Wicked Problem

by Holly Schofield

The rain dogging them all the way from Vancouver had lightened by the time they hopped out of the helicopter onto the tiny island. Marie pushed Livvy's head down, well below the copter blades, and held her by the elbow as they hunched-ran across the meadow into the woods. The collection case banged against her leg with every step and she muttered a curse word in rhythm.


The pilot, Hank, tapped his Canucks cap in goodbye, and the Bell 206 began its whup-whup-whup. Marie leaned the daypack against a large storm-heaved cedar as the copter whirred away toward the British Columbian mainland, sending curled brown alder leaves skimming across the meadow.


"Nice, Mom," Livvy said as soon as it was quiet. "The F-word, I mean."


"You'd swear too, if you had yet another storm predicted in ten days and this short collection window."


"Hey, like my new sweater? Cathlyn got it for me to wear today." Livvy put her hands on her hips and twisted at the waist like a model, exposing light brown skin above her jeans. At fourteen, she couldn't bring herself to refuse the inappropriate gifts that her other mother kept giving her. The maroon knit was some kind of synthetic: the very opposite of socially-responsible bush gear. It had to be expensive--which credit card had Cathlyn overextended to pay for it?


"What's it made from, a purple puppy?" Even before Livvy's face fell, Marie regretted her words. "Sorry, kiddo. I'm an insensitive monster and you should hate me like all good teenagers."


"Yeah, that's what Cathlyn says." Livvy's mouth quirked. Post-divorce, all three of them were still finding their way.


Marie fought a sudden wave of guilt. Did Livvy know how torn she felt? How her all-consuming job kept her from being the parent she wanted to be? Today, bringing Livvy on the research study was an exception to the usual impossibility of combining both roles.


"Is that the antibacterial goo over there?" Livvy gestured across the meadow where early morning sunshine gleamed on wire fencing.


"Yep, an area smaller than our backyard but as valuable as, what? A day off school?" The clay was so rare and so ancient that Marie had received a small grant to study it. She'd already delayed the trip here three times due to poor weather and postponed her overdue sabbatical. Time to get busy. She pointed at the far left side of the meadow. "Keep away from the river mouth over there. It's...not healthy."


"Got it. Don't drink the water."


"More like, don't eat the fish." No need to tell Livvy about high mercury levels after a Grade Six project on saltwater fish contamination several years ago.


"The salmon are spawning late this year, right?" Livvy asked, starting off at a trot.


"Right, spawning disease mostly." Was she doing the right thing by exposing Livvy to her own black humor over Canada's worsening environment? If she'd sheltered Livvy more, in keeping with the traditional Chinese ways of her own Mama and Baba, would the kid be better off? She picked a stalk of grass and began to chew on it. Having kids late in life made a person introspective. And tired.


"Come on, Mom!" Livvy was nearly to the gate already.

Marie picked up the case and the daypack and loped after her silently, saving her breath for the running.

The F-words would have to wait.



The antibiotic clay must have existed eons before the 10,000 years of aboriginal collective memory, but it was anybody's guess how much longer before erosion washed the quarter hectare away.  Climate change-caused storms were reshaping the BC coast, including here on at the remote tip of Quaternas Island.


Lately, the media had eased off from their previously constant reports of failing ecosystems everywhere, but Marie suspected climate change--and its underlying causes--never got far from the general public's mind. Even Hank the pilot had brought it up. He'd been grumpy about the unexpected passenger. "I'll need to charge extra for the kid," he'd said just before lift-off. He had the deep brown skin and stocky build of the indigenous Coast Salish peoples. He studied her from under a fringe of hair as thick and black as her own. "Every person costs more."


"No shit," she'd replied as she thumbprinted the extra charge to the university on her tablet. "My undergrad thesis was on over-population."


He'd grinned at that and, as they'd headed up the Salish Sea, he'd turned into a sort of tour guide, pointing out known whale migration routes and seal colonies, much to Marie's surprise and Livvy's delight. Once, he jabbed a finger toward the grayed edges of a long, narrow peninsula. "That used to be my ancestor's village, long time ago. Flooded now."


Marie bobbed her head in sympathy. "More flooding to come."


