Fiction – “Equatorial Snow” by Fadzlishah Johanabas
When I was a boy, I thought that cotton blown off the trees at the back of my grandmother’s house was snow – white, weightless, soft. I thought of snow as romantic, like the part where John Cusack reunites with Kate Beckingsale in Serendipity. I had always wished to travel to Europe just to see the miracle, the beauty of it. But I never expected to live through endless snowstorms in the middle of Kuala Lumpur.
Even under three layers of jackets, the cold bit into my flesh, seeped into my aching bones. Powdery snow crunched under my boots as I hastened to the mosque, well before the call for afternoon prayer, or Zuhur. I remember a time when at most only two saf – rows – filled the mosque at any of the five daily prayers. Two rows of mostly weary, retired folk, and children from the nearby religious school. Now I had to rush to find a spot within the walls of the main prayer hall.
On my way to the ablution pool, I walked past a long-haired man with tattoos peeking out of the collar of his jacket. I almost scoffed; permanent tattoos are strictly prohibited in Islam. But who am I to judge others, when the fast approaching Judgment Day would see me clambering over my own eternal fate?
A sheet of ice layered the whole expanse of the waist-high pool, and frozen droplets hung from the taps that lined the lower half of its tiled walls. Water that turned my fingertips blue chugged out of one of the taps in erratic spurts. I dabbed my wet, shaking palms over my face, my forearms, my ears and my feet in ablution. I used to appreciate the texture of water that cooled my body in the tropical heat – heat that was now a distant memory after the first snowfall almost three months ago.
I pulled on my mittens and socks and rubbed my palms together to return circulation to my numb fingertips. I weaved past men huddled close to one another and sat beside an old man who leaned against one of the support pillars. His eyes were closed, and his frail form almost disappeared under his oversized windbreaker. The cold penetrated the spacious hall, as it did in every building in this country. Malaysian buildings had been built to withstand rain and sun, but little else. For us, an air-conditioned room at seventeen degrees Celsius warranted a thick blanket. Our cities, our country, lay near the equator, with twelve hours of sun every day throughout the year. That was before United Nations geoengineers blanketed the world with clouds of sulfur to battle the worsening global warming. They had promised a miracle cure, but they had not foreseen an intervention from nature.
The call for prayer blared from the loudspeakers, shaking me off my musing. All around me the men rose to fill up row after row, but the one beside me did not stir from his sleep. I tapped his shoulder. He slid and landed on his left side, lifeless. I offered him a silent prayer and left him there; others would attend to him afterward. The old man would not receive a proper funeral. Too many had died from the cold and the chaos in the past few months, including my elder sister’s entire family and my wife’s parents. I believe the people who had died were the lucky ones; they would not see the end.
I stayed awhile longer afterward. I lifted my hands before my face and spoke to God. He never answered no matter how much I pleaded or threatened – not that I ever expected Him to. I could have easily joined the rest of the world in abandoning God, to join in the plundering and destruction, or to give up on life altogether, but my faith wouldn’t let me. The end of the world had been foreseen, had been written in the Quran. I refused to shame myself before God, not when He had blessed my wife and me with a child. Each time I speak to God, I pray for my family, that we can provide our unborn child with love and safety for as long as we have left. I pray for a gentle death when the time comes.
Silent snow gathered on my cap and jacket as I walked back home with my neighbor, whom I met on my way out of the mosque. We didn’t trade words, both lost in our own thoughts, and parted ways with a half-hearted wave. My black Sentra crouched on the driveway with a blanket of white concealing most of its surface. I had not driven it much of late. Petroleum was tightly controlled, and its price ridiculous. I could barely afford to pay for the limited electricity we were allocated each month, for the canned food closely guarded by armed military personnel. When the first public announcement had been made, most people looted jewelry and electrical appliances stores. I aimed for baby food, diapers and clothing. I paid for what I could, and grabbed what I could not. I doubt anyone cared; the first days had been total chaos. I’ve been praying for forgiveness ever since.
I found my wife huddled under layers of blankets in our room, the only one with the lights turned on to save electricity. We didn’t have a heater; nobody in his or her right mind had ever imagined we would need one in a country where the daily temperature had been almost forty degrees Celsius. I had lined the walls in the room with every blanket and bedspread I could spare for insulation. As a result, the room looked like a colorful cave.
Her smile was brighter than the sun when she saw me walking into the room. “Amri. You just missed a contraction.”
I snuggled beside Zarina and rested my hand on her taut, distended abdomen. She looked so beautiful, her face aglow, that I forgot about the futureless days ahead. I kissed her forehead, warm against my lips. Her due date was not for another two weeks, but this being our first child, we didn’t know what to expect.
