Citizen Jabir Sabeel awoke to the alarm of his Nokia mobile phone at exactly 6:05. He tried, like every morning, to cover his face with a pillow, but he felt an awful weakness. He could not move. The ringing of the alarm hammered and hammered louder and louder in his head. Eventually, he decided to reach over to the bedside table and silence the alarm; then he would give his heartbeat a few minutes to settle down before getting up. But he felt debilitated again. He had no sensation in his hand, in both hands, in his head, his legs, his whole body.
Citizen Jabir Sabeel had a shocking realization: he had turned into something else. He was no longer the person who had fallen asleep late the previous night, physically exhausted after a long evening at work. As he mentally gauged his rigidity, he became certain that he had metamorphosized into something metallic. Something stiff and hard lay in his place on the bed.
Citizen Jabir Sabeel spent some considerable time trying to get used to the hard, stiff body that had replaced his body of flesh. He then became aware of the voices of children racing through the streets on their way to school and the shouts of the sellers of vegetables, household items, and milk calling out their cheap goods. He had a strange feeling that the sunlight had started to seep into the room through a crack in the ceiling. In a panic, he remembered that he was very late for work at the government office and that a deduction from his wages and a rebuke from his stern boss awaited him. He made an effort to stand up quickly, but his heavy metal body failed him and pulled him back to the bed. In a panic, he thought, “I’m made of iron. I’ve turned into iron.”
Citizen Jabir Sabeel managed, after furious efforts, to fall out of the bed. In fact, he flung his whole new iron body onto the concrete floor. With the loud clang he made, he discovered that he had the equivalent of two long thin legs. He somehow willed himself to prop himself upon them, and he tottered over to the full-length mirror set in the middle of his wardrobe. He discovered something else: he had what appeared to be a single, seeing eye. Its sight was powerful and it led him with great accuracy towards the wardrobe.
He stopped for a few moments before lifting up his thin iron legs and positioning himself in front of the mirror. As he looked at the reflection of his new iron self, Citizen Jabir Sabeel could not stop himself crying out in a strange voice of shock and fright that made him spin around like crazy. Bullets sprayed from a tube sticking out of his front and lodged in the walls and furniture as they flew all over the place.
Jabir Sabeel was devastated to see that his new body had turned into a machine that looked like a cross between a DShK machinegun and a four-barrelled howitzer. Its sights were telescopic, like a deadly eye; its muzzle blazed like Hell; its two sturdy supports seemed to have been made to bear death. His sense of devastation worsened when he sensed the deadly bullets continue to fly out of his blazing body in every direction. His body jumped around erratically and led him into the street, leaving a trail of death and destruction all around.
“It is not enough to be the possessor of genius—the time and the man must conjoin. An Alexander the Great, born into an age of profound peace, might scarce have troubled the world—a Newton, grown up in a thieves’ den, might have devised little but a new and ingenious picklock. . . .”
Diversions of Historical Thought by
John Cleveland Cotton.
(The following extracts have been made from the letters of General Sir Charles William Geoffrey Estcourt, C.B., to his sister Harriet, Countess of Stokely, by permission of the Stokely family. Omissions are indicated by triple dots, thus . . .)
St. Philippe-des-Bains, September 3d, 1788.
MY DEAR SISTER: . . . I could wish that my excellent Paris physician had selected some other spot for my convalescence. But he swears by the waters of St. Philip and I swear by him, so I must resign myself to a couple of yawning months ere my constitution mends. Nevertheless, you will get long letters from me, though I fear they may be dull ones. I cannot bring you the gossip of Baden or Aix—except for its baths, St. Philip is but one of a dozen small white towns on this agreeable coast. It has its good inn and its bad inn, its dusty, little square with its dusty, fleabitten beg gar, its posting-station and its promenade of scrubby lindens and palms. From the heights one may see Corsica on a clear day, and the Mediterranean is of an unexampled blue. To tell the truth, it is all agreeable enough, and an old Indian campaigner, like myself, should not complain. I am well treated at the Cheval Blanc—am I not an English milord?—and my excellent Gaston looks after me devotedly. But there is a blue-bottle drowsiness about small watering places out of season, and our gallant enemies, the French, know how to bore themselves more exquisitely in their provinces than any nation on earth. Would you think that the daily arrival of the diligence from Toulon would be an excitement? Yet it is to me, I assure you, and to all St. Philip. I walk, I take the waters, I read Ossian, I play piquet with Gaston, and yet I seem to myself but half-alive. . . .
. . . You will smile and say to me, “Dear brother, you have always plumed yourself on being a student of human nature. Is there no society, no character for you to study, even in St. Philippe-des-Bains?” My dear sister, I bend myself earnestly to that end, yet so far with little result. I have talked to my doctor—a good man but unpolished; I have talked to the curé—a good man but dull. I have even attempted the society of the baths, beginning with Monsieur le Marquis de la Percedragon, who has ninety-six quarterings, soiled wristbands, and a gloomy interest in my liver, and ending with Mrs. Macgregor Jenkins, a worthy and red-faced lady whose conversation positively cannonades with dukes and duchesses. But, frankly, I prefer my chair in the garden and my Ossian to any of them, even at the risk of being considered a bear. A witty scoundrel would be the veriest godsend to me, but do such exist in St. Philip? I trow not. As it is, in my weakened condition, I am positively agog when Gaston comes in every morning with his budget of village scandal. A pretty pass to come to, you will say, for a man who has served with Eyre Coote and but for the mutabilities of fortune, not to speak of a most damnable cabal . . . (A long passage dealing with General Estcourt’s East Indian services and his personal and unfavorable opinion of Warren Hastings is here omitted from the manuscript.) . . . But, at fifty, a man is either a fool or a philosopher. Nevertheless, unless Gaston provides me with a character to try my wits on, shortly, I shall begin to believe that they too have deteriorated with Indian suns. . . .
September 21st, 1788.
My Dear Sister: . . . Believe me, there is little soundness in the views of your friend, Lord Martindale. The French monarchy is not to be compared with our own, but King Louis is an excellent and well-beloved prince, and the proposed summoning of the States-General cannot but have the most salutary effect. . . . (Three pages upon French politics and the possibility of cultivating sugar-cane in Southern France are here omitted.) . . . As for news of myself, I continue my yawning course, and feel a decided improvement from the waters. . . . So I shall continue them though the process is slow. . . .
You ask me, I fear a trifle mockingly, how my studies in human nature proceed?
Not so ill, my dear sister—I have, at least, scraped acquaintance with one odd fish, and that, in St. Philip, is a triumph. For some time, from my chair in the promenade, I have observed a pursy little fellow, of my age or thereabouts, stalking up and down between the lindens. His company seems avoided by such notables of the place as Mrs. Macgregor Jenkins and at first I put him down as a retired actor, for there is something a little theatrical in his dress and walk. He wears a wide-brimmed hat of straw, loose nankeen trousers and a quasi-military coat, and takes his waters with as much ceremony as Monsieur le Marquis, though not quite with the same ton. I should put him down as a Meridional, for he has the quick, dark eye, the sallow skin, the corpulence and the rodomontish airs that mark your true son of the Midi, once he has passed his lean and hungry youth.
And yet, there is some sort of unsuccessful oddity about him, which sets him off from your successful bourgeois. I cannot put my finger on it yet, but it interests me.
At any rate, I was sitting in my accustomed chair, reading Ossian, this morning, as he made his solitary rounds of the promenade. Doubtless I was more than usually absorbed in my author, for I must have pronounced some lines aloud as he passed. He gave me a quick glance at the time, but nothing more. But on his next round, as he was about to pass me, he hesitated for a moment, stopped, and then, removing his straw hat, saluted me very civilly.
“Monsieur will pardon me,” he said, with a dumpy hauteur, “but surely monsieur is English? And surely the lines that monsieur just repeated are from the great poet, Ossian?”
I admitted both charges, with a smile, and he bowed again.
“Monsieur will excuse the interruption,” he said, “but I myself have long admired the poetry of Ossian”—and with that he continued my quotation to the end of the passage, in very fair English, too, though with a strong accent. I complimented him, of course, effusively—after all, it is not every day that one runs across a fellow-admirer of Ossian on the promenade of a small French watering place—and after that, he sat down in the chair beside me and we fell into talk. He seems, astonishingly for a Frenchman, to have an excellent acquaintance with our English poets—perhaps he has been a tutor in some English family. I did not press him with questions on this first encounter, though I noted that he spoke French with a slight accent also, which seems odd.
There is something a little rascally about him, to tell you the truth, though his conversation with me was both forceful and elevated. An ill man, too, and a disappointed one, or I miss my mark, yet his eyes, when he talks, are strangely animating. I fancy I would not care to meet him in a guet-apens, and yet, he may be the most harmless of broken pedagogues. We took a glass of waters together, to the great disgust of Mrs. Macgregor Jenkins, who ostentatiously drew her skirts aside. She let me know, afterward, in so many words, that my acquaintance was a noted bandit, though, when pressed, she could give no better reason than that he lives a little removed from the town, that “nobody knows where he comes from” and that his wife is “no better than she should be,” whatever that portentous phrase entails. Well, one would hardly call him a gentleman, even by Mrs. Macgregor’s somewhat easy standards, but he has given me better conversation than I have had in a month—and if he is a bandit, we might discuss thuggee together. But I hope for nothing so stimulating, though I must question Gaston about him. . . .
. . . But Gaston could tell me little, except that my acquaintance comes from Sardinia or some such island originally, has served in the French army and is popularly supposed to possess the evil eye. About Madame he hinted that he could tell me a great deal, but I did not labor the point. After all, if my friend has been c-ck-ld-d—do not blush, my dear sister!—that, too, is the portion of a philosopher, and I find his wide range of conversation much more palatable than Mrs. Macgregor Jenkins’ rewarmed London gossip. Nor has he tried to borrow money from me yet, something which, I am frank to say, I expected and was prepared to refuse. . . .
. . . Triumph! My character is found—and a character of the first water, I assure you! I have dined with him in his house, and a very bad dinner it was. Madame is not a good housekeeper, whatever else she may be. And what she has been, one can see at a glance—she has all the little faded coquetries of the garrison coquette. Good-tempered, of course, as such women often are, and must have been pretty in her best days, though with shocking bad teeth. I suspect her of a touch of the tarbrush, though there I may be wrong. No doubt she caught my friend young—I have seen the same thing happen in India often enough—the experienced woman and the youngster fresh from England. Well, ’tis an old story—an old one with him, too—and no doubt Madame has her charms, though she is obviously one reason why he has not risen.
After dinner, Madame departed, not very willingly, and he took me into his study for a chat. He had even procured a bottle of port, saying he knew the Englishman’s taste for it, and while it was hardly the right Cockburn, I felt touched by the attention. The man is desperately lonely—one reads that in his big eyes. He is also desperately proud, with the quick, touchy sensitiveness of the failure, and I quite exerted myself to draw him out.
And indeed, the effort repaid me. His own story is simple enough. He is neither bandit nor pedagogue, but, like myself, a broken soldier—a major of the French Royal Artillery, retired on half pay for some years. I think it creditable of him to have reached so respectable a rank, for he is of foreign birth—Sardinian, I think I told you—and the French service is by no means as partial to foreigners as they were in the days of the first Irish Brigade. Moreover, one simply does not rise in that service, unless one is a gentleman of quarterings, and that he could hardly claim. But the passion of his life has been India, and that is what interests me. And, ‘pon my honor, he was rather astonishing about it.
As soon as, by a lucky chance, I hit upon the subject, his eyes lit up and his sickness dropped away. Pretty soon he began to take maps from a cabinet in the wall and ply me with questions about my own small experiences. And very soon indeed, I am abashed to state, I found myself stumbling in my answers. It was all book knowledge on his part, of course, but where the devil he could have got some of it, I do not know. Indeed, he would even correct me, now and then, as cool as you please. “Eight twelve pounders, I think, on the north wall of the old fortifications of Madras——” and the deuce of it is, he would be right. Finally, I could contain myself no longer.
“But, major, this is incredible,” I said. “I have served twenty years with John Company and thought that I had some knowledge. But one would say you had fought over every inch of Bengal!”
He gave me a quick look, almost of anger, and began to roll up his maps.
“So I have, in my mind,” he said, shortly, “but, as my superiors have often informed me, my hobby is a tedious one.”
“It is not tedious to me,” I said boldly. “Indeed, I have often marveled at your government’s neglect of their opportunities in India. True, the issue is settled now——”
“It is by no means settled,” he said, interrupting me rudely. I stared at him.
“It was settled, I believe, by Baron Clive, at a spot named Plassey,” I said frigidly. “And afterward, by my own old general, Eyre Coote, at another spot named Wandewash.”
“Oh, yes—yes—yes,” he said impatiently, “I grant you Clive—Clive was a genius and met the fate of geniuses. He steals an empire for you, and your virtuous English Parliament holds up its hands in horror because he steals a few lakhs of rupees for himself as well. So he blows out his brains in disgrace—you inexplicable English!—and you lose your genius. A great pity. I would not have treated Clive so. But then, if I had been Milord Clive, I would not have blown out my brains.”
“And what would you have done, had you been Clive?” I said, for the man’s calm, staring conceit amused me.
His eyes were dangerous for a moment and I saw why the worthy Mrs. Macgregor Jenkins had called him a bandit.
“Oh,” he said coolly, “I would have sent a file of grenadiers to your English Parliament and told it to hold its tongue. As Cromwell did. Now there was a man. But your Clive—faugh!—he had the ball at his feet and he refused to kick it. I withdraw the word genius. He was a nincompoop. At the least, he might have made himself a rajah.”
This was a little too much, as you may imagine. “General Clive had his faults,” I said icily, “but he was a true Briton and a patriot.”
“He was a fool,” said my puffy little major, flatly, his lower lip stuck out. “As big a fool as Dupleix, and that is saying much. Oh, some military skill, some talent for organization, yes. But a genius would have brushed him into the sea! It was possible to hold Arcot, it was possible to win Plassey—look!” and, with that, he ripped another map from his cabinet and began to expound to me eagerly exactly what he would have done [Pg 124]in command of the French forces in India, in 1757, when he must have been but a lad in his twenties. He thumped the paper, he strewed corks along the table for his troops—corks taken from a supply in a tin box, so it must be an old game with him. And, as I listened, my irritation faded, for the man’s monomania was obvious. Nor was it, to tell the truth, an ill-designed plan of campaign, for corks on a map. Of course these things are different, in the field.
I could say, with honesty, that his plan had features of novelty, and he gulped the words down hungrily—he has a great appetite for flattery.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “That is how it should be done—the thickest skull can see it. And, ill as I am, with a fleet and ten thousand picked men——” He dreamed, obviously, the sweat of his exertions on his waxy face—it was absurd and yet touching to see him dream.
“You would find a certain amount of opposition,” I said, in an amused voice.
“Oh, yes, yes,” he said quickly, “I do not underrate the English. Excellent horse, solid foot. But no true knowledge of cannon, and I am a gunner——”
I hated to bring him down to earth and yet I felt that I must.
“Of course, major,” I said, “you have had great experience in the field.”
He looked at me for a moment, his arrogance quite unshaken.
“I have had very little,” he said, quietly, “but one knows how the thing should be done or one does not know. And that is enough.”
He stared at me for an instant with his big eyes. A little mad, of course. And yet I found myself saying, “But surely, major—what happened?”
“Why,” he said, still quietly, “what happens to folk who have naught but their brains to sell? I staked my all on India when I was young—I thought that my star shone over it. I ate dirty puddings—corpo di Baccho!—to get there—I was no De Rohan or Soubise to win the king’s favor! And I reached there indeed, in my youth, just in time to be included in the surrender of Pondicherry.” He laughed, rather terribly, and sipped at his glass.
“You English were very courteous captors,” he said. “But I was not released till the Seven Years War had ended—that was in ’63. Who asks for the special exchange of an unknown artillery lieutenant? And then ten years odd of garrison duty at Mauritius. It was there that I met Madame—she is a Creole. A pleasant spot, Mauritius. We used to fire the cannon at the sea birds when we had enough ammunition for target practice,” and he chuckled drearily. “By then I was thirty-seven. They had to make me a captain—they even brought me back to France. To garrison duty. I have been on garrison duty, at Toulon, at Brest, at——” He ticked off the names on his fingers but I did not like his voice.
“But surely,” I said, “the American war, though a small affair—there were opportunities——”
“And who did they send?” he said quickly. “Lafayette—Rochambeau—De Grasse—the sprigs of the nobility. Oh, at Lafayette’s age, I would have volunteered like Lafayette. But one should be successful in youth—after that, the spring is broken. And when one is over forty, one has responsibilities. I have a large family, you see, though not of my own begetting,” and he chuckled as if at a secret joke. “Oh, I wrote the Continental Congress,” he said reflectively, “but they preferred a dolt like Von Steuben. A good dolt, an honest dolt, but there you have it. I also wrote your British War Office,” he said in an even voice. “I must show you that plan of campaign—sometime—they could have crushed General Washington with it in three weeks.”
I stared at him, a little appalled.
“For an officer who has taken his king’s shilling to send to an enemy nation a plan for crushing his own country’s ally,” I said, stiffly—”well, in England, we would call that treason.”
“And what is treason?” he said lightly. “If we call it unsuccessful ambition we shall be nearer the truth.” He looked at me, keenly. “You are shocked, General Estcourt,” he said. “I am sorry for that. But have you never known the curse”—and his voice vibrated—”the curse of not being employed when you should be employed? The curse of being a hammer with no nail to drive? The curse—the curse of sitting in a dusty garrison town with dreams that would split the brain of a Caesar, and no room on earth for those dreams?”
“Yes,” I said, unwillingly, for there was something in him that demanded the truth, “I have known that.”
“Then you know hells undreamed of by the Christian,” he said, with a sigh, “and if I committed treason—well, I have been punished for it. I might have been a brigadier, otherwise—I had Choiseul’s ear for a few weeks, after great labor. As it is, I am here on half pay, and there will not be another war in my time. More over, M. de Ségur has proclaimed that all officers now must show sixteen quarterings. Well, I wish them joy of those officers, in the next conflict. Meanwhile, I have my corks, my maps and my family ailment.” He smiled and tapped his side. “It killed my father at thirty-nine—it has not treated me quite so ill, but it will come for me soon enough.”
And indeed, when I looked at him, I could well believe it, for the light had gone from his eyes and his cheeks were flabby. We chatted a little on indifferent subjects after that, then I left him, wondering whether to pursue the acquaintance. He is indubitably a character, but some of his speeches leave a taste in my mouth. Yet he can be greatly attractive—even now, with his mountainous failure like a cloak upon him. And yet why should I call it mountainous? His conceit is mountainous enough, but what else could he have expected of his career? Yet I wish I could forget his eyes. . . . To tell the truth, he puzzles me and I mean to get to the bottom of him. . . .
February 12th, 1789.
. . . I have another sidelight on the character of my friend, the major. As I told you, I was half of a mind to break off the acquaintance entirely, but he came up to me so civilly, the following day, that I could find no excuse. And since then, he has made me no embarrassingly treasonable confidences, though whenever we discuss the art of war, his arrogance is unbelievable. He even informed me, the other day, that while Frederick of Prussia was a fair general, his tactics might have been improved upon. I merely laughed and turned the question. Now and then I play a war game with him, with his corks and maps, and when I let him win, he is as pleased as a child. . . . His illness increases visibly, despite the waters, and he shows an eagerness for my company which I cannot but find touching. . . . After all, he is a man of intelligence, and the company he has had to keep must have galled him at times. . . .
Now and then I amuse myself by speculating what might have happened to him, had he chosen some other profession than that of arms. He has, as I have told you, certain gifts of the actor, yet his stature and figure must have debarred him from tragic parts, while he certainly does not possess the humors of the comedian. Perhaps his best choice would have been the Romish church, for there, the veriest fisherman may hope, at least, to succeed to the keys of St. Peter. . . . And yet, Heaven knows, he would have made a very bad priest! . . .
But, to my tale. I had missed him from our accustomed walks for some days and went to his house—St. Helen’s it is called; we live in a pother of saints’ names hereabouts—one evening to inquire. I did not hear the quarreling voices till the tousle-haired servant had admitted me and then it was too late to retreat. Then my friend bounced down the corridor, his sallow face bored and angry.
“Ah, General Estcourt!” he said, with a complete change of expression as soon as he saw me. “What fortune! I was hoping you would pay us a call—I wish to introduce you to my family!”
He had told me previously of his pair of stepchildren by Madame’s first marriage, and I must confess I felt curious to see them. But it was not of them he spoke, as I soon gathered.
“Yes,” he said. “My brothers and sisters, or most of them, are here for a family council. You come in the nick of time!” He pinched my arm and his face glowed with the malicious naïveté of a child. “They do not believe that I really know an English general—it will be a great blow to them!” he whispered as we passed down the corridor. “Ah, if you had only worn your uniform and your Garters! But one cannot have everything in life!”
Well, my dear sister, what a group, when we entered the salon! It is a small room, tawdrily furnished in the worst French taste, with a jumble of Madame’s femininities and souvenirs from the Island of Mauritius, and they were all sitting about in the French after-dinner fashion, drinking tisane and quarreling. And, indeed, had the room been as long as the nave of St. Peter’s, it would yet have seemed too small for such a crew! An old mother, straight as a ramrod and as forbidding, with the burning eyes and the bitter dignity one sees on the faces of certain Italian peasants—you could see that they were all a little afraid of her except my friend, and he, I must say, treated her with a filial courtesy that was greatly to his credit. Two sisters, one fattish, swarthy and spiteful, the other with the wreck of great beauty and the evident marks of a certain profession on her shabby-fine toilette and her pinkened cheeks. An innkeeper brother-in-law called Buras or Durat, with a jowlish, heavily handsome face and the manners of a cavalry sergeant—he is married to the spiteful sister. And two brothers, one sheep-like, one fox-like, yet both bearing a certain resemblance to my friend.
The sheep-like brother is at least respectable, I gathered—a provincial lawyer in a small way of business whose great pride is that he has actually appeared before the Court of Appeals at Marseilles. The other, the fox-like one, makes his living more dubiously—he seems the sort of fellow who orates windily in taprooms about the Rights of Man, and other nonsense of M. Rousseau’s. I would certainly not trust him with my watch, though he is trying to get himself elected to the States-General. And, as regards family concord, it was obvious at first glance that not one of them trusted the others. And yet, that is not all of the tribe. There are, if you will believe me, two other brothers living, and this family council was called to deal with the affairs of the next-to-youngest, who seems, even in this mélange, to be a black sheep.
I can assure you, my head swam, and when my friend introduced me, proudly, as a Knight of the Garters, I did not even bother to contradict him. For they admitted me to their intimate circle at once—there was no doubt about that. Only the old lady remained aloof, saying little and sipping her camomile tea as if it were the blood of her enemies. But, one by one, the others related to me, with an unasked-for frankness, the most intimate and scandalous details of their brothers’ and sisters’ lives. They seemed united only on two points, jealousy of my friend, the major, because he is his mother’s favorite, and dislike of Madame Josephine because she gives herself airs. Except for the haggard beauty—I must say, that, while her remarks anent her sister-in-law were not such as I would care to repeat, she seemed genuinely fond of her brother, the major, and expounded his virtues to me through an overpowering cloud of scent.
It was like being in a nest of Italian smugglers, or a den of quarrelsome foxes, for they all talked, or rather barked at once, even the brother-in-law, and only Madame Mère could bring silence among them. And yet, my friend enjoyed it. It was obvious he showed them off before me as he might have displayed the tricks of a set of performing animals. And yet with a certain fondness, too—that is the inexplicable part of it. I do not know which sentiment was upmost in my mind—respect for this family feeling or pity for his being burdened with such a clan.
For though not the eldest, he is the strongest among them, and they know it. They rebel, but he rules their family conclaves like a petty despot. I could have laughed at the farce of it, and yet, it was nearer tears. For here, at least, my friend was a personage.
I got away as soon as I could, despite some pressing looks from the haggard beauty. My friend accompanied me to the door.
“Well, well,” he said, chuckling and rubbing his hands, “I am infinitely obliged to you, general. They will not forget this in a hurry. Before you entered, Joseph”—Joseph is the sheep-like one—”was boasting about his acquaintance with a sous-intendant, but an English general, bah! Joseph will have green eyes for a fortnight!” And he rubbed his hands again in a perfect paroxysm of delight.
It was too childlike to make me angry. “I am glad, of course, to have been of any service,” I said.
“Oh, you have been a great service,” he said. “They will not plague my poor Josie for at least half an hour. Ah, this is a bad business of Louis’—a bad business!”—Louis is the black sheep—”but we will patch it up somehow. Hortense is worth three of him—he must go back to Hortense!”
