Fiction: Compost

By Rick Berry

Do you ever feel like everything has come together just right? Like you’re doing the exact thing you need to be doing in every moment, every microsecond, of your life? Yes? No? Well, it’s a dangerous feeling. A dangerous, dangerous feeling. But when you feel it, and you’d definitely know if you felt it, you can’t help but indulge it. Everything goes right. Your body moves smoothly. You want to pick something up, it’s just there within reach. The world around you has been designed according to your specification. Your clothes fit better. Your food tastes better. You want to say something, and the perfect words fall out of your mouth without you even having to think. Every neuron and synapse in your brain hums in perfect harmony. Yes, when you get this feeling, you simply can’t help but indulge it.
I can’t say I had this feeling when I first woke up that day. Far from it. When I woke up, I was as anxious as I had been going to sleep the night before. Not that I slept much. My pillow was damp and insubstantial. I had that sense that my brain was loose in my skull, not hurting, but sensitive, unrested. It didn’t help that Micah was lying fast asleep on my arm, trapping it under his body. My hand was completely numb.
I think everyone in Compound B had been the same, the previous evening. There was a lot of nervous chatter around the dinner table. There were a lot of sleepless people up in the night, opening and closing doors, going outside to the toilet, getting a few deep breaths of cold air under the stars. When my door opened in the early hours, and I saw Micah standing on the threshold, offering me some company, like he did some nights, I was glad. 
None of us had been to a Climate Confession Group before, but everyone knew about it. Everyone knew people in other compounds, or other communities, who had had their turn. Like jury duty in the old days, but harder to avoid, the older people sometimes say. The stories weren’t bad. They weren’t even stories, really. The details of what happened at the CCG were not for sharing, we understood. What we heard were just grand statements about how important the exercise was, how worthwhile it was. How it was very serious, but rewarding, and nothing to be afraid of. You can see why it made people nervous.
It’s hard to say when and how my feelings about the day changed. The sense of everything going right, it’s not something you notice when it starts. It creeps up on you, I think. You’re already flying before you know you’ve taken off. 
Not that anyone flies anymore, of course.
When I look back the first thing I remember going perfectly was getting my arm out from under Micah. I’d been lying still for a few minutes since waking, when I decided it was time to get up and ready. I didn’t strategisehow to get the arm out. I didn’t take it slowly. I just pulled in one swift motion, and it came out easily. It was the sweat on his back, and on my arm. Natural lubricant. Micah didn’t move.
I dressed and went downstairs, then headed without thinking toward the pantry. It was my turn to make the porridge for the compound. I was amazed that I’d remembered this. I almost always forget. But this morning I found myself spooning oats into the pot before I’d even checked the calendar. That was the next sign. Then when I started cooking, it carried on. I’d always been adept at this task, but today was something else. I had the perfect ratio of oats and water, and applied just the right amount of heat. I stirred with such grace that every oat seemed to be in a constant state of motion.
There were a couple of people in the lounge, Ella, who had the room next mine, and Jackie, her friend. I told them the porridge was ready. I was happy to see them, and smiled warmly. They were talking about the CCG, and looked worried. The older members of the community were always more concerned. They had more to confess, from the times before. I made a joke, or rather a light-hearted comment. If only we could turn nerves into an energy source, I said. Perfectly pitched, acknowledging how concerned they were about the CCG, but not mocking them. Reassuring them that we could still laugh, and things would be okay. They appreciated it.
Before long, most of the compound was up and getting ready. I could hear people talking about what they might confess in the CCG, asking the others if they thought it was good enough. I thought I’d leave them to it and make my way to the community hall early, showing my eagerness to participate. I didn’t need to think about what I was going to say. I assumed the right thing would just come to me.
My walk to the hall was pleasing. All was calm in the meadow around the compound. I took the stony footpath that curved around the clearing, with the satisfying crunch underfoot as I walked. I could take my time. I didn’t need to rush, but I didn’t dawdle. Every step felt like it was just the right length and velocity to manage my energy output with maximum efficiency. I was optimal.
Looking around, my senses seemed particularly acute. I saw everything and heard everything. Going past the old oak, where the path forked out toward the pond, there was a bird singing. There were birds singing everywhere, but I heard this one. It sang. Then I saw it, hidden among the dense, crooked branches. My eyes narrowed in on the exact spot where it was perched. It was a greenfinch, my favourite, and the first I’d seen this year. If the wind had been any stronger the whirr of the turbines probably would have been too loud for me to hear. Even the weather was insisting on helping me.
