And Now the Shade
A young bioengineer grappling with an existential challenge finds the answer in the dreams of her dying grandmother. A mesmerizing cli-fi story set in Mexico City, published by Fix, Grist’s solutions lab, with support from NRDC.
In its second-annual climate fiction short-story contest, Fix—Grist’s solutions lab—put a call out for writers to envision the next 180 years of equitable climate progress, and how the world can be made radically better for everyone. Sponsored by NRDC, the Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors contest received submissions rooted in hope, justice, and creative solutions.
One of this year’s winning stories is Rich Larson’s “And Now the Shade.” The piece takes us to a Mexico City of the future, where the climate crisis and overdevelopment have turned the once-lush landscape into a scorching “monument to cement.” A persistent bioengineer works to return her city back to what it was—a place filled with life, joy, and possibilities. Check it out below and then read the other winning stories.
After the digivisit with her grandmother, Minerva goes straight to the terrace, to pointlessly rearrange the solar lights and hunt nonexistent weeds in the hydrogarden. Her fingers are still trembling, which she hates. Her throat is still thick with a suppressed sob.
It doesn’t take long for Ish to come find her, how he’s been doing for almost 10 years, and let his soft space expand until it meets her jagged one. His quiet is always a good quiet. A safe quiet. They work together to fix a hanging planter; one of its ties came loose in yesterday’s wind and left it crooked.
Minerva runs her finger along the soft pink-and-white petals of the verbena, the flower that was always her grandmother’s favorite. “Her memory’s getting worse and worse,” she finally says.
Ish blinks. “She forgot you called yesterday?”
“She doesn’t think I call at all.” Minerva feels the selfish sob again, even though she’s not the one withering in quarantined hospice, even though she had more good years with her grandmother than Ish did with his. “Every time is the first time in ages.”
“So it’s a nice surprise.”
“It’s like talking to a bot.” Her face flushes hot. She didn’t mean to voice the Bad Thought, one of her many Bad Thoughts, but because it’s Ish, she extrapolates. “Like someone made a deepfake cartoon and replaced her with it. We have the same conversation every time. She asks where I am, when I’m coming home, when I’m going to have kids…”
Ish gives her hand an absent-minded squeeze. “Keep forgetting to do that, yeah.”
“Yeah.” Minerva squeezes back, gives a shuddery laugh. “And then she talks about the pueblo. Always about the pueblo. Always the same stories on loop.” She stares hard at the planter. “And lately I’m scared I’m replacing her. Overwriting her. Every time I see her like this, I forget a little bit of how she used to be.”
“Is that how memory works?” Ish muses. “One in, one out?”
Minerva shakes her head. “I don’t know. I just know it feels that way, and I hate it.”
Ish wraps both arms around her; she tips her head back against his collarbone. Between the spindly branches of their pomegranate tree, the old BBVA tower juts into a bruise-purple sky. It’s swirled in silicon now, solar panels taking the place of ad screens, and the top is crowned with vegetation, but Minerva knows it’s not nearly enough, which is why her job is to recombine the genes of certain plants such that…
The screen on her thumbnail pulses an acid yellow in the dusk. She worms her hand free, reads a priority message from the lab. “Another sim-grow failed,” she says. Another stone to stack on her rib cage. “I should get back to work.”
Even with the carbon caps in place and urban agriculture at an all-time high, Mexico City keeps getting hotter. Lately it feels as inevitable as entropy, as the decaying neurons in her grandmother’s aging brain.
The lab is a dozen labs, spread through not only Mexico but Guatemala, Belize, Colombia, Chile. Places Minerva may never go in person—the application process to take any sort of flight is grueling now, a policy change she loves and hates at the same time. Instead, she visits them all in her goggles, collating data, corralling people, moving through a pinwheel of virtual vistas.
She works from the cramped dining room, under the beautiful blobby red painting Ish did a few months after they moved in. She works until her eyeballs ache and her eyelids scrape. Until the goggles leave sucker marks—battling the squid, Ish calls it.