“You have a numerous family, major,” I said, for want of something better to say.
“Oh, yes,” he said, cheerfully. “Pretty numerous—I am sorry you could not meet the others. Though Louis is a fool—I pampered him in his youth. Well! He was a baby—and Jerome a mule. Still, we haven’t done so badly for ourselves; not badly. Joseph makes a go of his law practice—there are fools enough in the world to be impressed by Joseph—and if Lucien gets to the States-General, you may trust Lucien to feather his nest! And there are the grandchildren, and a little money—not much,” he said, quickly. “They mustn’t expect that from me. But it’s a step up from where we started—if papa had lived, he wouldn’t have been so ill-pleased. Poor Elisa’s gone, but the rest of us have stuck together, and, while we may seem a little rough, to strangers, our hearts are in the right place. When I was a boy,” and he chuckled again, “I had other ambitions for them. I thought, with luck on my side, I could make them all kings and queens. Funny, isn’t it, to think of a numskull like Joseph as a king! Well, that was the boy of it. But, even so, they’d all be eating chestnuts back on the island without me, and that’s something.”
He said it rather defiantly, and I did not know which to marvel at most—his preposterous pride in the group or his cool contempt of them. So I said nothing but shook his hand instead. I could not help doing the latter. For surely, if anyone started in life with a millstone about his neck . . . and yet they are none of them ordinary people. . . .
March 13th, 1789.
. . . My friend’s complaint has taken a turn for the worse and it is I who pay him visits now. It is the act of a Christian to do so and, to tell the truth, I have become oddly attached to him, though I can give no just reason for the attachment. He makes a bad patient, by the way, and is often abominably rude to both myself and Madame, who nurses him devotedly though unskillfully. I told him yesterday that I could have no more of it and he looked at me with his strangely luminous eyes. “So,” he said, “even the English desert the dying.” . . . Well, I stayed; after that, what else might a gentleman do? . . . Yet I cannot feel that he bears me any real affection—he exerts himself to charm, on occasion, but one feels he is playing a game . . . yes, even upon his deathbed, he plays a game . . . a complex character. . . .
April 28th, 1789.
. . . My friend the major’s malady approaches its term—the last few days find him fearfully enfeebled. He knows that the end draws nigh; indeed he speaks of it often, with remarkable calmness. I had thought it might turn his mind toward religion, but while he has accepted the ministrations of his Church, I fear it is without the sincere repentance of a Christian. When the priest had left him, yesterday, he summoned me, remarking, “Well, all that is over with,” rather more in the tone of a man who has just reserved a place in a coach than one who will shortly stand before his Maker.
“It does no harm,” he said, reflectively. “And, after all, it might be true. Why not?” and he chuckled in a way that repelled me. Then he asked me to read to him—not the Bible, as I had expected, but some verses of the poet Gray. He listened attentively, and when I came to the passage, “Hands, that the rod of empire might have swayed,” and its successor, “Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,” he asked me to repeat them. When I had done so, he said, “Yes, yes. That is true, very true. I did not think so in boyhood—I thought genius must force its own way. But your poet is right about it.”
I found this painful, for I had hoped that his illness had brought him to a juster, if less arrogant, estimate of his own abilities.
“Come, major,” I said, soothingly, “we cannot all be great men, you know. And you have no need to repine. After all, as you say, you have risen in the world——”
“Risen?” he said, and his eyes flashed. “Risen? Oh, God, that I should die alone with my one companion an Englishman with a soul of suet! Fool, if I had had Alexander’s chance, I would have bettered Alexander! And it will come, too, that is the worst of it. Already Europe is shaking with a new birth. If I had been born under the Sun-King, I would be a Marshal of France; if I had been born twenty years ago, I would mold a new Europe with my fists in the next half-dozen years. Why did they put my soul in my body at this infernal time? Do you not understand, imbecile? Is there no one who understands?”
I called Madame at this, as he was obviously delirious, and, after some trouble, we got him quieted.
May 8th, 1789.
. . . My poor friend is gone, and peacefully enough at the last. His death, oddly enough, coincided with the date of the opening of the States-General at Versailles. The last moments of life are always painful for the observer, but his end was as relatively serene as might be hoped for, considering his character. I was watching at one side of the bed and a thunderstorm was raging at the time. No doubt, to his expiring consciousness, the cracks of the thunder sounded like artillery, for, while we were waiting the death-struggle, he suddenly raised himself in the bed and listened intently. His eyes glowed, a beatific expression passed over his features. “The army! Head of the army!” he whispered ecstatically, and, when we caught him, he was lifeless . . . I must say that, while it may not be very Christian, I am glad that death brought him what life could not, and that, in the very article of it, he saw himself at the head of victorious troops. Ah, Fame—delusive spectre . . . (A page of disquisition by General Estcourt on the vanities of human ambition is here omitted.) . . . The face, after death, was composed, with a certain majesty, even . . . one could see that he might have been handsome as a youth. . . .
. . . I shall return to Paris by easy stages and reach Stokely sometime in June. My health is quite restored and all that has kept me here this long has been the difficulty I have met with in attempting to settle my poor friend, the major’s affairs. For one thing, he appears to have been originally a native of Corsica, not of Sardinia as I had thought, and while that explains much in his character, it has also given occupation to the lawyers. I have met his rapacious family, individually and in conclave, and, if there are further gray hairs on my head, you may put it down to them. . . . However, I have finally assured the major’s relict of her legitimate rights in his estate, and that is something—my one ray of comfort in the matter being the behavior of her son by the former marriage, who seems an excellent and virtuous young man. . . .
. . . You will think me a very soft fellow, no doubt, for wasting so much time upon a chance acquaintance who was neither, in our English sense, a gentleman nor a man whose Christian virtues counterbalanced his lack of true breeding. Yet there was a tragedy about him beyond his station, and that verse of Gray’s rings in my head. I wish I could forget the expression on his face when he spoke of it. Suppose a genius born in circumstances that made the development of that genius impossible—well, all this is the merest moonshine. . . .
. . . To revert to more practical matters, I discover that the major has left me his military memoirs, papers and commentaries, including his maps. Heaven knows what I shall do with them! I cannot, in courtesy, burn them sur-le-champ, and yet they fill two huge packing [Pg 137]cases and the cost of transporting them to Stokely will be considerable. Perhaps I will take them to Paris and quietly dispose of them there to some waste-paper merchant. . . . In return for this unsought legacy, Madame has consulted me in regard to a stone and epitaph for her late husband, and, knowing that otherwise the family would squabble over the affair for weeks, I have drawn up a design which I hope meets with their approval. It appears that he particularly desired that the epitaph should be writ in English, saying that France had had enough of him, living—a freak of dying vanity for which one must pardon him. However, I have produced the following, which I hope will answer.
Major of the Royal Artillery
Born August 15th, 1737
at Ajaccio, Corsica.
Died May 5th, 1789
at St. Philippe-des-Bains
“Rest, perturbed spirit . . .”
. . . I had thought, for some hours, of excerpting the lines of Gray’s—the ones that still ring in my head. But, on reflection, though they suit well enough, they yet seem too cruel to the dust.
Nature is a haunted house — but Art — is a house that tries to be haunted.
-Letter excerpt, Emily Dickinson, 1876.
Chilled Autumn air settled over me, the dryness of it tickling my lungs. I walked down the dirt path, overtaken by tree roots and layered with crisp, fallen foliage. I kept my head down and shoulders hunched for most of the walk, searching for the leaves that would make the most satisfying crunch when I stepped on them. When I removed my hands from my coat pockets the harshness of the air prickled my fingers.
I finally brought my head up and evened out my posture. The cemetery gate was slightly askew, silently enticing me to enter. The people buried here didn’t have many visitors anymore, the most recent year on any gravestone was 1850. Nature had reclaimed the forlorn cemetery as her own—some headstones had toppled over, and most had become overgrown and faded. On one evening visit with my sister Louise, we saw forget-me-nots placed over one of the graves. I searched for clues of their origin, but the inscription on the headstone did nothing but further my curiosity. Like most, it was almost completely deteriorated, only visible to those who looked.
1780 – 1813. AGED 33.
No last name. Nothing about her family, the life she lived, or who she was. Years have passed since I saw the forget-me-nots on Abigail’s grave, and I still wonder if or when the flowers will appear again.
I walked about the cemetery, collecting the brightest botanicals I could find. I recalled their scientific names from a grade school expedition: acer rubrum, monarda didyma, lobelia cardinalis. I used a long piece of switchgrass to tie my makeshift bouquet together, and held it up to the sun, admiring how the crimson edges burned in the light—before placing it over Abigail’s grave. Autumn whipped up another bluster of brisk air, and I turned and exited the cemetery as the wind echoed at my back.
On my way home, I was joined by Prince, the shaggy black Maine Coon that occasionally accompanied me on my walks. His coat was dusty. Leaves clung to his belly, and tufts of fur stuck out from under his ears, but he walked with regality. And why should he not? It was his kingdom, and I was merely an inhabitant.
“Hello, your highness. How are you today?” I asked him, with the air of respect one of royal lineage deserved. I often kept treats in my coat pocket as tribute to his rule.
Prince stopped walking, looked up at me, slowly blinked, then continued on. It was his usual response, but it still warmed my heart each time he did it.
When I got home, Louise was sitting in her usual spot by the window. Her shoulders were slouched forward and she held her volume of Edgar Allan Poe short stories too close to her face.
“Why don’t you wear your glasses?” I asked as I kicked my shoes under the bench.
“Hey Beatrice, how’s the dead lady?” Louise said without looking up.
“She misses you.”
Louise looked up and rolled her eyes. “You’re so weird,” she said, her voice cracking slightly as she tried to hold back a laugh.
“Why don’t you come with me anymore?”
Louise dog-eared the page she was on, and tossed her book onto the cushion next to her, “It’s probably haunted.”
“I don’t think so,” I said, “but don’t you like haunted places?”
“I don’t like cemeteries.”
“Guess what?” I said, changing the subject. “The historical society finally approved my research request. I got the key.”
“Can I come?” Louise asked, almost jolting off the couch.
“Nope, just me.”
Louise scrunched up her face, annoyed.
“I’m kidding, of course you can come,” I said.
When Louise and I were young we would always stop to peek in the windows of what we called “the castle in the woods” on our way home from school. It was never really a castle, and we knew it, but there was something exciting about imagining that it was. I used to lift her up so she could see the antique furniture covered in white sheets like eerie specters.
“Those are ghosts,” I’d tell her. “They stay still like that when we look in the windows because they’re shy.”
“Stop it, I’m not stupid,” she’d say, wiggling until I put her down.
When the most recent owners died, almost a century ago, the house was left to the town, who let it fall into disrepair. For a while, it was considered a dilapidated eyesore by many, and at one point, we were afraid it would be demolished—I was relieved when the town
historical society finally started paying attention. A researcher was hired and there was talk about converting it into a museum, but progress had halted in recent years.
The afternoon of our visit to the house was foggy and wet. The air clung to my skin and the leaves that had been crisp and dry the day before stuck to the pavement in clumps. Louise and I walked in silence together, watching the birds patter on the sidewalk as they searched for stranded worms. About halfway through our walk, we were joined by Prince, who greeted us by nuzzling his head against our legs.
We turned the street corner and the house came into view. It looked less like a castle than
I remembered, but seeing it again gave me chills. The chipping paint I remembered was stripped away, the result of recent preservation work. The windows, however, were the same— they still evoked the intrigue I had felt since childhood.
Louise gently tugged my arm. “This is it,” she said, and I sensed a hint of wonder in her
The key I was given opened a side door of the house. I felt a nervous pang in my heart as I realized a dream from my adolescence was about to become a reality. I hoped the house wouldn’t disappoint that inner part of me.
“Sorry, my friend, you have to wait outside,” I said to Prince, whose eyes revealed that he
was planning to follow us.
Prince cocked his head to the side, and I took a treat out of my pocket to give to him. Louise and I went inside, leaving poor Prince on the steps, crunching on his snack.
We entered into a narrow hallway. The walls were plastered with mustard wallpaper, and every few inches, there was a mounted electric candle. We were only steps down the hallway when Louise released a horse-like exhale as if she had gotten something in her mouth. When I turned towards her, she was swatting around her face with her hands.
“You okay?” I said.
“I think I just walked through a spiderweb,” she said.
“But I’m in front of you and I didn’t walk through anything.”
“Beatrice, that’s just what it felt like, I don’t know.”
I kept walking, and for a brief moment, I thought I felt Louise standing close behind me. I took a small step forward and a glint of gold in the design of the yellow wallpaper caught my eye. Gilded flowers merged together into halos, encasing miniature scenes portraying the Roman myth of Diana. One hand rested on her quiver, the other shielded a young fawn—her crescent moon diadem illuminated in the incandescent candlelight. My attention was drawn away from the wallpaper when I felt a distinct tap on my shoulder. I turned around, but Louise wasn’t there.
“Louise?” I called out.
“I found something,” Louise answered from another room.
“Where are you?”
“In the basement.”
“The basement?” I asked, Why?”
“I was curious. Come on.”
I thought I followed Louise’s voice, but found myself in what must have been the parlor, face to face with a portrait of a young woman hanging above the fireplace mantle. Her features
were soft, she was beautiful, yet something about her was drenched in sadness. The subject
simultaneously looked dead and alive. Her skin had a pink tinge, and her hair framed her face
with ease— her eyes, her eyes were flat, with no glimmer of life in them. A panging misery
hung over me and made its way to the pit of my stomach as I peered into the portrait’s eyes. The bottom of the frame read “Mrs. Elijah Scott.”
“Beatrice?” I heard Louise say.
“I’ll be there in a second,” I called back, prying my eyes away from the painting. I
hesitated before turning away.
I walked down the hallway until I came across the open basement door. The basement was well lit with a harsh LED glow, and there were a few worn chairs arranged around an obtrusive metal desk. On the desk was a haphazard pile of papers, files, and manilla envelopes.
“There’s a bunch of information about the house in here,” Louise said while squinting at
We skimmed through the weighty binder, flipping through pictures and descriptions of the house’s collections: dining room chairs, the grandfather clock in the parlor, a taxidermied owl—a black and white photograph caught my attention.
I flipped back to the page. It was the painting I saw upstairs. Underneath, a small
“Abigail Scott was chronically ill for a majority of her life, and spent most of her time confined to her room. She married the inheritor of the house, Elijah Scott, and died in 1813 at the age of thirty-three.”
I was stunned. This was where she lived. This was her home. “I saw her upstairs,” I said,
still staring down at the page.
I felt a light tap on my shoulder along with a cold brush of air, followed by a faint voice—a gentle whisper.
When I turned around, Louise was standing behind me. Her face looked drained and
“I feel nauseous,” she said.
I put the binder in my tote bag, and we went outside. I would return it before we left, but for now, there was more I wanted to know. We sat on the front steps and the color returned to
Louise’s face after a few moments.
“You probably just needed to sit down. It was stuffy in there,” I said.
Louise and I ate some homemade ginger crinkle cookies I had packed in my bag. For a while we were comfortable outside, and I imagined what it was like in Abigail’s time. Prince sauntered over to us and purred while we ate. We took in the scents of the ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg mixed with the damp fall atmosphere. Before we knew it, the sun had gone down and the temperature dropped so quickly we shivered. I took another nibble of my cookie and felt a cool droplet of rain hit my hand, signaling us to head back inside.
When I opened the door, Prince dashed in front of me, running into the house. Louise and I called out to him, but he was nowhere to be seen. All the lights inside were off except the electric candles on the walls. They cast a still, artificial glow down the hallway that somehow froze the past and the now in conjunction. There were no ever changing flickers of light and shadow, only stillness until a figure passed by, splashing a glint of life across the walls like a projected memory.
As we walked around the house in search of Prince, everything seemed odd—like walking through a dream. We found him in a small room furnished only by a sewing table.
“Silly kitty,” Louise said.
I walked over and patted Prince on the head.
“Can I see that binder?” Louise asked.
I took it out of my bag and handed it to her before scooping Prince up into my arms. We walked over to the window at the end of the room, and looked out. During daylight hours, I could imagine the perfect view of technicolor autumn tree leaves, but after sundown, all I could see was darkness seeping in from outside. It was cold, and I held Prince close to me, his long fur tickling my neck.
“It’s gotten dark, your highness,” I said, stepping closer to the window. “I think it’s time to go home.”
“This was Abigail’s room,” I heard Louise say.
As Louise spoke, I noticed something peculiar. The glass panes had words etched into them. I could feel my heart beating in my throat.
“Look at this,” I said, running a finger lightly across the glass and turning towards her.
Louise squinted, dug through her tote bag, and took out her glasses.
In the dim light, it was difficult to make out what the inscriptions said. The words were coarse, the handwriting scratchy and scrawled, done hurriedly, but with care. The clouds shifted in the sky and the moon briefly let in a flood of milky iridescence, teasing me as I attempted to make out the words to no avail. I imagined Abigail confined to her room, carving into the glass, perhaps with her diamond wedding ring, covering her work with the curtains when her husband came in—defiant, yet careful not to be caught. I could almost feel her presence as I stood where she would have. I crossed my heart and wished to set her free.
After we returned the binder to the basement, Louise walked in front of me as we went to
leave, cradling Prince in her arms. Abigail’s illusory presence followed us as we made our way
down the hall, and I made sure to walk by her portrait before we locked the house back up.
Abigail’s figure hung in the forlorn parlor, hovering above the emberless fireplace. I clicked off
The next day, Louise and I walked along the familiar path overtaken with roots and leaves. Prince greeted us at the cemetery gate, stretching out his front paws towards us, as though bowing. I placed the forget-me-nots over Abigail’s grave and rested my hand lightly over the
top, closing my eyes and breathing in the freedom of the forest. We sat in the grass, wanting to
be with her, with Abigail. The wind picked up, cold air rushing past us, and we walked home.
On Thursday Anna found out that she was pregnant. When she came home from work, she didn’t start dinner but instead sat at the tiny kitchen table, put her gaunt hands on the new oilcloth, and stared at them in a stupor.
Nikolai came home as usual at 9 p.m.
Anna heard him taking off his coat in the narrow, over-furnished hallway. Then she walked up to him, threw her arms around his neck, greasy with ground-in diesel fuel, and held him tightly.
“Kolya, I can’t go on anymore. We have to do it.”
Nikolai sighed and delicately brushed his lips against her pale, thin hair.
“Everything will be fine. Don’t be scared.”
Her arms, like two pale snakes, crawled along her husband’s bony shoulders.
“Why are you trying to calm me down? Did you read yesterday’s ‘Truth’?”
“Of course I did.”
“So what are you waiting for? For them to come for us? Or denounce us as ‘spitters against the wind’?”
“Of course not. I’m just thinking.”
Anna turned away from him.
“You’re thinking… meanwhile He is still on the windowsill. Everyone sees Him.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll do it today. For sure.”
Twilight flattened the city into an uneven multicolored plane of flames that held up a strip of evening sky. The sky, squeezed in between the city and the paint-chipped window frame, quickly grew dark, filling up with acrid fog. The darker it became, the sharper and clearer His profile stood out against the gloomy plane of the city.
Nikolai had noticed before that His knobby, pale rose flesh seemed to light up against the background of the deepening darkness.
Twelve years ago, a tiny rose-colored tuber pushed its way up through the black earth that was packed into a silver flower pot shaped like an enormous wine glass, and Nikolai had been amazed at how quickly it brightened when twilight fell.
That evening the family had been celebrating the Day of the First Sprouting. They’d had to move a chest of drawers to seat everyone around the table. Nikolai remembered turning out the lights, listening to the Anthem and his now deceased father giving the Main Toast. He remembered how they drank wine and took turns shaking drops of wine from the glasses onto the unctuous black fertilized earth.
“Grow for our happiness o’er the centuries! Grow for the death of all our enemies!” Father proclaimed as he turned over his glass third, after the two fat representatives of the DSP (Directorate of Selectional Propaganda) and then quickly leaned over to kiss the tuber…
In three years, He grew by 13 centimeters, and Nikolai could make out the outline of the Leader in the knotty body, which was like an elongated potato. One morning he told his mother. She laughed and pushed Nikolai onto the bed.
“You silly boy! Did you think we didn’t notice?”
And then she added mysteriously, “Soon you won’t believe your eyes!”
And indeed, a year hadn’t gone by before the top part of what seemed at first glance to be a shapeless tuber became round, the lower part widened, and two protuberances pushed out on either side and slanted downward.
Then Father gathered the guests together again, cut his right hand, rubbed his blood into the top of the tuber and announced the Day of Formation.
Over the next two years the tuber grew another 10 centimeters, the rosy head became even rounder, a thick neck took shape, the shoulders became broader and a belly stuck out over the knobby waist.
“It’s the miracle of selection, son!” his father exclaimed, fiddling with his prematurely gray beard. “Only our miracle-working people could have invented it! Just imagine – a living Father of the Great Country! On the windowsill of every family, in every home, in every corner of our boundless state!”
Soon a meaty nose pushed out of the round head, then two swellings indicated eyebrows, a chin jutted forward, and ears appeared. His body, which was in the potting soil up to His waist, broadened and strengthened. A few pockmarks and warts gradually disappeared, and the knobbiness smoothed out.
After another year, lips appeared on the rosy face, brows majestically furrowed and pushed the bridge of his nose in, and his forehead became domed. A ridge with a short tuft of hair appeared at the top of His forehead. His neck was tightly encased in the collar of His field jacket, and his belly was even more solidly rooted in the earth.
Nikolai had already graduated from school when dimples appeared on the Leader’s cheeks, ear cavities were carved out and slight folds appeared in the tightly fitted jacket.
Two years later Nikolai’s father died.
And a year later they celebrated the Day of Enlightenment —two dark little beads pushed up the puffy eyelids. Nikolai had to lead the celebration. He powdered his face and sang the Anthem to the gathered guests. His mother poured a cup of family spit they’d saved up into the pot of the Leader. From that day on they only fed Him spit. And every twelfth day Nikolai gave Him his sperm.
When little bands of military ribbons appeared on His jacked and the end of a pen peeped out of His pocket, it was the Day of Complete Growth. They celebrated it without Nikolai’s mother.
Soon Nikolai married Anna and went to work at the factory.
From her first day in the house, Anna tended Him with great care. Every morning she wiped off the dust, watered the tuber with spit, raked the black soil and polished the silver flower pot until it shone.
And so it went for almost two years.
But on the twelfth June morning terrible news spread across the Land: The Great Leader had died.
No one worked for two weeks — everyone stayed home in a state of shock. At the end of two weeks, after the deceased had been buried, the new Leader ceremonially accepted the Helm. Unlike his predecessor, the new One was tall and thin. He gave speeches, wrote addresses, and spoke to the people. But none of his speeches so much as mentioned the previous Leader who had been at the Helm for 47 years. That frightened people. Some people lost their minds; others jumped out their windows holding on to their potted tubers.
After a month, the new Leader gave an address to the nation in which he mentioned “the former One at the Helm, made former due to necessary but sufficient reasons.”
No matter how Nikolai and Anna struggled to grasp the hidden meaning of those words, it eluded them. The people understood it in two ways and immediately paid for both: people who took their tubers off the windowsills were immediately arrested and people who left them on the sills received a warning. For some reason they forgot about Nikolai and Anna – they weren’t sent the red postcard with a warning and the image of a person spitting against the wind. But that didn’t make the couple happy; it upset them.
A month and a half went by in this information vacuum and tension. Their neighbors continued to be arrested and warned. Soon a directive was issued banning suicide. And the suicides stopped…
Nikolai didn’t notice Anna walking up behind him. Her hands touched his shoulders.
“Are you afraid, Kolya?”
Nikolai turned around. “What have we got to be afraid of? We have the right. We’re good people.”
“We’re good people, Kolya. Are we going to begin?”
Nikolai nodded. Anna turned out the light.
Nikolai got a knife and poked at the tuber to find the waist, and then, after he steadied the shaking of his wiry hands, he made a slit along the waist. His body turned out to be harder than a potato. The tuber weakly cracked under the knife. When Nikolai cut Him, Anna grabbed Him and delicately carried Him in the dark, like a child, to the table. Nikolai got out an eight-liter glass jar with a wide mouth. Anna lit the stove, filled a bucket with water, and put it on to heat.
They sat in the darkness, only illuminated by the weak gas flame, and stared at Him lying there. Both Nikolai and Anna thought that He moved. When the water came to a boil, Anna put it on the balcony to cool, poured it into the jar, added salt, vinegar, bay leaves and cloves. Then they carefully slipped Him into the jar. As He displaced the steaming water, He bobbed as if He wanted to crawl out of the jar. But Nikolai pushed down his head with the metal lid, grabbed the sealer and began to quickly and deftly tighten the lid.