"Yup. When we were kids, we saw the weather getting warmer. If only those damn politicians would enforce the carbon emissions laws, eh?" He swerved the Bell past Gilford Island, one of the outliers off the much larger Vancouver Island, and headed north.


"It's hard to see problems that creep up on you," Marie said, adjusting her mike.


"Reminds me of a story that my grandfather used to tell." Hank's weathered hands gentled the Bell's controls.


Marie shot a look at Livvy behind her, signalling with her eyes to pay attention. She made a mental note, as well: when Hank was done, she'd ask permission to transcribe it for a friend of hers in the Oral History department. Whether he was of the Penelakut, Lamalcha, or Hwlitsum First Nations communities, such stories were rare and to be treasured.


Hank twisted and caught Livvy's eye, too, his expression unreadable. "Put a frog in a pot of cold water, then put it on the stove. That frog'll just sit there and---"


Marie snorted and Hank raised an eyebrow beneath his headset. "Expected a traditional story, did ya? I'm a member of Tsawwassen First Nation. I grew up in Vancouver. Probably went to a bigger high school than you."


"I'm sorry," she said and laughed at herself. Of course he was part of the larger world, just like her, and had all kinds of childhood influences.


"Dumb frog. It could just jump out." The eyerolling was audible in Livvy's voice.


"Yeah. Too bad human-caused climate change isn't that simple, kiddo." Marie slowed her words. The mike was a bit crackly and this was important. "Everything's so interdependent, every solution creates another scenario that might have its own problems. Plus, the liability for mistakes is so huge no one person or country wants to take the lead. It's what logisticians call a 'wicked problem'."


"Wick-ed!" Livvy said, drawing out the last syllable.


"Hah. Not like that. Difficult. Hard to solve."


"Wicked as a witch, all right," Hank said. "Look at the scum down there." Below, on a shell beach, dark yellow seafoam lay like ribbons of vomit.


"Eww." Livvy stared in fascination.


"We could clean that up, but it'd only be treating the symptoms." Marie tried not to use her university lecturing voice. "It comes from a hundred different small decisions impinging on natural cycles." She didn't bother to go into "least bad" decision-making processes and other methodologies she'd been hearing about at conferences her whole academic life.


"Along with general indifference," Hank said.


"Which your blog is changing, Mom," Livvy said. "The indifference I mean."


"Hah! Three whole hits this month." Her environmentally-messaged website sat in the doldrums of the internet, full of long convoluted truths that nobody wanted to hear.


Quaternas Island hove into view, its rocky shoreline formidable to boats and even hovercraft.  Marie rubbed her palms on her thighs. Hopefully, Livvy would remember this trip for the rest of her life. The Bell swooped lower toward the spreading mouth of the Quaternas River as green points of trees became more distinct. Winter storm damage was readily apparent, swathes of old growth Douglas fir having gone down like bowling pins.


Hank pointed out the landing field. "I'll be back at five after my Bella Coola run, weather permitting. But just in case I'm not, there's a cabin over there, beyond the blackberries."  Near a patch of darker green, the lime-green rectangle of a small mossy-roofed building stood out.


"We should be able to collect enough samples today." Marie leaned forward, grasping her shoulder harness.


Hank set them down gently, flattening the golden October grasses. He looked right at her and said solemnly, "Take care of the clay. It really is damned special."


Marie's preparatory research had revealed that the clay had been revered by the First Nations people for its antibiotic properties for generations, probably since the beginning of the Anthropocene epoch. Today's sample collection was by special tribal reserve dispensation allowing the university to begin a long-term study evaluating its medicinal properties.


"I'll do my best," she told Hank and meant it.


Hopefully, the clay would remain through Livvy's generation, and the next, and the next. Papers from her study would add to the world's knowledge base and encourage people to act on climate change.


It was all still possible.


Sure it was.




Orange flagging tape dangled from the wooden stakes First Nations volunteers had placed when they'd collected preliminary clay samples, sending them to Marie in old jam jars and baby food containers. Curiously, the clay was almost free of ground cover, a gray mass sloping downward to the river. Livvy knelt by the nearest of the sampling holes and Marie set down the collection case beside her. The hole was a half-meter in diameter with a skim of muddy water just below arm's reach.


"It looks like any old clay," Livvy said, shoulders slumping.


