The crank radio picks up a distant signal just before dawn. It’s bouncing off a couple of rusty satellites still limping along up there. I get excited for a minute. I’ve just woken up and my eyes are crusty with sleep, but the uncommon sound of voices breaking through static gives a person some extra get up and go. Thinking maybe …?

My excitement dissipates quickly.

I’ve heard this broadcast before: Charlie Gale’s Incredibly Accurate Weekend Forecast. Sure, it’s accurate. With a partly sunny, partly cloudy outlook, the guy always hedged his bets.

Gran sighs from her rocking chair, sitting near the front-room windows, eyes on the eastern horizon, lips soon pressed together. She’s heard this show more times than me and probably wants me to switch it off. But there’s something about hearing other voices in the house, even ones long gone.

I sit cross-legged on the hooked rug with the crank radio balanced on my lap, dial tuned in and volume turned up high so it sounds like Charlie’s in the room with us, instead of thousands of miles and about 100 years away:

“… and we’re back for another weekend forecast. Coming to you live from somewhere in Studio AB. AB is for Asteroid Belt, folks. Yeah, my producer, Benny, came up with that one. Say hello to the folks at home, Ben.”

“Hello.” Ben’s short-spoken, even in the earlier broadcasts.

“Anyway, I hope you’re all enjoying your new digs. Out here in Studio AB we’re doing OK, meandering along. Running a little low on supplies, but who isn’t? We had some plans to continue on and rendezvous with some of our Ionian listeners, but our ship seems to be stuck between a few rocks the size of Texas, so I guess we’ve decided to take our chances here. Isn’t that right, Ben?”

There’s no answer from the producer, but Charlie doesn’t seem to mind.

“OK, let’s get to the forecast. We’ve been gathering reports from some affiliates and I’ve got to say, we’ve got a pretty rough weekend coming up for everyone out there in the Solar System. Mercury’s showing some extra sizzle. For those of you who decided to take your chances towards the blistering Sun, I hope you brought enough SPF 100 … my producer is shaking his head. You don’t think that’ll be enough, Ben? Well, you’re probably right. And for my Venusian friends, I’m sure you noticed more than a few scattered acid-rain storms this afternoon. Don’t expect those to lift anytime soon and I don’t think the raincoats will offer much protection.”

“Any Martians listening out there? Look, I hate to say we told you so, but there’s still no rain in the forecast. Not a drop. I know, I know — you were hoping for a downpour over the weekend. With all that effort they put into terraforming, I’m sure you’re getting a little angsty about the whole thing. But nope. I’m afraid the drought on Mars will continue — what’s that word you used, Ben?” There’s the sound of fingers snapping. “Ah yes, indefinitely.”

“Past the Belt, the outlook isn’t much better. Jupiter’s still breaking records with those hurricanes. And Saturn’s ice-crystal clouds sure are gorgeous but not very life-sustaining. It’s gonna be a cold one on Uranus tonight. And today. I’d tell you the daily temps but I don’t want to scare anybody. High winds on Neptune are expected to continue into this evening, with gusts of up to 2,200 kilometres per hour likely. So leave the umbrella at home, folks, unless you want to see it turned inside out …”

Gran’s hand grips the splitting grain on her rocking chair. She’s heard this same broadcast a hundred times? A thousand? It’s been bouncing around the air waves since she was a little girl. The tone is so strange that sometimes we wonder if they were drunk or high when they sent it out. But then Charlie turns serious, and it’s a blunt reminder of how everything went down after all the rest went sideways.

“… and for you brave souls who abide on Earth, we salute you. I have no forecast for you because we haven’t heard a peep since the grid went down. We’re sorry we left you behind. Perhaps it might make you feel better to know that those of us who tried to escape are faring about as well as a sparrow in one of Jupiter’s hurricanes. But, from the bottom of our hearts, we hope you’re well and we pray that you’ve somehow managed to find some partly sunny skies and calm breezes. If the nuclear ash has cleared, get out and soak in some sun. Enjoy the day. But bundle up in radioactive gear if you don’t want to …”

“Turn off that noise,” Gran tells me as she finally rises from her chair, bones creaking, wood groaning. She pulls back the curtains to get a better look at that blood-spatter sunrise. She mutters, “It’s nonsense, that’s what it is. Come here, baby.”

Gran always calls me baby, even though I’m 16 already.

“Now, tell me what you see,” she places her hands on both my shoulders and turns me towards a storm that’s whirring up from the east. The weather seems to settle at night. But in the morning, it tends to wake up in a rage, all red skies and violent weather; still throwing tantrums, angry about what we did to the land, the sea and the sky.

“Red skies in the morning,” I answer back, quoting her Gran and hers before that. “Sailors take warning.”

“Yes, they do,” she agrees, squeezing my shoulders once before she lets go and sinks back in her chair. “And so do we, baby. You don’t need any forecast to tell you that. Partly sunny is a fool’s game. Stay inside today and maybe we’ll make it until tomorrow.”

The story behind the story

Gretchen Tessmer reveals the inspiration behind Sailors take warning.

I love the old sayings. The ones that get handed down endlessly, bridging the span of a 100 years (and sometimes a few more) with simple phrases that we all know by heart, even if we’re not exactly sure where they came from or when we first learnt them. It’s like homespun magic and I don’t know that there’s any power in it other than cultural or linguistic curiosity, but there’s definitely comfort in the familiar … especially as the world falls apart.

This one slants a little surreal, obviously, with the long-dead voices over the radio and the plum-and-beet coloured sky in the morning (so cold, so deadly), but I tried to strike a more realistic tone with the narrator and her Gran, and that familiar moment when the old wisdom is shared. I lost my grandmother last year, so obviously she was on my mind while writing this. She was stubborn and wonderful, and totally the type to stare down an apocalypse. She’d have us planting flowers on the days when the radioactive ash clouds were playing nice.

P.S. Just realized that Charlie Gale left out Pluto in the forecast. Honestly, how dare he …