This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2023


New fiction from our January/February issue

Kawai Shen

Illustration by Xulin Wang

The astrologer didn’t look like an astrologer. I hadn’t expected someone so young, wearing a baggy BAPE sweatshirt, sporting Vidal Sassoon bangs cut in a perfect Bézier curve that skimmed her eyebrows. A septum ring glittered at her nose, forming an isosceles triangle with the giant gold hoops that hung from her ears. Wire had been strung across the left hoop spelling out the letter S, and the right, WITCH. The only makeup she wore was a shock of matte fuchsia paint on her lips. She was either queer, or an artist, or both, and likely kinky.

We met at a tea house in Chinatown. Ms. Hedayat, or Mazzy, as she asked to be called, had arrived before me. I found her seated with a teapot and matching cups, writing in a notebook. Like a therapist, I thought, except the girlish cover was decorated with gold foil stars. As we settled in, she offered me a cup of perfectly steeped oolong.

Upon starting my reading, she tore a sheet of paper from her notebook, flattening it hastily against the table before turning it toward me. It was an image of my natal chart. She tapped a symbol that looked like a lower-case h with a cross.

“You’re here because of Saturn.”

“Okay,” I said.

She continued as if what she said would have any meaning for me: “You are ruled by this planet. Your entire life and character, it’s dominated by Saturn.”

I shrugged. Observing my noncommittal response, Mazzy balled her two hands into fists and ground them against each other like millstones.

“Saturn,” she said, drawing out the “urn.” She gave me a pained expression, lips pulled into a grim grin. I felt myself mirror Mazzy’s grimace internally as once again, I recalled the months I’d sunk into organizing the Climate Action Conference. Maybe she was onto something.

I was finally on the brink of sleep at one in the morning when my phone chimed with an alert. Naomi had sent another email with quotes for a different catering package and increased security for the Climate Action Conference. This made costs significantly higher than what the planning committee had agreed to at the last meeting. My left eye started to twitch, as if on cue. In spite of myself, I opened Naomi’s attached budget even though I already knew what I’d find: that she had balanced the books by eliminating the hotly contested quiet room and cutting into travel reimbursements for BIPOC speakers in a transparent bid to undermine the student organizers. According to Naomi and other faculty volunteers, the committee was getting “bogged down with side issues,” like disability and migrant rights, that were “too complicated” and “alienating” for the general public. In Naomi’s mind, the public was solely comprised of people just like her: white middle-class liberals who needed to be encouraged by speakers focusing on net zero, vegan diets, and arguments about protecting private property.

Immediately, my brain sprang into action, gathering words into a compacted mass of arguments against her conduct to catapult into her inbox. I imagined my email being the invitation everyone needed to pelt her with their own admonitions, admonitions I knew no one would ever express because we all had learned from experience that even the most minor criticisms would result in Naomi and her allies positioning themselves anywhere on a spectrum between huffy to blubbering. And no one had the time or energy to deal with that. I lay in bed, exhausted and out of sleeping pills, my mind loosened from any self-discipline, mentally editing and re-editing an email I knew I would never send. At 3:30 a.m., I debated rolling a joint but, aware that I only had a new, higher-THC strain I’d never tried before, I had to weigh the potential gain of relaxing enough to sleep against the risk of paranoia. By the time I committed to lighting up, half an hour had passed. I wondered if I should just start getting ready now, roll into the department at 6:00 a.m., and leave early.

As Mazzy bisected the slice of Osmanthus cheesecake she’d ordered, she asked the question I’d been anticipating: “Tell me more about what brings you here?” I knew the answer, yet I wasn’t sure how to answer. People only consult astrology when they have problems. It’s cheaper and requires less commitment than therapy. I’d had enough of commitment for a while.

Months had passed since the climate conference but people were still expressing concerns for me. My best friend was making comments about self-care with increasing frequency. When I confronted her, she asked me if I realized I had become “deeply unhappy.” Of course I realized. Happy people do not think about climate disasters—not for very long anyway—nor do they persist in volunteering in racist environments. And whoever heard of a happy activist?

As the climate action conference date approached, meetings became mandatory for all volunteers. But at this point, none of the Indigenous students were attending. This was both disheartening and a relief. We’d lost a critical perspective and a chance at deepening solidarity on campus, but I knew that their attendance also meant dealing with such classic responses as, “We need to focus on the hard scientific data instead of trying to cover everything at once,” and creative improvs like, “We are dealing with Indigenous rights, why else would we invite the jingle dancers?” On rare occasions, one of the students, who might have needed to call on these same professors for reference letters or to sit on a dissertation committee, would attempt to call out a faculty member without using words like “racist,” “privilege,” or “white supremacy,” in an absurd real-life version of Taboo. Even before the land acknowledgement for the meetings concluded, I could feel my body tensing in anticipation.

As the debate unfolded, it became clear that faculty would be getting their way. They were in agreement: there was no room for the quiet room which, as we all knew, was not even a legally sanctioned accommodation. In addition, certainly we could recognize that better catering would bring more attendees back the following year. And the Dean was insisting on increased security with all the public attendees; a shame to be sure, but their hands were tied.

