Cast of Wonders 532: The Hidden Forests of Earth and Mars
The Hidden Forests of Earth and Mars
by Anna Zumbro
Seventeen hours before some of us are to launch on a nine-months-and-forever journey to Mars, my little brother Enoch lands on my tricked-out Park Place and even he knows before counting his cash that he can’t pay the rent. We’ve been lowballing him so he can stay in the game (he’s six), but I bankrupted my dad last turn on this square so he knows what’s coming.
His face twists into a pout, then calms with obvious effort. Kids who are going to Mars have to learn to bounce back from disappointment. He knows that, too.
“It’s a good thing,” my stepdad Hugh says, sweeping Enoch’s money toward me. “There’s an old astronaut tradition that you should lose a game before you launch. Uses up your bad luck.”
The Monopoly game is vintage, with creased cards and half the tokens replaced by bottlecaps or coins. Hugh’s childhood set, which Dad has promised to keep.
“Cállate,” Mom says. “Luck has little to do with it. You only need preparation and science.”
“And weather,” I add. “But you know, E, you don’t have to be out of the game. We’ll do a merger. You can play on my team.”
Enoch brightens and slides next to me on the couch, toting his cup of vending-machine M&Ms. “We’re both the penny now?” he asks.
“We’re both the penny.”
He picks it up and looks for the year. “It’s older than me,” he says. “2023. It’s a lot older than me!”
“They’re all older than you,” Dad says. “Or just about.”
I give him a sisterly rib tickle and, for once, he just laughs and doesn’t complain. The adults trade smiles. It’s been two surreal weeks of harmony, all five of us quarantining together in a comfortable suite at this spaceport in the middle of the desert where the power never blacks out off-schedule and the water always runs. In the mornings we mingle with the other Martian settlers and their families over breakfast, watching the activity on the launchpad through the conference room window. Sometimes wisps of sand rise in the wind, weaving through a small constellation of Joshua trees in the distance. I wonder if the rocket fire will char them to a crisp.
I was too young when my parents divorced to remember if they were ever other than an amicable pair of exes. Even so, I’m sure it’s been awkward in little ways I haven’t sought to notice. By now the suite smells of us, of burned popcorn and beer and bulk shampoo, though we’ve tried to keep it clean. We tried airing it out, too, but the wind blew in dust so fine it got through the screens. You can feel it when you walk around barefoot.
Hugh wants to lose (he’s superstitious, for an engineer) and Mom doesn’t, but I have the most cash and it’s just a matter of time before their luck runs out. They’re good at being lucky, though. Even as employees of the best-funded aerospace company in the world, they had to win an internal lottery to go on this mission. Millions of people would jump at the chance to leave Earth, to start over on a planet that hasn’t yet rebelled against humanity. It’s even more inhospitable on Mars, of course, but at least it’s a fresh start.
They never told me if Mom’s name was drawn or Hugh’s, but it doesn’t matter. The company’s transforming their scientific base into a permanent settlement, the first of humanity’s five Martian outposts to have a multigenerational community. Spouses and children were always going to be welcome. But not ex-spouses, naturally. Not Dad.
Enoch is dozing on me by the time we finish, his curly hair flattened against my ribcage, chocolate-scented exhalations wafting up to my nose as I hold the half cup of beer I’ve been allowed with my left hand and take care not to spill it on him.
“We should really get some sleep,” Mom says. “Paloma, would you wake him?”
But he wakes on his own as I lean over to set down my cup. He’s bleary-eyed through the sleep wells and buenas noches. Then he jerks upright.
“Wait! Is this goodbye-goodbye?”
“No, buddy.” Dad helps him up from the couch and guides him over to Hugh. “We’ll see each other at breakfast. Still one more day.”
Sixteen hours, twenty-two minutes. Back in my room I’ve got a view of the Moon, nearly full and half obscured by clouds. I can’t see the launchpad from here, nor any vegetation, just a broad expanse of sand. When I sent a photo of the view from my window earlier to my best friend Tabitha, she said it was a good stand-in for Mars.
When I arrived at Mom’s on that Friday night in September of last year, I sensed immediately that there was a gravity to whatever news she had to share. She’d ordered my favorite ravioli from my favorite restaurant, set the patio table with citronella candles and cloth napkins and champagne flutes for the sparkling grape juice. But there were only three place settings.
