By Sheree Renée Thomas

Dedicated to Tina Cordova and the Downwinders,
whose hope for justice shines as bright as any desert bloom

And there was a river streaming from the right hand,
and beautiful trees rose up from it;
and whosoever shall eat of them shall live forever.
                                     — Barnabas 11:10

It was once said that deserts are places without expectations. You arrive and enter, leave or stay in your own rhythm. Without judgment, they offer roads to mysteries revealed over time. The only witness is the sun, the wind, the stars that watch above. Here the white sands contain cosmic maps to worlds seen and unseen. And this one contained a part of me I had spent my life trying to remember.

At some point, things that are lost are found again. So it goes, in the place where my grandfather told me our ancestors were buried. First it was the bones. The mammoth, wooly, wondrous who rose from the white shifting sands of dune lit by the sun. Cobalt blue sky, an arc above our shoulders.

“That’s where she lies,” he says in a voice full of claret cup cactus blooms, soap tree yucca, and purple sand verbena. Under the listening sun, his skin shines, weathered as the bark of Rio Grande cottonwood trees. He’d been silent most of our journey, his unspoken words weighing heavy in the air between us. We share more than blood, more than memory. We share the weight of silences, of all the years that my mother’s death has put between us. In our family, secrets are sacred, stoicism its own religion. But now, standing in the land that means to abandon and forsake, he speaks so softly, as if this place was as holy as church.

My mother, Gabriella, was a casualty to a war she never fought or saw. The bomb dropped decades ago, but its fiery poisons caused the slow, quiet deaths of thousands who lived in the shadow of its mushroom clouds. Our family is one of those once called Downwinders, people who were exposed to the radioactive contamination and fallout from nuclear testing. For years our bloodlines were filled with the remnants of coal ash, iodized radiation, poisons that slowly took breath, took years, took life. The weapons and the power were thieves that stole more than lives. They took time from us, whole generations and years we cannot get back.

Grandfather has brought me here as a witness. He tells me there is a miracle growing, one that must be seen, touched, smelled to fully understand. I clutch my cane, shake my head. He has made a mistake, a wrong turn on land I do not recognize.

“Where are we? Where are the graves?” I ask, cupping my eyes from the sun. It has been a long time since I’ve been here. We came together many times in my youth. I do not recognize the terrain that surrounds us now.

He holds up one of the tattered newspaper articles, a rare artifact, highlighted in yellow so I can see it. “July 11, 2055, the first Global Zero Day, thousands marched down streets around the world, as confetti rained from the air, to celebrate the disarmament of the last nuclear weapons in the world.”

With shaking hands, he passes me another of his newspapers. I scan the familiar montage of historic photos, the masses gathered outside, hands clasped, faces raised in gratitude, some in prayer. They embrace each other outside the Great Pyramid of Giza, Sankore Mosque, Chichen Itza, the Taj Mahal, Notre Dame, at the base of the soaring African Renaissance Monument in Senegal, and atop the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio, and beyond.

“On this day, the USA, Russia, China, North Korea, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the remaining holdouts, disarmed their last weapons simultaneously in a live globally televised ceremony. But one year after the earth said goodbye to the force that held us in fear for 110 years, new trees were planted from grafts of trees native to each of the final Disarmers to commemorate a more peaceful earth.”

I nod and hand them back to him, careful not to tear the delicate newsprint. “I’ve seen these photos before, Grandfather, but I don’t understand…”

His smile is hope tinged with sadness. He taps his watch and the jewel-toned logo of the BiblioTeka app floats above his wrist. An article from a few months ago appears. He redirects and expands it with a tap, and soon a cheerful voice floats through the air.

“Planning is underway for the annual celebrations as we will soon mark the fortieth anniversary of Global Zero Day. But four decades after the historic new world agreement, scientists now say new phenomena have been observed…”

Excited, Grandfather waves the old newspapers, faded banners, relics of ancient media, as if they can explain the new mystery unfolding around me.

All those many years ago, 5:29 am, July 16, 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb was tested here at Trinity Site, north of Alamogordo, on the now defunct White Sands Missile Range. The security checkpoint is falling apart, its walls graffitied with peace symbols and doves. The museum has been shuttered, its rockets, jets, and missiles, the decommissioned and the replicas, removed. Trinity was its code name. The next month, plutonium rained down devastation on Japan, during World War II. The reign of fire rained on us as well. Bloodlines poisoned for generations to come, clusters of cancer and other illnesses, genetic disorders, a grief so heavy we carry it still, until…

“The first known occurrence was in Nagasaki,” Grandfather says. “Scientists claim that trees that had never been seen since the forties sprung up, seemingly overnight.”

