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.
And, Madame Blanchard, believe that I am happy to be here with you and your family because it is so serene, everything, and before this I worked for a long time in a fancy house—maybe you don’t know what is a fancy house? Naturally … everyone must have heard sometime or other. Well, Madame, I work always where there is work to be had, and so in this place I worked very hard all hours, and saw too many things, things you wouldn’t believe, and I wouldn’t think of telling you, only maybe it will rest you while I brush your hair. You’ll excuse me too but I could not help hearing you say to the laundress maybe someone had bewitched your linens, they fall away so fast in the wash. Well, there was a girl there in that house, a poor thing, thin, but well-liked by all the men who called, and you understand she could not get along with the woman who ran the house. They quarreled, the madam cheated her on her checks: you know, the girl got a check, a brass one, every time, and at the week’s end she gave those back to the madam, yes, that was the way, and got her percentage, a very small little of her earnings: it is a business, you see, like any other
—and the madam used to pretend the girl had given back only so many checks, you see, and really she had given many more, but after they were out of her hands, what could she do? So she would say, I will get out of this place, and curse and cry. Then the madam would hit her over the head. She always hit people over the head with bottles, it was the way she fought. My good heavens, Madame Blanchard, what confusion there would be sometimes with a girl running raving downstairs, and the madam pulling her back by the hair and smashing a bottle on her forehead.
It was nearly always about the money, the girls got in debt so, and if they wished to go they could not without paying every sou marque. The madam had full understanding with the police; the girls must come back with them or go to the jails. Well, they always came back with the policemen or with another kind of man friend of the madam: she could make men work for her too, but she paid them very well for all, let me tell you: and so the girls stayed on unless they were sick; if so, if they got too sick, she sent them away again.
Madame Blanchard said, “You are pulling a little here,” and eased a strand of hair: “and then what?”
Pardon—but this girl, there was a true hatred between her and the madam. She would say many times, I make more money than anybody else in the house, and every week were scenes. So at last she said one morning, Now I will leave this place, and she took out forty dollars from under her pillow and said, Here’s your money!
The madam began to shout, Where did you get all that, you? and accused her of robbing the men who came to visit her. The girl said, Keep your hands off or I’ll brain you: and at that the madam took hold of her shoulders, and began to lift her knee and kick this girl most terribly in the stomach, and even in her most secret place, Madame Blanchard, and then she beat her in the face with bottle, and the girl fell back again into her room where I was making clean. I helped her to the bed, and she sat there holding her sides with her hanging down, and when she got up again there was blood everywhere she had sat. So then the madam came in once more and screamed, Now you can get out, you are no good for me any more: I don’t repeat all, you understand it is too much.
But she took all the money she could find, and at the door she gave the girl a great push in the back with her knee, so that she fell again in the street, and then got up and went away with the dress barely on her.
After this the men who knew this girl kept saying, Where is Ninette? And they kept asking this in the next days, so that the madam could not say any longer, I put her out because she is a thief. No, she began to see she was wrong to send this Ninette away, and then she said, She will be back in a few days, don’t trouble yourself.
And now, Madame Blanchard, if you wish to hear, I come to the strange part, the thing recalled to me when you said your linens were bewitched. For the cook in that place was a woman, colored like myself, like myself with much French blood just the same, like myself living always among people who worked spells.
But she had a very hard heart, she helped the madam in everything, she liked to watch all that happened, and she gave away tales on the girls. The madam trusted her above everything, and she said, Well, where can I find that slut? because she had gone altogether out of Basin Street before the madam began to ask the police to bring her again. Well, the cook said, I know a charm that works here in New Orleans, colored women do it to bring back their men: in seven days they come again very happy to stay and they cannot say why: even your enemy will come back to you believing you are his friend. It is a New Orleans charm for sure, for certain, they say it does not work even across the river… .
And then they did it just as the cook said. They took the chamber pot of this girl from under her bed, and in it they mixed with water and milk all the relics of her they found there: the hair from her brush, and the face powder from the puff, and even little bits of her nails they found about the edges of the carpet where she sat by habit to cut her finger and toe-nails; and they dipped the sheets with her blood into the water, and all the time the cook said something over it in a low voice; I could not hear all, but at last she said to the madam, Now spit in it: and the madam spat, and the cook said, When she comes back she will be dirt under your feet. Madame Blanchard closed her perfume bottle with a thin click:
“Yes, and then?”
Then in seven nights the girl came back and she looked very sick, the same clothes and all, but happy to be there. One of the men said, Welcome home, Ninette! and when she started to speak to the madam, the madam said, Shut up and get upstairs and dress yourself. So Ninette, this girl, she said, I’ll be down in just a minute. And after that she lived there quietly.
*Katherine Anne Porter, “Magic” from The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. Copyright 1928 by Katherine Anne Porter. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of The Katherine Anne Porter Literary Trust.
At one time, the landlord Jeffers had been a busy person, but not anymore. Now he had time to think, and he had recently decided that he was going to die. His stomach was no longer the taut paunch it had been. Food passed his tongue joylessly. He no longer lusted. His feet and legs often went numb, and he’d taken to massaging isopropyl alcohol on them to regain some feeling. The smoke from his pipe remained one of the only things that seemed right—perhaps the craving for vice was the last thing to leave a person. Just before his mother passed away she would only eat soft candies. Jeffers’ death wouldn’t be immediate: he wouldn’t pass away today or tomorrow. It just landed upon him, pressed upon him, that his own passing was imminent, and he had no idea what to expect in the afterward.
Alone on the front porch in a frayed and stretched lawn chair, eyes closed, he imagined funerals. His tenant’s wife had died a few days ago. He pictured her supine like all bodies he’d seen in a coffin—clenched eyes, somewhat enlarged nostrils, mouth gently closed as if asleep. Peaceful rest. He remembered the summer evening years before when he’d had a body removed from Ashcross. The renter’s daughter draped across her father’s swollen body, weeping “daddy… daddy.” Her little fists sinking into her father’s stomach, her fingers groping at his shirt. The mortician’s assistant, grinding his teeth, pulled the little girl off the body, rending the moist stitching around the shirt’s collar. The renter didn’t appear as if he slept. In the near-subterraneous light, gape-jawed with eyes half-closed and unfocused, his waxy face was constricted into a rictus articulating the ineffable of the beyond. Or perhaps the lack thereof. He didn’t look heaven-bound. If Jeffers had not gone when the rent stopped coming in, he wondered how long the kid would have stayed there, caring for her father’s corpse.
Jeffers envied those who had seen a person die. He believed they understood what he didn’t—what death brought. He asked the renter’s little girl what had happened when her father passed. Without a tear in her eye, she said she didn’t know. She hadn’t seen it.
This envy had taken root when his son, James, witnessed his mother pass away while Jeffers was out making a deal with a man named White who was ignorant enough to believe a handshake was still as good as a notarized contract. For James, watching his mother’s passing had been such a powerful thing he’d gone into the seminary. He now ran a church out of the storefront of an old third-rate grocery in the lower part of the state; its sanctuary still smelled of hoopcheese and day laborers. (Jeffers thought his son would have been better off re-opening the grocery.) But James had witnessed many of his parishioners die, some of old age, others from disease. Each time his son told him of another death, Jeffers’ resentment grew. He never asked his son what it was like, afraid he’d get an earful of capricious religious nonsense, a tangle of words that would make him feel stupid.
He opened his eyes to stop the images and looked at the clear plastic freezer bags filled with water and four pennies hanging from the upper porch railings. Craziest thing he’d ever heard—a suggestion from James, an article he’d sent Jeffers on how to ward off flies. It said to hang plastic freezer bags with pennies and water outside to keep flies away. It worked. But as the sunlight shot through them casting a liquid-copper glow, he thought of the coins once used to cover the eyes of the decease. He spat over the porch railing. He put his unlighted pipe in his mouth.
He tried to recover his mind, replacing contemplating death with what to do about the Ashcross property, in which—he’d been told—a set of kids were now squatting. He’d let the place go to seed since the renter died in it nearly three years ago. Its roof and plumbing leaked, its walls drilled out by all manner of nest-builders, but he couldn’t abide the squatting. But apathy or something like it had gotten hold of him; it had embraced him at the same time the numbness started creeping into his legs. In quiet times such as these, something in the boredom and the numbness and the nature of age drew back like a bow and twanged when he tried to move, and a misdirected laugh or, on occasion, a hiccup-like cry sprang from his mouth. He didn’t understand it. But it locked him in his chair, kept him from getting anything done.
He tapped a wooden, bald-headed match on the arm of the chair while trying not to look at the pennies. But images of edemas, time at work, wasting disease, null and vacant and quicklime-covered faces impinged upon his concentration. His pipe hung limply from his lips. He sucked on the raw tobacco packed inside it to get a hint of sweetness mixed with a burned residue.
Jeffers saw the tenant who lived across the street walking up the driveway. As he walked, he smacked at the ash-brown leaves of the spent okra that framed one side of the property.
Jeffers dropped the unlighted match in his palm.
The tenant stopped at the porch steps. A scrawny man with brow-darkened eyes and a fresh crookedness barbing his face as if he’d been howling or banging his head against the wall.
“RD, what’s ailing you?”
“We buried LaRae this morning,” RD said, closing his eyes.
“I was sorry to hear about LaRae,” he said. He looked down at RD, who shifted his weight between his feet like a child needing to pee. He patted the porch railing, causing it to wobble. “It’s a hard thing to lose a wife,” Jeffers continued to fill in the silence. He pictured his two wives in his mind, pondered which one might meet him in heaven, if there was a heaven. Age had made him hopeful again that there was such a place. Experience made him doubtful. “I’ve lost two myself.”
RD nodded thoughtfully at the bottom of the porch steps. He shifted his weight and squinted at the pennies and water bags.
Jeffers studied RD. He knew little about him. Looked mid-thirties, but Jeffers had stopped believing he could guess a person’s age a long time ago. A quiet tenant—paid his rent. But RD had a bottom-of-the-litter look, runt-ish, forgotten. He looked given to schemes. He might have been the skinniest grown man Jeffers had ever seen—his shoulders angled like those on a starved child. He’d known scrounging for sure. RD and LaRae had come from Tennessee.
“She saw haints, you know,” RD said.
RD nodded and splashed a brown vein of spit into the grass. A wind buffeted his face, and he looked a slight better to Jeffers, who supposed the little man had come over just to talk out his sadness. Jeffers struck the match, sheltered its flame, and pressed it to the tobacco while making gentle, moist pops to pull the fire into the pipe.
“In that house of yourn,” RD said.
“What’s that?” Jeffers said.
“Haints in your house.”
“No, ourn. The one you lettin us have.”
Jeffers lowered the pipe and shook out the match. “Rent.”
“Yep. Haints in that house you lettin us rent.”
Jeffers leaned forward and looked across the porch where he could see through a stand of weather-broken pines the squat gables of the house RD rented. Below the boundary of trees, a graying neighborhood dog was working over road-kill flattened on the unlined blacktop that split the properties.
“I’ll be damn.” Jeffers looked back at RD, who had climbed the first step and was leaning toward the porch as if he wanted to come up. He was almost panting.
“Them haints killed LaRae.”
Jeffers leaned back in his chair and drew on his pipe. The spirit of the tobacco warmed his mouth as he considered his next words. RD climbed another step. He shuddered and proffered a what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it glare. Behind the spindly man, the sun was low and the sky bloodied in a balsam light.
Jeffers took the pipe down: “I am sorry about LaRae. But what do you want me to do about a ghost? I cain’t charge it rent.”
“You could pay for LaRae’s buryin expense that’s what, since it was your haints that killed her.”
“How you figure they’re mine?”
“It was in your house.”
“Well, they could have come with you from Tennessee. I’ve had untold number of folks live in that house. Not one of them complained of ‘haints.’”
RD squinted, catching the sarcasm in Jeffers’ voice. He quivered.
“If there are haints in that house, as you say, RD, they must’ve come to roost the same time you did. And that house is only supposed to be occupied by two people. The way I see it, you might owe me money, housing your haints, when your lease says only two shall live there.” Jeffers drew on his pipe, satisfied with himself. He felt a pleasant jolt of blood and adrenaline shock his body.
“That house killed her.”
“House or haints?”
RD chewed the inside of his cheek. The broad outlines of his skull were visible. He reminded Jeffers of the half-fed prisoners who worked chain gang years ago.
“RD, how do you make money? You work?”
RD, leering, backed down a step.
Jeffers held his gaze wide-eyed until he squinted from the falling sun breaking from the clouds. If this was a scheme, Jeffers thought, it’s awfully weak.
“Before LaRae passed, she told me that you would take care of her funeral bill. She said it was your wives who told her that you’d cover it.”
Jeffers peered unblinkingly through white smoke.
“You going to pay?”
“What do you think?” Jeffers said.
“I think you will.”
For a brief moment he considered giving in before a surge of meanness rose up: “Get the hell off my porch ’fore I throw you off.”
RD stood up straight and a haughty tic ran through his shoulders. He turned and headed back in the direction he’d come from.
Jeffers called to RD when the little man was equidistant between the porch and the road: “If you see them haints, send them my way.”
RD didn’t respond. As he passed the old dog in the road, he stopped to stare at it, and then for no reason scared it off its tire-mangled dinner.
Jeffers spat a long slivery streak into his boxwoods. He relaxed and puffed, satisfied. But the reminder of LaRae’s passing made him think again about his own shortening time, of what was to come. He lowered the pipe and leaned once more to see the house across the road, looking for the little, dissatisfied man, angry with him for his audacity and privation and for his existence, which Jeffers suddenly considered unearned.
The little spat with his tenant left Jeffers wanting some more excitement and so he went to the Ashcross property to run the squatters out. He found no one there. They had trounced the weeds around the house creating a cowpath to a five-gallon bucket simmering with turds and urine. In the long-untended shade tree hung wispy catfish skins. Several catfish heads had been hammered into the tree’s trunk and their husky mouths and eyes gawked in bewilderment. Redneck trophies, Jeffers thought.
Standing on the Ashcross porch Jeffers recalled the last time he’d been inside the house, holding the little girl by the shoulder, quizzing her on his father’s death, and her dry-eyed answers. Her little fingernails had been chewed to the quick.
His remembrance was broken when he glimpsed a young pregnant woman walking down the road, her hair a freak of colors—yellow, red—her stomach full and hanging low. Jeffers thought for a moment she was the squatter, but she passed the weed-lined driveway as if she were headed elsewhere. And then Jeffers felt a twinge of lust, something he hadn’t felt in a while. He stifled a half-laugh. If asked what he thought of the young woman, he would have ranted over her hairstyle and clothes—he knew a slut when he saw one! But in truth she was lovely, and her pregnancy made her all the more so. What if she had been his squatter? Could he have thrown her out? He’d never felt sorry for squatters. One winter he had thrown a whole family out, and learned later that one of their children died of pneumonia. Still he thought he’d made the right decision. He was well off and thought it was because he’d made good decisions. These people had to earn their place; they couldn’t just take. Wanting something for nothing, that was the problem.
He still liked to brag that he once held over a million dollars in his hands. It had come from the sale of the White property, which he considered bad luck, seeing as how he got it the same day his first wife died. His second wife came with property but she died within a year of when they married. Her kids had taken her away from Jeffers, back to her home state, to care for her. He’d given all of her property to her children. It seemed the right thing to do. And after she passed, he sold off several large sections of his holdings. But he wished he had it all back now. It worried him how easily he’d accepted age, how he’d told himself he was getting old and selling off his properties was a good idea. At one time he’d owned twenty-one rental properties, most of them run-down farmhouses in which he installed young couples and hard-working hillbillies. Grief-pierced, he yearned to have it all back. Now he just had the house next his own to give him his pocket money, and the Ashcross place.
James wanted Ashcross to put a church on, and he wanted Jeffers to donate it. But there was promise still in the property and money to be made. He needed to get the squatters out, and install fresh tenants. It was also that his son wanted the plot so bad that Jeffers couldn’t let it go; he couldn’t let his son take the last of his holdings, leaving him with just the squat-gable home. In his imagination, Jeffers saw his son holding the hands of a dying parishioner, whispering that the man who had owned the property had donated it, just gave it up. The face of the imagined parishioner looked up with a wink and smirked. And Jeffers saw that this was where his son would bury him, too—under a light-grey headstone carved with his birth and death and ASHCROSS UNITED METHODIST CHURCH BENEFACTOR.
The young woman passed behind some trees. His lust abated, the numbness in his feet stretched out as if originating from inside the bones. The numbness, the age. There would be a time soon when he wouldn’t be able to care for himself. He wouldn’t be able to rise from a chair, wouldn’t be able to put himself to bed, wouldn’t be able to cook or attend to his own needs. Perhaps giving the land to his son would be a good thing, and then James would have no choice but to make it his duty to devote himself to Jeffers. But what he really wanted was someone who would care for him without demand. He would pay for that.
That night Jeffers dreamed of LaRae. He dreamed of going over to the little house with pockets full of cash. He found her there with a baby up to her breast while she smiled brightly at him. He looked down at the baby, its jaw fluttering, gnawing. Unhealthy, pallid, the child unmistakably RD’s: they shared the same sunken cheeks. LaRae draped a frayed copper-colored shawl over her chest and tugged the baby from her nipple as if to show Jeffers the infant, and the child gave out an insufferable squall, bile resembling doused ash dribbled from its mouth. Its cry wasn’t like any infant’s he’d heard before, and Jeffers woke to hear that the sound wasn’t the child’s at all but was coming from something else nearby. He sat up in bed, switched on the bedside lamp.
The painful howl went up again.
His feet and shins were numb as they often were when he woke. He slipped on his yard shoes and tried to stand. He sat down on the bed and then stood up again. It felt as though he was walking on peg legs. He stumbled across the room. Another wail went out. He forwent his pants. He went to the closet, held to the doorjamb, his legs muscles smarting and stinging. He pulled out his pistol. He tromped down the hall in his boxer shorts and undershirt; he said a prayer that his varicose legs wouldn’t give out and that he’d have sense enough to protect himself. He looked out the living room window and saw nothing. He eased his front door open, his pistol pointed in the direction he imagined the sound was coming from, his lips parted, ready to receive a breathe of cool air.
The outdoor lamp washed everything in a plaintive white or buried it in shadow. At the far end of his yard, a quaking silhouette crouched under a pecan tree. He walked slowly over to it—his face jutted trying to see what it was. His pistol lowered.
The old dog moaned as Jeffers approached. Its gut had been slit open. Blood adorned its fur in black blotches.
He heard rustling in the pine trees that flanked his property. He kept the pistol lowered and listened. He called for the cutthroat to come out. He called again. The base of the pine trees were bleached white from the lamp’s light and between their trunks Jeffers could see only darkness.
He looked down at the dog. One visible eye glinted in the sparse light. Jeffers looked back at the stand of pine trees before gripping the barrel of the pistol. He brought its handle down swiftly on the dog’s skull to avoid firing a bullet in the middle of the night, which would bring the curiosity and ire of neighbors. And there was the cost of the bullet to consider.
He hit it again—and then a third time. After each strike, he glanced back at the trees and saw only rib-white pine trunks and night. Jeffers peered down at the extinguished dog before limping back to the house, knowing the man in the pines was watching.
His sleep was chancy these days. Many nights he sat up, the vapors from the isopropyl alcohol rising from his feet, a subsuming numbness creeping further up his legs. He often mapped its assent, trying to sense the true direction of the numbness, what area would it covet next, whether it had or would enter his spine or some other territory. When would it be too late to ask for help? When would the numbness settle in his stomach and make it impossible to eat? Or would it skip his stomach and spine and ground itself with fresh purchase in his heart? And then what? Death.
But this night Jeffers sat at his kitchen table, puffing on his pipe, replaying the events. He figured it was RD who had gutted the dog. He imagined the two, both lean and dirty animals—RD with the upper hand only because he had sense to bait the scrawny thing and could wield a knife.
Just before light, he went out with a shovel to remove the dog from the yard. Taped to the door was a list of LaRae’s burial expenses written in an untrained hand. At the bottom, beneath the tally, was the message, “You O me that much RD”.
It was unlike Jeffers to befoul one of his properties and he wished he hadn’t. He knew he might suffer for the considerable effort it took to carry the animal up a ladder, but he was angry and dropping the dog’s gut-slung body down RD’s chimney made him feel young as if he were playing some outlandish prank. He knew the dog would get stuck in the flue and create an unbearable stink. But it had felt good, his legs felt strong.
Seated on his porch, a warm breeze eased him. Numbness slowly budded in his toes. Soon it would blossom up his legs, and then like vines it would gather around his waist and approach his back. Unrelieved numbness: faintly its tendrils would furl the base of his spine. He knew paralysis would take soon. He looked up at the bags of pennies and water. Such a simple measure, and a small cost to keep the flies at bay. With lips folded between teeth, he squelched a whimper.
As the numbness grew, he pondered over the list of expenses RD had tacked to his door. He thought of his own wives. One was buried in the city’s cemetery and the other was buried in North Carolina. Even though it had been almost a decade, he knew by the tally tacked to his door that he’d spent more, given more respect, to his wives than RD had to LaRae.
He saw RD coming up the driveway, gripping something nearly hidden in his hand.
“Ain’t you got business?” Jeffers blurted.
“I’m here on business. I’ve been to the funeral home.”
He gazed down at RD, who was dressed in a shirt Jeffers wouldn’t have used for a rag—threadbare in the chest as if it belonged to a man who itched a lot. He noticed that RD was petting a rabbit’s foot in his left hand, part of a keychain: “You bring that for luck?”
“Hell, I don’t need no luck.”
“You need something. You’ve eaten or buried the best part.”
“You get my note.”
“Yeah, I got your duns.”
“I told them at the Home you’ll pay for it.”
“You kill that dog?”
“LaRae said it was your wives that haunted her. Said you beat ‘em.”
“I never struck them.”
“That’s not what they said.”
“You kill that dog?” Jeffers asked again.
“Said you should have to pay.”
“You kill that dog?” Jeffers leaned forward, puffed smoke.
RD gnawed at the inside of his cheek: “Why don’t you give me a smoke and I’ll knock off a few dollars on that bill.”
“You kill that dog?”
“I know who did. I’ll tell you for ten dollars.”
“So you know it’s dead.”
“I know you been asking about a dead one, and that one’s been lately put out of its misery.”
Jeffers shot a gleaming stream of spit at the little man without hitting him: “I didn’t cause its misery.”
“But you killed it.”
“I put it down.”
“Then why are you ragging on me about killing a dog?”
“Cause you’re the one who gutted it to start with.”
“I don’t know about that,” RD said.
“You don’t know you gutted a dog?”
Jeffers was silent.
Looking at the spit webbed across the parched-green leaves of the boxwoods, RD said: “What’s that dog mean to you?”
“Nothing. Having it slaughtered on my property does mean something.”
“Well I’ll help you look for your dog-gutter if you pay for LaRae.”
Jeffers felt the slight palpation of his heart: “I’m not paying you for a goddamn thing.”
“Why do you think I’ll pay?”
