…and Other Disasters, the smart and moving collection of short fiction and poetry from acclaimed author Malka Older, examines otherness, identity and compassion across a spectrum of possible existence. In stories about an AI built for empathy, a corps of fighting midwives traveling to a new planet, and a young anthropologist who returns to study the cultures of a dying Earth, Older’s characters grapple with what it means to belong and be othered, to cling to the past and face the future, all while navigating a precarious world, riddled with natural and man-made disasters.
…and Other Disasters publishes November 21st with Mason Jar Press, and the author and the publisher will each donate 10% of their earnings to organizations that work with migrants and/or refugees. We’re excited to preview an excerpt from the collection—from the story “The Divided”—below.
The walls rose anyway.
They couldn’t build them. They’ll never do it, there’s no humanly possible way they can do it in any reasonable amount of time with any reasonable amount of money, that’s what my tía Lola had been saying since the idea appeared, and she wasn’t wrong. But they rose anyway, crawling their way to the sky like thornbushes, like sudden ramparts, like instant slices of mesa.
My abuela was caught in one on her way to work. That’s how we knew they rose so quickly, because it caught her in mid‑stride. On Sundays we went to visit her. My father rubbed baby oil into the heel of her left foot, raised slightly out of the back of her work pumps. “Qué lástima, that you were caught in those uncomfortable shoes.” He talked to her all the time, although since we couldn’t see her ears, I was pretty certain she couldn’t hear him. He rubbed Nivea into the creases of her right elbow, pushed back with the weight of the black leather purse we knew was tucked under her arm, only a corner of it visible below her elbow. Sometimes my mother would come with a bucket of water and shampoo and undo the last twist of bun that protruded from the wall. She would wash the three inches of grey hair, the very ends of my abuela’s long hair that normally would sway at her waist and now only fluttered from the wall like a sad flag. Then she would pat them dry with a marigold‑yellow towel and wrap the bun up again.
“So unfortunate that she was caught facing that way,” my father would sigh, because my abuela barely spoke English, and we imagined that they didn’t allow Spanish over there anymore.
We imagined because we didn’t know. No stories came out. We didn’t know if my abuela was worse off, or my prima Letty, who was trapped somewhere on the inside. She wasn’t in the wall: my tío César went all the way around it looking for her, meter by meter. He thought he would be able to sneak in somewhere, but the walls went all the way around. The river was all fucked up, he told us when he came back, and the ocean crashed against walls now: no more beaches, no more cliffs. He held out some hope that he would be able to cross in from Canada, but the walls had risen there too, trapping people and cars, even a few border agents. He didn’t find Letty in the wall, so she had to be on the inside. We waited. Surely they would deport people, but no one appeared. Maybe they couldn’t figure out how to get them through the wall.
No stories came out, and yet we had stories. Some people said they had done it on purpose, found some new chemical‑industrial witchcraft. Others said it was a judgment on them, even when it felt more like a judgment on us. Analysts predicted war and anarchy, said that inside the crops would be failing and people would be starving and squabbling. That was hard to grasp though, all that money and power rotting away so quickly. It was easier to imagine that inside they were engineering monsters or killer robots, triaging their victims expertly by melanin content or neuro‑linguistic pathways. We imagined them coming for us, clawing their way through the wall or marching along a path that opened for them at the touch of a button, because surely they had a way to get through. We imagined them coming for us in tanks and F‑16s, followed by our lost relatives and friends transformed into a zombie army. We imagined this happening, and then we made movies about it: blob monsters fermented from a stew of nitrates and untreated sewage; super‑soldiers without hearts or cavities, all steely eyes and square jaws.
Instead what came was what they call blight. People started moving away, not because of fear but because there were few jobs and no buyers from the north and nothing coming down from the north to buy, and then once people started moving there were fewer jobs. My father had to close his barbershop, but he was hired at the hotel where my mother worked, because the one industry that remained was tourism. I sold flowers at a little stand near the wall, for people to leave by the edges of their loved ones or in memory of those who were unreachable.
The first time someone asked me about the best flowers for the wall itself I didn’t understand the question. I shook my head and wrote that señora off as one more person detached from reality, but people kept asking. I went to look and found shrines that were not dedicated to the lost but to the walls themselves. People were praying that the walls would keep us safe from chemical‑stained water and fracking earthquakes and particle‑ridden air. I decided the flower for this was a cactus, and over the next years we sold so many I had to start a cactus garden. But when people told me they wanted to pray the walls would keep us safe from other contaminants, from xenophobia and hate and fear, then I told them the appropriate flower was roses. Anyone foolish enough to believe walls can keep you safe from those things deserved to pay for our most expensive bloom.
We stayed for six years, until my abuela died. I knew as soon as I saw her that Sunday, it was an instant impression like a flashbulb, but I didn’t want to look at my father to see if I was right. When we got closer we could see those knobs of skin my father used to care for so cariñosamente had changed color, gone pale and purpley, and when we touched her—my father clinging to her fragment of heel with two fingers and a thumb while I pressed one fingertip to her elbow—she was cold. My father curled down and put his head on the ground and cried, cried for so long I started to feel sick, as if the world were spinning too fast and I didn’t know what to do.
There are worse stories than ours, but I don’t want to tell them. Newlyweds and newborns and dying relatives of all varieties. People who did everything they could and some things that nobody could do, and none of it helped. There are many worse stories, but I don’t want to tell them. I wish I’d never heard them, that they had never happened.
We buried my abuela in the way that had become custom, patting soil over her sad hard heel and her elbow, patting it into a mound sloping out from the wall that covered a more or less human shape, and leaving a little memorial stone for her at the bottom. For a while my father still went every Sunday to leave flowers and to cry.
Then we moved south. Tío César and Tía Lola stayed in case anyone ever came through, anyone they could ask about what happened on the other side. They were hoping to have a guess about the rest of their daughter’s life, even if she never got out herself. Mainly they were hoping to be reassured that it wasn’t as anguished as what they imagined.
But we moved south. I didn’t think it would ever happen, because my father was so sad. The only reason he managed it finally was for me. “You should forget,” he whispered to me, the night after we crossed the desert and reached the first city that looked like a real city. We were staying in a tiny hotel, we could hear snores from the rooms next to us, the rushing of water when someone flushed a toilet on the floor above, and, from the bar down the street, cumbia and sometimes bachata. “You should forget and live your life.” I nodded when he said that, because even though they always taught us to study history and remember injustice and never forget, I couldn’t find any lesson here that would help me be anything but sad.
Some people are afraid now, with all that’s going on, that the walls will grow again, to the south of us this time. There are those who are in favor, saying it is such a tiny border we need to close, a totally different situation, but others say that if they rise they won’t just keep out the guatemaltecos and catrachos but will continue all along the coasts until they meet the impenetrable walls in the north. Then we’ll be the ones shut in and quarantined from the world. Others scoff and say we are still a long way from that happening, it’s only talk and not nearly as bad as it was back there, back then. Some still pray to the walls in the north, rogando that algún día they will fall away and we will find a healed land within. Maybe a healed people too, although as time passes that idea is fading.
Me, I keep my eyes on the colors in front of me: mangos and tejidos and pink pickled onions, limones and azulejos and the potholes in the road. I listen for music, any kind of twang or resonance, any beat, and especially the voices that climb in sobbing crescendos. I trail my fingertips along the stone and concrete of buildings, knowing I could be caught at any breath, trapped for the rest of my life between one imagined country and another.
Excerpted from ...and Other Disasters, copyright © 2019 by Malka Older