The Effort
Richard Cumyn

Humanity may find that nearly anything can be recycled, if it tries hard enough. However, hope must be made fresh every time.

The woman felt the meager heat draining up past her through the hole cut in the ceiling of the corroded tank. She crouched as she called, cocking her head to one side to see.

"Ian, I know you're up there with him! You get yourself down here. Father, let the boy come down--he'll catch his death up in that place with you."

The dirty soles of two bare feet appeared in the hole and the boy dropped like a cat.

"It's not cold at all," he said. "I put a tarp over me and we lit a real fire lamp. The air up there feels good inside me when I breathe."

She did not reply, but took him by the hand and guided him out of the chamber ahead of her through a crawl space. Doubled over, they hurried down a short sloping tunnel that opened into a room with floor and walls of gray concrete.

"You missed the scavenger pack again," she said as she drew a curtain across the tunnel entrance. "Your group left without you."

"He was telling me about the different smells. I could feel them on my tongue, even."

"You hush now. They're going to seal off that silly hole of his and put in nutrispores. He'll have to sleep down here again where it's safe."

"Spores. I'm sick of spores." His grandfather had been telling him about meat with names like chicken and beef. Grandfather's favorites were roast pork and bacon that sizzled and spat on the fire. Fire was hot.

"He's filling your head with nonsense. You pick up your gear and get along. They took Getty Passage to where the hot spring comes up at Exxon Hub. They're working at the new site."

The boy ducked his head into a large cardboard box that was lined up on its side with a dozen others. They were each reinforced with wood frames and insulated with hair cuttings rolled in newsprint. He pulled out an army-green canvas duffle bag with a shoulder strap held by a thick metal clasp. The bag was only slightly smaller than he was. His mother smoothed his hair.

"Why can't I stay with him today?" he said halfheartedly.

"You may be sick of them, but spores is all we got left. You got to get along now and do your bit for the Effort. Go find us a mine."

Ian shouldered his bag and crossed the hard floor to a dry stone cistern with a ladder lying across its mouth. A fragile light emanated from within.

"Be careful," she said. "Stay where it's lit. There've been sightings down that way recently."

He lowered the ladder, gave his mother an unsmiling marionette's wave, and disappeared.

Recessed in the walls of the ancient storm sewer, pots of phosphorescent nutrispores lit Ian's way. He stopped to pluck three tendrils off one of the plants that grew in a thick bed of lime-green moss. The tiny lights at their ends, weaker than fireflies, diminished as he sucked the moisture from the colorless tubes, then chewed them as he might straw, each tendril in turn hanging from the corner of his mouth. He pictured Huckleberry Finn drifting free on the Mississippi, his straw hat shading his head from the sun like his grandfather had told him.

"Now Jim," he said aloud, "I don't see that you being a flesh-eating savage prevents us from traveling together on this here raft. You just mind your manners."

He found his work group where a new dump had been unearthed near the junction of three tunnels. He saw burly Sedge and bookish Morrison, his best friends at school, and Mr. Dowser, the pack leader, who had been his teacher two years before in the fifth grade. Nine boys in all were spaced along a curving wall of compacted refuse. The contents of plastic bags seeped from the green, orange, and white skins. Newspaper stacks, rusted metal cans, and flattened soft-drink bottles made synthetic strata.

"Helmet and mask, Ian, come on. The Effort is impoverished by your tardiness," said Dowser, skeletal and translucent in short sleeves and tartan kilt.

Ian knew the spiel by heart. The Effort depended on the labor of every person to scavenge enough synthetic or petroleum-derived plastics each day to keep the nutrispores alive. The spores had been adapted from marine environments at the end of the '40s; the hybrid nutrispore was found to live symbiotically with an edible moss. Its bacteria decomposed complex polymers into a fertile mulch for the moss, while its light triggered photosynthesis. In return, the spores sucked sustenance from decaying moss culture.

In the beginning, after fossil fuels were outlawed and before reserves were exhausted, crude petroleum products were fed directly to the nutrispores. Like birch bark on a campfire, the spores had consumed these voraciously, giving off short-lived, garish light and oxygen-rich breath. Plastic decomposed slower, giving weaker light, thinner air and tasteless greens. But it was all that was left.

Dowser strode to the end of the line, where a boy had just thrown a handful of disposable diaper wadding onto his discard pile. A fat rat scurried between the man's planted boots.

"American Express, you blind bat. Look!" He pushed the back of the boy's head down until his green surgical mask touched the corner of a credit card poking out of the shredded clot.

"Dowser's dick glows in the dark," Sedge whispered to Ian beside him.

"He promised us tomorrow after school off if we bring in 70 kilos," said Morrison. "He said the girls' pack is bringing in that much every day."

