A Letter From My Daughter, Emily
By E.E. King & Richard Lau

I study  our ghostlike reflection in the window. The sun is bright, so I have to shade my eyes to see us, translucent, fitted together like puzzle pieces. And maybe we are. Once you grew inside of me, a part of me for nine months. Like a bit of photosynthetic algae inside the lips of a giant clam. 

Long, long ago, before you or I were born, the people of our world spewed tons and tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air, year after year, decade after decade. 

The plants sucked it up. The seas slurped it down. But it was too much, too much for the earth to ingest.   

Our climate warmed, seas rose, and destruction seemed inevitable.

But even during times of crisis, politics and lies led to denial and dissension. It’s nature—human nature. By the time that all the nations of the world finally decided to take serious action, all but a few of the hardiest mosses and bryophytes were gone. We were mostly eating food grown in labs. Surviving but not living. But our desperation was fertile soil. Sea soil.

At the time, your grandmother Emily and Shari, her partner in life and work, were living on a small atoll in the middle of an almost-dead sea, trying to save the coral reefs and to clean the waters. 

The ocean was drowning in microplastic then, and there seemed to be no way to remove it. But your grandmother and Shari came up with a plan.

They built enormous strainers around their atoll, similar to the huge filter-feeding mouths of the megamouth shark, but instead of being filled with tiny teeth or gills, these sieves were filled with jellyfish slime that trapped and held the almost-invisible plastics.

“I’ve removed more jellyfish gonads than I care to think about,” Shari used to say, her lilting voice musical even when complaining. “They’re nasty and the smell is fouler than day-old fish.”    

Their goal was to develop a biofilter of mucus that absorbed both micro and nanoplastics. The jellyfish filter worked, but not well enough. It was like trying to sweep the beach with a toothbrush.

Until…But let me tell you in Emily’s own words, quoting from her copious notebooks that I inherited.

I think I might have a solution. HAGFISH.

Hagfish produce slime the way humans produce judgment—easily, rapidly, defensively, and copiously. They slime when attacked, hungry, or simply stressed. They probably slime when sleeping. I bet their dreams are goopy nightmares.

  This slime is one of nature’s most wondrous substances. Long, thin threads made of mucus and protein lie, coiled up inside little compartments in the slime glands. When expelled, the threads spread out creating a quickly expanding net.  

Hagfish slime, though strong and elastic, feels incorporeal. When you see it in a bucket, it looks like water. Only when you stick your hand in and pull it out, the bucket’s contents are now attached to you.

Shari hates the stuff. 

 This was followed by drawings of Shari tangled in thread. 

It worked. Emily made tubes based on hydra propulsion that sucked water in and spat it out. Shooting the strands of mucus far into the sea and pulling them back, covered in plastics. 

In a surprisingly short time, the seas were clean again. Clean for the first time in hundreds of years.

But it was not enough. The air was still heavy with CO2 and the oceans were hot and acidified. 

So, your amazing grandmother and her remarkable lover began a coral nursery, growing Branching and Staghorn coral and anchoring them into the hollows of the dead reefs. Shari grafted miniscule recordings of healthy reefs onto the ends of their branches.

I can still hear Shari explaining it, her voice murmuring like a long-lost dream of a coconut palm island in a Caribbean sea.

“The soothing sounds of eating, mating, sex, and savagery that make up any vigorous community attracted the remaining fish, lonely in the dark waters. Hearing the music of a long silent reef suddenly calling to them, they came. And in their coming, the reef grew, and the artificial sounds became real.”  

Small miracles in a time when big ones were needed.

A reef is built from colonies of many genetically identical coral polyps. Polyps start life swimming freely through blue waters, but when they grow up and become homebound, they do it with a vengeance. They secrete a hard skeleton, glue it to a rock which provides a foundation for other baby polyps to settle near. Animals, plants, algae, seaweed, sponges, sediment, clams and oysters add to the architecture of the reef. When they die, they also serve as the foundation for new corals. After many generations of building tiny stone castles on the bones of the dead, the colony creates a reef. 

Most corals have a tiny alga living in their tissues. The algae makes food from light, and it is this that gives the coral its color and provides the majority of its food. But when the temperature is too hot, the alga becomes stressed and leaves, or perhaps the coral polyps spit out the algae. It’s hard to know. 

You could probably tell me, dear child. You could probably tell me so much, if only I could understand.

With its main source of food gone, the coral turns white and grows very vulnerable. It’s not dead, but it’s close, so close. I have seen it, when watching your grandmother work. Its bleached branches looked like a drowned man’s fingers reaching towards light. 

