Happy Camp

Max Wheeler

Max Wheeler

August 2022

Athithúfvuunupma / Happy Camp

When she couldn’t fall asleep at night, which was often, Mary would picture one by one the faces of everyone she knew, in her world that felt like it would never change. She’d start there in the house with her dad and mom and grandma and little sister, picture each of them smiling and then frowning and then laughing, and she’d picture herself laughing too. Then her family who didn’t live with her, Uncle Ron who took her fishing and Auntie Vikki who wore too-tight shirts and gave her mints and Auntie Grayce who did traditional dancing and made films. Then she’d go through all the people she knew at school, starting with classmates she liked, and then ones she didn’t like, and then the same with the teachers. Last was the people she knew around town, the pastor and the ladies at church and the tall guy at the corner store with the dirty hair and the girl who was a rafting guide and never wore shoes.

If she still wasn’t asleep, she’d picture the veins in her body branching out like in the diagram Ms. Fredericks had shown their class. It reminded Mary of the river when you saw it on a map, little creeks pouring into big ones—but flowing in reverse, from the big to the small. Then she would picture the river here where it ran near her house, water striders skimming its surface and trees dipping their toes along the bank, the sun glinting in a million sparkles, the quiet bodies of fish swaying their tails back and forth but somehow also perfectly still.  Then she was usually asleep.

It was a Saturday. She’d made it all the way to the river in her mind the night before. This week there was something electric jumping around right under her skin that made her want to move. She did her chores quickly, telling her grandma and sister about the book she was reading with the girl who solved crimes with her dog. Then she asked if she could go for a walk. Grandma Pearl looked out the window, frowning.

 “The air is bad today, my love. Wear a mask, and be back soon. Today will have to be mostly an inside day.” Pearl put the final dish on the drying rack, wiped her hands on her skirt, and picked up the newspaper from the table. As of this morning, the fire to the north was still only 16% contained.

“Will I still have my soccer game today?” Mary’s sister Corinne, two years younger, was already starting to pout. Mary tried not to roll her eyes.

“We’ll have to wait and see, but I want you to be ready to be a big girl if you can’t play today.”

“Yeah, don’t cry about everything,” Mary added. Then she put on her shoes and bounced out the door before Grandma Pearl could scold her. On her way out she passed her mom tending to the garden in the front yard.

“Mom I’m going to the river,” she yelled without stopping. Louise started to tell her daughter to come back, that today wasn’t a day for the river, but Mary was already around the corner and gone.

She took her usual route, past the Happy Camp community center, turning right at the Church of Latter Day Saints, going by her old elementary school (how much smaller it seemed now; what a baby she had been), through the baseball fields, and meeting up with a little path that led her through the trees to the river. She thought about how much fun it would be if she had a dog of her own, picturing it bounding ahead in front of her, alerting her to interesting things along the way. Grandma Pearl was right about the air. Even through her mask, Mary smelled smoke, and everything looked a little too yellow. The trees went right up to the bank, so she didn’t see what else was wrong until it was right in front of her.

Bloated white fish bellies floated in a curdled mass against the bank, jostling against each other in the current. Mary’s hands and feet started sweating. For a long couple of seconds she couldn’t stop looking at the pile of bodies, their sad mouths open to the air. A tide of disgust rose within her and she turned and ran, gasping through her mask, back home.

Mary called her dad at the Karuk tribal office where he worked to see if he knew why the fish were dead. He had already heard about the mass kill, and thought that a detailed explanation might calm his science-obsessed daughter:

“Remember how it rained a lot the day before yesterday, and how there’s a big wildfire going right now?” Mary nodded even though she knew her dad couldn’t see her. “Well, that rain washed a whole lot of sediment and debris down into the river, which reduced the oxygen levels in the water so the fish couldn’t breathe anymore.” Mary fiddled with her necklace, tracing her finger around the big shell at the center. She wanted to explain that she was crying because she was angry, not sad or a baby, but the words got caught in the lump in her throat as she gasped for breath.