"Is that you talking, Morrison? You know it wastes oxygen," said Mr. Dowser loud enough for all to hear. "Find your calm center, boys, and concentrate. Slow, even breathing. Heart rate down to 50. Your culling and sorting must be controlled. Conserve, boys, conserve."

"Waste not, want not," Sedge mocked under his breath.

Ian shivered as he picked out pieces of green garbage bag and diaper lining and added them to his duffle bag. The smaller the pieces, the better; bulky soft drink bottles would have to be cut into mulch by hand.

As he culled, Sedge whispered conspiratorially about the various transgressions he had committed that day. He had, for example, urinated freely on a nutrispore bush, its glow brightening briefly with the added fuel. Ian thought the blatant waste of recyclable water was outrageous.

"Geraldine was picking at the other end of the tunnel. You should've seen her face when she got an eyeful."

Ian's face reddened at the sound of her name.

"I told her you were still a hunka-hunka burning love for her," said Sedge. Morrison and another boy snickered at the ancient expression, from Ian's grandfather's time. Ian pushed the leering Sedge away from him and walked away from the excavation.

"I have to down-respirate, Mr. Dowser," he said and rolled onto a cot set up beside a portable water purifier.

"Ducking again, Ian?"

"No, sir, I was hyperventilating. You said--"

"I said to find your meditative center and concentrate on holding it. You're avoiding work detail and you know it. If you aren't devoted to the Effort..."

"But I am, sir. I am. Sometimes, I don't know, I lose touch."

"Would you rather fend for yourself at Surface where it's 60 below and nothing grows?"


"It's that grandfather of yours," Dowser continued. "He has poisoned your sense of responsibility to the Effort. After all, he was alive back then. The decadence of his generation is as much to blame for this as anyone's. His people lost the sun."

"That's not true," said Ian angrily, sitting up. "My grandfather was a Green. He fought in the Counterdoom Movement against the Industrial Bloc. Just because he's old doesn't mean--"

"Quiet, boy. You've said enough. You're using my air."

Ian glared at the man for a moment, then stood up, looking past him to the wall of centuries-old garbage. The other boys, their gray faces shiny with perspiration, had turned to watch. In their eyes, Ian saw defeat and the bloodless, phosphorous hatred for Dowser, for the layers of trash that had once been warmed by the sun, for the ever-expanding labyrinth that led nowhere.

"Now get back to work, slacker."

"Leave him alone," said Sedge. "He was only resting to conserve oxygen."

"You shut your trap, you little weasel, or I'll have you both on report for wasting air! Don't you realize how close we are to extinction? Don't you know that you are putting the whole colony in jeopardy? You boys are the survivors. In your hands lies the continuation of humanity. Think of it!"

Dowser paused to gauge the effect of his words on the group. Their eyes on him were wary.

"Back to culling, lads. For the Effort."

"Why?" asked Morrison in a voice like shattering glass.

"Why? Why?!" Color rose in Dowser's face. "I don't have to tell you why!"

"Why?" echoed Sedge who triggered a childish chant in the rest of them. "Why? Why?"

"Be quiet!" cried Dowser.

The chant careened crazily in the low dirt passage. The boys began to circle Dowser, raising their voices each time they asked the question in unison, intensely pleased with themselves. Suddenly Dowser grabbed Morrison by the hair and flung him into the garbage wall where he fell stunned. The boys stopped and were silent.

"Worthless lot! I should leave you all here for the cannib--"

Dowser dropped face-down as Sedge clubbed him at the base of the skull with a length of metal pipe. Still as statues, the boys watched his naked, blue-veined haunches twitch, exposed where the tartan had ridden up around his waist, until a boy's scream sent them scattering down the dark passages. Ian stopped when he thought he had gone a safe distance--he looked behind him to see Dowser and Morrison's bodies being dragged away into the blackness.

Sedge ran up to him. "They're supper now. Come on!"

"People will ask questions," said Ian.

"We'll tell them the truth. We'll say the cannibals got them. You know that bodies are never found."

"You killed him."

"It was him or us."

Sedge looked triumphant in the nutrispore light. The sound of fleeing feet receded. At once Ian's mind was large and dark and resonant with sadness. The answer filled him.

"We shouldn't have done it," he said. "There was no call for it."

"You're going to snitch, aren't you?" said Sedge.

"No," said Ian, feeling the air grow thin.

"Just the same, how do I know I can trust you?"

"Just leave me alone," Ian said and he began to walk away, feeling Sedge's eyes on him.

"We're all fresh meat, Ian! We're all just biding our time!" he heard Sedge call after him. "It was him or us!"

