When we found out that Mother Nature would be holding a press conference at the local community college gymnasium, we were concerned. It had been a tough week for ecology—alligators were turning belly-up from heatstroke, Humboldt squid were choking out fish life in the Gulf of Mexico, and freakish weather patterns were battering our part of Florida with a steady supply of Texas-style tornadoes.
The instant we saw her, we knew Mother Nature was the real deal. A pretender might have overplayed the “earth child” routine—billowy dress dyed with natural pigments, maybe some hemp jewelry. No, Mother Nature took to the podium in a smart robin’s egg shirt and a modest tie decorated with sea turtles or sand dollars or the like—hard to tell from the bleachers.
Hands on hips, she asked, “Well?” She swiveled to stare at a different part of the auditorium. “Well?” Swiveled again. “Well?” It went on like that, until even the cross-armed business types avoided her gaze. Some of us wrung our hats in our hands. The overall we’re so damn sorry demeanor led to questions of retribution.
“Where’s that ice age I’ve been hearing about?” someone asked.
“Is that why I’m here?” Mother Nature asked. “Think I’m going to spank you all on the ass and tell you you’ve been naughty? You think this is Sodom and Gomorrah? Think again. I’m announcing my retirement.”
Many of us looked to one another for support. Mother Nature bent behind the podium and came up with an armful of milk-loaded baby bottles, which she began hurling into the crowd. The skies of the gymnasium filled with bottles. Mother Nature had a serious throwing arm. All agreed that the milk tasted superb.
“Drink up, babies,” she said. “It’s not going to rain ashes and I’m not about to cough up any flaming swords.”
“Ma’am.” A man in an Osmocote shirt rose from his seat and removed his ball cap. “I’d just like to say that as this area’s leading tomato farmer, I myself have tried to uphold natural—”
“How many tons of pesticide did you dump this season, Harvey?” Mother Nature asked.
She brought a tomato from under the podium and polished it against her turtle tie. The crowd had already turned on Harvey with loud hisses and boos. As he sat, Mother Nature took a speculative bite.
“I don’t know what this is,” she said, letting the pale orange fruit drop, “but it’s no tomato.”
“Can’t anything be done?” a young woman called. She paused to clap the lid over the kale-and-quinoa container she’d been eating from. “Surely, we can change.” She gestured to show us that this was the part where we might prove we were better than Harvey and the rest—we could redeem ourselves.
“Tell it to the Lorax,” Mother Nature said. She brought out a pack of Marlboros and a metal lighter. She lit three at once and got puffing. “I’m not going to tell you, No more coal plants. No more Humvees. No more air conditioners set to sixty-three.” Her Lorax impression was impeccable.
“So you’re saying don’t worry about the coal burning?” someone asked.
“You wanted this place to burn?” she said, pausing to exhale a thunderstorm of smoke. “Fine, let it burn. But don’t expect a full-on apocalypse—you ingrates haven’t earned that. Don’t think bang, think leaky tire.” She tipped a load of ash onto the podium.
“Apparently, Mother Nature’s not so big on conservation,” someone whispered.
“Conservation?” Mother Nature asked. “Where were you when the dinosaurs got vaporized? Do you have any idea how hard that was for me?”
“So why the lecture?” asked a bearded guy in a cardigan. “You say you’re retiring, but you’re also bemoaning the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, and there’s nothing we—”
A quick burst of sparks consumed the man’s cardigan. He now wore a bulging diaper and was otherwise naked. “Oh, never mind,” the man said.
“Why I’m bothering,” she said, pacing. “Why I’m bothering—”
She ground out the cigarettes on the palm of her hand and brought out a koala bear, which she cradled against her shoulder. Disinterested in the crowd, the koala chewed a leaf.
“This animal can’t design a bomb and it can’t log onto Netflix, but even so, I like it. That doesn’t make me a saint. Hell, the cute ones are easy. You want to test your heart? Try liking snakes and pangolins.”
Murmurs and Oohs from the audience. “You’re saying we should raise more snakes?” someone asked.
“I’m saying it’s all very complicated.” She stowed the koala. “Even I don’t always get it right. Consider the platypus. Point is, I’m spent, babies. Maybe you’ll figure something out. I doubt it but maybe. I never thought you’d master leavened bread. Work up another such miracle or it’ll be more of this.”
She extended her hand but nothing happened.
“I said it’ll be more of this.”
Our ears began to pop. We cowered at the sound of chugging wind. The overhead lights flickered, then a large section of metal peeled free. Mother Nature swept a hand through her hair. Her curls fell away in a clump. Now bald, she stripped away the suit and tie. Beneath, there was only body—nothing to mark it as this or that. Skin over muscle over bone. From that entire auditorium, the grit-heavy wind lifted only her. Almost dainty, how she rode to the rafters and cleared the still-growing void the tornado had chewed into the roof.
In the wake of the storm, we—rattled and bleeding—argued viciously for change. Even after stars appeared through the breached roof, we kept on. What was the best method for icing down an overheated gator? What the hell was a pangolin? And how much pesticide did Harvey need? All night, the reek of Mother Nature’s cigarettes lingered among the grandstands.
Nickalus Rupert holds an MFA from the University of Central Florida and a PhD from the University of Southern Mississippi. His collection, Bosses of Light and Sound, won the 2019 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction, and is due out next year from Willow Springs Books. His stories have been nominated for Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize, and have appeared in or are forthcoming in The Idaho Review, Bat City Review, Yemassee, Tin House Online, and elsewhere. Nickalus is represented by Willenfield Literary Agency and is currently at work on a novel. Find him at www.nickrupert.com.
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