“You want peace, don’t you?”
Jeffers legs were numb, up to his stomach. At that moment, he wanted more than anything to chase RD down and beat him senseless.
Slightly hunched, RD eased up onto the porch as if he sensed weakness. He stood up and reached for one of the Ziploc bags of pennies and plucked it down from its nail. Jeffers’ head twitched and he ground his teeth. There was no feeling whatsoever in his legs, as if he were dead from the waist down.
RD turned and walked down the steps.
“Hey,” Jeffers called. “Come get this.” Jeffers held up the funeral bill.
RD stood in the yard, with a big smile on his face, danced a burlesque and mocked masturbation and then spat a reddish-brown streak. He wiped his chin: “You can knock four cents off that bill,” he said. He turned and walked out of the yard, disappearing behind the trees.
His Sunday evening phone calls with James were little more than reminders—for James it reminded him that his father was still alive, and for Jeffers that his son was little more than a beggar, begging for a donation. Tonight James called asking about some article he’d sent Jeffers regarding blood circulation. Poor circulation: that was what was wrong with Jeffers’ according to James.
They sat in silence, Jeffers listening to his son’s breath and the hum of foreign ambience at the other end of the line. He yawned. He flicked off the lamp beside the chair and sat in the dark so he could see through the window to the little, unlighted house across the road. He opened his shirt and put a hand to his chest, his heart. His feet were cold in his bedroom shoes.
“Any more thought given to what you’re going to do with the Ashcross place?”
“Some,” Jeffers said.
“I spoke to the United Methodist Ministries. They said if I could get the land, they’d help me with the church.”
James called it a perfect little hill to build a church upon. For Jeffers property had to be earned. He had earned it, bought with monies he got paid from other lands, which he bought with monies he earned originally from labor in a dust-filthy mill. Everything he owned he’d earned. He wanted his son to earn it. James prated on about church, but Jeffers couldn’t listen to him. He was angry with RD, angry with himself. He was going to have to get rid of the little man, evict him.
“Anything else going on up there?” James asked.
“Did you get the squatters out the house?”
“You can’t do anything with the place until you get them out.”
Jeffers let out a meek huh, which his son didn’t respond to. He flicked the light back on and saw himself in the blacken window with a hand across his chest as if he were taking a pledge. His face was sullen. He smiled at himself, mirthless, false. When he stopped smiling the leaden expression returned. His son wasn’t speaking. Who was his confidant, Jeffers wondered.
“Don’t make any decision about that place before talking to me,” James said.
Jeffers didn’t respond.
James sighed on the other end and told his father goodnight.
Jeffers got up the next morning surprised he’d had a good night’s sleep. His feet were warm and when he stood he could feel them—he could feel the coolness of the floor. He was still angry, but he felt good and up to running off squatters. He would have to deal with RD soon and getting Ashcross taken care of would be one less thing to worry about. He’d foregone calling the police. In years past, just telling the squatters to leave did the trick. Sometimes he’d flash his pistol.
When he got to Ashcross he knocked on the front door and a young woman with a gaudy bloom of red- and yellow-dyed hair answered. She was very pregnant, and she smiled so brightly that Jeffers couldn’t help thinking of a flower he wished he could pick. The young woman said her name was Lucinda, but that everyone called her Panky.
He didn’t mention that he’d seen her before. He began by telling her that she was a squatter and that the property belonged to him. If she didn’t clear out immediately, he would have her arrested for trespassing and demand back-rent by garnering future earnings.
The young woman stood quietly as Jeffers finished speaking. After a few moments she spoke: “Someone told me and Toby it was empty and we could just stay a while until Toby got a job.”
“I am the landlord. I charge rent on the people who live here.”
“But it’s been empty for a long time.”
“That doesn’t mean anything.”
“But we have nowheres to go.”
He’d never felt sorry for squatters or tenants, but Panky’s festival hair, spray of freckles across her nose—her belly—released an unexpected shock of tenderness in his chest. He looked away, toward the trees and the catfish heads, as she continued to talk about their plucky intentions to stay briefly, have the baby, find a job for herself, find a better place. She just needed a little more time.
He hustled his pants around his haunchless hips. The weight of the pistol tugged on his trousers. His feet were going numb.
She was silent for a moment, and he looked back to see why she’d stopped talking. Then she said: “We could do some repairs on the house. Toby’s good with that. Let us stay here and we’ll fix it.”
He hustled his pants again. He felt squirmy. His legs were being subsumed. His mind snarled with untethered thoughts. The woman before him, unpleasantly steady, continued to plead for more time. Her words became senseless in his ears.
He needed her. Or someone like her. This sudden upstroke of clarity frightened him. He needed someone to relieve him of the unrelenting loneliness of the last few years, someone to care for him. He was going to need care. He was dying and she was about to give life. She couldn’t help it. Panky carried it inside her freely. He saw that.
Jeffers’ mouth palsied inward before he stammered: “Do I look sick to you?”
Panky took a step back: “Maybe a little.”
Jeffers stumbled forward: “How little?”
“What about my face?” He took another, cautious step forward.
She parried his gaze and reached back for the doorknob.
Something uncoiled itself within his body. For a moment, he believed he might have pissed himself, and he patted his crotch, checking for dampness. He took another step toward Panky. He murmured—he wasn’t sure what he had intended to say. He reached for his crotch, still not convinced that he hadn’t soiled his trousers. He felt his mouth gape inexplicably. Panky blurted: “Mister, I don’t know what you want.” He stumbled forward and clasped his hand on her shoulder. She smacked at his hand. His thumb bit into the meat between her collarbone and ribcage. Panky grimaced and threw Jeffers’ hand away.
He lurched forward: “I want you to tell me what I look like.”
“You look sick. Like an old man,” she said, swatting his hand as it reached out again.
“I am sick.”
“Do you need me to get help?”
“Yes. Yes.” He then turned and left the porch—Panky already behind the door. Jeffers heard scraping as if heavy furnishings were being drawn to block entry.
He cranked the truck and drove out of the pea-gravel drive. He wanted to howl or squall. He sensed he was running out of something. He gripped the steering wheel so tightly he felt the rubber give loose of the wheel inside the tubing.
He clenched his jaw until his partial denture bit into his gums and he could taste blood. He belched a laugh, or maybe it was a cry. He was stunned by how empty he felt. His crotch wasn’t wet, but the numbness swarmed his legs and was advancing upward, a gripping numbness combined with a pressure that seemed to gnaw at the bone. He could no longer sense how deeply he pressed the accelerator or the brake. He let out a yowl and then wondered for a half second if there was someone else in the pickup with him. And then he did it again.
When he got home, RD was on his porch steps, smoking a pipe.
He pulled his truck into the yard, coming as close to the porch as he could, got out, with the pistol in his hand, and walked slowly, purposefully, painfully the few steps to where RD sat, puffing, his lips drawn into a mirthful grin. All the bags of pennies were gone.
“That yours?” Jeffers asked, snatching the pipe out of RD’s mouth.
“Just smoking a little. There’s a God awful smell over there and just wanted to smell something sweet for a little bit.” RD cocked his head at the pistol: “That’s a nice one.”
“Maybe it’s that haint of yours stinking up the place. Is it house trained?”
“Where you been, landlord? You do some shooting?”
“What do you want, RD?”
“Call it what you like. It’s all the same to me.”
Jeffers collapsed in his porch chair, put the pistol across his lap, and cleaned RD’s spit off the mouthpiece of the pipe with a handkerchief.
“Smells like something died over there, Jeffers.”
“Well, she did.” Jeffers swatted at a fly that had landed on his arm.
RD looked at him darkly. “Something new.”
“Maybe you ought to clear out then, RD. Maybe it’s that haint. Or it might be my wives wanting the house for themselves. Maybe they’re tired of your laying about.”
“Maybe.” RD turned to leave. He spat a brown streak of spit in the yard. “When you’re ready to settle up, you know where I live.”
When RD was behind the pines, Jeffers exhaled a short strangled laugh, and then another, but it was more like a gasp. He placed the pistol on the little table beside him. His right leg twitched, his left crackled as if its very veins and capillaries were bursting. He rapped the pipe on the porch railing to clean out the tobacco RD had been smoking. He took out his pocketknife and scrapped the chamber clean; he lighted a match and burned the mouthpiece a little. He sighed and let his body rest for a few moments.
He reached under the chair where he kept a pack of tobacco. Its weight was wrong—too light. Jeffers spread the bag open. Dust, ash, dirt? He wasn’t sure. He leaned over and poured out the contents. Teeth fell out. Fragments of bone. The dog’s? LaRea’s? Another copy of the funeral bill lined the bottom of the tobacco bag. A small deduction had been made for the tobacco RD had smoked and the pennies.
A fly landed on his hand.
By the time he walked to the squat-gable house, he was sweating and quaking with a chill. The numbness in his legs scoured him bone to flesh. He didn’t know why he hadn’t driven the short distance. Impatient with RD’s games, he’d gotten out the lawn chair and shoved his pistol in his right front pocket and descended the porch steps half blind with anger.
He entered the front door with his own key and limped into the tiny living room, bare except for a tattered recliner and an empty TV stand with a midden of chicken bones and stale French fries littered across it. The smell of the dog was monstrous.
In the kitchen, empty bean cans lined the counter and most of the cabinet doors hung open. A spoon, crusted and unpolished, reclined in the sink. Jeffers could hear RD moving around in the back of the house. He listened for a few moments before continuing down the hall. He passed a slender closet, empty except for a lone, bent coathanger. He passed the bathroom, darkened and faintly urinous.
When he reached the bedroom, he was surprised by the vision of RD seized in a blade of dust-speckled sunlight—shirtless, his bones seemingly lifted to just under his skin. It was as if Famine itself stood before Jeffers in a swirl of ash and red-brown light. RD smiled at him.
As if heat lightning passed through the little house, he glimpsed a future and past. He re-imagined the death-rictus of his Ashcross renter long ago. His first wife’s closed coffin. He saw his own death—the paralysis, the absolute loss of modesty. His son, robed, offering up thanks to heaven for his Father and for land. Jeffers removed the pistol from his pocket, pointed it at RD and pulled the trigger. The little man snapped up in the dusty air and landed on his back.
He looked down upon the little man gasping, observed his twitching, witnessed a tiny spring of blood bubble up and then flow. RD grasped at his chest, his breath already shortening.
“What do you see?” Jeffers demanded
“What?” RD spat.
Jeffers crouched over RD and moved in close enough to feel the other’s moist breath: “What do you see?”
A half-smile, half-grimace palsied RD’s face, “I see you.” He rolled over and tried to stand.
Jeffers shoved RD back to the floor. He stepped to the window and drew the copper-colored curtains.
“You goin to get me some help?”
Jeffers turned from the window and in the cheap light raised the pistol and shot RD again. A shallow splatter of blood leapt from RD’s chest, a near-inaudible grunt left his mouth. Jeffers resumed his position over RD’s face.
“And now, do you see anything?”
RD squinted. “You got to help me.”
“What do you see?” Jeffers roared.
“You don’t have to pay that bill.”
Jeffers stepped away from the spread of blood. He pointed the pistol at RD again, but then didn’t shoot. He thought he saw some change in the little man: “What do you see?”
“You,” RD gasped. “I see you. Help me.”
Jeffers asked him again and again what he was seeing, but it didn’t change. Jeffers was in disbelief that he was awaiting a man so given to lies as RD to tell him the truth. RD tried to crawl. Jeffers struck him, and then again, thrashing like a man at labor. The little man curled tighter and clutched his head after each blow.
Finally both men were still. Jeffers leaned in. He turned RD’s head and held his crumpled cheek tenderly as a nurse might do. “What’s there? What do you see?”
There was no answer. RD was dead.
Jeffers sat for a spell in the recliner. With his index finger he pushed at the pile of dry chicken bones and withered fries. He could no longer smell the stench of the dog rotting in the chimney. He could feel his legs and feet, but knew it wouldn’t last long. He could sense the numbness creeping in again and he removed his shoes and socks so he could rub his toes. We are perched atop nothingness, Jeffers thought, we make up heavens, but we are atop nothing. He didn’t want to go home. He called his son.
They took his pistol, his belt, and the laces of his shoes, and put in the back of the patrol car. His son was running his mouth to the police. He couldn’t hear what was being said. He wanted his pipe, which still rested on the porch railing where he’d left it.
He was numb up to his waist.
As Jeffers began to close his eyes, the glimpse of a specter stopped him. In the distance, crouched between pine trees he saw something beautiful. She was unmistakable with an ornate flourish of hair, her round pregnant belly. She had come to his house, had come to see him, to help him. Jeffers stared at her, hoping that she would turn and look his way, see him behind the glass, give some forgiveness. He needed that gift. But she looked past him, watching James and the police. He wept dryly, knowing that he had earned nothing today. She turned to walk back into the pines. Jeffers watched the disappearing carnival of hair and the bubble of a cry burst from his lips.
‘Sorcery and sanctity,’ said Ambrose, ‘these are the only realities. Each is an ecstasy, a withdrawal from the common life.’
Cotgrave listened, interested. He had been brought by a friend to this mouldering house in a northern suburb, through an old garden to the room where Ambrose the recluse dozed and dreamed over his books.
‘Yes,’ he went on, ‘magic is justified of her children. There are many, I think, who eat dry crusts and drink water, with a joy infinitely sharper than anything within the experience of the “practical” epicure.’
‘You are speaking of the saints?’
‘Yes, and of the sinners, too. I think you are falling into the very general error of confining the spiritual world to the supremely good; but the supremely wicked, necessarily, have their portion in it. The merely carnal, sensual man can no more be a great sinner than he can be a great saint. Most of us are just indifferent, mixed-up creatures; we muddle through the world without realizing the meaning and the inner sense of things, and, consequently, our wickedness and our goodness are alike second-rate, unimportant.’
‘And you think the great sinner, then, will be an ascetic, as well as the great saint?’
‘Great people of all kinds forsake the imperfect copies and go to the perfect originals. I have no doubt but that many of the very highest among the saints have never done a “good action” (using the words in their ordinary sense). And, on the other hand, there have been those who have sounded the very depths of sin, who all their lives have never done an “ill deed.”’
He went out of the room for a moment, and Cotgrave, in high delight, turned to his friend and thanked him for the introduction.
‘He’s grand,’ he said. ‘I never saw that kind of lunatic before.’
Ambrose returned with more whisky and helped the two men in a liberal manner. He abused the teetotal sect with ferocity, as he handed the seltzer, and pouring out a glass of water for himself, was about to resume his monologue, when Cotgrave broke in —
‘I can’t stand it, you know,’ he said, ‘your paradoxes are too monstrous. A man may be a great sinner and yet never do anything sinful! Come!’
‘You’re quite wrong,’ said Ambrose. ‘I never make paradoxes; I wish I could. I merely said that a man may have an exquisite taste in Romanée Conti, and yet never have even smelt four ale. That’s all, and it’s more like a truism than a paradox, isn’t it? Your surprise at my remark is due to the fact that you haven’t realized what sin is. Oh, yes, there is a sort of connexion between Sin with the capital letter, and actions which are commonly called sinful: with murder, theft, adultery, and so forth. Much the same connexion that there is between the A, B, C and fine literature. But I believe that the misconception — it is all but universal — arises in great measure from our looking at the matter through social spectacles. We think that a man who does evil to us and to his neighbours must be very evil. So he is, from a social standpoint; but can’t you realize that Evil in its essence is a lonely thing, a passion of the solitary, individual soul? Really, the average murderer, quâ murderer, is not by any means a sinner in the true sense of the word. He is simply a wild beast that we have to get rid of to save our own necks from his knife. I should class him rather with tigers than with sinners.’
‘It seems a little strange.’
‘I think not. The murderer murders not from positive qualities, but from negative ones; he lacks something which non-murderers possess. Evil, of course, is wholly positive — only it is on the wrong side. You may believe me that sin in its proper sense is very rare; it is probable that there have been far fewer sinners than saints. Yes, your standpoint is all very well for practical, social purposes; we are naturally inclined to think that a person who is very disagreeable to us must be a very great sinner! It is very disagreeable to have one’s pocket picked, and we pronounce the thief to be a very great sinner. In truth, he is merely an undeveloped man. He cannot be a saint, of course; but he may be, and often is, an infinitely better creature than thousands who have never broken a single commandment. He is a great nuisance to us, I admit, and we very properly lock him up if we catch him; but between his troublesome and unsocial action and evil — Oh, the connexion is of the weakest.’
It was getting very late. The man who had brought Cotgrave had probably heard all this before, since he assisted with a bland and judicious smile, but Cotgrave began to think that his ‘lunatic’ was turning into a sage.
‘Do you know,’ he said, ‘you interest me immensely? You think, then, that we do not understand the real nature of evil?’
‘No, I don’t think we do. We over-estimate it and we under-estimate it. We take the very numerous infractions of our social “bye-laws”— the very necessary and very proper regulations which keep the human company together — and we get frightened at the prevalence of “sin” and “evil.” But this is really nonsense. Take theft, for example. Have you any horror at the thought of Robin Hood, of the Highland caterans of the seventeenth century, of the moss-troopers, of the company promoters of our day?
‘Then, on the other hand, we underrate evil. We attach such an enormous importance to the “sin” of meddling with our pockets (and our wives) that we have quite forgotten the awfulness of real sin.’
‘And what is sin?’ said Cotgrave.
‘I think I must reply to your question by another. What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror. I am sure of it. And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?
‘Well, these examples may give you some notion of what sin really is.’
‘Look here,’ said the third man, hitherto placid, ‘you two seem pretty well wound up. But I’m going home. I’ve missed my tram, and I shall have to walk.’
Ambrose and Cotgrave seemed to settle down more profoundly when the other had gone out into the early misty morning and the pale light of the lamps.
‘You astonish me,’ said Cotgrave. ‘I had never thought of that. If that is really so, one must turn everything upside down. Then the essence of sin really is ——’
‘In the taking of heaven by storm, it seems to me,’ said Ambrose. ‘It appears to me that it is simply an attempt to penetrate into another and higher sphere in a forbidden manner. You can understand why it is so rare. There are few, indeed, who wish to penetrate into other spheres, higher or lower, in ways allowed or forbidden. Men, in the mass, are amply content with life as they find it. Therefore there are few saints, and sinners (in the proper sense) are fewer still, and men of genius, who partake sometimes of each character, are rare also. Yes; on the whole, it is, perhaps, harder to be a great sinner than a great saint.’
‘There is something profoundly unnatural about Sin? Is that what you mean?’
‘Exactly. Holiness requires as great, or almost as great, an effort; but holiness works on lines that were natural once; it is an effort to recover the ecstasy that was before the Fall. But sin is an effort to gain the ecstasy and the knowledge that pertain alone to angels and in making this effort man becomes a demon. I told you that the mere murderer is not therefore a sinner; that is true, but the sinner is sometimes a murderer. Gilles de Raiz is an instance. So you see that while the good and the evil are unnatural to man as he now is — to man the social, civilized being — evil is unnatural in a much deeper sense than good. The saint endeavours to recover a gift which he has lost; the sinner tries to obtain something which was never his. In brief, he repeats the Fall.’
‘But are you a Catholic?’ said Cotgrave.
‘Yes; I am a member of the persecuted Anglican Church.’
‘Then, how about those texts which seem to reckon as sin that which you would set down as a mere trivial dereliction?’
‘Yes; but in one place the word “sorcerers” comes in the same sentence, doesn’t it? That seems to me to give the key-note. Consider: can you imagine for a moment that a false statement which saves an innocent man’s life is a sin? No; very good, then, it is not the mere liar who is excluded by those words; it is, above all, the “sorcerers” who use the material life, who use the failings incidental to material life as instruments to obtain their infinitely wicked ends. And let me tell you this: our higher senses are so blunted, we are so drenched with materialism, that we should probably fail to recognize real wickedness if we encountered it.’
‘But shouldn’t we experience a certain horror — a terror such as you hinted we would experience if a rose tree sang — in the mere presence of an evil man?’
‘We should if we were natural: children and women feel this horror you speak of, even animals experience it. But with most of us convention and civilization and education have blinded and deafened and obscured the natural reason. No, sometimes we may recognize evil by its hatred of the good — one doesn’t need much penetration to guess at the influence which dictated, quite unconsciously, the “Blackwood” review of Keats — but this is purely incidental; and, as a rule, I suspect that the Hierarchs of Tophet pass quite unnoticed, or, perhaps, in certain cases, as good but mistaken men.’
‘But you used the word “unconscious” just now, of Keats’ reviewers. Is wickedness ever unconscious?’
‘Always. It must be so. It is like holiness and genius in this as in other points; it is a certain rapture or ecstasy of the soul; a transcendent effort to surpass the ordinary bounds. So, surpassing these, it surpasses also the understanding, the faculty that takes note of that which comes before it. No, a man may be infinitely and horribly wicked and never suspect it. But I tell you, evil in this, its certain and true sense, is rare, and I think it is growing rarer.’
‘I am trying to get hold of it all,’ said Cotgrave. From what you say, I gather that the true evil differs generically from that which we call evil?’
‘Quite so. There is, no doubt, an analogy between the two; a resemblance such as enables us to use, quite legitimately, such terms as the “foot of the mountain” and the “leg of the table.” And, sometimes, of course, the two speak, as it were, in the same language. The rough miner, or “puddler,” the untrained, undeveloped “tiger-man,” heated by a quart or two above his usual measure, comes home and kicks his irritating and injudicious wife to death. He is a murderer. And Gilles de Raiz was a murderer. But you see the gulf that separates the two? The “word,” if I may so speak, is accidentally the same in each case, but the “meaning” is utterly different. It is flagrant “Hobson Jobson” to confuse the two, or rather, it is as if one supposed that Juggernaut and the Argonauts had something to do etymologically with one another. And no doubt the same weak likeness, or analogy, runs between all the “social” sins and the real spiritual sins, and in some cases, perhaps, the lesser may be “schoolmasters” to lead one on to the greater — from the shadow to the reality. If you are anything of a Theologian, you will see the importance of all this.’
‘I am sorry to say,’ remarked Cotgrave, ‘that I have devoted very little of my time to theology. Indeed, I have often wondered on what grounds theologians have claimed the title of Science of Sciences for their favourite study; since the “theological” books I have looked into have always seemed to me to be concerned with feeble and obvious pieties, or with the kings of Israel and Judah. I do not care to hear about those kings.’
‘We must try to avoid theological discussion,’ he said. ‘I perceive that you would be a bitter disputant. But perhaps the “dates of the kings” have as much to do with theology as the hobnails of the murderous puddler with evil.’
‘Then, to return to our main subject, you think that sin is an esoteric, occult thing?’
‘Yes. It is the infernal miracle as holiness is the supernal. Now and then it is raised to such a pitch that we entirely fail to suspect its existence; it is like the note of the great pedal pipes of the organ, which is so deep that we cannot hear it. In other cases it may lead to the lunatic asylum, or to still stranger issues. But you must never confuse it with mere social misdoing. Remember how the Apostle, speaking of the “other side,” distinguishes between “charitable” actions and charity. And as one may give all one’s goods to the poor, and yet lack charity; so, remember, one may avoid every crime and yet be a sinner.’