When it was all done, the couple picked up the jar and carefully lifted it up onto the windowsill in the same place. Anna carefully wiped the warm jar with a towel. After a moment of hesitation, Nikolai turned on the light. The jar stood on the sill, its glass sides shining. His bobbing in the water, surrounded by a few bay leaves, was barely noticeable.
“Beautiful,” Anna said after a long pause.
“Yes,” Nikolai sighed.
He embraced his wife and lightly placed his hand on her belly. Anna smiled and covered his hand with her wan hands.
The next morning Anna got up as usual, a half-hour before her husband, and went into the kitchen, turned on the stove and put the kettle on. After that she would usually water Him with the spit that they had saved up over the day. Sleepily scratching herself, Anna automatically reached for the spit cup standing on the shelf and froze: the cup was empty. Anna glanced over at the windowsill and saw the jar with the tuber. She breathed out in relief as she remembered the procedure they’d done the night before. She walked over and put her hand on the jar. She looked out the window. The city was waking up and lights were going on in the windows. But something had changed in the city. Changed significantly. Anna rubbed her eyes as she looked: On the windowsills the silver and gold flowerpots that she was used to seeing since childhood were gone and in their place were glass jars with rose tubers.
I thought that Mr. Purnell was a little young to be a funeral director, but he had the look down cold. In the instant between his warm, dry handshake and my taking my hand back to remove my winter hat and stuff it into my pocket, he assumed the look, a kind of concerned, knowing sympathy that suggested he’d weathered plenty of grief in his day and he was there to help you get through your own. He gestured me onto an oatmeal-colored wool sofa and pulled his wheeled office chair around to face me. I hung my coat over the sofa arm and sat down and crossed and uncrossed my legs.
“So, it’s like I said in the email—” was as far as I got and then I stopped. I felt the tears prick at the back of my eyes. I swallowed hard. I rubbed at my stubble, squeezed my eyes shut. Opened them.
If he’d said anything, it would have been the wrong thing. But he just gave me the most minute of nods—somehow he knew how to embed sympathy in a tiny nod; he was some kind of prodigy of grief-appropriate body language—and waited while the lump in my throat sank back down into my churning guts.
“Uh. Like I said. We knew Dad was sick but not how sick. None of us had much to do with him for, uh, a while.” Fifteen years, at least. Dad did his thing, we did ours. That’s how we all wanted it. But why did my chest feel like it was being crushed by a slow, relentless weight? “And it turns out he didn’t leave a will.” Thanks, Dad. How long, how many years, did you have after you got your diagnosis? How many years to do one tiny thing to make the world of the living a simpler place for your survivors?
Selfish, selfish prick.
Purnell let the silence linger. He was good. He let the precisely correct interval go past before he said, “And you say there is insurance?”
“Funeral insurance,” I said. “Got it with his severance from Compaq. I don’t think he even knew about it, but one of his buddies emailed me when the news hit the web, told me where to look. I don’t know what his policy number was or anything—”
“We can find that out,” Purnell said. “That’s the kind of thing we’re good at.”
“Can I ask you something?” “Of course.”
“Why don’t you have a desk?”
He shrugged, tapped the tablet he’d smoothed out across his lap. “I feel like a desk just separates me from my clients.” He gestured around his office, the bracketless shelves in somber wood bearing a few slim books about mourning, some abstract sculptures carved from dark stone or pale, bony driftwood. “I don’t need it. It’s just a relic of the paper era. I’d much rather sit right here and talk with you, face to face, figure out how I can help you.”
* * *
I’d googled him, of course. I’d googled the whole process. The first thing you learn when you google funeral homes is that the whole thing is a ripoff. From the coffin—the “casket,” which is like a coffin but more expensive—to the crematorium to the wreath to the hearse to the awful online memorial site with sappy music—all a scam, from stem to stern. It’s a perfect storm of graft: a bereaved family, not thinking right; a purchase you rarely have to make; a confusion of regulations and expectations. Add them all up and you’re going to be mourning your wallet along with your dear departed.
Purnell gets good google. They say he’s honest, modern, and smart. They say he’s young, and that’s a positive, because it makes him a kind of digital death native, and that’s just what we need, my sister and I, as we get ready to bury Herbert Pink: father, nerd, and lifelong pain in the ass. The man I loved with all my heart until I was 15 years old, whereupon he left our mother, left our family, and left our lives. After that, I mostly hated him. You should know: hate is not the opposite of love.
* * *
I was suddenly mad at this young, modern, honest, smart undertaker. I mean, funeral director. “Look,” I said. “I didn’t really even know my father, hadn’t seen him in years. I don’t need ‘help,’ I just need to get him in the ground. With a minimum of hand holding and fussing.”
He didn’t flinch, even though there’d been no call for that kind of outburst. “Bruce,” he said, “I can do that. If you’re in a hurry, we can probably even do it by tomorrow. It looks like your father’s insurance would take you through the whole process. We’d even pay the deductible for you.” He paused to let that sink in. “But Bruce, I do think I can help you. You’re your father’s executor, and he died intestate. That means a long, slow probate.”
“So what? I don’t care about any inheritance. My dad wasn’t a rich man, you know.”
“I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant to imply. Your father died intestate, and there’s going to be taxes to pay, bills to settle. You’re going to have to value his estate, produce an inventory, possibly sell off his effects to cover the expenses. Sometimes this can take years.”
He let that sink in. “All right,” I said, “that’s not something I’d thought of. I don’t really want to spend a month inventorying my father’s cutlery and underwear drawer.”
He smiled. “I don’t suppose a court would expect you to get into that level of detail. But the thing is, there’s better ways to do this sort of thing. You think that I’m young for a funeral director.”
The non sequitur caught me off guard. “I, uh, I suppose you’re old enough—”
“I am young for this job. But you know what Douglas Adams said: everything invented before you were born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything after your fifteenth birthday is new and exciting and revolutionary. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things. The world has changed a lot since you were born, and changed even more since I was born, and I have to tell you, I think that makes my age an asset, not a liability.
“And not in some nebulous, airy-fairy way. Specifically, the fact that I’m 27 years old is how I got onto the beta-test for this.” He handed me his tablet. I smoothed it out and looked at it. It took me a minute to get what I was seeing. At first, I thought I was looking through a live camera feed from some hidden webcam in his office, but then I noticed I wasn’t in the picture. Then I thought I might be seeing a video loop. But after a few experimental prods, I understood that this was a zoomable panoramic image of the room in which I was sitting.
“Pick up one of the sculptures,” he said. I zoom-dragged to one of them, a kind of mountainscape made of something black and nonreflective. It had pleasing proportions, and a play of textures I quite admired. I double-tapped it and it filled the screen, allowing me to rotate it, zoom in on it. Playing along, I zoomed way up until it became a mash of pixellated JPEG noise, then back out again.
“Now try the white one,” he said, pointing at a kind of mathematical solid that suggested some kind of beautiful calculus, behind him and to the left. Zooming to it, I discovered that I could go to infinite depth on it, without any jaggies or artifacts appearing. “It’s so smooth because there’s a model of it on Thingiverse, so the sim just pulled in the vectors describing it and substituted a rendering of them for the bitmap. Same with the shelves. They’re Ikea, and all Ikea furniture has publicly disclosed dimensions, so they’re all vector based.” I saw now that it was true: the shelves had a glossy perfection that the rest of the room lacked.
“Try the books,” he said. I did. A copy of The Egyptian Book of the Dead opened at a touch and revealed its pages to me. “Book-search scans,” he said.
I zoomed around some more. The camel-colored coat hanging on the hook on the back of the door opened itself and revealed its lining. My pinky nail brushed an icon and I found myself looking at a ghostly line-art version of the room, at a set of old-fashioned metal keys in the coat’s pocket, and as I zoomed out, I saw that I was able to see into the walls—the wiring, the plumbing, the 2́4 studs.
“Teraherz radar,” he said, and took the tablet back from me. “There’s more to see, and it gets better all the time. There were a couple of books it didn’t recognize at first, but someone must have hooked them into the database, because now they move. That’s the really interesting thing, the way this improves continuously—”
“Sorry,” I said. “What are you showing me?”
“Oh,” he said. “Right. Got ahead of myself. The system’s called Infinite Space and it comes from a start-up here in Virginia. They’re a DHS spinout, started out with crime-scene forensics and realized they had something bigger here. Just run some scanners around the room and give it a couple of days to do the hard work. If you want more detail, just unpack and repack the drawers and boxes in front of it—it’ll tell you which ones have the smallest proportion of identifiable interior objects. You won’t need to inventory the cutlery; that shows up very well on a teraherz scan. The underwear drawer is a different matter.”
I sat there for a moment, thinking about my dad. I hadn’t been to his place in years. The docs had shown me the paramedics’ report, and they’d called it “crowded,” which either meant that they were very polite or my dad had gotten about a million times neater since I’d last visited him. I’d been twenty before I heard the term “hoarder,” but it had made instant sense to me.
Purnell was waiting patiently for me, like a computer spinning a watch cursor while the user was woolgathering. When he saw he had my attention, he tipped his head minutely, inviting me to ask any questions. When I didn’t, he said, “You know the saying, ‘You can’t libel the dead’? You can’t invade the dead’s privacy, either. Using this kind of technology on a living human’s home would be a gross invasion of privacy. But if you use it in the home of someone who’s died alone, it just improves a process that was bound to take place in any event. Working with Infinite Space, you can even use the inventory as a checklist, value all assets using current eBay blue-book prices, divide them algorithmically or manually, even turn it into a packing and shipping manifest you can give to movers, telling them what you want sent where. It’s like full-text search for a house.”
I closed my eyes for a moment. “Do you know anything about my father?”
For the first time, his expression betrayed some distress. “A little,” he said. “When you showed up in my calendar, it automatically sent me a copy of the coroner’s report. I could have googled further, but… ” He smiled. “You can’t invade the privacy of the dead, but there’s always the privacy of the living. I thought I’d leave that up to you.”
“My father kept things. I mean, he didn’t like to throw things away. Nothing.” I looked into his eyes as I said these words. I’d said them before, to explain my spotless desk, my habit of opening the mail over a garbage can and throwing anything not urgent directly into the recycling pile, my weekly stop at the thrift-store donation box with all the things I’d tossed into a shopping bag on the back of the bedroom door. Most people nodded like they understood. A smaller number winced a little, indicating that they had an idea of what I was talking about.
A tiny minority did what Purnell did next: looked back into my eyes for a moment, then said, “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He was always threatening to start an antique shop, or list his stuff on eBay. Once he even signed a lease, but he never bought a cash register. Never unlocked the front door, near as I could tell. But he was always telling me that his things were valuable, to the right person.” I swallowed, feeling an echo of the old anger I’d suppressed every time he’d played that loop for me. “But if there was anything worth anything in that pile, well, I don’t know how I’d find it amid all the junk.”
“Bruce, you’re not the first person to find himself in this situation. Dealing with an estate is hard at the best of times, and times like this, I’ve had people tell me they just wanted to torch the place, or bulldoze it.”
“Both of those sound like good ideas, but I have a feeling you don’t offer those particular services.”
He smiled a little funeral director’s smile, but it went all the way to his eyes. “No,” he said. “I don’t. But, huh.” He stopped himself. “This sounds a bit weird, but I’ve been looking forward to a situation like this. It was what I thought of immediately when I first saw Infinite Space demoed. This is literally the best test case I can imagine for this.”
I wish I was the kind of guy who didn’t cry when his father, estranged for decades, died alone and mad in a cluttered burial chamber of his own lunatic design. But I’d cried pretty steadily since I’d gotten the news. I could tell that I was about to cry now. There were Kleenex boxes everywhere. I picked one up and plucked out a tissue. Purnell didn’t look away but managed to back off slightly just by altering his posture. It was enough to give me the privacy to weep for a moment. The tears felt good this time, like they had somewhere to go. Not the choked cries I’d found myself loosing since I’d first gotten the news.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I think it probably is.”
* * *
I’d expected Roomba-style rolling robots and wondered how they’d get around the narrow aisles between the drifts and piles of things in Dad’s house. There were a few of those, clever ones, the size of my old Hot Wheels cars, and six-wheeled so they could drive in any direction. But the heavy lifting was done by the quadrotors, each the size of a dragonfly, swarming and swooping and flocking with an eerie, dopplered whine that bounced around in the piles of junk. Bigger rotors went around and picked up the ground-effect vehicles, giving them lifts up and down the stairs. As they worked, their data streamed back into a panorama on Purnell’s laptop. We sat on the porch steps and watched the image flesh out. The renderer was working from bitmaps and dead-reckoning telemetry to build its model, and it quivered like a funhouse as it continuously refined its guesses about the dimensions. At one point, the living room sofa appeared to pierce the wall behind us, the sofa itself rendered as a kind of eye-wateringly impossible Escherling that was thick and thin simultaneously. The whole region glowed pink.
“See,” Purnell said. “It knows that there’s something wrong there. There’s going to be a ton of quads tasked to it any second now.” And we heard them buzzing through the wall as they conferred with one another and corrected the software’s best guesses. Flicking through the panoramas, we saw other pink areas, saw them disappear as the bad geometries were replaced with sensible ones in a series of eyeblink corrections. There was something comforting about watching all the detail fill in, especially when the texturemaps appeared in another eyeblink, skinning the wireframes and giving the whole thing the feeling of an architectural rendering. The bitmaps had their own problems: improbable corners, warped-mirror distortions, but I could see that the software was self-aware enough to figure out its own defects, painting them with a pink glow that faded as the approximations were fined down with exact images from the missing angles.
All this time, there’d been a subtle progress bar creeping in fits and starts across the bottom of the screen, just few pixels’ worth of glowing silverly light, and now it was nearly all the way. “You don’t have to do the next part,” he said. “If you’d rather wait out here—”
“I’ll do it,” I said. “It’s okay.”
“They gave us eight scanners. That’s more than we should need for a two-bedroom house. Two should do it. One, even, if you don’t mind moving it, but I thought—”
“It’s okay,” I said again. “I can do this.”
I shook my own tablet out and pinched it rigid, holding it before me like a treasure map as I walked through the front door.
The smell stopped me in my tracks. It had been teasing me all the morning on the porch, but that was the attenuated, diluted version. Now I was breathing in the full-strength perfume, the smell of all my fathers’ dens: damp paper, oxidizing metal, loose copper pennies, ancient cleaners vaporizing through the pores in their decaying bottles, musty cushions, expired bulk no-name cheerios, overloaded power strips, mouse turds, and the trapped flatulence of a thousand lonely days. Overlaid with it, a rotten meat smell.
My father had been dead for at least a week before they found him.
* * *
Infinite Space wanted teraherz scanners in several highly specific locations. Despite Purnell’s assurances, it turned out that we needed to reposition half a dozen of them, making for fourteen radar panoramas in all. I let him do the second placement and went back out onto the porch to watch the plumbing and structural beams and wiring ghost into place as the system made sense of the scans. I caught a brief, airport-scan flash of Purnell’s naked form, right down to his genitals, before the system recognized a human silhouette and edited it out of the map. The awkwardness was a welcome change from the cramped, panicked feeling that had begun the moment I’d stepped into Dad’s house.
The screen blinked and a cartoon chicken did a little ironic head tilt in the bottom left corner. It was my little sister, Hennie, who is much more emotionally balanced than me, hence her ability to choose a self-mocking little avatar. I tapped and then cupped the tablet up into a bowl shape to help it triangulate its sound on my ear. “Have you finished mapping the burial chamber, Indiana Bruce?” She’s five years younger than me, and Dad left when she was only ten, and somehow it never seemed to bother her. As far as she was concerned, her father died decades ago, and she’d never felt any need to visit or call the old man. She’d been horrified when she found out that I’d exchanged a semi-regular, semi-annual email with him.
I snuffled up the incipient snot and tears. “Funny. Yeah, it’s going fast. Mostly automatic. I’ll send it to you when it’s done.”
She shook her head. “Don’t bother. It’ll just give Marta ideas.” Marta, her five-year-old daughter, refused to part with so much as a single stuffed toy and had been distraught for months when they remodeled the kitchen, demanding that the old fridge be brought back. I never wanted to joke about heredity and mental illness, but Hennie was without scruple on this score and privately insisted that Marta was just going through some kind of essential post-toddler conservatism brought on by the change to kindergarten and the beginning of a new phase of life.
“It’s pretty amazing, actually. It’s weird, but I’m kind of looking forward to seeing the whole thing. There’s something about all that mess being tamed, turned into a spreadsheet—”
“Listen to yourself, Bruce. The opposite of compulsive mess isn’t compulsive neatness—it’s general indifference to stuff altogether. I don’t know that this is very healthy.”
I felt an irrational, overarching anger at this, which is usually a sign that she’s right. I battened it down. “Look, if we’re going to divide the estate, we’re going to have to inventory it, and—”
“Wait, what? Who said anything about dividing anything? Bruce, you can keep the money, give it to charity, flush it down the toilet, or spend it on lap dances for all I care. I don’t want it.”
“But half of it is yours—I mean, it could go into Marta’s college fund—”
“If Marta wants to go to college, she can sweat some good grades and apply for a scholarship. I don’t give a damn about university. It’s a big lie anyway—the return on investment just isn’t there.” Whenever Hennie starts talking like a stockbroker, I know she’s looking to change the subject. She can talk economics all day long, and will, if you poke her in a vulnerable spot.
“Okay, okay. I get it. Fine. I won’t talk about it with you if it bugs you. You don’t have to know about it.”
“Come on, Bruce, I don’t mean it that way. You’re my brother. You and Marta and Sweyn”—her husband—“are all the family I’ve got. I just don’t understand why you need to do this. It’s got me worried about you. You know that you had no duty to him, right? You don’t owe him anything.”
“This isn’t about him. It’s about me.” And you, I added to myself. Someday you’ll want to know about this, and you’ll be glad I did it. I didn’t say it, of course. That would have been a serious tactical mistake.
“Whatever you say, Bruce. Meantime, and for the record, Sweyn’s looked up the information for the intestacy trustee. Anytime you want, you can step away from this. They’ll liquidate his estate, put the proceeds into public-spirited projects. You can just step away anytime. Remember that.”
“I’ll remember. I know you want to help me out here, but seriously, this is something I need to do.”
“This is something you think you need to do, Bruce.”
Yeah,” I said. “If that makes you feel better, then I can go with that.”
* * *
I got the impression that Infinite Space was tremendously pleased to have hit on a beta tester who was really ready to put their stuff through its paces. A small army of turkers were bid into work, filling in descriptions and URLs for everything the software couldn’t recognize on its own. At first they’d been afraid that we’d have to go in and rearrange the piles so that the cameras could get a look at the stuff in the middle, but a surprising amount of it could be identified edge on. It turns out books aren’t the only thing with recognizable spines, assuming a big and smart enough database. The Infinites (yes, they called themselves that, and they generated a near-infinite volume of email and weets and statuses for me, which I learned to skim quickly and delete even faster) were concerned at first that it wouldn’t work for my dad’s stuff because so much of their secret sauce was about inferences based on past experience. If the database had previously seen a thousand yoga mats next to folded towels, then the ambiguous thing on top of a yoga mat that might be a fitted sheet and might be a towel was probably a towel.
Dad’s teetering piles were a lot less predictable than that, but as it turned out, there was another way. Since they had the dimensions and structural properties for everything in the database, they were able to model how stable a pile would be if the towels were fitted sheets and vice-versa, and whittle down the ambiguities with physics. The piles were upright, therefore they were composed of things that would be stable if stacked one atop another. The code took very little time to implement and represented a huge improvement on the overall database performance.
“They’re getting their money’s worth out of you, Bruce,” Purnell told me, as we met in his office that week. He had my dad’s ashes, in a cardboard box. I looked at it and mentally sized it up for its regular dimensions, its predictable contents. They don’t put the whole corpseworth of ashes in those boxes. There’s no point. A good amount of ashes are approximately interchangeable with all the ashes, symbolically speaking. The ashes in that box would be of a normalized distribution and weight and composition. They could be predicted with enormous accuracy, just by looking at the box and being told what was inside it. Add a teraherz scan—just to be sure that the box wasn’t filled with lead fishing weights or cotton candy—and the certainty skyrockets.
I hefted the box. “You could have dinged the insurance for a fancy urn,” I said.
He shrugged. “It’s not how I do business. You don’t want a fancy urn. You’re going to scatter his remains. An urn would just be landfill, or worse, something you couldn’t bring yourself to throw away.”
“I can bring myself to throw anything away,” I said, with half a smile. Quipping. Anything to prolong the moment before that predictable box ended up in my charge. In my hands.
He didn’t say anything. Part of the undertaker’s toolkit, I suppose. Tactful silence. He held the box in the ensuing silence, never holding it out to me or even shifting it subtly in my direction. He was good. I’d take it when I was ready. I would never be ready. I took it.
It was lighter than I thought.
* * *
“Hennie, I need to ask you something and you’re not going to like it.”
“It’s about him.”
“Right,” I said. I stared at the ceiling, my eyes boring through the plaster and beams into the upstairs spare room, where I’d left the box, in the exact center of the room, which otherwise held nothing but three deep Ikea storage shelves—they’d render beautifully, was all I could think of when I saw them now—lined with big, divided plastic tubs, each neatly labeled.
“Bruce, I don’t want—”
“I know you don’t. But look, remember when you said I was all the family you had left?”
“You and Mattie and Sweyn.”
“Yes. Well, you’re all I have left, too.”
“You should have thought of that before you got involved. You’ve got no right to drag me into this.”
“I’ve got Dad’s ashes.”
That broke her rhythm. We’d fallen into the bickering cadence we’d perfected during a thousand childhood spats where we’d demanded that Mom adjudicate our disputes. Mom wasn’t around to do that anymore. Besides, she’d always hated doing it and made us feel like little monsters for making her do so. I don’t know that we’d had a fight like that in the seven years since she’d been gone.
“Oh, Bruce,” she said. “God, of course you do. I don’t want them.”
“I don’t want them either. I was thinking I’d, well, scatter them.”
“Where? In his house? Another layer of dust won’t hurt, I suppose.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. What about by Mom’s grave?”
“Don’t you dare.” The vicious spin on the last word was so intense I fumbled my tablet and had to catch it as it floated toward the floor on an errant warm air current.
“Sorry,” I said.
“He never earned the right to be with Mom. He never earned what you’re giving him. He never earned me sparing a single brain cell for him. He’s not worth the glucose my neurons are consuming.”
“He was sick, Hennie.”
“He did nothing to get better. There are meds. Therapies. When I cleaned out Mom’s place, I found the letters from the therapists she’d set him up with, asking why he never showed up for the intake appointments. He did nothing to earn any of this.”
It dawned on me that Hennie had dealt with all of Mom’s stuff without ever bothering me. Mom had left a will, of course, and set out some bequests for me, and she hadn’t lived in a garbage house. But it must have been a lot of work, and Hennie had never once asked for my help.
“I’m sorry, Hennie, I never should have bothered you. You’re right.”
“Wait, Bruce, it’s okay—”
“No, really. I’ll deal with this. It’s just a box of ashes. It’s just stuff. I can get rid of stuff.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I said. I was, too. I folded the tablet up and stuck it in the sofa cushions and stared at the ceiling for a moment longer.
* * *
Somewhere in this house, there is an answer. Was there a moment when the grave robbers of ancient Egyptian pyramids found the plunder before them shimmer and change? Did they stand there, those wreckers with their hammers and shovels and treasure sacks, and gasp as the treasure before them became, for an instant, something naked and human and desperate, the terrified attempt of a dying aristocrat to put the world in a box, to make it behave itself? A moment when they found themselves standing not in a room full of gold and gems, but a room full of disastrous attempts to bring the universe to heel?
Here’s the thing. It turns out that I don’t mind mess at all. What I mind is disorganization. Clutter isn’t clutter once it’s been alphabetized on a hard drive. Once it’s been scanned and cataloged and put it its place, it’s stuff. It’s actionable. With the click of a button, you can list it on eBay, you can order packers and movers to get rid of it, you can search the database for just the thing to solve any problem.
Things are wonderful, really. Things are potential. The right thing at the right moment might save a life, or save the day, or save a friendship. Any of these things might someday be a gift. If times get tight, these things can readily be converted to cash. Honestly, things are really, really fine.
I wish Hennie would believe me. She freaked out when I told her I was moving out of my place into Dad’s. Purnell, too, kept coming over all grief counselor and trying to help me “process” what I was feeling. Neither of them gets it, neither of them understands what I see when I look into the ruin of Dad’s life, smartened up as neat as a precision machine. Minimalism is just a crutch for people who can’t get a handle on their things. In the modern age, things are adaptive. They’re pro-survival.
