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Cosmic Fire

Translated by Emma Törzs | 🎧 Interview with Libia Brenda

Published onOct 26, 2023
Cosmic Fire

Listen to an interview with Libia Brenda about the process of co-creating “Cosmic Fire” with her collaborators at the Cúmulo de Tesla collective. The interview was recorded in November 2023 at Arizona State University’s campus in Tempe, Arizona.

Audio length: 18:41 mins.
Editing, sound design, and music by Bailey Pyritz

In the year 2025, the volcanic eruption of Iztaccíhuatl forever altered the configuration of the soil, the atmosphere, and the climatic conditions of its surroundings; this was in addition to other climate-related disasters of the time. The intention of this account is to show, through the eyes of five women in one family, the historical turning point that marked a drastic change in every aspect of life, from landscape to language. The narrative moves forward chronologically from 2025 to 2225. Iztaccíhuatl’s eruption led to the resurgence of land restoration practices, farming and food technologies, and forms of social organization that are deeply rooted in local knowledge, and which date back to pre-Hispanic times in the area historically known as Mexico.

A GIF illustration of a volcano erupting red lava in the center of a blue planet, with scratchy drawings of plants, forests, trees, villages, square buildings, bridges, and other features popping into the image after the eruption.

GIF illustration by Alejandra Espino del Castillo

From Volume One: Notes on the End of the World
Box 2
Notes on the first eruption of 2025

The seismic alert bulletins for “Maremagnum’s Awakening,” as the event had begun to be called by the media and the scientific community, were increasingly insistent regarding the consequences of the impending Iztaccíhuatl eruption, and predicted the activation of other volcanoes along the geological fracture network. Although it was impossible to keep the information away from tabloids and other disseminators of “fake news,” the aim was to avoid the panic and social terror that had ignited during the 2020 pandemic. However, despite all the calculations and precautions of the environmental and vulcanological communities, the disaster was immeasurable and devastating.

In Puebla de los Ángeles, civil-protection groups arrived a month before the predicted eruption date to set up encampments in low-risk zones and to organize those who still hadn’t found shelter, or who were reluctant to abandon the city. We knew it was necessary to move several kilometers away from the volcano, but we maintained hope that the destruction might not be so devastating after all, and that our homes, though battered, might stay standing. We soon discovered that we would have to reconfigure the very idea of home around a single objective: to survive. To survive in unconventional spaces, in an inhospitable environment, with others who had, like us, managed to move to the mountains of Puebla for our own safety.

Nothing about the reality of the eruption matched our imagination of it: the thunderous roar, the convulsions of the breaking earth, the tongues of lava and incandescent mud that dragged everything, living or lifeless, down with the metric tons of matter exploding from the depths of Iztaccíhuatl on a tide of ultra-dense vapor that covered the sky for years.

The eruption dictated a new way of life for us, an organic human structure to which we must adapt if we ever hope to reunite with our friends and family who’d scattered to distant, unknown territories, and who must form their own communities, their own networks of survival.

From Volume One: Notes on the End of the World
Box 2, audiovisual account

Ixtlán del Río, Nayarit // 21°02’N 104°22’O

I turn on the language chip that translates all my perceptions and thoughts into subtitles, like in an old movie, and safeguards them along with my visual register in an integrated, incommensurable memory. I haven’t dared use this chip before, but every event from now on will be important and unrepeatable.

The wind that was whistling through the cracks of the cabin walls has stopped. I can tell the blizzard is dying down, and I peer out the window. I activate the image-capture chip grafted into my left palm and record the swells of ashen storm clouds floating north. I zoom in on the sunlight beginning to seep across the vast white sky, a clear sign it won’t rain again until nightfall, and spread our map across the table to trace the route one last time. For the past few nights, Julio and I have been discussing the possibility that the geography may not match the map anymore; that the orography, and therefore the rivers and streams marked on the paper, may have changed due to earthquakes and fissures in the terrain around Mount Cerobuco.

When I’ve committed it to memory, I fold the map back up and put it in the backpack I’ve spent the last weeks preparing. Julio comes down the stairs, and I ask him to help me insert the eye.

“Are you sure?” he says. He’s smiling, surprised.

“Yes,” I say, returning his smile. “It’s time.”

I never met my grandparents, but I know something of their history thanks to the letters they sent my mother, Rita, when she came to study in Ixtlán, before the cataclysm. She had been researching the curative properties of hot springs in the region, but the Iztaccíhuatl eruption cut off her studies and all communication. When Iztaccíhuatl awoke, the worst happened. Her entire family—natives of Puebla—had to uproot themselves to seek shelter, and when Cerobuco erupted shortly afterwards, just thirty-three kilometers away, she lost all contact with her parents and sisters.

The only thing she had left of them was a pot which had served for many years as the family urn, and which contained a claylike mixture of ash and a handful of soil gathered from my grandmother’s garden. My grandmother had given this urn to my mother with the instruction that she should always keep it with her, to assure she’d be connected to her genealogy even if she lived far away.

Sure enough, the first thing my mother did when she settled in this house was to find a place in her room for the urn. I’m certain she’s only opened it once: when she decided it was time to share this part of her heritage with me.

From the start, my mother had wanted to flee to a safer and more fertile place, like most survivors of the disaster. However, she chose to stay in Ixtlán and wait for more people to arrive from other towns, so they could strike out together in search of the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, in Baja California Sur. The problem was, the few who made it to Ixtlán del Río were already so worn out by the challenges of travel that it was difficult to convince them to undertake yet another risky journey. My mother helped out at the refugee shelter, and thanks to her skills as a ceramicist—a gift she’d also inherited from my grandmother—she provided cookware for the kitchen and communal dining room, a necessity that grew as more and more refugees arrived.

It was through the shelter that she befriended two of these refugees, who finally agreed to accompany her, Julio, and me on the trip that, after months of planning, begins now.

Carefully, Julio removes my eye patch. He looks over the flesh of my eye socket and asks me—yet again—why I chose a ceramic eye over glass. Impatiently, I tell him—yet again—that he knows exactly why, he knows it isn’t just any ceramic. In this eye, microparticles of my lost ancestors are reunited; I used some of the ash/soil “clayey” mixture in the construction of the eye. Even though I never knew her, I want to fulfill my grandmother’s wishes.