‘Your psychology is very strange to me,’ said Cotgrave, ‘but I confess I like it, and I suppose that one might fairly deduce from your premisses the conclusion that the real sinner might very possibly strike the observer as a harmless personage enough?’
‘Certainly, because the true evil has nothing to do with social life or social laws, or if it has, only incidentally and accidentally. It is a lonely passion of the soul — or a passion of the lonely soul — whichever you like. If, by chance, we understand it, and grasp its full significance, then, indeed, it will fill us with horror and with awe. But this emotion is widely distinguished from the fear and the disgust with which we regard the ordinary criminal, since this latter is largely or entirely founded on the regard which we have for our own skins or purses. We hate a murder, because we know that we should hate to be murdered, or to have any one that we like murdered. So, on the “other side,” we venerate the saints, but we don’t “like” them as well as our friends. Can you persuade yourself that you would have “enjoyed” St. Paul’s company? Do you think that you and I would have “got on” with Sir Galahad?
‘So with the sinners, as with the saints. If you met a very evil man, and recognized his evil; he would, no doubt, fill you with horror and awe; but there is no reason why you should “dislike” him. On the contrary, it is quite possible that if you could succeed in putting the sin out of your mind you might find the sinner capital company, and in a little while you might have to reason yourself back into horror. Still, how awful it is. If the roses and the lilies suddenly sang on this coming morning; if the furniture began to move in procession, as in De Maupassant’s tale!’
‘I am glad you have come back to that comparison,’ said Cotgrave, ‘because I wanted to ask you what it is that corresponds in humanity to these imaginary feats of inanimate things. In a word — what is sin? You have given me, I know, an abstract definition, but I should like a concrete example.’
‘I told you it was very rare,’ said Ambrose, who appeared willing to avoid the giving of a direct answer. ‘The materialism of the age, which has done a good deal to suppress sanctity, has done perhaps more to suppress evil. We find the earth so very comfortable that we have no inclination either for ascents or descents. It would seem as if the scholar who decided to “specialize” in Tophet, would be reduced to purely antiquarian researches. No palaeontologist could show you a live pterodactyl.’
‘And yet you, I think, have “specialized,” and I believe that your researches have descended to our modern times.’
‘You are really interested, I see. Well, I confess, that I have dabbled a little, and if you like I can show you something that bears on the very curious subject we have been discussing.’
Ambrose took a candle and went away to a far, dim corner of the room. Cotgrave saw him open a venerable bureau that stood there, and from some secret recess he drew out a parcel, and came back to the window where they had been sitting.
Ambrose undid a wrapping of paper, and produced a green pocket-book.
‘You will take care of it?’ he said. ‘Don’t leave it lying about. It is one of the choicer pieces in my collection, and I should be very sorry if it were lost.’
He fondled the faded binding.
‘I knew the girl who wrote this,’ he said. ‘When you read it, you will see how it illustrates the talk we have had to-night. There is a sequel, too, but I won’t talk of that.
‘There was an odd article in one of the reviews some months ago,’ he began again, with the air of a man who changes the subject. ‘It was written by a doctor — Dr. Coryn, I think, was the name. He says that a lady, watching her little girl playing at the drawing-room window, suddenly saw the heavy sash give way and fall on the child’s fingers. The lady fainted, I think, but at any rate the doctor was summoned, and when he had dressed the child’s wounded and maimed fingers he was summoned to the mother. She was groaning with pain, and it was found that three fingers of her hand, corresponding with those that had been injured on the child’s hand, were swollen and inflamed, and later, in the doctor’s language, purulent sloughing set in.’
Ambrose still handled delicately the green volume.
‘Well, here it is,’ he said at last, parting with difficulty, it seemed, from his treasure.
‘You will bring it back as soon as you have read it,’ he said, as they went out into the hall, into the old garden, faint with the odour of white lilies.
There was a broad red band in the east as Cotgrave turned to go, and from the high ground where he stood he saw that awful spectacle of London in a dream
The Green Book
The morocco binding of the book was faded, and the colour had grown faint, but there were no stains nor bruises nor marks of usage. The book looked as if it had been bought ‘on a visit to London’ some seventy or eighty years ago, and had somehow been forgotten and suffered to lie away out of sight. There was an old, delicate, lingering odour about it, such an odour as sometimes haunts an ancient piece of furniture for a century or more. The end-papers, inside the binding, were oddly decorated with coloured patterns and faded gold. It looked small, but the paper was fine, and there were many leaves, closely covered with minute, painfully formed characters.
I found this book (the manuscript began) in a drawer in the old bureau that stands on the landing. It was a very rainy day and I could not go out, so in the afternoon I got a candle and rummaged in the bureau. Nearly all the drawers were full of old dresses, but one of the small ones looked empty, and I found this book hidden right at the back. I wanted a book like this, so I took it to write in. It is full of secrets. I have a great many other books of secrets I have written, hidden in a safe place, and I am going to write here many of the old secrets and some new ones; but there are some I shall not put down at all. I must not write down the real names of the days and months which I found out a year ago, nor the way to make the Aklo letters, or the Chian language, or the great beautiful Circles, nor the Mao Games, nor the chief songs. I may write something about all these things but not the way to do them, for peculiar reasons. And I must not say who the Nymphs are, or the Dôls, or Jeelo, or what voolas mean. All these are most secret secrets, and I am glad when I remember what they are, and how many wonderful languages I know, but there are some things that I call the secrets of the secrets of the secrets that I dare not think of unless I am quite alone, and then I shut my eyes, and put my hands over them and whisper the word, and the Alala comes. I only do this at night in my room or in certain woods that I know, but I must not describe them, as they are secret woods. Then there are the Ceremonies, which are all of them important, but some are more delightful than others — there are the White Ceremonies, and the Green Ceremonies, and the Scarlet Ceremonies. The Scarlet Ceremonies are the best, but there is only one place where they can be performed properly, though there is a very nice imitation which I have done in other places. Besides these, I have the dances, and the Comedy, and I have done the Comedy sometimes when the others were looking, and they didn’t understand anything about it. I was very little when I first knew about these things.
When I was very small, and mother was alive, I can remember remembering things before that, only it has all got confused. But I remember when I was five or six I heard them talking about me when they thought I was not noticing. They were saying how queer I was a year or two before, and how nurse had called my mother to come and listen to me talking all to myself, and I was saying words that nobody could understand. I was speaking the Xu language, but I only remember a very few of the words, as it was about the little white faces that used to look at me when I was lying in my cradle. They used to talk to me, and I learnt their language and talked to them in it about some great white place where they lived, where the trees and the grass were all white, and there were white hills as high up as the moon, and a cold wind. I have often dreamed of it afterwards, but the faces went away when I was very little. But a wonderful thing happened when I was about five. My nurse was carrying me on her shoulder; there was a field of yellow corn, and we went through it, it was very hot. Then we came to a path through a wood, and a tall man came after us, and went with us till we came to a place where there was a deep pool, and it was very dark and shady. Nurse put me down on the soft moss under a tree, and she said: ‘She can’t get to the pond now.’ So they left me there, and I sat quite still and watched, and out of the water and out of the wood came two wonderful white people, and they began to play and dance and sing. They were a kind of creamy white like the old ivory figure in the drawing-room; one was a beautiful lady with kind dark eyes, and a grave face, and long black hair, and she smiled such a strange sad smile at the other, who laughed and came to her. They played together, and danced round and round the pool, and they sang a song till I fell asleep. Nurse woke me up when she came back, and she was looking something like the lady had looked, so I told her all about it, and asked her why she looked like that. At first she cried, and then she looked very frightened, and turned quite pale. She put me down on the grass and stared at me, and I could see she was shaking all over. Then she said I had been dreaming, but I knew I hadn’t. Then she made me promise not to say a word about it to anybody, and if I did I should be thrown into the black pit. I was not frightened at all, though nurse was, and I never forgot about it, because when I shut my eyes and it was quite quiet, and I was all alone, I could see them again, very faint and far away, but very splendid; and little bits of the song they sang came into my head, but I couldn’t sing it.
I was thirteen, nearly fourteen, when I had a very singular adventure, so strange that the day on which it happened is always called the White Day. My mother had been dead for more than a year, and in the morning I had lessons, but they let me go out for walks in the afternoon. And this afternoon I walked a new way, and a little brook led me into a new country, but I tore my frock getting through some of the difficult places, as the way was through many bushes, and beneath the low branches of trees, and up thorny thickets on the hills, and by dark woods full of creeping thorns. And it was a long, long way. It seemed as if I was going on for ever and ever, and I had to creep by a place like a tunnel where a brook must have been, but all the water had dried up, and the floor was rocky, and the bushes had grown overhead till they met, so that it was quite dark. And I went on and on through that dark place; it was a long, long way. And I came to a hill that I never saw before. I was in a dismal thicket full of black twisted boughs that tore me as I went through them, and I cried out because I was smarting all over, and then I found that I was climbing, and I went up and up a long way, till at last the thicket stopped and I came out crying just under the top of a big bare place, where there were ugly grey stones lying all about on the grass, and here and there a little twisted, stunted tree came out from under a stone, like a snake. And I went up, right to the top, a long way. I never saw such big ugly stones before; they came out of the earth some of them, and some looked as if they had been rolled to where they were, and they went on and on as far as I could see, a long, long way. I looked out from them and saw the country, but it was strange. It was winter time, and there were black terrible woods hanging from the hills all round; it was like seeing a large room hung with black curtains, and the shape of the trees seemed quite different from any I had ever seen before. I was afraid. Then beyond the woods there were other hills round in a great ring, but I had never seen any of them; it all looked black, and everything had a voor over it. It was all so still and silent, and the sky was heavy and grey and sad, like a wicked voorish dome in Deep Dendo. I went on into the dreadful rocks. There were hundreds and hundreds of them. Some were like horrid-grinning men; I could see their faces as if they would jump at me out of the stone, and catch hold of me, and drag me with them back into the rock, so that I should always be there. And there were other rocks that were like animals, creeping, horrible animals, putting out their tongues, and others were like words that I could not say, and others like dead people lying on the grass. I went on among them, though they frightened me, and my heart was full of wicked songs that they put into it; and I wanted to make faces and twist myself about in the way they did, and I went on and on a long way till at last I liked the rocks, and they didn’t frighten me any more. I sang the songs I thought of; songs full of words that must not be spoken or written down. Then I made faces like the faces on the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones, and I went up to one that was grinning, and put my arms round him and hugged him. And so I went on and on through the rocks till I came to a round mound in the middle of them. It was higher than a mound, it was nearly as high as our house, and it was like a great basin turned upside down, all smooth and round and green, with one stone, like a post, sticking up at the top. I climbed up the sides, but they were so steep I had to stop or I should have rolled all the way down again, and I should have knocked against the stones at the bottom, and perhaps been killed. But I wanted to get up to the very top of the big round mound, so I lay down flat on my face, and took hold of the grass with my hands and drew myself up, bit by bit, till I was at the top. Then I sat down on the stone in the middle, and looked all round about. I felt I had come such a long, long way, just as if I were a hundred miles from home, or in some other country, or in one of the strange places I had read about in the ‘Tales of the Genie’ and the ‘Arabian Nights,’ or as if I had gone across the sea, far away, for years and I had found another world that nobody had ever seen or heard of before, or as if I had somehow flown through the sky and fallen on one of the stars I had read about where everything is dead and cold and grey, and there is no air, and the wind doesn’t blow. I sat on the stone and looked all round and down and round about me. It was just as if I was sitting on a tower in the middle of a great empty town, because I could see nothing all around but the grey rocks on the ground. I couldn’t make out their shapes any more, but I could see them on and on for a long way, and I looked at them, and they seemed as if they had been arranged into patterns, and shapes, and figures. I knew they couldn’t be, because I had seen a lot of them coming right out of the earth, joined to the deep rocks below, so I looked again, but still I saw nothing but circles, and small circles inside big ones, and pyramids, and domes, and spires, and they seemed all to go round and round the place where I was sitting, and the more I looked, the more I saw great big rings of rocks, getting bigger and bigger, and I stared so long that it felt as if they were all moving and turning, like a great wheel, and I was turning, too, in the middle. I got quite dizzy and queer in the head, and everything began to be hazy and not clear, and I saw little sparks of blue light, and the stones looked as if they were springing and dancing and twisting as they went round and round and round. I was frightened again, and I cried out loud, and jumped up from the stone I was sitting on, and fell down. When I got up I was so glad they all looked still, and I sat down on the top and slid down the mound, and went on again. I danced as I went in the peculiar way the rocks had danced when I got giddy, and I was so glad I could do it quite well, and I danced and danced along, and sang extraordinary songs that came into my head. At last I came to the edge of that great flat hill, and there were no more rocks, and the way went again through a dark thicket in a hollow. It was just as bad as the other one I went through climbing up, but I didn’t mind this one, because I was so glad I had seen those singular dances and could imitate them. I went down, creeping through the bushes, and a tall nettle stung me on my leg, and made me burn, but I didn’t mind it, and I tingled with the boughs and the thorns, but I only laughed and sang. Then I got out of the thicket into a close valley, a little secret place like a dark passage that nobody ever knows of, because it was so narrow and deep and the woods were so thick round it. There is a steep bank with trees hanging over it, and there the ferns keep green all through the winter, when they are dead and brown upon the hill, and the ferns there have a sweet, rich smell like what oozes out of fir trees. There was a little stream of water running down this valley, so small that I could easily step across it. I drank the water with my hand, and it tasted like bright, yellow wine, and it sparkled and bubbled as it ran down over beautiful red and yellow and green stones, so that it seemed alive and all colours at once. I drank it, and I drank more with my hand, but I couldn’t drink enough, so I lay down and bent my head and sucked the water up with my lips. It tasted much better, drinking it that way, and a ripple would come up to my mouth and give me a kiss, and I laughed, and drank again, and pretended there was a nymph, like the one in the old picture at home, who lived in the water and was kissing me. So I bent low down to the water, and put my lips softly to it, and whispered to the nymph that I would come again. I felt sure it could not be common water, I was so glad when I got up and went on; and I danced again and went up and up the valley, under hanging hills. And when I came to the top, the ground rose up in front of me, tall and steep as a wall, and there was nothing but the green wall and the sky. I thought of ‘for ever and for ever, world without end, Amen’; and I thought I must have really found the end of the world, because it was like the end of everything, as if there could be nothing at all beyond, except the kingdom of Voor, where the light goes when it is put out, and the water goes when the sun takes it away. I began to think of all the long, long way I had journeyed, how I had found a brook and followed it, and followed it on, and gone through bushes and thorny thickets, and dark woods full of creeping thorns. Then I had crept up a tunnel under trees, and climbed a thicket, and seen all the grey rocks, and sat in the middle of them when they turned round, and then I had gone on through the grey rocks and come down the hill through the stinging thicket and up the dark valley, all a long, long way. I wondered how I should get home again, if I could ever find the way, and if my home was there any more, or if it were turned and everybody in it into grey rocks, as in the Arabian Nights. So I sat down on the grass and thought what I should do next. I was tired, and my feet were hot with walking, and as I looked about I saw there was a wonderful well just under the high, steep wall of grass. All the ground round it was covered with bright, green, dripping moss; there was every kind of moss there, moss like beautiful little ferns, and like palms and fir trees, and it was all green as jewellery, and drops of water hung on it like diamonds. And in the middle was the great well, deep and shining and beautiful, so clear that it looked as if I could touch the red sand at the bottom, but it was far below. I stood by it and looked in, as if I were looking in a glass. At the bottom of the well, in the middle of it, the red grains of sand were moving and stirring all the time, and I saw how the water bubbled up, but at the top it was quite smooth, and full and brimming. It was a great well, large like a bath, and with the shining, glittering green moss about it, it looked like a great white jewel, with green jewels all round. My feet were so hot and tired that I took off my boots and stockings, and let my feet down into the water, and the water was soft and cold, and when I got up I wasn’t tired any more, and I felt I must go on, farther and farther, and see what was on the other side of the wall. I climbed up it very slowly, going sideways all the time, and when I got to the top and looked over, I was in the queerest country I had seen, stranger even than the hill of the grey rocks. It looked as if earth-children had been playing there with their spades, as it was all hills and hollows, and castles and walls made of earth and covered with grass. There were two mounds like big beehives, round and great and solemn, and then hollow basins, and then a steep mounting wall like the ones I saw once by the seaside where the big guns and the soldiers were. I nearly fell into one of the round hollows, it went away from under my feet so suddenly, and I ran fast down the side and stood at the bottom and looked up. It was strange and solemn to look up. There was nothing but the grey, heavy sky and the sides of the hollow; everything else had gone away, and the hollow was the whole world, and I thought that at night it must be full of ghosts and moving shadows and pale things when the moon shone down to the bottom at the dead of the night, and the wind wailed up above. It was so strange and solemn and lonely, like a hollow temple of dead heathen gods. It reminded me of a tale my nurse had told me when I was quite little; it was the same nurse that took me into the wood where I saw the beautiful white people. And I remembered how nurse had told me the story one winter night, when the wind was beating the trees against the wall, and crying and moaning in the nursery chimney. She said there was, somewhere or other, a hollow pit, just like the one I was standing in, everybody was afraid to go into it or near it, it was such a bad place. But once upon a time there was a poor girl who said she would go into the hollow pit, and everybody tried to stop her, but she would go. And she went down into the pit and came back laughing, and said there was nothing there at all, except green grass and red stones, and white stones and yellow flowers. And soon after people saw she had most beautiful emerald earrings, and they asked how she got them, as she and her mother were quite poor. But she laughed, and said her earrings were not made of emeralds at all, but only of green grass. Then, one day, she wore on her breast the reddest ruby that any one had ever seen, and it was as big as a hen’s egg, and glowed and sparkled like a hot burning coal of fire. And they asked how she got it, as she and her mother were quite poor. But she laughed, and said it was not a ruby at all, but only a red stone. Then one day she wore round her neck the loveliest necklace that any one had ever seen, much finer than the queen’s finest, and it was made of great bright diamonds, hundreds of them, and they shone like all the stars on a night in June. So they asked her how she got it, as she and her mother were quite poor. But she laughed, and said they were not diamonds at all, but only white stones. And one day she went to the Court, and she wore on her head a crown of pure angel-gold, so nurse said, and it shone like the sun, and it was much more splendid than the crown the king was wearing himself, and in her ears she wore the emeralds, and the big ruby was the brooch on her breast, and the great diamond necklace was sparkling on her neck. And the king and queen thought she was some great princess from a long way off, and got down from their thrones and went to meet her, but somebody told the king and queen who she was, and that she was quite poor. So the king asked why she wore a gold crown, and how she got it, as she and her mother were so poor. And she laughed, and said it wasn’t a gold crown at all, but only some yellow flowers she had put in her hair. And the king thought it was very strange, and said she should stay at the Court, and they would see what would happen next. And she was so lovely that everybody said that her eyes were greener than the emeralds, that her lips were redder than the ruby, that her skin was whiter than the diamonds, and that her hair was brighter than the golden crown. So the king’s son said he would marry her, and the king said he might. And the bishop married them, and there was a great supper, and afterwards the king’s son went to his wife’s room. But just when he had his hand on the door, he saw a tall, black man, with a dreadful face, standing in front of the door, and a voice said —
Venture not upon your life,
This is mine own wedded wife.