So, your grandmother and Shari began breeding heat-resistant coral. Grandmother had discovered that, like coral, many species of giant clam have algae living in their lips, supplying extra food. But, unlike coral, giant clams are much less sensitive to heat.

More from Emily’s notebook:

While corals bleach from the heat, giant clams have managed to retain their algae. And I think I’ve figured out why. 


Animals generally use iridescence for display or camouflage, but their iridescence cells are dead. Clams have living iridescence cells. Why?

Because instead of containing a single alga, giant clams grow long, microscopic pillars of algae deep into the clam mantle. 

The living iridescent cells fan the sunlight out into a cone about fifteen degrees wide. providing the entire column receives the perfect amount of  red and blue light. The red and blue wavelengths are what algae uses to photosynthesize most effectively. It reflects most  of the green and yellow wavelengths, sending that unusable light back to us.

Shari says that is why their green lips shine, like old-time movie stars.

This was followed by two lines of doodles of large – lipped clams, smiling and blowing kisses. A few had sharp teeth.

The living iridescence ensures that every last alga in the pillar gets its fill of sunlight, even though most of the three hundred or so cells in each column have no direct access to the light. Genius! The genius of nature.

If we imitate these columns, it could drastically improve the efficiency with which algae could be grown for food and biofuel because it will allow the algae to be grown in layers hundreds of cells thick, instead of as a single layer, as well as eliminating the need to stir the cells to expose them to sunlight.

If we use this technology in solar panels, we could charge hundreds of cells instead of one. 

And so, we did. Your grandmother’s iridescent solar panels provided energy wherever it was needed, abundant and free as sunlight. The world had power again. 

This is the woman you were named after. I’ve always liked the name “Emily,” the way the sound sits comfortably on the tongue before smoothly rolling off. And when I found out that the name meant “striving” and “eager,” just the qualities you and the human race would need to move into the future and thrive, I knew it was perfect. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Your father, Marcos, and I had not met yet, and you were not even a dream. 

I was still growing up in the sheltering shadow of my mothers. Emily had given birth to me by artificial insemination. All the children of my generation were born that way, because all our males were sterile. In a way it freed us. In a world where everyone is artificially fertilized, everyone’s parents are the same. No one is odd, because everyone is odd. 

We were struggling to survive and, in that struggle, most differences of sex, or preference, or skin color were submerged by the fight for life. I think it was a good trade. Without clouds, there are no silver linings. 

Meanwhile, our parents were figuring out what to do with the extra carbon in the atmosphere looming like a dark fog on the future’s horizon.

I will let your grandmother’s notebook explain it. 

Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have released billions and billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The carbon dioxide surrounds the earth by heat-trapping gases that cause blazing forest fires, suffocating  heat waves, and rising seas. What can we do?

Then there are pages of doodles of fires and oceans and clams. 

The obvious solution is carbon sequestration, taking CO2 gas from the atmosphere and storing it. But how? 

The most natural way to store it is terrestrial sequestration, when plants and trees store CO2 in their bodies and in their roots. Organic farms also can store CO2 in the soil if we return the soil to its natural state. Perhaps we could begin to grow plants again? 

But how to remove it from the air?

So, Grandmother Emily built CO2 scrubbers into the artificial clams that now dot the surface of the Earth. The clams breathe and perspire, taking in the unwanted carbon and producing food and water. For us, this was the kiss of life from the giant, shining golden-green iridescent lips of synthetic, photosynthesizing clams.

All types of scrubbers involve complex chemical reactions. And Emily’s scrubbers had the added benefit of producing water, which we desperately needed both for drinking and to fuel our oxygen generators. It worked.  

But still, we lived sparsely. There were no land plants, except some mosses and algae. 

More from Emily’s notebook:

What makes this system special is that the design can extract every last photon from sunlight…every photon except green and gold.

Funny, we think of green as the color of growth and life, but really, it’s the only light plants aren’t using.

If humans perfected photosynthesis, using every color of light to make food, plants would be black. 

And so began the black forest, which rose around our clamclaves like dark sentinels.  At first it was little sterile, black banana-like grasses that ate all the light and sucked down carbon like candy. We tried to make them propagate, but they only grew by grafts. 

The climate was now under control, but science is always more complex than we suppose. Systems are always more connected. The chemicals that we used in carbon scrubbing, the chemicals that we had hoped would save us, had sterilized all of us. For a while, it seemed that I and Marcos would be among the last humans, just when we had begun to make the planet livable again.