October 2022 


Mary stood outside the capitol building, her chin jutting out, holding up her hand painted sign with pictures of trees: “Worth more standing.” Her mom and auntie Grayce were there too. Grayce’s sign read, “The Answer to Climate Change is LAND BACK.”

There were over a hundred people in a semi-circle in front of the doorways, chanting and singing as legislators and bureaucrats came into work; they were mostly Pomo and a few people from other tribes, like Mary and her family. A couple of white people too, holding Land Back and Restore Tribal Stewardship signs. A few folks were handing out leaflets explaining how CalFire abruptly decided, after months of supposed cooperation with tribal leadership, to start logging the Jackson Demonstration Forest despite the Pomo people’s concerns and objections.

Mary didn’t want to step away, but after a while it became unbearable. “Mom, I have to go pee,” she whispered.

“Okay baby, why don’t you go ahead and see if there’s a bathroom at the museum entrance around the corner there,” she responded in a horrifyingly full-volume voice. Mary took her sign with her and marched out of sight.

A tall man with veiny blue eyes walked up to her as she was coming back out of the building. He saw her sign and her red shirt and long black hair and gestured back towards the protest. “Are you one of them?” He didn’t wait for her answer. “You have no idea how things work in the real world. You’re always expecting something for nothing.” He was swaying a little while he spoke.

Mary’s heart raced, and she felt the electricity under her skin. “You’re the one who doesn’t understand how the world works!” She heard her voice come out louder than she meant it. He flinched, and she continued. “You are so stupid, thinking you are the only one who knows things. I know things too, like how the fish died because there was no oxygen in the river. You--” He interrupted her, spitting a little. “Stupid girl.” He was so close she could smell his sweat.

Without thinking about it, she stomped on his foot and ran back over to her mom.

“Everything go okay?”

Mary’s heart was pounding too hard. “Yes. Fine. I found the bathroom by the museum.” 

A few minutes later, a screech of cops cars, blue-clad officers yelling through their bullhorns for everyone to disperse. “THIS IS AN ILLEGAL ASSEMBLY. IF YOU DO NOT MOVE YOU WILL BE ARRESTED.” The voice crackled and sputtered. “THIS IS AN ILLEGAL ASSEMBLY. IF YOU DO NOT MOVE YOU WILL BE ARRESTED.” It sounded distant and robotic, but when she looked at the face behind the megaphone, it was definitely flesh, flushed red and sweating. 

Mary’s mom pulled her away, along with many of the other protestors who had various reasons for not wanting to be arrested. But some people, instead of moving away, as told by the screaming cops, sat down and started singing.

There were several more minutes of loud, spluttered warnings, and then Mary watched horrified from the square across the street as people were wrenched up by their arms and put into handcuffs. She felt sure that she had caused this, that the man she’d stepped on had called the cops and told them that people were being violent. She turned away, fists clenched and cheeks hot, as six white-haired Pomo elders were shoved into cop cars. 

She felt her mistake like a free fall, her stomach in the wrong spot, her heart sending waves of panic, her jaw clenched to hold down the nausea.


Mary was awake in her hotel room that night, listening to her family breathe around her. She pictured the man’s face near hers. She wondered what would have happened if she’d just walked away—maybe if the police hadn’t been called, someone important would have noticed the protest and told other important people to do something helpful.

She couldn’t tell anybody. All through the five and a half hour drive the next day she was silent, wondering why she had done it, wondering what would happen to the people who had been arrested. One had long gray braids and moved like her grandma Pearl did, with her bad hip. She wondered if there a soft place to sit in jail. As they got off the freeway and started winding along the river, her discomfort curled tighter in her stomach.

Before she could hide away in her room, Auntie Grayce pulled her aside. “Look, kiddo. I can always tell when something is bothering you.” 

Her shame had its hand around her throat; she couldn’t explain how what had happened was her fault. Grayce took her silence to mean she was feeling frustrated at the injustice of it all.