Then the king’s son fell down on the ground in a fit. And they came and tried to get into the room, but they couldn’t, and they hacked at the door with hatchets, but the wood had turned hard as iron, and at last everybody ran away, they were so frightened at the screaming and laughing and shrieking and crying that came out of the room. But next day they went in, and found there was nothing in the room but thick black smoke, because the black man had come and taken her away. And on the bed there were two knots of faded grass and a red stone, and some white stones, and some faded yellow flowers. I remembered this tale of nurse’s while I was standing at the bottom of the deep hollow; it was so strange and solitary there, and I felt afraid. I could not see any stones or flowers, but I was afraid of bringing them away without knowing, and I thought I would do a charm that came into my head to keep the black man away. So I stood right in the very middle of the hollow, and I made sure that I had none of those things on me, and then I walked round the place, and touched my eyes, and my lips, and my hair in a peculiar manner, and whispered some queer words that nurse taught me to keep bad things away. Then I felt safe and climbed up out of the hollow, and went on through all those mounds and hollows and walls, till I came to the end, which was high above all the rest, and I could see that all the different shapes of the earth were arranged in patterns, something like the grey rocks, only the pattern was different. It was getting late, and the air was indistinct, but it looked from where I was standing something like two great figures of people lying on the grass. And I went on, and at last I found a certain wood, which is too secret to be described, and nobody knows of the passage into it, which I found out in a very curious manner, by seeing some little animal run into the wood through it. So I went after the animal by a very narrow dark way, under thorns and bushes, and it was almost dark when I came to a kind of open place in the middle. And there I saw the most wonderful sight I have ever seen, but it was only for a minute, as I ran away directly, and crept out of the wood by the passage I had come by, and ran and ran as fast as ever I could, because I was afraid, what I had seen was so wonderful and so strange and beautiful. But I wanted to get home and think of it, and I did not know what might not happen if I stayed by the wood. I was hot all over and trembling, and my heart was beating, and strange cries that I could not help came from me as I ran from the wood. I was glad that a great white moon came up from over a round hill and showed me the way, so I went back through the mounds and hollows and down the close valley, and up through the thicket over the place of the grey rocks, and so at last I got home again. My father was busy in his study, and the servants had not told about my not coming home, though they were frightened, and wondered what they ought to do, so I told them I had lost my way, but I did not let them find out the real way I had been. I went to bed and lay awake all through the night, thinking of what I had seen. When I came out of the narrow way, and it looked all shining, though the air was dark, it seemed so certain, and all the way home I was quite sure that I had seen it, and I wanted to be alone in my room, and be glad over it all to myself, and shut my eyes and pretend it was there, and do all the things I would have done if I had not been so afraid. But when I shut my eyes the sight would not come, and I began to think about my adventures all over again, and I remembered how dusky and queer it was at the end, and I was afraid it must be all a mistake, because it seemed impossible it could happen. It seemed like one of nurse’s tales, which I didn’t really believe in, though I was frightened at the bottom of the hollow; and the stories she told me when I was little came back into my head, and I wondered whether it was really there what I thought I had seen, or whether any of her tales could have happened a long time ago. It was so queer; I lay awake there in my room at the back of the house, and the moon was shining on the other side towards the river, so the bright light did not fall upon the wall. And the house was quite still. I had heard my father come upstairs, and just after the clock struck twelve, and after the house was still and empty, as if there was nobody alive in it. And though it was all dark and indistinct in my room, a pale glimmering kind of light shone in through the white blind, and once I got up and looked out, and there was a great black shadow of the house covering the garden, looking like a prison where men are hanged; and then beyond it was all white; and the wood shone white with black gulfs between the trees. It was still and clear, and there were no clouds on the sky. I wanted to think of what I had seen but I couldn’t, and I began to think of all the tales that nurse had told me so long ago that I thought I had forgotten, but they all came back, and mixed up with the thickets and the grey rocks and the hollows in the earth and the secret wood, till I hardly knew what was new and what was old, or whether it was not all dreaming. And then I remembered that hot summer afternoon, so long ago, when nurse left me by myself in the shade, and the white people came out of the water and out of the wood, and played, and danced, and sang, and I began to fancy that nurse told me about something like it before I saw them, only I couldn’t recollect exactly what she told me. Then I wondered whether she had been the white lady, as I remembered she was just as white and beautiful, and had the same dark eyes and black hair; and sometimes she smiled and looked like the lady had looked, when she was telling me some of her stories, beginning with ‘Once on a time,’ or ‘In the time of the fairies.’ But I thought she couldn’t be the lady, as she seemed to have gone a different way into the wood, and I didn’t think the man who came after us could be the other, or I couldn’t have seen that wonderful secret in the secret wood. I thought of the moon: but it was afterwards when I was in the middle of the wild land, where the earth was made into the shape of great figures, and it was all walls, and mysterious hollows, and smooth round mounds, that I saw the great white moon come up over a round hill. I was wondering about all these things, till at last I got quite frightened, because I was afraid something had happened to me, and I remembered nurse’s tale of the poor girl who went into the hollow pit, and was carried away at last by the black man. I knew I had gone into a hollow pit too, and perhaps it was the same, and I had done something dreadful. So I did the charm over again, and touched my eyes and my lips and my hair in a peculiar manner, and said the old words from the fairy language, so that I might be sure I had not been carried away. I tried again to see the secret wood, and to creep up the passage and see what I had seen there, but somehow I couldn’t, and I kept on thinking of nurse’s stories. There was one I remembered about a young man who once upon a time went hunting, and all the day he and his hounds hunted everywhere, and they crossed the rivers and went into all the woods, and went round the marshes, but they couldn’t find anything at all, and they hunted all day till the sun sank down and began to set behind the mountain. And the young man was angry because he couldn’t find anything, and he was going to turn back, when just as the sun touched the mountain, he saw come out of a brake in front of him a beautiful white stag. And he cheered to his hounds, but they whined and would not follow, and he cheered to his horse, but it shivered and stood stock still, and the young man jumped off the horse and left the hounds and began to follow the white stag all alone. And soon it was quite dark, and the sky was black, without a single star shining in it, and the stag went away into the darkness. And though the man had brought his gun with him he never shot at the stag, because he wanted to catch it, and he was afraid he would lose it in the night. But he never lost it once, though the sky was so black and the air was so dark, and the stag went on and on till the young man didn’t know a bit where he was. And they went through enormous woods where the air was full of whispers and a pale, dead light came out from the rotten trunks that were lying on the ground, and just as the man thought he had lost the stag, he would see it all white and shining in front of him, and he would run fast to catch it, but the stag always ran faster, so he did not catch it. And they went through the enormous woods, and they swam across rivers, and they waded through black marshes where the ground bubbled, and the air was full of will-o’-the-wisps, and the stag fled away down into rocky narrow valleys, where the air was like the smell of a vault, and the man went after it. And they went over the great mountains and the man heard the wind come down from the sky, and the stag went on and the man went after. At last the sun rose and the young man found he was in a country that he had never seen before; it was a beautiful valley with a bright stream running through it, and a great, big round hill in the middle. And the stag went down the valley, towards the hill, and it seemed to be getting tired and went slower and slower, and though the man was tired, too, he began to run faster, and he was sure he would catch the stag at last. But just as they got to the bottom of the hill, and the man stretched out his hand to catch the stag, it vanished into the earth, and the man began to cry; he was so sorry that he had lost it after all his long hunting. But as he was crying he saw there was a door in the hill, just in front of him, and he went in, and it was quite dark, but he went on, as he thought he would find the white stag. And all of a sudden it got light, and there was the sky, and the sun shining, and birds singing in the trees, and there was a beautiful fountain. And by the fountain a lovely lady was sitting, who was the queen of the fairies, and she told the man that she had changed herself into a stag to bring him there because she loved him so much. Then she brought out a great gold cup, covered with jewels, from her fairy palace, and she offered him wine in the cup to drink. And he drank, and the more he drank the more he longed to drink, because the wine was enchanted. So he kissed the lovely lady, and she became his wife, and he stayed all that day and all that night in the hill where she lived, and when he woke he found he was lying on the ground, close to where he had seen the stag first, and his horse was there and his hounds were there waiting, and he looked up, and the sun sank behind the mountain. And he went home and lived a long time, but he would never kiss any other lady because he had kissed the queen of the fairies, and he would never drink common wine any more, because he had drunk enchanted wine. And sometimes nurse told me tales that she had heard from her great-grandmother, who was very old, and lived in a cottage on the mountain all alone, and most of these tales were about a hill where people used to meet at night long ago, and they used to play all sorts of strange games and do queer things that nurse told me of, but I couldn’t understand, and now, she said, everybody but her great-grandmother had forgotten all about it, and nobody knew where the hill was, not even her great-grandmother. But she told me one very strange story about the hill, and I trembled when I remembered it. She said that people always went there in summer, when it was very hot, and they had to dance a good deal. It would be all dark at first, and there were trees there, which made it much darker, and people would come, one by one, from all directions, by a secret path which nobody else knew, and two persons would keep the gate, and every one as they came up had to give a very curious sign, which nurse showed me as well as she could, but she said she couldn’t show me properly. And all kinds of people would come; there would be gentle folks and village folks, and some old people and boys and girls, and quite small children, who sat and watched. And it would all be dark as they came in, except in one corner where some one was burning something that smelt strong and sweet, and made them laugh, and there one would see a glaring of coals, and the smoke mounting up red. So they would all come in, and when the last had come there was no door any more, so that no one else could get in, even if they knew there was anything beyond. And once a gentleman who was a stranger and had ridden a long way, lost his path at night, and his horse took him into the very middle of the wild country, where everything was upside down, and there were dreadful marshes and great stones everywhere, and holes underfoot, and the trees looked like gibbet-posts, because they had great black arms that stretched out across the way. And this strange gentleman was very frightened, and his horse began to shiver all over, and at last it stopped and wouldn’t go any farther, and the gentleman got down and tried to lead the horse, but it wouldn’t move, and it was all covered with a sweat, like death. So the gentleman went on all alone, going farther and farther into the wild country, till at last he came to a dark place, where he heard shouting and singing and crying, like nothing he had ever heard before. It all sounded quite close to him, but he couldn’t get in, and so he began to call, and while he was calling, something came behind him, and in a minute his mouth and arms and legs were all bound up, and he fell into a swoon. And when he came to himself, he was lying by the roadside, just where he had first lost his way, under a blasted oak with a black trunk, and his horse was tied beside him. So he rode on to the town and told the people there what had happened, and some of them were amazed; but others knew. So when once everybody had come, there was no door at all for anybody else to pass in by. And when they were all inside, round in a ring, touching each other, some one began to sing in the darkness, and some one else would make a noise like thunder with a thing they had on purpose, and on still nights people would hear the thundering noise far, far away beyond the wild land, and some of them, who thought they knew what it was, used to make a sign on their breasts when they woke up in their beds at dead of night and heard that terrible deep noise, like thunder on the mountains. And the noise and the singing would go on and on for a long time, and the people who were in a ring swayed a little to and fro; and the song was in an old, old language that nobody knows now, and the tune was queer. Nurse said her great-grandmother had known some one who remembered a little of it, when she was quite a little girl, and nurse tried to sing some of it to me, and it was so strange a tune that I turned all cold and my flesh crept as if I had put my hand on something dead. Sometimes it was a man that sang and sometimes it was a woman, and sometimes the one who sang it did it so well that two or three of the people who were there fell to the ground shrieking and tearing with their hands. The singing went on, and the people in the ring kept swaying to and fro for a long time, and at last the moon would rise over a place they called the Tole Deol, and came up and showed them swinging and swaying from side to side, with the sweet thick smoke curling up from the burning coals, and floating in circles all around them. Then they had their supper. A boy and a girl brought it to them; the boy carried a great cup of wine, and the girl carried a cake of bread, and they passed the bread and the wine round and round, but they tasted quite different from common bread and common wine, and changed everybody that tasted them. Then they all rose up and danced, and secret things were brought out of some hiding place, and they played extraordinary games, and danced round and round and round in the moonlight, and sometimes people would suddenly disappear and never be heard of afterwards, and nobody knew what had happened to them. And they drank more of that curious wine, and they made images and worshipped them, and nurse showed me how the images were made one day when we were out for a walk, and we passed by a place where there was a lot of wet clay. So nurse asked me if I would like to know what those things were like that they made on the hill, and I said yes. Then she asked me if I would promise never to tell a living soul a word about it, and if I did I was to be thrown into the black pit with the dead people, and I said I wouldn’t tell anybody, and she said the same thing again and again, and I promised. So she took my wooden spade and dug a big lump of clay and put it in my tin bucket, and told me to say if any one met us that I was going to make pies when I went home. Then we went on a little way till we came to a little brake growing right down into the road, and nurse stopped, and looked up the road and down it, and then peeped through the hedge into the field on the other side, and then she said, “Quick!” and we ran into the brake, and crept in and out among the bushes till we had gone a good way from the road. Then we sat down under a bush, and I wanted so much to know what nurse was going to make with the clay, but before she would begin she made me promise again not to say a word about it, and she went again and peeped through the bushes on every side, though the lane was so small and deep that hardly anybody ever went there. So we sat down, and nurse took the clay out of the bucket, and began to knead it with her hands, and do queer things with it, and turn it about. And she hid it under a big dock-leaf for a minute or two and then she brought it out again, and then she stood up and sat down, and walked round the clay in a peculiar manner, and all the time she was softly singing a sort of rhyme, and her face got very red. Then she sat down again, and took the clay in her hands and began to shape it into a doll, but not like the dolls I have at home, and she made the queerest doll I had ever seen, all out of the wet clay, and hid it under a bush to get dry and hard, and all the time she was making it she was singing these rhymes to herself, and her face got redder and redder. So we left the doll there, hidden away in the bushes where nobody would ever find it. And a few days later we went the same walk, and when we came to that narrow, dark part of the lane where the brake runs down to the bank, nurse made me promise all over again, and she looked about, just as she had done before, and we crept into the bushes till we got to the green place where the little clay man was hidden. I remember it all so well, though I was only eight, and it is eight years ago now as I am writing it down, but the sky was a deep violet blue, and in the middle of the brake where we were sitting there was a great elder tree covered with blossoms, and on the other side there was a clump of meadowsweet, and when I think of that day the smell of the meadowsweet and elder blossom seems to fill the room, and if I shut my eyes I can see the glaring blue sky, with little clouds very white floating across it, and nurse who went away long ago sitting opposite me and looking like the beautiful white lady in the wood. So we sat down and nurse took out the clay doll from the secret place where she had hidden it, and she said we must ‘pay our respects,’ and she would show me what to do, and I must watch her all the time. So she did all sorts of queer things with the little clay man, and I noticed she was all streaming with perspiration, though we had walked so slowly, and then she told me to ‘pay my respects,’ and I did everything she did because I liked her, and it was such an odd game. And she said that if one loved very much, the clay man was very good, if one did certain things with it, and if one hated very much, it was just as good, only one had to do different things, and we played with it a long time, and pretended all sorts of things. Nurse said her great-grandmother had told her all about these images, but what we did was no harm at all, only a game. But she told me a story about these images that frightened me very much, and that was what I remembered that night when I was lying awake in my room in the pale, empty darkness, thinking of what I had seen and the secret wood. Nurse said there was once a young lady of the high gentry, who lived in a great castle. And she was so beautiful that all the gentlemen wanted to marry her, because she was the loveliest lady that anybody had ever seen, and she was kind to everybody, and everybody thought she was very good. But though she was polite to all the gentlemen who wished to marry her, she put them off, and said she couldn’t make up her mind, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to marry anybody at all. And her father, who was a very great lord, was angry, though he was so fond of her, and he asked her why she wouldn’t choose a bachelor out of all the handsome young men who came to the castle. But she only said she didn’t love any of them very much, and she must wait, and if they pestered her, she said she would go and be a nun in a nunnery. So all the gentlemen said they would go away and wait for a year and a day, and when a year and a day were gone, they would come back again and ask her to say which one she would marry. So the day was appointed and they all went away; and the lady had promised that in a year and a day it would be her wedding day with one of them. But the truth was, that she was the queen of the people who danced on the hill on summer nights, and on the proper nights she would lock the door of her room, and she and her maid would steal out of the castle by a secret passage that only they knew of, and go away up to the hill in the wild land. And she knew more of the secret things than any one else, and more than any one knew before or after, because she would not tell anybody the most secret secrets. She knew how to do all the awful things, how to destroy young men, and how to put a curse on people, and other things that I could not understand. And her real name was the Lady Avelin, but the dancing people called her Cassap, which meant somebody very wise, in the old language. And she was whiter than any of them and taller, and her eyes shone in the dark like burning rubies; and she could sing songs that none of the others could sing, and when she sang they all fell down on their faces and worshipped her. And she could do what they called shib-show, which was a very wonderful enchantment. She would tell the great lord, her father, that she wanted to go into the woods to gather flowers, so he let her go, and she and her maid went into the woods where nobody came, and the maid would keep watch. Then the lady would lie down under the trees and begin to sing a particular song, and she stretched out her arms, and from every part of the wood great serpents would come, hissing and gliding in and out among the trees, and shooting out their forked tongues as they crawled up to the lady. And they all came to her, and twisted round her, round her body, and her arms, and her neck, till she was covered with writhing serpents, and there was only her head to be seen. And she whispered to them, and she sang to them, and they writhed round and round, faster and faster, till she told them to go. And they all went away directly, back to their holes, and on the lady’s breast there would be a most curious, beautiful stone, shaped something like an egg, and coloured dark blue and yellow, and red, and green, marked like a serpent’s scales. It was called a glame stone, and with it one could do all sorts of wonderful things, and nurse said her great-grandmother had seen a glame stone with her own eyes, and it was for all the world shiny and scaly like a snake. And the lady could do a lot of other things as well, but she was quite fixed that she would not be married. And there were a great many gentlemen who wanted to marry her, but there were five of them who were chief, and their names were Sir Simon, Sir John, Sir Oliver, Sir Richard, and Sir Rowland. All the others believed she spoke the truth, and that she would choose one of them to be her man when a year and a day was done; it was only Sir Simon, who was very crafty, who thought she was deceiving them all, and he vowed he would watch and try if he could find out anything. And though he was very wise he was very young, and he had a smooth, soft face like a girl’s, and he pretended, as the rest did, that he would not come to the castle for a year and a day, and he said he was going away beyond the sea to foreign parts. But he really only went a very little way, and came back dressed like a servant girl, and so he got a place in the castle to wash the dishes. And he waited and watched, and he listened and said nothing, and he hid in dark places, and woke up at night and looked out, and he heard things and he saw things that he thought were very strange. And he was so sly that he told the girl that waited on the lady that he was really a young man, and that he had dressed up as a girl because he loved her so very much and wanted to be in the same house with her, and the girl was so pleased that she told him many things, and he was more than ever certain that the Lady Avelin was deceiving him and the others. And he was so clever, and told the servant so many lies, that one night he managed to hide in the Lady Avelin’s room behind the curtains. And he stayed quite still and never moved, and at last the lady came. And she bent down under the bed, and raised up a stone, and there was a hollow place underneath, and out of it she took a waxen image, just like the clay one that I and nurse had made in the brake. And all the time her eyes were burning like rubies. And she took the little wax doll up in her arms and held it to her breast, and she whispered and she murmured, and she took it up and she laid it down again, and she held it high, and she held it low, and she laid it down again. And she said, “Happy is he that begat the bishop, that ordered the clerk, that married the man, that had the wife, that fashioned the hive, that harboured the bee, that gathered the wax that my own true love was made of.’ And she brought out of an aumbry a great golden bowl, and she brought out of a closet a great jar of wine, and she poured some of the wine into the bowl, and she laid her mannikin very gently in the wine, and washed it in the wine all over. Then she went to a cupboard and took a small round cake and laid it on the image’s mouth, and then she bore it softly and covered it up. And Sir Simon, who was watching all the time, though he was terribly frightened, saw the lady bend down and stretch out her arms and whisper and sing, and then Sir Simon saw beside her a handsome young man, who kissed her on the lips. And they drank wine out of the golden bowl together, and they ate the cake together. But when the sun rose there was only the little wax doll, and the lady hid it again under the bed in the hollow place. So Sir Simon knew quite well what the lady was, and he waited and he watched, till the time she had said was nearly over, and in a week the year and a day would be done. And one night, when he was watching behind the curtains in her room, he saw her making more wax dolls. And she made five, and hid them away. And the next night she took one out, and held it up, and filled the golden bowl with water, and took the doll by the neck and held it under the water. Then she said —
Sir Dickon, Sir Dickon, your day is done,
You shall be drowned in the water wan.
And the next day news came to the castle that Sir Richard had been drowned at the ford. And at night she took another doll and tied a violet cord round its neck and hung it up on a nail. Then she said —
Sir Rowland, your life has ended its span,
High on a tree I see you hang.
And the next day news came to the castle that Sir Rowland had been hanged by robbers in the wood. And at night she took another doll, and drove her bodkin right into its heart. Then she said —
Sir Noll, Sir Noll, so cease your life,
Your heart is piercèd with the knife.
And the next day news came to the castle that Sir Oliver had fought in a tavern, and a stranger had stabbed him to the heart. And at night she took another doll, and held it to a fire of charcoal till it was melted. Then she said —
Sir John, return, and turn to clay,
In fire of fever you waste away.
And the next day news came to the castle that Sir John had died in a burning fever. So then Sir Simon went out of the castle and mounted his horse and rode away to the bishop and told him everything. And the bishop sent his men, and they took the Lady Avelin, and everything she had done was found out. So on the day after the year and a day, when she was to have been married, they carried her through the town in her smock, and they tied her to a great stake in the market-place, and burned her alive before the bishop with her wax image hung round her neck. And people said the wax man screamed in the burning of the flames. And I thought of this story again and again as I was lying awake in my bed, and I seemed to see the Lady Avelin in the market-place, with the yellow flames eating up her beautiful white body. And I thought of it so much that I seemed to get into the story myself, and I fancied I was the lady, and that they were coming to take me to be burnt with fire, with all the people in the town looking at me. And I wondered whether she cared, after all the strange things she had done, and whether it hurt very much to be burned at the stake. I tried again and again to forget nurse’s stories, and to remember the secret I had seen that afternoon, and what was in the secret wood, but I could only see the dark and a glimmering in the dark, and then it went away, and I only saw myself running, and then a great moon came up white over a dark round hill. Then all the old stories came back again, and the queer rhymes that nurse used to sing to me; and there was one beginning ‘Halsy cumsy Helen musty,’ that she used to sing very softly when she wanted me to go to sleep. And I began to sing it to myself inside of my head, and I went to sleep.