Really, things are fine.
I’d been working mornings as a waiter in a cheap café. When my shift was over, I’d switch to being a customer and enjoy the service until fairly late, and then ride my bicycle back to my humble room. One night I crossed the street not far from a thin girl. As soon as she saw me, she started screaming as if she’d seen a ghost.
Flustered, I fell off the bike, which rolled into the middle of the main street. Meanwhile, the girl started laughing hysterically. Then suddenly she calmed down and said, “Sorry, I’ll make it up to you! Here’s a hundred dollars. But don’t buy a bicycle with it!”
“You wouldn’t want to hear the story.”
“No, I’d love to. I’m a sucker for stories.”
“You’ll never ride a bicycle again.”
“That’s all right. Besides, that’ll keep another bicycle from getting in your way.”
“In my way?” she giggled. “No, it won’t. You’ll see!”
I bought a cup of hot coffee from the last street vendor, and Suzanne started telling her story.
“It was a month ago in Lucerne, Switzerland. I got off the bus, happy to have the long ride over with, since my butt was killing me from being squished into the narrow seat all that time.”
“But you’re so skinny,” I interrupted.
“Let me finish the story,” she said. “There’s a group of chalets at the edge of Lake Lucerne that I’d been wanting to visit. I wanted to go there to meet a Frenchman that I’d heard had a phenomenal ability to help people lose weight.”
“But you’re so skinny,” I interrupted her again.
“Let me finish the story, damn it! The village can be reached by boat, or by crossing a bridge. But the bridge had been under repair for years, and getting there by boat wasn’t an option for a big fat girl like me.”
Glaring at me with an unspoken warning not to interrupt her again, she continued, “I decided to get there through a narrow tunnel that had been used in the past by wine-transport wagons. And since it was really late, I decided to rent a bicycle. I saw a guy wearing a tall green fur cap and riding a red mountain bike. Getting straight to the point, I asked him if I could rent it.
“He smiled. ‘It’s a deal,’ he said. ‘But you’re so fat, I’m afraid you might break it. You’d better just buy it from the start. You can have it for 200 bucks!’”
“But you’re skinny as a rail!” I interrupted again.
“You can go to hell,” she snapped. “Just let me finish my story! . . . So I handed the guy 200 bucks. He took it and thanked me. Before leaving, he said, ‘Don’t use the tunnel road. Don’t even think about it. Better wait till morning, or go around the lake.’ But I didn’t pay any attention to him. I got on the bike and headed straight for the tunnel, which was only half-a-kilometer long. Within minutes I’d nearly come out the other end. But just as I was exiting, I noticed something weird. I was exerting a huge effort, and the wheels of the bicycle were turning, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. The road surface was moving, but the bicycle was at a standstill. Before long I realized that it was like riding on a treadmill!”
“Why didn’t you stop?”
“I tried, but whenever I quit pedaling, the bike would start sinking into the asphalt, so I had no choice but to keep going. Exhaustion was killing me. Meanwhile, the street kept moving, and when it was almost sunrise, I thought I was going to die. People I knew would pop out of the darkness and wave at me, saying, ‘Hi, Suzanne!’ Then the moving asphalt would take them away like a conveyor belt, and others would appear, and so on it went.”
“So how did it end?”
“It went on for hours. Then all of a sudden, the bicycle started moving—I don’t know why. Maybe the giant machine that had been moving the roadway stopped. In any case, when I came out of the tunnel, I’d lost two-thirds of my weight, and I looked like a little girl wearing her grandmother’s clothes.”
“What kind of a machine was that?”
“I don’t know. And who’s to say there actually was a machine? I’m just trying to imagine what happened. But that damned bicycle haunts me in my dreams every night, and I run away from it in my sleep.”
A shiver went through me as I said goodbye to Suzanne. I turned and cast a momentary glance at my wreck of a bike, and when I looked back in her direction, she’d vanished into thin air.
I never met up with that shadow-puppet of a girl again, and I don’t ride bicycles anymore. As for jesters in green hats, I never liked them, even before I heard this story.
This all happened a long time ago, in the early decades of the Second Republic, when I was a boy growing up in Upper Pannonia. Life was very simple then, at least for us. We lived in a forest village on the right bank of the Danubius, my parents, my grandmother, my sister Friya, and I. My father Tyr, for whom I am named, was a blacksmith, my mother Julia taught school in our house, and my grandmother was the priestess at the little Temple of Juno Teutonica nearby.
It was a very quiet life. The automobile hadn’t yet been invented then – all this was around the year 2650, and we still used horse-drawn carriages or wagons – and we hardly ever left the village. Once a year, on Augustus Day – back then we still celebrated Augustus Day – we would all dress in our finest clothes and my father would get our big iron-bound carriage out of the shed, the one he had built with his own hands, and we’d drive to the great municipium of Venia, a two-hour journey away, to hear the imperial band playing waltzes in the Plaza of Vespasian. Afterward there’d be cakes and whipped cream at the big hotel nearby, and tankards of cherry beer for the grownups, and then we’d begin the long trip home. Today, of course, the forest is gone and our little village has been swallowed up by the ever-growing municipium, and it’s a twenty-minute ride by car to the center of the city from where we used to live. But at that time it was a grand excursion, the event of the year for us.
I know now that Venia is only a minor provincial city, that compared with Londin or Parisi or Roma itself it’s nothing at all. But to me it was the capital of the world. Its splendors stunned me and dazed me. We would climb to the top of the great column of Basileus Andronicus, which the Greeks put up eight hundred years ago to commemorate their victory over Caesar Maximilianus during the Civil War in the days when the Empire was divided, and we’d stare out at the whole city; and my mother, who had grown up in Venia, would point everything out to us, the senate building, the opera house, the aqueduct, the university, the ten bridges, the Temple of Jupiter Teutonicus, the proconsul’s palace, the much greater palace that Trajan VII built for himself during that dizzying period when Venia was essentially the second capital of the Empire, and so forth. For days afterward my dreams would glitter with memories of what I had seen in Venia, and my sister and I would hum waltzes as we whirled along the quiet forest paths.
There was one exciting year when we made the Venia trip twice. That was 2647, when I was ten years old, and I can remember it so exactly because that was the year when the First Consul died – C. Junius Scaevola, I mean, the Founder of the Second Republic. My father was very agitated when the news of his death came. “It’ll be touch and go now, touch and go, mark my words,” he said over and over. I asked my grandmother what he meant by that, and she said, “Your father’s afraid that they’ll bring back the Empire, now that the old man’s dead.” I didn’t see what was so upsetting about that – it was all the same to me, Republic or Empire, Consul or Imperator – but to my father it was a big issue, and when the new First Consul came to Venia later that year, touring the entire vast Imperium province by province for the sake of reassuring everyone that the Republic was stable and intact, my father got out the carriage and we went to attend his Triumph and Processional. So I had a second visit to the capital that year.
Half a million people, so they say, turned out in downtown Venia to applaud the new First Consul. This was N. Marcellus Turritus, of course. You probably think of him as the fat, bald old man on the coinage of the late 27th century that still shows up in pocket change now and then, but the man I saw that day – I had just a glimpse of him, a fraction of a second as the consular chariot rode past, but the memory still blazes in my mind seventy years later – was lean and virile, with a jutting jaw and fiery eyes and dark, thick curling hair. We threw up our arms in the old Roman salute and at the top of our lungs we shouted out to him, “Hail, Marcellus! Long live the Consul!”
(We shouted it, by the way, not in Latin but in Germanisch. I was very surprised at that. My father explained afterward that it was by the First Consul’s own orders. He wanted to show his love for the people by encouraging all the regional languages, even at a public celebration like this one. The Gallians had hailed him in Gallian, the Britannians in Britannic, the Japanese in whatever it is they speak there, and as he traveled through the Teutonic provinces he wanted us to yell his praises in Germanisch. I realize that there are some people today, very conservative Republicans, who will tell you that this was a terrible idea, because it has led to the resurgence of all kinds of separatist regional activities in the Imperium. It was the same sort of regionalist fervor, they remind us, that brought about the crumbling of the Empire two hundred years earlier. To men like my father, though, it was a brilliant political stroke, and he cheered the new First Consul with tremendous Germanische exuberance and vigor. But my father managed to be a staunch regionalist and a staunch Republican at the same time. Bear in mind that over my mother’s fierce objections he had insisted on naming his children for ancient Teutonic gods instead of giving them the standard Roman names that everybody else in Pannonia favored then.)
Other than going to Venia once a year, or on this one occasion twice, I never went anywhere. I hunted, I fished, I swam, I helped my father in the smithy, I helped my grandmother in the Temple, I studied reading and writing in my mother’s school. Sometimes Friya and I would go wandering in the forest, which in those days was dark and lush and mysterious. And that was how I happened to meet the last of the Caesars.
There was supposed to be a haunted house deep in the woods. Marcus Aurelius Schwarzchild it was who got me interested in it, the tailor’s son, a sly and unlikable boy with a cast in one eye. He said it had been a hunting lodge in the time of the Caesars, and that the bloody ghost of an Emperor who had been killed in a hunting accident could be seen at noontime, the hour of his death, pursuing the ghost of a wolf around and around the building. “I’ve seen it myself,” he said. “The ghost, I mean. He had a laurel wreath on, and everything, and his rifle was polished so it shined like gold.”
I didn’t believe him. I didn’t think he’d had the courage to go anywhere near the haunted house and certainly not that he’d seen the ghost. Marcus Aurelius Schwarzchild was the sort of boy you wouldn’t believe if he said it was raining, even if you were getting soaked to the skin right as he was saying it. For one thing, I didn’t believe in ghosts, not very much. My father had told me it was foolish to think that the dead still lurked around in the world of the living. For another, I asked my grandmother if there had ever been an Emperor killed in a hunting accident in our forest, and she laughed and said no, not ever: the Imperial Guard would have razed the village to the ground and burned down the woods, if that had ever happened.
But nobody doubted that the house itself, haunted or not, was really there. Everyone in the village knew that. It was said to be in a certain dark part of the woods where the trees were so old that their branches were tightly woven together. Hardly anyone ever went there. The house was just a ruin, they said, and haunted besides, definitely haunted, so it was best to leave it alone.
It occurred to me that the place might just actually have been an imperial hunting lodge, and that if it had been abandoned hastily after some unhappy incident and never visited since, it might still have some trinkets of the Caesars in it, little statuettes of the gods, or cameos of the royal family, things like that. My grandmother collected small ancient objects of that sort. Her birthday was coming, and I wanted a nice gift for her. My fellow villagers might be timid about poking around in the haunted house, but why should I be? I didn’t believe in ghosts, after all.
But on second thought I didn’t particularly want to go there alone. This wasn’t cowardice so much as sheer common sense, which even then I possessed in full measure. The woods were full of exposed roots hidden under fallen leaves; if you tripped on one and hurt your leg, you would lie there a long time before anyone who might help you came by. You were also less likely to lose your way if you had someone else with you who could remember trail marks. And there was some occasional talk of wolves. I figured the probability of my meeting one wasn’t much better than the likelihood of ghosts, but all the same it seemed like a sensible idea to have a companion with me in that part of the forest. So I took my sister along.
I have to confess that I didn’t tell her that the house was supposed to be haunted. Friya, who was about nine then, was very brave for a girl, but I thought she might find the possibility of ghosts a little discouraging. What I did tell her was that the old house might still have imperial treasures in it, and if it did she could have her pick of any jewelry we found.
Just to be on the safe side we slipped a couple of holy images into our pockets – Apollo for her, to cast light on us as we went through the dark woods, and Woden for me, since he was my father’s special god. (My grandmother always wanted him to pray to Jupiter Teutonicus, but he never would, saying that Jupiter Teutonicus was a god that the Romans invented to pacify our ancestors. This made my grandmother angry, naturally. “But we are Romans,” she would say. “Yes, we are,” my father would tell her, “but we’re Teutons also, or at least I am, and I don’t intend to forget it.”)
It was a fine Saturday morning in spring when we set out, Friya and I, right after breakfast, saying nothing to anybody about where we were going. The first part of the forest path was a familiar one: we had traveled it often. We went past Agrippina’s Spring, which in medieval times was thought to have magical powers, and then the three battered and weather beaten statues of the pretty young boy who was supposed to be the first Emperor Hadrianus’s lover two thousand years ago, and after that we came to Baldur’s Tree, which my father said was sacred, though he died before I was old enough to attend the midnight rituals that he and some of his friends used to hold there. (I think my father’s generation was the last one that took the old Teutonic religion seriously.)
Then we got into deeper, darker territory. The paths were nothing more than sketchy trails here. Marcus Aurelius had told me that we were supposed to turn left at a huge old oak tree with unusual glossy leaves. I was still looking for it when Friya said, “We turn here,” and there was the shiny-leaved oak. I hadn’t mentioned it to her. So perhaps the girls of our village told each other tales about the haunted house too; but I never found out how she knew which way to go.
Onward and onward we went, until even the trails gave out, and we were wandering through sheer wilderness. The trees were ancient here, all right, and their boughs were interlaced high above us so that almost no sunlight reached the forest floor. But we didn’t see any houses, haunted or otherwise, or anything else that indicated human beings had ever been here. We’d been hiking for hours, now. I kept one hand on the idol of Woden in my pocket and I stared hard at every unusual-looking tree or rock we saw, trying to engrave it on my brain for use as a trail marker on the way back.
It seemed pointless to continue, and dangerous besides. I would have turned back long before, if Friya hadn’t been with me; but I didn’t want to look like a coward in front of her. And she was forging on in a tireless way, inflamed, I guess, by the prospect of finding a fine brooch or necklace for herself in the old house, and showing not the slightest trace of fear or uneasiness. But finally I had had enough.
“If we don’t come across anything in the next five minutes -” I said.
“There,” said Friya. “Look.”
I followed her pointing hand. At first all I saw was more forest. But then I noticed, barely visible behind a curtain of leafy branches, what could have been the sloping wooden roof of a rustic hunting lodge. Yes! Yes, it was! I saw the scalloped gables, I saw the boldly carved roof-posts.
So it was really there, the secret forest lodge, the old haunted house. In frantic excitement I began to run toward it, Friya chugging valiantly along behind me, struggling to catch up.
And then I saw the ghost.
He was old – ancient – a frail, gaunt figure, white-bearded, his long white hair a tangle of knots and snarls. His clothing hung in rags. He was walking slowly toward the house, shuffling, really, a bent and stooped and trembling figure clutching a huge stack of kindling to his breast. I was practically on top of him before I knew he was there.
For a long moment we stared at each other, and I can’t say which of us was the more terrified. Then he made a little sighing sound and let his bundle of firewood fall to the ground, and fell down beside it, and lay there like one dead.
“Marcus Aurelius was right!” I murmured. “There really is a ghost here!”
Friya shot me a glance that must have been a mixture of scorn and derision and real anger besides, for this was the first she had heard of the ghost story that I had obviously taken pains to conceal from her. But all she said was, “Ghosts don’t fall down and faint, silly. He’s nothing but a scared old man.” And went to him unhesitatingly.
Somehow we got him inside the house, though he tottered and lurched all the way and nearly fell half a dozen times. The place wasn’t quite a ruin, but close: dust everywhere, furniture that looked as if it’d collapse into splinters if you touched it, draperies hanging in shreds. Behind all the filth we could see how beautiful it all once had been, though. There were faded paintings on the walls, some sculptures, a collection of arms and armor worth a fortune.
He was terrified of us. “Are you from the quaestors?” he kept asking. Latin was what he spoke. “Are you here to arrest me? I’m only the caretaker, you know. I’m not any kind of a danger. I’m only the caretaker.” His lips quavered. “Long live the First Consul!” he cried, in a thin, hoarse, ragged croak of a voice.
“We were just wandering in the woods,” I told him. “You don’t have to be afraid of us.”
“I’m only the caretaker,” he said again and again.
We laid him out on a couch. There was a spring just outside the house, and Friya brought water from it and sponged his cheeks and brow. He looked half starved, so we prowled around for something to feed him, but there was hardly anything: some nuts and berries in a bowl, a few scraps of smoked meat that looked like they were a hundred years old, a piece of fish that was in better shape, but not much. We fixed a meal for him, and he ate slowly, very slowly, as if he were unused to food. Then he closed his eyes without a word. I thought for a moment that he had died, but no, no, he had simply dozed off. We stared at each other, not knowing what to do.
“Let him be,” Friya whispered, and we wandered around the house while we waited for him to awaken. Cautiously we touched the sculptures, we blew dust away from the paintings. No doubt of it, there had been imperial grandeur here. In one of the upstairs cupboards I found some coins, old ones, the kind with the Emperor’s head on them that weren’t allowed to be used any more. I saw trinkets, too, a couple of necklaces and a jewel-handled dagger. Friya’s eyes gleamed at the sight of the necklaces, and mine at the dagger, but we let everything stay where it was. Stealing from a ghost is one thing, stealing from a live old man is another. And we hadn’t been raised to be thieves.
When we went back downstairs to see how he was doing, we found him sitting up, looking weak and dazed, but not quite so frightened. Friya offered him some more of the smoked meat, but he smiled and shook his head.
“From the village, are you? How old are you? What are your names?”
“This is Friya,” I said. “I’m Tyr. She’s nine and I’m twelve.”
“Friya. Tyr.” He laughed. “Time was when such names wouldn’t have been permitted, eh? But times have changed.” There was a flash of sudden vitality in his eyes, though only for an instant. He gave us a confidential, intimate smile. “Do you know whose place this was, you two? The Emperor Maxentius, that’s who! This was his hunting lodge. Caesar himself! He’d stay here when the stags were running, and hunt his fill, and then he’d go on into Venia, to Trajan’s palace, and there’d be such feasts as you can’t imagine, rivers of wine, and the haunches of venison turning on the spit – ah, what a time that was, what a time!”
He began to cough and sputter. Friya put her arm around his thin shoulders.
“You shouldn’t talk so much, sir. You don’t have the strength.”
“You’re right. You’re right.” He patted her hand. His was like a skeleton’s. “How long ago it all was. But here I stay, trying to keep the place up – in case Caesar ever wanted to hunt here again – in case – in case – ” A look of torment, of sorrow. “There isn’t any Caesar, is there? First Consul! Hail! Hail Junius Scaevola!” His voice cracked as he raised it.
“The Consul Junius is dead, sir,” I told him. “Marcus Turritus is First Consul now.”
“Dead? Scaevola? Is it so?” He shrugged. “I hear so little news. I’m only the caretaker, you know. I never leave the place. Keeping it up, in case – in case – “
But of course he wasn’t the caretaker. Friya never thought he was: she had seen, right away, the resemblance between that shriveled old man and the magnificent figure of Caesar Maxentius in the painting behind him on the wall. You had to ignore the difference in age – the Emperor couldn’t have been much more than thirty when his portrait was painted – and the fact that the Emperor was in resplendent bemedalled formal uniform and the old man was wearing rags. But they had the same long chin, the same sharp, hawklike nose, the same penetrating icy-blue eyes. It was the royal face, all right. I hadn’t noticed; but girls have a quicker eye for such things. The Emperor Maxentius’ youngest brother was who this gaunt old man was, Quintus Fabius Caesar, the last survivor of the old imperial house, and, therefore, the true Emperor himself. Who had been living in hiding ever since the downfall of the Empire at the end of the Second War of Reunification.
He didn’t tell us any of that, though, until our third or fourth visit. He went on pretending he was nothing but a simple old man who had happened to be stranded here when the old regime was overthrown, and was simply trying to do his job, despite the difficulties of age, on the chance that the royal family might someday be restored and would want to use its hunting lodge again.
But he began to give us little gifts, and that eventually led to his admitting his true identity.
For Friya he had a delicate necklace made of long slender bluish beads. “It comes from Aiguptos,” he said. “It’s thousands of years old. You’ve studied Aiguptos in school, haven’t you? You know that it was a great empire long before Roma ever was?” And with his own trembling hands he put it around her neck.
That same day he gave me a leather pouch in which I found four or five triangular arrowheads made of a pink stone that had been carefully chipped sharp around the edges. I looked at them, mystified. “From Nova Roma,” he explained. “Where the redskinned people live. The Emperor Maxentius loved Nova Roma, especially the far west, where the bison herds are. He went there almost every year to hunt. Do you see the trophies?” And, indeed, the dark musty room was lined with animal heads, great massive bison with thick curling brown wool, glowering down out of the gallery high above.
We brought him food, sausages and black bread that we brought from home, and fresh fruit, and beer. He didn’t care for the beer, and asked rather timidly if we could bring him wine instead. “I am Roman, you know,” he reminded us. Getting wine for him wasn’t so easy, since we never used it at home, and a twelve-year-old boy could hardly go around to the wineshop to buy some without starting tongues wagging. In the end I stole some from the Temple while I was helping out my grandmother. It was thick sweet wine, the kind used for offerings, and I don’t know how much he liked it. But he was grateful. Apparently an old couple who lived on the far side of the woods had looked after him for some years, bringing him food and wine, but in recent weeks they hadn’t been around and he had had to forage for himself, with little luck: that was why he was so gaunt. He was afraid they were ill or dead, but when I asked where they lived, so I could find out whether they were all right, he grew uneasy and refused to tell me. I wondered about that. If I had realized then who he was, and that the old couple must have been Empire loyalists, I’d have understood. But I still hadn’t figured out the truth.
Friya broke it to me that afternoon, as we were on our way home. “Do you think he’s the Emperor’s brother, Tyr? Or the Emperor himself?”
“He’s got to be one or the other. It’s the same face.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, sister.”
“The big portrait on the wall, silly. Of the Emperor. Haven’t you noticed that it looks just like him?”
I thought she was out of her mind. But when we went back the following week, I gave the painting a long close look, and looked at him, and then at the painting again, and I thought, yes, yes, it might just be so.
What clinched it were the coins he gave us that day. “I can’t pay you in money of the Republic for all you’ve brought me,” he said. “But you can have these. You can’t spend them, but they’re still valuable to some people, I understand. As relics of history.” His voice was bitter. From a worn old velvet pouch he drew out half a dozen coins, some copper, some silver. “These are coins of Maxentius,” he said. They were like the ones we had seen while snooping in the upstairs cupboards on our first visit, showing the same face as on the painting, that of a young, vigorous bearded man. “And these are older ones, coins of Emperor Laureolus, who was Caesar when I was a boy.”
“Why, he looks just like you!” I blurted.
Indeed he did. Not nearly so gaunt, and his hair and beard were better trimmed; but otherwise the face of the regal old man on those coins might easily have been that of our friend the caretaker. I stared at him, and at the coins in my hand, and again at him. He began to tremble. I looked at the painting on the wall behind us again. “No,” he said faintly. “No, no, you’re mistaken – I’m nothing like him, nothing at all – ” And his shoulders shook and he began to cry. Friya brought him some wine, which steadied him a little. He took the coins from me and looked at them in silence a long while, shaking his head sadly, and finally handed them back. “Can I trust you with a secret?” he asked. And his tale came pouring out of him.
A glittering boyhood, almost sixty years earlier, in that wondrous time between the two Wars of Reunification: a magical life, endlessly traveling from palace to palace, from Roma to Venia, from Venia to Constantinopolis, from Constantinopolis to Nishapur. He was the youngest and most pampered of five royal princes; his father had died young, drowned in a foolish swimming exploit, and when his grandfather Laureolus Caesar died the imperial throne would go to his brother Maxentius. He himself, Quintus Fabius, would be a provincial governor somewhere when he grew up, perhaps in India or Nova Roma, but for now there was nothing for him to do but enjoy his gilded existence.
Then death came at last to old Emperor Laureolus, and Maxentius succeeded him; and almost at once there began the six-year horror of the Second War of Reunification, when somber and harsh colonels who despised the lazy old Empire smashed it to pieces, rebuilt it as a Republic, and drove the Caesars from power. We knew the story, of course; but to us it was a tale of the triumph of virtue and honor over corruption and tyranny. To Quintus Fabius, weeping as he told it to us from his own point of view, the fall of the Empire had been not only a harrowing personal tragedy but a terrible disaster for the entire world.
Good little Republicans though we were, our hearts were wrung by the things he told us, the scenes of his family’s agony: the young Emperor Maxentius trapped in his own palace, gunned down with his wife and children at the entrance to the imperial baths. Camillus, the second brother, who had been Prince of Constantinopolis, pursued through the streets of Roma at dawn and slaughtered by revolutionaries on the steps of the Temple of Castor and Pollux.