“I sent him to the Qians for the evening before you arrived,” she said, referring to our next-door neighbors. Her neighbors. I lived with Dad during the week and Mom on weekends in the fall and spring, with the arrangement flipped for winter and summer. My education, too, rotated with my custody. Dad ran a forest school that provided fully accredited primary and secondary coursework, all free-spirited, gradeless, and outdoors. My time with him followed the semesters there. In winter and summer, Mom had me slog through extra courses virtually and acquire a real GPA. Filling in gaps, though she never put it so bluntly. As a result, I’d earned enough credits to graduate two years early at the end of the summer. I was an assistant teacher now, along with Tabby, who was a year older and a forest school lifer like me.
I’d missed the enrollment deadline to start college that semester and still hadn’t submitted any applications, but was planning on studying for my forestry certification. Mom supported it as a fallback, not a life plan, and I half-expected that that’s what this was about. Maybe she was going to tell me about some professor acquaintance of hers willing to pull some strings. That, or she might be pregnant.
“Siéntate, it’ll get cold,” she said, looking up with an anxious smile and gesturing at my chair. “We have some news to tell you.”
And then they told me.
I stared past her at the backyard, imagining it rust-colored and bare. There was just one tree, a young male willow which we’d all planted together when she and Hugh bought the house, before Enoch was born. It was sun-bright with yellow blossoms in the spring, and now its leaves glinted autumnal gold in the fading light. Willows aren’t forest trees. They’re explorers that thrive in clearings and meadows.
Only 38 people lived on Mars, split between five bases. A decade ago, there were none. It was still light out, but I looked up at the sky anyway.
“You don’t have to decide now,” Mom said. “We’ll understand no matter which way you go, querida. No one but you can make this choice.”
“We know it isn’t easy,” Hugh added.
Mom looked stylish as ever. Chic bobbed hair, burgundy lipstick playing off her warm brown skin, thin gold necklace classing up a crisp white T-shirt. She’d worked so hard to be successful that she never let herself dress otherwise, even at home. Hugh nodded at her, his aviators slipping down his nose, answering some unspoken question I couldn’t guess. Through the frosted glass tabletop I could see his pale, freckled hand enveloping hers.
They were trying to look calm, but they were glowing. No wonder. They’d won the lottery to beat all lotteries.
They were waiting for me to say something, so I went with, “That’s amazing. We’re making history.”
My voice didn’t sound right. We’re. I didn’t know if I was counting myself among them, or all of humanity. I imagined myself floating away, above the neighborhood association’s surveillance drones, looking down on the house and the lonely willow. Whole cities shrinking into pinpoints of light, flickering like tiny distant fires. Oceans a swirl of indigo, turquoise, white. Then higher and higher, until the Earth was just a blue dot I could blot out with my hand.
“Dad knows, doesn’t he? You already told him.”
“Yes. He — I spoke with him this afternoon. He understands. The magnitude of it, everything.”
He’d been acting odd on the drive over. Blasting music too loud, switching songs in perpetual dissatisfaction, repeating jokes he’d told too many times before. We’d had to detour around a rockfall from a few weeks prior that still hadn’t been cleared. We can settle humans on Mars but can’t keep the roads on Earth functioning, he’d said, and also, Imagine just being able to start over.
“There won’t be any trees on Mars,” I said.
Hugh chuckled, but Mom frowned. “No, but there will be the potential for trees, down the line. And to be among the first to plant them. And the botany they’re doing, in the greenhouses — I can put you in touch with our lead researcher there if you want to know more. It’s just revolutionary.”
“I know.” And I also knew, that no matter what she said about this being my choice, she was desperate for me to choose Mars. To join her and Hugh and Enoch on a sparkling new world from which we’d never return.
Tabby and I had the Wolf Pups for their morning hike on Monday. We’d had little rain all summer so the spruces along the trail were dry and dropping needles. Between narrating facts for the kids about the local pine marten and three-toed woodpecker populations, Tabby pelted me with questions about Mars.
“How would you date? Or get married? Would you have an arranged marriage?”
“I don’t know. There’ll be more people there eventually.”
“But not many! Will they have, you know, egg and sperm banks?”
I didn’t say anything, but she read confirmation in my face and burst out laughing. “Oh my God.”
One of the Wolf Pups kept lagging behind, stopping every few yards to pull up her socks, while two boys fenced with sticks. Tabby kept glancing skyward through the treetops.
“You could do mycology,” she said. “If you go, of course. But why the fu — why wouldn’t you?”
The droopy sock girl stared up at us, sucking on the end of one of her braids. I crouched down next to her.
“Hey, Scarlett. Let’s see if we can find some bugs on that stump.”
“I don’t like bugs.”
“Let’s check it out anyway.”