“What better way to keep my family with me, to take them everywhere and never lose them, than to hold them in my body?” I say this as I zoom in on his hand, on his fingers exerting the necessary pressure to adjust the brilliant eye, trying not to hurt me.

I wait a few minutes before I look at my new face in the mirror. It’s a strange sensation, but I feel like my vision is more complete now, accompanied by the vision of my ancestors.

Julio watches as I observe myself in silence, and then, with that ease of his, he breaks my reverie.

“Amanda,” he says. “It seems you’re destined to wear that eye instead of the one you weren’t born with.”

I want to respond, but the doorbell rings, and I only manage to murmur, “They’re here. Let’s go.”

We follow a jagged, black stone path, full of furrows licked by lava. We carry only what we need to camp and feed ourselves on the way to the coast, where, together with three other caravans, we’ll board a ferry to cross into Baja California. The fickle atmospheric conditions make it impossible to determine how much the temperature might rise or fall, or if the rain will keep up, but at least the toxicity levels in the air and in the water are low enough now that we don’t have to wear the oxygen masks or thick raincoats that Rita, Orlando, and Nuria—thirty years older than me and Julio—wore when they left their houses or shelters during the decade of explosions.

It’s a difficult path, marked by constant challenges in the landscape: ravines, cracked earth, steep slopes, forests full of strange leaves and branches that none of us can remember having seen before, and which are hard to move through, but whose colors and smells fill us with hope and good humor at every step, however arduous the trek. To see the ways that nature has persisted since the disaster, how it’s come back even stronger and more vital than before, helps keep us from complaining about fatigue, or about our bodily reactions as we move through this new environment.

I’m the first to notice when the air begins feeling thicker, slightly suffocating. Maybe I sense it because something is happening within me, or at least within my dreams. I haven’t told anyone, but our path has deviated considerably from the one we’d traced on the map: the route has been reconfigured in my dreams, and I follow, because a voice—unknown, yet familiar—keeps repeating the same words as we walk. No map leads to the reborn paths of the earth. Follow the rumble through the turquoise treetops. They know.

It’s odd that neither Julio nor Rita asks me if we’re on the right path, since we’d already be smelling saltwater in the air if we followed the route on the map. Rita’s friends don’t look worried either. They seem to care only about moving forward, saturating themselves in the green and ochre granules that fall on us like mist from the towering branches too high to see. We hardly speak. Instead, we imitate the buzzing of insects and the chirping of birds, because whatever we may have to say is no more important than what we hear around us.

Two days have passed since we lost sight of Nuria and Orlando. Rita insists they’re not lost, but have transmigrated into their true essence as plants.

“Didn’t you see? They dropped their eyes and ears a few nights ago. They don’t need them for their new bodies. I’m also shedding what I no longer need.” And then I watch as she spits out her tongue and teeth while shaking her arms to drop her fingers.

“But mamá,” I say, “will they let us board the ferry like this?” Because I can hear it now, beyond the intense pounding of the turquoise branches promised by the dream-voice: the wail of the ferry horn calling us.

Julio sleeps with his eyes open. I zoom in on his blank gaze. I don’t know exactly how, but my eye/implant lets me see what he dreams. He too hears a voice, different from the one living inside me, and it too gives him signals, helping guide him to the berth where the ferry awaits. I can see that the other caravans are already there; only ours is missing. There’s a crimson haze enveloping the ferry, but still I’m able to make out the forms of the other passengers and see that they’re no longer entirely human: some have coral sprouting from their chests; others are supported by stalagmites dripping with purple ivy; others have faces full of transparent suction cups.

I wake to hear myself saying we must abandon the dead weight of skin, organs, and bones that can evolve no further; we must abandon all that is useless to our survival in this new habitat, rebuilt by the earth and with new rules to follow, a place where humanity is not indispensable because it never has been and never will be. My throat tightens, and from it the voice plumes out like a flame, connecting me with someone in another time and space. Am I awake? All that matters is the clarity of these words: The vapors of the air, remnants of the incandescence thrown by the wisdom of the volcano, make new flesh visible, even if you cannot see it in the waking world.

We travel onwards the next morning, guided by the murmur of the ocean. We arrive at dusk, and the caravans receive us with a raucous cheer that moves us to tears. We are complete and so are they, despite whatever we have left behind along the way.

The ferry captain assures us we’ll arrive at El Vizcaíno in three days, and that when we see what lives there, we’ll think we’re dreaming. However, our trip takes longer than planned due to lack of wind and waves, and during this time Julio and I begin to lose and gain body parts, hybridizing with marine creatures. I’m worried that at any moment I might lose my hand, and with it the palm-chip and record of everything I’ve captured, so I ask Julio to help me extract both the device and the ancestral eye. I store them in a small canvas bag, and tie it to my waist until I can find a safer place when we settle on dry land.

Upon disembarking in El Vizcaíno, Amanda and Julio settled in a camp that slowly became a colony of communes, where they learned to reorganize in order to survive. They discovered that the mutations they experienced during their trip didn’t prevent human reproduction, and in fact promoted a vital interspecies harmony. As time passed, news from distant territories began to arrive, and some communes decided to return to their places of origin, moved by rumors of resurrected towns and by legends concerning the existence of magical beings, like the Burned Girl in the Sierra de Puebla.

A photograph of a ceramic model of a human eye, with a pink iris, against a deep blue background. Alongside the eye are two small cylindrical ceramic vessels, both with an image of a mountain carved into the side, and an image of an eye carved onto the top.

Photograph and ceramics by Alejandra Espino del Castillo

From Volume Five: Notes on the Re-Founding of Cuetzalan
Box 7, Notebook 34, Section 25-28

Circa 2075. Nueva Cuetzalan, Sierra de Puebla
Parallels 19º 57’00” y 20º 05’18” north latitude. Meridians 97º 24’36” y 97º 34’54” western longitude.

Wednesday 25
This afternoon, another caravan arrived in search of the Burned Girl. There have already been three this year, so maybe it’s true that the roads have been opened and it doesn’t take nine days on foot anymore to journey from Puebla.