“Look, this is a long process, and you can’t always tell what will be the moment when things turn a corner—you just keep going because that’s what we’ve always done. We are caretakers, even when that means fighting and fighting for our right to be that. Did your dad tell you about the four dams they are going to take down up here? For a long time we thought it would never happen, but now it looks like it really will, and that will be good not just for the river but for all the human and more than human relatives around it.” 

Mary nodded. A mosquito landed on her arm, and she considered for a moment before slapping it dead.


November 2026

Happy Camp

There was a fan running in the corner, but all it did was move the hot air around and rustle stacks of papers on the desk. Mary watched as her dad, livid, did an excellent job keeping his voice level as he faced the Forest Service official.

“We had an agreement, and I can only take it now that you’ve been working with us in bad faith. The dam removal was a huge success—did you see the numbers we’ve had on the salmon run for the last three years? Why would you back out now, when this next stage will clearly continue to serve all of our goals?”

“Look, you know that it’s complex, and we’ve decided after a thorough review that--”

Mary didn’t mean to chime in, but she heard her voice unwavering as she interrupted him. “This is bullshit! It completely violates our sovereignty.” As an intern, she was supposed to be observing this conversation. The official held his face in a composed mask, looking her way for a moment before turning back to her father.

“We need to consider all of the stakeholders here.” He droned on for several minutes about resource management, water allotments, and the considerations of farmers upriver. Before dismissing them, he said to her father: “I think we can keep the interns out of any future meetings."

On the way home, Mary fumed to her father, who didn’t need to be reminded: What we need is our land back.

“You’re not wrong, Mary, but lashing out isn’t going to help our case. Do you think they care about sovereignty? You need to be cunning. And you need to be patient. And you need to try to remember to hold your tongue.”

“But what he’s doing is fucked up!”

“I know that! But he’s also my boss’s boss, Mary. Think about that.”

Her dad never seemed weak to her, but why wasn’t he pushing harder? Bundled up on the back porch that night, watching the stars emerge from the darkening sky, she felt embarrassed about her outburst. She replayed the moment in her mind like she was poking at a bruise. Was her dad ashamed of her? Would he get fired? Twin engines, usually working together, pulled in opposite directions: the desire to be good, and the desire for the right thing to happen. 


September 2028 

The drive down to Berkeley started with an hour and a half just to get to the interstate, winding next to the river on a tight tree-lined two-lane road. Mary knew it well, and even though she knew she’d be coming back in a few months to visit, she felt a jolt of regret each time they passed a spot she remembered in particular. Goodbye, pullout where Corinne threw up bright red after eating three bags of hot cheetos. Goodbye, Uncle Ron’s favorite fishing hole where they had to pick him up that time he was too drunk to drive home. Goodbye, picnic area where mom and dad got into a fight about whose job it had been to pack the cooler.

Her community and her family and her had been nested together her whole life, like concentric rings perfectly aligned, a pattern weaving unbroken from one to the next. As they merge onto I-5, she felt herself shift one notch away. As her dad helped her unload her bags and check into her dorm, and she hugged him goodbye, she clicks even further out of place. Would she soon be fully out of sync, no longer part of a discernible pattern at all?

Although she was used to her own room, living with two other girls in a tiny space doesn’t bother her that much. Alondra who is from San Diego seems nice, but Hannah gives her a weird impression from the start, introducing herself as a “Bay Area Native.” She didn’t mean that she was indigenous; just that she grew up nearby.

Strawberry Creek flowed through campus; Mary had to cross it to get to Organic Chemistry, and she appreciated its friendly trickle. And there were spots she liked where you could see down to the Bay—the sometimes sparkling, sometimes flat and gray body that gave the land some of its shape. But she missed the feeling of being in a forest, not just an occasional grove of trees. She accepted when Hannah invited her to go backpacking in the Sierras.

As they sped through the long stretch of the central valley, with almond orchards and corn fields stretching off on either side, Hannah explained her love of the mountains. 