“Resurrection plants,” he says, pointing at the exotic blossoms around us. “What is lost is never truly gone, is it? We have already lived through wonders,” he says, his voice wistful. “Perhaps it can return to us, perhaps…” He lets his voice trail off.

Violence has not gone, nor petty cruelty, but we have left behind the fear of not surviving. The burden of such incomprehensible weapons, the power to destroy whole cities at such a scale is gone, and with it, new seeds of being, of knowing and living have grown. My mother did not live to see this day. But Grandfather did, as have I. She does not know that the poison that our family carried so long is healed, that the weight of existential worry is lifted, extending even the rhythms of human life itself.

Perhaps the earth’s worries have been lifted as well. The ground releasing other forms of life and nourishment as it heals from the deep, long scars of nuclear war, the fallout from heat 10,000 times greater than the sun.

I listen a while longer, then Grandfather hands me a clipping carefully cut from a magazine. I read on, “Archaeologists excavated sites, discovering remnants of ancient seeds. Tombs and sarcophagi of ancient Egyptians packed with wheat seeds for the afterlife were replanted and the carbon remains of grains were found in Pompeii’s ruins. Methuselah Judean date palms grow in Israel from the Masada excavations. Silene stenophylla, arctic plants have regrown from 32,000-year-old seeds buried in a Siberian riverbank by an Ice Age squirrel. They flourish still, but the plants now growing at Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not like the trees that healed after the first bombs. These are from far more ancient times. New discoveries offer new mysteries…”

“I don’t understand,” I say, handing him the paper. He folds it up carefully into origami squares, and tucks it into his pocket, patting it as if it was a precious gift.

“Fresh prints of dire wolves and camels were discovered here,” Grandfather says, his eyes lit up, reflecting the blue sky. “It is as if the land is resetting.”

“Perhaps it’s a hoax,” I say, impatient. We have switched places. He is the overeager child and I am the worn elder. I dig my cane into the rich earth, so different from the white gypsum grains of sand. To have made this journey again, early as it is, it still feels too late. Once we traveled by car, today it was by FluxJet. I no longer dream of my mother’s hands, the dark strands of hair she brushes from her face, the eyes I can’t remember.

“Those creatures have not lived for more years than I can imagine,” I say. “Perhaps this is an art installation the state has sponsored. When they extended and expanded RECA?”

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act once excluded Trinity Site survivors like my family, but after many years of advocacy, those who were exposed to radiation finally saw justice. My mother and many of her peers died of lung cancer—non-smokers all. Other cancers, family clusters, have taken their toll on life in the Basin and beyond. Tina Cordova, a brave Downwinder advocate, said, “We are the forgotten collateral damage.” Thanks to the activists’ tireless efforts, the money spent to oil the cogs of war are finally being redistributed into improving the welfare of society, extending the lives of us all.

“This could all be a special tribute to the Downwinders and nuclear workers,” I say, “those who did not survive the Trinity test fallout. Maybe it’s a remembrance they will announce later?” The uncanny scent of flowers drifts past me, making me less sure.

The dent in Grandfather’s forehead wrinkles, the brim of his hat shading his eyes. I can feel waves of frustration coming off him from where I stand, then he replaces it with conviction. “See,” he says, pointing.

Recognition runs down my shocked spine, a burst of light. Forgiveness falls from the sky, in the form of snowfall. The sight shakes me more than the blossoms, the river, or the paw prints.

“When was the last time you saw it snow in the desert?” he asks, his voice as cool as the flakes I brush away with the back of my hand.

Once hot snowflakes, fallout from the nuclear testing, fell from the sky for days and coated orchards, gardens, livestock, cisterns, ponds, lakes, and creeks. Chickens and dogs died, and a surge of infants, too. Like my mother, the children rest beneath these layers of time, where the sky and the land remember.

Grandfather reaches out his hand to me.

“Here, we keep the memory alive,” he says, of those we have loved and lost in an untamed war that raged against the land. The desert has changed more than what I remember. We have changed more than I remember.

His body curves, stooped with the years of candlelight vigils, the luminaria, the litany of names we have all sung together. When the clouds came over our town, they wrote all our names in their dust. Eight hundred names one year, 929 the next, and so on. The bomb changed our gene pools just as it changed the soil and the rocks and the air. But there were no monuments to that, no museums detailing our history. But ours is a history of survival.

We are still here.

The land echoes our call. I am still here.

The flora and fauna cry, We are still here.

This desert whose boundaries fluctuate with the seasons has begun to shrink rather than expand. Instead of desertification, a reversal is in progress. It is the same for the sense of justice in the world. Once our government spent trillions on military defense. Healthcare, social support, affordable housing, childcare, the things that help communities stay strong, stable, secure were left to the whims of politicos whose names and values changed with the wind.

No more.

