How to Build Civilization
Kalila Holt

It's Thursday and we get a new spelling list. After lunch—which, I have a tomato sandwich, and Carrie Light has a Lunchable she does not want to trade—we read about how you build civilization.

We are learning so much.

I am wearing my new canary yellow dress, which Meemaw and I got at TJ Maxx. Meemaw says there are lots of different kinds of yellows: sunshine and lemon and rain jacket, but that canary is probably the best kind. Did you know that mostly just male canaries sing? Seems a little unfair to me.

If you watch many princess movies, you'll see that many of these princesses are raised without one or both of their parents. Usually what has happened is that the parents loved this princess very much, and then they died. I have yet to see any princess movies where the parents just didn't want the princess. Where the king is in jail and the queen is living two states over and studying to become a dental hygienist, so that she can put all this behind her and start again.

Carrie Light stops me at my locker after school to tell me she's having an Oscar party that Sunday, but that I am not invited. "My mom said I should invite everyone to be nice," she says, "but when I thought about how I would feel, being at a party just because people felt bad for me? Well, that seemed worse."

"Sure," I say.

"But I didn't want it to be a weird secret, where you'd have to hear about it from someone else. I wanted to be mature about this."

"Thanks," I say.

"And hey," she says, in a way that feels practiced. "I hope you still enjoy watching the Oscars at home."

I can't watch the Oscars at home, because Meemaw doesn't have a TV. But I don't say that. Instead I say, "Hey, thanks," in a way that sounds like it should have been practiced but wasn't.

Not one person has complimented my new dress today. I put my spelling list and the book about civilization in my backpack, and I head to find Meemaw's car in the herd outside the school.

Most people don't know so much about canaries. They know about them dying in coal mines and that's it.

One of our spelling words this week is "unlucky," which seems easy. Our sample sentence is, "We were unlucky last time."

I see Meemaw's car right away, because it's this old brown station wagon. It is just old enough that it seems like maybe its owner fell into a coma for twenty years and then woke back up and went, "Oh! Time to drive again." Meemaw was never in a coma, though. She is, in her words, "still kickin' as hard as ever." She just has a bad knee, which means that if we walk around the block to see what dogs we can see, or up and down the aisles of TJ Maxx, we have to go slow.

"Hi Meemaw," I say, and I kiss her on the cheek. Her cheek has a parchment paper texture.

"Who is that beautiful princess in that canary yellow dress," says Meemaw. Since Meemaw doesn't have a TV, I'm not sure how many princess movies she's seen.

I tell Meemaw that in class, we learned about building civilization, and how people started to settle where there were good and helpful things, like bodies of water and fertile land. Then, over time, people could start to specialize in one thing so that everyone could help each other out. This made a lot more sense, because if you were living on your own, you had to learn to do everything and just keep trying and trying out there on your own with no one to tell you what you were doing wrong. It made sense because if you found something good, why wouldn't you stay?

Kalila Holt lives in Brooklyn. "How to Build Civilization" is her first published story.

Detail of digital art on main page courtesy of Simon Roberts.

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