, and nipping at my heels. At the far end of the row, I tumbled to the ground under my grandfather’s beloved fig tree and Max pounced, licking my face with his rough tongue.
For as long as I could remember, my Saba had farmed the small spaces that produced fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, oil, and flax, for the people on Sarid. He coaxed green things of all sorts from the nutrient dense polymers that sat at the base of each growing tower and covered the ground in the pocket fields. In this unlikeliest of places, he brought forth a bounty of fresh and healthy food. There was no dirt, soil, compost, or loam, on Sarid, none of the things that had supported the growth of fruits and vegetables in the days before, only porous polymers saturated with growth media made from recycled chemicals.
I had been my grandfather’s apprentice. Now I would step into his shoes and grow food for Sarid. What would that mean for Ben? I imagined he would be at my side, helping me keep my Saba's gardens alive. But what did he imagine?
I stood and brushed grass off the linen shirt I had inherited from my father when he did not return from his mission to provide a better life for me. Its sleeves were rolled up and its shirttails hung past my knees, but I wore it every day in the garden, over my mother’s linen work pants. The red bandana her mother had worn as a young girl on a Kibbutz, in the days before, was tied at the nape of my neck to contain my unruly curls.
Another wave of sadness hit me, and I walked towards the grape arbor. My Saba had built a dome shaped structure on which to grow the fruit he used to make wine. It was now completely covered with grape vines, providing a shaded interior. He had built lattice walls to split the arbor into two rooms, each providing a space akin to a small chapel, for introspection or prayer. He was a farmer, but he knew the importance of solitude, and how hard it was to come by in a place as small as our colony on Sarid.
I stepped into one of the arbor rooms and sat on a small bench that had been made on a 3D printer from the plastic that was ubiquitous on Sarid. My Saba preferred natural materials. In the days before, he would have carved a bench from the wood of an olive tree. But there were no forests on Sarid, no quarries filled with stone. The elders who settled here had brought plastic of all sorts with them. It was lighter than wood or stone, could be endlessly recycled into new items, and lasted virtually forever.
Sitting in the arbor my Saba had built, I felt his presence all around me. I tried to remember the prayer he had taught me to say in memory of someone who died. I bent forward, elbows on my knees, and held my head in my hands. Max pushed his cold nose against my cheek, whining softly. I felt hot tears on my face. There was no one left, on Sarid, or any place in the universe, who was connected to me by blood or birth. I knew I was part of the communal life of Sarid, I was not technically alone, but that is how I felt, abandoned and alone.
I pulled a folded pad of paper from my back pocket and flipped through it. My Saba stared back at me from page after page. I had sketched him at work and in repose, laughing, and sitting in silence, and I had filled a page with images of him as he lay dying. This was all I had now, a pad of handmade linen paper filled with drawings of the man who raised me from a child. Max pushed his muzzle against my knee, as if to remind me I still had a furry companion. I knew my grandfather would also disagree.
“You have all the things I taught you,” he would say. “I will be with you as you pinch away some flowers to make the bean stalks grow stronger and taller, as you stake the tomato plants, so they don't fall over from the weight of their fruit, and as you gather the harvest. I will be with you every step of the way.”
I knew all that was true, but it was small comfort. I felt alone and disconnected from my past. I hadn’t asked the questions whose answers might have helped me feel closer to my parents. I never sat still long enough to have my Saba tell me all the stories of the time before. I had been content to live in the moment, and now that is where I would remain for the rest of my days.
I was about to stand and leave the arbor, but I heard voices, two voices, coming from the space on the other side of the lattice. I stayed still and silent to see if I could hear what they were saying.
“Should we tell her?” I recognized the voice of Miriam, a member of the Council. She had been one of my mother’s closest friends.
“What purpose would it serve?” The second voice belonged to Miriam’s husband Elan.
“She has a right to know. Now that Jacob is gone. She should know.”
I drew in a sharp breath and held myself perfectly still. They were talking about me! What were they not telling me? What did I have a right to know?
“It was Jacob’s wish that it be kept from her,” insisted Elan.
“He is gone, Elan, and it seems cruel to let her go on believing she is alone in the world, with no living relatives.”
I felt the ground shift beneath me, the boughs of the arbor seemed to sway. Could this be true? Was there someone alive who was related to me? Someone I had never met? Should I make my presence known? Demand whatever information had been withheld from me? Who else knew about this deception? I tried to slow my breathing, remain calm. I strained to hear what would be said next.
“An old woman deep in the throes of dementia is not quite the prize relation you make her out to be,” scoffed Elan.
“Her age doesn’t matter, nor the dementia. What matters is that she is Savta to this child…”
I didn’t hear any words after that. Savta. Grandmother. I had a grandmother, and she was alive. A moment ago, I thought I was alone in the world, but I had a living relative. Savta. I had no memory of her strong enough to conjure up a picture. Where had they kept her, in this tiny place, that I had never seen or heard of her? Why had my Saba lied to me all these years? I tried to remember exactly what I had been told about her. Never explicitly that she had died, only that she was “no longer with us.” I had assumed that meant she was dead, and he had let me believe that, for all these years.
I felt anger rising. Why would he do that? Why would my Saba keep me from the only other person in my family who was still alive? The voices coming from behind the lattice got louder, interrupting the questions ricocheting through my brain. I pushed the anger away and focused on the words coming from the other side of the arbor. Miriam and Elan were arguing.
“You cannot turn the child’s life upside down,” insisted Elan. “You cannot go against her grandfather’s wishes just because he has left this world. This is not your decision to make.”
“He was a stubborn old man, Elan,” you know that. “We went along, because he was an elder, but I never agreed with his decision, I always felt she should be told.”
“To tell her now will alter her opinion of him,” warned Elan.
“That may be, but she has a right to know.” Insisted Miriam.
“Still, it is not your decision to make.”
“Then we will bring the matter to the Council,” said Miriam firmly. “That is the end of it. There is nothing else to discuss.”
I heard scuffling, and the sound of their voices fading as they left the arbor and headed off towards the small house they shared with Miriam's sister and her family.
My Savta was alive and somewhere on Sarid.
I stood and walked out of the arbor on legs that felt like jelly. I would not tell anyone I knew this secret that had been kept from me for so long. I had a grandmother who had been hidden from me my whole life. Let them take it to the council. No matter what they decided, I would scour every inch of Sarid until I found her.
About the Creator
I've published stories in Highlights and other children's magazines. I've written songs that play on Sirius XM Radio. I'm currently looking to publish my first novel, a cozy mystery with embedded links to recordings of five original songs.
Ooh I’d like to see this as a book someday. Hopefully you have the drive to write it. A lot of effort was put into your work and it shines. Best of luck to you in the challenge