Our spirit has changed. The world’s resolve has changed. We approach life with a renewed sense of co-existence, collaboration. The wisdom of Indigenous cultures around the world is now present in the halls of UNODA (the United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs). The walls of fear are coming down, many borders have, too. The ground of our world feels as if it is shifting beneath our feet, even as the sky falls, gifting beautiful snowflakes, grateful tears.

“Have they terraformed the desert?” I ask, grasping for any strands of reason. Since the Disarmers, new strains of grain have been formed to feed the world’s hungry. No one fights over water rights anymore, though there are still skirmishes over the usual old grievances. Security is no longer a question of a red button, a countdown sending us all to doom. So many scientists have made our land and dunes in the Basin their temporary homes, patiently watching and weighing, another kind of witness.

He shakes his head, no.

“Come,” Grandfather says and guides me carefully up one of the glistening white dunes. Sand covers my feet, and I feel as if I should be barefoot, the way we walked the dunes when I was a child. I had forgotten the way the sand felt like a warm kiss against my skin, powdery and soft. I haven’t sled down a dune, arms spread, my laughter whipping behind me, in many long years.

“Ever since the Disarmers, the earth has changed, even here.” I climb the ridge and my breath escapes me.

What replaces some of its old beds and dunes is a sight I am unprepared for. Waves of green grasslands dotted with snow sway as far as I can see, a river of green amidst the ivory.

Verdant ribbons of sagebrush snake across the edges of white dunes. Lavender-colored blossoms rise up, dotting the land, an uncanny bouquet of colors and scents drifting through the wind.

I nod. This is more than a tribute. It is a testimony. I am the radiant child of Downwinders, whose memory I hold in my breast. We stand upon a sturdy rock and watch the blue-green waters rise, the color as deep as the sky above. Flash floods are known here, but not rivers. Rivers are ghosts of the ancient past. When I was small, we added our footprints to the fossils at Lake Otero, footprints said to be tens of thousands of years old. But the ghosts of the Tularosa Basin have returned. Ruppia cirrhosa. Ancient grass seeds rise from earth once too dry and barren to hold their roots.

“Gabby never thought she’d see the day,” Grandfather says, his face full of tears. That old twinge of resentment pulses through me. It catches in my throat and pricks like a cocklebur, and the words are out of my throat before I can stop them. “She did not,” I say, wind and gritty sand running over my teeth. “She did not live to see the day, and I am sorry.”

He strokes the band on his hat, the brim shading his eyes. It’s a gesture I’ve seen a hundred times. He blinks as if to reset how he sees me. Not the numb granddaughter who no longer knows how to mourn or how not to grieve, but the smiling child who clung to his hand, his second shadow eager to follow him wherever the sun falls, traveling all over the earth.

In my youth I followed him with the others, the brave souls who spoke truth to power in the state capitol, in the halls of Congress, who worked tirelessly to get compensation for the ill, amending and amending and amending again until they finally brought some small measure of dignity to every family touched by “the gadget.” The activists worked from generation to generation, ensuring that even those whose claims had been declined were finally acknowledged and supported.

Now my thoughts float on the petals of flowers long unseen. Eighteen-hundred-year-old bouquets blossom alongside limestone and shale. It is a sight that defies vision, one that feels like a mockery to my grief, the loss I held inside my bones as tightly as any coffin.

The gypsum sand crystals have dissolved in the river waters like sugar in iced tea. A shallow ghost sea from 250 million years ago raises its head up, bringing back life from the old sea floor. A giant chambered nautilus shell, orange and pink with tinges of iridescent green, floats to the shore. The tops of crinklemat and moonpod bushes peak above the waters along with long-extinct megaflora we have no names for.

“Strange corals and boneless fish swim in these waters now,” Grandfather says. “I wanted to surprise you. I wanted you to see for yourself. The same thing happened in Nagasaki. The city is filled with more camphor and oleander, life forms from ages ago.” He stoops to pick up a sprig of wild hyacinth. “Gingko, black locust, persimmons survived in Hiroshima after the first blast. When the bomb dropped, the trees were charred by heat rays, but they remained standing. Like you and me. Survivors gathered under the trees whose branches were blown away. Months later blossoms sprung up. They helped in the spirit of recovery.” He looks at me, his eyes gentle, the folds in his forehead now smooth. “Perhaps this will help you.”

I sit with this in silence. When the last of the Disarmers signed their agreement, I celebrated like everyone else, but a part of me held onto a sorrow I had no words for, no breath to speak in the face of such a victory. To grieve seemed ungrateful.

Grandfather waved a hand in the direction of the plants bursting from the ground that once could not hold them. “The earth was scarred, but the memories of that day rested in the roots of those trees. Like here,” he said. “A miracle, Amana, the land is reawakening. She remembers. It was we who forgot.” He weeps silently, and finally, I know why he has brought me here.

