by Zach MacDonald
The smog is two things:
The constituents differ with location and cause. The concentration of particulate matter 2.5, or particles with a width of two and a half microns or less—a thirtieth of a human hair—will vary from one choking cloud to another, but that milky haze, the pall of deadened grey sky, ultimately heralds sickness and disease.
Tawan Viramana, a senior pilot in Thailand’s Department of Royal Rainmaking and Agricultural Aviation, receives orders for a cloud-seeding operation. It is Bangkok, January 2019, and particulate levels as high as this have never been seen in the capital. The air is contaminant soup. Diesel exhaust belches from millions of vehicles. Dust billows from construction sites across the urban sprawl. Smoke drifts endlessly into the city as farmers burn crop stubble on the outskirts. The breeze is feeble, and stagnant air circulation prevents the smog from dissipating, its impact exacerbated, here in the dry season, by the absence of rain. Ten million souls reside inside a simmering, poisonous bubble.
The cloud seeding, it is hoped, will cause enough rainfall to clear the air. The drops will collect some of the soot and other particulates, pulling them to the earth as they fall.
Tawan departs his shrouded city for the eastern rain-making center in the province of Rayong, parking in the space reserved for him upon arrival. He prepares two planes, loading their bullet-smooth silver iodide canisters, and schedules takeoff for mid-afternoon, with himself set to pilot one of the craft. They will release the silver iodide into the clouds fifty kilometers east of Bangkok, where the compound will condense gaseous H20 into liquid, giving time for it to fatten into drops as the prevailing winds ferry them to the city. With luck, the drops will be forced to obey the call of gravity at the correct time and place.
Elsewhere along the river of space and time, it’s the summer of 2008 in Beijing, mid-July, and the Olympics are set to kick off in three weeks. Thirty-five-year-old Zhou Feng is making a living off the smog, which is so thick it has turned the city—not just recently, but for much of his life—into a ghost world. Buildings only hundreds of meters away are but outlines, tracings, mere geometric shapes. The haze is grey for most of the day, and orange in the mornings and evenings, colored by the unseen sun when it’s low in an unseen sky. The people, too, move about like ghosts, taking on this characteristic of their environment without acknowledging it. Expressions can only be seen in the eyes above their air filter face masks.
Zhou Feng peddles such masks. He started by selling plain white ones years ago, but then, noticing how the air discolored them within a short period of time, particularly over the mouth area where breath is drawn through the material, he began carrying colored ones. Yellow, red, blue, green, pink. Children took to them first, quick to pick out bright rainbow splashes in the surrounding dullness, urging their parents to stop and see what his cart had to offer. Before long, adults began to purchase the colored masks for themselves as well, and it dawned on him that all along the fault of plain white masks had not just been their tendency to discolor, but that their dominance of the mask scene ignored the innate human predilection for vanity and self-expression. Tickled by this brainwave, Zhou Feng, who had for years cultivated close connections at a number of local factories, put in an order for some special designs of his own specification, along with a fair bit of investment to ensure that he received them without much delay, getting an edge on what would no doubt be an explosive market.
Here’s Zhou Feng, weeks before the world arrives in Beijing, situated near the spectral colossus that is the Bird’s Nest stadium, selling a variety of masks that curious visitors and frenzied volunteers can’t help but stop to peruse. There are masks printed to look like a snarling tiger’s mouth; there are masks with the Nike swoosh and Adidas stripes and the Tommy Hilfiger logo (two l’s in Hilfiger). He has masks with the Starbucks mermaid printed over the mouth, and ones with the Apple logo to each side. He has rainbow masks, panda masks, Batman and Spider-Man masks, masks plastered with smiley faces, and others with Pikachu in a smattering of cutesy poses. He’s making masks fashionable. Business is good.
Then the government orders local factories to be shut down. The horrendous smog is not appropriate for the international guests and athletes who are about to arrive in the city—though for the locals, apparently, it’s long been an unavoidable consequence of progress.
The air begins to clear, while Zhou Feng, a lowly private vendor, is barred entry to the Olympic Green as the Games’ opening ceremony draws near.
On the day before the ceremony, the city is deluged by a warm rain that clears the air. People go about without masks. The air hums with anticipation as the nation prepares to showcase itself, at 8 minutes after 8pm on 8/8/2008, with a show that will galvanize viewers around the planet. Throughout the evening, a barrage of 1100 silver iodide rockets are launched into the sky to intercept a rain belt, triggering premature showers outside the city to ensure they don’t fall on the Bird’s Nest in its historic hour.