This was when I saw Micah. He was jogging across the clearing toward me, taking an inadvisable shortcut. I waited for him to catch up. He was out of breath when he did.
You’ll need to clean those boots now, I said. 
You should have woken me up, he said. I thought I was going to be late.
It’s fine, you’re on time now, I said.
I didn’t even get to eat breakfast, he said.
That’s a shame, I said. I really excelled myself with porridge this morning, I said.
We walked on. I chatted amiably, breaking the tension. I told him about the greenfinch, for instance. I told him I’d enjoyed our night together, for instance. Occasionally, we brushed our hands against each other in places where the path narrowed. He still seemed slightly annoyed with me, and the words to soothe him just wouldn’t come. He was bringing me down a little, to be honest. Putting me off my stride. 
When I noticed that one of my bootlaces was undone, I was convinced that my feeling that everything was going just right was fading away. But as I knelt down to tie it, that changed in an instant. There, nestled in the grass beside the path, was a key. I picked it up and saw the letter F engraved on it. I realised this was the lost key from the winter food store, which had gone missing months earlier. The famous lost key. Everyone in the community had been asked to look for it. Everyone in the compound had spent days scouring the building and the surrounding areas, without success. 
Now I had found it, on today of all days. Like it was meant to be. I felt like I was living inside a deja vu, in a good way. Everything happening exactly as it should be. 
Look what I’ve found, I said. 
Micah stopped to inspect what I was showing him. 
That looks like the lost key, he said.
That’s right, I said. 
I could tell he was impressed.
When we got to the hall, I told Micah to go ahead while I stopped by the management office to return the key. There were a couple of staff on duty there, and they were delighted. That was pleasing, too. They kept thanking me, saying they’d make sure everyone knew I’d been the one to find it. 
There’s no need, I said. Just a happy accident.
I said goodbye to the staff and made my way over to the other side of the building, where the CCG was being held. It was one of the small rooms at the very back. I took the last spot in the circle of chairs when I entered. That was a good sign. Even the choice of where I sat in the room felt like it was meant to be. Everyone from the compound was there. Across the middle of the circle, I noticed a faint trail of mud on the floor, leading to where Micah was sat. I smiled at him, but I don’t think he noticed. I wondered if he’d told people about the key.
There was someone else there, too. A younger woman, slender, short. She must be the facilitator. Like the rest of us she was dressed in plain, white clothes, but she stood out. Not just because she was younger, and a stranger. She was different. She was perched high on her chair with a perfectly straight back. She was calm.
Welcome, she said to the group, after I’d sat down. Apologies, she went on, for the slightly delayed start. If everyone is ready, we’ll begin. 
I think she surprised us all with her voice. It was crisp, and controlled. It wasn’t loud, but seemed to fill the entire room. I liked that. I was going to like her, I could tell.
Who would like to start? she asked.
The dreaded moment. Confession. That’s what we were here for. It was time to admit to the things that nobody ever admitted to. The things that nobody ever talked about. 
You could think of this as a safe space, the facilitator said, if it helps.
I glanced around the circle. Subtly, so as not to draw attention. Ella and Jackie were on my left, nerves on show for all to see. Ella had her hand resting on Jackie’s tight, while Jackie gripped it tightly with her own hand. Next to them, Kurt’s feet were tapping. Lucy was both staring straight ahead, trying to hold themselves completely motionless. Ibrahim appeared to be in some discomfort, maybe holding in a cough. Micah was sweating, as usual, and still avoiding my gaze. 
I’d rather not have to choose someone, the facilitator said.
One of them would speak eventually, I was sure. I knew it wouldn’t be me. You see, I had nothing to confess. That was the main reason I had been dreading the CCG. I was happy to play my part in the community. I enjoy carrying out my responsibilities, in fact. Although from everything I’d heard about the CCG, it seemed obvious that people were expected to share a whole list of their climate transgressions. That’s what made other people apprehensive, having to confess. For me, it was the opposite. I couldn’t think of anything that I had done. Even when I was growing up, in the times before now, I had been a conscientious child. Incredibly conscientious. I never consumed more than I needed. I chastised my parents if I saw them doing anything destructive to the planet. When things changed, when things went wrong, I told them they were to blame and left them to live with the consequences. I arrived in this community an innocent person, and I’ve been beyond reproach ever since. My parents probably ended up in a composting facility. 