I was eight when Tabby and I became friends, though we’d both known each other for a couple of years by that point. I’d heard that her parents were getting a divorce and told her, somewhat proudly, that I knew exactly what she was going through. But her parents spent months fighting over custody of everything they had, especially Tabby, until at last the judge asked her to choose who to live with. She told me once that she’d consulted a magic-8 ball, or flipped a coin — she either didn’t remember which or just didn’t want to talk about it.
Tabby knew what I was going through now, more than anyone else did. And yet, she didn’t.
I knelt next to the tree stump. It was wide, ancient. The center had partly rotted away, but it might still be alive. Trees sometimes share nutrients with a dead comrade through their network of roots and microbes. Forest socialism. Even though Mom’s company was founded by billionaire investors, the settlement’s economy would be run like a commune, at least at the start. Everyone with a role, everyone with the support they needed. No poverty. No one forgotten. Eden, until we inevitably messed it up.
I opened the knife on my multitool. Alive for Mars, then, and dead for Earth. I’d use Tabby’s method of leaving things to fate. I scraped away the top layer of decayed wood. There was green below, which meant chlorophyll. Life.
“Oooh!” Tabby gasped. “Come here, everybody! Do you know what this means?”
There’s a whole hidden forest beyond the one you see, one of chatter and drama, rivals and friends. Trees talking to each other through scent, through the network of fungus embedded within the soil. They keep their friends alive, like this stump, because they can’t bear to let go.
What do they say to one another when their time on Earth is done?
Dad’s house was close enough to the state forest that we could bike home together after work. He usually let me lead. In the days after Mom’s news I started taking us on longer and longer routes home, trying to absorb enough Colorado autumn air to last me a lifetime. Dry leaves crackled beneath my tires and whipped past my face.
Our street smelled of smoke one evening: the Santanas were grilling in their driveway. Their two boys played with a basketball, arcing it high, trying to hit a passing drone.
Dad called to the garage to open, but it didn’t respond. “Blackout!” Mrs. Santana shouted.
“Again? They’re killing us.” He dismounted, fished his keys from his pocket and opened the door. A heat wave had brought us three blackouts in the past week, triggering outages and wildfires throughout the western states, but the temperature had dropped to a tolerable sweat in the past couple of days. “Bet you won’t get blackouts on the spaceship,” he muttered.
“Would be a lot worse there,” I said.
He wrapped one arm around me, slick with perspiration. “You know it’s going to be fine, right? Better than fine. You’ll love it.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Fake enthusiasm,” I said. “Like I’m a toddler and you’re trying to convince me that pureed green beans are the best food ever.”
“That’s probably better than what you’ll be eating on the ship.” He grinned. Then, as if we had much choice, he said, “How about we dine outside tonight?”
He’d been doing that all week: talking up Mars, downplaying any potential inconveniences while ignoring the biggest one. Transparent as ice. He didn’t want to stand in my way, didn’t want me to feel any regret over jumping at this chance. Just once, I wanted him to tell the truth about it all.
“I’m going to shower first,” I said.
“Bucket’s ready in the tub if you need it.”
The water didn’t go out nearly as often as the power, but we kept filled buckets and jugs in the bathroom and kitchen just in case. With the power out, I couldn’t heat up any warm water to mix with the cold. It was still probably more luxurious than Mars.
I cranked the emergency light until I had enough charge stored to illuminate a shower. I reached toward the sink to test the water, but before my hand touched the faucet, I paused.
Earth was the water planet. I could still get confirmation from the Universe. Water for Earth with Dad, outage for Mars with Mom. I lifted the handle.
I started removing my dirt-stained clothes, bracing myself for the bucket shower. A cold sensation settled in my chest. The hard part would be telling everybody, yes, I’m going. Seeing the forest for the last time. Hearing the news from Earth, the storms and crises and unrest I wouldn’t be able to do a damn thing about, not that I ever could. Waiting for the last goodbyes in person, followed by the exchange of time-delayed video messages that one day, for one of us, would just stop — and knowing even now that that’s how the conversation would end.
A violent rumble sounded from deep within the pipes. Water sputtered out and a few drops splashed my bare skin. The flow calmed and proceeded normally for a few moments. Then, it slowed to a trickle and stopped.
Tabby was the first person I told, early the next week. We had a day off from work and took the bus to Denver. At our favorite diner, the one that listed “stupid questions” on the menu with a charge of $0.75, we split a cheesecake and fries.
“Mars,” I said. “I’ve decided. I’m going.”
“Of course you are.”