A small voice in the back of her mind tells her she is working in order to not think about her grandmother, who is crumbling away. Another voice suggests she is using her ailing grandmother to excuse the nanobionics project stalling out.
It’s cyclical, and by the time she pulls the goggles off, she is exhausted. Even when she shuts her eyes, the molecular models keep whirling past. She remembers her grandmother’s flinty stare when she first announced she was going to be a biotech, back when her grandmother was flint and sparks and joy and fury.
Her grandmother is old enough to remember Bayer, and Monsanto before it, and she did not want her granddaughter to become a biopirata, stealing knowledge from the Indigenous farmers, giving back seeds that could only grow once. She only accepted it when she found out Minerva’s mentor was from Chiapas, from a pueblo only a stone’s throw away from hers.
“Better take a shower,” Ish says, coming from the kitchen with a bright orange bowl of peanuts and hot sauce.
“Because you stink,” he says in mock solemnity, then cracks a smile. “Because there’s no breeze tonight. It’s going to be warm in the room.”
“It’s always warm in the room,” Minerva says, rubbing a knuckle along her brow.
“Because I’m very sexy,” Ish says. “I know. Disculpa.”
Even though she is exhausted, or maybe because she is exhausted, a giddy laugh burbles up her throat. For a moment, she forgets about the never-ending emergencies. The small tragedies.
She puts off the next digivisit for two days, to spare herself the pain. She reasons that it doesn’t matter, because she can monitor her grandmother’s vitals from here, and her grandmother lives in a fog where time means nothing. But she knows what Ish said—So it’s a nice surprise—is true too.
For all the happiness her grandmother has given her over the years, Minerva can pay her back with these small bursts, even if they dissolve the instant the call ends. Even if she has so many other things that need doing. Even if every visit hurts.
The call connects and her grandmother’s wrinkled face appears in the goggles. “Hola, abuela,” Minerva says. “Soy yo.”
“Hola, nena.” Her voice is a husk of what it used to be. Her peering eyes are cloudy. Minerva can mouth the next words along with her. “¿Pero dónde estás?”
Minerva tells her that she is in CDMX, same as her, and will visit in person as soon as the quarantine lifts. Minerva tells her that she has her own home now, with Ish, though her grandmother only remembers him by deadname. Minerva tells her no children are pending.
“Oh.” Her grandmother frowns. Her mouth works. “Oh.”
Minerva can tell she is uncomfortable here in the present, adrift, so she helps her to the usual segue. “When you were a child, things were different.”
Her grandmother grasps at it. “Yes,” she beams, pushing silver hair back off her brown forehead. “Yes. When I was a child, do you know what I did?”
Minerva knows, but listens to the stories anyway:
How her grandmother played schoolteacher, assigning marks to every flower in the garden. How she went to the cine and decided Ultraman, who pummeled monstrous reptiles in grainy black-and-white, was her boyfriend. How the volcano coated everything in ash one day, and her family sent her away to the city. That is where the stories always stop.
This recitation is clumsier than usual, leaping from one thing to the next with no connective tissue between. Some details have been lost or jumbled. Minerva listens and nods and hums agreement, doing her duty, not so much to this grandmother but to the sharp and fierce and funny grandmother she used to have, the one who practically raised her.
Midway through the story of the bee that stung the inside of her mouth while she was eating an acacia blossom, something jolts Minerva’s grandmother from the groove. She leans forward. Squints. “But where are you, Minerva?” she asks. “When are you coming home?”
Minerva feels the mudslide building behind her eyes and nose. Her chest aches with the sense of wrongness, of pointlessness. She explains it again.
The heat gets worse during Semana Santa. Bone-dry, sweltering, mocking all Minerva’s efforts. The plants on the terrace wilt, spines snapped. The air chokes with dust. The problem, as she relates to Ish on a long, sweaty walk through Bosque Chapultepec, is the concrete.