I wasn’t sure how people would take it, my innocence. Was it allowed? But when I woke up that morning, my fear had evaporated. I would just know what I needed to say. Everything would go right. Everything would go as it was supposed to.
It was Jorge that started first. My family and I used to eat animals, he said. He listed them all. Chicken, he said. Cattle, he said. Fish, pigs, sheep, he said. Disgusting. And it wasn’t just the flesh. They'd drain the milk from a cow and drink it. They'd take a hen's eggs, crack them open and eat what was inside. Horrific.
Jackie went next. She said she used to have a car. Using oil to fuel the engine. Moving around their own community, lazily sitting back on a comfortable seat while their vehicle spewed out all sorts of toxic chemicals. Can you imagine?
Ibrahim confessed to littering. I couldn't recall what the word meant, at first. They said they had all kinds of items that arrived at their house, wrapped in plastic. Food, clothes, everything. And then they just threw it away. The plastic, and most of the items, too, in the end.
The facilitator was just letting people speak. They didn't seem to need any encouragement, once they’d started. It was a free for all. I tried not to be judgemental. People were being honest, after all. But it was hard. I had to live with these people afterwards.
Initially, I kept quiet, until I hit upon a brilliant strategy. I had another one of those revelatory moments, and I knew how to get through this situation. I started to put on a performance. A measured one. Not over the top, not outright lies, but a subtle positioning of myself as an active participant. I nodded along as the others spoke, made encouraging little noises, uttered supportive comments. 
You must feel terrible, I said, about the cracking of the eggs.
We all make mistakes, I said, about the driving of the car.
That must be hard to live with, I said, about the litter.
It was going extremely well. I was saying a lot without having to confess anything. As time went by, even the younger people born after things changed were making confessions. Trivial things, mainly. 
I put my clothes in the laundry a little too often, said Gabby. I suppose just like the feeling of being clean.
A few times, said Toni, I’ve used an artificial light to read a book at night. Only when I was close to finishing and wanted to see how it ended.
Occasionally, said Micah, the first time he had spoken, I don’t eat those stringy things that you get down the side of a banana. I know they’re edible, but they creep me out.
You must feel terrible, I said, about the washing of the clothes.
We all make mistakes, I said, about the reading of the books.
That must be hard to live with, I said, about the bananas.
I was on a roll. It was quite euphoric, being among the group. As people confessed, I could feel the tension lifting from the room. Lucy wasn’t staring straight ahead anymore, she had relaxed and sat back. Kurt’s tapping had ceased. Micah was looking decidedly drier. Together, we had made it through.
And what about you?
I heard the facilitator say these words, without fully registering who she was talking to. I was nodding along, looking around, smiling aimlessly, waiting for the next confession. 
And what about you?
This time it was unmistakable. She was looking directly at me. 
I had that momentary sense of panic that an authoritative voice and a pair of staring eyes will often bring about, but I pushed it down. I could handle this.
I think it’s so important that we’re doing this, I said.
I agree, she said.
If we can’t admit to the mistakes of the past, we’ll never be able to build a better future, I said.
I agree, she said.
Thank you so much for helping us to do this, I said.
It’s your turn, she said.
The panic rose up in me again, but after a second I had it under control. The facilitator was trying to look dispassionate, and she was good at it, but I knew better. She was putting me on the spot to make a confession. That’s fine, I thought. That’s her job. I’ll rise to the challenge. There’s nothing like a bit of pressure to get my neurons firing a little faster.
I paused for a second. I made sure everyone was paying close attention. I made sure Micah was looking. I knew exactly what to say.
I'm innocent, I said.
Excuse me? 
I'm innocent, I said. No case to answer, I said. As far as humanly possible, I have led a blameless life. 
There was silence in the room for a few seconds. I'm not deluded. I knew I hadn't convinced everyone instantly with a few words. Beside me, Ella seemed to be quivering slightly. She leaned in and touched my forearm. She whispered.
But we're all guilty, she said.
Don’t worry, I said to her. Okay, I said to the group, let me be clear. I know most people are guilty. Almost everyone. It’s an honour and privilege to be with you and to hear all of your confessions. Truly. To the extent that this is a shared endeavour, I am glad to be part of it. But as far as my personal contribution goes, I have no specific confession to add.
