Deep in the pacific northwest, lost down ash roads in burned forests, out past the range of cell phones and a single tank of gas, there was an old fire tower, and at the base of that tower was a bar.
There were no signs, no neon, that marked it as anything more than a cabin. Out front there were no cars, no parking lot, no burnt wrecks. A mountain bike leaned against the porch. A solar gyrocopter lay folded up in a small clearing to the north, like a dead cricket.
An old woman on the porch was peeling thick slivers from a piece of wood with a battered bowie knife.
The ash-choked road ended at the top of that mountain, at the foot of the fire tower. Carolina Early turned off her ancient biodiesel jeep.
“Smells like french fries.” The woman on the porch said. She had an old farmer’s skin, brown skin with black freckles, many of them quite large. Her frizzled hair had gone from black to grey and was bleaching white with the sun of decades.
“That smell. Haven’t smelled fast food in a long time. It’s not exactly legal, you know, reusing frying oil like that. Supposed to get it cleaned first.” She said. The knife turned, popped a toothpick sized sliver from the stick. She put it in her mouth.
“Won’t run right with detergent and oil added.” Carolina said. “Defeats the whole purpose, anyway.” She added, walking across the sun-withered grass.
From here the valley stretched south, under a red sky, darkened by distant fires burning year round. Carolina’s jeep was covered in thick flakes of ash, the color of the woman’s hair. Near the bar, sparse spruce trees reminded Carolina of what the place must have looked like, once - blue and green, every tree trunk overgrown with ferns and moss.
“Welcome to Dave’s.” The woman said, beckoning Carolina up. Her sunspotted hand put the block of wood down and extended toward Carolina.
“I’m Marwa. Marwa Washington. I feel like I know you from somewhere.”
Carolina shook. Both hands were dry and thinskinned in the places without calluses, they were the kind of hands that had spent endless hours outdoors under no ozone.
“You did.” Carolina said. “I’m Carolina Early. We met in Louisiana, in the 20s. Water protection, against the Formosa Cracker.”
The Formosa Cracker had been what the water protectors and environmentalists had called the project, back when the local government and friendly papers had, in a rather twisted stroke of public relations, called “Project Sunshine.” Project Sunshine, aka the Formosa Cracker, had cost 10 billion dollars, and had been designed to turn valuable poisonous petrochemicals into things even more toxic and profitable.
“Must have been the EARLY twenties.” Marwa said, indicating the chair next to her.
“Considering I spent the rest of the twenties locked up in St. Gabriel women’s pen, yeah, I’d say it was pretty early.”
There was a moment of silence. Carolina sat, watched the steel-grey valley blow with ash. Old cell phone towers, some snapped in half, protruded from the rough mass of burned and dead trees like ribs through roadkill.
“It flooded back in ‘32. With Formosa.” Carolina said.
“Hurricane Delta. The Winter Storm.” Marwa said it like people always did, as though revering it would keep the eye of the storm off you. Her eyes caught a tree that looked like a burned cigarette, halfway down the mountain as her mind replayed video she’d seen, Hurricane Delta, New Orleans, bubbling layers of fire bouncing between black smoke and water.
“After Delta, they let a lot of us go on time served for helping out. Or for health reasons, due to whatever ‘sunshine’ was in the water.”
This recalled other scenes, memories of things she had not been there for, recollections of screens, from the times when news had been cast broad over airwaves and cables, and shown in places it wasn’t mandatory. Medical charts and doctors. Huge numbers preceded by dollar signs. Funerals and face masks, diagnoses in three dimensions.
“I was in there because of your brother.” Carolina said. She said it with a careful matter-of-factness, as though she’d mentioned a lost shoe on the side of the road. Marwa’s hand stopped sliding the bowie knife as Carolina heard a heavy footstep inside the door. She figured it, like the bar, belonged to “Dave.”
“I’m not mad. At you. Or Saif. Or anyone, other than the sheriff of Saint James Parish.” She folded her hands and looked at them as if she could get them to talk for her.
“Dave, go get us two Chicaweiser tallboys.” Marwa said, in the direction of the footsteps, before dragging the knife back down the wood again. “You do drink, right?”
“I could go for a tallboy.”
“So why come all the way up here, now, across firestorms and roadblocks? I know it wasn’t for a chicaweiser tallboy, even if it is cold. Did you want to talk about my poor little Saif?”
“This was kind of a spur of the moment thing. I was in Arkansas. There was one of those attack ads on the radio. People mad about beavers.” Carolina said.
“Swamp mermaids.” Marwa said quietly.
That had been what Saif had called them, ‘Swamp Mermaids,’ when they’d trekked through Mississippi swamps and farmlands, disabling steel traps, trespassing and transplanting, hoping that the industrious rodents could save the world.
“There were the beaver believers, and then there was Saif. Beguiled by the call of the Swamp Mermaid.” Carolina said.
“Here you go.” Dave said, handing Carolina a cold, heavy tall boy. The familiar colors: red, white, blue, reminded her of old beers they didn't make anymore.
Dave, too, reminded her of things that had passed her by. Tall, lithe, long haired and androgynous, with big hands, big collarbones and small hips, a sort of man she'd have snapped in half forty years ago.
Carolina cracked open the can with one finger and raised it toward Marwa. “To Saif.”
Marwa poured a splash of the chica, the color of piss, between the floorboards of the porch.
“To the swamp mermaids.” She said.
They passed a few minutes drinking chica and watching the smoke curl into the sky.
“I’d forgotten that this stuff isn’t half bad when it’s cold.” Carolina said, thin lips in a smile. “How are you keeping it cold way up here?”
Marwa pointed up at the firetower, where the observatory was gone, replaced by solar panels and a series of cranes that looked like insect legs, each dangling a long wire with a slowly swinging weight at the end. Some were only twenty or thirty feet off the ground, others almost at the top.
“Solar panels power little wheels that haul those concrete blocks up the tower every day. Then when night falls, or they get to the top, they drop down, and the brakes generate power.”
“Don’t have to fight company men out here, I reckon.” Carolina said. The southern crept back into her voice as her memory worked Marwa back into the scheme of things.
“Not worth the gas.” Marwa said.
‘Not worth the gas.’ It was something she remembered Saif saying, when developments had threatened the Pearl River or the vanishing southern slices of Louisiana. Why they’d biked and hiked for beavers when thousands of others had driven to flooded neighborhoods of New Orleans, before the bridges broke.
“I haven’t thought about Saif or his ‘swamp mermaids’ in a long, long time.” Marwa drank some more chicaweiser, before the taste of canned corn became too obvious in the warm brew.
“Neither had I, until I heard those wretched little shits on talk radio blaming beavers for methane emissions.”
“I cannot believe we lost smartphones, television, and worldwide wifi but kept talk fucking radio.” Marwa said.
“What did they used to say? ‘Big Mood?” Caroline finished the chicaweiser and dented the sides before stomping it flat.
“Whole ass mood.” Marwa said. She’d remembered the phrase a year or two ago when the late twenty-teens were having their most recent retro-revival.
“Who was talking shit about beavers?”
“One of those things that gets plastered on every channel. But I heard it last on KXLX. Talking about something down in a place called Marmot.”
“It’s a day from here if we’re lucky. Little too close to Portland for my liking. Too many boxes and pigs.”
Boxes and pigs, the problems of the day. Omniscient capitalist vampires and their minions, paramilitary policemen with sadistic motivations and robot assistants.
“Well, Caroline. Let’s fight for some swamp mermaids one more time.”