“There’s still groundwater here,” she says, swatting at a mosquito. “Hell, this city was built on a lake.”
“Tenochtitlán,” Ish says.
“But we plugged it all up with concrete,” Minerva says.
She remembers a story of her grandmother—from the city, not the pueblo, so not one she tells anymore. When she first moved to CDMX, young and full of flint and sparks, she wanted to plant a tree outside her house, to embrace its walls. But there was not a single crack in the pavement, not a speck of dark soil.
So she conspired with a man from the electric company, who was also from Chiapas. Little by little, night by night, under the cover of darkness and the guise of city maintenance, they used his drill to make a small hole in the street outside her house.
On the day she was ready to plant the seed, she came home from Mercado de Coyoacán and found the hole stoppered with cement. Her neighbor had seen her, and did not want a tree in his street, because then everyone would plant a tree and there would be no space to park his shiny black car.
“La ciudad entera es un monumento al cemento,” Minerva quotes, because that was how her grandmother finished the story, bitterly shaking her head.
“Y a los mosquitos,” Ish suggests, slapping one dead against his shoulder.
Plants can grow through concrete, but they move slowly. Paving can be torn up, but the permits required to do it move even slower. That’s why Minerva and her fellow biotechs have been working so tirelessly, pushing the sequencers and gene editors to their limit: There is no time.
Too many unstoppable processes have been put into motion. Too many cascade effects. Here they are lucky, with water under the city and a long history of urban farming, but many cities are not lucky. The heat point that will render them unlivable approaches as steadily as the heat death of the universe.
Unless they can make a new sort of plant entirely.
Minerva only sleeps for a few fractured hours each night. Ish’s body, which she normally likes so well, is a boiler against her bare skin. The sheets are a molten tangle. The little electric fan whirs back and forth but is never enough; it only manages to suck the moisture from her eyeballs. Her head stains the pillow with sweat.
She hopes for some flash of brilliance in the liminal space between dreaming and waking. It’s happened before; once she balanced a gordian equation during a high fever. But instead of solutions, her subconscious churns up nightmares. She sees a man whose beard is not a beard, but instead a web of pink capillaries with glossy black eyeballs nestled inside. She sees a woman on a beach at night, walking into the waves until they swallow both her and the radioactive candle she holds aloft.
She spends the days dazed and unsettled, battering herself against stubborn gene sequences. The sim-grows fail; she tweaks them; they fail again. The digivisits with her grandmother blur together; she listens to the stories from the pueblo over and over, answers the same questions over and over. The hospice quarantine is unending.
Minerva has another Bad Thought, which she confides to Ish: She could make a deepfake cartoon of herself, with just a fraction of a fraction of the lab’s processing power, and let it nod and hum while her grandmother rambles.
“That would make everything easier,” she mutters, rubbing her orbital bone. “Lately, the goggles feel like they’re growing onto my face.”
Ish doesn’t make any jokes about battling the squid. He reaches forward and runs his paint-flecked fingers gently around her tired eyes.
“Hola, nena,” her grandmother mumbles, then asks the always question. “¿Dónde estás?”
Minerva gives the always answer. “Aquí en la DF, abuela.”
Her grandmother frowns, opens her mouth, and Minerva knows the next question but cannot stand to answer it tonight, so she interrupts. She interrupts, and tells her grandmother everything: the stubborn gene sequence, the sweat stain on her pillow, the constant exhaustion, the dark dreams.
How she sometimes fears she is losing her mind. How she sometimes thinks the only reason she loves plants is because they can’t run away, because they need her. How she sometimes looks at Ish—funny, faithful Ish—and feels nothing at all, which must mean he doesn’t need her.
It all spills out of her, a bubbling cenote deep in her gut, and finally, because she has already come so far, she voices her Bad Thought.