Nothing, I said. I am innocent. My body, I said, has never been propelled in motion by any fuel source other than the energy stored within it. Nor have I ever knowingly harmed an animal, I said, let alone eaten one. I’d rather be eaten myself.
I noticed the facilitator had a notebook, leaning against the leg of her chair, She picked up and began to write in it. I was encouraged to carry on.
I wear my clothes until they are rags, I said. Look, I said, waggling my finger through one of the large holes in my shirt. I’ll still be wearing this a year from now, maybe longer.
I rarely flush the toilet, I said. I let it mellow when it’s yellow. Even when it’s brown, sometimes I don’t flush it down.
I reduce, I said.
I reuse, I said.
I recycle, I said, when I absolutely have to.
Impressive, said the facilitator, looking up from her notebook. And what is it that makes you so special?
I wouldn’t necessarily say I was special, I said. But fundamentally, we’re all individuals. That’s a fact of life. As wonderful as it is to be part of the community, we all have strengths and weaknesses, our own preferences and interests. Surely, I said, we can all recognise that?
Can we?
Yes, I think we can, I said. And as individuals, the strengths of one can compensate for the weakness of another. Take myself and Micah, my friend over there, for instance, I said. When we worked farm duty last summer, for lunch everyone had bread, tomatoes and a banana each. But as Micah confessed before, he always hated those stringy things you find up the side of the fruit. I liked them, so he gave them to me, and I ate them. See, I said, two individuals with our personalities, different, but still able to complement each other perfectly.
They’re called phloem bundles, the facilitator said.
That stopped me, momentarily. I didn’t know what she meant.
The part of the banana you referred to, she said. They’re called phloem bundles, and they have an important role transporting nutrients around the fruit.
Oh, I said. That’s good to know. So, you see what I mean. If we’re all individuals, then it makes sense that we might all have differing levels of guilt. Using oil to transport yourself around is worse than using a light to read a book, isn’t it? Breeding cattle for food is worse than washing your clothes, isn’t it? So if we’re all on that spectrum from innocence to guilt, some of us inevitably must be at the extremes. Extremely guilty, like some of you, or extremely innocent, like me.
I took a breath, proud of myself. That had gone well. My logic was impeccable. This morning, my only hope was that I could survive the CCG. Instead, I’d conquered it.
Phloem bundles are quite famous among us facilitators, the facilitator said. People frequently confess to discarding them.
Exactly, I was going to say. You're welcome, I was going to say. But something stopped me. Something wasn’t right.
Do you ever feel like everything has gone wrong? That things have fallen apart all around you, and no matter what you do, you can't grasp onto anything at all? You start to panic, and can't stop yourself. Your clothes feel crooked. Your entire body feels like it doesn’t fit you anymore. It’s like the ground beneath you has started to crumble and there's nothing you can do but sink into it. It’s hard to form words, and when you do, you can barely get them out. Pretty soon, you've lost almost all ability to think. Every neuron and synapse in your brain clangs to a halt. You’re in freefall.
This feeling comes on so much quicker than the opposite one. The one I had earlier. That comes on slowly, a gradual realisation. This one is rapid. It overcomes you in an instant. It's not a dangerous feeling. It's the feeling you get when the danger has become real. When you feel it, you can't help but submit to it.
As Micah did, the facilitator said.
She inclined her head toward Micah. His lips curled upward, very slightly. That was the first time I’d seen him smile today.
He was honest in admitting to his mistake with the phloem bundles, and he’s to be applauded for it.
Did she mean that literally? The facilitator wasn't looking at me as she spoke, so it was hard to tell. She was looking down at her notes. I could only see the top of her head, the neat lines of her hair, a few strands hanging forward, blocking her face from view. She was ignoring me. Uninterested in me. Like she was suggesting she didn't need to look at me anymore. Like she'd made up her mind already. 
A few people in the group put their hands together, ready to clap. Against my will, I felt my own hands doing the same.
Yet despite the fact that you participated in the very transgression Micah confessed to, the facilitator said, you claimed to be entirely blameless.
But I was helping, I said
Helping him to hide the evidence?
No, not exactly, I said. Helping to avoid the waste.
I see, the facilitator said. 
Did she see? She did, but she didn’t see it the same way.