“My family has been coming here forever, and so it just feels really special to me, you know? We had a cabin not too far from where I’m taking you that we’d visit a few times every year, before my parents got divorced and my dad decided to sell it. Those are my favorite childhood memories. And I just love being in the wilderness, where it still has that feeling of being untouched. Totally pristine. Not messed up by people yet.” She looked over at Mary, searching for some agreement about how terrible people are, and how beautiful the unmarred forests. 

In her head, Mary responded—the whole idea of a “pristine wilderness” has a bit of a colonizer vibe, don’t you think? And she heard Hannah’s wavery-voiced response: That’s not what I meant at all! But Mary didn’t say anything; she just smiled vaguely and looked out the window. 

The road rose and curved through the long, slow Western slope of the range. They drove through a completely burned area.  It stretched right up to the road and then over the other side, acres of charred trees at odd angles, the ground bare and black. Crews had come through and felled many of them; blackened trunks had been stacked in neat piles. Hannah sighed. “Seeing this just makes me so fucking sad.” 

“I know right?” Mary didn’t disagree with her. This wasn’t how fire is supposed to leave a landscape. 

“This whole place would be so much better off without us.” They’d stopped at a pullout to pee. Mary noticed the dusting of crimson where Clarkia flowers were growing in the after-burn, their petals jostling in the wind. 

“I don’t know, Hannah. There’s a lot of good that people do for the land, too.” In her head, she added: Thinking that you’re very bad is just as self centered as thinking you’re very good.


November 2028


“Hannah, can I borrow your car?” Mary was still looking at her phone as she asked. 

“Sure I guess. What for?”

“There’s a press conference about to happen that I want to be at. The City of Oakland just announced that another parcel of land is being given back to the confederate villages of Lisjan through the Sogorea Te’ land trust.” 

“Ooo okay! I’ve heard of them, actually I follow their instagram. Can I come? Can we go together?” 

Mary glanced at the digital flier again. Please Join Us for This Announcement. “Sure.”

They clustered in the generous shade of a wide oak, straining to hear the mayor, who wore a golden oak pinned to her lapel. Words like healing and genocide made it through between the roaring truck engines chugging up the hill. This was the second such easement, they reminded the reporters and neighbors who were gathered there, and will not be the last. Six years ago, the city had returned 5 acres, which the tribe was slowly turning into the cultural space they were dreaming of [see #1]. This much larger plot included the headwaters of a major creek, and the redwood forest that inhabited its steep shade. 

When the chairwoman of the land trust came to speak, she painted a picture of the future: creeks flowing uncovered again from the hills to the bay, freed from their concrete channels; abundant food grown and distributed locally on garden plots throughout the city; sacred shellmound sites along the bay restored to tribal hands just as these sacred sites in the hills were beginning to be. 

While the chairwoman spoke, Hannah leaned over and whispered to Mary, “Can you believe that we have just paved over those old burial grounds? Ugh, white people are the worst.” Mary ignored her, closing her eyes and trying to envision the world that was being painted for them. 

A breeze stirred up dust behind the podium; it hadn’t rained in over a year. 

They didn’t talk on the drive back to campus. Hannah kept sighing significantly, but Mary didn’t have the energy to ask about her thoughts. And how did she herself feel? Gratified? Some of the reporters had annoyed her, but it was so nice to hear some good news. She thought she detected a thread of anxious guilt winding through her guts. What are you doing for anyone right now? 

She was hurrying to class when her phone rang: mom calling. She didn’t answer, not wanting to be late, hating that feeling of walking in after the lecture has started. She turned her ringer off, so she didn’t notice that her mom tried again, and again. 

When she listened to the voicemail in the Gilman Hall bathroom, her stomach knotted at the pain in her mom’s voice telling her to please call back as soon as she could. She rushed outside with the phone to her ear, “Mom hi are you okay? What happened?”

“We just got back from the doctor, baby. We didn’t even know there was a problem, but your auntie Grayce is really sick. It’s ovarian cancer.” Her voice sounded exhausted and thin. “Stage four. They are starting chemo right away, and you know Grayce, she’s always one to put up a fight.” 