“I called you yesterday, you know,” she says. “I call every day. But you never remember. Every day, we have the same conversation, and it feels like it’s not really you at all, just a…” She tamps down her sob. “A photograph,” she finishes, because her grandmother never learned about deepfakes.
Her grandmother stares at her. Minerva can see traces of surprise, anger, indignation—things that used to swirl across her grandmother’s face as quickly as a summer storm. But then the confusion comes, the uncertainty. Her mouth works.
Minerva feels a horrible guilt in the pit of her stomach, a mossy black boulder plunging down into the cenote she should never have uncovered. “¿Abuela?” she whispers.
Her grandmother stares off into space with blank rheumy eyes.
“What was it like when you were a child?” Minerva asks, pleading. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Let’s talk about the pueblo, okay?”
Her grandmother’s gaze returns. “I am glad you are growing plants, nena,” she says, hoarse. “This is very important. It reminds me of a story.”
Minerva knows it will be the story of climbing a big tree, but then Señorita Cometa came on the television and her grandmother was in such a hurry to get down, she jumped and broke her arm; or else the story of the bee in the acacia blossom that she nearly swallowed.
Maybe, maybe, it will be the story of the hole she drilled in the street.
“From when I was small, very small,” Minerva’s grandmother mumbles. “A story that my grandmother told me, about the ceibas of Chiapas. The sacred trees.”
Minerva does not know this story. She feels her fingers trembling, but this time from something else, from some shred of a shred of an unnamed hope. She leans forward.
“When I was a child, I had terrible nightmares,” her grandmother says, and Minerva cannot help but think of the dark beach, the tangled matrix of flesh and eyeballs. “I cried every night. So my grandmother, she made me a new pillow, using the cotton of the ceiba.”
Minerva knows the tree, of course: an ecological linchpin of the Selva Lacandona, a beautiful hulking thing that can surpass 40 meters, coated in spines and pink flowers. She knows its importance to the jungle and to the Maya who have lived there for thousands of years.
“My grandmother explained to me that the ceiba is a bridge between this world and the other.” She raises her gnarled hands, laces her fingers. “Entre el mundo y el inframundo. Xibalbá.” She gives a watery laugh. “I knew nothing about Xibalbá. My father, he was so scared of brujas, so scared of hechizos. He never liked those stories. But my grandmother, when she brought me the new pillow, she sat by my bed and she told me.”
Minerva sees an expression flash like sheet lightning across her grandmother’s lined face, joy and anticipation, an echo of the child she was some 80 years ago.
“When the Catholic priests translated the Popol Vuh, they made Xibalbá into hell,” she says. “It’s true, my grandmother told me, that Xibalbá is a death place. A dark place. But after a day in the hot sun, she asked me, ‘Is there anywhere more welcoming than the shade?’”
Minerva’s grandmother becomes a child in the telling, and Minerva becomes one in the listening, swept away by the images: the four towering ceibas planted by the gods, one in each corner of the cosmos, thorny branches hung with Xtabay’s would-be lovers, roots reaching so deep, they pierce the barrier between living and dead.
The entrance to Xibalbá itself, a tangle of vines and night-blooming flowers, glowing with an unearthly luminescence, a multicolor mirror for the heavenly bodies moving far above. Through the portal: a city for the dead, but made of living wood and flowing water, cool and damp.
“After that night, I only dreamed of Xibalbá,” she finishes. “With my pillow made of ceiba cotton. Even now, I think I believe more in Xibalbá than I do in heaven or in hell.” She sucks in a raspy breath. “Pero que cansada estoy.”
Minerva emerges from the reverie. She can still hear the voice of her grandmother, and of her great-great-grandmother, moving through her blood. “Okay,” she says, only half there. “Buenas noches, abuela.”
“Buenas noches, nena,” her grandmother says. “Te quiero tanto.”
For the first time in months, she does not ask where Minerva is, or when she is coming home. She reaches forward with a veiny hand, and ends the call.