There were two girls Dalia’s age, along with the typical caravan of mystics that we’ve learned to recognize from their slipshod shoes, their eyes glassy with hunger, their bellies swollen by worms and severe dehydration. This irritates la Chantico, because there’s no reason to arrive in such a state. “When we came here, there was no water and it didn’t rain a drop, everything was dark, the only thing falling from the sky was ash. We’d been told not to drink from the rivers or any untreated water, but we got along by following the magueys, drinking mead, and chewing tender nopal.” To de-worm the newcomers, we give them pulque.

Despite all of her bluster, La Chanti was the only one from her caravan left alive when she arrived at Cuetzalan, an eleven year-old brat, skin and bones, her left arm in a sling. When the volcano awoke, some of her family fled toward the sierra, thinking the lava wouldn’t be able to reach them there, and in part they were right. As the story goes (a story fed by la Chantico herself), a flood of lava did manage to reach her, but only to kiss her; she survived because she’d been chosen by some ancient, unknown god. The more truthful version, which she’s told only to me and Dalia, is that she was burned on the way by one of the campfires, trying to carry a jar of boiling water to make coffee. But thanks to the legend, she became The Burned Girl. She’d always been a big coffee drinker and it was one of the things she missed the most in the years after the ash-skies, when it seemed even grass wouldn’t grow, and the water shortages and unsanitary conditions took their toll on the caravans and the refugees, even in zones far from the eruption. She didn’t see the death of the cities, but she saw the ravages of the ensuing years. When I’d first arrived and everything scared me, I remember how much I liked being cradled by her, how fascinated I was by the skin of her forearm and the way it looked like a three-dimensional map, full of different-colored furrows and bulges. She said it was a map etched by fire, a treasure map of memory.

La Chanti assumes her role as an enlightened mystic each time a new caravan arrives. She lights one of the foul cigars she has shipped in from Veracruz and adopts the pose of someone who spends her days contemplating the spirit world, her brown face impassive. Sometimes she recounts the recurring dream in which she receives a call to return the remains of her ancestors to their place of origin, and a voice tells her, The vapors of the air, remnants of the incandescence thrown by the wisdom of the volcano, make new flesh visible, even if you cannot see it in the waking world.

But this character has little to do with the real Chantico, who gets up at five in the morning to tend to the few chickens we’ve managed to raise, and who, by seven, has kickstarted everyone’s day. In the communal dining room, the doñas toss tlayoyos and pile rinsed quelites on one side of the table, with an olla de barro of frijoles on the other. La Chanti keeps up a running commentary, makes requests, and delegates tasks in Nahuatl, Zapotec, Spanish, Popoloca or Mazatec, sometimes giving orders in Totonac or another language I don’t know, telling one person, “Don’t be a fool, go help grind the alverjón,” then telling someone else, “Don’t be a deadbeat, go help carry water,” and so on. By nine, we’ve all had breakfast, washed our plates, and begun whatever many chores we have that day.

Saturday 28
Yesterday was the most hectic day of the whole week. Like all newcomers, the people from the caravan couldn’t believe it when they saw the dry bathrooms. La Chanti has told me countless times about how the cities used to mix excrement with clean water (which I can still barely imagine), and apparently their waste-disposal systems are still pretty inefficient, because people always have trouble learning to pee in one collector and poop in another. Luckily we have guest bathrooms; since they’re not used as much, it’s easy to apply the desiccation method and reuse the waste.

The caravan brought interesting news and great reading material. I’m excited to read Dr. Sifuentes G.’s article about madzamooc, a star-shaped worm that works in symbiosis with huitlacoche and is full of protein. We told the caravan members how we managed to rotate the milpa with calabacita and chiles, thanks in part to a collaboration with friends from Zoquiapan, and gave them a detailed explanation of the technology behind the dry toilets and how to build them (it’s not hard). They told us that in the south, toward Izúcar, many unfamiliar trees and plants were being reborn.

Another thing that happened was the arrival of the Zacatlán caravan, full of people excited to tell la Chanti how the apple trees were finally in bloom, and how they’d come up with an excellent recipe for a maguey-based herbal liqueur (around here we used to brew yolixpa, but it has sugarcane, which we haven’t been able to recover); they told us, too, how they’d seen even more species of birds, especially huilotas, which we have marked down as edible. La Chanti decided a celebration was in order, with their new herbal liquor and our pure mezcal.

It was a great party, and it also made us realize how many more types of produce— some fruits, more vegetables, beans and other legumes—are available now than, say, three years ago. Back then, there was such a bumper crop of grasshoppers that la Chantico made us toast them dry on a comal to see if we could powder and preserve them, though they ended up damaged by moisture—“se apoxcahuaron,” said la Chanti.

It rained on us, which is always a good sign, and Dali drank her first mezcal. She didn’t finish it, but she didn’t grimace at the taste, either, taking little sips until la Chantico told her to throw the rest into the stove, “To thank and feed the flame.”

We were all hungover this morning, and brewed so much coffee that we realized the coffee plants were sprouting at breakneck speed.

Sunday 29
We decided to conduct a field investigation to identify the new species and measure how far some of the newly sprouting crops have spread. We made a map of the route and prepared to spend at least a week outside.

Note: bring enough canvases and bags.

We were so busy during the day that I forgot to tell la Chanti my dream.

I dreamed that she put a necklace of clay beads around my neck, with a ceramic eye in the very center. The eye was for vision, not decoration, and I knew that to use it I’d have to take out one of my own eyes, so I let it dangle at my chest. La Chantico laughed at me and took down one of the pots from a shelf, an urn used for storing ashes, and she told me that inside were particles of an ancestral eye.

I’m too tired right now, but tomorrow I’ll ask her what it means.

Thursday 17
Life should be linear like time, so that as soon as one thing ends, another begins: one first, then another, and so on, in order. But no, everything happens all at once, tightly packed. I’d like to deal with one thing at a time instead of a whole pile of things I have to live through simultaneously.

We’d planned to go out to the field this past Monday, but Dalia was brought down by awful period cramps, so we decided to wait for a few days until she could walk more easily. She went out to cut some quintoniles and came back all excited because she’d seen those little light-up bugs la Chantico always talked about. Fireflies. La Chanti got up, her face bright, wondering aloud if they’d returned, if it was possible they were really back. In less than fifteen minutes, both had put on bug-net hats and looked like expeditioners about to go on a voyage. I was just as excited, but I was starving; I told them I was going to make a taco and that I’d catch up with them soon.