Prince Flavius, the third brother, escaping from the capital in a peasant’s wagon, hidden under huge bunches of grapes, and setting up a government-in-exile in Neapolis, only to be taken and executed before he had been Emperor a full week. Which brought the succession down to sixteen-year-old Prince Augustus, who had been at the university in Parisi. Well named, he was: for the first of all the Emperors was an Augustus, and another one two thousand years later was the last, reigning all of three days before the men of the Second Republic found him and put him before the firing squad.
Of the royal princes, only Quintus Fabius remained. But in the confusion he was overlooked. He was hardly more than a boy; and, although technically he was now Caesar, it never occurred to him to claim the throne. Loyalist supporters dressed him in peasant clothes and smuggled him out of Roma while the capital was still in flames, and he set out on what was to become a lifetime of exile.
“There were always places for me to stay,” he told us. “In out-of-the-way towns where the Republic had never really taken hold, in backwater provinces, in places you’ve never heard of. The Republic searched for me for a time, but never very well, and then the story began to circulate that I was dead. The skeleton of some boy found in the ruins of the palace in Roma was said to be mine.
After that I could move around more or less freely, though always in poverty, always in secrecy.”
“And when did you come here?” I asked.
“Almost twenty years ago. Friends told me that this hunting lodge was here, still more or less intact as it had been at the time of the Revolution, and that no one ever went near it, that I
could live here undisturbed. And so I have. And so I will, for however much time is left.” He reached for the wine, but his hands were shaking so badly that Friya took it from him and poured him a glass. He drank it in a single gulp. “Ah, children, children, what a world you’ve lost! What madness it was, to destroy the Empire! What greatness existed then!”
“Our father says things have never been so good for ordinary folk as they are under the Republic,” Friya said.
I kicked her ankle. She gave me a sour look.
Quintus Fabius said sadly, “I mean no disrespect, but your father sees only his own village. We were trained to see the entire world in a glance. The Imperium, the whole globe-spanning Empire. Do you think the gods meant to give the Imperium just to anyone at all? Anyone who could grab power and proclaim himself First Consul? Ah, no, no, the Caesars were uniquely chosen to sustain the Pax Romana, the universal peace that has enfolded this whole planet for so long. Under us there was nothing but peace, peace eternal and unshakeable, once the Empire had reached its complete form. But with the Caesars now gone, how much longer do you think the peace will last? If one man can take power, so can another, or another. There will be five First Consuls at once, mark my words. Or fifty. And every province will want to be an Empire in itself. Mark my words, children. Mark my words.”
I had never heard such treason in my life. Or anything so wrongheaded.
The Pax Romana? What Pax Romana? Old Quintus Fabius would have had us believe that the Empire had brought unbroken and unshakeable peace to the entire world, and had kept it that way for twenty centuries. But what about the Civil War, when the Greek half of the Empire fought for fifty years against the Latin half? Or the two Wars of Unification? And hadn’t there been minor rebellions constantly, all over the Empire, hardly a century without one, in Persia, in India, in Britannica, in Africa Aethiopica? No, I thought, what he’s telling us simply isn’t true. The long life of the Empire had been a time of constant brutal oppression, with people’s spirits held in check everywhere by military force. The real Pax Romana was something that existed only in modern times, under the Second Republic. So my father had taught me.
But Quintus Fabius was an old man, wrapped in dreams of his own wondrous lost childhood. Far be it from me to argue with him about such matters as these. I simply smiled and nodded, and poured more wine for him when his glass was empty. And Friya and I sat there spellbound as he told us, hour after hour, of what it had been like to be a prince of the royal family in the dying days of the Empire, before true grandeur had departed forever from the world.
When we left him that day, he had still more gifts for us. “My brother was a great collector,” he said. “He had whole houses stuffed full of treasure. All gone now, all but what you see here, which no one remembered. When I’m gone, who knows what’ll become of them? But I want you to have these. Because you’ve been so kind to me. To remember me by. And to remind you always of what once was, and now is lost.”
For Friya there was a small bronze ring, dented and scratched, with a serpent’s head on it, that he said had belonged to the Emperor Claudius of the earliest days of the Empire. For me a dagger, not the jewel-handled one I had seen upstairs, but a fine one all the same, with a strange undulating blade, from a savage kingdom on an island in the Oceanus Magnus. And for us both, a beautiful little figurine in smooth white alabaster of Pan playing on his pipes, carved by some master craftsman of the ancient days.
The figurine was the perfect birthday gift for grandmother. We gave it to her the next day. We thought she would be pleased, since all of the old gods of Roma are very dear to her; but to our surprise and dismay she seemed startled and upset by it. She stared at it, eyes bright and fierce, as if we had given her a venomous toad.
“Where did you get this thing? Where?”
I looked at Friya, to warn her not to say too much. But as usual she was ahead of me.
“We found it, grandmother. We dug it up.”
“You dug it up?”
“In the forest,” I put in. “We go there every Saturday, you know, just wandering around. There was this old mound of dirt – we were poking in it, and we saw something gleaming – “
She turned it over and over in her hands. I had never seen her look so troubled. “Swear to me that that’s how you found it! Come, now, at the altar of Juno! I want you to swear to me before the Goddess. And then I want you to take me to see this mound of dirt of yours.”
Friya gave me a panic-stricken glance.
Hesitantly I said, “We may not be able to find it again, grandmother. I told you, we were just wandering around – we didn’t really pay attention to where we were – “
I grew red in the face, and I was stammering, too. It isn’t easy to lie convincingly to your own grandmother.
She held the figurine out, its base toward me. “Do you see these marks here? This little crest stamped down here? It’s the Imperial crest, Tyr. That’s the mark of Caesar. This carving once belonged to the Emperor. Do you expect me to believe that there’s Imperial treasure simply lying around in mounds of dirt in the forest? Come, both of you! To the altar, and swear!”
“We only wanted to bring you a pretty birthday gift, grandmother,” Friya said softly. “We didn’t mean to do any harm.”
“Of course not, child. Tell me, now: where’d this thing come from?”
“The haunted house in the woods,” she said. And I nodded my confirmation. What could I do? She would have taken us to the altar to swear.
Strictly speaking, Friya and I were traitors to the Republic. We even knew that ourselves, from the moment we realized who the old man really was. The Caesars were proscribed when the Empire fell; everyone within a certain level of blood kinship to the Emperor was condemned to death, so that no one could rise up and claim the throne in years hereafter.
Some minor members of the royal family did manage to escape, so it was said; but giving aid and comfort to them was a serious offense. And this was no mere second cousin or great-grandnephew that we had discovered deep in the forest: this was the Emperor’s own brother. He was, in fact, the legitimate Emperor himself, in the eyes of those for whom the Empire had never ended. And it was our responsibility to turn him in to the quaestors. But he was so old, so gentle, so feeble. We didn’t see how he could be much of a threat to the Republic. Even if he did believe that the Revolution had been an evil thing, and that only under a divinely chosen Caesar could the world enjoy real peace.
We were children. We didn’t understand what risks we were taking, or what perils we were exposing our family to.
Things were tense at our house during the next few days: whispered conferences between our grandmother and our mother, out of our earshot, and then an evening when the two of them spoke with father while Friya and I were confined to our room, and there were sharp words and even some shouting. Afterward there was a long cold silence, followed by more mysterious discussions. Then things returned to normal. My grandmother never put the figurine of Pan in her collection of little artifacts of the old days, nor did she ever speak of it again.
That it had the imperial crest on it was, we realized, the cause of all the uproar. Even so, we weren’t clear about what the problem was. I had thought all along that grandmother was secretly an Empire loyalist herself. A lot of people her age were; and she was, after all, a traditionalist, a priestess of Juno Teutonica, who disliked the revived worship of the old Germanic gods that had sprung up in recent times – “pagan” gods, she called them – and had argued with father about his insistence on naming us as he had. So she should have been pleased to have something that had belonged to the Caesars. But, as I say, we were children then. We didn’t take into account the fact that the Republic dealt harshly with anyone who practiced Caesarism. Or that whatever my grandmother’s private political beliefs might have been, father was the unquestioned master of our household, and he was a devout Republican.
“I understand you’ve been poking around that old ruined house in the woods,” my father said, a week or so later. “Stay away from it. Do you hear me? Stay away.”
And so we would have, because it was plainly an order. We didn’t disobey our father’s orders.
But then, a few days afterward, I overheard some of the older boys of the village talking about making a foray out to the haunted house. Evidently Marcus Aurelius Schwarzchild had been talking about the ghost with the polished rifle to others beside me, and they wanted the rifle. “It’s five of us against one of him,” I heard someone say. “We ought to be able to take care of him, ghost or not.”
“What if it’s a ghost rifle, though?” one of them asked. “A ghost rifle won’t be any good to us.”
“There’s no such thing as a ghost rifle,” the first speaker said. “Rifles don’t have ghosts. It’s a real rifle. And it won’t be hard for us to get it away from a ghost.”
I repeated all this to Friya.
“What should we do?” I asked her.
“Go out there and warn him. They’ll hurt him, Tyr.”
“But father said – “
“Even so. The old man’s got to go somewhere and hide. Otherwise his blood will be on our heads.”
There was no arguing with her. Either I went with her to the house in the woods that moment, or she’d go by herself. That left me with no choice. I prayed to Woden that my father wouldn’t find out, or that he’d forgive me if he did; and off we went into the woods, past Agrippina’s spring, past the statues of the pretty boy, past Baldur’s Tree, and down the now-familiar path beyond the glossy-leaved oak.
“Something’s wrong,” Friya said, as we approached the hunting lodge. “I can tell.”
Friya always had a strange way of knowing things. I saw the fear in her eyes and felt frightened myself.
We crept forward warily. There was no sign of Quintus Fabius. And when we came to the door of the lodge we saw that it was a little way ajar, and off its hinges, as if it had been forced. Friya put her hand on my arm and we stared at each other. I took a deep breath.
“You wait here,” I said, and went in.
It was frightful in there. The place had been ransacked – the furniture smashed, the cupboards overturned, the sculptures in fragments. Someone had slashed every painting to shreds. The collection of arms and armor was gone.
I went from room to room, looking for Quintus Fabius. He wasn’t there. But there were bloodstains on the floor of the main hall, still fresh, still sticky.
Friya was waiting on the porch, trembling, fighting back tears.
“We’re too late,” I told her.
It hadn’t been the boys from the village, of course. They couldn’t possibly have done such a thorough job. I realized – and surely so did Friya, though we were both too sickened by the realization to discuss it with each other – that grandmother must have told father we had found a cache of Imperial treasure in the old house, and he, good citizen that he was, had told the quaestors. Who had gone out to investigate, come upon Quintus Fabius, and recognized him for a Caesar, just as Friya had. So my eagerness to bring back a pretty gift for grandmother had been the old man’s downfall. I suppose he wouldn’t have lived much longer in any case, as frail as he was; but the guilt for what I unknowingly brought upon him is something that I’ve borne ever since.
Some years later, when the forest was mostly gone, the old house accidentally burned down. I was a young man then, and I helped out on the firefighting line. During a lull in the work I said to the captain of the fire brigade, a retired quaestor named Lucentius, “It was an Imperial hunting lodge once, wasn’t it?”
“A long time ago, yes.”
I studied him cautiously by the light of the flickering blaze. He was an older man, of my father’s generation.
Carefully I said, “When I was a boy, there was a story going around that one of the last Emperor’s brothers had hidden himself away in it. And that eventually the quaestors caught him and killed him.”
He seemed taken off guard by that. He looked surprised and, for a moment, troubled. “So you heard about that, did you?”
“I wondered if there was any truth to it. That he was a Caesar, I mean.”
Lucentius glanced away. “He was only an old tramp, is all,” he said, in a muffled tone. “An old lying tramp. Maybe he told fantastic stories to some of the gullible kids, but a tramp is all he was, an old filthy lying tramp.” He gave me a peculiar look. And then he stamped away to shout at someone who was uncoiling a hose the wrong way.
A filthy old tramp, yes. But not, I think, a liar.
He remains alive in my mind to this day, that poor old relic of the Empire. And now that I am old myself, as old, perhaps, as he was then, I understand something of what he was saying. Not his belief that there necessarily had to be a Caesar in order for there to be peace, for the Caesars were only men themselves, in no way different from the Consuls who have replaced them. But when he argued that the time of the Empire had been basically a time of peace, he may not have been really wrong, even if war had been far from unknown in Imperial days.
For I see now that war can sometimes be a kind of peace also: that the Civil Wars and the Wars of Reunification were the struggles of a sundered Empire trying to reassemble itself so peace might resume. These matters are not so simple. The Second Republic is not as virtuous as my father thought, nor was the old Empire, apparently, quite as corrupt. The only thing that seems true without dispute is that the worldwide hegemony of Roma these past two thousand years under the Empire and then under the Republic, troubled though it has occasionally been, has kept us from even worse turmoil. What if there had been no Roma? What if every region had been free to make war against its neighbors in the hope of creating the sort of Empire that the Romans were able to build? Imagine the madness of it! But the gods gave us the Romans, and the Romans gave us peace: not a perfect peace, but the best peace, perhaps, that an imperfect world could manage. Or so I think now.
In any case the Caesars are dead, and so is everyone else I have written about here, even my little sister Friya; and here I am, an old man of the Second Republic, thinking back over the past and trying to bring some sense out of it. I still have the strange dagger that Quintus Fabius gave me, the barbaric-looking one with the curious wavy blade, that came from some savage island in the Oceanus Magnus. Now and then I take it out and look at it. It shines with a kind of antique splendor in the lamplight. My eyes are too dim now to see the tiny imperial crest that someone engraved on its haft when the merchant captain who brought it back from the South Seas gave it to the Caesar of his time, four or five hundred years ago. Nor can I see the little letters, S P Q R, that are inscribed on the blade. For all I know, they were put there by the frizzy-haired tribesman who fashioned that odd, fierce weapon: for he, too, was a citizen of the Roman Empire. As in a manner of speaking are we all, even now in the days of the Second Republic. As are we all.
It all started when Cletus Jefferson asked himself “Why aren’t all blind people geniuses?” Cletus was only 13 at the time, but it was a good question, and he would work on it for 14 more years, and then change the world forever.
Young Jefferson was a polymath, an autodidact, a nerd literally without peer. He had a chemistry set, a microscope, a telescope, and several computers, some of them bought with paper route money. Most of his income was from education, though: teaching his classmates not to draw to inside straights.
Not even nerds, not even nerds who are poker players nonpareil, not even nerdish poker players who can do differential equations in their heads, are immune to Cupid’s darts and the sudden storm of testosterone that will accompany those missiles at the age of 13. Cletus knew that he was ugly and his mother dressed him funny. He was also short and pudgy and could not throw a ball in any direction. None of this bothered him until his ductless glands started cooking up chemicals that weren’t in his chemistry set.
So Cletus started combing his hair and wearing clothes that mismatched according to fashion, but he was still short and pudgy and irregular of feature. He was also the youngest person in his school, even though he was a senior–and the only black person there, which was a factor in Virginia in 1994.
Now if love were sensible, if the sexual impulse was ever tempered by logic, you would expect that Cletus, being Cletus, would assess his situation and go off in search of someone homely. But of course he didn’t. He just jingled and clanked down through the Pachinko machine of adolescence, being rejected, at first glance, by every Mary and Judy and Jenny and Veronica in Known Space, going from the ravishing to the beautiful to the pretty to the cute to the plain to the “great personality,” until the irresistible force of statistics brought him finally into contact with Amy Linderbaum, who could not reject him at first glance because she was blind.
The other kids thought it was more than amusing. Besides being blind, Amy was about twice as tall as Cletus and, to be kind, equally irregular of feature. She was accompanied by a guide dog who looked remarkably like Cletus, short and black and pudgy. Everybody was polite to her because she was blind and rich, but she was a new transfer student and didn’t have any actual friends.
So along came Cletus, to whom Cupid had dealt only slings and arrows, and what might otherwise have been merely an opposites-attract sort of romance became an emotional and intellectual union that, in the next century, would power a social tsunami that would irreversibly transform the human condition. But first there was the violin.
Her classmates had sensed that Amy was some kind of nerd herself, as classmates will, but they hadn’t figured out what kind yet. She was pretty fast with a computer, but you could chalk that up to being blind and actually needing the damned thing. She wasn’t fanatical about it, nor about science or math or history or Star Trek or student government, so what the hell kind of nerd was she? It turns out that she was a music nerd, but at the time was too painfully shy to demonstrate it.
All Cletus cared about, initially, was that she lacked those pesky Y-chromosomes and didn’t recoil from him: in the Venn diagram of the human race, she was the only member of that particular set. When he found out that she was actually smart as well, having read more books than most of her classmates put together, romance began to smolder in a deep and permanent place. That was even before the violin.
Amy liked it that Cletus didn’t play with her dog and was straightforward in his curiosity about what it was like to be blind. She could assess people pretty well from their voices: after one sentence, she knew that he was young, black, shy, nerdly, and not from Virginia. She could tell from his inflection that either he was unattractive or he thought he was. She was six years older than him and white and twice his size, but otherwise they matched up pretty well, and they started keeping company in a big way.
Among the few things that Cletus did not know anything about was music. That the other kids wasted their time memorizing the words to inane top-40 songs was proof of intellectual dysfunction if not actual lunacy. Furthermore, his parents had always been fanatical devotees of opera. A universe bounded on one end by puerile mumblings about unrequited love and on the other end by foreigners screaming in agony was not a universe that Cletus desired to explore. Until Amy picked up her violin.
They talked constantly. They sat together at lunch and met between classes. When the weather was good, they sat outside before and after school and talked. Amy asked her chauffeur to please be ten or fifteen minutes late picking her up.
So after about three weeks’ worth of the fullness of time, Amy asked Cletus to come over to her house for dinner. He was a little hesitant, knowing that her parents were rich, but he was also curious about that life style and, face it, was smitten enough that he would have walked off a cliff if she asked him nicely. He even used some computer money to buy a nice suit, a symptom that caused his mother to grope for the Valium.
The dinner at first was awkward. Cletus was bewildered by the arsenal of silverware and all the different kinds of food that didn’t look or taste like food. But he had known it was going to be a test, and he always did well on tests, even when he had to figure out the rules as he went along.
Amy had told him that her father was a self-made millionaire; his fortune had come from a set of patents in solid-state electronics. Cletus had therefore spent a Saturday at the University library, first searching patents and then reading selected texts, and he was ready at least for the father. It worked very well. Over soup, the four of them talked about computers. Over the calamari cocktail, Cletus and Mr. Linderbaum had it narrowed down to specific operating systems and partitioning schemata. With the Beef Wellington, Cletus and “Call-me-Lindy” were talking quantum electrodynamics; with the salad they were on an electron cloud somewhere, and by the time the nuts were served, the two nuts at that end of the table were talking in Boolean algebra while Amy and her mother exchanged knowing sighs and hummed snatches of Gilbert and Sullivan.
By the time they retired to the music room for coffee, Lindy liked Cletus very much, and the feeling was mutual, but Cletus didn’t know how much he liked Amy, really liked her, until she picked up the violin.
It wasn’t a Strad–she was promised one if and when she graduated from Julliard–but it had cost more than the Lamborghini in the garage, and she was not only worth it, but equal to it. She picked it up and tuned it quietly while her mother sat down at an electronic keyboard next to the grand piano, set it to “harp,” and began the simple arpeggio that a musically sophisticated person would recognize as the introduction to the violin showpiece Méditation from Massenet‘s Thaïs.
Cletus had turned a deaf ear to opera for all his short life, so he didn’t know the back-story of transformation and transcending love behind this intermezzo, but he did know that his girlfriend had lost her sight at the age of five, and the next year–the year he was born!–was given her first violin. For thirteen years she had been using it to say what she would not say with her voice, perhaps to see what she could not see with her eyes, and on the deceptively simple romantic matrix that Massenet built to present the beautiful courtesan Thaïs gloriously reborn as the bride of Christ, Amy forgave her Godless universe for taking her sight, and praised it for what she was given in return, and she said this in a language that even Cletus could understand. He didn’t cry very much, never had, but by the last high wavering note he was weeping into his hands, and he knew that if she wanted him, she could have him forever, and oddly enough, considering his age and what eventually happened, he was right.
He would learn to play the violin before he had his first doctorate, and during a lifetime of remarkable amity they would play together for ten thousand hours, but all of that would come after the big idea. The big idea–“Why aren’t all blind people geniuses?”–was planted that very night, but it didn’t start to sprout for another week.
Like most 13-year-olds, Cletus was fascinated by the human body, his own and others, but his study was more systematic than others’ and, atypically, the organ that interested him most was the brain.
The brain isn’t very much like a computer, although it doesn’t do a bad job, considering that it’s built by unskilled labor and programmed more by pure chance than anything else. One thing computers do a lot better than brains, though, is what Cletus and Lindy had been talking about over their little squids in tomato sauce: partitioning.
Think of the computer as a big meadow of green pastureland, instead of a little dark box full of number-clogged things that are expensive to replace, and that pastureland is presided over by a wise old magic shepherd who is not called a macroprogram. The shepherd stands on a hill and looks out over the pastureland, which is full of sheep and goats and cows. They aren’t all in one homogeneous mass, of course, since the cows would step on the lambs and kids and the goats would make everybody nervous, leaping and butting, so there are partitions of barbed wire that keep all the species separate and happy.
This is a frenetic sort of meadow, though, with cows and goats and sheep coming in and going out all the time, moving at about 3 x 108 meters per second, and if the partitions were all of the same size it would be a disaster, because sometimes there are no sheep at all, but lots of cows, who would be jammed in there hip to hip and miserable. But the shepherd, being wise, knows ahead of time how much space to allot to the various creatures and, being magic, can move barbed wire quickly without hurting himself or the animals. So each partition winds up marking a comfortable-sized space for each use. Your computer does that, too, but instead of barbed wire you see little rectangles or windows or file folders, depending on your computer’s religion.
The brain has its own partitions, in a sense. Cletus knew that certain physical areas of the brain were associated with certain mental abilities, but it wasn’t a simple matter of “music appreciation goes over there; long division in that corner.” The brain is mushier than that. For instance, there are pretty well-defined partitions associated with linguistic functions, areas named after French and German brain people. If one of those areas is destroyed, by stroke or bullet or flung frying pan, the stricken person may lose the ability–reading or speaking or writing coherently–associated with the lost area.
That’s interesting, but what is more interesting is that the lost ability sometimes comes back over time. Okay, you say, so the brain grew back–but it doesn’t! You’re born with all the brain cells you’ll ever have. (Ask any child.) What evidently happens is that some other part of the brain has been sitting around as a kind of back-up, and after a while the wiring gets rewired and hooked into that back-up. The afflicted person can say his name, and then his wife’s name, and then “frying pan,” and before you know it he’s complaining about hospital food and calling a divorce lawyer.
So on that evidence, it would appear that the brain has a shepherd like the computer-meadow has, moving partitions around, but alas, no. Most of the time when some part of the brain ceases to function, that’s the end of it. There may be acres and acres of fertile ground lying fallow right next door, but nobody in charge to make use of it–at least not consistently. The fact that it sometimes did work is what made Cletus ask “Why aren’t all blind people geniuses?”
Of course there have always been great thinkers and writers and composers who were blind (and in the twentieth century, some painters to whom eyesight was irrelevant), and many of them, like Amy with her violin, felt that their talent was a compensating gift. Cletus wondered whether there might be a literal truth to that, in the micro-anatomy of the brain. It didn’t happen every time, or else all blind people would be geniuses. Perhaps it happened occasionally, through a mechanism like the one that helped people recover from strokes. Perhaps it could be made to happen.
Cletus had been offered scholarships at both Harvard and MIT, but he opted for Columbia, in order to be near Amy while she was studying at Julliard. Columbia reluctantly allowed him a triple major in physiology, electrical engineering, and cognitive science, and he surprised everybody who knew him by doing only moderately well. The reason, it turned out, was that he was treating undergraduate work as a diversion at best; a necessary evil at worst. He was racing ahead of his studies in the areas that were important to him.
If he had paid more attention in trivial classes like history, like philosophy, things might have turned out differently. If he had paid attention to literature he might have read the story of Pandora.
Our own story now descends into the dark recesses of the brain. For the next ten years the main part of the story, which we will try to ignore after this paragraph, will involve Cletus doing disturbing intellectual tasks like cutting up dead brains, learning how to pronounce cholecystokinin, and sawing holes in peoples’ skulls and poking around inside with live electrodes.
