Carbon Debt

We was just playing in the woods. Me and Sal had an old phone that didn’t have no minutes but still had good batteries and some stuff in it. We was just taking pictures of leaves and flowers and having it tell us about them. We had to use the light because it was so dark down under the trees, and it couldn’t tell us nothing if the pictures was too dim.

Well, the phone got warm, I guess, and we didn’t pay no mind, and then before we know it, it was hot and I dropped it, and then I saw smoke coming from it, and sparks, and them dry leaves caught, and then we was running from a fire. I practically carried Sal up the ravine to the house, and I saw Mom running at us the other way. We was keeping away from the fire, but the smoke got all around us, so our eyes was burning and we was coughing all dry.

“Fire, Ma, there’s a fire!” and I run straight into the house, pulling Sal.

“I know, god dammit Al! I ain’t blind!” She run straight past me to the machine shed, which we never opened because them machines is too expensive to run.

I got Sal down to the house basement. I heard thunder outside and wanted to go see what it was.

“Don’t go up there, Al!” Sal was crying and holding onto my hand like I was Mom or Dad. “We’s supposed to stay in the shelter.”

But I pulled my hand out of hers and run back outside.

The first thing I noticed, was the helicopters. There was two of them, yellow and as big as our house, and they was what sounded like thunder. They was spraying orange goo into the trees in the ravine.

Smoke was pouring up like a gray dirt cloud out of the tops of the trees, where the helicopters was spraying. I couldn’t see no flames.

Then I saw Mom, tearing down the drive on the tractor, with the big empty spray tank on the back. I couldn’t hear nothing from it, but smoke was coming out of it’s pipe, so I knew she was running the carbon motor and everything.

I started to run down after Mom and the tractor, but a huge voice from one of the helicopters practically knocked me on my butt. “Please stand back from the affected area and all emergency vehicles. Find a place of safety immediately. Please stand back from the affected area and emergency vehicles …” It was saying the same thing over and over. Me and Sal still like to say it. “Please stand back from the breakfast area and all eatin’ brothers.” Mom and Dad don’t particularly like it, but Me and Sal laugh at it every time.

I got back into the house and watched out the basement door. Sal was crying down below, but wouldn’t come over to the door to look out. For a minute I saw fire in the smoke, but then I guess the orange stuff started to work, and the fire didn’t keep going.

Mom come by later to check on us, just to see we was okay, but she didn’t come inside the house. It was night before she and Dad came back in.

So that’s how I was practically born in carbon debt. I had to bank it and bank it, my Dad made me bank it every day, which is why I didn’t play learning much, like Sal did. Sal never got blamed for that fire, even though we was both there, because she was only five, and I was seven.

My Dad gives me credit for stuff like branches I cut off his trees — if he seen me cut them — if I also haul them to the swamp to bank in anox.

“Albert!” My Dad is calling. “Albert, you seen my axe?”

“Dad, I’m playin’ Emerald Kids!” Which I was. While we still had power. Our house batteries are shot, and we don’t have the carbon to replace them. And besides it’s summer, so we don’t need them at night anyway. “Can’t it wait ’til after dark?”

“Albert, I need that axe now, ‘n’ there’s still daylight. I’ve got a poplar ‘sabout to fall, an’ I got to get it in the ravine. If it don’t fall uphill, I’ll bust my back gettin’ it down to the swamp.”

“Can’t it wait until tomorrow, an’ we can cut the limbs off?”

But that’s going too far. “Dammit boy, you can’t let wood sit!” I can hear his face get red, “It’s goin’ to the swamp tonight or you’re goin’ with it!”

I put that game down. “I’m comin’!” I yell. I always mean to leave that axe on its peg, but I must have forgot, or else my Dad wouldn’t be calling about it.

I shiver because I remember where it is. “I think I left it on the Harp Slope!” I call to him, and I run out the front door past him, trying not to look in his face. It’s going to be darker before I get back with the ax.

He don’t let wood sit even a day above water, and it had better lay in anox too. He says rot starts right away. Foolheaded stubbornness, I say. Even though I mostly play a geosat boy in Emerald Kids, I know it takes years for all the carbon to come out of a dead tree. It sure don’t give up nothing appreciable its first day down.

Anox, that’s water that don’t got no oxygen in it. It’s dead water, and fish can’t live in it, which is a waste. But it kind of balances because if you put wood into anox, the carbon banks. It doesn’t rot out into the air. And the sats, they can see that you’ve done a good job, and you get to keep the credit you got from growing them trees in the first place.

Our place — our hills — they’s full of buried anox, more full every year. We dig out a lagoon at the bottom of a slope and we seed it with weeds to soak up the oxygen. Then we pull trees down into it with the battery hauler. When it’s full, we cover it up again. If we can find clay, we put that over the trees first. And that’s about it. We get credit for our carbon, so long as the sats can see it.

Problem is, carbon ain’t worth what it used to be. Mom says time was a couple of good trees could get you a month’s groceries. I can’t remember nothing like that. All I know is if I can get a tree underwater in the morning and another in the afternoon, it can keep the line above red for another day, and we can get net service, and Mom can have her pills every month that the doctor says she needs to take. And we can eat some kind of meat besides deer.

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