The next morning I was very tired and sleepy, and could hardly do my lessons, and I was very glad when they were over and I had had my dinner, as I wanted to go out and be alone. It was a warm day, and I went to a nice turfy hill by the river, and sat down on my mother’s old shawl that I had brought with me on purpose. The sky was grey, like the day before, but there was a kind of white gleam behind it, and from where I was sitting I could look down on the town, and it was all still and quiet and white, like a picture. I remembered that it was on that hill that nurse taught me to play an old game called ‘Troy Town,’ in which one had to dance, and wind in and out on a pattern in the grass, and then when one had danced and turned long enough the other person asks you questions, and you can’t help answering whether you want to or not, and whatever you are told to do you feel you have to do it. Nurse said there used to be a lot of games like that that some people knew of, and there was one by which people could be turned into anything you liked and an old man her great-grandmother had seen had known a girl who had been turned into a large snake. And there was another very ancient game of dancing and winding and turning, by which you could take a person out of himself and hide him away as long as you liked, and his body went walking about quite empty, without any sense in it. But I came to that hill because I wanted to think of what had happened the day before, and of the secret of the wood. From the place where I was sitting I could see beyond the town, into the opening I had found, where a little brook had led me into an unknown country. And I pretended I was following the brook over again, and I went all the way in my mind, and at last I found the wood, and crept into it under the bushes, and then in the dusk I saw something that made me feel as if I were filled with fire, as if I wanted to dance and sing and fly up into the air, because I was changed and wonderful. But what I saw was not changed at all, and had not grown old, and I wondered again and again how such things could happen, and whether nurse’s stories were really true, because in the daytime in the open air everything seemed quite different from what it was at night, when I was frightened, and thought I was to be burned alive. I once told my father one of her little tales, which was about a ghost, and asked him if it was true, and he told me it was not true at all, and that only common, ignorant people believed in such rubbish. He was very angry with nurse for telling me the story, and scolded her, and after that I promised her I would never whisper a word of what she told me, and if I did I should be bitten by the great black snake that lived in the pool in the wood. And all alone on the hill I wondered what was true. I had seen something very amazing and very lovely, and I knew a story, and if I had really seen it, and not made it up out of the dark, and the black bough, and the bright shining that was mounting up to the sky from over the great round hill, but had really seen it in truth, then there were all kinds of wonderful and lovely and terrible things to think of, so I longed and trembled, and I burned and got cold. And I looked down on the town, so quiet and still, like a little white picture, and I thought over and over if it could be true. I was a long time before I could make up my mind to anything; there was such a strange fluttering at my heart that seemed to whisper to me all the time that I had not made it up out of my head, and yet it seemed quite impossible, and I knew my father and everybody would say it was dreadful rubbish. I never dreamed of telling him or anybody else a word about it, because I knew it would be of no use, and I should only get laughed at or scolded, so for a long time I was very quiet, and went about thinking and wondering; and at night I used to dream of amazing things, and sometimes I woke up in the early morning and held out my arms with a cry. And I was frightened, too, because there were dangers, and some awful thing would happen to me, unless I took great care, if the story were true. These old tales were always in my head, night and morning, and I went over them and told them to myself over and over again, and went for walks in the places where nurse had told them to me; and when I sat in the nursery by the fire in the evenings I used to fancy nurse was sitting in the other chair, and telling me some wonderful story in a low voice, for fear anybody should be listening. But she used to like best to tell me about things when we were right out in the country, far from the house, because she said she was telling me such secrets, and walls have ears. And if it was something more than ever secret, we had to hide in brakes or woods; and I used to think it was such fun creeping along a hedge, and going very softly, and then we would get behind the bushes or run into the wood all of a sudden, when we were sure that none was watching us; so we knew that we had our secrets quite all to ourselves, and nobody else at all knew anything about them. Now and then, when we had hidden ourselves as I have described, she used to show me all sorts of odd things. One day, I remember, we were in a hazel brake, overlooking the brook, and we were so snug and warm, as though it was April; the sun was quite hot, and the leaves were just coming out. Nurse said she would show me something funny that would make me laugh, and then she showed me, as she said, how one could turn a whole house upside down, without anybody being able to find out, and the pots and pans would jump about, and the china would be broken, and the chairs would tumble over of themselves. I tried it one day in the kitchen, and I found I could do it quite well, and a whole row of plates on the dresser fell off it, and cook’s little work-table tilted up and turned right over ‘before her eyes,’ as she said, but she was so frightened and turned so white that I didn’t do it again, as I liked her. And afterwards, in the hazel copse, when she had shown me how to make things tumble about, she showed me how to make rapping noises, and I learnt how to do that, too. Then she taught me rhymes to say on certain occasions, and peculiar marks to make on other occasions, and other things that her great-grandmother had taught her when she was a little girl herself. And these were all the things I was thinking about in those days after the strange walk when I thought I had seen a great secret, and I wished nurse were there for me to ask her about it, but she had gone away more than two years before, and nobody seemed to know what had become of her, or where she had gone. But I shall always remember those days if I live to be quite old, because all the time I felt so strange, wondering and doubting, and feeling quite sure at one time, and making up my mind, and then I would feel quite sure that such things couldn’t happen really, and it began all over again. But I took great care not to do certain things that might be very dangerous. So I waited and wondered for a long time, and though I was not sure at all, I never dared to try to find out. But one day I became sure that all that nurse said was quite true, and I was all alone when I found it out. I trembled all over with joy and terror, and as fast as I could I ran into one of the old brakes where we used to go — it was the one by the lane, where nurse made the little clay man — and I ran into it, and I crept into it; and when I came to the place where the elder was, I covered up my face with my hands and lay down flat on the grass, and I stayed there for two hours without moving, whispering to myself delicious, terrible things, and saying some words over and over again. It was all true and wonderful and splendid, and when I remembered the story I knew and thought of what I had really seen, I got hot and I got cold, and the air seemed full of scent, and flowers, and singing. And first I wanted to make a little clay man, like the one nurse had made so long ago, and I had to invent plans and stratagems, and to look about, and to think of things beforehand, because nobody must dream of anything that I was doing or going to do, and I was too old to carry clay about in a tin bucket. At last I thought of a plan, and I brought the wet clay to the brake, and did everything that nurse had done, only I made a much finer image than the one she had made; and when it was finished I did everything that I could imagine and much more than she did, because it was the likeness of something far better. And a few days later, when I had done my lessons early, I went for the second time by the way of the little brook that had led me into a strange country. And I followed the brook, and went through the bushes, and beneath the low branches of trees, and up thorny thickets on the hill, and by dark woods full of creeping thorns, a long, long way. Then I crept through the dark tunnel where the brook had been and the ground was stony, till at last I came to the thicket that climbed up the hill, and though the leaves were coming out upon the trees, everything looked almost as black as it was on the first day that I went there. And the thicket was just the same, and I went up slowly till I came out on the big bare hill, and began to walk among the wonderful rocks. I saw the terrible voor again on everything, for though the sky was brighter, the ring of wild hills all around was still dark, and the hanging woods looked dark and dreadful, and the strange rocks were as grey as ever; and when I looked down on them from the great mound, sitting on the stone, I saw all their amazing circles and rounds within rounds, and I had to sit quite still and watch them as they began to turn about me, and each stone danced in its place, and they seemed to go round and round in a great whirl, as if one were in the middle of all the stars and heard them rushing through the air. So I went down among the rocks to dance with them and to sing extraordinary songs; and I went down through the other thicket, and drank from the bright stream in the close and secret valley, putting my lips down to the bubbling water; and then I went on till I came to the deep, brimming well among the glittering moss, and I sat down. I looked before me into the secret darkness of the valley, and behind me was the great high wall of grass, and all around me there were the hanging woods that made the valley such a secret place. I knew there was nobody here at all besides myself, and that no one could see me. So I took off my boots and stockings, and let my feet down into the water, saying the words that I knew. And it was not cold at all, as I expected, but warm and very pleasant, and when my feet were in it I felt as if they were in silk, or as if the nymph were kissing them. So when I had done, I said the other words and made the signs, and then I dried my feet with a towel I had brought on purpose, and put on my stockings and boots. Then I climbed up the steep wall, and went into the place where there are the hollows, and the two beautiful mounds, and the round ridges of land, and all the strange shapes. I did not go down into the hollow this time, but I turned at the end, and made out the figures quite plainly, as it was lighter, and I had remembered the story I had quite forgotten before, and in the story the two figures are called Adam and Eve, and only those who know the story understand what they mean. So I went on and on till I came to the secret wood which must not be described, and I crept into it by the way I had found. And when I had gone about halfway I stopped, and turned round, and got ready, and I bound the handkerchief tightly round my eyes, and made quite sure that I could not see at all, not a twig, nor the end of a leaf, nor the light of the sky, as it was an old red silk handkerchief with large yellow spots, that went round twice and covered my eyes, so that I could see nothing. Then I began to go on, step by step, very slowly. My heart beat faster and faster, and something rose in my throat that choked me and made me want to cry out, but I shut my lips, and went on. Boughs caught in my hair as I went, and great thorns tore me; but I went on to the end of the path. Then I stopped, and held out my arms and bowed, and I went round the first time, feeling with my hands, and there was nothing. I went round the second time, feeling with my hands, and there was nothing. Then I went round the third time, feeling with my hands, and the story was all true, and I wished that the years were gone by, and that I had not so long a time to wait before I was happy for ever and ever.
Nurse must have been a prophet like those we read of in the Bible. Everything that she said began to come true, and since then other things that she told me of have happened. That was how I came to know that her stories were true and that I had not made up the secret myself out of my own head. But there was another thing that happened that day. I went a second time to the secret place. It was at the deep brimming well, and when I was standing on the moss I bent over and looked in, and then I knew who the white lady was that I had seen come out of the water in the wood long ago when I was quite little. And I trembled all over, because that told me other things. Then I remembered how sometime after I had seen the white people in the wood, nurse asked me more about them, and I told her all over again, and she listened, and said nothing for a long, long time, and at last she said, ‘You will see her again.’ So I understood what had happened and what was to happen. And I understood about the nymphs; how I might meet them in all kinds of places, and they would always help me, and I must always look for them, and find them in all sorts of strange shapes and appearances. And without the nymphs I could never have found the secret, and without them none of the other things could happen. Nurse had told me all about them long ago, but she called them by another name, and I did not know what she meant, or what her tales of them were about, only that they were very queer. And there were two kinds, the bright and the dark, and both were very lovely and very wonderful, and some people saw only one kind, and some only the other, but some saw them both. But usually the dark appeared first, and the bright ones came afterwards, and there were extraordinary tales about them. It was a day or two after I had come home from the secret place that I first really knew the nymphs. Nurse had shown me how to call them, and I had tried, but I did not know what she meant, and so I thought it was all nonsense. But I made up my mind I would try again, so I went to the wood where the pool was, where I saw the white people, and I tried again. The dark nymph, Alanna, came, and she turned the pool of water into a pool of fire. . . .
The transport, once owned by an outer system cartel and appropriated by Earth’s Pacific Community after the Quiet War, ran in a continuous, ever-changing orbit between Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. It never docked. It mined the solar wind for hydrogen to mix with the gram of antimatter which could power it for a century, and once or twice a year, during its intricate gravity-assisted loops between Saturn’s moons, maintenance drones attached remora-like to its hull, and fixed whatever its self-repairing systems couldn’t handle.
Ben Lo and the six other members of the first trade delegation to Proteus since the war were transferred onto the transport as it looped around Titan, still sleeping in the hibernation pods they’d climbed into in low Earth orbit. Sixty days later, they were released from the transport in individual drop capsules of structural diamond, like so many seeds scattered by a pod.
Swaddled in the crash web that took up most of the volume of the drop capsule’s little bubble, Ben Lo, woken only a day ago, was as weak and unsteady as a new-born kitten. The sun was behind the bubble’s braking sail. Ahead, Neptune’s oceanic disc was tipped in star-sprinkled black, subtly banded with blue and violet, its poles capped with white cloud, its equator streaked with cirrus. Proteus was a tiny crescent shining off to one side. The transport had already dwindled to a bright point amongst the bright points of the stars, on its way to spin up around Neptune, loop past Triton, and head on out for the next leg of its continuous voyage, halfway across the solar system to Uranus.
Proteus was a tiny crescent shining off to one side of Neptune, a battered ball of rock and ice, like so many of the moons of the outer planets. Over billions of years, most of the rock had sunk to its core and an enhanced view showed that its icy, dirty white surface was splotched with a scattering of large impact craters with dark interiors, like well-used ash trays, and dissected by stress fractures, some running halfway round the little globe.
The spy was falling towards this little moon in a thin transparent bubble of carbon, wearing a paper suit and a diaper, and trussed up in a cradle of smart cabling like an early Christian martyr. He could barely move a muscle. Invisible laser light poured all around him – the capsule was opaque to the frequency used – gently pushing against the braking sail which had unfolded and spun into a twenty-kilometre diameter mirror after the capsule had been released by the transport. Everything was fine.
The capsule said, ‘Only another twelve hours, Mr Lo. I suggest that you sleep. Elfhame’s time zone is ten hours behind Greenwich Mean Time.’
Had he been asleep for a moment? Ben Lo blinked and said, ‘Jet lag,’ and laughed.
‘I don’t understand,’ the capsule said politely. It didn’t need to be very intelligent. All it had to do was control the attitude of the braking sail, and keep its passenger amused and reassured until landing.
Ben Lo couldn’t explain. An unsettling feeling, a yawning sense of dislocation and estrangement, had suddenly washed over him. How strange that he was there, in a tiny capsule falling towards a cold dead moon millions and millions of miles from everything he knew. How had it happened? When he’d been a child, spaceships had been crude, disposable chemical rockets. The space shuttle exploding. The first men on the Moon. President Kennedy’s assassination. No, that had been before he’d been born . . . For a moment, his sense of dislocation threatened to swallow him whole, but then he had it under control, he remembered where he was, where he was going. It was the treatment, he thought. The treatment and the hibernation.
Somewhere down there on Proteus, in one of the smaller canyons, was Ben Lo’s first wife. But he mustn’t think of that. Not yet. Because if he did . . . no, he couldn’t remember. Something bad, though.
‘I can offer a variety of virtualities,’ the capsule said. Its voice was a husky contralto. It added, ‘Certain sexual services are also available.’
‘What I’d like is a chateaubriand steak butterflied and well-grilled over hickory wood, a Caesar salad, and a 1998 Walnut Creek Cabernet Sauvignon.’
‘I can offer a range of nutritive pastes, and eight flavours of water, including a balanced electrolyte,’ the capsule said. A prissy note had edged into its voice. It added, ‘I would recommend that you restrict intake of solids and fluids until you reach your destination.’
Ben Lo sighed. ‘How about you give me an inflight movie? Show me Wings of Desire.’
Despite its minuscule intelligence, the capsule had a greater memory capacity than all the personal computers on Earth at the end of the millennium. Ben Lo had downloaded his media archives into one corner of it.
‘But it’s partly in black and white!’ the capsule said ‘And flat. And utilises only two senses-’
‘Once upon a time, capsule, there was a man who was very old, and became young again, and found that he’d lost himself. Run the movie, and you’ll understand a little bit about me.’
The moon and Neptune dwindled to a bright star. The star went out. The film began.
Falling through a cone of laser light, the man and the capsule watched the story of an angel becoming a human being, out of love.
The capsule collapsed its sail as it skimmed the moon’s surface, shed the last of its relative velocity in the inertia buffers of the target zone. And then it was down, and was almost immediately picked up by a striding tripod that looked like a prop from The War of the Worlds, and carried into a steeply sloping tunnel, through a triple set of airlocks, into something like the emergency room of a hospital.
With the other members of the trade delegation, Ben Lo was decanted, stripped, washed, and dressed in fresh paper clothes. Somewhere in the parade of nurses and technicians he thought he glimpsed someone he knew, or thought he knew. A woman, her familiar face grown old, eyes faded blue in a face as wrinkled as a turtle’s . . . But then he was lifted onto a gurney and wheeled away.
Waking, he had problems with remembering who he was. A universally impersonal hotel room, could be anywhere on Earth except for the fractional gravity. A ship that was changing its delta vee, an orbital habitat, or one of the smaller outer system moons.
And what role was he playing?
He sat up, moving carefully because any sudden movement could catapult him across the room, asked the big window to depolarise. It was night, outside. The shadow a steep dark mountainside or perhaps a vast building loomed across a gulf of black air, a necklace of lights wound at its base, shimmering on a river down there . . .
Proteus. Neptune. The trade delegation. And the thing he couldn’t think about, which was fractionally nearer the surface now, like a word at the back of his tongue. He could feel it, but he couldn’t shape it. Not yet.
He stripped in the small, brightly lit bathroom and turned the walls to mirrors and looked at himself. He was too young to be who he thought he was. No, that was the treatment, of course. His third. Then why was his skin this colour? He hadn’t bothered to tint it for . . . How long?
That sci-fi version of Othello, a century and a half ago, when he’d been a movie star. He remembered the movie vividly, although not the making of it. But that was the colour he was now, his skin a rich, dark mahogany, gleaming as if oiled in the lights, his hair a cap of tight black curls.
He slept again, and dreamed of his childhood home. San Francisco. Sailboats scattered across the blue bay. He’d had a little boat, a Laser. The cold salt smell of the sea. The pinnacles of the rust-red bridge looming out of banks of fog, and the fog horn booming mournfully. Cabbage leaves in the gutters of Spring Street. The crowds swirling under the crimson and gold neon lights of the trinket shops of Grant Avenue, and the intersection at Grant and California tingling with trolley car bells.
He remembered everything as if he had just seen it in a movie. It was a side effect of the treatment he’d just had. He’d been warned about it, but it was still unsettling. The woman he was here to . . . Avernus. That was her name now. But when they had been married, a hundred and sixty odd years ago, she had been called Barbara Reiner. He tried to remember the taste of her mouth, the texture of her skin, and could not.
The next transport would not swing by Proteus for a hundred and seventy days, so there was no hurry to begin the formal business of the trade delegation. For a while, its members were treated as favoured tourists, in a place which had no tourist industry at all.
The sinuous rill canyon that housed Elfhame had been ploughed to an even depth of a kilometre, sprayed with layers of insulation, and sealed under a construction diamond and fullerene roof and pressurised to seven hundred millibars with a nitrox mix enriched with one per cent carbon dioxide to stimulate plant growth. Its sides were raked to form a deep vee in profile, with a long narrow lake lying at the bottom like a black ribbon, dusted with a scattering of pink and white coral cays. The Elfhamers called it the Skagerrak. Steep terraces rose above it. There were narrow vegetable gardens, rice paddies and farms on the higher levels, close to the lamps which, strung from the roof, gave an insolation equivalent to that of the surface of Mars; below them, amongst pocket parks and linear strips of designer wilderness, houses clung to the steep slopes or perched on platforms or bluffs, all with panoramic views of the lake at the bottom and screened from their neighbours by soaring ginkgoes, cypress, palmettoes, bamboo (which grew to fifty metres in the microgravity) and dragon’s blood trees. All the houses were large and individually designed; Elfhamers went in for extended families. At the lowest levels were the government buildings, commercial malls and parks, the university and hospital, and the single hotel, which bore all the marks of having been recently constructed for the trade delegation. And then there was the lake, the Skagerrak, with its freshwater corals and teeming fish, and slow waves ten metres high. The single, crescent-shaped beach of black sand at what Elfhamers called the North End was very steeply raked, and constantly renewed; the surfing was fabulous.
There were ziplines with T-bar seats, like ski lifts, strung up the steep terraces, and train capsules shuttled along a line that followed the western shore of the lake, but people mostly bounded around in huge kangaroo leaps, or flew using kites or foil wings and little handheld airscrews – the gravity was so low, 0.007g, that human flight was ridiculously easy. Children rode airboards or simply jumped from terrace to terrace, which strictly speaking was illegal, but even adults did it sometimes, and it seemed to be one of those laws to which no one paid much attention unless someone got hurt. It was possible to break a bone if you jumped from the top of the canyon and managed to land on one of the lakeside terraces, but you’d have to work at it.
The entire place, with its controlled, indoor weather, its bland affluence and universal cleanliness, was ridiculously vulnerable. It reminded Ben Lo of nothing so much as an old-fashioned shopping mall, the one in Santa Monica, for instance. He’d had a bit part in a movie set in that mall, somewhere near the start of his career. He was still having trouble with his memory. He could remember every movie he’d made, but couldn’t remember making any one of them.
He asked his guide if it was possible to get to the real surface. She was taken aback by the request, then suggested that he could access a mobot using the point-of-presence facility of his hotel room.
‘Several hundred were released fifty years ago, and some of them are still running, I suppose. Really, there is nothing up there but some industrial units.’
‘I guess Avernus has her labs on the surface.’
Instantly, the spy was on the alert, suppressing a thrill of panic.
His guide was a very tall, thin, pale girl called Marla. Most Elfhamers were descended from Nordic stock, and Marla had the high cheekbones, blue eyes, blond hair, and candid manner of her counterparts on Earth. Like most Elfhamers, she was tanned and athletically lithe, and wore a distractingly small amount of fabric: tight shorts, a band of material across her small breasts, plastic sandals, a comms bracelet.
At the mention of Avernus, Marla’s eyebrows dented over her slim, straight nose. She said, ‘I would suppose so, yah, but there’s nothing interesting to see. The programme it is reaching the end of its natural life, you see. The surface is not interesting, and it is dangerous. The cold and the vacuum, and still the risk of micrometeorites. Better to live inside.’
Like worms in an apple, the spy thought. The girl was soft and foolish, very young and very naïve. It was only natural that a member of the trade delegation would be interested in Elfhame’s most famous citizen. She wouldn’t think anything of this.
Ben Lo blinked and said, ‘Well, yes, but I’ve never been there. It would be something, for someone of my age to set foot on the surface of a moon of Neptune. I was born two years before the first landing on Earth’s moon, you know. Have you ever been up there?’
Marla’s teeth were even and pearly white, and when she smiled, as she did now, she seemed to have altogether too many. ‘Of course, in virtuality. Also places on Earth. London, Shanghai, Antarctica. It is part of our education.’
They were sitting on the terrace of a café that angled out over the lake. Resin tables and chairs painted white, clipped bay trees in big pots, terracotta tiles, slightly sticky underfoot, like all the floor coverings in Elfhame. Bulbs of chilled schnapps in an ice bucket.
Ben Lo tipped his chair back and looked up at the narrow strip of black sky and its strings of brilliant lamps that hung high above the steep terraces on the far side of the lake. He said, ‘You can’t see the stars. You can’t even see Neptune.’
‘Well, we are on the far side,’ Marla said, reasonably. ‘But if you like, I can arrange a link with a mobot on the surface.’
‘That’s nice, but it isn’t the same as being there.’
Marla laughed. ‘Oh, yah. I forget that you were once a capitalist’ – the way she said it, he might have been a dodo, or a dolphin – ‘from the United States of the Americas, as it was called then. That is why you put such trust in what you call real. But really it is not such a big difference. You put on a mask, or you put on a pressure suit. It is all barriers to experience. And you would need training before you could go outside, many hours, so it would be much easier to use a mobot link, and little different, I think.’
Ben Lo didn’t press the point. His guide was perfectly charming, if earnest and humourless, and brightly but brainlessly enthusiastic for the party line, like a cadre from one of the supernats. She was transparently a government spy, and was recording everything – she had shown him the little button camera and asked his permission.
‘Such a historical event this is, Mr Lo, that we wish to make a permanent record of it. You will I hope not mind?’
So now he changed the subject, and asked why there were no sailboats on the lake, and then had to explain to Marla what a sailboat was.
Her smile was brilliant when she finally understood. ‘Oh yah, there are some who use such boards on the water, like surfing boards with sails.’
‘The waves are very high, so it is not easy a sport. Not many are allowed, besides, because of the film.’
It turned out that there was a monomolecular film across the whole lake, to stop great gobs of it floating off into the lakeside terraces.
Marla’s watch chirped. It was tattooed on her slim, tanned wrist. ‘Now it will rain soon,’ she said. ‘We should go inside, I think. I can show you the library this afternoon. There are several real books in it that one of our first citizens brought all the way from Earth.
When he wasn’t sight-seeing or attending coordination meetings with the others in the trade delegation (he knew none of them well, and they were all so much younger than him, as bright and enthusiastic as Marla), Ben Lo spent a lot of time in Elfhame’s library. He told Marla that he was gathering background information that would help finesse the target packages of economic exchange, and she said that it was good, this was an open society, they had nothing to hide. Of course, he couldn’t use his own archive, which was under bonded quarantine, but he was happy enough typing away at one of the library terminals for hours on end, and after a while Marla left him to it. He also made use of various mobots to explore the surface, especially around Elfhame’s roof.
And then there were the diplomatic functions to attend: a party in the prime minister’s house, a monstrous construction of pine logs and steeply pitched roofs of wooden shingles cantilevered above the lake; a reception in the assembly room of the parliament, the Riksdag; others at the university and the Supreme Court. Ben Lo started to get a permanent crick in his neck from looking up at the faces of his etiolated hosts while making conversation.
At one, held in the humid, rarefied atmosphere of the research greenhouses near the top of the east side of Elfhame, Ben Lo glimpsed Avernus again. His heart lifted strangely, and the spy broke off from the one-sided conversation with an earnest hydroponicist and pushed through the throng towards his target, the floor sucking at his sandals with each step.
The old woman was surrounded by a gaggle of young giants, set apart from the rest of the party. The spy was aware of people watching when he took Avernus’s hand, something that caused a murmur of unrest amongst her companions.
‘An old custom, dears,’ Avernus told them. ‘We predate most of the plagues that made such gestures taboo, even after the plagues were defeated. Ben, dear, what a surprise. I had hoped never to see you again. Your employers have a strange sense of humour.’
A young man with big, red-framed data glasses said, ‘You know each other?’
‘We lived in the same city,’ Avernus said, ‘many years ago.’ She had brushed her vigorous grey hair back from her forehead. The wine-dark velvet wrap did not flatter her skinny old-woman’s body. She said to Ben, ‘You look so young.’
‘My third treatment,’ he confessed.
Avernus said, ‘It was once said that in American lives there was no second act – and now biotech has given almost everyone who can afford it a second act, and for some a third one, too. But what to do with them? One simply can’t pretend to be young again – one is too aware of death, and has too much at stake, too much invested in self, to risk being young.’
‘There’s no longer any America,’ Ben Lo said. ‘Perhaps that helps.’
‘To be without loyalty,’ the old woman said, ‘except to one’s own continuity.’
The spy winced, but did not show it.
The old woman took his elbow. Her grip was surprisingly strong. ‘Pretend to be interested, dear,’ she said. ‘We are having a delightful conversation in this delightful party. Smile. That’s better.’
Her companions laughed uneasily at this. Avernus said quietly to Ben, ‘You must visit me.’