Zhou Feng, standing aside his cart, feels left out of the excitement. He doesn’t make a single sale in the afternoon, and returns home to watch the ceremony live on TV with his wife and dying son, whom he does not yet know is dying.
Taking a far larger temporal leap, we land amidst primeval surroundings. It’s the Paleolithic era, in the north of what will one day be known as the Indian subcontinent, seventy-five millennia before Tawan loads planes with silver iodide solution or the Beijing Olympics are opened under an unusually clear night sky. For a wandering band of twenty humans on this Pleistocene terrain, the blue of the sky and sparkle of the stars have not been seen for many days and nights. The atmosphere is filled with a grey-black haze and the regular scents of the world are dulled by an oppressive dust on the air. It snows softly from time to time, but the snow is a kind of fine ash. The mysterious fire this ash-dust must be from has not been seen, and they are beginning to believe that they will never lay eyes on its source. They do not know, and will never know, that a supervolcanic eruption has occurred on an island 3000 kilometers away, leaving a caldera which will eventually fill with the waters that constitute Lake Toba, Indonesia. Moreover, they do not process distance in kilometers or any other standard unit; they do not know that they live on a globe; and they do not know how far the land may stretch in any direction from their point in space. Their history is oral, the language that conveys it rudimentary.
The Matriarch, decades older than all others in the tribe—though they don't have a strict sense of years or age—is looked to for answers. She is seen as ancient, her dark skin weathered and rough, hair thinning and breasts pendulous, the latter from which an untold number of infants have suckled. Her flesh hangs loosely in places, stretched long ago when she was plumper, the prime breeding female, but now emptied of its fat stores. There is wisdom on her knowing face. There are universes in her eyes. Tens of thousands of years hence, individuals like her will learn the secrets of trance and psychoactive botanicals; they will be known as shamans, the great healers, messengers between the human world and that of spirits.
But the Matriarch doesn’t have answers for the ash-dust. She does not have ancestors or higher beings to commune with. She is a teacher of how to start and carry fires, how to determine if a pool of water is likely to make one sick, how to read feces for signs of parasites. She has a repository in her brain of all the edible components of flora that the tribe has encountered, both its current members and their not-too-distant ancestors, adding to this knowledge as they travel and experiment with new plant life.
The ash-dust exists outside all spectrums of her knowledge. What she does know, however, is that the air is dirty and that rain is its great cleanser. Rain rinses the air of yellow pollens that attack the sinuses; rain drowns fire and thus its smoke; rain diminishes the odors of rot that hover around dead creatures.
She does not know how to make it rain, but understands she must utilize her understanding of the world to try. The tribe is becoming sickly, disoriented, and scared. There are no stars at night to give them their bearings, and it cannot be assured that they won’t double back to recently exhausted hunting grounds. The greenery of the world is also being covered up, altering the only reality they’ve ever known. The Matriarch is finding berries on the ground that have fallen from their mother plant long before ripening.
The men kill an aurochs. They say it behaved strangely, putting up little fight. The corpse is that of a sickened beast, its muscles withered, but it bears no outside signs of disease. It simply seems to have been starving. As they begin to butcher the body with sharpened stone, the Matriarch wanders away from the group, who will collectively offer her the tenderest pieces of meat. Her eyes search the featureless sky for clouds, though, indeed, the sky itself appears to be a single uniform cloud, an impenetrable mist of this dust which refuses to bear water—or to allow the passage of rains which might be trapped behind it.
She thinks about what the air feels like before rain. The smell, the increase in the breeze, the dull ache in the joints between her old bones. She closes her eyes and focuses on these, wondering for the first time in her life—perhaps, even, for the first time in the history of homo sapiens—whether her thoughts might be able to influence the workings of the physical environment. She concentrates, trying to arrange scattered impulses and mental images into a framework that will bear answers, but her reasoning is as hazy as the air itself: it seems that if events in the world can impact her with corresponding urges, emotions, dreams and nightmares, then it may be that the reverse is also true. She may be able to draw rain from the sky as a woman draws toward her the mate of her choice—sparking excitement and lust in the male as fire is sparked with the clash of certain stones, pulling him closer without the use of any physical medium.
Bending her thoughts to the feel of fresh rain, she seats herself on a patch of sandy earth, drawing deeply upon these collected memories of physical sensation, and as she does her breathing slows. She falls, gradually, into a mysterious state between sleeping and waking, where it seems that she is becoming untethered from her body of flesh and bone, hovering above herself like the stink of putrescence hovers invisibly over the dead.
