Conversations with Earth

While Andres was traveling north, he encountered three women in what used to be Nebraska. They staked two pumps into the sandpaper ground, cracked and brown from dryness and age. Hoses were attached to both, out of which groundwater poured. The sight made Andres’s flesh tremble. 

Lifting the hoses above their heads, the women washed themselves and hummed. Their clothes clung to their curved bodies, tight against their pale skin. Andres’s mouth salivated. He believed the women were an illusion his mind fabricated from desperateness and destitution, until they spotted him and smiled.

Their voices, angelic and light, blended together. “Is that … a man! … come here, man! … you look thirsty … so thirsty … let us take care of you … you poor man … so thirsty! … we don’t bite … ha-ha! … are you alone? … a man like you … so thirsty and alone! … we can help you … just come here …”

Andres felt his feet give in and levitate towards the women. They reached their arms out and pulled him in, feeding him from the faucet. He gulped the water like a madman. They watched him intently.

When he finished, he dumped water over his body to clean. A woman took the hose from him and threw it to the ground, so water coursed into a crack and the hose slithered like a snake. Alarmed, Andres dropped beside it and streamed more into his mouth.

“You’re wasting it,” he stammered. One of the women giggled and he glared at her. “My canteen ran out three days ago,” he said. His cotton mouth could barely form words. The foursome broiled under the sun, beating in the grey, cloudless sky. There wasn’t any trace of life for miles. Andres was dizzy and fatigued, and the women knew that. When his consciousness gave out, they carried him off.

When he awoke, Andres was on grass. He could scarcely believe it. He ran his fingers through the blades and tore them like a child. Distracted, he didn’t notice the congregation surrounding him.

Dozens of women circled him, women of all races, heights, and shapes. Andres searched for the familiarity of his gender but couldn’t find it. The three who stole him stepped forward. There was a blonde, a brunette, and a ginger.

“W-where am I?” Andres said.

The ginger giggled. Murmuring chimed through the crowd.

Andres studied the area. Small clay buildings flooded as far as he could see, and wells were stationed yards apart. Like magic, the sky was blue and a breeze dazzled by. Vegetation covered the land, so green it roused memories of how things used to be. Andres had almost forgotten what that looked like.

“I’m dreaming,” he thought aloud and his muscles tensed. He was suddenly on his guard.

“Relax,” the ginger said. “We’re not going to hurt you.” She extended her hand and lifted him to his feet. He dusted the dirt off his backside and studied the parameter. No one noticed that the grass beneath him had browned.

Parting like the Red Sea, the women opened a path for Andres. A feast was set up on a table. The blonde explained how long he’d been unconscious and how they had taken it upon themselves to prepare a welcoming cornucopia.

In that moment, Andres didn’t care whether he was dead or alive, whether it were dream or reality. He sprinted to the table and engulfed the fresh fruits and vegetables. There was squash and zucchini and nuts, strawberries and apples and tomatoes. The taste savored on his tongue.  Another woman carried over a carafe of wine and a pitcher of water.

So much plagued his mind, but all Andres managed to splutter was, “How—how—”

“Just drink…” the brunette said and lifted the pitcher to his lips.

He chugged the water as if waterboarding himself. When that finished, a woman was quick to fill him another, and another, and another until Andres was pleasantly bloated.

Performing the necessaries, he blinked rapidly, pinched himself, stared at the sun, glanced back and forth until his eyes felt crossed. Yet nothing stirred him from the dream. He was so exasperated from weeks of hiking. Traveling and finding nothing but the barren wasteland America had become. You can’t know what true bareness is until you’ve lost everything. Your way of life, your spirit, all of which you know—when that disappears, everything goes along with it.

Jolting him out of his reverie, a woman called, “Someone fetch the man more wine!”

Andres was halfway through a ripe gala apple. A small girl with a ribbon in her hair darted away.

“Where am I?” Andres managed to say.