“How long was it this time?”
“A few seconds.”
“Did it hurt?”
Zarina shifted to her side. “Just uncomfortable. My tummy felt tight. I’m fine, Amri. You worry too much.”
“Well, it’s not like we know what we’re doing here. If our parents were alive – ”
She pressed her finger on my lips. “Amri. We agreed not to talk about it.”
I sighed and slumped on my back. “Sorry, Sayang. I just – I’m scared, you know?”
“Me too. Have faith, Amri. When the time comes, we’ll know what to do.” Zarina made it sound so simple.
I sighed and kissed her hand. “You’re right. You rest here, and I’ll cook lunch. Rice with baked beans and cream of chicken okay?”
She scrunched her face before nodding. “Sounds delicious.”
I put on my shoes and headed for the kitchen. In my culture, shoes were not worn in the house. But the marble floor in the hallway and the tiles of the kitchen retained the cold. At least we wore clean ones just to be used in our home. I used the microwave oven to heat up the food; I was saving the gas stove for more desperate times.
I was whistling, tiny clouds forming with each breath, when Zarina screamed my name. I left the steaming bowl of chicken broth on the table and rushed to the room. She was sitting up on the bed, the blankets thrown to one side. A small dark pool lay between her legs.
“Amri, what’s happening?”
“It’s all right, Sayang. I – ”
Zarina screamed and clutched her abdomen. More blood seeped out of her sweatpants. I jumped to her side and cradled her close. We were both trembling.
“Can you stand up? We’re going to the hospital.”
I held her close as we made our way to the car. While she settled in her seat, I turned on the ignition. The car wouldn’t start. I tried again and again. The engine chugged and spurted, but wouldn’t come to life.
It took the ambulance a full ten minutes to arrive. By then, Zarina was already weak – from the frequent contractions, from blood loss, I couldn’t tell. The paramedics strapped on wires and gadgets over her heart and abdomen, the former to monitor her heartbeat, and the latter to monitor the baby’s.
“Fetal distress,” I heard one of the paramedics say. “Warn the hospital, stat.” I had no idea what the middle-aged man was saying, but I knew it didn’t sound good.
Zarina grabbed hold of my hand with desperate strength as they wheeled her into the ambulance. I trotted to keep up, and sat beside her.
“Amri, don’t leave me, okay?”
“I’m right here, Sayang. It’ll be all right.” For both our sakes, and the baby’s, I hoped it wasn’t a lie.
The siren screeched as we rushed to the hospital, but having it turned on or off would not have made a difference. I could see from the rear window how deserted the streets were. A few cars lay broken and forgotten along the way, but the absence of lunch hour traffic was obvious. Few people had any jobs left; fewer still, like myself, actually wanted to go to work. I clung to the sense of normalcy, even though it was just an illusion.
Much worse than the absence of traffic was the absence of life. I used to take it all for granted. Lush trees of myriad shades of green used to line the streets, in front of buildings, even within the confines of abandoned construction sites. Flowering plants with more colors than the occasional rainbow had been groomed to make up logos, building names and public messages like “love your country.” White storks could be spotted toward sunset, perching on tall streetlights. Birds had always flown the skies, and chirped and cawed noisily everywhere. I also used to see people milling about everywhere I turned. But now the skeletons of trees stood dry and dead. Birds no longer flew the steel-gray sky. Now I saw only shades of black peeking between an endless white.
The general hospital was uncharacteristically devoid of activity. I had been here a few years ago, and the press of humanity had been overwhelming. Above all, I remember the noise. People talking, groaning or screaming in pain, arguing with the staff at the top of their lungs, and the sirens of incoming ambulances. But when the back door opened this afternoon, only the sigh of the weary wind greeted us. A middle-aged woman in a white uniform shuffled to help us ease Zarina into the emergency room. A young doctor who looked my age came a few minutes later, his face haggard.
“I need to attend to the patient privately, so if you don’t mind?” He didn’t even bother to make eye contact.
A nurse pulled the dull yellow curtains closed, and I was left with silhouettes to tell me what was happening. I stood by the door and waited; it was the only thing I could do. I prayed for Zarina’s safety, for the child’s well-being, and for courage. I prayed that God was listening.
After fifteen minutes that spanned an eternity, the doctor pulled the curtain open. Fresh blood coated his latex gloves. He yanked them off and threw them into the yellow bin beside me. This time he looked up to meet my eyes, but his expression was as tired as before. “The placenta is low-lying and is partially occluding the os. Normally I’d recommend complete bed rest for a few days, but the fetus is distressed.”