If I had gone with them, maybe la Chanti wouldn’t have fallen off the cliff, and I wouldn’t be forcing myself to record here, in this diary, that she broke her ribs, and one of them punctured her lungs, and she did not live to see Tuesday morning.

It’s very hard to write this.

Saturday 19
She died and there was nothing we could do. The Burned Girl, who’d survived the eruption to become a legend, was mortal like the rest of us. All we could do was cremate her body, dispose of her ashes, and mourn her. We used some of her ashes for the ritual of four elements: a handful into the air, another to the water, to the earth, to the fire. The rest we kept in her special urn, the one she brought from the city of Puebla when she and her family came to the sierra in search of refuge. Back then, the urn was a tiny container, barely bigger than a cup, but over the years, she changed it out and emptied everything into a larger container. There are ashes from the year 2025 in the mix, along with the remains of her parents and other relatives, and the ashes of beloved animals, feathers, and important stoves. Moments she treasured.

The funeral in and of itself lasted five days, but people kept on coming as they heard the community radio broadcasting the news. They came to greet her or say goodbye, to pay their respects, and they brought her offerings: flowers, stones, herbs, tiny bugs. And there was a lot of food, so much I worried we’d have to throw some away. La Chanti hated wasting food.

Evelia Chantico adopted me when I was about nine. She was my mother, my grandmother, my father, and I became Modesta Chantico. Like everyone else I called her Chantico or la Chanti, but she was my entire family, at least until Dalia arrived (from another community, like me, though the two of them did have blood ties). Now that our grandmother is dead, it’s my turn to be Dalia’s mother, her aunt, her sister. Our only consolation is that we live with people who love us, with women who are also our family. When they brought me here more than thirty years ago, the urn was smaller; over the past three decades, as la Chanti’s life and the dates she marked with fire kept accumulating, the urn became a glazed clay vessel that contains her, and which is now my duty to care for. All of these urns are in a row, on the ledge in the corner where the candles continue to melt and which every day looks more like an altar, the altar of the Burned Girl, last survivor of the Izta eruption. One day, like everybody else, maybe before or after Dalia goes off to explore the expanding world, I’m going to die, and some of my ashes will be deposited in this same urn, or in another, and I will see la Chanti again. We’ll have time to sit down together and she’ll tell me her stories about a world drying up from pollution, and how the great eruption, if it didn’t save this world, at least changed everything.

The communities of the Sierra de Puebla became isolated from one another after the Iztaccíhuatl eruption, though it’s known that survivors found refuge in this region after the cataclysm. Paths between villages continued to be used by travelers on foot. Modesta, the chronicler of Cuetzalan, left written records and a genealogical trace that linked the relationships in the Chantico family: from Amanda to Dalia to Modesta herself, not a biological connection but a chosen one. This family’s urns contained, in effect, the ashes of their ancestors. The women’s community of Cuetzalan (home of the Burned Girl) dedicated several decades to food research after the atmosphere cleared of ash from the eruption.

A four-paneled image. From left to right: the first panel reads "Herbario del Fuego Cósmico"; the second is an illustration of an ear of corn; the third is an illustration of a leafy plant and its roots, alongside a brown leaf; and the fourth is an illustration of a yellow flower, with its stem and a broad, green leaf.

Illustration by Alejandra Espino del Castillo

From Volume Nine: Notes on the General Theory of Life
Box 25, Mobile device NOKIA 3310

29º 20’ 55.1904” N // 112º 19’ 19.9056” O

The origins of life on Earth will always be shrouded in mystery. It’s a story constructed from fragments and voids. Sometimes I wonder what it’d be like to go back 3.5 or 4 billion years to that hydrothermal source where everything supposedly emerged. But even being in the right place at the right time wouldn’t mean that we’d be able to appreciate the complexity and beauty of the phenomenon we studied. In the barbarous centuries before the collapse, we crossed the line and embodied a pure death drive. A fire in the middle of the sea, and in a grave, the bodies of all those who were murdered for defending the land. Day by day, we look for new ways to regain a balance, but even if we succeed, we mustn’t forget where we come from. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, one of my favorite pre-collapse writers, said that in order to inhabit this wounded planet, we must create pockets of time and space as refuge. But that’s impossible unless we recover all the voices we suppressed and silenced in favor of the dominant, homogenous narrative that was complicit in the barbarity. We can’t rescue the diversity of our world without also recovering the diversity of stories and voices that make it up.

This journal is my testimony. I’m Mû, xe/xem, descendant of the inhabitants of the lost Pacific archipelagos. For years, I’ve searched for strange life forms in the most extreme regions of the desert.

What does it mean to study life in the midst of a mass extinction?

Sometimes it’s a source of hope; other times, of despair. The climate crisis has kept us racing against the clock for decades, knowing that many of the organisms we study may not be around next season. In my case, it’s forced me to keep in mind that my own story, a thread among the millions that make up this immeasurable network of interconnections, is also part of the history of this planet. The disappearance of the coral reefs is intertwined with my childhood and the loss of my home—a mourning that also connects with Sara’s illness and death. Her body was a forest, and now, I imagine, it’s sediment. When she passed away, I put some of her ashes in the urn she always carried with her, and we scattered the rest into the ocean.

An ocean full of white phantoms.

Sara and I met during a mangrove restoration project, both of us barely of age. She came from a community across the Sea of ​​Cortez, where her ancestors had settled after the great eruptions of the last century. They were called dreamers. Sara’s eagerness to explore and question everything got her into trouble with her family time and time again, and when her insatiable curiosity brought her into confrontation with the assembly, she decided to leave, even though it meant never seeing her sister again. After wandering the desert for several days, she was rescued by our group. I know that breaking with her community hurt more than she let on. She occasionally sent letters to her family with the caravans that passed through our camp toward El Vizcaíno, but she never received a reply.

I too understand what it means to be exiled. When I was nine, the waves devoured our homes, our deceased. Everything we were ended up underwater. Becoming part of this ecosystem recovery group was a refuge for me. I like this semi-nomadic life in which we study, work, and spend one or two years with a community before moving on to the next. We get by on barter and self-governance, and in our meetings, every voice matters. Explorers and gatherers, we recover and adapt equipment we find along the way. We’re a school, a traveling laboratory, messengers. Our only constant is change. We seek to recover different forms of knowledge—not only those which the Capital tells us are valid—and to reconnect with the planet, to establish a new relationship of reciprocity. That’s what’s at stake. Sara used to joke that we’re a circus.

