What We Yield
Reading Time: 3 minutes
"What We Yield" originally appeared in Issue 20 of Tahoma Literary Review. While the very-possible and ominous reality of this story may fill us with dread, this piece packs a punch and a twisted sense of hope.
When the king tides flooded Waikīkī and box jellyfish floated along Kalākaua Avenue, I failed to understand that it had anything to do with me. But two years later, when the number of applicants to the private high school where I was principal had declined by nearly fifty percent, I began to feel the stings.
I was struggling to replace that third of our faculty who, having seen the writing on the wall, had left these islands behind. If I were smarter, or less stubborn, I might have followed them, but after a long, steep climb up the career ladder, I couldn’t bring myself to abandon my position so easily. So we proceeded to weather a half-decade of more flooding, voracious hurricanes, ocean acidification and coral bleaching, plummeting real estate, an eviscerated tourist industry, widespread bankruptcy, and escalating crime, before our board of trustees—all living abroad now—shuttered our school indefinitely.
Luckily, my wife, Janet, was from a well-to-do family that had been living in these islands as long as any haole family. Pride in my self-reliance had always prohibited me from wanting any piece of their coffee fortune, but now that we faced genuine existential risk, some of my core values were turning out to be negotiable. That June, on a day that happened to be the hottest on record in the entire history of Oʻahu’s weather records, we locked up the house in the lush Mānoa Valley that, at well over a million dollars, was supposed to be the biggest investment I ever made—the latest assessment put it at a hundred and ten thousand—and we flew to the Big Island to move into a two-bedroom bungalow and learn to farm.
For exactly eight months, we got to believe we were going to live out our lives insulated from the tragedy that was playing out in the rest of the world. Manhattan was underwater, to say nothing of the Maldives and Bangladesh. California was perpetually on fire. Earlier summers had been favorable to tick populations, and Lyme disease was reaching epidemic proportions on the east coast of the US. Latin America was a gigantic dustbowl, and border skirmishes were in the news daily. Only China seemed to be doing relatively okay because, aside from having led the world in switching to renewables in the twenties, they had sufficient land to accommodate massive internal migration. Mind you, this was just the humans. Other species suffered genocides by the hour.
Now that it’s so true, people no longer seem to use the expression “When it rains, it pours,” but I can’t think of a better phrase to describe that otherwise lovely, mid-winter day when I went out to the farm to discover the first signs of a fungus called coffee rust on the season’s crop. Two hours later, Janet came home from the doctor’s office, where she’d gone to complain of a persistent cough, to announce with admirable equanimity that she’d been diagnosed with one of the new, mosquito-borne viruses for which there was as yet no vaccine. Science’s best guess was that the virus had been locked up in permafrost somewhere for millions of years, but as with all the rest of this Pandora’s box of a world, human activity had set it free. He predicted liver failure within six months, and that was with dialysis.
So each day now, I tend to Janet and work with her younger brother to establish our crop higher up the mountain. It’s slow, tedious work. We walk the rows in our farmer’s hats, handpicking the mature berries and throwing away the rusty ones; then we take them inside and roast, package, and ship them.
Our premium arabica orders come mostly from Toronto, which has been the center of the banking world since Wall Street went under. The cruel irony is that most of these folks who are ideally situated to survive this apocalypse got rich in part by denying that it was even happening. And they’re still doing it. No one can in good faith pretend that Miami or honey or hope still exist, but they can keep on insisting that humans had nothing to do with it. Denialism might as well be the wealthy set’s religion now, long since having eclipsed Christianity. Meanwhile, Janet feels like there’s an anvil on her chest.
It so happens we have in our back yard a Silverleaf Cotoneaster tree. The berries look not unlike coffee berries, and I know from watching my neighbor’s dog have a seizure that they’re poisonous. I doubt the poison survives roasting and brewing, but whenever the big accounts come through, I make sure to throw in a few of these berries for good measure. I’m under no illusions that there will be any heroes in this story, but we do what we can.
Tom Gammarino had this to say about his story:
I’m hardly the first to observe that writing fiction about climate change poses some unique challenges. On the one hand, there’s the risk of writing mere disaster porn; on the other hand, the scale of the crisis has a way of exploding the usual loci of meaning, making dramas of the human psyche feel trifling, even indulgent. “What We Yield” is my attempt to split the difference. If rising seas, mass extinction, and billions of climate refugees risk exceeding our emotional grasp, surely a hike in the price of coffee can still command our attention.
Tom Gammarino (he/him) is author of the novels King of the Worlds and Big in Japan, and the novella Jellyfish Dreams. Shorter works have appeared in American Short Fiction, The Writer, Bamboo Ridge, Entropy, The New York Review of Science Fiction, The New York Tyrant, and The Hawai‘i Review, among others. He has received a Fulbright fellowship in creative writing and the Elliot Cades Award for Literature, Hawai‘i's highest literary honor.