The other boys knew also, but they wouldn't tell. And Ian couldn't make Sedge believe he wouldn't tell. His stomach clenched with the knowledge that he might not be able to stop himself.

Ian called to his mother for the ladder and climbed back up through the cistern. Seated at the communal table was a woman dressed in a green jumpsuit.

"You're back early," said his mother. "This is my son, Ian."

"He let us go early," said Ian.

"Where is your duffle bag?" asked the officer.

"We're not finished at that site. We'll be back tomorrow."

"It should have been locked up. Every gram of plastic translates into another 20 minutes of survival."

Ian turned to his mother. "Where's grandfather?"

"Where do you think?" she said, glancing upward. As her son turned toward the septic tank passage, she added, "Did you bring anything back?" The officer glanced at Ian's mother suspiciously. "For the household spores. You won't find contraband here, Miss. Ever since his father disappeared, Ian's been the provider."

"I'm sorry. I forgot," said the boy. "May I go up?"

"This officer has come to inspect for heat seepage. I've told her all about his idiotic hole. You get the old fool to come down, Ian."

"You'll be held accountable for excessive loss, of course," said the woman.

Ian left the women making arrangements for the hole to be sealed. He scrambled along the tunnel to the tank and called up for his grandfather. A rope ladder dropped down. As he pulled himself into the igloo, the cold startled his lungs and he ducked quickly under the pile of fabric and canvas surrounding the old man. His hat, eyebrows, and beard were encrusted with frost. The blocks of the round snow house were outlined in the light.

"Full moon tonight, Ian."

His grandfather had told him about the natural satellite, but whenever he had searched for it at night through the igloo's air hole, the cloud cover had made it impossible to detect.

"How can you tell?"

"I can feel it, boy, in the blood."

"I want to live up here with you. I hate it down there. You can't breathe."

"But I don't live here. This is just the place where I have chosen to die."

"No," said the boy without passion, unimpressed by his denial. Ian knew that the old man was feeble. "I'll die with you, then. It's right. They're going to cover the hole."

"It can't be right, Ian. We don't put aside life before it is time."

"But I'll never see the sun. I'll never swim in the blue-green ocean at Lauderdale. My skin will never turn brown." He rolled up his sleeve and slapped his forearm. The outline of his palm remained pink on fish-belly white for a few seconds.

"Bundle yourself well and help me outside. I want to show you something."

Ian put on the clothing that had been saved so carefully for so long: fur-lined boots, seal skin pants, thick mittens, a long hooded coat fringed in fur, and a leather mask that had a thin slit for the eyes. He followed his grandfather at a crawl through the narrow snow entrance. Outside in a silvery dusk he helped the old man to stand. Ian squinted to adjust to the brighter light and inhaled shallow, painful breaths through his mask. Although his fingers and toes began to tingle with warning of the intense cold, the open space all around him made him giddy. He opened his arms wide and spun in place until he fell backwards in the snow. His grandfather laughed along with him.

"This is not the end, Ian. Feel it. Feel the far-off pulse of the earth. Its lungs and heart are not stopped forever."

Ian pressed his rabbit skin mittens palm-down on the crust. It was true. It was there. He could feel the throb, so different from the scurrying of human rats under the ground.

"We killed someone today, grandfather. I don't want to go back."

No answer came. "Grandfather?" he repeated.

The old man had dropped to a cross-legged sitting position facing him. His eyes were closed.

"I can feel the sun, Ian," he whispered. "It's time."

Ian ran and embraced him, stretched out to cover his whole length, frantic to revive him with his own body heat. He struggled to his feet and began to haul his grandfather backwards, mukluk heels dragging, toward the igloo. When he slipped and fell, he opened the old man's mouth and blew warmed air into his lungs. Exhausted after only a few minutes, he stopped.

"I will stay with you," he vowed.

As he said this the cloud cover parted and the full icy light of the moon flooded the ground. He held up his hand against it, squinting. His body began to shake with cold. His feet and hands were useless blocks. In the moonlight, his grandfather's face was ghastly. Then, as quickly as the light had come, it was dark again.

He heard his mother's voice, that tired, resigned whine honed to an argumentative edge. She alternated between calling for him and demanding something of someone near her. A flickering blue light came from inside the igloo where Ian heard the clanging of metal on metal. Through the shelter's hole he saw a shower of red sparks. It must be serious, he thought, for them to use a combustion torch like that. There was still time, then, if they were using fire.

Slowly, with the light of the awful, enduring moon still filling his head and the feeling draining from his extremities, Ian crawled on hands and knees back toward the igloo.

Richard Cumyn ( is the author of the short story collection The Limit of Delta Y Over Delta X (Goose Lane Editions, 1994). He lives and writes in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 4, Number 6 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1994 Richard Cumyn.