“Herland,” a woman with an afro responded.

“Her—land?”

The blonde nodded. “We built it ourselves.”

“Who’s ‘we?’”

The lady with the afro gestured to the crowd of women around her.

Andres scanned the expanse of faces. “Where—are the men?”

Simultaneously, the women’s expressions dropped.

A ponytailed woman stuttered, “A d-disease claimed them.”

“Just the men?” Andres inquired.

A slight nod.

He was about to ask something further, but the ginger interrupted. “We’re a community of all women,” she said.

Andres thought aloud, “How do you—you know…”

She laughed and threw her arm around the blonde’s waist. “You don’t need a man for pleasure,” she told him.

“No,” Andres said, “How do you reproduce?”

“We don’t and won’t,” the blonde said. “Extinction is natural. It’s the way of things. Humans have already left enough of a footprint.”

The sun descended and Andres yawned. He desperately needed a restroom. His body wasn’t used to this sort of consumption.

Soon enough, the girl with the ribbon returned and whispered something into the blonde’s ear. The blonde gasped. “What do you mean? she said. The ribbon girl murmured something else. “The barrels can’t be dry,” the blonde said, and the girl shrugged.

The blonde approached Andres and sighed. “This is embarrassing,” she told him. “We seem to have run out of wine for the time being.”

Andres grinned. “Please don’t pamper me. I wasn’t looking to intoxicate myself, anyways.”

“Allow Sheila to house you for tonight,” she said. “She’ll take wonderful care of you.” She moved aside so the woman with the afro could step forward. Taking Andres’s hand, she escorted him through the crowd to a nearby hut.

Outside was a garden of vegetables and flowers. The roof was structured with palm leaves, and tiny holes in the clay marked windows. Rather small, the huts were meant for a singular person, but Andres hadn’t seen shelter in so long that he believed it a mansion. His eyes rolled behind his head when he spotted a bed.

“Make yourself comfortable,” Sheila said. “I’ll get you some water from the well.” And she exited the room.

Andres collapsed onto the mattress and wrapped himself in a cotton blanket. Was this what those men meant back at the last safe point—was that in Arkansas? Land blended together now. They told Andres there was green up north. Not much, but if you found it you were set. Maybe you’d survive another few years until the sun annihilated that too. Andres hadn’t believed them, but it was the only hope left to motivate him.

Drifting into sleep, he dozed until Sheila returned.

“Strange,” she muttered. “The well was dry…”

Andres was too mesmerized by a hanging mobile to listen. In the center was a plush sun, to which the planets circled when it spun, and it danced with a background of dusk in the window. 

The odor of smoke infused the atmosphere. “Do you smell that?” Andres asked.

“Someone’s probably warming up,” Sheila said. “Say, where are you from?”

“Outside of Miami,” Andres said. “When the city flooded, my mother moved us to northern Mississippi, by the river.”

There was a mutual understanding of things nowadays. You didn’t have to mention it. It had happened like any change—slow and steady and then…boom. Not the end of the world, just the death of it. First the planet heated, then the seas rose and everything went with it. It was like a closed room filled to the brim with water, and suddenly someone opened a door.

“What happened to your mother?” she inquired. She sat on the bed next to him.

Andres shifted the blanket to share with her. “Dehydrated,” he said. “I tried to get her to drink my supply, but she wouldn’t touch it. Said she wasn’t going to steal water from her only son.”

Sheila’s eyes widened like two moons. She was about to apologize when he cut her off, “What is this place?”

“Herland,” Sheila answered. Standing, she glided to the window to stargaze.

“No,” Andres said, “What is this place?

Sheila pondered a moment. “When the disease struck, and the men were wiped out, we only had so many options. So we built Herland.”

“How?” Andres questioned. Something didn’t settle properly with him; he was suspicious. He had to get her to talk.

