The Sweetest Fruit
They ate figs. They were happy.
The boy gasped, straining against the padded frame of the jeep just as the vehicle slowly came to a halt. ‘Look!’ he shouted, pointing at a spot about a hundred feet from the group. ‘Look, Mum! That’s so cool!’
Half-instinctively, his mother had already grabbed a fistful of his tank-top, ready to yank him back. She had spent the entirety of the trip sitting as still as possible, facing forward, eyes stubbornly fixed on the self-cooling top of the car in a pointless effort to fight her motion sickness: her patience was already wearing very thin without her eight-year-old personal safety hazard trying to get himself killed.
‘Ethan, for the love of God,’ she snapped. ‘I already told you to stop leaning over the frame! Do you realise how dangerous that is?’
‘No, Mum, you’ve got to look!’
‘Emma, darling,’ her husband whispered, a gentle hand on her shoulder. ‘You should really look at this. It’s magnificent.’
Whatever it was, even her fifteen-year-old daughter - who had spent the last thirty minutes texting her friends back home without so much as a glance at the scenery - was jaw-slacked, so she slowly got up on her wobbly knees and peered over her shoulders.
In the shadow of a tree, protected from the sweltering heat, two lions were feasting on a zebra. Perhaps belatedly, as it’d taken her a second to drink the sight in, she realised that the poor thing was still alive: writhing as blood, red and hot and pulsing, gushed out from where the bigger lion - the male - had bitten into its back.
The smaller one, the female, soundlessly sank its teeth into the dying animal’s neck, and the latter gave one last weak kick, finally falling limp. When the lioness stood again, it was almost impossible, from this distance, to see her eyes amidst the bloodied mess on her face.
‘Oh, my God, Matt,’ Emma said. ‘This is beautiful. Nature truly is beautiful.’
‘You don’t really get to see this kind of show anywhere else today,’ their guide said from the driver’s seat. He sounded proud, as if he’d hunted and fed the zebra to the lions himself.
Alberto wasn’t wrong, Emma reasoned. Given that they were parked in the middle of the privately-owned biggest North American savanna, he - or rather, his employer - was the one effectively feeding the lions. Like feeding mice to cats. She glanced at her children, glad they could have a window on a reality that was long gone. To think it would have taken a trip around the world to watch this spectacle - imagine the motion sickness then! If only, she considered wistfully, there could be a way of replicating glaciers just as accurately.
‘Honestly, it seems a bit unfair that they get to eat real meat,’ Ethan said at the dinner table a few hours later. He was picking at his plate, moving the fried grasshoppers they’d been served for dinner around, but not really eating any. ‘While we are stuck with insects and microprotein or whatever.’
Emma pinched the bridge of her nose. She was tired and sunburnt, her sensitive pale skin suffering under the blistering sun of the region, so different from the temperate weather back home North. She had a splitting headache, too. She was, yet again, at the so-called end of her tether. ‘Ethan…’
‘You should be glad you get to eat at all,’ her daughter said at the same time. ‘There’s a reason it’s illegal to eat meat. These animals are here for show, anyway. They were originally from Africa.’
‘Shut up, Becca,’ Ethan mumbled. ‘Everybody knows there are no animals in Africa. There’s nothing there.’
Becca’s cheeks were tinted pink, eyebrows furrowed. ‘Of course there were animals. There were animals everywhere before the Climate Crunch.’
‘Both of you, stop it,’ Matt interjected. ‘Ethan, your sister is right. You should be grateful that we are here in the first place. That said…’ He leant forward, voice down to a whisper: ‘I have a surprise for you. Or, well, Richard has a surprise for us. When he arrives tomorrow, he’ll bring us real meat. Bovine meat.’
‘But it’s illegal,’ said Becca.
‘It’s technically illegal,’ Matt acknowledged. ‘It’s not if you know how to get some and no one from Animal Conservation finds out. Do you think our president only eats insects? Please, Becca. Use that big brain of yours.’
‘Yes,’ Ethan snickered. ‘Use your brain, Becca.’
‘That is too generous,’ Emma said. ‘Inviting us here in the first place was, when even he hasn’t gotten here yet. Now this. I wouldn’t know how to repay him.’
Truly, all she felt was jealousy. Her guts twisted with the sheer force of it. Yes, she had known that Richard was comfortable. The gated, heavily guarded estate spanned for thousands of acres, comprised the 5000sqt villa they were staying at (five bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a cinema, marble floors and solar panels on the rooftop), an indoor swimming pool inspired by vintage photos of Amalfi, two indoor tennis courts, and the savanna they’d explored earlier in the day. ‘The biggest conservation area in North America since they repurposed the Midwest,’ he’d bragged in a video call, two weeks before. ‘You will love it. The holiday you deserve. Make yourselves at home.’