In the other part of the story, Amy also learned how to pronounce cholecystokinin, for the same reason that Cletus learned how to play the violin. Their love grew and mellowed, and at the age of 19, between his first doctorate and his M.D., Cletus paused long enough for them to be married and have a whirlwind honeymoon in Paris, where Cletus divided his time between the musky charms of his beloved and the sterile cubicles of Institute Marey, learning how squids learn things, which was by serotonin pushing adenylate cyclase to catalyze the synthesis of cyclic adenosine monophosphate in just the right place, but that’s actually the main part of the story, which we have been trying to ignore, because it gets pretty gruesome.
They returned to New York, where Cletus spent eight years becoming a pretty good neurosurgeon. In his spare time he tucked away a doctorate in electrical engineering. Things began to converge.
At the age of thirteen, Cletus had noted that the brain used more cells collecting, handling, and storing visual images than it used for all the other senses combined. “Why aren’t all blind people geniuses?” was just a specific case of the broader assertion, “The brain doesn’t know how to make use of what it’s got.” His investigations over the next fourteen years were more subtle and complex than that initial question and statement, but he did wind up coming right back around to them.
Because the key to the whole thing was the visual cortex.
When a baritone saxophone player has to transpose sheet music from cello, he (few women are drawn to the instrument) merely pretends that the music is written in treble clef rather than bass, eyeballs it up an octave, and then plays without the octave key pressed down. It’s so simple a child could do it, if a child wanted to play such a huge, ungainly instrument. As his eye dances along the little fencepost of notes, his fingers automatically perform a one-to-one transformation that is the theoretical equivalent of adding and subtracting octaves, fifths, and thirds, but all of the actual mental work is done when he looks up in the top right corner of the first page and says, “Aw hell. Cello again.” Cello parts aren’t that interesting to saxophonists.
But the eye is the key, and the visual cortex is the lock. When blind Amy “sight-reads” for the violin, she has to stop playing and feel the Braille notes with her left hand. (Years of keeping the instrument in place while she does this has made her neck muscles so strong that she can crack a walnut between her chin and shoulder.) The visual cortex is not involved, of course; she “hears” the mute notes of a phrase with her fingertips, temporarily memorizing them, and then plays them over and over until she can add that phrase to the rest of the piece.
Like most blind musicians, Amy had a very good “ear”; it actually took her less time to memorize music by listening to it repeatedly, rather than reading, even with fairly complex pieces. (She used Braille nevertheless for serious work, so she could isolate the composer’s intent from the performer’s or conductor’s phrasing decisions.)
She didn’t really miss being able to sight-read in a conventional way. She wasn’t even sure what it would be like, since she had never seen sheet music before she lost her sight, and in fact had only a vague idea of what a printed page of writing looked like.
So when her father came to her in her 33rd year and offered to buy her the chance of a limited gift of sight, she didn’t immediately jump at it. It was expensive and risky and grossly deforming: implanting miniaturized video cameras in her eye sockets and wiring them up to stimulate her dormant optic nerves. What if it made her only half blind, but also blunted her musical ability? She knew how other people read music, at least in theory, but after a quarter-century of doing without the skill, she wasn’t sure that it would do much for her. It might make her tighten up.
Besides, most of her concerts were done as charities to benefit organizations for the blind or for special education. Her father argued that she would be even more effective in those venues as a recovered blind person. Still she resisted.
Cletus said he was cautiously for it. He said he had reviewed the literature and talked to the Swiss team who had successfully done the implants on dogs and primates. He said he didn’t think she would be harmed by it even if the experiment failed. What he didn’t say to Amy or Lindy or anybody was the grisly Frankensteinian truth: that he was himself behind the experiment; that it had nothing to do with restoring sight; that the little video cameras would never even be hooked up. They were just an excuse for surgically removing her eyeballs.
Now a normal person would have extreme feelings about popping out somebody’s eyeballs for the sake of science, and even more extreme feelings on learning that it was a husband wanting to do it to his wife. Of course Cletus was far from being normal in any respect. To his way of thinking, those eyeballs were useless vestigial appendages that blocked surgical access to the optic nerves, which would be his conduits through the brain to the visual cortex. Physical conduits, through which incredibly tiny surgical instruments would be threaded. But we have promised not to investigate that part of the story in detail.
The end result was not grisly at all. Amy finally agreed to go to Geneva, and Cletus and his surgical team (all as skilled as they were unethical) put her through three 20-hour days of painstaking but painless microsurgery, and when they took the bandages off and adjusted a thousand-dollar wig (for they’d had to go in behind as well as through the eye sockets), she actually looked more attractive than when they had started. That was partly because her actual hair had always been a disaster. And now she had glass baby-blues instead of the rather scary opalescence of her natural eyes. No Buck Rogers TV cameras peering out at the world.
He told her father that that part of the experiment hadn’t worked, and the six Swiss scientists who had been hired for the purpose agreed.
“They’re lying,” Amy said. “They never intended to restore my sight. The sole intent of the operations was to subvert the normal functions of the visual cortex in such a way as to give me access to the unused parts of my brain.” She faced the sound of her husband’s breathing, her blue eyes looking beyond him. “You have succeeded beyond your expectations.”
Amy had known this as soon as the fog of drugs from the last operation had lifted. Her mind started making connections, and those connections made connections, and so on at a geometrical rate of growth. By the time they had finished putting her wig on, she had reconstructed the entire microsurgical procedure from her limited readings and conversations with Cletus. She had suggestions as to improving it, and was eager to go under and submit herself to further refinement.
As to her feelings about Cletus, in less time than it takes to read about it, she had gone from horror to hate to understanding to renewed love, and finally to an emotional condition beyond the ability of any merely natural language to express. Fortunately, the lovers did have Boolean algebra and propositional calculus at their disposal.
Cletus was one of the few people in the world she could love, or even talk to one-on-one, without condescending. His IQ was so high that its number would be meaningless. Compared to her, though, he was slow, and barely literate. It was not a situation he would tolerate for long.
The rest is history, as they say, and anthropology, as those of us left who read with our eyes must recognize every minute of every day. Cletus was the second person to have the operation done, and he had to accomplish it while on the run from medical ethics people and their policemen. There were four the next year, though, and twenty the year after that, and then 2000 and 20,000. Within a decade, people with purely intellectual occupations had no choice, or one choice: lose your eyes or lose your job. By then the “secondsight” operation was totally automated, totally safe.
It’s still illegal in most countries, including the United States, but who is kidding whom? If your department chairman is secondsighted and you are not, do you think you’ll get tenure? You can’t even hold a conversation with a creature whose synapses fire six times as fast as yours, with whole encyclopedias of information instantly available. You are, like me, an intellectual throwback.
You may have a good reason for it, being a painter, an architect, a naturalist, or a trainer of guide dogs. Maybe you can’t come up with the money for the operation, but that’s a weak excuse, since it’s trivially easy to get a loan against future earnings. Maybe there’s a good physical reason for you not to lie down on that table and open your eyes for the last time.
I know Cletus and Amy through music. I was her keyboard professor once, at Julliard, though now of course I’m not smart enough to teach her anything. They come to hear me play sometimes, in this rundown bar with its band of ageing firstsight musicians. Our music must seem boring, obvious, but they do us the favor of not joining in.
Amy was an innocent bystander in this sudden evolutionary explosion. And Cletus was, arguably, blinded by love.
The rest of us have to choose which kind of blindness to endure.
*This story, which won the Locus and Hugo Awards for “Best Short Story of 1995,” first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.
One of the robots offered to carry Pico for the last hundred meters, on its back or cradled in its padded arms; but she shook her head emphatically, telling it, “Thank you, no. I can make it myself.” The ground was grassy and soft, lit by glowglobes and the grass-colored moon. It wasn’t a difficult walk, even with her bad hip, and she wasn’t an invalid. She could manage, she thought with an instinctive independence. And as if to show them, she struck out ahead of the half-dozen robots as they unloaded the big skimmer, stacking Pico’s gifts in their long arms. She was halfway across the paddock before they caught her. By then she could hear the muddled voices and laughter coming from the hill-like tent straight ahead. By then she was breathing fast for reasons other than her pain. For fear, mostly. But it was a different flavor of fear than the kinds she knew. What was happening now was beyond her control, and inevitable … and it was that kind of certainty that made her stop after a few more steps, one hand rubbing at her hip for no reason except to delay her arrival. If only for a moment or two….
“Are you all right?” asked one robot.
She was gazing up at the tent, dark and smooth and gently rounded. “I don’t want to be here,” she admitted. “That’s all.” Her life on board the Kyber had been spent with robots — they had outnumbered the human crew ten to one, then more — and she could always be ruthlessly honest with them. “This is madness. I want to leave again.”
“Only, you can’t,” responded the ceramic creature. The voice was mild, unnervingly patient. “You have nothing to worry about.”
“The technology has been perfected since —”
It stopped speaking, adjusting its hold on the colorful packages.
“That’s not what I meant,” she admitted. Then she breathed deeply, holding the breath for a moment and exhaling, saying, “All right. Let’s go. Go.”
The robot pivoted and strode toward the giant tent. The leading robots triggered the doorway, causing it to fold upward with a sudden rush of golden light flooding across the grass, Pico squinting and then blinking, walking faster now and allowing herself the occasional low moan.
“Ever wonder how it’ll feelf” Tyson had asked her.
The tent had been pitched over a small pond, probably that very day, and in places the soft, thick grasses had been matted flat by people and their robots. So many people, she thought. Pico tried not to look at any faces. For a moment, she gazed at the pond, shallow and richly green, noticing the tamed waterfowl sprinkled over it and along its shoreline. Ducks and geese, she realized. And some small, crimson-headed cranes. Lifting her eyes, she noticed the large, omega-shaped table near the far wall. She couldn’t count the place settings, but it seemed a fair assumption there were sixty-three of them. Plus a single round table and chair in the middle of the omega — my table — and she took another deep breath, looking higher, noticing floating glowglobes and several indigo swallows flying around them, presumably snatching up the insects that were drawn to the yellow-white light.
People were approaching. Since she had entered, in one patient rush, all sixty-three people had been climbing the slope while shouting, “Pico!
Hello!” Their voices mixed together, forming a noisy, senseless paste. “Greetings!” they seemed to say. “Hello, hello!”
They were brightly dressed, flowing robes swishing and everyone wearing big-rimmed hats made to resemble titanic flowers. The people sharply contrasted with the gray-white shells of the robot servants. Those hats were a new fashion, Pico realized. One of the little changes made during these past decades … and finally she made herself look at the faces themselves, offering a forced smile and taking a step backward, her belly aching, but her hip healed. The burst of adrenaline hid the deep ache in her bones. Wrestling one of her hands into a wave, she told her audience, “Hello,” with a near-whisper. Then she swallowed and said, “Greetings to you!” Was that her voice? She very nearly didn’t recognize it.
A woman broke away from the others, almost running toward her. Her big, flowery hat began to work free, and she grabbed the fat, petalish brim and began to fan herself with one hand, the other hand touching Pico on the shoulder. The palm was damp and quite warm; the air suddenly stank of overly sweet perfumes. It was all Pico could manage not to cough. The woman —- what was her name? — was asking, “Do you need to sit? We heard… about your accident. You poor girl. All the way fine, and then on the last world. Of all the luck!”
Her hip. The woman was jabbering about her sick hip.
Pico nodded and confessed, “Sitting would be nice, yes.”
A dozen voices shouted commands. Robots broke into runs, racing one another around the pond to grab the chair beside the little table. The drama seemed to make people laugh. A nervous, self-conscious laugh. When the lead robot reached the chair and started back, there was applause. Another woman shouted, “Mine won! Mine won!” She threw her hat into the air and tried to follow it, leaping as high as possible.
Some man cursed her sharply, then giggled.
Another man forced his way ahead, emerging from the packed bodies in front of Pico. He was smiling in a strange fashion. Drunk or drugged… what was permissible these days? With a sloppy, earnest voice, he asked, “How’d it happen? The hip thing … how’d you do it?”
He should know. She had dutifully filed her reports throughout the mission, squirting them home. Hadn’t he seen them? But then she noticed the watchful, excited faces — no exceptions — and someone seemed to read her thoughts, explaining, “We’d love to hear it firsthand. Tell, tell, tell!”
As if they needed to hear a word, she thought, suddenly feeling quite cold.
Her audience grew silent. The robot arrived with the promised chair, and she sat and stretched her bad leg out in front of her, working to focus her mind. It was touching, their silence… reverent and almost childlike… and she began by telling them how she had tried climbing Miriam Prime with two other crew members. Miriam Prime was the tallest volcano on a brutal super-Venusian world; it was brutal work because of the terrain and their massive lifesuits, cumbersome refrigeration units strapped to their backs, and the atmosphere thick as water. Scalding and acidic. Carbon dioxide and water made for a double greenhouse effect…. And she shuddered, partly for dramatics and partly from the memory. Then she. said, “Brutal,” once again, shaking her head thoughtfully.
They had used hyperthreads to climb the steepest slopes and the cliffs. Normally hyperthreads were virtually unbreakable; but Miriam was not a normal world. She described the basalt cliff and the awful instant of the tragedy; the clarity of the scene startled her. She could feel the heat seeping into her suit, see the dense, dark air, and her arms and legs shook with exhaustion. She told sixty-three people how it felt to be suspended on an invisible thread, two friends and a winch somewhere above in the acidic fog. The winch had jammed without warning, she told; the worst bad luck made it jam where the thread was its weakest. This was near the mission’s end, and all the equipment was tired. Several dozen alien worlds had been visited, many mapped for the first time, and every one of them examined up close. As planned.
“Everything has its limits,” she told them, her voice having an ominous quality that she hadn’t intended.
Even hyperthreads had limits. Pico was dangling, talking to her companions by radio; and just as the jam was cleared, a voice saying, “There… got it!”, the thread parted. He didn’t have any way to know it had parted. Pico was falling, gaining velocity, and the poor man was ignorantly telling her, “It’s running strong. You’ll be up in no time, no problem….”
People muttered to themselves.
“Oh my,” they said.
Their excitement was obvious, perhaps even overdone. Pico almost laughed, thinking they were making fun of her storytelling … thinking, What do they know about such things! … Only, they were sincere, she realized a moment later. They were enraptured with the image of Pico’s long fall, her spinning and lashing out with both hands, fighting to grab anything and slow her fall any way possible —
— and she struck a narrow shelf of eroded stone, the one leg shattered and telescoping down to a gruesome stump. Pico remembered the painless shock of the impact and that glorious instant free of all sensation. She was alive, and the realization had made her giddy. Joyous. Then the pain found her head — a great nauseating wave of pain — and she heard her distant friends shouting, “Pico? Are you there? Can you hear us? Oh Pico… Pico! Answer us!”
She had to remain absolutely motionless, sensing that any move would send her tumbling again. She answered in a whisper, telling her friends that she was alive, yes, and please, please hurry. But they had only a partial thread left, and it would take them more than half an hour to descend… and she spoke of her agony and the horror, her hip and leg screaming, and not just from the impact. It was worse than mere broken bone, the lifesuit’s insulation damaged and the heat bleeding inward, slowly and thoroughly cooking her living flesh.
Pico paused, gazing out at the round-mouthed faces.
So many people and not a breath of sound; and she was having fun. She realized her pleasure almost too late, nearly missing it. Then she told them, “I nearly died,” and shrugged her shoulders. “All the distances traveled, every imaginable adventure… and I nearly died on one of our last worlds, doing an ordinary climb….”
Let them appreciate her luck, she decided. Their luck.
Then another woman lifted her purple flowery hat with both hands, pressing it flush against her own chest. “Of course you survived!” she proclaimed. “You wanted to come home, Pico! You couldn’t stand the thought of dying.”
Pico nodded without comment, then said, “I was rescued. Obviously.” She flexed the damaged leg, saying, “I never really healed,” and she touched her hip with reverence, admitting, “We didn’t have the resources on board the Kyber. This was the best our medical units could do.”
Her mood shifted again, without warning. Suddenly she felt sad to tears, eyes dropping and her mouth clamped shut.
“We worried about you, Pico!”
“All the time, dear!”
“… in our prayers …!”
Voices pulled upon each other, competing to be heard. The faces were smiling and thoroughly sincere. Handsome people, she was thinking. Clean and civilized and older than her by centuries. Some of them were more than a thousand years old.
Look at them! she told herself.
And now she felt fear. Pulling both legs toward her chest, she hugged herself, weeping hard enough to dampen her trouser legs; and her audience said, “But you made it, Pico! You came home! The wonders you’ve seen, the places you’ve actually touched… with those hands…. And we’re so proud of you! So proud! You’ve proven your worth a thousand times, Pico! You’re made of the very best stuff —!”
— which brought laughter, a great clattering roar of laughter, the joke obviously and apparently tireless.
Even after so long.
They were Pico; Pico was they.
Centuries ago, during the Blossoming, technologies had raced forward at an unprecedented rate. Starships like the Kybei and a functional immortality had allowed the first missions to the distant worlds, and there were some grand adventures. Yet adventure requires some element of danger; exploration has never been a safe enterprise. Despite precautions, there were casualties. People who had lived for centuries died suddenly, oftentimes in stupid accidents; and it was no wonder that after the first wave of missions came a long moratorium. No new starships were built, and no sensible person would have ridden inside even the safest vessel. Why risk yourself? Whatever the benefits, why taunt extinction when you have a choice.
Only recently had a solution been invented. Maybe it was prompted by the call of deep space, though Tyson used to claim, “It’s the boredom on Earth that inspired them. That’s why they came up with their elaborate scheme.”
The near-immortals devised ways of making highly gifted, highly trained crews from themselves. With computers and genetic engineering, groups of people could pool their qualities and create compilation humans. Sixty-three individuals had each donated moneys and their own natures, and Pico was the result. She was a grand and sophisticated average of the group. Her face was a blending of every face; her body was a feminine approximation of their own varied bodies. In a few instances, the engineers had planted synthetic genes — for speed and strength, for example — and her brain had a subtly different architecture. Yet basically Pico was their offspring, a stewlike clone. The second of two clones, she knew. The first clone created had had subtle flaws, and he was painlessly destroyed just before birth.
Pico and Tyson and every other compilation person had been born at adult size. Because she was the second attempt, and behind schedule, Pico was thrown straight into her training. Unlike the other crew members, she had spent only a minimal time with her parents. Her sponsors. Whatever they were calling themselves. That and the long intervening years made it difficult to recognize faces and names. She found herself gazing out at them, believing they were strangers, their tireless smiles hinting at something predatory. The neat white teeth gleamed at her, and she wanted to shiver again, holding the knees closer to her mouth.
Someone suggested opening the lovely gifts.
A good idea. She agreed, and the robots brought down the stacks of boxes, placing them beside and behind her. The presents were a young tradition; when she was leaving Earth, the first compilation people were returning with little souvenirs of their travels. Pico had liked the gesture and had done the same. One after another, she started reading the names inscribed in her own flowing handwriting. Then each person stepped forward, thanking her for the treasure, then greedily unwrapping it, the papers flaring into bright colors as they were bent and twisted and torn, then tossed aside for the robots to collect.
She knew none of these people, and that was wrong. What she should have done, she realized, was go into the Kybei’s records and memorize names and faces. It would have been easy enough, and proper, and she felt guilty for never having made the effort.
It wasn’t merely genetics that she shared with these people; she also embodied slivers of their personalities and basic tendencies. Inside Pico’s sophisticated womb, the computers had blended together their shrugs and tongue clicks and the distinctive patterns of their speech. She had emerged as an approximation of every one of them; yet why didn’t she feel a greater closeness? Why wasn’t there a strong, tangible bond here?
Or was there something — only, she wasn’t noticing it?
One early gift was a slab of mirrored rock. “From Tween V,” she explained. “What it doesn’t reflect, it absorbs and reemits later. I kept that particular piece in my own cabin, fixed to the outer wall —”
“Thank you, thank you,” gushed the woman.
For an instant, Pico saw herself reflected on the rock. She looked much older than these people. Tired, she thought. Badly weathered. In the cramped starship, they hadn’t the tools to revitalize aged flesh, nor had there been the need. Most of the voyage had been spent in cold-sleep. Their waking times, added together, barely exceeded forty years of biological activity.
“Look at this!” the woman shouted, turning and waving her prize at the others. “Isn’t it lovely?”
“A shiny rock,” teased one voice. “Perfect!”
Yet the woman refused to be anything but impressed. She clasped her prize to her chest and giggled, merging with the crowd and then vanishing.
They look like children, Pico told herself.
At least how she imagined children to appear… unworldly and spoiled, needing care and infinite patience….
She read the next name, and a new woman emerged to collect her gift. “My, what a large box!” She tore at the paper, then the box’s lid, then eased her hands into the dunnage of white foam. Pico remembered wrapping this gift — one of the only ones where she was positive of its contents — and she happily watched the smooth, elegant hands pulling free a greasy and knob-faced nut. Then Pico explained:
“It’s from the Yult Tree on Proxima Centauri 2.” The only member of the species on that strange little world. “If you wish, you can break its dormancy with liquid nitrogen. Then plant it in pure quartz sand, never anything else. Sand, and use red sunlight —”
“I know how to cultivate them,” the woman snapped.
There was a sudden silence, uneasy and prolonged.
Finally Pico said, “Well… good….”
“Everyone knows about Yult nuts,” the woman explained. “They’re practically giving them away at the greeneries now.”
Someone spoke sharply, warning her to stop and think.
“I’m sorry,” she responded. “If I sound ungrateful, I mean. I was just thinking, hoping … I don’t know. Never mind.”
A weak, almost inconsequential apology, and the woman paused to feel the grease between her fingertips.
The thing was, Pico thought, that she had relied on guesswork in selecting these gifts. She had decided to represent every alien world, and she felt proud of herself on the job accomplished. Yult Trees were common on Earth? But how could she know such a thing? And besides, why should it matter? She had brought the nut and everything else because she’d taken risks, and these people were obviously too ignorant and silly to appreciate what they were receiving.
Rage had replaced her fear.
Sometimes she heard people talking among themselves, trying to trade gifts. Gemstones and pieces of alien driftwood were being passed about like orphans. Yet nobody would release the specimens of odd life-forms from living worlds, transparent canisters holding bugs and birds and whatnot inside preserving fluids or hard vacuums. If only she had known what she couldn’t have known, these silly brats…. And she found herself swallowing, holding her breath, and wanting to scream at all of them.
Pico was a compilation, yet she wasn’t.
She hadn’t lived one day as these people had lived their entire lives. She didn’t know about comfort or changelessness, and with an attempt at empathy, she tried to imagine such an incredible existence.
Tyson used to tell her, “Shallowness is a luxury. Maybe the ultimate luxury.” She hadn’t understood him. Not really. “Only the rich can master true frivolity.” Now those words echoed back at her, making her think of Tyson. That intense and angry man … the opposite of frivolity, the truth told.
And with that, her mood shifted again. Her skin tingled. She felt nothing for or against her audience. How could they help being what they were? How could anyone help their nature? And with that, she found herself reading another name on another unopened box. A little box, she saw. Probably another one of the unpopular gemstones, born deep inside an alien crust and thrown out by forces unimaginable….
There was a silence, an odd stillness, and she repeated the name.
“Opera? Opera Ting?”
Was it her imagination, or was there a nervousness running through the audience? Just what was happening —?
“Excuse me?” said a voice from the back. “Pardon?”
People began moving aside, making room, and a figure emerged. A male, something about him noticeably different. He moved with a telltale lightness, with a spring to his gait. Smiling, he took the tiny package while saying, “Thank you,” with great feeling. “For my father, thank you. I’m sure he would have enjoyed this moment. I only wish he could have been here, if only…”
Father? Wasn’t this Opera Ting?
Pico managed to nod, then she asked, “Where is he? I mean, is he busy somewhere?”
“Oh no. He died, I’m afraid.” The man moved differently because he was different. He was young — even younger than I, Pico realized — and he shook his head, smiling in a serene way. Was he a clone? A biological child? What? “But on his behalf,” said the man, “I wish to thank you. Whatever this gift is, I will treasure it. I promise you. I know you must have gone through hell to find it and bring it to me, and thank you so very much, Pico. Thank you, thank you. Thank you!”
An appropriate intruder in the evening’s festivities, thought Pico. Some accident, some kind of tragedy… something had killed one of her sixty-three parents, and that thought pleased her. There was a pang of guilt woven into her pleasure, but not very much. It was comforting to know that even these people weren’t perfectly insulated from death; it was a force that would grasp everyone, given time. Like it had taken Midge, she thought. And Uoo, she thought. And Tyson.
Seventeen compilated people had embarked on Kyber, representing almost a thousand near-immortals. Only nine had returned, including Pico. Eight friends were lost… Lost was a better word than death, she decided… And usually it happened in places worse than any Hell conceived by human beings.