‘I have an escort.’
‘Of course you do. I’m sure someone as resourceful as you will think of something. Ah, this must be your guide. What a tall girl.’
Avernus turned away, and her companions closed around her, turning their long bare backs on the Earthman.
Ben Lo asked Marla what Avernus was doing there. The contrast between his memories of his wife and what she had become, what she was now, was dizzying. He could hardly remember what they had talked about. Meet. They had to meet. They would meet.
It was beginning.
Marla said, ‘It is a politeness to her. Really, she should not have come, and we are glad she is leaving early. You do not worry about her, Mr Lo. She is a relic of the previous administration. Would you like to see the new strains of Chlorella we use to manufacture complex hydrocarbons?’
Ben Lo smiled diplomatically. ‘It would be very interesting.’
There had been a change of government on Proteus, after the war. It had been less violent than a revolution, more like a change of climate. Before the Quiet War (that was what it was called on Earth, for although tens of thousands had died in the war, none had died on Earth), Proteus had been loosely allied with, but not committed to, an amorphous group that wanted to exploit the outer reaches of the solar system, beyond Pluto’s orbit; after the war, Proteus had dropped its expansionist plans and sought to re-establish links with the trading communities of Earth.
Avernus had been on the losing side of the change in political climate. Brought in by the previous regime because of her skills in gengineering vacuum organisms, she found herself sidelined and ostracised, her research group disbanded and replaced by government cadres, funds for her research suddenly diverted to new projects. But her contract bound her to Proteus for the next ten years, and the new government refused to release her. She had developed several important new dendrimers, light harvesting molecules used in artificial photosynthesis, and established several potentially valuable gene lines, including a novel form of photosynthesis based on a sulphur-spring Chloroflexus bacterium. The government wanted to license them, but to do that it had to keep Avernus under contract, even if it would not allow her to work.
Avernus wanted to escape, and Ben Lo was there to help her. The Pacific Community had plenty of uses for vacuum organisms – there was the whole of the Moon to use as a garden, to begin with – and was prepared to overlook Avernus’s political stance in exchange for her expertise and knowledge.
He was beginning to remember more and more, but there was still so much he didn’t know. He supposed that there were instructions that had been buried for security reasons, and would emerge in due course. He tried not to worry about it.
Meanwhile, the meetings of the trade delegation and Elfhame’s industrial executive finally began. Ben Lo spent most of the next ten days in a closed room dickering with Parliamentary speakers on the Trade Committee over marginal rates for exotic organics. When the meetings were finally over, he slept for three hours and then, still logy from lack of sleep but filled with excess energy, went body surfing at the beach of black sand at the North End. It was the first time he had managed to evade Marla. She had been as exhausted as him by the rounds of negotiations, and he had promised that he would sleep all day so that she could get some rest.
The surf was tremendous, huge smooth slow glassy swells falling from thirty metres to batter the soft, sugary black sand with giant’s paws. The air was full of spinning globs of water, and so hazed with spray, like a rain of foamy flowers, that it was necessary to wear a filter mask. It was what the whole lake would be like, without its monomolecular membrane.
Ben Lo had thought he would still have an aptitude for body surfing, because he’d done so much of it when he had been living in Los Angeles, before his movie career really took off. But he was as helpless as a kitten in the swells, his boogie board turning turtle as often as not, and twice he was caught in the undertow. The second time, a giantess got an arm around his chest and hauled him up onto dry sand.
After he had hawked up a couple of lungs-full of fresh water, he managed to gasp his thanks. The woman smiled. She had black hair in a bristle cut, and startlingly green eyes. She was very tall, very thin, and completely naked. She said, ‘At last you are away from that revisionist bitch.’
Ben Lo sat up, abruptly conscious, in the presence of this young naked giantess, of his own nakedness. ‘Ah. You are one of Avernus’s—’
The woman walked away with her boogie board under her arm, pale buttocks flexing. The spy unclipped the ankle line which tethered him to his rented board, bounded up the beach in two leaps, pulled on his shorts, and followed.
Sometime later, he was standing in the middle of a vast red-lit room at blood heat and what felt like a hundred per cent humidity. Racks of large-leaved plants receded into infinity; those nearest him towered high above, forming a living green wall. His arm stung, and the tall young woman, naked under a green gown open down the front, masked and wearing disposable gloves, deftly caught the glob of expressed blood – his blood – in a capillary straw, sprayed the puncture wound with sealant, and went off with her samples.
A necessary precaution, the old woman said. Avernus. He remembered now. Or at least could picture it. Taking a ski lift all the way to the top. Through a tunnel lined with tall plastic bags in which green Chlorella cultures bubbled under lights strobing in fifty millisecond pulses. Another attack of memory loss – they seemed to be increasing in frequency. Stress, he told himself.
‘Of all the people I could identify,’ Avernus said, ‘they had to send you.’
‘Ask me anything,’ Ben Lo said, although he wasn’t sure that he recalled very much of their brief marriage.
‘I mean identify genetically. We exchanged strands of hair set in amber, do you remember? I kept mine. It was mounted on a ring.’
‘I didn’t think that you were sentimental.’
‘It was my idea, and I did it with all my husbands. It helped me to remember what I once was.’
‘You were my wife, once upon a time.’
‘I was a silly young fool.’
‘I must get back to the hotel soon. If they find out I’ve been wandering around without my escort they’ll start to suspect.’
‘Good. Let them worry. What can they do? Arrest me? Arrest you?’
‘I have diplomatic immunity.’
Avernus laughed. ‘Ben, Ben, you always were so status conscious. That’s why I left. I was just another thing you’d collected. A trophy, like your Porsche or your Picasso.’
He didn’t remember.
‘It wasn’t a very good Picasso. One of his fakes – do you know that story?’
‘I suppose I sold it.’
The young woman in the green gown came back. ‘A positive match,’ she said. ‘Also, he is doped up with immunosuppressants and testosterone.’
‘That’s because of the treatment,’ the spy said glibly. ‘Is this where you do your research?’
‘Of course not. They would notice if you turned up there. This is one of the pharm farms. They grow tobacco here, with human genes inserted to make various immunoglobulins. They took away my people, Ben, and replaced them with spies. Ludmilla is one of my original team. They put her to drilling new agricultural tunnels.’
‘We are alone here,’ Ludmilla said.
‘Or you would have made your own arrangements.’
‘I hate being dependent on people. Especially from Earth, if you’ll forgive me. And especially you. The others in your trade delegation, are they part of this?’
Just a cover,’ the spy said. ‘They know nothing. They are looking forward to your arrival in Tycho. The laboratory is ready to be fitted out to your specifications.’
‘I swore I’d never go back, but they are fools here. They stand on the edge of greatness, the next big push, and they turn their backs on it and burrow into the ice like maggots.’
The spy took her hands in his. Her skin was loose on her bones, and dry and cold despite the humid heat of the hydroponic greenhouse. He said, ‘Are you ready? Truly ready?’
She did not pull away. ‘I have said so. I will submit to any test, if it makes your masters happy. Ben, you are exactly as I remember you. It is very strange.’
‘The treatments are very good now. You must use one.’
‘Don’t think I haven’t, although not as radical as yours. I like to show my age. You could shrivel up like a Struldbrugg, and I don’t have to worry about that, at least. That skin colour, though. Is it a fashion?’
‘I was Othello, once. Don’t you like it?’ Under the red lights his skin gleamed with an ebony lustre.
‘I always thought you’d make a good Iago, if only you had been clever enough. I asked for someone I knew, and they sent you. It almost makes me want to distrust them.’
‘We were young, then.’ He was trying and failing to remember his life with her, and a tremendous feeling of nostalgia for what he could not remember swept through him. Tears grew like big lenses over his eyes and he brushed them into the air and apologised.
‘I am here to do a job,’ he said, more for his benefit than hers.
Avernus said, ‘Be honest, Ben. I was only a passing whim. I don’t suppose you remember much about us.’
‘Well, it was almost two centuries ago.’
Avernus said, ‘When we got married, I was stupid with love. It was in the Wayfarer’s Chapel? Do you remember that? The day hot and very dry, with a Santa Ana blowing, and Channel Five’s news helicopter hovering overhead. You were already famous, and two years later we were divorced, and you were so famous I hardly recognised you.’
They talked a little while about his career. The acting, the successful terms as state senator, the unsuccessful term in Congress, the fortune he had made in land deals after the partition of the USA, his semi-retirement in the upper house of the Pacific Community parliament. It was a little like an interrogation, but he didn’t mind it. At least he knew that part of the story. The bare bones of it, anyway.
The tall young woman, Ludmilla, took him back to the hotel. It seemed natural that she should stay for a drink, and then that they should make love, with a languor and then an urgency that surprised him, although he had been told that restoration of his testosterone levels would sometimes cause emotional or physical cruxes that would require resolution. Ben Lo had made love in microgravity many times, but never before with someone who had been born to it. Afterwards, Ludmilla rose up from the bed and moved gracefully about the room, dipping and turning as she pulled on her scanty clothes.
‘I will see you again,’ she said, and then she was gone.
The negotiations resumed, a punishing schedule taking up at least twelve hours a day. And there were the briefings and summary sessions with the other delegates, as well as the other work the spy had to attend to when Marla thought he was asleep. Fortunately, he had a kink which allowed him to build up sleep debt and get by on an hour a night. He’d sleep when this was done, all the way back to Earth with his prize. Then at last everything was in place, and he had only to wait.
Some days later there was another reception, this time in the little zoo halfway up the west side. The Elfhamers were running out of novel places to entertain the delegates. Most of the animals looked vaguely unhappy in the microgravity and none were very large. Bushbabies, armadillos and mice; a pair of hippopotami no larger than domestic cats; a knee-high pink elephant with some kind of skin problem behind its disproportionately large ears.
As Ben Lo came out of the rest room Ludmilla brushed past, saying, ‘When can she go?’
‘Tonight, if she’s ready,’ the spy said.
Marla was feeding peanuts to the dwarf elephant. Ben Lo said, ‘Aren’t you worried that the animals might escape? You wouldn’t want mice running around your Shangri-La.’
‘They have a kink in their metabolism,’ Marla said. ‘An artificial amino acid they require. That girl who talked to you, do you know she was once one of Avernus’s assistants?’
The spy was instantly alert. ‘I met her once, when I was trying out body surfing. She propositioned me, if you can believe that.’
Marla said nothing.
‘I can’t make any kind of deal on my own. If someone wants anything, they must present it to the delegation, through the proper channels. All she wanted was sex. And I turned her down.’
‘You are an oddity here, it is true. I suppose some women would sleep with you out of curiosity.’
‘But you have never asked, Marla. I’m mortified.’
He said it playfully, but he knew that Marla suspected something, wondered if the precautions he and Ludmilla had taken, when she had led him to Avernus, and afterwards, had been enough. It didn’t matter. Everything was in place and soon he would be gone.
They came for him that night, but he was awake and dressed, counting off the minutes until his little bundle of surprises started to unpack itself. There were two of them, armed with tasers and sticky-foam canisters. The spy blinded them with homemade capsicum spray (he’d stolen chilli pods from one of the hydroponic farms and suspended a water extract in a perfume spray) and killed them as they blundered about, screaming and pawing at their eyes. One of them was Marla, the other a muscular man who must have spent a good portion of each day in a centrifuge gym. The spy disabled the sprinkler system, set fire to his room, kicked out the window, and ran.
There were police waiting outside the main entrance of the hotel. The spy ran right over the edge of the terrace and landed two hundred metres down amongst blue pines grown into bubbles of soft needles in the microgravity. Above, the fire touched off the homemade plastic explosive and a fan of burning debris shot out above the spy’s head, seeming to hover in the black air for a long time before beginning to flutter down towards the Skagerrak. Briefly, he wondered if any of the delegation had survived. It didn’t matter. The enthusiastic and naïve delegates had always been expendable.
Half the lights were out in Elfhame, and all of the transportation systems; the city comms was crashing and resetting every five minutes, and the braking lasers were sending twenty-millisecond pulses to a narrow wedge of the sky. It was a dumb bug, only a thousand lines long. The spy had laboriously typed it from memory into the library system, which connected with everything else. It wouldn’t take long to trace, but by then other things would start happening.
The spy crouched in the cover of the bushy pine trees. One of his teeth was capped. He pried it loose and unravelled the length of monomolecular diamond wire coiled inside.
In the distance, people called to each other over a backdrop of ringing bells and sirens and klaxons. Flashlights flickered in the darkness on the far side of the Skagerrak’s black gulf; on the terrace above the spy’s hiding place, the police seemed have brought the fire in the hotel under control. Then the branches of the pines started to doff as a wind got up; the bug had reached the air conditioning. In the darkness below, waves grew higher on the Skagerrak, sloshing and crashing together, as the wind drove waves towards the beach at the North End and reflected waves clashed with those coming onshore. The monomolecular film over the lake’s surface was not infinitely strong. The wind began to tear spray from the tops of the towering waves, and filled the lower level of the canyon with flying foam flowers. Soon the waves would grow so tall that they’d spill over the lower levels.
The spy counted out ten minutes, and then began to bound up the ladder of terraces, putting all his strength into his thigh and back muscles. Most of the setbacks between each terrace were no more than thirty metres high; for someone with muscles accustomed to one g, it was easy enough to scale them with a single jump in the microgravity, even from a standing start.
He was halfway there when the zoo’s elephant charged past him in the windy semidarkness. Its trunk was raised above its head and it trumpeted a single despairing cry as it ran over the edge of the narrow terrace. Its momentum carried it a long way out into the air before it began to fall, outsized ears flapping as if trying to lift it. Higher up, the plastic explosive charges the spy had made from sugar, gelatine and lubricating grease blew out hectares of plastic sheeting and structural frames from the long greenhouses.
The spy’s legs were like wood when he reached the high agricultural regions; his heart was pounding and his lungs were burning as he tried to strain oxygen from the thin air. He grabbed a fire extinguisher and mingled with panicked staff, ricocheting down long corridors and bounding across wind-blown fields of crops edged by shattered glass walls and lit by stuttering red emergency lighting. He was only challenged once, and struck the woman with the butt end of the fire extinguisher and ran on without bothering to check whether or not she was dead.
Marla had shown him the facility where they stored genetic material on one of her endless tours. Everything was kept in liquid nitrogen, and there was a wide selection of Dewar flasks. He chose one about the size of a human head, filled it, and clamped on the lid.
Then through a set of double pressure doors, banging the switch which closed them behind him, setting down the flask and dropping the coil of diamond wire beside it, stepping into a dressing frame and finally pausing, breathing hard, dry-mouthed and suddenly trembling, as the pressure suit was assembled around him. As the gold-filmed bubble was lowered over his head and clamped to the neck seal, Ben Lo started, as if waking. Something was terribly wrong. What was he doing here?
Dry air hissed around his face; head-up displays stuttered and scrolled down. The spy walked out of the frame, stowed the diamond wire in one of the suit’s utility pockets, picked up the flask of liquid nitrogen, and started the airlock cycle, ignoring the suit’s recitation of a series of safety precautions while the room revolved and opened on a flood of sunlight.
The spy came out at the top of Elfhame’s South End. He bounded around the tangle of pipes and fins of some kind of distillery or cracking plant, and saw the railway arrowing away across a cratered plain towards a close, sharply curved horizon. The single rail hung from smart A-frames whose carbon-fibre legs compensated for movements in the icy surface. Thirteen hundred kilometres long, it described a complete circle around the little moon from pole to pole, part of the infrastructure left over from Elfhame’s expansionist phase, when it was planned to string sibling settlements all the way around the moon.
The spy kangaroo-hopped along the sunward side of the railway, heading south towards the rendezvous point he had agreed. The ground was rippled and cracked and blistered, covered in fine ice dust that sprayed out from the cleats of his boots at each touchdown. In five minutes, the canyon had disappeared beneath the horizon behind him.
‘That was some diversion,’ a voice said over the open channel. ‘I hope no one was killed.’
‘Just an elephant, I think. Although if it landed in the lake it might have survived.’ He wasn’t about to tell Avernus about Marla and the policeman.
The spy stopped in the shadow of a carbon-fibre pillar, and scanned the terrain ahead of him. The mobots hadn’t been allowed into this area. The land curved away to the east and south like a warped checkerboard. A criss-cross pattern of ridges marked out regular squares about two hundred metres on each side, and each square was a different colour. Vacuum organisms. He’d reached the experimental plots.
Avernus said over the open channel, ‘I can’t see the pickup.’
He started along the line again. ‘I’ve already signalled to the transport using the braking lasers. It’ll be here in less than an hour. We’re a little ahead of schedule.’
The transport was a small gig with a brute of a motor taking up most of its hull, leaving room for only a single hibernation pod and a small storage compartment. If everything went according to plan, that was all he would need.
At last, at the top of one of his big kangaroo hops, he saw her on the far side of the curved checkerboard of the experimental plots, a tiny figure in a pressure suit standing at what looked like the edge of the world. He change course, bounded across the fields towards her.
The ridges were only a metre high and a couple of metres across, dirty water and methane ice fused smooth as glass. It was easy to leap over each of them – the gravity was so light that the spy could probably get into orbit if he wasn’t careful. Each field held a different growth. A corrugated grey mould that gave like rubber under his boots. Flexible spikes the colour of dried blood, all different heights and thicknesses, but none higher than his knees. More grey stuff, this time mounded in discrete blisters each several metres from its nearest neighbours, with fat grey ropes running beneath the ice. Irregular stacks of what looked like black plates which gave way, half way across the field, to a blanket of black stuff like cracked tar.
The figure had turned to watch him, its helmet a gold bubble that refracted the rays of the tiny intensely bright star of the sun. As the spy made the final bound across the last of the experimental plots – more of the black stuff, like a huge wrinkled vinyl blanket dissected by deep wandering cracks – Avernus said in his ear, ‘You should have kept to the paths.’
‘Any damage I’ve done doesn’t matter now.’
‘Ah, but I think you’ll find it does.’
Avernus was standing on top of a ridge of upturned strata at the rim of a huge crater. Her suit was transparent, after the fashion of the losing side of the Quiet War. It was intended to minimise the barrier between the human and the vacuum environments. She might as well have flown a flag declaring her allegiance to the outer alliance. Behind her, the crater stretched away south and west, and the railway ran right out above its dark floor on pillars that doubled and tripled in height as they stepped away down the inner slope. The crater was so large that its far side was hidden beyond the little moon’s curvature. The black stuff had overgrown the ridge, and flowed down into the crater. Avernus was standing on the only clear spot.
She said, ‘This is my most successful strain. You can see how vigorous it is. You didn’t get that suit from my lab, so I suggest you keep moving around. This stuff is thixotropic in the presence of foreign bodies. It spreads out like thixotropic paint over the neighbouring organisms, but doesn’t overgrow itself.’
The spy looked down, and saw that the big cleated boots of his pressure suit had already sunken to the ankles in the black stuff. He lifted one, then the other; it was like walking in tar. He took a step towards Avernus, and the ground collapsed beneath his boots and he was suddenly up to his knees in black stuff.
‘My suit,’ Avernus said, ‘is coated with the protein by which the strain recognises its own self. You could say I’m like a virus, fooling the immune system. I dug a trench, and that’s what you stepped into. Where is the transport?’
‘On its way, but you don’t have to worry about it,’ the spy said, as he struggled to free himself. ‘This silly little trap won’t hold me for long.’
Avernus stepped back. She was four metres away, and the black stuff was thigh deep around the spy now, sluggishly flowing upwards. The spy flipped the catches on the flask and tipped liquid nitrogen over the stuff. The nitrogen boiled up in a cloud of dense vapour and evaporated. It had made no difference at all to the stuff’s integrity.
A point of light began to grow brighter above the close horizon of the moon, moving swiftly aslant the field of stars.
‘That’s about as useful as pouring water on a lawn,’ Avernus said, and turned and pointed into the black sky. ‘I believe that’s the transport.’
The spy snarled at her. He had sunk up to his waist now.
Avernus said, ‘You never were Ben Lo, were you? Or at any rate no more than a poor copy. The original is back on Earth, alive or dead. If he’s alive, no doubt he’ll claim that this is all a trick of the outer alliance against the Elfhamers and their new allies, the Pacific Community.’
He said, ‘There’s still time, Barbara. We can do this together.’
The woman in the transparent pressure suit turned back to look at him. Sun flared on her bubble helmet.
‘Ben, poor Ben. I’ll call you that for the sake of convenience. That body isn’t yours. Oh, it looks like you, and I suppose the altered skin colour disguises the rougher edges of the plastic surgery. The skin matches your genotype, and so does the blood, but the skin was cloned from your original, and the blood must come from marrow implants. No wonder there’s so much immunosuppressant in your system. If we had just trusted tests on your skin and blood we might not have guessed what you really are. But your sperm – it was all female. Not a single X chromosome. I think you’re probably haploid, a construct from an unfertilised blastula, treated with testosterone so that you’d develop as male. But you aren’t a man. You aren’t even fully human. You’re a weapon. They used things like you as assassins in the Quiet War.’
He was in a pressure suit, with dry air blowing around his face, and displays blinking at the bottom of the clear helmet. A black landscape, and stars high above, and one bright star pulsing, growing closer. A spaceship! That was important, but he couldn’t remember why. He tried to move, and discovered that he was trapped in something like tar that came to his waist. He could feel it clamping around his legs, a terrible pressure that was compromising the heat exchange system of his suit. His legs were freezing cold, but his body was hot, and sweat prickled across his skin, collecting in the folds of the suit’s undergarment.
‘Don’t move,’ a woman’s voice said. ‘It’s like quicksand. It flows under pressure. You’ll last a little longer if you keep still. Struggling only makes it more liquid.’
Barbara. No, she called herself Avernus now. He had the strangest feeling that someone else was there, too, just out of sight. He tried to look around, but it was terribly hard in the half-buried suit. He had been kidnapped. It was the only explanation. He remembered running from the burning hotel . . . He was suddenly certain that the other members of the trade delegation were dead, and cried out, ‘Help me!’
Avernus squatted in front of him, moving carefully and slowly in her transparent pressure suit. He could just see the outline of her face through the gold film of her helmet’s visor.
‘There are two personalities in there. The dominant one let you back, Ben, so that you would plead with me. But don’t plead, Ben. I don’t want my last memory of you to be so undignified, and anyway, I won’t listen. I won’t deny you’ve been a great help. Elfhame always was a soft target, and you punched just the right buttons, and then you kindly provided the means of getting where I want to go. They’ll think I was kidnapped.’ Avernus turned and pointed up at the sky. ‘Can you see? That’s your transport. Ludmilla is going to reprogramme it.’
‘Take me with you, Barbara.’
‘Oh, but I’m not going to Earth. I considered it, but when they sent you I knew that there was something wrong. I’m going out, Ben. Further out. Beyond Pluto, in the Kuiper belt, where there are more than fifty thousand objects with a diameter of more than a hundred kilometres, and a billion comet nuclei ten kilometres or so across. And then there’s the Oort cloud, and its billions of comets. The fringes of that mingle with the fringes of Alpha Centauri’s cometary cloud. Life spreads. That’s its one rule. In ten thousand years my children will reach Alpha Centauri, not by starship, but simply through expansion of their territory.’