But meat? He could get meat?
Matt’s family had designed DeNuketify, which was basically the only effective way of purifying ocean water from whatever nuclear waste Japan kept spewing so that it could be used and, most importantly, drunk. They had managed to flee the continent with the last handful of greencards about the time her family did, too, taking their precious Queen’s accent with them to found Nova London. She was the governor of Nova London now, for God’s sake. The bloody queen herself was long dead but she was alive, and yet, yet - they had never had meat.
‘We don’t have to, Emma,’ Matt said. ‘We just need to remember how lucky we are to enjoy this meal, this house, this holiday. Look at that,’ and he nodded towards the TV screen again. ‘Actually, Alexa!, volume up!, I think the Italians have finally surrendered.’
The war correspondent’s voice grew louder. She - they, Emma reminded herself: Becca always told her not to assume anyone’s gender - was wearing a dust mask and reading from a bundle of documents. ‘The last military hospital in the island of Palermo was destroyed four days ago by a Canadian airstrike,’ they were saying. ‘The rebels surrendered soon after, followed by the group of extremists in the Nebrodi island. Etna had already surrendered last year.’
‘It’s important to remember that these actions were necessary to finally put a rest on the instability of the region,’ they added. ‘Canada will fund a complete restoration of the Southern archipelago. The remaining civilians will be provided with a shelter and then, when the time comes, with a suitable job. Nova Italia will be the sixteenth Canadian state, the fourth offshore. There are also hopes to extract petroleum from the seabed of the sunken city of Gela.’
‘Watch them make it into a holiday hotspot,’ Matt commented. ‘The weather is still nice there.’
‘Ooh, I heard about this.’ Becca picked her phone back up and started furiously typing away. ‘There’s this journal entry soldiers found over there, under the rubble, that’s gone viral. It was translated into English. Wait, I’ll pull it up. Alexa, volume down.’
‘I’m not sure I want to hear it,’ Emma said, uneasy. ‘We’re on holiday. Should we not watch a movie? Something funny?’
Becca waved her away, as if she was an annoying fly. ‘It’ll be good practice for my drama class.’
Matt didn’t help—he simply shrugged, half-apologetic, as if to say: Let her do her thing.
Becca made a show of clearing her throat, too, before she started reading from her phone—her high voice now grave, studied, as if she were speaking to a larger audience: ‘I wonder what peas taste like.’
Right then, the scene on screen changed to footage of what looked like a destroyed village, something out of an apocalyptic movie. Emma found herself unable to look away.
‘Nonna used to say that her own great-grandmother grew them in her garden. Figs, too,’ Becca read. ‘They say they were the sweetest fruit.’
Emma wondered if this journal was actually written by a child or a teenager. It didn’t sound like an adult at all. She couldn’t help but picture a girl, a brunette, not much older than Becca, perhaps a rebel, or a trainee nurse on the sweet cusp of adulthood, holding this journal of hers, or perhaps a gun. It violently reminded her that her own daughter, too, would have to serve her time in the Forces in three years.
On screen, the Canadian soldiers walked among the ruins, zigzagging between torn up clothes and discarded weapons, surely looking for surviving rebels under the rubbles.
‘Isn’t it silly that we can hear the fighters overhead and that all I can do is think about food?’ said Becca. ‘I wish we could also eat figs and be happy.’
On screen, the camera zoomed in on a long-forgotten man's shoe, some crumpled photographs, on a pile of bodies in black bin bags.
‘Grandma - I miss her - left me a poetry book, too, from T.S. Eliot. I hope the book is with me when I die, so I can give it back to her when we meet again, afterwards. So I can tell her that T.S. Eliot was wrong.’
On screen, one of the soldiers approached and showed a little trinket to the camera: a bloody, heart-shaped locket that must’ve once been golden, hiding the miniature pictures of two brunette children that would never have a name.
‘That’s enough,’ Emma said. She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. ‘Stop reading.’
‘The world may have not ended with a bang, but it didn’t end with a whimper, either: the world didn’t end at all. Sometimes,’ Becca finished reading, ‘I wish it had.’
‘What a load of rubbish,’ Matt scoffed. ‘Everyone should feel lucky to be alive. I bet this journal is a fake. Alexa, turn the TV off.’
As the screen faded to black, Ethan finally popped a grasshopper in his mouth. ‘I can’t wait to have meat tomorrow.’