The shovel bit through the foamy snow on the top stair of my front porch, then stopped with a clang. I scraped away the snow to see what was beneath. Ice. Serve me right for not shoveling after the snow had fallen last night. It had thawed, then the temperature had dropped into the deep freeze, and now the steps and the sidewalk were frozen solid.
by Nalo Hopkinson
The shovel bit through the foamy snow on the top stair of my front porch, then stopped with a clang. I scraped away the snow to see what was beneath. Ice. Serve me right for not shovelling after the snow had fallen last night. It had thawed, then the temperature had dropped into the deep freeze, and now the steps and the sidewalk were frozen solid.
On the street, a few cars and a bus slewed through the slush. The city had declared a snow day, so there wasn’t much traffic out.
I sighed and began shovelling in earnest. I’d have to scoop all that snow into the road, then crack the layer of ice and start in on that. The small of my back was already twinging in anticipation of pain. I scooped the shovel under a big load of snow.
“You need to lift with your legs,” said a voice behind me. It managed to sound both squeaky and hoarse. I turned. No one there. Just a raccoon, perched on my green organic waste bin. Damned things had been trying to figure out how to open it for months. Almost every week the bin had new tooth marks.
“Scram!” I shouted. I dropped the shovel, clapped my hands together to frighten the raccoon away.
The raccoon jumped off the bin and hid behind it. It peeked out at me. “Jeez, no need to get snarky. I was just giving you some good advice.” Its mouth wasn’t moving.
“All right,” I said, looking around. “Who’s the ventriloquist?”
I couldn’t see anyone. Most of my neighbours were at work. And Granny Nichol, who usually spent the day at her window watching the world go by, had her blinds drawn today.
The raccoon stepped out from behind the bin and sniffed the air in my general direction. “Lady, it’s no fun being able to understand you, either. It’s creepy inside a human’s head. Got any scraps? It’s slim pickings out here in this weather.”
“Shoo.” I waved my shovel at it. If I could get it to go away, the prankster’s trick would be spoiled.
The raccoon backed up out of the way of the shovel, but stood quietly watching me, though I could see its snout twitching in the direction of the green bin. I’d had fish for dinner, and the bones and skin were in there, right on top. I thought I could smell them, and they made my mouth water. I could imagine how they would taste, how the bones would crunch in my teeth, how I would save the head for last, holding it in my little black paws…euw. As if.
Suppose the raccoon was rabid? Should I call someone from the City?
The raccoon went over to the fence, swung itself up onto the palings, climbed to the top and crouched there unhappily. “You’re just going to let them take that fish head away, aren’t you?”
I ignored it. I scraped the snow off the icy steps, trying to pay no attention to the way I hungered for the offal I’d thrown away, the splintery feel of the wood palings under all four of my paws, the way that my eyesight seemed fuzzy and the sounds of the cars too loud. I wasn’t thinking in raccoon, I wasn’t. When I was done, I stood at the bottom of the five steps and looked up at them. The glare from the ice coating them hurt my eyes. I turned my head, backed up a bit.
“Watch out!” came the smoky voice. I heard a scraping, screeching sound and leapt out of the way just as a car skidded up onto my sidewalk, missing me by inches. My front steps stopped it. The stairs shook, but held, although all the ice splintered away. No crystal stair, not any more.
A man leapt out of the driver’s side. “My god, I’m sorry!” he said. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” I told him. But really, I wasn’t paying him much attention. I turned to the raccoon, still crouched on the fence. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” it growled. “Just consider it my payment for your tomatoes.”
“That was you, then. You destroyed all my plants.”
The raccoon shrugged.
“Lady,” said the man, “I’m so sorry.”
By then, a teenager had climbed out of the passenger side. “It’s the brakes,” she muttered.
“Your brake shoes just went.” She looked at me and rolled her eyes. “1999 Passat. The rotors are crap. I told Dad he’d soon be singing the Ancient Volkswagen Blues.”
“Never mind that,” her father said. “Look. It’s the same here, too.” He was pointing to my back yard. From out of it – from everyone’s yard, really – squirrels were climbing down from the trees and converging on the street. Raccoons came too, and the occasional deer. Mice. Rats. Cats and dogs. A moving carpet of snails and slugs. More bugs than I wanted to think about. Birds were massing in the sky, flocking to the electric wires and the lintels of houses. I saw a gazillion sparrows, a million pigeons and gulls. Even the hawks were flocking. Hawks don’t flock. “It was like this on our street, too,” said the man. “I got us out of there, but it’s the same everywhere.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Beats me, lady,” warbled a starling from the railing of my abused stairs. “And can you open that plastic thing, already? Some of us are hungry here.”
I heard a hollow crash and a tiny metallic tinkle. A bear had cracked the bin open with one swipe. Cautiously, the smaller animals near it moved in on the feast.