After Opera — his name, she learned, was the same as his father’s — the giving of the gifts settled into a routine. Maybe it was because of the young man’s attitude. People seemed more polite, more self-contained. Someone had the presence to ask for another story. Anything she wished to tell. And Pico found herself thinking of a watery planet circling a distant red-dwarf sun, her voice saying, “Coldtear,” and watching faces nod in unison. They recognized the name, and it was too late. It wasn’t the story she would have preferred to tell, yet she couldn’t seem to stop herself. Coldtear was on her mind.
Just tell parts, she warned herself.
What you can stand!
The world was terran-class and covered with a single ocean frozen on its surface and heated from below. By tides, in part. And by Coldtear’s own nuclear decay. It had been Tyson’s idea to build a submersible and dive to the ocean’s remote floor. He used spare parts in Kyber’s machine shop — the largest room on board — then he’d taken his machine to the surface, setting it on the red-stained ice and using lasers and robot help to bore a wide hole and keep it clear.
Pico described the submersible, in brief, then mentioned that Tyson had asked her to accompany him. She didn’t add that they’d been lovers now and again, nor that sometimes they had feuded. She’d keep those parts of the story to herself for as long as possible.
The submersible’s interior was cramped and ascetic, and she tried to impress her audience with the pressures that would build on the hyperfiber hull. Many times the pressure found in Earth’s oceans, she warned; and Tyson’s goal was to set down on the floor, then don a lifesuit protected with a human-shaped force field, actually stepping outside and taking a brief walk.
“Because we need to leave behind footprints,” he had argued. “Isn’t that why we’ve come here? We can’t just leave prints up on the ice. It moves and melts, wiping itself clean every thousand years or so.”
“But isn’t that the same below?” Pico had responded. “New muds rain down — slowly, granted — and quakes cause slides and avalanches.”
“So we pick right. We find someplace where our marks will be quietly covered. Enshrouded. Made everlasting.”
She had blinked, surprised that Tyson cared about such things.
“I’ve studied the currents,” he explained, “and the terrain —”
“Are you serious?” Yet you couldn’t feel certain about Tyson. He was a creature full of surprises. “All this trouble, and for what —?”
“Trust me, Pico. Trust me!”
Tyson had had an enormous laugh. His parents, sponsors, whatever—an entirely different group of people — had purposefully made him larger than the norm. They had selected genes for physical size, perhaps wanting Tyson to dominate the Kyber’s crew in at least that one fashion. If his own noise was to be believed, that was the only tinkering done to him. Otherwise, he was a pure compilation of his parents’ traits, fiery and passionate to a fault. It was a little unclear to Pico what group of people could be so uniformly aggressive; yet Tyson had had his place in their tight-woven crew, and he had had his charms in addition to his size and the biting intelligence.
“Oh Pico,” he cried out. “What’s this about, coming here? If it’s not about leaving traces of our passage . . . then what!”
“It’s about going home again,” she had answered.
“Then why do we leave the Kyber! Why not just orbit Coldtear and send down our robots to explore?”
“Indeed! Because!” The giant head nodded, and he put a big hand on her shoulder. “I knew you’d see my point. I just needed to give you time, my friend.”
She agreed to the deep dive, but not without misgivings.
And during their descent, listening to the ominous creaks and groans of the hull while lying flat on their backs, the misgivings began to reassert themselves.
It was Tyson’s fault, and maybe his aim.
No, she thought. It was most definitely his aim.
At first, she thought it was some game, him asking, “Do you ever wonder how it will feel? We come home and are welcomed, and then our dear parents disassemble our brains and implant them —”
Quiet,” she interrupted. “We agreed. Everyone agreed. We aren’t going to talk about it, all right?”
A pause, then he said, “Except, I know. How it feels, I mean.”
She heard him, then she listened to him take a deep breath from the close, damp air; and finally she had strength enough to ask, “How can you know?”
When Tyson didn’t answer, she rolled onto her side and saw the outline of his face. A handsome face, she thought. Strong and incapable of any doubts. This was the only taboo subject among the compilations — “How will it feel?” — and it was left to each of them to decide what they believed.
Was it a fate or a reward? To be subdivided and implanted into the minds of dozens and dozens of near-immortals….
It wasn’t a difficult trick, medically speaking.
After all, each of their minds had been designed for this one specific goal. Memories and talent; passion and training. All of the qualities would be saved — diluted, but, in the same instant, gaining their own near- immortality. Death of a sort, but a kind of everlasting life, too.
That was the creed by which Pico had been born and raised.
The return home brings a great reward, and peace.
Pico’s first memory was of her birth, spilling slippery-wet from the womb and coughing hard, a pair of doctoring robots bent over her, whispering to her, “Welcome, child. Welcome. You’ve been born from them to be joined with them when it is time… We promise you. ..!”
Comforting noise, and mostly Pico had believed it.
But Tyson had to say, “I know how it feels, Pico,” and she could make out his grin, his amusement patronizing. Endless.
“How?” she muttered. “How do you know — ?”
“Because some of my parents … well, let’s just say that I’m not their first time. Understand me?”
“They made another compilation?”
“One of the very first, yes. Which was incorporated into them before I was begun, and which was incorporated into me because there was a spare piece. A leftover chunk of the mind —”
“You’re making this up, Tyson!”
Except, he wasn’t, she sensed. Knew. Several times, on several early worlds, Tyson had seemed too knowledgeable about too much. Nobody could have prepared himself that well, she realized. She and the others had assumed that Tyson was intuitive in some useful way. Part of him was from another compilation? From someone like them? A fragment of the man had walked twice beside the gray dust sea of Pliicker, and it had twice climbed the giant ant mounds on Proxima Centauri 2. It was a revelation, unnerving and hard to accept; and just the memory of that instant made her tremble secretly, facing her audience, her tired blood turning to ice.
Pico told none of this to her audience.
Instead, they heard about the long descent and the glow of rare life-forms outside — a thin plankton consuming chemical energies as they found them — and, too, the growing creaks of the spherical hull.
They didn’t hear how she asked, “So how does it feel? You’ve got a piece of compilation inside you… all right! Are you going to tell me what it’s like?”
They didn’t hear about her partner’s long, deep laugh.
Nor could they imagine him saying, “Pico, my dear. You’re such a passive, foolish creature. That’s why I love you. So docile, so damned innocent —”
“Does it live inside you, Tyson?”
“It depends on what you consider life.”
“Can you feel its presence? I mean, does it have a personality? An existence? Or have you swallowed it all up?”
“I don’t think I’ll tell.” Then the laugh enlarged, and the man lifted his legs and kicked at the hyperfiber with his powerful muscles. She could hear, and feel, the solid impacts of his bootheals. She knew that Tyson’s strength was nothing compared to the ocean’s mass bearing down on them, their hull scarcely feeling the blows… yet some irrational part of her was terrified. She had to reach out, grasping one of his trouser legs and tugging hard, telling him:
“Don’t! Stop that! Will you please… quit!?”
The tension shifted direction in an instant.
Tyson said, “I was lying,” and then added, “About knowing. About having a compilation inside me.” And he gave her a huge hug, laughing in a different way now. He nearly crushed her ribs and lungs. Then he spoke into one of her ears, offering more, whispering with the old charm, and she accepting his offer. They did it as well as possible, considering their circumstances and the endless groaning of their tiny vessel; and she remembered all of it while her voice, detached but thorough, described how they had landed on top of something rare. There was a distinct crunch of stone. They had made their touchdown on the slope of a recent volcano — an island on an endless plain of mud — and afterward they dressed in their lifesuits, triple-checked their force fields, then flooded the compartment and crawled into the frigid, pressurized water.
It was an eerie, almost indescribable experience to walk on that ocean floor. When language failed Pico, she tried to use silence and oblique gestures to capture the sense of endless time and the cold and darkness. Even when Tyson ignited the submersible’s outer lights, making the nearby terrain bright as late afternoon, there was the palpable taste of endless dark just beyond. She told of feeling the pressure despite the force field shrouding her; she told of climbing after Tyson, scrambling up a rough slope of youngish rock to a summit where they discovered a hot-water spring that pumped heated, mineral-rich water up at them.
That might have been the garden spot of Coldtear. Surrounding the spring was a thick, almost gelatinous mass of gray-green bacteria, pulsating and fat by its own standards. She paused, seeing the scene all over again. Then she assured her parents, “It had a beauty. I mean it. An elegant, minimalist beauty.”
Then someone muttered, “I can hardly wait to remember it,” and gave a weak laugh.
The audience became uncomfortable, tense and too quiet. People shot accusing looks at the offender, and Pico worked not to notice any of it. A bitterness was building in her guts, and she sat up straighter, rubbing at both hips.
Then a woman coughed for attention, waited, and then asked, “What happened next?”
Pico searched for her face.
“There was an accident, wasn’t there? On Coldtear… ?”
I won’t tell them, thought Pico. Not now. Not this way.
She said, “No, not then. Later.” And maybe some of them knew better. Judging by the expressions, a few must have remembered the records. Tyson died on the first dive. It was recorded as being an equipment failure — Pico’s lie — and she’d hold on to the lie as long as possible. It was a promise she’d made to herself and kept all these years.
Shutting her eyes, she saw Tyson’s face smiling at her. Even through the thick faceplate and the shimmering glow of the force field, she could make out the mischievous expression, eyes glinting, the large mouth saying, “Go on back, Pico. In and up and a safe trip to you, pretty lady.”
She had been too stunned to respond, gawking at him.
“Remember? I’ve still got to leave my footprints somewhere —”
“What are you planning?” she interrupted.
He laughed and asked, “Isn’t it obvious? I’m going to make my mark on this world. It’s dull and nearly dead, and I don’t think anyone is ever going to return here. Certainly not to here. Which means I’ll be pretty well left alone —”
“Your force field will drain your batteries,” she argued stupidly. Of course he knew that salient fact. “If you stay here —!”
“I know, Pico. I know.”
“But why —?”
“I lied before. About lying.” The big face gave a disappointed look, then the old smile reemerged. “Poor, docile Pico. I knew you wouldn’t take this well. You’d take it too much to heart… which I suppose is why I asked you along in the first place…” And he turned away, starting to walk through the bacterial mat with threads and chunks kicked loose, sailing into the warm current and obscuring him. It was a strange gray snow moving against gravity. Her last image of Tyson was of a hulking figure amid the living goo; and to this day, she had wondered if she could have wrestled him back to the submersible — an impossibility, of course — and how far could he have walked before his force field failed.
Down the opposite slope and onto the mud, no doubt.
She could imagine him walking fast, using his strength… fighting the deep, cold muds… Tyson plus that fragment of an earlier compilation — and who was driving whom? she asked herself. Again and again and again.
Sometimes she heard herself asking Tyson, “How does it feel having a sliver of another soul inside you?”
His ghost never answered, merely laughing with his booming voice.
She hated him for his suicide, and admired him; and sometimes she cursed him for taking her along with him and for the way he kept cropping up in her thoughts…” Damn you, Tyson. Goddamn you, goddamn you…!”
No more presents remained.
One near-immortal asked, “Are we hungry?”, and others replied, “famished,” in one voice, then breaking into laughter. The party moved toward the distant tables, a noisy mass of bodies surrounding Pico. Her hip had stiffened while sitting, but she worked hard to move normally, managing the downslope toward the pond and then the little wooden bridge spanning a rocky brook. The waterfowl made grumbling sounds, angered by the disturbances; Pico stopped and watched them, finally asking, “What kinds are those?” She meant the ducks.
“Just mallards,” she heard. “Nothing fancy.”
Yet, to her, they seemed like miraculous creatures, vivid plumage and the moving eyes, wings spreading as a reflex and their nervous motions lending them a sense of muscular power. A vibrancy.
Someone said, “You’ve seen many birds, I’m sure.”
Of a sort, yes. …
“What were your favorites, Pico?”
They were starting uphill, quieter now, feet making a swishing sound in the grass; and Pico told them about the pterosaurs of Wilder, the man-sized bats on Little Quark, and the giant insects — a multitude of species thriving in the thick, warm air of Tau Ceti I.
“Bugs,” grumbled someone. “Uggh!”
“Now, now,” another person responded.
Then a third joked, “I’m not looking forward to that. Who wants to trade memories?”
A joke, thought Pico, because memories weren’t tradable properties. Minds were holographic — every piece held the basic picture of the whole and these people each would receive a sliver of Pico’s whole self. Somehow that made her smile, thinking how none of them would be spared. Every terror and every agony would be set inside each of them. In a diluted form, of course. The Pico-ness Made manageable. Yet it was something, wasn’t it? It pleased her to think that a few of them might awaken in the night, bathed in sweat after dreaming of Tyson’s death… just as she had dreamed of it time after time… her audience given more than they had anticipated, a dark little joke of her own…
They reached the tables, Pico taking hers and sitting, feeling rather self-conscious as the others quietly assembled around her, each of them knowing where they belonged. She watched their faces. The excitement she had sensed from the beginning remained; only, it seemed magnified now. More colorful, more intense. Facing toward the inside of the omega, her hosts couldn’t quit staring, forever smiling, scarcely able to eat once the robots brought them plates filled with steaming foods.
Fancy meals, Pico learned.
The robot setting her dinner before her explained, “The vegetables are from Triton, miss. A very special and much-prized strain. And the meat is from a wild hound killed just yesterday —”
“As part of the festivities, yes.” The ceramic face, white and expression-less, stared down at her. “There have been hunting parties and games, among other diversions. Quite an assortment of activities, yes.”
“For how long?” she asked. “These festivities… have they been going on for days?”
“A little longer than three months, miss.”
She had no appetite; nonetheless, she lifted her utensils and made the proper motions, reminding herself that three months of continuous parties would be nothing to these people. Three months was a day to them, and what did they do with their time? So much of it, and such a constricted existence. What had Tyson once told her? The average citizen of Earth averages less than one off-world trip in eighty years, and the trends were toward less traveling. Spaceflight was safe only to a degree, and these people couldn’t stand the idea of being meters away from a cold, raw vacuum.
“Cowards,” Tyson had called them. “Gutted, deblooded cowards!”
Looking about, she saw the delicate twists of green leaves vanishing into grinning mouths, the chewing prolonged and indifferent. Except for Opera, that is. Opera saw her and smiled back in turn, his eyes different, something mocking about the tilt of his head and the curl of his mouth.
She found her eyes returning to Opera every little while, and she wasn’t sure why. She felt no physical attraction for the man. His youth and attitudes made him different from the others, but how much different? Then she noticed his dinner — cultured potatoes with meaty hearts — and that made an impression on Pico. It was a standard food on board the Kybei. Opera was making a gesture, perhaps. Nobody else was eating that bland food, and she decided this was a show of solidarity. At least the man was trying, wasn’t he? More than the others, he was. He was.
Dessert was cold and sweet and shot full of some odd liquor.
Pico watched the others drinking and talking among themselves. For the first time, she noticed how they seemed subdivided — discrete groups formed, and boundaries between each one. A dozen people here, seven back there, and sometimes individuals sitting alone — like Opera — chatting politely or appearing entirely friendless.
One lonesome woman rose to her feet and approached Pico, not smiling, and with a sharp voice, she declared, “Tomorrow, come morning… you’ll live forever…!”
Conversations diminished, then quit entirely.
“Plugged in. Here.” She was under the influence of some drug, the tip of her finger shaking and missing her own temple. “You fine lucky girl… Yes, you are…!”
Some people laughed at the woman, suddenly and without shame.
The harsh sound made her turn and squint, and Pico watched her straightening her back. The woman was pretending to be above them and uninjured, her thin mouth squeezed shut and her nose tilting with mock pride. With a clear, soft voice, she said, “Fuck every one of you,” and then laughed, turning toward Pico, acting as if they had just shared some glorious joke of their own.
“I would apologize for our behavior,” said Opera, “but I can’t. Not in good faith, I’m afraid.”
Pico eyed the man. Dessert was finished; people stood about drinking, keeping the three-month-old party in motion. A few of them stripped naked and swam in the green pond. It was a raucous scene, tireless and full of happy scenes that never seemed convincingly joyous. Happy sounds by practice, rather. Centuries of practice, and the result was to make Pico feel sad and quite lonely.
“A silly, vain lot,” Opera told her.
She said, “Perhaps,” with a diplomatic tone, then saw several others approaching. At least they looked polite, she thought. Respectful. It was odd how a dose of respect glosses over so much. Particularly when the respect wasn’t reciprocated, Pico feeling none toward them….
A man asked to hear more stories. Please?
Pico shrugged her shoulders, then asked, “Of what?” Every request brought her a momentary sense of claustrophobia, her memories threatening to crush her. “Maybe you’re interested in a specific world?”
Opera responded, saying, “Blueblue!”
Blueblue was a giant gaseous world circling a bluish sun. Her first thought was of Midge vanishing into the dark storm on its southern hemisphere, searching for the source of the carbon monoxide upflow that effectively gave breath to half the world. Most of Blueblue was calm in comparison. Thick winds; strong sunlight. Its largest organisms would dwarf most cities, their bodies balloonlike and their lives spent feeding on sunlight and hydrocarbons, utilizing carbon monoxide and other radicals in their patient metabolisms. Pico and the others had spent several months living on the living clouds, walking across them, taking samples and studying the assortment of parasites and symbionts that grew in their flesh.
She told about sunrise on Blueblue, remembering its colors and its astounding speed. Suddenly she found herself taking about a particular morning when the landing party was jostled out of sleep by an apparent quake. Their little huts had been strapped down and secured, but they found themselves tilting fast. Their cloud was colliding with a neighboring cloud — something they had never seen — and of course there was a rush to load their shuttle and leave. If it came to that.
“Normally, you see, the clouds avoid each other,” Pico told her little audience. “At first, we thought the creatures were fighting, judging by their roaring and the hard shoving. They make sounds by forcing air through pores and throats and anuses. It was a strange show. Deafening. The collision point was maybe a third of a kilometer from camp, our whole world rolling over while the sun kept rising, its bright, hot light cutting through the organic haze —”
“Gorgeous,” someone said.
A companion said, “Quiet!”
Then Opera touched Pico on the arm, saying, “Go on. Don’t pay any attention to them.”
The others glanced at Opera, hearing something in his voice, and their backs stiffening reflexively.
And then Pico was speaking again, finishing her story. Tyson was the first one of them to understand, who somehow made the right guess and began laughing, not saying a word. By then everyone was on board the shuttle, ready to fly; the tilting stopped suddenly, the air filling with countless little blue balloons. Each was the size of a toy balloon, she told. Their cloud was bleeding them from new pores, and the other cloud responded with a thick gray fog of butterflylike somethings. The some-things flew after the balloons, and Tyson laughed harder, his face contorted and the laugh finally shattering into a string of gasping coughs.
“Don’t you see?” he asked the others. “Look! The clouds are enjoying a morning screw!”
Pico imitated Tyson’s voice, regurgitating the words and enthusiasm. Then she was laughing for herself, scarcely noticing how the others giggled politely. No more. Only Opera was enjoying her story, again touching her arm and saying, “That’s lovely. Perfect. God, precious…!״
The rest began to drift away, not quite excusing themselves.
What was wrong?
“Don’t mind them,” Opera cautioned. “They’re members of some new chastity faith. Clarity through horniness, and all that.” He laughed at them now. “They probably went to too many orgies, and this is how they’re coping with their guilt. That’s all.”
Pico shut her eyes, remembering the scene on Blueblue for herself. She didn’t want to relinquish it.
“Screwing clouds,” Opera was saying. “That is lovely.”
And she thought:
He sounds a little like Tyson. In places. In ways.
After a while, Pico admitted. “I can’t remember your father’s face. I’m sure I must have met him, but I don’t —”
“You did meet him,” Opera replied. “He left a recording of it in his journal — a brief meeting — and I made a point of studying everything about the mission and you. His journal entries; your reports. Actually, I’m the best-prepared person here today. Other than you, of course.”
She said nothing, considering those words.
They were walking now, making their way down to the pond, and sometimes Pico noticed the hard glances of the others. Did they approve of Opera? Did it anger them, watching him monopolizing her time? Yet she didn’t want to be with them, the truth told. Fuck them, she thought; and she smiled at her private profanity.
The pond was empty of swimmers now. There were just a few sleepless ducks and the roiled water. A lot of the celebrants had vanished, Pico realized. To where? She asked Opera, and he said:
“It’s late. But then again, most people sleep ten or twelve hours every night.”
He nodded. “Enhanced dreams are popular lately. And the oldest people sometimes exceed fifteen hours —”
He shrugged and offered a smile.
“What a waste!”
“Of time?” he countered.
Immortals can waste many things, she realized. But never time. And with that thought, she looked straight at her companion, asking him, “What happened to your father?”
“How did he die, you mean?”
A little nod. A respectful expression, she hoped. But curious.
Opera said, “He used an extremely toxic poison, self-induced.” He gave a vague disapproving look directed at nobody. “A suicide at the end of a prolonged depression. He made certain that his mind was ruined before autodocs and his own robots could save him.”
“Yet I can’t afford to feel sorry,” he responded. “You see, I was born according to the terms of his will. I’m 99 percent his clone, the rest of my genes tailored according to his desires. If he hadn’t murdered himself, I wouldn’t exist. Nor would I have inherited his money.” He shrugged, saying, “Parents,” with a measured scorn. “They have such power over you, like it or not.”
She didn’t know how to respond.
“Listen to us. All of this death talk, and doesn’t it seem out of place?” Opera said, “After all, we’re here to celebrate your return home. Your successes. Your gifts. And you… you on the brink of being magnified many times over.” He paused before saying, “By this time tomorrow, you’ll reside inside all of us, making everyone richer as a consequence.”
The young man had an odd way of phrasing his statements, the entire speech either earnest or satirical. She couldn’t tell which. Or if there was a which. Maybe it was her ignorance with the audible clues, the unknown trappings of this culture… Then something else occurred to her.
“What do you mean? ‘Death talk…”‘
“Your friend Tyson died on Coldtear,” he replied. “And didn’t you lose another on Blueblue?”
He nodded gravely, glancing down at Pico’s legs. “We can sit. I’m sorry; I should have noticed you were getting tired.”
They sat side by side on the grass, watching the mallard ducks. Males and females had the same vivid green heads. Beautiful, she mentioned. Opera explained how females were once brown and quite drab, but people thought that was a shame, and voted to have the species altered, both sexes made equally resplendent. Pico nodded, only halfway listening. She couldn’t get Tyson and her other dead friends out of her mind. Particularly Tyson. She had been angry with him for a long time, and even now her anger wasn’t finished. Her confusion and general tiredness made it worse. Why had he done it? In life the man had had a way of dominating every meeting, every little gathering. He had been optimistic and fearless, the last sort of person to do such an awful thing. Suicide. The others had heard it was an accident — Pico had held to her lie — but she and they were in agreement about one fact. When Tyson died, at that precise instant, some essential heart of their mission had been lost.
Why? she wondered. Why?
Midge had flown into the storm on Blueblue, seeking adventure and important scientific answers; and her death was sad, yes, and everyone had missed her. But it wasn’t like Tyson’s death. It felt honorable, maybe even perfect. They had a duty to fulfill in the wilderness, and that duty was in their blood and their training. People spoke about Midge for years, acting as if she were still alive. As if she were still flying the shuttle into the storm’s vortex.
But Tyson was different.
Maybe everyone knew the truth about his death. Sometimes it seemed that, in Pico’s eyes, the crew could see what had really happened, and they’d hear it between her practiced lines. They weren’t fooled.
Meanwhile, others died in the throes of life.
Uoo — a slender wisp of a compilation—was incinerated by a giant bolt of lightning on Miriam II, little left but ashes, and the rest of the party continuing its descent into the superheated Bottoms and the quiet Lead Sea.
Opaltu died in the mouth of a nameless predator. He had been another of Pico’s lovers, a proud man and the best example of vanity that she had known — until today, she thought — and she and the others had laughed at the justice that befell Opaltu’s killer. Unable to digest alien meats, the predator had sickened and died in a slow, agonizing fashion, vomiting up its insides as it staggered through the yellow jungle.
Boo was killed while working outside the Kyber, struck by a mote of interstellar debris.
Xon’s lifesuit failed, suffocating her.
As did Kyties’s suit, and that wasn’t long ago. Just a year now, ship time, and she remembered a cascade of jokes and his endless good humor. The most decent person on board the Kyber.
Yet it was Tyson who dominated her memories of the dead. It was the man as well as his self-induced extinction, and the anger within her swelled all at once. Suddenly even simple breathing was work. Pico found herself sweating, then blinking away the salt in her eyes. Once, then again, she coughed into a fist; then finally she had the energy to ask, “Why did he do it?”
“Who? My father?”
“Depression is… should be… a curable ailment. We had drugs and therapies on board that could erase it.”
“But it was more than depression. It was something that attacks the very old people. A kind of giant boredom, if you will.”