When the tribe comes upon her later, bearing soft pieces of lung and kidney, they find her still in this state. Her consciousness resides far above them, somewhere in the sky. She has called to the rain, stirring it to action as lightning stirs thunderclouds to anger. The women shake her, frightened, in a sudden panic that she is leaving them. Sensing this, the Matriarch floats back down into her body, holding onto the rain that is coming, seducing it, expressing the pleasure they will feel when it cleans the air and bathes their skin at last.
The women shaking her are taken aback when the Matriarch pushes them away. The old woman rises, stretching her arms out before her, palms upward. Her heartbeat picks up speed and she stamps her hard calloused feet in time with it upon the dry soil.
“Come,” she intones. Louder: “Rain! Come to us!”
The tribe catches on, seeing that her face, eyes still closed, is tilted to the awful sky.
“Come,” they say, and raise their own hands to the veil. They speak it together as one, matching the Matriarch’s rhythm. “Come! Come! Come!”
There’s a rumble, distant but unmistakable, and all stop immediately, even the Matriarch, as though a large and dangerous animal has made itself known. But it’s not an animal: the sky is talking to them. A force beyond the ash-dust is speaking.
Again, a rumble of thunder, louder this time, closer.
The Matriarch opens her eyes.
“Come to us,” she beckons.
They stand silently, every neck craned, staring into that featureless blanket, which, unbeknownst to them, heralds a dramatic cooling of the global climate.
The thunder explodes directly overhead, so loud that one man falls to the ground, and as the fat drops begin to fall upon the thirsty soil, pattering upon twenty faces, he begins to laugh. The wind increases, warm but powerful, like the exhaled breath of some impossibly enormous being—a being who, it seems in that moment, watches over them and has somehow listened, seduced by the pleas of the Matriarch.
It rains for hours, turning the ground to soup, freeing greenery from its sooty shroud to leave it glistening in weak strands of honeyed sunlight, and by nightfall the stars are visible, winking benevolently from the heavens. Though the ash-dust will soon return, that day is enough to show them that there is a greater force behind the anomaly, one that might be called upon to wash it away when times grow dire. Someday, they tell one another, it will be washed away for good.
They move on across the ashen land, the Matriarch, eight breeding pairs, and three pre-pubescent children. Their descendants will merge with those of other groups that survive the volcanic winter, and spread across the wilderness of prehistoric Asia, to archipelagos and great islands in what will be called Oceania, across a frozen land bridge into the vast continents of the Americas.
The migration of this peculiar primate is not strictly linear. They zigzag, double back on themselves, go in circles. 73,000 years after the Toba eruption, Siddhartha Gautama will be born in the gardens of Lumbini, sixty kilometers north of where the Matriarch summoned the rains to cleanse the world.
Meanwhile, the 2008 Beijing Olympics are over and the smog has returned, thicker than ever. Zhou Feng is back on the Olympic Green, which hums with the life of curious tourists, both national and foreign, who have arrived to see this former center-of-the world that until recently so much fuss was made about. Business is booming again.
Back at the apartment rests his son, who has stayed home from school this week with a wheeze and a bad cough. There is a small ball of cancer cells multiplying in his lung tissue, but no one is aware of this yet, and won’t be for months, until the boy can barely hold a breath in his chest, drowning in the open air, and an exam shows the existence of the tumors. Within a year he will no longer be amongst the living, but Zhou Feng, of course, cannot know this, and thinks his boy may be coming down with the flu. He resolves to pick up good, strong medicine on his way home.
Zhou Feng, ironically, doesn’t wear a face mask. He hates sucking air through them and the way his breaths condense over time on the inside material. Mostly he just hates how it muffles his voice. He’s always been a hawker and a talker, and auditory clarity, he believes with conviction, goes hand in hand with linguistic precision when it comes to making the most profitable transactions.
Targeting different locations is important. About a month after the Olympics, he moves his business to the vicinity of the Temple of Heaven, selling masks to the endless multitudes that flow through the site, enjoying the cooling weather. The humidity reduces with the onset of autumn, no longer trapping quite so many airborne particulates. The days become windier as well, steady breezes blowing the pollution away, and from high vantage points one can see far into the distance. In November, as the temperature drops from cool to cold, Zhou Feng again changes location, this time stationing himself near Tiananmen Square, where no severity of weather can completely deter the onslaught of visitors.
His son has only gotten worse. Zhou Feng and his wife at last take the boy to a doctor, from whom they get the fateful diagnosis a week later.
On the day they learn of the cancer, it’s a Blue-Sky Day, and the city thrums beneath an azure heaven. They don’t use the word cancer with their son. They smile and point cheerfully at the sunny sky; they gaze at the sidewalks bustling with mask-less people; they tell him he’s sick, but that the doctors are going to make him better.