Minerva sits very still. Tears are collecting in the bottom of her goggles, fogging them. Tears of happiness, to see a grandmother so much closer to the one she remembers, and tears of misery, because she realizes she has been treating her grandmother like she is already dead. Preserved, entombed, untouchable.
In the lonely hospice quarantine, is it any wonder her grandmother retreats into her happy memories? With her aging brain starved for input, is it any wonder she whittles herself down to the same questions and answers?
Maybe the deviation tonight was a fluke, the vagaries of collapsing neurons. But maybe it was something else. Either way, Minerva sees now that she has been distancing herself, preparing herself, for a very long time—because she knows that when her grandmother dies, it will tear her in two.
She pulls the goggles from her face with a tear-slick pop. She cries for a while. Afterwards, she crawls into bed, wraps her arms around Ish, and whispers “te quiero tanto” into the nape of his sunbrowned neck.
The days are hot and the sim-grows fail, but the digivisits have changed.
Minerva does not try to burn away the fog, how she did that first night, but she does not sit in silence, nodding, humming. She prods at her grandmother, makes the jokes they used to make together. She presents the latest problems from the lab. She tells her about the lizards chasing each other in circles around the terrace, about the lotus bulb she bought in Xochimilco.
She is sifting for flint. Searching for sparks. Sometimes she sees it is tiring to her grandmother, and feels guilty, and lets her retreat into the stories. But the stories have changed too: they are less and less about the pueblo, with its beautiful flowers and dirt streets, and more about the jungle, about the deep roots and deeper caves snaking downward toward Xibalbá.
It carries over into Minerva’s dreams: no more drowning women, no more watchful monsters. Instead she dreams she is making a hole in the street with an electric drill, boring through the concrete to the underworld below. Molecular models drift up from the portal like phantoms, joining and breaking just beyond her fingertips.
Her grandmother tells her that Xibalbá is not a reward or a punishment, only part of a natural cycle that must be maintained. The rain falling, the sun rising, the stars moving—all cycles that were once maintained by sacrifice, which was not always the ugly fearful thing described by Catholic priests, anymore than Xibalbá was always a place of torture and trickery.
The sim-grows fail, but in more interesting ways. Every night, Minerva’s grandmother gives her benediction, tells her that the city of wood and water is coming, and Minerva cannot help but feel that she is right. That something ancient, something ancestral, has taken root not only in her grandmother but also in her.
Ish notices too. “You’re sleeping better,” he says one morning, over the bubble and sputter of the frying pan—eggs from the neighbor’s hen, onion and jitomate from the hydrogarden. “I even heard you laughing.”
“In my sleep?” Minerva demands, clattering plates out of the cupboard.
“It was terrifying at first,” Ish admits. “But then I started laughing too.”
Minerva laughs now, trying to remember the fractured dream: climbing an enormous flowering tree, pricking her hands on the thorns but feeling no pain. She shovels two bites of breakfast into her mouth, scooped steaming from the pan, then runs to get her goggles.
Ceiba pentandra was sequenced by machine learning years ago, one of a hundred species rendered down to its genetic code and evaluated for utility. But that was years ago, before recombination tech reached its current heights, and Minerva’s lab has been focused on adaptable lianas, carbon-sucking mosses.
When she goes to access its simulated DNA, hers is not the only user icon on the file. The lab in Guatemala, in cloudy Kob’an, is already at work. She pulls up a call window, sees Eduardo, one of her collaborators, with dark rings under his eyes but a gleam inside them. They speak over each other, but she knows they have dreamed the same dream.
The lab in Belize joins them a moment later: Celeste, the youngest biotech on the project, still tying up her jet-black curls. The three of them coordinate their efforts, sectioning up the code, hunting for the gene or genes they saw in the inframundo. Eduardo is already feeding possibilities into the sim queue.
Minerva works until her eyeballs ache and her eyelids scrape. Sometimes Ish pushes a glass of water into her hand, a thoughtful phantom in the void beyond her goggles. Sometimes she stretches her legs under the table, feels the flex of far-off tendons. Most often she is still as a rooted tree, only her eyes moving. She turns off all exterior notifications.