"Yeah, it does, doesn't it? Like gray plasticine. But even the most innocuous things hold amazing pharmaceutical properties." Her voice was hushed. She'd meant it when she'd told Hank it was a true privilege.


"Sure, Mom. You go ahead. I'm just gonna walk around a bit." The kid's enthusiasm blew hot and cold these days. Marie could remember how that felt--being on the cusp of adolescence, finding your way in the world. A day of contemplation and introspection would do the kid good--and the island had no bears or large predators of any kind.


As Livvy wandered away, Marie opened the collection case's lid. The test tubes stood in their cushioned rack like tiny soldiers. She had to do this right. Every step recorded, every action documented, every test precise. Along with her peers, several levels of government and a couple of interested corporations would be reviewing her chemical analyses and journal papers.


She carefully scooped tiny bits of the remarkably uniform material into tubes, labelling them with time, date, and GPS coordinates. From somewhere to the north, an eagle gave its high-pitched cry.


Eventually, Livvy reappeared and squatted down to help. Marie put her to work capping test tubes and sticking on bar codes.


Before long, a strong breeze took the clouds away and the spots of rain on her jeans dried. Several American robins had an argument in the alders lining the river bank. The sun grew hot. If the weather window held, they could get this done. For several hours, they worked methodically.


Finally, Marie stood and arched her back. "I'm feeling my age, kiddo."


Livvy leapt up. "Let's take a break! I'm starving!"


"Fine." Her fingers were beginning to cramp anyway.


"Let's check out the river, Mom."


Marie handed her one of the tofu-and-pickled-vegetable buns in her daypack and followed Livvy along the top of the steep river bank toward the ocean.


Automatically, she identified the riparian ground cover as she walked: foamflower, alumroot, English daisy, the harsh yellow of ragwort, some coltsfoot, and a newly sprouted sprig of Scotch broom. Out of six plants: four invasives. Figured.


The smell hit before Marie reached the river bank. Like sewage with a tang of rotting fish and an overlay of burned plastics. Probably a combination of tanker spills, pleasure craft sewage, and increased ocean temperatures. Marie gave a snort, blowing the foul air out of her lungs Asian-style.


Livvy had already jumped down onto a silty shoal. In the water, salmon leaped and swam upstream, with only a few dead floaters amid the scum. "It doesn't look that gross, Mom."


And she was right. The presence of some corpses was only natural: west coast salmon died after spawning, unlike their eastern counterparts.


But the stench was overpowering. Marie squatted at the edge. "When I was a kid..." She trailed off. The kid had heard environmental nostalgia her whole life; maybe thinking this river wasn't so bad was actually a good coping skill.


 Livvy didn't even glance over, swallowing the last of her lunch as she drew simple manga characters in the shoal's silt with a stick.


But, no, keeping silent was wrong--the river really did reek unnaturally and the kid needed to know that. Otherwise, how would her generation maintain the desire to fix it?


A fish leaped nearby, a silver arc catching the sun. Gorgeous. It landed back in the water with an awkward twist, splashing Livvy's legs, soaking her jeans. "Ew!" Livvy took a step back.


Marie headed down the rain-slick bank, picking her way slowly. Clouds had obscured the sun by the time she reached the halfway point where a leaning ocean-spray bush slowly slid downward in the oozing soil. She paused to catch her breath.


A few meters below, another fish bellied up onto the shoal next to Livvy, desperate to find gravel-lined shallows. A glittering mass of tenacity, still moving its tail despite being marred with lines of leaking pustules. With a surprisingly clumsy flip-flap, it nudged up against Livvy's boot. She poked her stick at it, but the rotten alder cracked in two.


Marie gasped as Livvy pitched forward just as the fish squirmed sideways again. One of Livvy's hands sank into the muck. Her other hand shot out, landing on the twitching silver head. "Oh!"


Marie skidded the rest of the way down the bank.


Livvy was staring in horror at her palm, red lines limned with yellow goo. "What should I do? Should I wash it in the river?"


"No, better not." She took a shaky breath. "Why are your palms bleeding?"


"I found some black raspberries when I took that walk. At least, I think they were. Only bigger and pricklier."