All I know is, from the first moment I saw her, I couldn’t stop thinking about her.

We spent that first night by the estuary, looking up at the stars and wondering if humankind would ever visit them again. Now, when my students ask me the same question, I tell them we’ll go when we understand that we have no claim on those other worlds, that we’re only passing through. The idea that we could escape to Mars after having ruined the Earth was part of the delusion that spiraled us into a vortex. The collapse, however, hasn’t stopped us from searching for our place in the universe; we’re just looking more carefully now. Exploring without colonizing, without encouraging the kind of extractivist discourse that sees each world as a mineral resource, incapable of valuing the miracle it would be to find extraterrestrial life.

Sara and I were fascinated by the meteorite ALH 84001, and the ongoing debate over whether or not it contained fossils of Martian bacteria. That was what led us to return to the question of whether there could be a strange form of life that doesn’t share our DNA, and if so, whether it might point to a second point of origin for life on this planet. Bacteria descended from a second common universal ancestor: LUCA2, a shadow biosphere.

If you look for anomalies, you’ll end up in unexpected places.

I remember her voice, her scent, snippets of small talk while we were making breakfast. Even so, try as I might, I can’t remember who said “I love you” first. At the beginning, it seemed strange that Sara always carried an urn made of clay and the ashes of her ancestors; why would she carry around their remains when there was so much death all around us? But one night, she told me about the eruption that had split apart the Chantico family, her family, and how passing clay relics down through the generations was the only way to remember their origins. An urn, an eye. Now she and her ancestors accompany me every day, encouraging me to keep exploring, to keep teaching.

Her urn will also be my urn.

After working for five years in the estuary, some members of our group headed to the Sonoran desert. Others stayed on the coast and were replaced by members of the population with whom we’d worked on mangrove restoration. New knowledge, new experiences. Here, we’re all teachers and students. We spent twenty years in the north. Among other things, we studied desert varnish, the dark coating that forms on rocks in arid areas. In collaboration with other teams, after extensive short-wave radio conversations that depleted our biobatteries, we managed to prove that desert varnish has a biological origin. In the last samples taken on Mars before the collapse, evidence of desert varnish was found on its surface.

The excitement of the possibility of life on other worlds is inextricable from the excitement of the day Sara and I decided to form our own lineage.

Her blood, my blood, our ancestors.

We can’t go beyond the spectrum of human perception, but it’s possible to expand our frame of reference to acknowledge ourselves as part of a story articulated from multiple collaborations between different species. Eukarya, Archaea, Bacteria: possible worlds that could exist simultaneously at the same point in space-time. Shortly before falling ill, Sara had begun looking for traces of strange life in the most inhospitable regions of the desert. She constantly wondered what implications it would have, on both a personal and collective level, if we proved that life had arisen two or more times on our planet: that this story within a million stories was also built from the gaps and absences that accompany us from generation to generation, from the very moment of abiogenesis.

Her blood, my blood…

She couldn’t continue her investigation. We returned south, to the estuary. On good days when she felt strong, we went around the mangroves by boat and played at guessing which trees we’d planted years ago. We listened to the wind, the murmuring water, the splashing fish. Echoes of a world we’d almost completely lost. During her last months, Sara told me more about her journey through the desert and how she’d secretly taken the urn her mother had always guarded, which had belonged to her great-grandmother. First she’d stolen the ceramic eye, but an inner voice had told her it should stay within the community, that someone else might need it to get back to where they’d come from, the place the Chantico family had been forced to abandon. Heavily medicated and not in her right mind, Sara tried to reconstruct her family’s origin myth with the same energy she’d once used in searching for new forms of life. She asked herself questions and answered them aloud, partly to clear her mind, but also for me to hear and remember.

Her body, my body, a mangrove sprouting from our chest.

On difficult days, when she fought against her illness and her instinct for life made her scream with rage and pain, I told Sara her own stories to lull her to sleep. Shortly before she died, she spoke with her grandmother in her dreams. She said that every night her grandmother let her borrow her ceramic eye and her ashes so that she could see the way back. A path that led not to El Vizcaíno but to the heart of the volcano.

“No map leads to the reborn paths of the earth. Chase the rumble through the turquoise treetops. They know,” she told me, looking me in the eye and speaking with a voice not entirely hers. When she passed, I put some of her ashes into her urn and scattered the rest in the mangrove swamp.

Now she’s a mangrove.

Many think I’ll stay here for the rest of my life, that it’s not appropriate for an older person to keep traveling. But why shouldn’t I? I’m not done yet. I imagine this new journey will be longer than the previous ones. We’ll travel southeast from community to community, toward the Sleeping Woman: Iztaccíhuatl. Along the way we’ll meet new people, and one of them will be nearly my age, with Sara’s eyes. We’ll exchange names and stories. She’ll tell me about the fireflies and the mezcal she offered to the fire, and I’ll tell her about the mangroves and the urn. Strange relationships arise unexpectedly, and we’ll discover we’re part of the same story. We will walk through the green lava fields, and in them I’ll scatter Sara’s remaining ashes.

And there, the moment I release her, I’ll know we’ve arrived.

Each generation seeks its own way to return to the beginning. It’s not only about returning to the starting point, but about repairing the fabric that’s been torn and establishing a reciprocal relationship with Earth and with the different species that share our planet. During the forty-eight years after the meeting between Dalia and Mû, when the broken branches of the Chantico family began to touch once more, a community arose again at the foot of the volcano. Geothermal energy—sacred fire—gave it life. On the other hand, climate change and drought forced the communities in the Baja California peninsula to accept a greater degree of exchange with the caravans that came from the southeast. Returning to the origins of the ancestors became not only a symbolic gesture, but an act of survival.

A photograph of a ceramic tile hanging by white strings from a leafless branch, against a white stucco wall. The ceramic tile is rectangular and painted with pinkish-orange flowers and green leaves and stems.