Mary sunk to her knees, students staring or trying not to stare as they weaved around her, hauling books and computers, wheeling bikes and texting, eating pastries and drinking iced coffee and talking and laughing and staring at their feet or the sky or each other. 

“I should come home.”

“I think she’d kill you if you missed your finals, baby.” Mary felt tears hot on her cheeks. She didn’t care what anyone said they wanted from her; she knew where she was supposed to be. “I’ll borrow my roommate’s car and come up this weekend, and then I can be back for finals week, and then see about next semester.”

When she got up there, all the aunties and uncles were at her house and her dad had made a lasagne the size of a bassinet. Grayce surrounded Mary in a bear hug before she started to cry, whispering in her ear. “Niece, you are playing the long game, and I need you to remember that.”

1 - The design for a sacred building on the site was based on an Ohlone basket design. Because none of their baskets remain in the area, members of the committee had to travel to London to take pictures of ones being held in a museum. (Corrina Gould, Sogorea Te’ press release, 9/8/22)


September 2035


Mary always listened to the radio on the way to work. “The Balford complex fire is at just 15% containment today, as windy conditions have increased the speed of its spread. Be aware of potential closures along Highway 4. Thanks to the updated emergency evacuation system, loss of life has so far been avoided, though upwards of 15,000 people are currently displaced by the blaze. Air quality throughout the Central Valley is in the purple range, and we advise listeners to keep windows closed and remain indoors as much as possible.”

People didn’t need to be reminded. The startling brown-tinged neon of the sunrise this morning had told Mary everything, and the windows at work were always closed anyways, air purifiers running non stop. She was early for the meeting with Brian, her boss, the chief water quality officer for the Central Valley water board. She clicked and unclicked her pen, jiggled her foot, and glanced around all the corners of the hall outside his office. 

The report she was here to explain was printed in her bag, and in a pdf on her computer, and waiting for Brian in his email inbox. A group was trying to get a referendum on the ballot that would shift official management of the state’s 1.4 million acres of State Park land to a consortium of tribal leadership, in partnership with the state National Resource Agency. It wasn’t expected to pass. Mary and her team thought that the Water Board should slyly support the bill by deciding in favor of tribal members in a related water rights dispute. And that was just the beginning. They had put together 107 pages of water quality tables, species diversity charts, and explorations of legal avenues, making a strong case for their main proposal: establish a structure for tribal oversight of California waterways, and officially establish all of the state’s water resources as a public trust. It was urgent. They knew these resources were chronically overdrawn, with a bias towards the largest consumers—oil and gas refiners, water bottlers, and enormous dairies. 

He shouted from inside his office that she could come in. She took a deep breath and a sip of water before entering. 

“I’m going to jump right in, Mary. I can’t get behind this.” He kept his eyes on his computer, hardly waiting for her to sit down before axing her ideas. “You know that in principle I support what you guys are advocating for. But honestly I thought that you understood the system we are working with a little better than this. You’ve wasted your time here. Our time, actually. I don’t remember authorizing any of the expenditures involved in this, much less the time you’ve invested.” He finally looked up, raising an eyebrow at her. 

“I understand that it is outside of the box,” she began. 

He laughed, cutting her off. “This isn’t outside the box, this is on a different planet from the box. This ignores the laws of physics that keep the box together. This is science fiction, Mary. No, worse, it’s fantasy.” 

There was a humming under Mary’s skin, like the buzz of an old fluorescent bulb, but she took a deep breath and rubbed the bridge of her nose. 

Brian leaned forward across the desk. “Look, person to person, I get it. I probably would agree with you that this is the right thing to do. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a possible thing to do.” 

If she said anything, she worried that it would be the wrong thing, so she muttered a quick thank you and walked out of the building into the haze. 

