Secondhand Smoke

When Mother Earth wakes up with a fever, she knows that something is wrong.

She wakes in a cold sweat, her ice caps slipping into the sea. The heat swirls around her, thick with greenhouse gases. Her head swirls, too.

“You’ve grown a cancerous tumor,” the doctor tells her when she arrives at the hospital. “It is called Mankind, and you don’t have long to live. Maybe a few years. Maybe less. Your only hope is chemotherapy.”

So she signs the papers. She downs the drugs, a dose of poison each day.

The only way to fight back.

After the first week, her hair begins to loosen at the roots. The leaves begin to flutter, and the next dose comes with chainsaws. Metal teeth hack away at her flowering trees.

Mother Earth wears a baseball cap to hide her baldness. To hide the leftover stumps and splinters.

Meanwhile, the tumor swells like a balloon. Her belly jiggles with each labored breath. It screams in pain when she tries to roll over. The tumor’s a monster that she has given birth to.

Too late to cut the umbilical cord.

The termites writhe inside her, jostling for space. Pushing nine billion. But still her skin stretches, and still she grits her teeth. Two years pass, and then three, and she breathes in. Keeps breathing.

The Earth fights back.

What have I done with my life? Mother Earth wonders. And the answer is, not enough.

She flirted with Man once. It was he who planted this tumor inside her. He ate steel and guzzled oil. Smoked chain-cigarettes and blew smoke rings in her face.

His smoke filled her sky-lungs, made them thick and congested. Made her eyes burn with acid rain.

“Hey, baby,” he drawled. And she fell for him. She fell into the haze of secondhand smoke. But that was before he forced his way into her, before the oil drills pierced her skin.

She wishes she could take it back.

The ice keeps cracking, the moss keeps growing, and the sunlight stops bouncing back. There’s nothing left to reflect it, so she just accepts the UV rays pounding down on her. She absorbs their punches.

Mother Earth stops fighting.

Before long, her pillboxes stack a mile high. “Swallow this one with water,” the doctor says. But the water makes her sick. The oceans keep rising like bile in her throat.

Finally, she can’t take it anymore. She stumbles to the garage and starts her car. The rusty old junker, the last gift that Man gave her.

The engine rumbles, thunder on the horizon. And she kneels beside the tailpipe to greet those greenhouse gases. Ozone and methane and carbon monoxide. Secondhand smoke.

She breathes them in. Keeps breathing.

When there’s no oxygen, your world turns sideways. You laugh and laugh until you can’t breathe anymore.

Mother Earth dies sideways, the worst way to go. The baby Man unborn inside her.

She dies laughing.

Julian Riccobon

Julian Riccobon is an executive editor for Polyphony Lit and a teaching assistant for Polyphony Lit’s online course, “How to Be a Literary Editor.” His work has been published in the Ralph Munn Creative Writing Anthology, where he won first place for prose, and in Polyphony Lit, where he was nominated for the Claudia Ann Seaman Award.