Photograph and ceramics by Alejandra Espino del Castillo

From Volume Fourteen: Notes on the Departure from El Vizcaíno
Box 40, Tapes 14-20

2160 (135 years after the explosion)
El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve

You don’t know me; or maybe you do. Maybe you’ve heard of me, and that’s why you’re listening to this. I don’t know. I have no idea how long it’s been. Maybe decades. The truth is, I feel a bit silly talking to this device, or should I say, to “you”? It’s weird to think about someone listening to me in the future, but Mare says I have to get used to leaving a testimony, to saying aloud what I think and what happens to us, so that by the time we’re on our way it’ll already be a habit. When I told her that writing drives me crazy, she gave me this little gadget. It belonged to her great-aunt Sara, but Mare says I can use it with no problem. While the green light is on, everything I say will be recorded and somebody in the future will hear it. Every so often I have to wind a crank to keep the light on, and I’ve already realized I have to watch out for it or I’ll just keep talking straight through and it’ll only save half of what I say. Mare says to be careful and quit testing it, that I should get serious and tell things from the beginning. She’s obsessed with leaving a trail so that others will know what happened, and won’t have to keep guessing and investigating like we do. It’s true that without this crazy curiosity of hers, we’d have never figured out a thing; not about her great-aunt Sara, and not about the importance of the sphere her mother’s family has guarded for generations. It would all still be only rumors, like everything else we know about this world. That’s why we have to make this journey, she says: to find out what’s true. I say it’s because of her dreams. She doesn’t like me to talk about them, but I love hearing about the dreams where she flies over the volcano, or where flowers grow from her fingertips. But I know that’s not what I’m here to talk about; those are things of the past, and we’re thinking about the future.

Mare told me the hard part is finding the beginning. She told me not to worry about telling my entire life since I was born, to focus only on the essentials because, after all, the recorder doesn’t have much room. We agreed that a good start is the first general assembly I attended after coming of age. I still couldn’t vote, but I could go to the plaza and sit next to my mother to listen to the discussions. Mare, who’s a year older than me, had already been attending for a while. Plus, she’s a Chantico, which gives her certain privileges; she’s descended from one of the original dreamers, who crossed on the ferry to seek refuge in the dark days, and who had coral and plants growing in their skin and hair. Mare says the plants weren’t growing, she says the people had adorned themselves to look like their dreams and that this is just another rumor, not the truth, but I try to remind her that even dreams have some truth to them, and that she shouldn’t obsess so much.

My first assembly was pretty boring. It started like any other, with a reading of the list of twenty-four family names, the head of each family taking a seat at the center. My aunt Elvira’s the head of our family because she was born twenty minutes before my mother. That part is lovely, because each head presents an object that represents their family. Ours is a plain old rebozo whose colors have been lost over time, but Mare’s family object, presented by her grandmother, is more interesting. It’s a ceramic sphere, kept in a tiny basket covered in cloth so nothing happens to it. Mare told me that it used to be kept in its own special pot, but that her great-aunt Sara took the pot and left the sphere behind. It’s not just any sphere, though. Apparently, it’s made with the ashes and earth that the first Chantico brought from the south, and Mare says her great-great-someone used it as an eye, but I don’t believe her. Mare sometimes likes to embellish her family history. After the ceremony, the supervisor called a start to the session and read the minutes aloud, but I was most interested by what happened right at the end.

In that first assembly, I remember how the sun was shining right on my head. I’m not sure what I was expecting, maybe a fight, or maybe for Toño to bring up the question of chicken productivity that had been causing so much drama, but mostly they talked about the crops, and the need to fix the waterways, and, of course, about the drought that has been going on for years.

Mare’s grandmother once told us that when she was a child, she couldn’t even count the rainy days, there’d been so many. Right after the explosion, the weather helped the land a bit because the temperatures dropped and there was rain, but little by little the global temperature went up again, and each year it rains less. Though from what I understand, we’re not that badly off just yet—it’s the future we’re worried about. There’s enough food to keep us from dying of hunger, but still not much, and we’re always worried that the year will come when there won’t be enough for everyone, and not even the reserves will help.

Once, someone failed to properly secure the lid on our water supply, and after a few days, a ton had evaporated. I’ve never seen the water well so low. That year, we had to carry buckets of water up from the sea and pass them through filters we bought from a caravan for an exorbitant amount of maíz. I was really young, so I didn’t quite understand what was going on, but I tagged along with my mother as she climbed up and down with her buckets. If it hadn’t been for some good storms that came soon after, I don’t know what we would have done.

The last item on the minutes was a memo that had arrived with a caravan from the south. Just a few years ago, at the onset of the drought, the assembly had agreed that we’d have to start trading with the caravans. Before that, nobody knew we were here. We were self-sufficient, but the community’s been growing so much that the land doesn’t yield enough anymore, so we’ve had to adapt. Although if you ask Mare, she’d say we’re still not adjusting as quickly as we should be.

Anyway, that day in the assembly, we heard from the delegation that had gone to meet the caravan from the south. This was the moment Mare and I had been waiting for. Since the caravan had returned, there had been rumors spreading through the community about the expedition led by Sara, Mare’s great-aunt who’d left one day and never come back. It was then that Mare found the letters. Well, I don’t know if she found them then, or if she’d already had them, but that was when she’d told me about them. How they made their way here is a mystery, but from the letters we know that Sara travelled many places, investigating, and we know she wanted to find the first volcano, back in the Valle de Puebla. We have no idea if she made it. No one knows we have the letters, just as no one knows we now have Mare’s family sphere, which we plan to take with us on our own expedition. Mare says the sphere is her inheritance, that the family name ends with her and it’s better to take what belongs to her at once. I don’t argue with her.

What I’m telling you happened three years ago.

We didn’t know anything then. We had no idea we were going to leave one day. I’d always expected to spend my entire life in El Vizcaíno, but everything changed that day in the assembly. The caravan had brought a device very similar to this recorder. It’s called a radio. Heriberto handled it as if breathing on it would break it. It had cost him at least half of the month’s ration of maíz.

I tried not to look at Mare directly, though I was dying to see her reaction. A radio was more than we’d imagined they would bring. When Heriberto turned it on, it was like the air was filled with mosquitoes, the buzz going up and down as he moved a small knob. Suddenly, the buzz began to sound like a human voice, background music, it was like drums, then like bells, and then the sound became clear and we could hear it: a woman’s voice speaking out of the device. This was a girl from the caravan, explained Heriberto, and every third afternoon she gave the most important news of the region.