"Those are the Himalayan kind, the invasive ones that have bigger thorns and larger--well, it doesn't matter now, does it." Marie let loose her irritation, mainly to hide her growing terror. It hadn't been more than twenty seconds, but blisters were forming on Livvy's palms; yellow pustules along the scratch lines. "Let's go back to where the water bottles are. We'll just wash it all out, shall we?" Marie kept talking, matter-of-factly explaining how slowly bacteria grew. Her voice had steadied by the time they reached the top of the bank.


The zipper on the daypack fought back, but she got out the two-liter water bottle and poured most of it over Livvy's crusted hands as the kid sniffed back snot, then she used the entire package of antiseptic handy-wipes to scrub her hands again and again. Finally, after dumping out the contents of the tiny medical kit, she smeared on a whole tube of Polysporin.


Livvy's voice was low. "Will I be okay?"


"You'll need a full course of antibiotics. But there's lots of time to get it in your bloodstream, a day or two. Infections don't spread that fast."


Usually. But it was only one o'clock. Hank wouldn't be back until five.


And only then if the weather held.


Marie looked up. While they'd been wasting time, dark clouds had crowded the sky. Wind was sending ruffles across the meadow grass.


The tube of cream crumpled in her fist.


"I don't think Hank can get us today, kiddo."


"So, now what? There's no cell signal. Or anybody close by." Livvy whimpered like a much younger child and Marie gave her a careful hug, avoiding her palms. Now what, indeed?


"We'll be okay." Beyond the kid's shoulder, the collection case was visible through the fencing.


Livvy must have felt her raise her head. "But we do have some antibacterials, Mom, don't we? Right over there."


"Well, we haven't proven that, not yet."


Not yet, and not nearly.


It began to rain heavy, cold drops; an instant chill.




The cabin had all the essentials. A woodstove, dry kindling, wool blankets, and only a thin layer of dust. Marie laid the daypack on a handmade fir bench with a sigh of relief. She'd have to remember to thank Hank and the other members who maintained the place year-round.


"Do we have food?"


"Sure we do, kiddo. I wouldn't leave home without it." Marie kept her voice cheerful as she pulled out her waterproof matches and crumpled up a yellowed newspaper. A cheery fire made them both feel better.


Reconstituted dried chicken biryani and the last bun didn't taste so bad although some chili oil would have improved both. No coffee, just a few stale teabags from the bottom of her pack. The last litre of water filled the teapot. Marie insisted Livvy drink most of it. The pack held a supply of water purification tablets so they could drink river water tomorrow if they had to, although her stomach roiled at the thought. Rainwater would be cleaner and there was a newish tarpaulin covering the woodpile out back that would make a good rainwater collector except they also needed the tarp to keep the wood dry for themselves and for future visitors. And this storm could last days. Wicked problems, without end.


"What are you muttering about, Mom?" Livvy lay on the bare mattress against the rolled-up sleeping bag.


"I should have...never mind. I'd be better at this if it wasn't my first time here. Wanna repeat this adventure next week?"




Marie sprawled on the wicker chair by the hearth. The rain increased its tempo and trees creaked in the wind. There'd been three separate "storm of the century" instances this year already. Another could erode away the remaining unique chemicals in the prehistoric clay bank, sending grey sludge swirling away into the river and out into the Pacific.  She'd been right to do this trip in the short weather window. She had!


In the hearth, flames leapt and sparked in counterpoint to the beat of the rain on the cedar shingle roof and Marie watched them until her eyes smarted.


It was near dawn when Livvy's voice woke her. "Mom? I don't feel so good."


Her tiny headlamp illuminated Livvy's flushed face and hollowed eyes. Marie's imagination defied logic as she pictured staph germs, anthrax, even cholera swimming like sharks through the kid's blood.


She swung the headlamp across the cabin, past the daypack, the useless medical kit, stopping at the rack of test tubes she'd brought in for safekeeping overnight. A choice that was no choice.


The mud spread on, cool and soothing to Marie's hands. She could remember her own mother doing the same with calamine lotion when Marie had had chickenpox as a child. Mama would have said that the yin of the clay was counteracting Livvy's excess internal heat, reducing her overabundance of yang.

Livvy squirmed deeper into the bag, muttered, "That feels good," and fell back into a slumber. Marie continued to slather Livvy's hands and part way up her arms for many minutes, as if her fingers were a spatula and Livvy was so much birthday cake. Her hands looked ghoulish now in the dim light of the headlamp. Was this how a First Nations mother felt when she'd used the clay to treat her children for everything from cancer to broken bones? Hoping against hope that it was helping and not harming?