But then, some women, me among them, got pregnant. Maybe it was the sea starting to live again or the sun, no longer deadly, that caused our wombs to blossom. Maybe it was a change in the air of the very molecular level of creation as the earth recovered. We didn’t know. But ignorance didn’t dampen our joy. Usually our children are sterile. Other offspring, well, other offspring are like you, my sweet, perfect child. 

The scientific name for your syndrome is anorexia viridis, but most people just call it, The Verdant. At first, we didn’t understand. At first, we thought it was something to fear. A disaster. A takeover. Another way to die. 

We were wrong. It was rebirth. It was reincarnation. It was salvation. 

This is the world you were born into, my child. There aren’t many of us. We live in small clamclaves in the shade of black banana fronds that have begun to grow and flourish. We hoped green plants would evolve again, but it might take decades. You were born into a world in recovery. We had come far, but we had so far still to go.

I remember when you were conceived. Marcos and I were so happy. So amazed. We could not believe we had created life in this dying world.

But what kind of life would it be?

Potential parents are advised to have serious discussions about the hardships of having children and the possibility of a Verdant offspring.

Childbirth is always an act of hope. Does any mother really consider the drawbacks, the difficulties, dangers, and the pain associated with it? We only spoke of The Verdant once, when deciding what to name you.

“Emily’s a nice name,” said Marcos. “If she has The Verdant, we can always change it to Flora.”

“That’s awful!” I grabbed my bulging tummy protectively, superstitiously. “I can’t believe you said that!”

 Marcos grinned, and I grinned back. He took me, took us, in his strong arms and held us as gently as a sea-anemone’s embrace, but inside, my heart felt like it was breaking with love and the fear of loss. 

The Verdant is undetectable until the child is about six.

When you were born, sweet Emily, I didn’t consider it possible that you could be Verdant. It was unthinkable. You were, you are, my perfect child. When I held you, your gaze searched my face so intently, I felt that you could see into my soul. I was not prepared for the joy that burying my face in the nape of your tiny neck gave me. I had never imagined I would ever again smell freshness, possibility, and the scent of a brighter future. It was like breathing nineteen percent oxygen.

Your happiness was infectious, a contagion of hope. Humankind was on the mend. We had an intact ozone layer, protection from our sun. We had free, clean solar power. We had our giant clams, producing fuel and food. And we had love, the three of us, as dependent upon each other for the sustenance of happiness as a coral is on algae for its color.

We were so proud when you walked and talked early! Your happiness was as apparent as it was contagious. For you, every step was a dance, every word a poem. Your voice, high and sweet, made me think of descriptions of birdsong.

We played with you. Swinging you between us as we walked. As if we were young again. As if the world were young again. 

But only you were young. And you were getting older.

In too few years, The Verdant became apparent. Your speech grew simpler and more direct. I told myself that the change was a sign of maturity. I scolded myself for missing your childish laughter. After all, you were born into a hard, practical world. 

The government guidebook given to all parents describes Verdant-afflicted children as:

Children who sit in one place, though their limbs are strong. 

Children who do not speak, though they can. 

Children who engage with the world on another level. 

Children who are evolving at a frightening pace.

Soon, you became less talkative, less gregarious, less adventurous. By the time you were eight, you had stopped dancing. At ten, you had ceased walking. Instead, you sat cross-legged on the floor soaking up the wan rays that beamed through the window, rocking slowly back and forth, softly humming to yourself.

At first, I didn’t understand. At first, I refused to believe what was happening. I brought you food. I read you your favorite books. I showed you pictures. I shook you. I yelled. I slapped your nonresponsive face.

I can remember the actions, but not the feelings. I missed your birdsong voice and skipping steps but mostly I missed your laughter, that spontaneous burbling up of joy, that contagion of happiness.

I knew, but I didn’t want to admit it.

Your smile, which seemed eternal, didn’t even fade—not at first. But each day it grew dimmer, as your mouth muscles relaxed and your features diminished, retreating into blankness.

My girl, my child, my heart—I thought you were leaving me. I didn’t understand.

Your cells were changing, each thin-walled cell division metamorphosing from muscle and nerve into meristematic and permanent tissue. You were becoming you. A different you, but still my child.

The government guidebook tells parents to have ‘The Talk’ with Verdant children before the age of nine, before they are too far gone to understand and ask questions. 

But I took the coward’s way out. And I suppose so did Marcos, simply believing me when I said you and I had had ‘The Talk.’ And for not insisting on being there when we supposedly did. Now you and I will never have ‘The Talk’. Soon there will be no need.