We were enchanted to hear her voice, as clear as if she were sitting right next to us. From that day onward, we’d stop working before the sun went down to hear her through the radio. It was then that the rumors of the Valle de Puebla stopped being rumors, and became the truth. Mare got it into her head that this was the answer to all of the strange dreams she’d always had: that her mission was to travel south and follow in her aunt Sara’s footsteps, that we must take the cards and the ceramic sphere and leave, never to return.

But it wasn’t easy. It took years to convince the assembly to support Mare’s trip. So many conversations and campaigns, which I’ll talk about another day. Most people didn’t want to send a new expedition so soon after Sara’s had gone. But Mare was certain she couldn’t stay here. She couldn’t be still. My mother says it’s because she’s descended from an original dreamer; she says such people are joined with the volcano and will lose themselves on the trail of ashes at the slightest provocation.

My mother understands why Mare has to go, but even now she doesn’t see why I have to follow. I’m not sure she’ll ever forgive me, above all because I won’t explain my reasons. The only one who knows them is Mare, but we never talk about my promise, about the night I told her I’d follow her to the Valle de Puebla and beyond. It was the same night we won the vote and managed to convince the community that it was worth it to send a new caravan to explore. The radio’s arrival helped our cause because it gave us a way to communicate, to stay in contact, to spread something more than just rumors.

After midnight, several young people, including Mare and myself, ran down the hill to the beach to celebrate by the sea. We lit a bonfire, played music, and in the midst of all the excitement, Mare and I ended up in the water. That’s when I told her. But that doesn’t matter now, what matters now is that the radio allows us to stay in touch, which is why it’s important to practice leaving testimony. To be a witness, as Mare sometimes says. Even she can’t believe we’re leaving in three months, after the harvest, when the community has enough provisions to give us some rations to pay for our passage south in the caravan. They’ll take us to a place called Nayarit, where the original dreamers came from. We’ll walk from there. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself; I have to go slowly so I don’t forget anything.

I’ll continue tomorrow. I’ll tell you more about what happened three years ago, after the radio came along. I’ll explain how we really got here, so you won’t be fooled by any rumors. Although the recorder will come with us, Mare says she’ll put my words in writing before we set off, and she’ll leave a copy of the testimony here, for you, so you can follow us if you wish.

Mare Chantico never returned to El Vizcaíno, but neither did she manage to reach the community of the volcano. In her diaries and the recordings of her companion, Ilse, we can see a changing world, a world that’s reconnecting through radio and commerce. Their testimonies have helped to rebuild life in El Vizcaíno, the community that had remained isolated for so long, and also the world that opened up before them on their expedition. Mare stayed in the Valle, and there’s no good record of her next sixty-five years. It was only at the end of her life that someone finally became interested in telling her story.

A drawing of a family tree in black ink against a textured brown and orange backdrop. The tree ranges from years 2025 to 2225, and shows the connections among characters from throughout this work of short fiction: Evelia Chantico, Modesta, Dalia, Rita, Amanda, Mû and Sara, Mare and Ilse, and La Soñadora.

Illustration by Alejandra Espino del Castillo

From Volume Twenty-Seven: Notes on the return to the Cosmic Fire
Box 7, Crystal 29

2225, La Soñadora, Antigua Puebla
19.182150158668566, -98.67532675412224

Standing, breathing the too-light air exhaled by the volcano, that woman in white, asleep once more, I prepare to drill my-words into the crystals to narrate the account of the journey in the way of those who came before me, my-firefamily. I come to leave in these transparencies the story of their-journey, the history of the land, and the ash that has returned to its place of belonging.

There are those who are lucky enough to meet their-kin while they are still alive and with flesh on their-bones, living together in the same timeline, even speaking the same language. Others are not so lucky; their-kin speak the language of wolf or parrot, or may be met only by studying the past. This was how I met you: Rita, Amanda, Modesta, Dalia, Sara, Mû, Mare, Ilse. My-firefamily, a family not of blood but of transformation, the family that makes us who we are.

But I did not know this until I came here, to La Soñadora, the closed community that was founded by the first-folk of El Vizcaíno and Nueva Cuetzalan, where finally I understood the question of the Cosmic Fire.

When I was born in 2179, we-folk who lived here among the largest rivers had already recovered some things: drinking water, the radio, a dietary habit excluding dogs and cats, some body parts lost by the first generation, and certain networks of electronic communication. We revived such things slowly and with great caution, thanks to the new geothermal plants that made it possible to generate enough energy to create small local power stations. Within them, we could wash our-clothes, play, observe, and find out what was happening in the one-world beyond. Above all, it was there that we began storing the freetomes. And that space, the most silent and lonely of all, was my-own childhood paradise.

I know true paradise always lies outside, and it is always communal, always shared. It is made of living sea and growing forest, of useful grass and visible stars, of coconut, maíz and mango. But as someone who grew up lucky to be well fed, in times of peace and fertile land, I took this for granted and stayed inside, in the shadows, looking for friends of the past in the crystal freetomes. I grew up sickly and a bit useless when it came to planting, rowing, housekeeping, birdcaring, or babyraising. No one would have given a grain of maíz for me until Doña Horte said, “I dreamed the truth of this girl. She will prove herself. Only let her grow, and she will shut-mouth us all with what she learns. She knows how to study.” Thanks to her, I grew to be good and useful in the Libertary.

The objective of the Libertaries was to rescue what-was and gather knowledge to build what-comes. My-folk lived in one of the hubs that contained all the vast knowledge of the age of barbarity. It was shocking, how the past-folk had known so much yet decided to go against their- heads and their-hearts with such tenacity. Every summer, in the north and south, there had been an inferno of red smoke. Each fire, each extended rain, each hurricane that had overturned their-houses like trees and left rebar pointing to the sky like roots, each animal species forever-lost, had paralyzed them with fear. They’d done nothing but watch and weep, or watch and ignore. They’d let the water from sinking cities reach their-necks. They’d been drowned. They hadn’t built new canoes or piers until the Earth had taken it upon it-self to rearrange, eject, and re-sculpt its-surface. The great eruption of 2025 had left them no choice: they had to reorganize their-territory and their-lives. One misfortune followed another. They thought they would not survive. But they did survive. And in the midst of the chaos they planted seeds, they harvested maíz, they bore young, they played ball, they promised kisses and dances, they listened to music.