She wiped her hands on a sheet of newspaper and clicked off the headlamp.


In the darkness, it was as if the ghosts of a thousand First Nations people wept with her.




"First, you ruin our marriage and now you drag Livvy to such polluted places that she almost died?" Cathlyn hissed at her from the chair by the IV stand. After Marie's quick phone call, she'd instantly left her meeting and met them in the emergency room. Her gray eyes had flashed with hostility even then, hours past now, and even as she asked Marie to pay for her taxi.


"How could you even think that!" Marie reined it back so it came out a whisper. Livvy was sleeping fitfully, face sweaty, hair mussed. "And keep your voice down."


But Cathlyn hadn't finished. "You said yourself that there's no such thing as benign neglect. Just neglect."


"I was talking about the spread of giant hogweed at the time." Marie heard the scorn in her own voice and winced. How had they gone from sharing the joy at Livvy's birth to this, fourteen years later?


Cathlyn thrust herself out of the chair and stalked the two steps to the window. The harsh fluorescents silhouetted her against the darkness outside. Her slender figure, reflective of the inner strength that had first attracted Marie, now seemed gaunt and brittle. "How much, Marie? How much you gonna give to your career at your family's expense?"


"I'll pour my blood on the fucking ground if my research gives Livvy's generation a better adulthood. Do you really think the human race can just stand by? I'm doing it for her, don't you see?"


But, clearly, Cathlyn didn't. Her job as media consultant for large corporations was something she could leave behind at the office each day.


The nurse came in and frowned at them. Marie stepped away from the bed and watched as he started fussing with Livvy's horrific white bandages. She picked at hangnails until he'd left. Cathlyn remained by the window.


After the IV pump's low monotonous thumps had filled the silence long enough for Marie to swallow several cries of despair, she reached over and adjusted Livvy's blanket. It was better than doing nothing.


The kid's eyes opened. They looked bruised, as if she'd been beaten in a boxing ring. "Mommy? Cathlyn?"


"It's okay, kiddo. It's going to be okay." Marie stroked her hair then pulled back so Cathlyn could lean in and give Livvy's flushed cheek a firm kiss.


Livvy looked up at both of them. "Did the clay work? Is it fixing me?" She gestured toward the IV tube snaked into her arm.


Cathlyn straightened and gave a harsh laugh.


Marie cleared her throat. "Those are prescription antibiotics in the IV. We don't actually know what the clay did, if anything."


By the time the paramedics had met them at the heliport, Livvy's angry scratches had faded from sunset red to a faint pink. But that didn't prove much. The odd behaviour and distress of the fish would need as much study as the clay before anyone could be reasonably sure of anything.


Livvy nodded and closed her eyes again.


After a long moment, Cathlyn's eyes met Marie's. "I almost think you planned the whole thing," She folded her arms. "Isn't it grant season? Drama like this can only help with your pandering to the university board--"


"If I'd planned this, I only would have slathered mud on one of Livvy's arms. That way I'd have a control sample."


Eyes still closed, Livvy snickered.


"Sorry, kiddo, you shouldn't have to hear your parents fight."


"I'm not fighting," Cathlyn said stiffly. "I'm pointing out facts."


Livvy shifted on the bed. "But, really, Mom, public awareness can help get you more funding, right? I can go on your blog and tell people and show them my hands?"




"Let me do more than slap on barcodes." Livvy looked up at Marie. "Wicked witch, remember?"


"But..." Marie stopped. Maybe Livvy was right. To solve a wicked problem you had to try all sorts of convoluted complex solutions. Including public awareness. And she couldn't protect Livvy forever. And the incident had been dramatic. "Maybe we can work something out." She touched the kid's shoulder through the thin hospital gown. "You just get better."


Cathlyn scowled. "Marie, what are you up to? You've got that appraising look in your eye. That critical look."


She probably did. She had an idea but to pull it off was going to take more than her own efforts.


More than Livvy's, too.


She turned and faced her ex-wife. Cathlyn might not be willing to help Marie with her goals and dreams but she'd help Livvy. All things considered, she really was a good parent.


And--suddenly, equally important--she was also a good media consultant.




