Here is my entry for the 2020 Flash Fiction Challenge. Thank you for your consideration!
The Oldest Banyan Tree by Ciena Valenzuela-Peterson (1197 words)
Great Grandmother sat, cradled in the roots of the oldest banyan tree. Her family prepared for the celebration around her; her children shouted directions in playfully scolding tones, her grandchildren collected food from the village garden and cooked rice in big pots, and her great-grandchildren zipped around like bumblebees, dirtying their knees and dress shoes. Three generations she birthed and raised. Great Grandmother smiled faintly and breathed the damp smell of Indonesian summer.
Her youngest great-granddaughter, little Buana, toddled over and nestled under Great Grandmother’s waiting arm, legs tucked into her chest. The two rested, observing the bustle of activity. A firefly floated lazily by. Great Grandmother remembered when they used to be endangered, their numbers dwindling.
“Nenek, are you scared?” Buana asked.
Great Grandmother shook her head. Contented with that answer, Buana rested her head back on her bosom. Great Grandmother was a woman of few words, especially in her old age. She had more than her fair share of scars, and she worked hard to prevent her family from inheriting her trauma, wounds from a time before.
“Let’s go for a walk, little one,” Great Grandmother said, her voice hoarse. She began to rise, gripping a bough of the banyan tree, and Buana’s mother rushed over to help her up.
“Are you sure, Nenek?” Buana’s mother asked. Great Grandmother nodded and flapped her hand. She took Buana’s tiny hand between her weathered palms and patted it before walking slowly through the village.
They passed the community kitchen, warm and well-stocked, and the barter hall, where villagers traded and gifted their wares. The village was beautiful, full of greenery and art and smooth roads. Great Grandmother was glad; she remembered a time when no one had the time or the money or the will to invest in their village, before everything changed.
They stopped in front of a very old building. The steel walls were transformed with multicolored murals, and the steps were covered with candles and flowers. The gentle hum of machinery filled the air outside.
“I used to work here, many years ago,” Great Grandmother said.
“But, Nenek, nobody works here,” Buana said, puzzled.
“Not anymore,” Great Grandmother agreed. “They called it a sweatshop.” She tugged gently on one of Buana’s braids, and Buana wrinkled her nose petulantly. Great Grandmother cleared her throat. She had no tears left to cry for the horrors of the past, but today seemed like the day to remember.
“Before they had the robots, people made everything. We worked for twenty hours, sometimes.”
Buana gasped. “Twenty hours in one week?”
Great Grandmother smiled. “Every day, little one.” Buana squeezed her hand tight, and Great Grandmother squeezed back.
“When people first invented the machines, we were scared. We thought, if robots replaced us, made everything, we’d have nothing. No work, no food.”
Buana frowned. “That doesn’t make sense, Nenek. Everyone gets food,” she said, like it was obvious.
“You’re right. But before, the powerful, the rich—they kept all the money from the factories and hoarded it. If we worked for many hours every day, they gave us a little, and we could usually buy food. We had no choice.”
“What about Paman?” Buana asked. Buana’s uncle had been paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident years ago. Even after receiving the best public healthcare, he remained paralyzed. It never hindered him; roads and buildings were always wheelchair accessible, virtual workspaces offered him a wealth of opportunities to contribute to worldwide innovation, and the abundant community pool took care of him same as everyone. He lived a happy life.
“In the past, your Paman would have suffered. People who could not work received very little. You had to earn the right to live.”
Buana said nothing. She buried her face in Great Grandmother’s linen skirt. Great Grandmother smoothed her hand over Buana’s hair.
“But that is not now. Your Paman is happy. We learned.”
Just beyond the factory stood the cemetery gates. Great Grandmother led Buana through the rows of gravestones, their faces tall and smooth. Most of them were from the Sickness. Great Grandmother remembered her friends dropping like the endangered fireflies, lights slowly blinking out, as they were forced to live out their last days laboring in the sweatshops. Now, their ashes mixed with fertile soil to support new life. Dozens of trees created a canopy overhead, many planted by Great Grandmother herself in living memory of those who passed.
At the center of the cemetery, a still pond reflected the afternoon light, surrounded by meditation benches. A statue stood in the middle of the pond. It depicted a woman holding bread with arms outstretched next to the mechanical arm of a robot from the factory. Hundreds of names were engraved at the base of the statue and on the nearby benches, commemorating the revolutionaries.
“People had to fight to make the world the way it is now, little one. To show the world that there is always enough food to go around. That taking care of each other is our sacred duty.”
Buana traced her Nenek’s name on one of the benches and looked back at her in wonder.
“Come,” Great Grandmother said, squinting at the setting sun, “Let’s go back now.”
The two were greeted with cheers and energetic music; the celebration began. Colorful paper umbrellas filled the air, and skilled performers started their puppet show, a rich cultural tradition that thrived once again in this post-Sickness renaissance. Basked in the pink glow of the sunset, Great Grandmother chuckled, shooing Buana off to play with the other kids. Buana lingered, squeezing her Nenek’s hand once more. She nodded gently, and the child wandered away.
They adorned her spot in the roots of the oldest banyan tree with pillows and streamers and flowers. She nestled in. Her doting family brought her rice and sweet potato and tofu with chili sauce. Her cup was never empty. Gathered around her tree, a joyful bonfire blazing in the center, the village shared in stories and prayers and raucous laughter.
One by one, each of Great Grandmother’s children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren approached her tree. They took her hand and wished her a final farewell. Buana was last.
“You’re not scared?” she asked again, tears wetting her round cheeks.
“No, little one. I lived a long life. When you live a life full of value, full of family and nature and art, you don’t need to fear the end. My life is complete. Death is not so scary.”
“I’m scared,” Buana admitted, voice wavering. Great Grandmother took her into her arms.
“I will see you again, my baby.”
Great Grandmother stayed in the arms of the banyan tree, long after the bonfire dwindled and the villagers cleaned up and put their children to bed. Buana insisted on sitting by her side. Glowing fireflies blinked in the night. Great Grandmother leaned back against the trunk of the tree, the tree that had witnessed it all. She felt its solid bark cradling her head. With the profound weight of a lifetime, her eyes had long grown heavy and tired. At last, she closed them, at peace.