Sheila chuckled. “It’s not hard to create a utopia. We learned from men’s mistakes. Men got us into this mess, with their politics and war and capitalism and whatnot, so it just makes sense that only women could dig us out of it.”

She ran her finger along the sill, where dust had collected. Flicking it, she continued, “Some pious women took it upon themselves to worship the sun like some god, but I find that trite. It’s science: you deindustrialize. Get rid of cars, electronics, cattle, pollution, and so on, until radically enough you can remove fuel as it is. You can’t emit anything harmful if there’s nothing to emit.

“In time, Herland became an oxymoron. We were futuristic and prehistoric at one and the same time. But it worked. Soon we had water aplenty. We became strictly vegan. It was like the Earth was thanking us. We grow our own crops and do our own labor, but we share it as a community.”

Andres listened intently. “Why keep it a secret?”

“The masses spoil everything.” Sheila sighed, “At least that’s what they claim…”

Andres heard the inflection in her tone and raised an eyebrow.

“If you ask me, I miss hot bubblebaths, and fancy clothes, and hamburgers, and men. Lord, I miss men. Women just don’t do it for me,” she added. “They said without men there’d be no such thing as sexual orientation, that we’d all just love up on one another. But honey, if we’re being truthful, I miss a man’s body. Their flat, chiseled torsos and Adonis thighs—the way their dimples turn upwards into a twinkle. Since you, I haven’t seen a man in years…Oh, but look at me—I’m rambling. I’m sure you’d like some sleep.”

Andres shook his head. “No, keep going. I haven’t conversed with anyone in ages.”

Sheila slid down the wall and sat on the floor, both legs far apart like pillars. “We’re supposed to be this equal community, but everyone flocks around that blonde bitch like she’s the queen bee. Figures the Aryan Barbie doll would put herself first…”

A knock on the door interrupted them. Nervous someone overheard her, Sheila clasped her hand to her mouth. Quietly she rose to her feet and meandered to the door—which was simply a large green cloth—and pushed it to the side.

Andres peeked beyond Sheila to catch the visitor. It was the blonde. She muttered something to Sheila, who stepped outside with her. The cloth fell and Andres was alone. He busied himself flicking the mobile. Moonlight shone ominously through the window. Although the night air was dry and humid, Andres kept snuggled in the blanket until he heard the mumbling on the other side cease.

Her visage scrunched, Sheila reentered.

“What is it?” Andres asked.

“She says all our cotton caught fire and incinerated…”

“That smoke we smelled…” Andres thought aloud.

“First the wine, then the well, and now this,” Sheila said. “Maybe the world is finally catching up with us.”

Andres lay on the bed and Sheila tucked him in. She hummed a lullaby until his eyes fluttered shut.

During the following days, pandemic afflicted Herland. The crops wilted and the soil parched. The wells either ran dry or flooded. The food supply vanished and wildland fires raged. The brown grass that shaped Andres’s silhouette days before expanded until it colonized the entire area. Women passed out from heat exhaustion.

Luckily, Sheila hid a supply of roots and berries. “I have a secret garden,” she told Andres, her new companion. The pair connected more and more with each passing day. Andres allowed himself to grow close, yet he kept his distance. The suspicion remained. Herland was hiding something from him.

“So, what exactly was this disease?” Andres asked one afternoon, sprawled shirtless on the bed, his dark chest glistening with sweat.

Sheila came in from roasting root vegetables over a fire. She inquired about what exactly he was speaking, her tone raised into a genuine question.

“The one that snuffed out all the men…”

“Oh, that…To this day we still have zero idea.”

“You think it was some type of cancer?”
“Maybe.”

Now and then, Andres aided the women in their daily chores. With the wells dried, the women siphoned groundwater from outside Herland. The strongest, Andres was enlisted to carry back the buckets. Yet they lost these resources quicker than consumed, and no one could place why. When Andres planted crops, a terrible rainstorm would hit and wash the seeds away. He offered to hunt, and the women glared at him as if he were Judas Iscariot.