Would ‘The Talk’ have changed anything? It would have been difficult and uncomfortable for both of us. There would have been tears and sobbing, at least on my part. Your eyes had already dried from lack of moisture and use. I wonder how many other parents have made the same choice and left the unspoken words sprouting like mushrooms in the secret darkness of their hearts.

I suppose we’re having ‘The Talk’ now, or at least I am, to myself, through this letter. 

As you soaked up the sunlight, listening to the rhythms in your head, your appetite decreased. You stopped responding to outside stimuli. Eventually, you ceased eating all together. 

I tore a page from the guidebook and put it on the wall by your favorite window. It says:

The Verdant children eventually stay where they are placed. Most no longer respond to human touch or voice. A few fold their hands when stroked or curl their toes when tickled, but not much more.

Their skin grows sallow, yellow gradually giving way to bright green. The Verdant affects not only motion and sound, but everythingevery nerve, muscle, and neuron. By the time these children reach puberty, they cannot live without light.

We believe that The Verdant are filled with happiness, which they express in subtle ways. Watch for the unfurling of fingers and toes. The widening and reaching of limbs. The tilt of the head as it follows the sun across the sky.

I don’t know why I chose that particular page. Looking back, my selection seems almost random. Perhaps to prepare myself? To convince myself that you were joyful? Most likely, I did it because it was all I could do, some desperate gesture of weak and ineffective atonement.

The guidebook is wrapped in the same tan algae-mycelium cloth that you were wrapped in when we brought you home from the birthing center. The bundle is hidden away in the bottom of the box that we used for your crib. 

Now, I understand the purpose of the guidebook: to soften the hammering blow of loss. To point out that the cup is still a quarter full. To focus my thoughts and efforts toward the future rather than constantly looking over my shoulder at the past, being undertowed into the seas of what-could-have-beens. Yes, you may lose your child, but the world gains another savior. 

You are becoming what you were meant to be. What you need to be. What we need you to be.

And with that epiphany, with you cradled in my arms, turned towards the light, you seem a part of me again. Or am I becoming part of you?

A childhood is full of firsts: the first step, the first word spoken, the first birthday. Tomorrow will be another first: your First Field Day.

Tomorrow, I will gather you up, careful not to bruise your atrophied legs, now shriveled into two pale, thick roots, desiccated white toes seeking moisture and nourishment that only the soil can give.

As a family, we will go to our assigned plot in the field, and I will plant you in the dirt.

You will be among the other miracles of your kind. Children, whose features have become so indistinct, their faces are only unfocused memories to the most devoted. Their brains dissolved into meristematic tissue. I wept the day you lost your eyes, watched as they gradually turned into buds and sprouted leaves. How could I have been so blind?

To imagine humans as superior. To consider ourselves the peak of evolution. 

You are the miracle. You filter our water with your roots. You cleanse our planet with each breath. You eat sunlight. You will give the world back its green.

A line from some forgotten past rings through my head. “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

There was a time when children worked in the fields. Now you will live there, making root connections with all the other Verdants, turning light into sugar, producing oxygen, providing homes for bugs and birds and mammals and whatever else may evolve on this strange and beautiful planet. You are the circle of Life.

There was a time when the color of your skin mattered, a time when your father’s darker skin would have been considered a hardship. But all of your outsides are green, and any colorful variation in petal or leaf is just another evolution. 

My greatest achievement will always be having given birth to you, Emily. My greatest sorrow was not accepting your change in time for you to know it.

Marcos and I will come to your field each day. We will gently turn the soil, add some nutrients from our compost box, and check if you are thirsty. I will stick my fingers into the soil, feeling for root tendrils, searching again for that special bridge between you and me, as intimate as the one we once shared when you were in my womb. 

We finally understand that plants are and have always been the answer. How smart of evolution to make our connection to the Earth more apparent now, our ties familial. We have always been just another part of the great cycle, but we didn’t know it. 

But one of many things you have taught me, Emily: It’s never too late. It’s only another beginning.

E.E. King is an award-winning painter, performer, writer, and naturalist – She’ll do anything that won’t pay the bills, especially if it involves animals. Ray Bradbury called her stories, “marvelously inventive, wildly funny and deeply thought-provoking.” She’s been published widely, including Clarkesworld, and Flametree. She’s currently painting a science museum in San Paula, CA and just finished 3 months of coral planting in Bonaire. She also co-hosts The Long Lost Friends Show on Metastellar YouTube. Check out paintings, writing, musings, and books at: www.elizabetheveking.com and amazon.com/author/eeking 

Richard Lau (he/him) has been published in magazines, newspapers, anthologies, and the high-tech industry. He is thrilled to have co-authored a story with E. E. King and to have it published in Solarpunk Magazine.

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