Something was lodged in her chest. Years of shame—the memories of every mistake or outburst—clogged her sense of purpose. The hard thing about the long game was knowing when the important moments were, what the turning points might be. She’d always liked and had been praised by Brian. She saw herself as just at the beginning of a successful career. She didn’t want to jeopardize that. 

She paced around the edge of a shut-off fountain in the courtyard, already nauseous from the smoke in the air. A puddle glistened sickeningly at the bottom, green and red with algae. A salamander lay belly up, white tinged with purple, bloated and misshapen.

Suddenly she was twelve, watching the fish corpses jostle each other on the shore of the Klamath. Watching Pomo protesters with white hair and wrinkled skin hauled into cop cars. She was sixteen, tight with anger and shame, watching her dad’s claims being dismissed by another bureaucrat. But she hadn’t been wrong then, and she wasn’t wrong now. She wanted to make good, necessary things happen. Maybe even if it meant getting in trouble. 

Brian allowed himself just an instant of looking surprised when she burst into his office, then arranged his face. 

“I believe in this, and I’m going to make it public.” 

He sighed. “Mary, look. I need you to understand that there is just a way that things function. And this isn’t it. I could honestly probably have you fired for having gone behind my back in the first place, much less releasing findings without the authorization of the board. I’m not a bad guy. You know that. But if you want to achieve anything you’re going to have to respect the processes that govern decision making in complex arenas like this.” 

Mary kept her eyes on his, remembering something she’d been told growing up. Humans aren’t the only ones who have ideas, dreams, desires. The river, the fish, and the forest have agency as well. That had always been evident to her. 

What she saw now was something new: the structures that humans make for themselves also have desires. Bureaucracy craves a lack of movement, it longs for tightly controlled action in narrowly circumscribed channels. It removes voice, makes words impossible, dreams irrelevant, logic circular. It’s like a dam, generating a specific kind of power at the expense of another, limiting choices and holding back momentum. 

Dams need removing— the water wants to circulate. Bureaucracies are harder to clearly excise from contemporary life. But Mary could picture something like a salmon ladder providing access upstream, a shortcut that allows movement to persist in the face of obstacles. 

He let her know that she was fired in an email just a few hours after she sent the report to every agency in the state. This won’t come as a surprise to you. This is a loss for our department, but you’ve violated our code of conduct and give us no choice. 

Mary’s college roommate Hannah, now a public radio reporter, was eager for stories related to the Land Back movement. Their conversation lasted two hours, and Mary was scared of her own candor. But she’d talked to her father to prepare, and he’d reminded her of herself.  She was a member of the Karuk tribe, a practitioner of pikyav—to fix it. She was his daughter, who had been brave since her youngest days. She was a single drop of water in a rising, powerful tide. “Just think— if your Auntie Grayce were here to see this, she would be so proud.”


I want to speak specifically to those of you who are descendents of settler-colonizers. You may feel guilty about your ancestors’ role in genocide and enslavement, whether active or complicit; you may feel embarrassed and defensive about the meaning of your presence on stolen land; or you may feel angry about your own hardships, your own losses and fears, and resent the idea that you have any advantages at all. Whatever emerges in you when you think about returning land to native people, I believe that you crave the same thing I do: to be in a healthy relationship with thriving, resilient land. 

I believe that we will pass this referendum. I urge you to support it, not only as a means of beginning to make amends for the injustices that haunt our country, but in your own self interest as well. We all live on land that is diverse and interconnected. It is also suffering. We’ve suffered with it, through the drought and fires and heat waves, trying to keep our lives as normal as possible. And it is clear to see that those areas, modest so far, that have been returned to tribal stewardship, have fared much better in the changing climate. We have the chance to bring so much back into balance. 

Mary felt embarrassed when she heard her own voice on the radio, but her friends assured her that she sounded like a badass. When the results of the referendum came in, the narrow but clear victory, she wondered what role her story had played in it.  It’s impossible to tell; human choices, like sediment swirling down a river, are a result of so many forces at once. But as she celebrated, clinking wine glasses with her friends and a few former colleagues, she felt something clicking into place in her chest. She was moving back in sync with herself.