‘I remember now. That’s the way you used to talk when we were married. All that sci-fi you used to read.’
‘You don’t really remember it, Ben. It was fed to you. All my old interviews, my books and articles, all your old movies. They did a quick construction job, and just when you started to find out about it, the other one took over.’
‘I don’t think I’m quite myself. I don’t understand what’s happening, but perhaps it is something to do with the treatment I had. I told you about that.’
‘Hush, dear. There was no treatment. That was when they fixed you in the brain of this empty vessel.’
She was too close, and she had half-turned to watch the moving point of light grow brighter. He wanted to warn her, but something clamped his lips and he almost swallowed his tongue. He watched as his left hand stealthily unfastened a utility pocket and pulled out a length of glittering wire as fine as a spider-thread. Monomolecular diamond. Serrated along its length, except for five centimetres at each end, it could easily cut through pressure suit material and flesh and bone.
He knew then. He knew what he was.
The woman looked at him and said sharply, ‘What are you doing, Ben?’
And for that moment he was called back, and he made a fist around the thread and plunged it into the black stuff. The spy screamed and reached behind his helmet and dumped all oxygen from his main pack. It hissed for a long time, but the stuff gripping his legs and waist held firm.
‘It isn’t an anaerobe,’ Avernus said. She hadn’t moved. ‘It is a vacuum organism. A little oxygen won’t hurt it.’
Ben Lo found that he could speak. He said, ‘He wanted to cut off your head.’
‘I wondered why you were carrying that flask of liquid nitrogen. You were going to take it back and what? Use a bush robot to strip my brain neuron by neuron and read my memories into a computer? Turn me into some kind of expert system? Convenient, I suppose, but hardly optimal.’
‘It’s me, Barbara. I couldn’t let him do that.’ His left arm was buried up to the elbow.
‘Then thank you, Ben. I’m in your debt.’
‘I’d ask you to take me with you, but I think there’s only one hibernation pod in the transport. You won’t be able to take your friend, either.’
‘Ludmilla has her family here. She doesn’t want to leave. Or not yet.’
‘I can’t remember that story about Picasso. Maybe you heard it after we – after the divorce.’
‘You told it me, Ben. When things were good between us, you used to tell stories like that.’
‘Tell me it now.’
‘It’s about an art dealer who buys a canvas in a private deal, that is signed “Picasso”. This is in France, when Picasso was working in Cannes, and the dealer travels there to find if it is genuine. Picasso is working in his studio. He spares the painting a brief glance and dismisses it as a fake.’
‘I had a Picasso, once. A bull’s head. I remember that.’
‘You thought it was a necessary sign of your wealth. You were photographed beside it several times. I always preferred Georges Braque myself. Do you want to hear the rest of the story?’
‘I’m still here.’
‘Of course you are, as long as I stay out of reach. Well, a few months later our dealer buys another canvas signed by Picasso. Again he travels to the studio; again Picasso spares it no more than a glance, and announces that it is a fake. The dealer protests that this is the very painting he found Picasso working on the first time he visited, but Picasso just shrugs and says, “I often paint fakes.”’
His breathing was becoming laboured. Was there something wrong with the air system? The black stuff was climbing his chest. He could almost see it move, a creeping flow devouring him centimetre by centimetre.
The star was very close to the horizon, now.
He said, ‘I know a story.’
‘There’s no more time for stories, dear. I can release you, if you want. You only have your reserve air in any case.’
‘No. I want to see you go.’
‘I’ll remember you. I’ll tell your story far and wide.’
Ben Lo heard the echo of another voice across their link, and the woman in the transparent pressure suit stood and lifted a hand in salute and bounded away.
The spy came back, then, but Ben Lo fought him down. There was nothing he could do, after all. The woman was gone. He said, as if to himself, ‘I know a story. About a man who lost himself, and found himself again, just in time. Listen. Once upon a time. . .’
Something bright rose above the horizon and dwindled away into the outer darkness.
We were all surprised when Brian hired the Cyclops. His references only spoke Greek. His sole job experience was shepherding. It was uncertain if he could commit to two years. No matter. Brian saw something formidable in him. He had followed a similar hunch when he hired me. Despite my lack of PR experience, and despite my nervous stutter during the interview, I had become one of our company’s top performers.
I was speaking on my headset to a client when I saw the Cyclops for the first time. From my cramped cubicle I admired his backside as he exited Brian’s office. I’ve always been attracted to tall men with broad shoulders, and given my collegiate foray into the punk scene, I didn’t even blink at the tiny green sprig of hair that sat like a piece of unmown lawn atop his head. No, it wasn’t until he turned that I saw why others described him as revolting: the large eye, settled like a rough diamond above his eyebrows (not under them, as many would think) was, to put it mildly, intimidating. But what an eye it was! The color of warm sand, bright and penetrating. So penetrating that when he caught my gaze I swore he could see the color of my bones beneath my expensive tweed suit and inexpensive (and somewhat gritty) bra and underwear. And that voice! I heard him now, as he spoke to Brian, and I stopped talking in midsentence to Mrs. Lipman so that I could eavesdrop more effectively.
I had barely begun to enjoy the Cyclops’ melodic enthusiasm about working with our company when my client, Mrs. Lipman, began chirping in my right ear. After her tedious public involvement with crank and the home shopping network, she hungered for as much counsel as she could get. “Hello, Carol?” Mrs. Lipman said. “Can you hear me? You’re speaking on your headset again, aren’t you, Carol. I’ve asked you repeatedly not to use your headset. It makes you sound like some robot from distant space. Can you hear me, Carol? You were saying something about my choice of torti-llas, correct? About choosing the tortillas with the pink ribbon? The breast cancer tortillas? Instead of the white cheapies?”
“An analogy, Mrs. Lipman,” I said. “My point is that for someone so famous, the smallest choices you make will influence the media’s opinion of you.” She marveled over this statement, saying “Yes, I see,” pleased as she always was with any grandiose platitude. Around me, chairs scraped back and polite laughter ballooned. Brian was introducing the Cyclops around the office. I told Mrs. Lipman I would call her back and hung up.
Brian and the Cyclops approached my desk, smiling broadly. I stood and extended my hand. Like prairie dogs risen from their earthen holes, the heads of my colleagues bobbed above the cubicle walls, their expressions less curious than bored.
With a sense of wonderment I allowed the Cyclops’ hand to swallow up my own. “It’s a delight to meet you, Ms. Horne,” he said. “Brian was raving about your work here.”
So soft, his voice, as though it could lull you to sleep. He was very well-spoken for a Cyclops.
I told this to my colleague Kent later that day. Kent grunted and rolled his eyes.
“More proof of Brian’s incompetence,” Kent said. His gelled hair sat stiffly on his head like the shining blade of a guillotine. “He’s obviously a monster. Did you smell him?”
“Like cooked garbage,” an intern agreed.
“I thought he was nice,” I said. We were standing around the fax machine, five or six of us, waiting for our faxes to crawl out of the machine’s unsmiling mouth.
“‘Nice’ is the adjective people use when they don’t have something better to say,” Kent intoned. Then he sang loudly, “Carol’s found a new boy-friend.”
My coworkers laughed. “Yeah, right,” I said with feigned playfulness. “I mean, come on, he’s totally gross. Really, he’s disgusting.”
But truthfully, I didn’t find the Cyclops gross or disgusting. Aside from the large club he always carried (“For wolves or worse,” he told me), and despite the smell of livestock that trailed him everywhere, he was far more refined and thoughtful than the other men in the office. His pants – while faintly stained – were always neatly pressed. He could quote entire poems of Yeats and Sappho. Even more impressive was that he always asked everyone, no matter how busy he was, how his or her day was going. Clients perceived his incongruity as a sign of superiority and began requesting his services. To my delight, we were teamed up on a new project together, and after a few engaging weeks I complimented him on his impressive vocabulary and grammar.
“I read a lot of books in the field,” the Cyclops explained. He meant field literally, as in the field where he shepherded goats. I pictured him lolling on a vast green hillside, his feet and chest bare, holding a hardcover book above his face at just the right angle to block the hot Mediterranean sun.
“Any favorites?” I asked. I had been a literature major in college and in my rare haughty moments fancied myself a scholar.
“Of our contemporaries I enjoy Cormac McCarthy. I like tales of war and death. But the authors I forever return to are long perished: Tolstoy, Homer, Proust. Have you ever read Proust?”
Proust was one of those authors I wanted desperately to read but knew I never would. I had been assigned a few chapters in college that I completely blew off for a week of reality television. For much of my life I wore my unfamiliarity with Proust like a red cloak of literary shame. The fact that even this spelunking Cyclops had read Proust was a bit humiliating.
“Proust,” I said. “Yes, of course.”
The Cyclops smiled at me, displaying the crooked gray kernels of his teeth. “I like you, Carol,” he said. “You don’t seem like the type that would work in a PR firm.”
“Neither do you,” I told him. This time I wasn’t lying.
Why lie about Proust? Even as I was telling the lie some part of my brain was screaming at me, Don’t lie you idiot, you won’t be judged for it! But I had a severe problem with wanting to please people. Especially people I liked. Like Brian, my boss. Or the Cyclops. Or Amanda Davenport in grade school, whose hair was always smooth and shining and who could always color perfectly within the lines. I told her that I, too, used to be a coloring expert, but after a debilitating car wreck that shattered my wrists (and scorched my hair, making it frizzy), it was all I could do to stay on the page. Amanda informed the teacher and the teacher called my mom and that night I had to lean against the cold bathroom sink for five minutes with a bar of soap in my mouth. This did not keep me from lying again, although it did make me more careful about the magnitude of lie. I shied away from the larger deceits and began living in a white smoke of smaller half-truths. So it was when I lied to the Cyclops about Proust. And it was admittedly gratifying when he beamed back at me. I could see my watery reflection projected affectionately in his enormous brown-flecked eye. But as ever when I lied, the gnawing disappointment in myself, and the gnawing feeling that I was about to get caught, diminished the magnitude of my triumph. I smiled back at him half-heartedly.
A few days later the McGugle Account was created. The Cyclops and I were assigned to the same team. I was typically the Go-To Girl in such situations, but the McGugle Corporation had fallen into near disrepair. The youngest McGugle son was in court, defending himself from three sexual harassment accusations. The McGugle trophy wife was an admitted cokehead and alcoholic. While on a wine-tasting tour of the Yakima Valley, she drove her car through the brick wall of a winery’s tasting room. Mr. McGugle, himself, was rumored to be the most avid patron of a high-class escort ring. It was a big company and a bigger mess.
“You mortals,” the Cyclops muttered with a woeful shake of his head. We were eating pizza slices in the office near midnight. We were trying to find a positive light in all of this. “No matter what you have, it’s never enough.”
Kent found this remark offensive. “What about you? You were a shepherd. Wasn’t that a blissful enough existence? It’s not like you were recruited here, you know.”
Some of my colleagues snorted. Earlier, the Cyclops had shoveled down an entire goat cheese pizza while the hungry interns glowered at him. They had shuffled in their chairs and muttered angrily to one another but avoided any direct invective. The Cyclops’ large spiked club lay casually on the table near his Blackberry and the interns eyed it uneasily.
“For your information,” the Cyclops said tersely, “my goats died.” He had pizza sauce on his earlobe. He started to say something else but then stopped.
“What,” the boldest of the interns responded, “did you eat them?” The Cyclops’ face reddened.
“We’re getting off task,” I said loudly. “Let’s please turn our attention back to the press release. I personally enjoy the idea of a McGugle Bazaar. Anyone else?”
As the team began their vociferous opining, I caught the Cyclops’ eye and touched my earlobe carefully. His eye widened. He reached up with his giant hairy hand to remove the sauce from his ear. It smeared onto his fingers like blood. He gazed back at me gratefully. I considered winking but abstained, as I assumed such an innocuous gesture could be offensive to any creature possessing only one eye.
An hour later the Cyclops escorted me to my car. He held his club menacingly and commented that a young beautiful woman should not be walking alone so late at night. I blushed. “Thirty-five is not so young,” I told him.
“You’re a mere girl in Cyclops years.”
We reached my car. I jangled my keys. “Well,” I said. “Thank you.”
“No, thank you.” His eye was staring down at me mushily. I was nervous that he would try to kiss me right then and there in the parking lot, where one of my colleagues might find us.
Instead he leaned against his club and looked up at the stars.
“’Desire makes everything bloom,’” he said wistfully.
The Cyclops looked down at me again. “Don’t you remember? Proust?”
For lack of an answer, I dropped my keys. I stooped to pick them up, and so did the Cyclops, and his forehead hit the back of my head so hard that I dropped to the ground. Yellow blotches swarmed like bees in my vision.
“Oh dear,” he said. “That smarts, I’ll bet.” He helped me to my feet. In the lamplight, his face was wretched and scarred and now twisted with worry.
“I’m alright,” I said, brushing his hands away. My ears rang and my head ached. “I’m alright.”
I got in my car. He rapped on the window with his acorn-sized knuckles. I rolled the window down and looked up at him, smiling nervously.
“I’m sorry about your head,” he said softly.
“I know. It’s okay. It was an accident.”
“I really meant it when I said thank you.”
I smoothed my skirt under my thighs and then poked the key into the ignition.
“You haven’t read Proust,” he said suddenly, folding his wide hairy fingers over the door. It was not a question. I sat back in surprise, my hands dropping into my lap. “I knew it.”
His voice was gentle, forgiving. Something like a large flower opened sadly within me. “I didn’t mean to lie,” I said, even though that was a lie, too. I wanted to recline in the front seat and go to sleep.
The Cyclops cleared his throat. “’Lies are essential to humanity. They are perhaps as important as the pursuit of pleasure and moreover are dictated by that pursuit.’” He crouched down next to me as he spoke, his big head hanging like a rough pale planet in the window.
“Proust again?” I said. He nodded and reached for me. He pressed his big lips onto mine. I was surprised at how gentle and sweet he was, quite the opposite of what you would expect from one so big and rough. I opened my eyes to find his wide high eye staring absently over my hairline. He released me and invited me to his cave.
Despite my rattling heart I managed to say, “Should I drive?”
The Cyclops squeezed into my car by reclining the passenger seat down flat and lying prone, giving directions to his cave via the stars he read through the open sunroof. I was too nervous to speak now. I glanced at his enormous Grecian thighs in his khakis (where did he buy those, I wondered) and worried if making love to a Cyclops was even technically possible. These were frightening thoughts, but then he reached over and with his large hand stroked my hair, and the sweetness of this gesture soothed me. I was under a spell. When instructed I turned the steering wheel obediently, forgetting the blinker. When he spoke I listened with all of my heart. When we reached his cave half the night had passed and the spindly moon had already set, but to me, content in my lustful suffering, the drive had been a mere pinprick in the vast open wound of time.
We were somewhere far from Seattle. Eastern Washington, I assumed, in a land of rolling hills and no trees. Machines had carved enormous circles into the farmland so that they resembled landing platforms for visiting spaceships. We were on top of the highest butte in sight, looking out over the smaller hills that undulated like a frozen ocean into the dark horizon. The night was clear; the wind was fierce. My hair was whipped into my eyes as I stepped from the car, and the stinging strands were momentarily blinding. One of my high heels broke. I did not complain. I merely slipped off my shoes and trod on the cool dirt toward the rocky outcrop-ping where the Cyclops stood waiting for me. He motioned for me to go ahead of him. I walked with feigned bravery between two large boulders and into the hillside. The smell was very strong, farm animals and grain. I couldn’t see anything in the inky blackness.
“Here we go,” the Cyclops said, striking a match. A fire exploded into light and the room flickered into view. The high ceilings were domed nicely overhead and the rock walls were lined with large attractively painted jugs. “Wine,” he grunted, uncorking a jug and pressing it to his mouth.
The wine dribbled down his chin and onto his Ralph Lauren polo.
He passed the wine jug to me. I wasn’t strong enough to grip it, so he gingerly brought it to my lips. It was delicious. The taste helped to lessen the fecund animal smell emanating from the corner, where a pen of three goats bleated incessantly for their dinner.
“These are my children,” the Cyclops boasted cheerfully. “Well, not really of course, but I care for them like they are.” He told me their names in Greek, but I only caught the name of Hector, a small gray goat with dull yellow horns. “I’m building up my flock again. Three is an okay start, but I’d like to have nineteen or more. Nearby there is a ranch with a dozen or so good goats. I’ll hopefully have them by Friday of next week.”
“How much do they cost?” I asked, genuinely curious.
The Cyclops waved his club through the air and laughed. “Gratis,” he said. He set the club down next to a pile of straw that must have been his bed. After one last chuckle he grew solemn. We watched one another seri-ously for several moments and for once I was strong enough to look him squarely in the eye without turning away. “Come here,” he said, unbuckling his belt, and I came.
Later, lying in the dark on the straw that was stabbing me relentlessly wherever I turned, feeling pleasantly bruised and pawed from the night before, I began wondering if I should escape. Blind him with a hot poker, maybe, and then flee clinging to the belly of one of his goats. The thought made me smile in the dark, because the goats were so small and smelly that I couldn’t imagine their being an effective hiding place. More realistically, I could leave a note. Tiptoe to my car and drive the five hours back to Seattle with my broken shoe in the passenger seat. This was my modus operandi in those days – initial excitement about becoming involved with someone, followed by an adrenaline-packed flight response that I assumed would protect me from future awkwardness and pain, whether my awkwardness and pain or the other person’s, I was never sure. Somehow I understood that the Cyclops deserved better, but I questioned my motives. Despite his being smarter, kinder and sweeter than most, and despite his being well-endowed (though not, fortunately, to the point where our coupling had been a disaster), I began wondering if I was confusing lust and pity. Maybe I was feeling sorry for him, for having to go through life as the freak, as the weirdo. I pictured us walking down the street together, him looming over me, the crowds parting before us, their faces twisted with curiosity and fear. I pictured the interns at our wedding ceremony, making farting sounds in the back rows and doubling over with laughter. The Cyclops gave a loud snore then, an earth-splitting snore, and even one of the goats bleated in fear.
I lingered. Faint light began filtering into the cave. The Cyclops snored on. I turned to gaze at him and was shocked by his ugliness. The deep craters on his face (scars from Cycloptic acne?) and the bulbous eye wiggling beneath the fabric of his eyelid were newly hideous to me, and I chided myself for being so cruel. What fairy tale had I presumed would happen? That I would sleep with him and then find upon awakening that he had transformed? That he was a two-eyed handsome prince? That his dungy cave was an alabaster castle? That I was an honest person finding love and beauty in the monstrous?
This last part might have become true. But when the Cyclops awoke I was already buttoning my dress and shaking out my hair.
“Wait,” the Cyclops protested, rising to his feet and brushing the straw away from his powerful figure. “I can make breakfast.” He wrapped a loincloth around his waist and I realized that this was his version of hanging around the house in boxers. It was almost charming if I wasn’t already feeling so pale and sick.
“I’ll call you,” I said. It came out coldly.
The Cyclops’ eye flickered. In it there floated a flotsam of hurt. “Yeah right,” he said, and it was the only time I heard him be sarcastic. “I’ll bet.”
He walked me to the cave entrance. In the morning light, he was terrifying. I let him kiss me on the forehead. Once settled in my car, I breathed an enormous sigh of relief.
The following Monday we were all surprised to hear that the Cyclops had been fired. Brian called me into his office, distressed. Only the day before the Cyclops had slaughtered the entire McGugle clan during an unscheduled meeting at their hotel. He had taken their carcasses back to his cave near Pullman and had cooked them over a spit. He ate most of them and then deposited their remains in a cornfield. He had called Brian that very morning to confess and apologize.
“I liked the old guy,” Brian said, wiping his nose. “True, he smelled horribly. Like a morgue. And his face was hideous. But what confidence! Really, a creative genius. Nonetheless, it’s impossible to keep him on staff after what he did. Reprehensible, really. I doubt I’ll even give him a letter of reference. As for you, Carol, we’ll need you to write copy for a new hire. I’d like to post it online today.”
“Where – where is he now?” My stomach had pierced the soles of my feet, and I stood there stupidly in its mucky glue.
“Gone, I guess,” Brian shrugged. “The authorities wanted to speak with him but he was long gone – his goats, too. My guess is he returned to his homeland, where this sort of behavior is more acceptable.”
I moved into the hallway numbly. It was not that I was in love. I wasn’t. Love wasn’t realistic. Love raised too many worrisome questions. For example: Would our children have three eyes? Would my hips be wide enough for their delivery? Would they have pale shocks of green ear hair? What would my mother say? But I kept thinking of his lips and the softness of his voice, and I wondered when it was, exactly, that my lying had become so deeply entrenched that I was now lying exclusively to myself.
My colleagues threw a work party in honor of the Cyclops’ departure. One of the interns baked cupcakes. “So long to the armpits of death,” Kent said, tearing into a bag of chips. The interns guffawed over their cokes. I was silent. I sat in my cubicle, perusing the new resumes that were pouring in by the dozens. While a few prospects seemed promising, especially a Ms. Scylla, a successful head-hunter with specific maritime experience, none of them seemed lovable.
A year later I received a red crate from some remote Mediterranean island. It arrived at work. I asked Kent to help me lift it into my car. “Can’t,” he said, pointing to his shoulder. “Racquetball.” The interns helped me instead. After dragging it into my house, I left it unopened for several weeks. Finally, during a gray rain that left me bored and depressed, I uncorked a jug of ouzo and sat on the straw pile in the corner of my bedroom. With a loud sigh I braced myself before attacking the crate with my hammer. I clawed through a cheerful cloud of cotton balls until my fingertips collided with the hard covers of several books. I pulled them out one by one. Marcel Proust. His collected works. They were frustratingly all in French. A small card – no name attached – fluttered from the guts of the largest volume. A Proust quote, in English:
“’There is no man, however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived in a way the consciousness of which is so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory.’”
Gladness returned to me then. Someone somewhere understood me and suffered as I did.
Whenever I begin to doubt myself, as I invariably do, and wish in terror that I had not turned out the way that I have, I open up these strange, dusty, illegible books and I reread this note. Then all seems benign again, at least temporarily, like there is a great eye penetrating my lies and observing the goodness within me.
*Shama Shields, “The McGugle Account” from Favorite Monsters. Copyright @ 2018 by Author. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Autumn House Books, www.autumnhouse.org.
From May to September Delia took the Churro sheep and two dogs and went up on Joe-Johns Mountain to live. She had that country pretty much to herself all summer. Ken Owen sent one of his Mexican hands up every other week with a load of groceries but otherwise she was alone, alone with the sheep and the dogs. She liked the solitude. Liked the silence. Some sheepherders she knew talked a blue streak to the dogs, the rocks, the porcupines, they sang songs and played the radio, read their magazines out loud, but Delia let the silence settle into her and by early summer she had begun to hear the ticking of the dry grasses as a language she could almost translate. The dogs were named Jesus and Alice. “Away to me, Hey-sus,” she said when they were moving the sheep. “Go bye, Alice.” From May to September these words spoken in command of the dogs were almost the only times she heard her own voice; that, and when the Mexican brought the groceries, a polite exchange in Spanish about the weather, the health of the dogs, the fecundity of the ewes.