As abhorrent as food wastage is, she said, we have an established process for dealing with it. Some fruits do have inedible parts, after all. But the farm you were working on had a composting facility, did it not?
She continued talking while I was still trying to figure out if that was a rhetorical question.
Instead of using that facility, or indeed suggesting to your friend that he eat his allocated meal in full, you chose to eat part of it yourself.
A tiny part, I tried to say. I didn’t need to say it, though, because the facilitator was reading my mind.
A tiny part, she said, but a consequential one. Over-consumption is an offence whether it’s one phloem bundle or an entire bunch of bananas.
She went on. Having said that, she said, we can forgive these mistakes if they are freely confessed. That, after all, is why we are all here today.
I remembered my words from before. Nothing to confess, I had said. It must be nearly midday by now. The room had become hot. Jackie’s face was read. Lucy was squirming in her seat to take off her cardigan. 
I apologise, said the facilitator, I tend not to feel the heat as much as others do. Slowly, methodically, she placed her notebook and pen on the floor, resting again on the leg of her chair. She stood, and walked around the circle toward the window. I noticed as she passed behind me, just how short she was. Even seated, I was almost as tall as her. 
They keep getting shorter, the young people, I thought. Don’t need as many resources. It’s not fair.
The facilitator closed the open window, and pulled down the blind. The intense heat I had felt on the back of my head was diminished. It was a relief for a moment. But the room became duller. The definition in the faces of my compoundmates was less sharp. They were further away from me, it felt. Except for Micah. He was easier to see. Sunlight had been reflecting off the sweat, I realised, obscuring his face. It was gone now. He was clear.
The facilitator was back in her chair and had started speaking again. 
Other evidence has been noted, she said, that compels me to take further action, unfortunately. First of all, you were late to the group. Before you protest, I already know the reason. We’re all pleased the lost key to the food store has been found, and let me assure you, there is no suspicion about the circumstances in which you found it.
Suspicion? The word squeaked out of my mouth.
There is none, she said. There is no need for it to be frank, when other offences are so evident. Attending the CCG is the most profound duty owed by every member of our community, yet you felt compelled to prioritise the seeking of personal glory over your responsibility to your fellow residents.
I'm sorry, I didn't quite manage to say. That wasn’t my intention, I didn;t quite manage to say.
Then there is the matter of the wind turbines, the facilitator said. It's come to my attention that you have expressed gratitude for our community’s wind turbines not spinning this morning, so you could experience the pleasure of listening to birdsong. A minor concern in itself, admittedly, but indicative of a pattern. 
That was just a passing thought, I didn’t quite manage to say. I only said that to Micah, I didn’t quite manage to say.
Which provides me with a good opportunity, she said, to remind everyone that constantly wishing for fine weather was one of the hallmarks of the culture of selfish excess, that we have tried so hard to eradicate. Life on this planet is not meant to be a luxury. Unless you’re a net contributor of oxygen to the atmosphere or energy to the grid, be mindful, be respectful, be humble. 
And confess, she said.
I’m not sure I even noticed the rest of the group leaving the room. I certainly didn’t leave it with them. The facilitator was gone, too. I was alone in the circle, when the two men came in. They sat down next to me, one on either side. They weren’t wearing white. 
They were laughing. I heard you like these, one of them said. How about this one? He took something from his pocket and placed it in my hand. It was a key, with the letter C engraved on it. 
You know what that stands for, don’t you? he said.
Compost, I said.
That’s right, he said. We’re your escorts to the facility.
We can even let you open the door yourself, the other one said.
They lifted me out of my seat, and I followed them out through the community hall. Outside, the sun was bright and hurt my eyes. As I squinted, Micah appeared. The men stopped, to let him approach me. When he got close he put his arms around me and pulled me in close. The last time we would touch. You should have woken me up, he said.
It’s come back though, the feeling. The good feeling. I’m in the facility now, waiting for them to switch the machine on. I feel calm. I’m seeing everything clearly now. I am innocent, too innocent for this world of flawed people. I feel like, I know, that I’m doing the exact thing I need to be doing. So let me go down into the earth, dissolve into it, become one with it, where I’m meant to be.

Rick Berry is a British author. His debut novel, Kill All The Dogs, will be published by SpellBound Books in January 2024. His short fiction has been published by Dream Catcher, Bandit Fiction, Cafe Irreal and others. He works in politics.