I hold a Master’s Degree in Mass Communication and Journalism, but this was beyond me. “Sorry?”
“I need to do a Cesarean Section and get the baby out now or both of them will die.”
I remember the day I drove Zarina to the empty land near the Kuala Lumpur International Airport at Sepang, an hour’s drive from our home. Newspapers and televisions had announced that a UN cloud-seeder plane would fly by that area and make clouds that would partially reflect sunlight. Kuala Lumpur was also one of the hundred spots around the world chosen to launch a high-flying jet carrying sulfur dioxide. I didn’t understand what it all meant, not even geoengineering; I’m a journalist, not a scientist. But my wife, a Secondary School Physics teacher, loved anything scientific.
We thought the empty space would be empty. We were wrong. Over a hundred cars had already parked in an orderly fashion – there were even a few burly Indian men who guided incoming cars to allotted spaces, at five ringgit a car, of course.
We sat in our car with the air-conditioning turned on full blast. Even then, sweat beaded on my forehead, neck and back. Cumulous clouds had gathered on the horizon, but otherwise the sky was a brilliant blue. Yellow, shriveled grass and dry earth dominated the open field, with isolated patches of green. Zarina kept her hands on the lower part of her abdomen, her pregnancy barely showing.
I craned my neck out my rolled-down window, but no airplane was within sight. Two helicopters from local television stations hovered past us a few times, though. “How is this cloud going to stop global warming, anyway?”
“When a volcano erupts, it releases this huge cloud, right?” Zarina waved her hand ever upward, mimicking an erupting volcano, I guess.
“Like the one in Iceland?”
She nodded. “The cloud contains sulfur dioxide. In the stratosphere – ”
“Upper sky. These particles get converted into sulfate and act like a shield to filter energy from the sun, and cool the Earth.”
“Sorta like the tint filament on this windscreen?” I tapped the glass surface with my knuckle.
“Something like that.”
“You think it’ll work?”
“UN approved a worldwide seeding. It’d better work.”
A gentle hum grew louder then, and before long, the drone of the huge UN airplane rotors dominated the sky. White mist sprayed from along the wingspan, and the plane left just as swiftly as it appeared, leaving trails of white.
“That’s it?” I have to say, I was a bit disappointed.
A jet suddenly came into view, ever gaining altitude, and streaked the sky with jet-stream. We craned our neck to follow the aircraft until it was a speck, and then as it sped back earthward.
Zarina beamed at me. “The plane that flew by was just a cloud-seeder, using salt water to make white clouds. That jet was the real show. Over ten kilometers up before dispersing the sulfur dioxide aerosols.”
Every day for a week after the seeding, the television showed live satellite feeds of Earth being slowly engulfed by clouds, until it was a spherical cocoon with no trace of blue, green or brown. Zarina sat down and cried at the sheer beauty of it, and I almost joined her.
Within a month global temperature dropped by two degrees Celsius – not much, but we undeniably felt the difference, especially at night. The geoengineers responsible for Mission White Blanket became instant celebrities. The sun still greeted us, if somewhat dimmed. I missed the sun, to be honest. I missed its warmth on my face. But the clouds would dissipate in a month or so, according to the scientists.
Then, six weeks after the creation of the artificial cloud cover, the unthinkable happened. The Yellowstone Caldera in America erupted. Instead of a thin layer of white clouds, thick clouds of ash spread throughout the world, including over Malaysia, blocking off the sun altogether. North America felt the brunt of it, with a third of its population decimated, and the entire continent buried in at least three inches of ash and debris. Air traffic was impossible. Even satellite signals could not penetrate the thick clouds. The temperature plummeted further. If it wasn’t for the underwater internet cable networks, we would have been cut off from the rest of the world. My journalist contacts from across the globe kept on updating me their current situations, and I did the same.
“My contact in Bogota said he’s never seen so many people packed in one place,” I commented as Zarina and I watched the latest news update. Countries of extreme latitudes were already experiencing the worst frost in years.
“Almost a billion dead, Amri. I never thought a volcanic eruption could be this bad.”
“Did the geoengineering project cause this? I thought the volcano at Yellowstone was supposed to be inactive.”
“I don’t think so. Maybe nature had its own plan to cool the Earth. I don’t think the scientists expected this to happen.”
“So will the temperature drop further?”
Zarina bit her lower lip. “I hope not by much.”
Then the first snowflakes floated down from the equatorial sky.