August 2040

Los Banos

The sun glittered blindingly on the water of the aqueduct. Three massive, ramshackle rafts drifted down it, displaying their messages. “Defend California Farmers.” “Our State, Our Water, Our Choice.” Mary actually laughed in horror when she saw one of them, a cartoon parody of a native person sneaking off with a bucket of water. 

As a member of the public trust board that had been created to direct the slough of water policy changes, Mary felt obligated to lay eyes on the protest. Some people from the central valley were angry about the moratorium on new or expanding almond and alfalfa farms, and the process the board had initiated that would eventually dissolve the huge-scale dairy farms, which everybody knew wouldn’t be able to survive without massive federal subsidies anyways. 

It felt like these protest boats were floating by in a different dimension. Mary was glad to be outside without a respirator on this week. 

Nicky, a colleague from the board, walked up to her. “This is not going to go well for them when they get to the pumping station.” 

“Yeah for real. Not really our problem though. I was up late last night reviewing the environmental impact paperwork for the Eel undamming, and I think it’s looking good for release.” 

Nicky fiddled with a bracelet. “Did you ever imagine how much paperwork this job was going to involve?” Mary laughed warmly. “Look, what do you expect from combining tribal politics and public utility management?  But it’s good to step back every once in a while to remember the bigger picture. Fifteen years ago, if you’d have told me about the public water trust under tribal oversight, I would have laughed in your face and said not in my lifetime.”

“That’s the truth. So what do we do about these guys?” She gestured to the flotilla. 

“I think we ignore them? We’ve got a meeting about the Eel.”

The rafts continued their slow movement, jostling up against the concrete banks. Nicky and Mary made their way through the heat to the high-speed train that would take them back to Sacramento. The melting snow in the Sierras trickled its way into a thousand lakes and streams and rivers. The machine of policies and procedures that Mary maneuvered within—still a beast, but one with a bit more of a soul than it used to have—made its will felt in all the dwindling, precious waters of the desert state. 


November 2055 

Athithúfvuunupma / Happy Camp

The line of fire edged slowly forward, sending smoke into the branches of the tanoak trees and up over the ridge. Dozens of people stood around watching, tending. 

Chris, who was just sixteen but had a knack for it, moved his hands to control the drone that monitored smoke conditions and the line of the burn. He showed the footage later to his mom, explaining how the wind changes how good of a harvest they’ll see in a few years on this spot. Mary smiled. “I’m going down to the river for a little pre-dinner sit. Want to join?”

While they walked through the old elementary school, where Chris had taken language classes that didn’t exist yet in Mary’s childhood, he pointed out all the spots he remembered. This is where I got in trouble for hitting Russell. This is where Alina broke her arm falling out of that tree right there. Mary added in a few stories of her own. This is where I caught my friends kissing during recess. That field is where your Auntie Corinne scored her very first goal. 

They got to the edge of the river. She said it only in her head: this is where the fish all died. She’d told Chris the story before, and didn’t need to remind him now. This wasn’t looking like a great year for the Salmon. The river was undammed from sea to source now, but the warming ocean couldn’t feed as many to even try to make it back home. 

They watched the water run past, rippling dark as the light faded. It carried flecks of ash and water striders and fallen leaves. Mary looked at Chris’s face as he tossed a stone in, laughing at him a little. “What?” He seemed slightly hurt by her teasing. “The ripples are cool.”

“You’re right, love. It’s just the universal impulse to throw a stone into a river that makes me laugh. But I love it too.” She picked up a stone and threw it in. 

“The way the ripples grow, and spread, and disappear.”

Max Wheeler is a trans writer living on unceded Ohlone land in Oakland, CA. He recently quit teaching high school and now spends his time watching birds, tending to plants, and imagining alternate futures. His fiction has been published by Rough Cut Press and will soon be appearing in the Heavy Feather Review's feature #nomorepresidents. You can find him on instagram @mxwheels. 

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