“I don’t know how to tell my dad.”
“You know you’d have to tell one of them no matter what.”
“I’m telling you, he already knows. And he wants you to go. He wants the best for you. Even if it means…”
She turned away, mid-sentence. I reached for her arm, about to say see, this is why I can’t do it, but she was just waving over our server.
“Excuse me,” she said to him. “If someone offered you a one-way ticket to Mars, would you take it?”
“Course I would.” He smirked. “You trying to get charged extra?”
She was right. Dad already expected me to go. Telling him was more of a formality. “I’ll tell him tonight.”
“You’re paying for the question,” she told me. “Because it’s that obvious. I shouldn’t have even had to ask.”
I ran my hand along the crease where the cushions met to see if there was any change. One quarter popped out onto the floor.
Heads for the scientists going to Mars, tails for the rest of humanity left behind.
Heads. But I felt nothing, no disappointment, no relief.
On our bus ride back, the intercom chirped with air quality warnings. Dad came to meet me at the bus stop. “There’s a fire,” he said simply. “North edge of the forest.”
“Oh. But it’s early, right? They can contain it.”
“Maybe,” he said. “I hope so. We’ve canceled class for the week, though.”
This had happened before, a year ago, and four years before that. Both times we believed the forest might be finished, and both times we were wrong.
That night, I dreamed I was on Mars. I moved through a dusty valley with no spacesuit, floating as though I were in zero gravity. Someone shouted my name. I turned and saw only a tree, a lone spruce that crumbled into dust as soon as I approached.
The next morning I woke up to a blaze-orange sky and Dad packing our suitcases.
“They haven’t evacuated us!”
“Not yet.” Then, with a sigh, he said, “But they will. Paloma — they can’t contain it.”
He tried to speak with authority, like the solid adult, unafraid to confront hard truths, that he tried so hard to be. But it was too clear. The quick blinking, the shifting of weight. He didn’t look like my father. He looked like a young boy overwhelmed by the wrongness of the world.
I felt the sobs build in my spine before they erupted. It was the end of the forest.
Dad pulled me in close, patting my shoulders.
“I know,” he said. “I know.”
He did not tell me that everything would be fine.
We drove to Mom’s that afternoon. She had offered her basement as a place for Dad to stay. “I’m sorry, David,” she said when she met us at the door. “I know what it means to you.”
He lifted his shoulders in an exaggerated shrug. “It’s just trees, right?” He sighed. “Anyway. Thanks for putting us up.”
I played hide and seek with Enoch because it gave me a good excuse not to talk to anyone. I hadn’t talked to Dad about Mars last night. Here, I wouldn’t be able to avoid it much longer.
When Mom started making dinner, Dad announced he was going for takeout and Mom didn’t try to stop him.
“I’m going, too,” I said.
“Paloma, wait,” Mom called.
We were quiet in the car. We both stared out the windows as the car navigated to a different Burger King than the one we usually went to, one in the opposite direction of the fire. I could smell it anyway in the upholstery, smoky and smothering, the acrid smell of unwelcome flames. A hazy sky glowed through the sunroof, filtered by specks of ash.
“What happens to the school?”
“We’ll regroup. Find another place to meet. Come back to the forest when it’s safe.”
“But there won’t be a forest.”
“Oh, you know better than that.” Dad turned to me with an indulgent teacher’s smile. “How do spruce forests work? Fire renews them. Every few centuries — or sooner, okay. But it will be back.”
“Not like it was. Not in our lifetimes.”
“Doesn’t matter to the spruces. Forests know time differently. Some wounds don’t heal in a human lifetime, but why should that be all that matters?”
“Right,” I said. “Societies flower when old men plant trees knowing they’ll never enjoy the shade, or however that goes.” It was a quote both he and Mom loved, but Dad had always seemed to mean it literally.
“The forest will take care of the planting,” he said. “As long as humans protect the forest.”
“You’re still sad about it, though.”
“Of course. But I know how this goes.”
Back at Mom’s, I helped seal the windows with painter’s tape and watched the ash plumes on the horizon. Muffled electronic voices chirped throughout the house. A radio in the basement, cartoons in the living room, a news broadcast upstairs. The birds outside were uncharacteristically quiet.
There was never a way to choose between my parents, but that was never the choice that faced me. I was inevitably going to strike out on my own one day, communicating with both of them from a distance. The choice was always about which hostile, human-shaped world would be my future. Which trees I’d spend my life planting.
Outside, the lone willow, dusk-dark, swayed its branches in the wind.