When the key arrives, a snippet of genetic material buried deep, a tiny unexpressed fragment of the ceiba’s long history, Minerva recognizes it like family. So do the others; they all three highlight it in nearly the same instant. They clear the sim queue, request processing power. They watch the sim-grow begin.
It’s close to midnight when Minerva finally pulls off her goggles. Ish is slumped snoring across from her, head nesting in his folded arms. “It’s going to work,” she says, and the words are stones lifted from her chest. “We’ll need to make tweaks. We’ll need to run more sims. But it’s going to work.”
Ish only drools, but she doesn’t mind. There is someone else she wants to tell. She can stand the goggles a few minutes more; she is reaching to put them back on, to call her grandmother, when she sees her thumbnail screen is acid yellow. The message is not from the lab.
Her stomach plunges. She calls, and the hospice nurse answers. Explanation washes over her and only a few words emerge intact: arterial blockage, successive strokes, the second fatal. Her grandmother’s vitals had been so steady for so many weeks. So steady, Minerva thought nothing of switching off notifications.
“She was conscious for a few moments in between,” the nurse says. “She asked where she was, and when she was going home.” He pauses. “And then she said Xibalbá was calling. Nos vemos en noviembre.”
Minerva pulls the goggles off, and weeps.
It’s Día de Muertos, and Minerva is up on the terrace. The ochre sky is darkening, billowing clouds illuminated by jags of distant lightning. She leans back in her chair and puts her feet on the other, head tipped back to watch. It used to feel like life or death, waiting for the clouds to buckle and split, waiting for the first droplet of rain.
But that was the old days, before sim-grows became reality and Xibalbá—there could be no other name for the plant, the nanobionic hybrid of artificial genes and ancient ones—took root. Now the garden is flourishing and the hydroponic systems are quaint, antiquated.
Her guava trees grow from the concrete, fed by Xibalbá’s omnipresent filament web. Her orchids and malamadres explode from the walls in a beautiful chaos. And when she turns her head, to look over the edge of the terrace, she sees the city her great-great-grandmother dreamed of.
Xibalbá snakes through every cubic meter of concrete, coats it with dark green tendrils. It bears little resemblance to the ceiba that completed its genetic code. No sharp spines, no seedpods full of cotton. But it has something even better, a final tweak that was not strictly necessary for its success.
“Ready to go?” Ish asks, appearing at the top of the vine-wreathed metal staircase, sleek white skull mask in hand. He holds it in front of his face. “No more work today. Parties only.”
Down below, the party is in full swing. The streets are pulsing with music and laughter, costumed revelers trickling back from the parade, mingling with their families. Most of the decorations are unchanged, but the strings of LED bulbs are no more. Instead, sprouting from the vine-swatched streetlamps, from the overgrown skyscrapers, bioluminescent flowers of every conceivable color bloom through the dark.
For tonight, the whole of Mexico City is her grandmother’s ofrenda. But she made a smaller one, too, downstairs, and snipped the very brightest flowers from the verbena to lay across it. She takes a deep breath, inhaling the cool florid air, picturing the childish joy that must be on her grandmother’s face even now. For a moment, everything is still and perfectly preserved.
“Ready,” she says, and rejoins the cycle.
This story is part of Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors, the first climate-fiction contest from Fix, Grist’s solutions lab. Imagine 2200 asked writers to imagine the next 180 years of equitable climate progress, and the winning stories feature intersectional worlds in which no community is left behind. Read all 12 stories in the collection.
This NRDC.org story is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the story was originally published by NRDC.org and link to the original; the story cannot be edited (beyond simple things such as grammar); you can’t resell the story in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select stories individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our stories.
Greenhouse Effect 101
Failing to Meet Our Climate Goals Is Not an Option
Poets Imagine a Different Climate Narrative