After the meeting, I took aside Mita, one of the student leads. I had found myself exchanging a meaningful look with them earlier in the meeting. “Don’t change your plans,” I said, “I will talk to people. We are going to bring in your speakers, okay?” Mita looked skeptical; I was only a fellow grad student after all.

“Well, I’m worried about climate change.”

Mazzy paused for me to elaborate. When I didn’t, she asked, “Okay, can you tell me more about how this is specifically impacting you right now?”

I shrugged, started, and stopped before finally picking up a thread, my voice becoming increasingly agitated: “I guess my problem isn’t actually climate change. I mean it is, obviously, but it’s more like about what’s causing it. I don’t think people really understand the problem. It’s not even about, like, colonialism and capitalism, although it’s that too, but I mean, it’s more fundamental, like an entire way of being and relating to others. Like, when people say this is an existential issue, I don’t think they really get it. There is this moral collapse that’s more than just a kind of empty narcissism, it’s a collapse in the fundamental ability to care, not only for each other, but for ourselves”—I stopped when I realized how I must have sounded. But Mazzy nodded. She was appraising me, but in a kind way.

“Do you care about yourself?”

I hesitated, but Mazzy held my gaze. I realized how tense my muscles had become as I’d been speaking. Then, spontaneously, we exhaled on the same breath. People were always asking me why I cared so much. I wanted to grab them by the shoulders and shake them silly: why do you care so little?

I smirked and gestured to passers-by on the street.

“I care enough to not want to die with all these schmucks in the flaming climate hellscape that awaits us, yeah.”

We both laughed. It had been a while since I’d laughed like that.

By all official accounts, the Climate Action Conference was a sold-out success. With a Haudenosaunee activist as one of our keynote speakers and a schedule stacked with topics like environmental racism, climate migrants and just transition, the event began to explore the root causes of climate change for the first time. In the end, I was able to convince my department to reimburse two ASL translators through our new Equity Diversity & Inclusion program, which freed up the necessary funding for travel fees.

The conference received favourable coverage in two student newspapers and by a community radio station. A city councillor showed up for a photo-op that circulated widely on social media. My department produced a brief report of the conference that named me as an organizer and sent this out in its monthly newsletter. People congratulated me for about a week and then moved on.

Unofficially, word spread about the racism behind the scenes. Enrolment increased in Naomi’s climate science course, but many of the students on the conference planning committee refused to work with her again. The last I heard, initial planning for next year’s program was taking a hard turn away from the social justice issues raised. Unsurprisingly, conference organizers were struggling to find BIPOC students to volunteer for the following year, but it probably wouldn’t take long for faculty to pull in new people. Meanwhile, the original student organizers stayed in touch and began getting involved with direct actions in the city. As for me? Well, I disappeared right off the map.

“You’re under pressure,” Mazzy explanined. “Transiting Saturn is conjunct your natal sun, and it’s having a total impact. You might not see it now but it’s—” Mazzy raised her hands, slicing out a cube from the air and then pressing the walls in closer. “It’s like a pressure that’s pressing you into being. It’s pressing you into a diamond.”

I didn’t feel like a diamond. I felt like dust. Like Saturn was a dread, heavy palm that had smudged over a charcoal portrait of me, wiping all of my features away. Sensing my skepticism, Mazzy continued, “I know it doesn’t feel like it now. But it’s all part of the process. Saturn is pressing you into a form, it’s binding you into a shape. The ties you make now will stand the test of time whether you like it or not. So it’s really important right now to secure the right bonds because they will last and shape you for years to come.”

It was then I noticed there were tiny glittery crystals on Mazzy’s nails.

“Hey, listen.” Mazzy’s tone snapped my attention back to her face. “You need to think about what kind of shape you want to be. You need to think about the shape of things to come.”

I’m fifteen minutes late for the first climate-related meeting I’ve attended in over a year. This group includes student organizers from the Climate Action Conference, as well as people from other grassroots environmental organizations. Izan, a grad student who spoke out against racism in the conference, is chairing the meeting. The group rotates its meeting chairs every three months. Its first action was a demonstration supporting land defenders at 1492 Landback Lane.

I try my best to be unobtrusive as I find my seat while a queer youth activist I’ve never met before reads a land acknowledgement recounting the history of Treaty 13. I spot Mita sitting at the opposite side of the room. They give me a quick smile; I smile back. Izan shares the meeting agenda. He gives me a small nod of acknowledgement as he speaks.

As we begin to discuss and plan the next action, I am struck at how the room is forming into an imperfect but living circle, how we’re throwing out invisible lines to each other and catching them. I think about carbon in all its shapes, how it is taking different forms in us, in other animals, in the earth’s crust, in the air we breathe.

You need to think about what kind of shape you want to be.
The shape I want to be is a weapon. I could have been so many shapes, but in times like these, I choose to be deadly. If Saturn is pressing me into a diamond, that diamond, I think, is a blade. Let everything that comes at me hone its edge.

You need to think about the shape of things to come. The shape of things to come is a fire. These flames will rise again to choke the light from our skies and the air from our lungs. My heart has burnt to cinders, but the wind, I think, can still scatter the ashes. Let it scatter them where I cannot go.

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