She wasn’t surprised. Nodding as if she’d expected that reply, she told him, “I can understand that, considering your lives.” Then she thought how Tyson hadn’t been depressed or bored. How could he have been either?
Opera touched her bad leg, for just a moment. “You must wonder how it will be,” he mentioned. “Tomorrow, I mean.”
She shivered, aware of the fear returning. Closing her burning eyes, she saw Tyson’s walk through the bacterial mat, the loose gray chunks spinning as the currents carried them, lending them a greater sort of life with the motion… And she opened her eyes, Opera watching, saying something to her with his expression, and her unable to decipher any meanings.
“Maybe I should go to bed, too,” she allowed.
The park under the tent was nearly empty now. Where had the others gone?
Opera said, “Of course,” as if expecting it. He rose and offered his hand, and she surprised herself by taking the hand with both of hers. Then he said, “If you like, I can show you your quarters.”
She nodded, saying nothing.
It was a long, painful walk, and Pico honestly considered asking for a robot’s help. For anyone’s. Even a cane would have been a blessing, her hip never having felt so bad. Earth’s gravity and the general stress were making it worse, most likely. She told herself that at least it was a pleasant night, warm and calm and perfectly clear, and the soft ground beneath the grass seemed to be calling to her, inviting her to lay down and sleep in the open.
People were staying in a chain of old houses subdivided into apartments, luxurious yet small. Pico’s apartment was on the ground floor, Opera happy to show her through the rooms. For an instant, she considered asking him to stay the night. Indeed, she sensed that he was delaying, hoping for some sort of invitation. But she heard herself saying, “Rest well, and thank you,” and her companion smiled and left without comment, vanishing through the crystal front door and leaving her completely alone.
For a little while, she sat on her bed, doing nothing. Not even thinking, at least in any conscious fashion.
Then she realized something, no warning given; and aloud, in a voice almost too soft for even her to hear, she said, “He didn’t know. Didn’t have an idea, the shit.” Tyson. She was thinking about the fiery man and his boast about being the second generation of star explorers. What if it was all true? His parents had injected a portion of a former Tyson into him, and he had already known the early worlds they had visited. He already knew the look of sunrises on the double desert world around Alpha Centauri A; he knew the smell of constant rot before they cracked their airlocks on Barnard’s 2. But try as he might —
“— he couldn’t remember how it feels to be disassembled.” She spoke without sound. To herself. “That titanic and fearless creature, and he couldn’t remember. Everything else, yes, but not that. And not knowing had to scare him. Nothing else did, but that terrified him. The only time in his life he was truly scared, and it took all his bluster to keep that secret —!”
Killing himself rather than face his fear.
Of course, she thought. Why not?
And he took Pico as his audience, knowing she’d be a good audience. Because they were lovers. Because he must have decided that he could convince her in his fearlessness one last time, leaving his legend secure. Immortal, in a sense.
That’s what you were thinking. . .
. . . wasn’t it?
And she shivered, holding both legs close to her mouth, and feeling the warm misery of her doomed hip.
She sat for a couple more hours, neither sleeping nor feeling the slightest need for sleep. Finally she rose and used the bathroom, and after a long, careful look through the windows, she ordered the door to open, and stepped outside, picking a reasonable direction and walking stiffly and quickly on the weakened leg.
Opera emerged from the shadows, startling her.
“If you want to escape,” he whispered, “I can help. Let me help you, please.”
The face was handsome in the moonlight, young in every fashion. He must have guessed her mood, she realized, and she didn’t allow herself to become upset. Help was important, she reasoned. Even essential. She had to find her way across a vast and very strange alien world. “I want to get back into orbit,” she told him, “and find another starship. We saw several. They looked almost ready to embark.” Bigger than the Kybei, and obviously faster. No doubt designed to move even deeper into the endless wilderness.
“I’m not surprised,” Opera told her. “And I understand.”
She paused, staring at him before asking, “How did you guess?”
“Living forever inside our heads…. That’s just a mess of metaphysical nonsense, isn’t it? You know you’ll die tomorrow. Bits of your brain will vanish inside us, made part of us, and not vice versa. I think it sounds like an awful way to die, certainly for someone like you —”
“Can you really help me?”
“This way,” he told her. “Come on.”
They walked for an age, crossing the paddock and finally reaching the wide tube where the skimmers shot past with a rush of air. Opera touched a simple control, then said, “It won’t be long,” and smiled at her. Just for a moment. “You know, I almost gave up on you. I thought I must have read you wrong. You didn’t strike me as someone who’d go quietly to her death…”
She had a vague, fleeting memory of the senior Opera. Gazing at the young face, she could recall a big, warm hand shaking her hand, and a similar voice saying, “It’s very good to meet you, Pico. At last!”
“I bet one of the new starships will want you.” The young Opera was telling her, “You’re right. They’re bigger ships, and they’ve got better facilities. Since they’ll be gone even longer, they’ve been given the best possible medical equipment. That hip and your general body should respond to treatments —”
“I have experience,” she whispered.
“Experience.” She nodded with conviction. “I can offer a crew plenty of valuable experience.”
“They’d be idiots not to take you.”
A skimmer slowed and stopped before them. Opera made the windows opaque — “So nobody can see you” — and punched in their destination, Pico making herself comfortable.
“Here we go,” he chuckled, and they accelerated away.
There was an excitement to all of this, an adventure like every other. Pico realized that she was scared, but in a good, familiar way. Life and death. Both possibilities seemed balanced on a very narrow fulcrum, and she found herself smiling, rubbing her hip with a slow hand.
They were moving fast, following Opera’s instructions.
“A circuitous route,” he explained. “We want to make our whereabouts less obvious. All right?”
“Are you comfortable?”
“Yes,” she allowed. “Basically.”
Then she was thinking about the others — the other survivors from the Kyber — wondering how many of them were having second or third thoughts. The long journey home had been spent in cold-sleep, but there had been intervals when two or three of them were awakened to do normal maintenance. Not once did anyone even joke about taking the ship elsewhere. Nobody had asked, “Why do we have to go to Earth?” The obvious question had eluded them, and at the time, she had assumed it was because there were no doubters. Besides herself, that is. The rest believed this would be the natural conclusion to full and satisfied lives; they were returning home to a new life and an appreciative audience. How could any sane compilation think otherwise?
Yet she found herself wondering.
Why no jokes!
If they hadn’t had doubts, wouldn’t they have made jokes!
Eight others had survived the mission. Yet none were as close to Pico as she had been to Tyson. They had saved each other’s proverbial skin many times, and she did feel a sudden deep empathy for them, remembering how they had boarded nine separate shuttles after kisses and hugs and a few careful tears, each of them struggling with the proper things to say.
But what could anyone say at such a moment? Particularly when you believed that your companions were of one mind, and, in some fashion, happy. …
Pico said, “I wonder about the others,” and intended to leave it at that. To say nothing more.
“From the Kyber. My friends.” She paused and swallowed, then said softly, “Maybe I could contact them.”
“No,” he responded.
She jerked her head, watching Opera’s profile.
“That would make it easy to catch you.” His voice was quite sensible and measured. “Besides,” he added, “can’t they make up their own minds? Like you have?”
She nodded, thinking that was reasonable. Sure.
He waited a long moment, then said, “Perhaps you’d like to talk about something else?”
He eyed Pico, then broke into a wide smile. “If I’m not going to inherit a slice of your mind, leave me another story. Tell… I don’t know. Tell me about your favorite single place. Not a world, but some favorite patch of ground on any world. If you could be anywhere now, where would it be? And with whom?
Pico felt the skimmer turning, following the tube. She didn’t have to consider the question — her answer seemed obvious to her — but the pause was to collect herself, weighing how to begin and what to tell.
“In the mountains on Erindi 3,” she said, “the air thins enough to be breathed safely, and it’s really quite pretty. The scenery, I mean.”
“I’ve seen holos of the place. It is lovely.”
“Not just lovely.” She was surprised by her authority, her self-assured voice telling him, “There’s a strange sense of peace there. You don’t get that from holos. Supposedly it’s produced by the weather and the vegetation…. They make showers of negative ions, some say…. And it’s the colors, too. A subtle interplay of shades and shadows. All very one-of-a- kind.”
“Of course,” he said carefully.
She shut her eyes, seeing the place with almost perfect clarity. A summer storm had swept overhead, charging the glorious atmosphere even further, leaving everyone in the party invigorated. She and Tyson, Midge, and several others had decided to swim in a deep-blue pool near their campsite. The terrain itself was rugged, black rocks erupting from the blue-green vegetation. The valley’s little river poured into a gorge and the pool, and the people did the same. Tyson was first, naturally. He laughed and bounced in the icy water, screaming loud enough to make a flock of razor-bats take flight. This was only the third solar system they had visited, and they were still young in every sense. It seemed to them that every world would be this much fun.
She recalled — and described — diving feet first. She was last into the pool, having inherited a lot of caution from her parents. Tyson had teased her, calling her a coward and then worse, then showing where to aim. “Right here! It’s deep here! Come on, coward! Take a chance!”
The water was startlingly cold, and there wasn’t much of it beneath the shiny flowing surface. She struck and hit the packed sand below, and the impact made her groan, then shout. Tyson had lied, and she chased the bastard around the pool, screaming and finally clawing at his broad back until she’d driven him up the gorge walls, him laughing and once, losing strength with all the laughing, almost tumbling down on top of her.
She told Opera everything.
At first, it seemed like an accident. All her filters were off; she admitted everything without hesitation. Then she told herself that the man was saving her life and deserved the whole story. That’s when she was describing the lovemaking between her and Tyson. That night. It was their first time, and maybe the best time. They did it on a bed of mosses, perched on the rim of the gorge, and she tried to paint a vivid word picture for her audience, including smells and the textures and the sight of the double moons overhead, colored a strange living pink and moving fast.
Their skimmer ride seemed to be taking a long time, she thought once she was finished. She mentioned this to Opera, and he nodded soberly. Otherwise, he made no comment.
I won’t be disembodied tomorrow, she told herself.
Then she added, Today, I mean today.
She felt certain now. Secure. She was glad for this chance and for this dear new friend, and it was too bad she’d have to leave so quickly, escaping into the relative safety of space. Perhaps there were more people like Opera… people who would be kind to her, appreciating her circumstances and desires… supportive and interesting companions in their own right… And suddenly the skimmer was slowing, preparing to stop.
When Opera said, “Almost there,” she felt completely at ease. Entirely
calm. She shut her eyes and saw the raw, wild mountains on Erindi 3, storm clouds gathering and flashes of lightning piercing the howling winds. She summoned a different day, and saw Tyson standing against the storms, smiling, beckoning for her to climb up to him just as the first cold, fat raindrops smacked against her face.
The skimmer’s hatch opened with a hiss.
Sunlight streamed inside, and she thought: Dawn. By now, sure… Opera rose and stepped outside, then held a hand out to Pico. She took it with both of hers and said, “Thank you,” while rising, looking past him and seeing the paddock and the familiar faces, the green ground and the giant tent with its doorways opened now, various birds flying inside and out again… and Pico most surprised by how little she was surprised, Opera still holding her hands, and his flesh dry, the hand perfectly calm.
The autodocs stood waiting for orders.
This time, Pico had been carried from the skimmer, riding cradled in a robot’s arms. She had taken just a few faltering steps before half-crumbling. Exhaustion was to blame. Not fear. At least it didn’t feel like fear, she told herself. Everyone told her to take it easy, to enjoy her comfort; and now, finding herself flanked by autodocs, her exhaustion worsened. She thought she might die before the cutting began, too tired now to pump her own blood or fire her neurons or even breathe.
Opera was standing nearby, almost smiling, his pleasure serene and chilly and without regrets.
He hadn’t said a word since they left the skimmer.
Several others told her to sit, offering her a padded seat with built-in channels to catch any flowing blood. Pico took an uneasy step toward the seat, then paused and straightened her back, saying, “I’m thirsty,” softly, her words sounding thoroughly parched.
“Pardon?” they asked.
“I want to drink… some water, please…?”
Faces turned, hunting for a cup and water.
It was Opera who said, “Will the pond do?” Then he came forward, extending an arm and telling everyone else, “It won’t take long. Give us a moment, will you?”
Pico and Opera walked alone.
Last night’s ducks were sleeping and lazily feeding. Pico looked at their metallic green heads, so lovely that she ached at seeing them, and she tried to miss nothing. She tried to concentrate so hard that time itself would compress, seconds turning to hours, and her life in that way prolonged.
Opera was speaking, asking her, “Do you want to hear why?”
She shook her head, not caring in the slightest.
“But you must be wondering why. I fool you into believing that I’m your ally, and I manipulate you —”
“Why?” she sputtered. “So tell me.”
“Because,” he allowed, “it helps the process. It helps your integration into us. I gave you a chance for doubts and helped you think you were fleeing, convinced you that you’d be free… and now you’re angry and scared and intensely alive. It’s that intensity that we want. It makes the neurological grafts take hold. It’s a trick that we learned since the Kybei left Earth. Some compilations tried to escape, and when they were caught and finally incorporated along with their anger —”
“Except, I’m not angry,” she lied, gazing at his self-satisfied grin.
“A nervous system in flux,” he said. “I volunteered, by the way.”
She thought of hitting him. Could she kill him somehow?
But instead, she turned and asked, “Why this way? Why not just let me slip away, then catch me at the spaceport?”
“You were going to drink,” he reminded her. “Drink.”
She knelt despite her hip’s pain, knees sinking into the muddy bank and her lips pursing, taking in a long, warmish thread of muddy water, and then her face lifting, the water spilling across her chin and chest, and her mouth unable to close tight.
“Nothing angers,” he said, “like the betrayal of someone you trust.”
True enough, she thought. Suddenly she could see Tyson leaving her alone on the ocean floor, his private fears too much, and his answer being to kill himself while dressed up in apparent bravery. A kind of betrayal, wasn’t that? To both of them, and it still hurt….
“Are you still thirsty?” asked Opera.
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Then drink. Go on.”
She knelt again, taking a bulging mouthful and swirling it with her tongue. Yet she couldn’t make herself swallow, and after a moment, it began leaking out from her lips and down her front again. Making a mess, she realized. Muddy, warm, ugly water, and she couldn’t remember how it felt to be thirsty. Such a little thing, and ordinary, and she couldn’t remember it.
“Come on, then,” said Opera.
She looked at him.
He took her arm and began lifting her, a small, smiling voice saying, “You’ve done very well, Pico. You have. The truth is that everyone is very proud of you.”
She was on her feet again and walking, not sure when she had begun moving her legs. She wanted to poison her thoughts with her hatred of these awful people, and for a little while, she could think of nothing else. She would make her mind bilious and cancerous, poisoning all of these bastards and finally destroying them. That’s what she would do, she promised herself. Except, suddenly she was sitting on the padded chair, autodocs coming close with their bright, humming limbs; and there was so much stored in her mind — worlds and people, emotions heaped on emotions — and she didn’t have the time she would need to poison herself.
Which proved something, she realized.
Sitting still now.
Sitting still and silent. At ease. Her front drenched and stained brown,
but her open eyes calm and dry.
I was on my way to the bus stop when I saw the headless man. At first I thought it was a trick of the eye: I was wearing big dark glasses, possibly the head had been camouflaged by the dark trees behind the man. Surely, he couldn’t be headless. As I approached, however, I saw that he was indeed headless. There was scar tissue on his stump of neck and a little tube sticking out—for eating or breathing or both, I figured. He was wearing an orange tee shirt and he was tending the university grounds with a weed whacker. Geez, I thought. A headless man.
It was very hot that day. I was walking along without a water bottle and it’s likely that I missed the bus—I had no schedule—and would have to wait. I distracted myself from these concerns by wondering about the headless man. How had it happened? He was either born that way (poor mother) or it was an accident. I shuddered to think of the accident that might have befallen the headless man. How was it that he was able to live without a head, without a brain, eyes, ears, nose, mouth? How did he communicate? Possibly the headless man talks out of his ass—I chuckled to myself at the idea of a deep, articulate rumble coming from the headless man’s ass. At any rate, he was gainfully employed. Without a head, he was managing to do a nice job on the flower borders. His body was well-toned, muscular, youngish; the orange tee shirt was well worn but clean, likewise the sport shoes. I’d had a good look.
I waited for a long while at the bus stop, as predicted. I was really parched. I imagined asking someone for a drink of water, but no one was there. How would it be to ask a stranger for a drink of water? I decided that if someone came with a water bottle I’d ask them to dribble a little on my tongue. I’d really do that, I was that thirsty. I thought I would faint.
Then two people did come, one was a young woman without a visible water bottle and the other was the headless man, who sat next to me, and who had a water bottle. What a dilemma! He squirted water on each of his arms, first one, then the other, and he rubbed the water into his tanned skin. I wanted to lick his arm. He also smacked some water on his neck stump. This headless man had water to burn.
Finally the 3 came and all of us got on. I took a seat beside the young woman who was a grad student in biology. All day she worked in the lab. No summers off for us, she said. Then she opened a book and our conversation stopped. The headless man settled himself near the driver in the space reserved for disabled people. Well, he was disabled, after all. He had no head and who knows how he did anything useful in life.
During this time I had a boyfriend called Mitchell. He was a nice enough guy but I couldn’t seem to muster up any real passion for him. God knows I tried. We had been dating for ten years and we did the things couples do—dinners, movies, sex—but deep inside I was unmoved. It was as if my heart were a block of ice or a hill covered with thorns. From time to time I fretted about this situation with Mitchell, but mostly I ignored it. Who has the right to be blissfully happy? Certainly not me.
Now the headless man and I happened to exit at the same stop. Amazingly, he pulled the cord before I did. I followed him out. He walked across the street, which happened to be the way I was going, so I kept following. He was very resolute in his walk which I like in a man. I had forgotten all about my thirst. I tried to keep up with the headless man, but he took two steps for every one of mine, he was walking that fast. He raced to the curb to avoid a car whereas the same car almost hit me. I felt like a fool.
That night Mitchell and I had plans to see a movie but as usual we couldn’t decide which one. In this, as in everything, we were on different pages. He enjoyed a rollicking comedy whereas I was partial to the art film. He liked sci fi stories about silly-looking creatures invading a human person’s bathroom mid-shave, whereas I liked movies about confused people trying to find their ways out of the morose hands that had been dealt to them, the kind of movie in which everyone is doomed. Mitchell and I were built differently, on different premises. The premise Mitchell was built on involved a double-wide barge plowing through a roiling ocean, whereas my premise involved the shadows of trees that were about to be felled.
We went to a comedy because, as usual, Mitchell gets his way. If he doesn’t he pouts. He has a very beautiful mouth and so the pout is not as annoying as you might think. Still, it’s a bore to be with someone who pouts, beautiful mouth or no, so I gave in to the comedy which would surely irritate me. I am that way with comedies. Something about someone trying to make me laugh: I resist. Mid-movie, I go to the concessions and buy more Junior Mints. There I see the headless man. It was too much; he was walking away from the concession stand with his popcorn and I would have given anything to have been behind him on line.
The funny thing is that no one seemed to pay much attention to the headless man. You’d think they would. Headless! It was as if this movie-going crowd had seen headless men every day of their lives. It was as if the headless man was no more unusual than, say, a woman with long blond hair. He was making his way to Theater 8 and on impulse I decided to go into that theater too. I was bored with the comedy. Mitchell laughed very loudly and occasionally slapped my leg, god knows what was so funny. The movie had been about two men who were friends and who got into trouble. The trouble was supposed to make you laugh. One man kept hurting himself. When I left the theater for the Junior Mints, that man was all bandaged up which was also supposed to be funny. But here was the headless man headed into Theater 8 which featured just my kind of movie, one in which two women sit on a bed and talk for hours and in between talking they try on clothes.
I sat directly behind the headless man and so of course I had a good view of the film. I noticed the little tube that protruded from his scar-knotted neck had been replaced with a larger transparent funnel and into this funnel the man fed kernels of popcorn. Very strange. The film was not sad so much as enigmatic. Who were these women and why did they pass their time so fruitlessly? was the question the film posed.
I had quite a time locating Mitchell in the parking lot after the movie. He was angry I had left the comedy and told me that, as usual, I had been rude. I told him all about the headless man because I thought he would be interested. I told him about the jagged neck stump and the funnel and the weed whacking job. Once I began talking I couldn’t stop. All my theories about the headless man poured forth. He must have a brain located somewhere since he is obviously functioning like a human. Perhaps he uses sign language. Maybe his brain was taken out of his body and frozen until they could transplant it some other place, like his thigh. He was really quite handsome otherwise, I said.
Stop, said Mitchell. You are talking nonstop so I will forget your bad manners. I don’t care about this so-called headless man. You don’t find it intriguing? I said. Mitchell opened the car door. Why would I? There are all kinds of freaks in this world, what’s one more? Unbelievable, I thought as Mitchell started the car by doing this annoying thing he does which is to rev the engine very loudly three times. Then he backed out and hit a car that was driving by. Son of a bitch, yelled Mitchell, leaping out of the drivers door and shaking his fist. Honestly, Mitchell was such a stereotype.
I decided to remain in the car so as not to be humiliated by Mitchell’s behavior. I turned on the radio and listened to the jazz station. Coltrane in the middle of playing My Favorite Things, which is very long, if you know the cut. Then Mitchell stopped yelling and Coltrane stopped playing. I decided to get out of the car and there, believe it or not, was the headless man. He was writing something on a pad of white paper and he jerked his neck toward me in a kind of friendly acknowledgment.
I swear to god, I think he remembered me from the afternoon bus stop. I smiled at his neck. Mitchell was still fuming, but he was fuming silently. The car was not so damaged—a broken taillight was all. The headless man resumed his writing, then put his hands together in a prayer-like gesture and bowed very respectfully to Mitchell. Mitchell scowled. There’s not much you can do when a headless man bows respectfully to you.
The headless man had written his name, phone number, license number and the name and number of his insurance company. After all the writing he’d drawn a happy face. It was very neatly executed. He’s obviously a gentleman, I said. What would you know about it? Said Mitchell. I must say these comedies do nothing to put you in a good mood, I remarked, which was a mistake, because Mitchell drove very fast which he knows makes me nervous. I was clutching the piece of paper the headless man had written on and by the time we got home it was all crumpled and damp from my nerves.
At home, I got to thinking: the headless man had left a phone number, but what does he do if someone actually calls? I asked Mitchell who rolled his eyes, which I could have predicted, and cracked open a beer. Then he surfed the channels in order to find another rollicking comedy. What’s the use? I said out loud, which was a mistake because Mitchell then said, What have I done now, what’s my latest infraction? I went into the bedroom and tried to read a magazine. But in the back of my mind, I was still wondering what would happen if a person telephoned the headless man. In the middle of an article about why men stray, I wondered what would happen if I telephoned the headless man.
I took the piece of paper from the dresser top and smoothed it out. The man’s name was Russ McCormack. Hello Russ, I imagined saying.
That night I dreamt about the headless man. In the dream he had a well-shaped, perfect head only it was made of stone, like the head of a famous statue by Michelangelo. Thus, he still couldn’t talk or make eye contact. He was weed whacking and I sat in the grass nearby looking at the sky which was filled with more heads, all sizes and shapes, a great variety of expressions on the faces—sad, angry, bored, sly, frightened, you name it. Then I woke up. Mitchell had already showered and was fixing his shirt collar in our mirror.
I spent most of the morning at my desk picking up the phone, dialing, then hanging up. In between I tried to write a poem which began the headless man’s head is in the clouds, but my heart wasn’t in it. It was so quiet. We’d turned the AC off and there were no dogs barking outside, no cars driving by, no mourning doves going cu-roo, cu-roo, nothing. I dialed the headless man’s number again, just to liven things up. The phone rang twice, then there was a soft click. I said, Russ? Russ are you there? I could hear the silence of his room at the other end of the phone, hear it turning over and beginning again. I listened for a long time. That silence went right to my soul. When I hung up, I could still hear it.
That night I ended it with Mitchell. I said what they tell you to say which is: This isn’t working for me. Mitchell looked stunned. He cracked open a beer and shook his head. Women are such fickle cunts, he said. He doesn’t usually talk like this, but he was mad, I understood that. The next day I left.
Funnily, I never encountered the headless man again. Once I thought I saw him in the grocery store, perusing the veggies, but this man’s head really was camouflaged against the red cabbages he was leaning over. I looked for him on the U grounds for a while, but then I thought, wait a minute, am I really thinking of having a relationship with a headless man? I don’t think so. So I stopped looking and that was that.
*Karen Brennan, “Headless” from Monsters. Copyright © date by Author. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Four Way Books, www.fourwaybooks.org.