When the time came, I dreamed of dedicating myself to meeting the folk who’d gone through all that, the past-folk, and I did. Listening to their-stories, carrying their-voices and their-faces, emptying what their-eyes had seen from one material support to another, organizing the crystals of their-memories, I began to understand their-lives. I rejoiced when I learned they’d survived an eruption and wept when I learned their-lungs had been ruined by ash and they’d died months after their-burns had healed. I even learned about the farthest folk, those who’d lived on the tip of the cornucopia’s horn, and all the sister-folk who’d spread to the ends of the Southern Cone; and later, when we’d recovered the connections of their-Network, I learned new wisdom from the one-world, from their-China, their-Arabia, their-Africa, their-Europe, their-Americas.

La Soñadora, so called because the mountain her-self is the sleeping woman and the settlers are her-living dreams, became a reluctant spoke in the wheel of local and global migration. As the cities of the one-world sank into icy glacial meltwater, our-broken Earth welcomed the change with the simplicity of a lake’s memory, the flow of a river, and the organization of folk who’d had to rely on their neighbors to survive a catastrophe. The isolation served the folk of La Soñadora well. They could hear each other better and they listened to the mountain with greater attention. This was how they learned to help them-selves with the sun-below, the sun that spins beneath our-feet and allowed us to us shed other sources of energy like shedding vestigial organs. The rivers of lava, the steam so close, exhaled from the mountain as if from a sleeping beast, taught the folk that they had to study the interior of the Earth for energetic possibilities. For this reason, they listened also with their-gaze. The potters used slag, obsidian, and vitreous matter to sculpt eyes and ceramic telescopes that, in a modest but abundant way (eye for eye, family for family), contributed to the understanding of the geology of other-worlds and therefore, of our-own. They understood the flame that burns in the darkest parts of our-Earth: the daughter-light of the Cosmic Fire.

So much was made of this new knowledge and so many claimed that it would save humanity, would save our-drowned and broken Earth, that the sister-folk began to make pilgrimage to La Soñadora. But if life in the community was harmonious and sustainable, that was because it wasn’t growing. The population was kept small, studious, frugal, and respectful of what the land could give. We couldn’t handle so many visitors, and we couldn’t repeat the mistake of swelling like a bear’s belly and packing together like in their-cities of old. Nevertheless, it was fair—and even necessary—that all-folk learn what the Cosmic Fire had taught us. What to do?

The interim solution was to set up a pair of shelters, functional encampments for the pilgrims, and establish a few rules: folk could come to learn for a set amount of time, and could only stay if they had something to teach in return. If in the course of this teaching they put down roots, if they found their-firefamily or true-dreamed a destiny that included the volcano, they could stay.

It worked for a time. This was how you-Mû came into the community and dazzled Dalia, who’d founded La Soñadora in the traditions she’d learned from La Chantico and Modesta; and you-Mû, you dazzled her. You came to learn, but you stayed to teach what you’d discovered of life beyond the community, and because of you La Soñadora radically changed her-architecture. The settlers began building structures that were temporary, yet strong and safe, constructed from colonies of extremophile organisms that are self-insulating, flexible, and self-regenerating. The pilgrim-folk, worshippers of the Cosmic Fire, soothed them-selves in the rosy glow of lava fountains from balconies that, since the Fire Festivals, no longer exist.

But eventually the entry requirements became so strict that you-Mare could not return to the volcano.

When you-Mare and Ilse finally reached the valley, the west wall of one of the volcano’s younger chimneys had just collapsed. Neither the letters nor your-treasured ceramic sphere could get you close to Mû: those who guarded the entrance didn’t know your-history, and it wasn’t that they didn’t value memory, but rather that safety came before all else. It seemed that you-Mare had to leave La Soñadora behind. You had two choices: to retrace your-steps, or to row to Mexico; that is, to row to Tlalocan; that is, to past-Tenochtitlan. And that is what you did. And you and Ilse were happy there. There, you witnessed many things.

I came to you by following you-Rita’s footsteps.

After finding, through the black market, a device that could play tapes, I was able to hear your-voice, Ilse. I burst into tears of joy. Thanks to your decision to bear witness, it was possible to drill this piece of history into the crystals. Then, I went in search of you and Mare.

By the time I found you-Mare, you could no longer speak well because of sclerosis, but you-Ilse were still as talkative as ever. I listened as you-Ilse told me your-history, while from time to time, you-Mare stroked my-hand with your-rigid thumb. Then you made your-self understood: you asked Ilse to bring me the ceramic sphere. Neither you-Mare nor you-Ilse knew exactly what it was, but you knew it was precious, and you’d known you had to keep it safe until you could return it to where it needed to be. I took it with great care and gave thanks for your-trust in me. I felt the embers of the Cosmic Fire burning in my-chest, and I embraced you both: my-firefamily.

At first, I thought the sphere was a simple camera. I’d seen such things before. Then I sensed that the strange sphere was something more, something like one of Modesta’s dreams. And behold: it is this object, this organ, that closes the circle. The legend was true. The sphere made by the ancestors of earth and ash was an eye in Amanda’s head. The witness-eye of the exodus—and now, of the return.

You-Rita, you spoke to me from the time-past. You-Amanda, you made us see with the true-eye, the eye of dreams and fire, the eye that makes new flesh visible to make us what we are today. You-Modesta, thanks to you, I knew the taste of your-time. You-Mû, your-pain was my-pain, and your-joy, my-joy. You-Mare and You-Ilse, now it is I who am witness to you. You-Rita, now it is I who speaks to you from a time-past. The same Cosmic Fire spins within our-chests. I open your-eye, you-Amanda, so that it sees the landscape of La Soñadora, so that the mountain and I may gaze at you-before-you, walking together, our-backs towards what-comes.

With the testimony of the Libertary’s archivist, thus concludes a two-hundred-year journey that began with the destruction caused by the force of the Earth’s interior, and, by the same force, led to the establishment of new ways of life. This force, two centuries later, still provides its community with both energetic sustenance and a system of meaning. Each year and each voice have been recorded into the different communication technologies and memory preservation systems of their time, from radio to video to crystal-data. One can also see the paradigm shift that took place with regards to the notions of kinship and family. This is the seed of our current understanding: that, beyond bloodlines, we are united by the care we lavish upon those with whom we share this brief transit, these finite rotations produced by the force of the Cosmic Fire.

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