Earth is fucked. In Joshua’s opinion, there is nothing to salvage. The fields are dry, the limestone soil aborts its young before they bud. The sick sun only gives the city a handful of hours a day – or what’s left of it – to feed the plants. Either way, his meager heat isn’t enough to stimulate their wrinkled leaves. The stems lengthen desperately, the shoots become exhausted and spread out the better to return to the earth.
Since the Fall, this planet is nothing more than a big corpse.
— I disagree.
An old plastic bag full of dirt in hand, Eli shakes his head.
— There are solutions, he insists.
— Are you talking about your garden on the third floor?
— That works. I grow more and more stuff.
The third is the last part of the building that did not collapse. The walls are torn without logic, like cutting a sheet by pulling on its ends. It is reached by a staircase that lets in the rain – when it deigns to fall. Eli requisitioned it to start a vegetable garden there and, since then, it has disappeared for hours over his head. Joshua doesn’t care. He takes the opportunity to read old books that he collects from the common library, when he’s not fixing something old or testing his connection. In vain. Few still manage to access the NewWeb today.
— Hey, Josh.
— What ?
— You would not want to let go of your machines, sometimes?
His machines. That’s what Eli calls his tampered radio and the computer he managed to revive. With the energy he diverts, he manages to light them for an hour a day. It’s little, it doesn’t do him much good. But that’s all he has left of his great pre-Fall passion.
— Why ?
— I have something to show you.
Joshua shrugs. He abandons his things to get up.
— Can you take the pallets by the way?
He catches them without answering. The weathered wood is clear against its black skin. He strokes it briefly to check for splinters, then he loads them onto his shoulders. He is muscular, much more than Eli. Even if he never did anything for it.
Joshua has always preferred the silence of a bedroom to the sun of a summer day. It never really worked before. It was… complicated. It’s always been complicated. He is one of those who welcomed the end of the world with relief.
He climbs the stairs at his own pace. Outside, dusk awaits him. If the building they are squatting in was once a proud building, it is now nothing more than an amputated pillar. Broken walls and, in the middle, a pile of pots and planters where Eli spreads his plants.
— You can put it there.
Joshua drops his weight.
He does not understand what the other expects of him. He was never good at gardening. If he tried to pull a shoot from his soil, he would probably break the stem. When he wants to water them, he drowns them, and he can’t guess what disease is turning their green leaves into funny yellow spots. No, Joshua does not understand plants. Their nature intimidates him.
But he likes the little cries of bats that rise as night falls.
— It’s over there.
He sees her blonde hair fluttering on her neck. Cut with tears, the rough locks are surly forms. Like leaves scorched by the sun. When he passes his hand over it, the material reminds him of the dead earth they tread on every day. This too hard soil where nothing grows anymore.
Every time he looks out the window, he sees only a dry world that is dying. He does not understand why Eli strives to plant his little seeds. Even if he likes the shape of the leaves of the tomato plants.
An empty dirt container. Good.
Since he’s the one asking, Joshua leans down unbelievingly. He observes and looks at this soft and humid matter which seems to be moving. She swarms. Move of his own volition. It’s weird, but he understands better what is going on by discerning the pink shapes which move in the middle of each other.
— What’s this ?
— It’s ugly.
Elijah laughs. His voice, more powerful than his, explodes in the night.
— It’s not made to be beautiful.
— It’s sticky.
Of course, Joshua knows earthworms. He’s seen it a long time ago. Several years.
— And it’s crawling.
— I say. It’s not very pretty to see.
— Why are you putting them there?
— For the compost.
Compost. He’s heard that word many times, but he realizes he doesn’t really know the definition. Compost. It looks like compote. Except he doesn’t want to bite it.
— I do not understand.
He never understands gardening, anyway. And he doesn’t understand why that makes Eli smile either. Instead, he would be offended.
— It’s for growing plants. To feed them.
— And after ?
— There is no after. We mix it with the soil and wait for it to grow.
He takes his hand to drag him to his pots. Not those who sleep outside, no. Those in the big greenhouse. Where he sees two small green circles which are probably future tomatoes.
— That’s life.
— It’s plants.
Eli strokes the ceramic rim of a pot. Joshua does not imitate him. He hates this material which catches his fingers.
— We haven’t been able to plant anything for years now. The fields are bursting. But that… That, that pushed. With a little effort and patience.
He caresses the underside of an incredibly green leaf.
— Of course it’s nothing compared to what we could do before. It takes time and we don’t even have enough to eat. But it pushes.
There are zucchini, more, far. Their long serrated leaves make it think of teeth. Those of bats.
Joshua is very fond of bats. The curled up cocoon that their bodies form when they hide in an old parasol. Looks like a twisted seed ready to bloom.
— What are the worms for? he asks, pointing to the tray.
— It enriches the soil. They aerate the earth by digging holes, it also promotes the penetration of water, and… It’s complicated to explain, but that’s why the earth isn’t completely punctured.
Aeration, enrichment. It’s fuzzy in Joshua’s head, but Eli says it with such conviction. He sees him running off to grab a book – a big, heavy book with a cracked spine.
— I picked this up at the Chardons bookstore. Must believe that gardening did not interest the looters, he explains by turning the pages. There are things to do. Even if it’s shit, we can still grow plants, Josh.
He catches her eye. Eli has eyes that are too blue, clear as a glass of water. Eyes that can’t lie.
— And as long as you can grow plants, there’s life.
A gust of wind stirs the leaves around them. Those of the shoots that do not sleep in the greenhouse, under artificial lights. Joshua scans the material they have amassed here. These treasures that they struggle to keep alive with their stolen generator.
These little lives that sink their roots into a black earth.
Most of the time, he doubts that anyone will ever be able to grow as many stems out of the ground as they need. He got used to old cans found in an abandoned apartment that hasn’t been stripped yet. But when Eli’s gaze lights up for a sprout that points the tip of its muzzle, it’s stronger than him.
He finds himself hoping.