Then temperatures plunge below freezing. Coal burning is ramped up for heating purposes. The blue skies disappear and a vile cloud of soot settles over the frozen capital. Heavy metals float in sulfur dioxide stew. The toxins work their way into the blood stream. Zhou Feng doesn’t even carry masks that can filter out such fine particles, and so he advises customers to double up for extra protection, even though some think he’s trying to swindle them. He at last takes to wearing a mask for himself. He makes sure his wife does too. Their son is on oxygen by that time, his lungs failing. Until he’s moved to an ICU, the boy isn’t allowed to leave the apartment, but even the wall-mounted heater’s air intake is located outside, and its filters cannot possibly stop all the toxic elements from getting into their home. There is no escape. The Year of the Ox is rung in under a pall that would be familiar to a number of prehistoric tribes 75,000 years before.
The boy dies quietly in the hospital. It’s late spring. Zhou Feng watches the line go flat on the heart rate monitor, thinking the machine must be broken, because he can still feel a pulse in his son’s wrist. But it’s his pulse: Zhou Feng’s. His pulse is thudding, thudding, thudding, so hard that it rocks him back and forth. His wife is wailing in grief next to him.
How has this happened? He asks himself, before the anger and helplessness set in. Right now, in this brief interlude, there is only shock. Why? What did we do?
Zhou Feng doesn’t sell masks anymore, because masks do nothing. His son had worn a mask to school almost every day of his childhood, while Zhou Feng hadn’t donned one for thirty-five years. His son got lung cancer and he didn’t. The smog is the constant, everything else is a roll of the dice.
Back in 2019, Tawan releases his plane’s payload into the clouds. The layer of cloud is thin, and its wispy borders are visible from this altitude. Only with luck will it successfully bring rain to the city. On the far horizon languishes Bangkok, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, City of Angels, smothered in cloud of a different nature. 3M masks, which are supposed to filter ultrafine particles, are sold out at the pharmacies and markets within that cloud. Eyes sting, throats itch, lungs rebel against an insidious assault. The air up here, in this cockpit, high above the haze that hugs the earth, is the cleanest Tawan has breathed in weeks.
He lands, greeted by humidity as he exits the aircraft. He files a report on the mission and by nightfall is caught up in a congested line of Bangkok-bound traffic, his HR-V wreathed in exhaust fumes. The air conditioner blows cold, but in the refrigerated breeze are impurities that Tawan tastes at the root of his tongue.
The rain, if it is to fall, will do so between midnight and the 3am. In his apartment on the eighteenth floor, Tawan finds is hard to sleep, tossing and turning, waiting to hear the patter of gentle drops on his window. It never comes, at least not to the Sathorn area, and in the morning he learns the rest of the city remained dry throughout the night as well. The operation was a failure. Adequate condensation did not occur in the clouds they tried to seed.
In midmorning, as the temperature creeps higher, he takes the Skytrain to Sala Daeng station, and from there walks to Lumphini Park, named after the garden birthplace of the Buddha. It’s gloomier than an overcast day in the monsoon season. In the murky sky above, the sun’s position is marked only by a vague patch of comparatively lighter grey.
Water monitors inhabit the park. They slip smoothly in and out of the ponds, lounge on patches of lawn and lumber across the paths, dragging their whip-like tails behind them. Tawan wonders if they notice any change in the air these days, or if their small reptile brains are concerned solely with food, relaxation, and occasional bouts of copulation. Their kind has been around, swimming the waterways and sunning themselves, since long before people first put down roots here, back when it really was one giant garden of sorts. They were content with that, evidently, and never got around to needing to put up buildings or drive automobiles.
From atop the highest towers in Silom, government workers are spraying jets of water into the air from powerful cannons. Tawan watches the aqueous white mist disperse to the point of invisibility as it drifts down to the streets and roofs below. This is another smog-combatting measure, likely to be ramped up today in the wake of the rains not working out. It’s also futile, more for show than anything.
There are some brave souls jogging through the park, and a small number of those are even doing so without masks of any sort. Tawan shakes his head, coughs, and nods to an enormous lizard that gazes at him from the grassy bank, feeling silly the instant he does so.
The old monitor, half blind, barely registers the passing man. Instinctively, it moves further along the bank, sensing that it must be in the shadow of a tree. It can’t seem to find a patch of sun.
About the Author
Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, Zach MacDonald has lived abroad extensively, teaching English in Japan and South Korea before moving to his current home in Bangkok, Thailand. He is working on a collection of East and Southeast Asia-based short fiction, as well as a couple novels. His work has previously been published in the Asia Literary Review and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.