Today's rainfall had been predicted accurately for once, but reporters and news drones still clustered around the clay field. The turnout was even better than Marie had hoped--Cathlyn had done well. She tried to ignore the fact that the carbon footprint to get the reporters, the sound and light crews, and the media interviewers all the way to Quaternas was seven times more than her own expedition had cost three weeks ago.


She stepped up to the mike under a hastily-erected tarpaulin. "Dedicated research dollars can protect the value of the antibiotic properties of the Quaternas clay bank. We don't know that it works…" The cameras followed her as she pointedly turned to look at Livvy who stood off to one side. She couldn't stop a smile forming. Livvy had worn the purple sweater, sleeves shoved high, despite the gray stains that remained after washing. "…please meet my daughter, Olivia."

Livvy beamed at the use of her full name and raised both hands, turning them to present the thin stripes of shiny scar tissue to the murmuring reporters. Marie bent to the mike and continued, "In fact, it may not work, but I think we can all agree we need to find out. Let's find a way toward preserving it. One start is to sandbag the shoreline, preventing not only erosion but also more contamination from the salmon." Sandbags wouldn't really do all that much but Cathlyn had pointed out they would be a good visual in the gifs and memes they hoped would follow.


Marie explained slowly and clearly about the terrible problems with the salmon, trying to keep the reporters focused. A colleague last week had figured out that the salmon suffered from more heart and musculoskeletal inflammation than ever before. Lesions due to the somewhat-studied piscine reovirus had formed along the fishes' lateral line, the sensory organ that detects water currents. Plus, Lepeophtheirus salmonis sea lice had been attacking the salmon's protective mucus. Compounding that, ocean-dumped pesticides had given the salmon a cochlear problem causing vertigo that made them twitch and misjudge their jumps. A steady drip was falling off the tarp and splattering her feet by the time she'd finished.


"The fish went crazy due to a virus," a raincoat-clad reporter spoke loudly into his handheld.


Marie bit her tongue. If the complexity was lost but the meaning was conveyed, well, that was better than completely ignoring the problem. "Are there any questions?"


"What should be the very next step in fixing climate change issues?" Cathlyn called out from the crowd, right on cue.


"A naïve question," Marie answered gravely, with an inner grin. It had taken a bit of convincing before Cathlyn would let Marie make her look the fool but the question served its purpose--several reporters' heads jerked up at her tart answer. "There isn't just one step. The real problem is partly legislative and partly the community not pulling together. There will never be a clear overarching goal--and we need to realize that. Self-awareness is key here."


She let the crowd murmur a bit, then she waved Livvy over.


The kid was also on cue, opening up a large piece of cardboard on which she'd scrawled a URL in purple marker. It instantly became the focus of the camera crews and drones. "What's that?" asked a young eco-blogger with facial tattoos.


"Look for yourself," Marie said, figuring that would result in more hits than saying that the website address was her own blog. Posting on it and adding new articles would take far more hours than she had, hours that would cut into time spent with Livvy, but less sleep was a small price to pay.


After a few more questions, all of them about potential solutions, the hired choppers came to take the reporters away. Hank gave her a cheery wave as he lifted off, boom mike poles clipped to his landing skids.


The rain had finally stopped but a brisk breeze came off the ocean, giving her goosebumps. It would be a long wait until Hank returned to get the three of them along with the reserve's supplies he'd been forced to pile in the meadow this morning to make room for the reporters. Livvy was sitting next to Cathlyn on a fallen log. Cathlyn glared at Marie, a lioness protective of her cub. Marie couldn't blame her. Would the upcoming media zoo, with Livvy squarely in the spotlight, be worth it? Who knew? All anyone could do was try.


A bitter gust of wind coursed across the field. Livvy crossed her bare arms, hugging herself.


Marie picked up a thick blanket off the pile of supplies, walked over, and wrapped it around the kid's shoulders.


One problem, fixed.





Holly Schofield travels through time at the rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of city and country life. Her stories have appeared in Analog, Lightspeed, and Tesseracts, are used in university curricula, and have been translated into several languages. She hopes to save the world through science fiction and homegrown heritage tomatoes. Find her at

Fiction by Holly Schofield:

"Wicked Problem" February 2020

© 2020 by Utopia Science Fiction

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