Initially we were all elated. Seeing snow for the first time in our lives made us forget our worries. Zarina and I skidded and slid on the road in front of our house and threw snowballs at each other. We waged snowball wars with neighboring children. We were cold, but we had fun. When the temperature kept on dropping, it dawned on everyone that we had no protection against the cold.
Total chaos ensued.
It must have been at least two hours before the doctor came out and sat on a plastic chair not far from where I was kneeling. I stood up with difficulty and thumped my thighs to return circulation to my feet. I sat beside him and kept my eyes on his face.
The doctor leaned back against the blue wall and pinched his eyes with his fingertips. I knew he noticed my proximity, my agitation, but he continued as if he was alone. From his face, from his posture, I knew he was exhausted. But I could not tell if he bore good news or bad.
“How are they, Doctor? How is Zarina, and my child?”
“I used to be a good Christian, you know?” His fingers moved from his eyes to rub his temples. “I used to attend Mass every week, no matter how busy things got. I’ve worked for six years, and I’ve had forty-nine patients who died on me. Do you know how many deaths I’ve seen since Malaysia became a freezer?”
I didn’t want to know how many deaths; only two lives mattered to me now. But I kept silent and waited.
“Nine-hundred-and-sixty-one. I count them all. I write each name in a book, even though those names don’t mean anything to me. God abandoned us. God has left us. I don’t think there even is a God, actually.”
“Please. I need to know if my family is all right.”
He opened his bloodshot eyes and looked at me. “Do you believe in God, Mister….”
“Amri. Mohd Amri bin Omar. And yes, I still have faith in God.”
“Even after what He’s done to you and your wife?”
I felt my heart lodged in my throat. “What happened? Is Zarina all right? Is the baby alive?”
“It’s the cold, and I don’t have enough staff and equipment – ” He stopped himself midsentence and looked straight at me. “I envy you, Mister Amri. I envy your faith in your God.”
I took a deep breath and thought of a different way to approach him. “Why are you still here, helping people, when you could’ve easily stopped?”
He was silent for a few moments. “I’ve always wanted to be a doctor. Healing people, helping them, makes me happy. I don’t have a family left to go home to. Most of my friends are gone. This is the only thing I have left. Either this, or throw myself off the roof.”
“You may say you don’t believe in God anymore, but I don’t think it’s true. I think part of you refuses to let go, and that’s why you’re here, helping us.”
He let out a laugh that sounded more like a sigh. “After what just happened, I think you may be right. Go on, your wife’s in the recovery room, straight ahead.”
I rose and squeezed the doctor’s slumped shoulder. “Thank you.”
“I should be the one thanking you.”
My feet felt heavy, and my heart beat so fast that my chest ached. Zarina was safe, that much was clear. But the doctor had not said anything about my child. The doors slid open too slow, the trot to the recovery area stretched too far. Zarina lay propped up by the window just outside the operating theater proper. She held a blanketed bundle in her arms, and her cheeks glistened with tears. I kept my eyes on the sky-blue blanket she held. There was no movement. Outside, the sky cried tears of snow.
She didn’t look up, she didn’t acknowledge me. She was still looking at the bundle she held, her tears flowing freely down her pale face.
“Sayang. Alhamdulillah, you’re all right.”
I reached to kiss her forehead, but a tiny, wrinkled hand shot out of the blanket and stopped me short. I looked down. The baby’s face scrunched as it yawned, and its eyes opened a fraction before returning to mere slits. Blood and whitish fatty material covered its body in messy patches, and it was wiggling, squirming in Zarina’s arms. The baby was alive. The doctor had not added a new name in his book.
“Amri,” she whispered between sobs, “this is our son.”
I held out my trembling forefinger toward the baby and he held on to it with his outstretched right hand. Four fingers and a thumb. He was perfect. My knees turned to mush and I had to hold on to the bed’s railing for support.
“I want to name him Isa, Amri.”
Isa. God is my salvation. “Isa bin Mohd Amri. The name’s perfect.”
Isa chose that moment to let out a wail that pierced the sterile silence of the hospital. It was a good sound to hear amidst the white desolation.
I followed Zarina’s gaze out the window just in time to see a shaft of sunlight peeking onto the road outside for a few seconds before disappearing again.
I held Zarina close, with my forehead kissing hers. Isa squirmed and bawled between us. I felt warm tears on my cheeks as I enveloped my family in my arms.
About the Author
Fadzlishah Johanabas, from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, has never seen actual snow. He intends to, maybe sometime soon. His speculative short stories are at various stages of publication at COSMOS, Aether Age: Helios, Expanded Horizons, Northern Frights Publishing, and Skive Magazine, among others. He can be found at http://fadziruddin.blogspot.com.