Now the people were showing up; in cars, on foot through the snow, in wheelchairs, on bicycles.
They gathered by the side of the road, leaving the street itself clear. That was important; I knew it somehow.
Granny Nichol’s door opened. She let her dog Trevor out. “Good morning, everyone!” she said. She stepped onto her porch. She was carrying a bird cage. In it, a parrot shrieked and hopped from its swing to the floor of its cage and back again. “Shh, Billy, shh,” she crooned.
“Get me the bleep outta here, lady!” it cawed. “It’s time, can’t you tell?”
“Yes, I can, dear. Just hold your horses.”
Granny Nichol put the cage on the floor of her porch and creakily opened its door. The parrot leaped out. “Finally!” it hollered. Its wings were clipped, so it climbed, beak and claws, to join its avian cousins perched on Granny’s eavestrough. Pets were exiting from all the houses, freed by their owners, who were also coming out onto the sidewalk.
“What about people’s tropical fish?” the teenager asked. “They can’t come out into this cold.”
Nobody answered her, because just then, the sky directly above us went dark. “Is it the Apocalypse?” cried someone.
“Don’t be an idiot,” replied someone else.
If it was the Apocalypse, it was taking the form of a row of lumpy, somewhat spherical objects, each about four storeys high, landing soundlessly in the street in either direction as far as the eye could see. You know when an orange goes bad, and gets this kind of pretty blue fuzz on it? They looked like that. Funny; I always thought spaceships would be shiny and metal. Like in the movies. These looked like something I’d throw into my composting bin.
A bulge appeared in the side of each object. I wasn’t scared. I don’t think anyone was. We all just waited. The raccoon kept gnawing on the fish head it had retrieved.
Each bulge split open, and an animal or two stepped, slithered or flew out. I saw a hippopotamus, and a lynx, and I think a cassowary. A colourful butterfly clung to the alligator’s brow, like a bow-ribbon. A human being came out of one ship, leaning on a goat for support. She was old – the human, I mean — and her features were African, and she was smiling.
They all came out, and behind them, their ships sealed, like those cool bandages. They all started talking to us, though no one’s lips moved.
The ship in front of my house had disgorged some kind of cow, or antelope, or deer. No, too chesty for a deer, and too graceful for a cow. It had close, tawny fur, with deep brown stripes on its face and sides. Two long, thin horns stuck out from the top of its head. On its shoulder was a bird. The bird was smallish and plump, almost round. Its feathers were a deep grey with whitish flecks. It had a yellow beak with a reddish bit around its nostrils.
The beast picked its way carefully towards us through the snow. The bird on its shoulders wobbled, but hung on. They got close to us, stopped, looked us over. We looked back.
“So,” said the antelope thing, “anybody wanna ride?”
“In that?” asked the bear. It got down on all fours, sniffed at the rotten orange ship.
“Yeah,” said the bird. “You can come if you want to. It’s a hoot.”
An owl on a telephone pole above us hooted. The pigeons laughed.
“Where does it go?” asked the raccoon.
The antelope thing looked thoughtful. “Best I can describe it is, next door. You can visit, and if you like it, you can stay. Or you can come back here. Whaddya say?”
“Can we think about it?” asked the man who’d crashed into my front stairs.
“No. No time.” The bird was addressing us over its shoulder. The antelope thing was already heading back to the ship. “Now or never. One-time offer only.”
“Wait!” yelled a cat, turning in fretful circles at my feet.
The beast stopped and turned around. “We’ve discovered,” it said, “that there are two kinds of creatures. The ones who come with us, we call them the Adventurers.”
“And the others?” hissed the cat.
“We call them the Beautiful Losers. Because this Earth is beautiful and fearful, and it’s a brave choice to stay, to never see anywhere but it. Just touch the skin of the ship, and it’ll open for you.” They disappeared back inside.
“Oryx and crake created He them,” whispered the young woman.
“What?” I said.
“That was a spotted crake, and the thing it was sitting on was an oryx.”
Birds were streaming into the ship. Granny Nichol was making her way to it as quickly as she could go. Her parrot, however, had clambered down to the porch and was headed determinedly back inside the house.
“Honey,” said the man, “I really want to go. You coming?”
The young woman smiled at her father. “You go, Dad,” she said. “I like being rockbound.”
He hugged her tightly.
“But you have to come back, okay?” she said. “So you can tell me all about it.” She stood and waved while he disappeared into the ship’s side. “Aren’t you going?” she asked me.
Nearly every creature had made its choice. I saw smaller rotten-orange pods flying out of windows and doors. The tropical fish, I thought. And the shut-ins and the babies. I guessed that some of the ships had gone into the rivers, lakes, and seas. I looked at the snow shovel in my hands. Stay and shovel snow, or go and see what lay next door to this world?
The young woman gave me a gentle shove on the shoulder. “Go on,” she said.