The Churros were a very old breed. The O-Bar Ranch had a federal allotment up on the mountain, which was all rimrock and sparse grasses well suited to the Churros, who were fiercely protective of their lambs and had a long-stapled top coat that could take the weather. They did well on the thin grass of the mountain where other sheep would lose flesh and give up their lambs to the coyotes. The Mexican was an old man. He said he remembered Churros from his childhood in the Oaxaca highlands, the rams with their four horns, two curving up, two down. “Buen’ carne,” he told Delia. Uncommonly fine meat.
The wind blew out of the southwest in the early part of the season, a wind that smelled of juniper and sage and pollen; in the later months it blew straight from the east, a dry wind smelling of dust and smoke, bringing down showers of parched leaves and seedheads of yarrow and bittercress. Thunderstorms came frequently out of the east, enormous cloudscapes with hearts of livid magenta and glaucous green. At those times, if she was camped on a ridge she’d get out of her bed and walk downhill to find a draw where she could feel safer, but if she was camped in a low place she would stay with the sheep while a war passed over their heads, spectacular jagged flares of lightning, skull-rumbling cannonades of thunder. It was maybe bred into the bones of Churros, a knowledge and a tolerance of mountain weather, for they shifted together and waited out the thunder with surprising composure; they stood forbearingly while rain beat down in hard blinding bursts.
Sheepherding was simple work, although Delia knew some herders who made it hard, dogging the sheep every minute, keeping them in a tight group, moving all the time. She let the sheep herd themselves, do what they wanted, make their own decisions. If the band began to separate she would whistle or yell, and often the strays would turn around and rejoin the main group. Only if they were badly scattered did she send out the dogs. Mostly she just kept an eye on the sheep, made sure they got good feed, that the band didn’t split, that they stayed in the boundaries of the O-Bar allotment. She studied the sheep for the language of their bodies, and tried to handle them just as close to their nature as possible. When she put out salt for them, she scattered it on rocks and stumps as if she was hiding Easter eggs, because she saw how they enjoyed the search.
The spring grass made their manure wet, so she kept the wool cut away from the ewes’ tail area with a pair of sharp, short-bladed shears. She dosed the sheep with wormer, trimmed their feet, inspected their teeth, treated ewes for mastitis. She combed the burrs from the dogs’ coats and inspected them for ticks. You’re such good dogs, she told them with her hands. I’m very very proud of you.
She had some old binoculars, 7 x 32s, and in the long quiet days she watched bands of wild horses miles off in the distance, ragged looking mares with dorsal stripes and black legs. She read the back issues of the local newspapers, looking in the obits for names she recognized. She read spine-broken paperback novels and played solitaire and scoured the ground for arrowheads and rocks she would later sell to rockhounds. She studied the parched brown grass, which was full of grasshoppers and beetles and crickets and ants. But most of her day was spent just walking. The sheep sometimes bedded quite a ways from her trailer and she had to get out to them before sunrise when the coyotes would make their kills. She was usually up by three or four and walking out to the sheep in darkness. Sometimes she returned to the camp for lunch, but always she was out with the sheep again until sundown when the coyotes were likely to return, and then she walked home after dark to water and feed the dogs, eat supper, climb into bed.
In her first years on Joe-Johns she had often walked three or four miles away from the band just to see what was over a hill, or to study the intricate architecture of a sheepherder’s monument. Stacking up flat stones in the form of an obelisk was a common herders pastime, their monuments all over that sheep country, and though Delia had never felt an impulse to start one herself, she admired the ones other people had built. She sometimes walked miles out of her way just to look at a rockpile up close.
She had a mental map of the allotment, divided into ten pastures. Every few days, when the sheep had moved on to a new pasture, she moved her camp. She towed the trailer with an old Dodge pickup, over the rocks and creekbeds, the sloughs and dry meadows to the new place. For a while afterward, after the engine was shut off and while the heavy old body of the truck was settling onto its tires, she would be deaf, her head filled with a dull roaring white noise.
She had about 800 ewes, as well as their lambs, many of them twins or triplets. The ferocity of the Churro ewes in defending their offspring was sometimes a problem for the dogs, but in the balance of things she knew it kept her losses small. Many coyotes lived on Joe-Johns, and sometimes a cougar or bear would come up from the salt pan desert on the north side of the mountain, looking for better country to own. These animals considered the sheep to be fair game, which Delia understood to be their right; and also her right, hers and the dogs, to take the side of the sheep. Sheep were smarter than people commonly believed and the Churros smarter than other sheep she had tended, but by mid-summer the coyotes had passed the word among themselves, buen’ carne, and Delia and the dogs then had a job of work, keeping the sheep out of harm’s way.
She carried a .32 caliber Colt pistol in an old-fashioned holster worn on her belt. If you’re a coyot’ you’d better be careful of this woman, she said with her body, with the way she stood and the way she walked when she was wearing the pistol. That gun and holster had once belonged to her mother’s mother, a woman who had come West on her own and homesteaded for a while, down in the Sprague River Canyon. Delia’s grandmother had liked to tell the story: how a concerned neighbor, a bachelor with an interest in marriageable females, had pressed the gun upon her, back when the Klamaths were at war with the army of General Joel Palmer; and how she never had used it for anything but shooting rabbits.
In July a coyote killed a lamb while Delia was camped no more than two hundred feet away from the bedded sheep. It was dusk and she was sitting on the steps of the trailer reading a two-gun western, leaning close over the pages in the failing light, and the dogs were dozing at her feet. She heard the small sound, a strange high faint squeal she did not recognize and then did recognize, and she jumped up and fumbled for the gun, yelling at the coyote, at the dogs, her yell startling the entire band to its feet but the ewes making their charge too late, Delia firing too late, and none of it doing any good beyond a release of fear and anger.
A lion might well have taken the lamb entire; she had known of lion kills where the only evidence was blood on the grass and a dribble of entrails in the beam of a flashlight. But a coyote is small and will kill with a bite to the throat and then perhaps eat just the liver and heart, though a mother coyote will take all she can carry in her stomach, bolt it down and carry it home to her pups. Delia’s grandmother’s pistol had scared this one off before it could even take a bite, and the lamb was twitching and whole on the grass, bleeding only from its neck. The mother ewe stood over it, crying in a distraught and pitiful way, but there was nothing to be done, and in a few minutes the lamb was dead.
There wasn’t much point in chasing after the coyote, and anyway the whole band was now a skittish jumble of anxiety and confusion; it was hours before the mother ewe gave up her grieving, before Delia and the dogs had the band calm and bedded down again, almost midnight. By then the dead lamb had stiffened on the ground and she dragged it over by the truck and skinned it and let the dogs have the meat, which went against her nature but was about the only way to keep the coyote from coming back for the carcass.
While the dogs worked on the lamb, she stood with both hands pressed to her tired back looking out at the sheep, the mottled pattern of their whiteness almost opalescent across the black landscape, and the stars thick and bright above the faint outline of the rock ridges, stood there a moment before turning toward the trailer, toward bed, and afterward she would think how the coyote and the sorrowing ewe and the dark of the July moon and the kink in her back, how all of that came together and was the reason she was standing there watching the sky, was the reason she saw the brief, brilliantly green flash in the southwest and then the sulfur yellow streak breaking across the night, southwest to due west on a descending arc onto Lame Man Bench. It was a broad bright ribbon, rainbow-wide, a cyanotic contrail. It was not a meteor, she had seen hundreds of meteors. She stood and looked at it.
Things to do with the sky, with distance, you could lose perspective, it was hard to judge even a lightning strike, whether it had touched down on a particular hill or the next hill or the valley between. So she knew this thing falling out of the sky might have come down miles to the west of Lame Man, not onto Lame Man at all, which was two miles away, at least two miles, and getting there would be all ridges and rocks, no way to cover the ground in the truck. She thought about it. She had moved camp earlier in the day, which was always troublesome work, and it had been a blistering hot day, and now the excitement with the coyote. She was very tired, the tiredness like a weight against her breastbone. She didn’t know what this thing was, falling out of the sky. Maybe if she walked over there she would find just a dead satellite or a broken weather balloon and not dead or broken people. The contrail thinned slowly while she stood there looking at it, became a wide streak of yellowy cloud against the blackness, with the field of stars glimmering dimly behind it.
After a while she went into the truck and got a water bottle and filled it and also took the first aid kit out of the trailer and a couple of spare batteries for the flashlight and a handful of extra cartridges for the pistol and stuffed these things into a backpack and looped her arms into the straps and started up the rise away from the dark camp, the bedded sheep. The dogs left off their gnawing of the dead lamb and trailed her anxiously, wanting to follow, or not wanting her to leave the sheep. “Stay by,” she said to them sharply, and they went back and stood with the band and watched her go. That coyot’, he’s done with us tonight: This is what she told the dogs with her body, walking away, and she believed it was probably true.
Now that she’d decided to go, she walked fast. This was her sixth year on the mountain and by this time she knew the country pretty well. She didn’t use the flashlight. Without it, she became accustomed to the starlit darkness, able to see the stones and pick out a path. The air was cool but full of the smell of heat rising off the rocks and the parched earth. She heard nothing but her own breathing and the gritting of her boots on the pebbly dirt. A little owl circled once in silence and then went off toward a line of cottonwood trees standing in black silhouette to the northeast.
Lame Man Bench was a great upthrust block of basalt grown over with scraggly juniper forest. As she climbed among the trees the smell of something like ozone or sulfur grew very strong, and the air became thick, burdened with dust. Threads of the yellow contrail hung in the limbs of the trees. She went on across the top of the bench and onto slabs of shelving rock that gave a view to the west. Down in the steep-sided draw below her there was a big wing-shaped piece of metal resting on the ground which she at first thought had been torn from an airplane, but then realized was a whole thing, not broken, and she quit looking for the rest of the wreckage. She squatted down and looked at it. Yellow dust settled slowly out of the sky, pollinating her hair, her shoulders, the toes of her boots, faintly dulling the oily black shine of the wing, the thing shaped like a wing.
While she was squatting there looking down at it, something came out from the sloped underside of it, a coyote she thought at first, and then it wasn’t a coyote but a dog built like greyhound or a whippet, deep-chested, long legged, very light-boned and frail looking. She waited for somebody else, a man, to crawl out after his dog, but nobody did. The dog squatted to pee and then moved off a short distance and sat on its haunches and considered things. Delia considered, too. She considered that the dog might have been sent up alone. The Russians had sent up a dog in their little sputnik, she remembered. She considered that a skinny almost hairless dog with frail bones would be dead in short order if left alone in this country. And she considered that there might be a man inside the wing, dead or too hurt to climb out. She thought how much trouble it would be, getting down this steep rock bluff in the darkness to rescue a useless dog and a dead man.
After a while she stood and started picking her way into the draw. The dog by this time was smelling the ground, making a slow and careful circuit around the black wing. Delia kept expecting the dog to look up and bark, but it went on with its intent inspection of the ground as if it was stone deaf, as if Delia’s boots making a racket on the loose gravel was not an announcement that someone was coming down. She thought of the old Dodge truck, how it always left her ears ringing, and wondered if maybe it was the same with this dog and its wing-shaped sputnik, although the wing had fallen soundless across the sky.
When she had come about half way down the hill she lost footing and slid down six or eight feet before she got her heels dug in and found a handful of willow scrub to hang onto. A glimpse of this movement—rocks sliding to the bottom, or the dust she raised—must have startled the dog, for it leaped backward suddenly and then reared up. They looked at each other in silence, Delia and the dog, Delia standing leaning into the steep slope a dozen yards above the bottom of the draw, and the dog standing next to the sputnik, standing all the way up on its hind legs like a bear or a man and no longer seeming to be a dog but a person with a long narrow muzzle and a narrow chest, turned-out knees, delicate dog-like feet. Its genitals were more cat-like than dog, a male set but very small and neat and contained. Dog’s eyes, though, dark and small and shining below an anxious brow, so that she was reminded of Jesus and Alice, the way they had looked at her when she had left them alone with the sheep. She had years of acquaintance with dogs and she knew enough to look away, break off her stare. Also, after a moment, she remembered the old pistol and holster at her belt. In cowboy pictures, a man would unbuckle his gunbelt and let it down on the ground as a gesture of peaceful intent, but it seemed to her this might only bring attention to the gun, to the true intent of a gun, which is always killing. This woman is nobody at all to be scared of, she told the dog with her body, standing very still along the steep hillside, holding onto the scrub willow with her hands, looking vaguely to the left of him where the smooth curve of the wing rose up and gathered a veneer of yellow dust.
The dog, the dog person, opened his jaws and yawned the way a dog will do to relieve nervousness, and then they were both silent and still for a minute. When finally he turned and stepped toward the wing, it was an unexpected, delicate movement, exactly the way a ballet dancer steps along on his toes, knees turned out, lifting his long thin legs; and then he dropped down on all-fours and seemed to become almost a dog again. He went back to his business of smelling the ground intently, though every little while he looked up to see if Delia was still standing along the rock slope. It was a steep place to stand. When her knees finally gave out, she sat down very carefully where she was, which didn’t spook him. He had become used to her by then, and his brief, sliding glance just said, That woman up there is nobody at all to be scared of.
What he was after, or wanting to know, was a mystery to her. She kept expecting him to gather up rocks, like all those men who’d gone to the moon, but he only smelled the ground, making a wide slow circuit around the wing the way Alice and Jesus always circled round the trailer every morning, noses down, reading the dirt like a book. And when he seemed satisfied with what he’d learned, he stood up again and looked back at Delia, a last look delivered across his shoulder before he dropped down and disappeared under the edge of the wing, a grave and inquiring look, the kind of look a dog or a man will give you before going off on his own business, a look that says, You be okay if I go? If he had been a dog, and if Delia had been close enough to do it, she’d have scratched the smooth head, felt the hard bone beneath, moved her hands around the soft ears. Sure, okay, you go on now, Mr. Dog: This is what she would have said with her hands. Then he crawled into the darkness under the slope of the wing, where she figured there must be a door, a hatch letting into the body of the machine, and after a while he flew off into the dark of the July moon.
In the weeks afterward, on nights when the moon had set or hadn’t yet risen, she looked for the flash and streak of something breaking across the darkness out of the southwest. She saw him come and go to that draw on the west side of Lame Man Bench twice more in the first month. Both times, she left her grandmother’s gun in the trailer and walked over there and sat in the dark on the rock slab above the draw and watched him for a couple of hours. He may have been waiting for her, or he knew her smell, because both times he reared up and looked at her just about as soon as she sat down. But then he went on with his business. That woman is nobody to be scared of, he said with his body, with the way he went on smelling the ground, widening his circle and widening it, sometimes taking a clod or a sprig into his mouth and tasting it, the way a mild-mannered dog will do when he’s investigating something and not paying any attention to the person he’s with.
Delia had about decided that the draw behind Lame Man Bench was one of his regular stops, like the ten campsites she used over and over again when she was herding on Joe-Johns Mountain; but after those three times in the first month she didn’t see him again.
At the end of September she brought the sheep down to the O-Bar. After the lambs had been shipped out she took her band of dry ewes over onto the Nelson prairie for the fall, and in mid-November when the snow had settled in, she brought them to the feed lots. That was all the work the ranch had for her until lambing season. Jesus and Alice belonged to the O-Bar. They stood in the yard and watched her go.
In town she rented the same room as the year before, and, as before, spent most of a year’s wages on getting drunk and standing other herders to rounds of drink. She gave up looking into the sky.
In March she went back out to the ranch. In bitter weather they built jugs and mothering-up pens, and trucked the pregnant ewes from Green, where they’d been feeding on wheat stubble. Some ewes lambed in the trailer on the way in, and after every haul there was a surge of lambs born. Delia had the night shift, where she was paired with Roy Joyce, a fellow who raised sugar beets over in the valley and came out for the lambing season every year. In the black, freezing cold middle of the night, eight and ten ewes would be lambing at a time. Triplets, twins, big singles, a few quads, ewes with lambs born dead, ewes too sick or confused to mother. She and Roy would skin a dead lamb and feed the carcass to the ranch dogs and wrap the fleece around a bummer lamb, which was intended to fool the bereaved ewe into taking the orphan as her own, and sometimes it worked that way. All the mothering-up pens swiftly filled, and the jugs filled, and still some ewes with new lambs stood out in the cold field waiting for a room to open up.
You couldn’t pull the stuck lambs with gloves on, you had to reach into the womb with your fingers to turn the lamb, or tie cord around the feet, or grasp the feet barehanded, so Delia’s hands were always cold and wet, then cracked and bleeding. The ranch had brought in some old converted school buses to house the lambing crew, and she would fall into a bunk at daybreak and then not be able to sleep, shivering in the unheated bus with the gray daylight pouring in the windows and the endless daytime clamor out at the lambing sheds. All the lambers had sore throats, colds, nagging coughs. Roy Joyce looked like hell, deep bags as blue as bruises under his eyes, and Delia figured she looked about the same, though she hadn’t seen a mirror, not even to draw a brush through her hair, since the start of the season.
By the end of the second week, only a handful of ewes hadn’t lambed. The nights became quieter. The weather cleared, and the thin skiff of snow melted off the grass. On the dark of the moon, Delia was standing outside the mothering-up pens drinking coffee from a thermos. She put her head back and held the warmth of the coffee in her mouth a moment, and as she was swallowing it down, lowering her chin, she caught the tail end of a green flash and a thin yellow line breaking across the sky, so far off anybody else would have thought it was a meteor, but it was bright, and dropping from southwest to due west, maybe right onto Lame Man Bench. She stood and looked at it. She was so very goddamned tired and had a sore throat that wouldn’t clear and she could barely get her fingers to fold around the thermos, they were so split and tender.
She told Roy she felt sick as a horse, and did he think he could handle things if she drove herself into town to the Urgent Care clinic, and she took one of the ranch trucks and drove up the road a short way and then turned onto the rutted track that went up to Joe-Johns.
The night was utterly clear and you could see things a long way off. She was still an hour’s drive from the Churros’ summer range when she began to see a yellow-orange glimmer behind the black ridgeline, a faint nimbus like the ones that marked distant range fires on summer nights.
She had to leave the truck at the bottom of the bench and climb up the last mile or so on foot, had to get a flashlight out of the glove box and try to find an uphill path with it because the fluttery reddish lightshow was finished by then, and a thick pall of smoke overcast the sky and blotted out the stars. Her eyes itched and burned, and tears ran from them, but the smoke calmed her sore throat. She went up slowly, breathing through her mouth.
The wing had burned a skid path through the scraggly junipers along the top of the bench and had come apart into a hundred pieces. She wandered through the burnt trees and the scattered wreckage, shining her flashlight into the smoky darkness, not expecting to find what she was looking for, but there he was, lying apart from the scattered pieces of metal, out on the smooth slab rock at the edge of the draw. He was panting shallowly and his close coat of short brown hair was matted with blood. He lay in such a way that she immediately knew his back was broken. When he saw Delia coming up, his brow furrowed with worry. A sick or a wounded dog will bite, she knew that, but she squatted next to him. It’s just me, she told him, by shining the light not in his face but in hers. Then she spoke to him. “Okay,” she said. “I’m here now,” without thinking too much about what the words meant, or whether they meant anything at all, and she didn’t remember until afterward that he was very likely deaf anyway. He sighed and shifted his look from her to the middle distance, where she supposed he was focused on approaching death.
Near at hand, he didn’t resemble a dog all that much, only in the long shape of his head, the folded-over ears, the round darkness of his eyes. He lay on the ground flat on his side like a dog that’s been run over and is dying by the side of the road, but a man will lay like that too when he’s dying. He had small-fingered nail-less hands where a dog would have had toes and front feet. Delia offered him a sip from her water bottle but he didn’t seem to want it, so she just sat with him quietly, holding one of his hands, which was smooth as lambskin against the cracked and roughened flesh of her palm. The batteries in the flashlight gave out, and sitting there in the cold darkness she found his head and stroked it, moving her sore fingers lightly over the bone of his skull, and around the soft ears, the loose jowls. Maybe it wasn’t any particular comfort to him but she was comforted by doing it. Sure, okay, you can go on.
She heard him sigh, and then sigh again, and each time wondered if it would turn out to be his death. She had used to wonder what a coyote, or especially a dog would make of this doggish man, and now while she was listening, waiting to hear if he would breathe again, she began to wish she’d brought Alice or Jesus with her, though not out of that old curiosity. When her husband had died years before, at the very moment he took his last breath, the dog she’d had then had barked wildly and raced back and forth from the front to the rear door of the house as if he’d heard or seen something invisible to her. People said it was her husband’s soul going out the door or his angel coming in. She didn’t know what it was the dog had seen or heard or smelled, but she wished she knew. And now she wished she had a dog with her to bear witness.
She went on petting him even after he had died, after she was sure he was dead, went on petting him until his body was cool, and then she got up stiffly from the bloody ground and gathered rocks and piled them onto him, a couple of feet high so he wouldn’t be found or dug up. She didn’t know what to do about the wreckage, so she didn’t do anything with it at all.
In May, when she brought the Churro sheep back to Joe-Johns Mountain, the pieces of the wrecked wing had already eroded, were small and smooth-edged like the bits of sea glass you find on a beach, and she figured this must be what it was meant to do: to break apart into pieces too small for anybody to notice, and then to quickly wear away. But the stones she’d piled over his body seemed like the start of something, so she began the slow work of raising them higher into a sheepherders monument. She gathered up all the smooth eroded bits of wing, too, and laid them in a series of widening circles around the base of the monument. She went on piling up stones through the summer and into September until it reached fifteen feet. Mornings, standing with the sheep miles away, she would look for it through the binoculars and think about ways to raise it higher, and she would wonder what was buried under all the other monuments sheepherders had raised in that country. At night she studied the sky, but nobody came for him.
In November when she finished with the sheep and went into town, she asked around and found a guy who knew about star-gazing and telescopes. He loaned her some books and sent her to a certain pawnshop, and she gave most of a year’s wages for a 14 x 75 telescope with a reflective lens. On clear, moonless nights she met the astronomy guy out at the Little League baseball field and she sat on a fold-up canvas stool with her eye against the telescope’s finder while he told her what she was seeing: Jupiter’s moons, the Pelican Nebula, the Andromeda Galaxy. The telescope had a tripod mount, and he showed her how to make a little jerry-built device so she could mount her old 7 x 32 binoculars on the tripod too. She used the binoculars for their wider view of star clusters and small constellations. She was indifferent to most discomforts, could sit quietly in one position for hours at a time, teeth rattling with the cold, staring into the immense vault of the sky until she became numb and stiff, barely able to stand and walk back home. Astronomy, she discovered, was a work of patience, but the sheep had taught her patience, or it was already in her nature before she ever took up with them.