I’ve pictured saying goodbye to Mom and Enoch and Hugh so many times that when we actually do it, it’s easier than I expected. I squeeze Enoch tight and tell him I’m proud of him. Mom hugs me for a long time and tells me the same thing. We promise to keep in touch, to make our time-delayed video messages as full and funny as possible, to find each other’s planets among the stars and blow a kiss goodnight, though it occurs to me that the action might need some modification for a spacesuit. Then the mission director announces it’s time for them to leave, and they walk down the hall to be helped into their pressure suits and undergo the final pre-flight checks.
The forest school has split its classes between a local park and the burned remains of the forest that was, where we can study how new growth rises from the ashes. Enrollment is down, but Dad is enthusiastic in his pitches to curious parents: This place will teach them about resilience. Survival. The most important lessons they’ll ever get.
In the afternoon we head to the viewing platform. It’s beyond the Joshua trees, so if we’re safe, they have to be. In 2032, one of the company’s early missions exploded on the launchpad. The escape pod worked, so no one was killed. But the memory’s in the tense hush of the crowd, the crossed fingers and clenched jaws. Mom promised me she had no doubt that the launch would go off without a problem, and she was right. The rocket rises on its column of flame, slowly from our perspective and yet, I know, with dizzying speed.
“Well,” Dad says, after the announcement that the ship has escaped Earth’s atmosphere. “They did it.”
“They did.” They are safely to space, and I am still here, grateful and light-headed. It feels as though the planet’s gravity has shifted.
I look down and rub the back of my neck, sore from having watched until I couldn’t see the ship anymore. Abraham Lincoln’s copper profile glimmers in the sunlight. I bend down to pick it up and notice the year is 2037: the year Enoch was born, the year pennies were discontinued.
He always got so excited to find a penny. I’ll have to tell him about it in my video message to him tonight.
Well the first time I read the ending of this story it brought tears to my eyes. The bright penny that Paloma finds, the sign she’s been looking for throughout this story. It’s such a simple and clever way to express the bittersweet enormity of what is happening as she watches one arm of her family, including her six-year-old brother launched towards a colony on Mars that is only a decade old.
I have a feeling this is a human and not just a me thing, but like Paloma I also look for external signs that the limb I’m drawn to in the futures that branch out before me, is the right one. And because I am looking, I do often find them, a feather that drifts down from a seemingly empty patch of sky I happened to be looking at or an upturned playing card I find on the pavement that is surely telling me something.
Paloma has a monumental choice to make in a world only twenty years from ours, and in what is a very plausible future. In her world infrastructure and ecosystems on Earth have continued to fail. This is even more poignant in the light of the train derailment that spilled vinyl chloride in East Palestine Ohio -an environmental disaster that, as I write this, happened just last week.
Families, societies and ecosystems are complex in ways that extend way beyond our understanding. And the fact is, Paloma will have a huge impact wherever she goes, tending new trees on Mars, or, protecting forests and educating children on Earth. Whichever decision she makes is the right one. That doesn’t make it easy though.
As a species we are spending Billions of dollars on the Artemis Mission, to establish a lunar base that can facilitate human missions to Mars, extending our network and eventually propagating life outside our fragile planet. The argument that we could be using that money to protect what we have here is persuasive. But for me, this story shows that both of these are true, both right. There is hope for life, and for humanity on Earth and on Mars. But one thing is certain, Mars will rely on our Ancient, messy, complex Earth for generations. Protecting the environment and the biodiversity we have here is the foundation for any work we want to do on other planets. So, aside from the signs we look for to validate the personal decisions we make, are the very real signs we’re being shown here and now. Disrupted weather patterns, ecosystems surviving on a knife edge, all explained to us by the very people we would trust to get us safely to other planets. For me this story cleverly contextualises that, yes the complexity here is unfathomable, but the impacts we can have are clear cut.
About the Author
Anna Zumbro is a short fiction writer with stories in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nature, Daily Science Fiction, and other publications. When not writing, she teaches high school English and journalism. She’s on Twitter occasionally at @annazumbro and her website can be found at annazumbro.com.
About the Narrator
Mel Bugaj (Boo-Gay) is a mom of a 12 year old son and 10 year old daughter. She and her husband produced a podcast called Night Light Stories where you can find and download their 60+ original children’s stories for free. Just go to nightlightstories.net. Mel has been an educator for 19 years and currently is pursuing her second masters in Educational Leadership. In her spare time she enjoys getting her butt kicked when playing UNO with her daughter, listening to podcasts with her son and watching horror flicks with her husband.