“If the earth has returned these old lives, perhaps…” He does not finish.

“Impossible,” I say, the prickly weed caught in my throat. My tongue feels heavy; I struggle to speak. “Zombie plants, ghost rivers, spirit seas, snow in the desert…this won’t bring her back. This won’t bring any of them back!” We are walking past giant prickly pear cacti. O. alta and O. engelmannii, 15 to 30 feet high. Fuchsia fruit and yellow blossoms burst in the air.

“It is time,” Grandfather says. “Time to let her go.”

I do not need to ask of whom he speaks. The memory of my mother is a ghost who has always been with me.

We float toward an ocean of sky, his hand clasped in my own. Something dark like a moth flutters past, quiet and subdued. The silence between us is as deep as any forest, the love as wide as any shore. I feel myself moving closer to a place of healing, peace sliding into the notes like jazz.

Copyright © 2024, Sheree Renée Thomas. This work is made available under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

Artist Statement

I can’t quite recall when my habit of collecting small rocks from my travels began, though I am certain it was rooted in memory. Inspired perhaps by my early nomadic life as an Air Force brat, the selection of just the right one came from an unconscious desire to remember the land where I played and explored freely, and later, to mark off time and experiences I could recall with just a glance or by running my fingertips across a wind- and river-smooth stone. My childhood favorites were the white rocks that shimmered in the sun in White Sands, New Mexico, when we lived on the army base. Flanked by rockets and shuttles, memory has made a labyrinth of my childhood sojourn there, under the uncanny blue sky, the beautiful (and sometimes dangerous) cacti and the
prickly stickabushes that guarded the almost lunar territory quite fiercely. My lifepath was touched by the time I spent amongst the milky quartzites, and later the burnished red sienna of desert sandstones, the black-green stones that fit perfectly in my palms. Sometimes I would imagine that a particularly gnarly rock had traveled through space, a lunar meteorite carrying whispers of the stars. Landing in just the right place to share their cosmic secrets with me, the meteorites became a symbol of mystery and possibility. And like those rocky mementoes, part terrestrial and part celestial, memories are crystallized, fused by force and time.

What did I know of the incomprehensible fallout and pain, the suffering that the Indigenous families and those of the Tularosa Basin experienced. They were witnesses to choices that were not their own, choices that continue to impact them and their loved ones on a bone, cellular, spirit level. It was an honor to return to the land of my youth, and to speak and listen to the wisdom and courage that Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium in New Mexico, took time to share with me. It is a precious gift that I hope is returned in some small way with the story I wove from her memory, activism, and the wind that whispered across the beautiful land.

The story you will read, “Downwinders,” reminds me that some journeys we make in life take us far beyond the borders we have known, the ones that comfort us, launching us into strange spaces where we must remake ourselves and our lives anew. The future is unknown but not inevitable. We are entering the season of meteor showers, conjunctions, eclipses, and other celestial sightings above and below. We are entering the season of discoveries and awakenings. As you read, I hope you will remember—and be brave, too.

About Sheree Renée Thomas

Sheree Renée Thomas (she/her) is an award-winning fiction writer, poet, and Hugo Award nominated, three-time World Fantasy Award-winning editor. Her work is inspired by myth and folklore, natural science and Mississippi Delta conjure. She is the author of Nine Bar Blues: Stories From an Ancient Future (2020) and two multigenre/hybrid collections, Sleeping Under the Tree of Life (2016) and Shotgun Lullabies (2011). Her writing has earned her fiction fellowships at the Millay Colony of the Arts, Bread Loaf Environmental, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Tennessee Arts Commission, and Smith College, and poetry fellowships from the New York Foundation of the Arts and the Cave Canem Foundation, among others. Sheree is co-editor of Africa Risen: A New Era of Speculative Fiction and Trouble the Waters: Tales of the Deep Blue, and editor of the groundbreaking Dark Matter anthologies that first introduced W.E.B. Du Bois’s work as science fiction and explored 160+ years of Black speculative fiction. She is editor of The Magazine of Fantasy of Science Fiction and associate editor of Obsidian. Her collaboration with artist Janelle Monáe on the “Timebox Altar(ed)” novelet appears in The Memory Librarian and Other Stories of Dirty Computer, a New York Times bestseller. Sheree wrote the Marvel novel adaptation of the legendary comic Black Panther: Panther’s Rage (2022). Her comic book debut, “The World Is Not Ready,” featuring Black Panther and Storm, appears in Marvel Voices: Legends #1 (January 31, 2024). She lives in Memphis, Tennessee near a mighty river and a pyramid. Visit shereereneethomas.com.

Experience More →