“Meat is the natural way of things,” Andres told them. “It’s the cycle of life.”

“Herland would sooner starve than murder any animal,” the blonde snapped.

An evening came when Andres returned from a stroll and insisted he smelled marijuana. It must have been years, but Andres recalled its distinctness. He stepped into the hut and found Sheila huddled under a table. She inhaled from a blunt.

When she spotted Andres, Sheila threw it to the ground. She was about to step on it when Andres yelled, “Don’t! Don’t do that.” He slunk down beside her and lifted the blunt to his lips. He puffed twice and passed it to her.

“How—?” he questioned.

“Please don’t tell anyone,” Sheila begged.

He grabbed the blunt from her and inhaled. Closing his eyes, he held in the smoke until no longer possible. “Your secret is safe with me,” he promised. He reclined and spread his legs.

“I grow it in my garden,” she said.

“Along with the roots and berries?”

She giggled and nodded.

The two remained until the blunt was a crisp and both’s eyes were red. Using the moment, Andres stripped off his shirt. “You don’t mind if I—?” he asked, and Sheila shook her head. “I was getting hot,” he said.

After a minute, Sheila broke the silence. “I can’t remember the last time I was with a man.”

Andres smirked. This was going as planned. “I reckon it must grow lonely,” he said.

“These women don’t get me. I’d rather be like you: rugged, wayfaring—so very Byronic.”

Tilting his head, Andres stared into her soul. He let her finish, and upon doing so, leaned in, their faces fitting together like a horizonline. Suddenly, they were at one another like animals, pouncing on each other, on the bed, tearing off clothes. Sheila moaned and shushed herself, in case the walls had ears, but nevertheless continued at him with all her energy.

It had been so long for Andres that he feared finishing instantly. But for him this was a race, and he had to lose. For this to turn the trick, he had to get her there first.

He kept it going with machinelike efficiency until he felt her body quiver and surrender. Sheila became gelatinous, plopping onto the mattress with a grin plastered on her face.

“Jesus—shit,” she exclaimed, “Shit, shit—shit!”

Andres snaked his arm around her stomach and pulled her closer. She nestled her face into the crook of his neck.

“What is it?” he said.

“I can’t let them do this to you,” she confessed.

He sat up. “Do what to me?”

She watched him concernedly. “There was no disease, Andres. We lied to you.”

He clenched his jaw.

“We killed them all—all the men,” she said. “The women allied and murdered them in their sleep.”

“Wh-what?”

“We wanted a society of our own. It was drastic times, so we took drastic measures. Christ, I’m sorry I lied to you—I didn’t think I’d like you this much.”

“Sheila, Sheila,” Andres said. “What the hell did you mean you ‘can’t let them do this’ to me?”

She locked him dead in the eyes. “They want to kill you. They say you’re the reason for all the epidemic. The fires, the droughts, the floods. They claim you brought it in from outside.”

Immediately, Andres jolted to his feet and hasted on his clothes.

“Where are you going?” Sheila questioned. “Lord, I can’t bear being alone!”

“I have to get out of here,” Andres said to himself. Sheila followed him out the door, as he raced down the dust paths of Herland and through its inhabitants. Tracing his whereabouts, they rotated to him like an ocean tide.

The blonde trailed after him, pushing Sheila out of her way. “Where are you going?” she beckoned.

“You psycho bitches,” he barked.

She guffawed at his comment. “Because it’s so much better out there.”

Andres froze.

“You can stay here safely, and play your cards,” she said, “Or return out there and dehydrate like your mother. Why wouldn’t you give her any water, Andres?”

He wanted to punch each and every one of them.

“Go out there, helplessly alone unto the world,” she added. “Maybe then you’ll know what it’s like to be a girl.”

So he soldiered on north without a backwards glance, and Herland resumed how things used to be.

photo: “Untitled,” Berenice Abbott

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