The Green Man

Olly, we know you can hear us,” said Jack. “So are you coming to The Green Man, or what?”

Olly opened his eyes, put his hand to his earpiece and disconnected himself from the cloud. He sat up, the thin plastic mattress rucking up beneath him.

“It’ll be fun,” said Selma, “an adventure. They serve mead. Real mead.”

“You’re shitting me,” said Olly.

“No, we are absolutely not shitting you,” insisted Mohinder, his face as serious as ever.

Olly’s eyes flicked over to Nate’s mattress. It was empty, and for a split-second he was afraid.

Selma laughed. “Yeah, lover boy’s coming. He’s just gone to the loo.”

Olly reddened, told them all to fuck off, and lay down again, his back to the three of them. As he reconnected to the cloud, music and updates streaming into his consciousness, he heard Jack again: “We go on Friday. When there’ll be a full moon. A Green Grass Moon.” Selma said something about bicycles.

Olly began to doze. And as he slipped into sleep his neural feed suddenly filled with strange images: a lime-coloured moon; blades of grass; a grinning man, his green face covered in leaves.

The next day Olly was assigned to the big house, specifically the attics. They needed to be sorted through, cleaned. Selma was to go too. As they trudged across the lifeless fields, away from the giant greenhouses in which they normally worked, Selma asked Olly if he was disappointed.

“About what?” he said.

“Bet you would’ve preferred to have Nate along.”

Olly shrugged. “I’m happy to have whoever. It makes a change from pollinating.”

“Don’t lie,” she said. “I can see the disappointment on your face.”

Olly stayed silent and bent his head to his shoes, his eyes on the sterile mud oozing over his soles.

“Why don’t you just tell him?” she persisted. “That you like him. What’ve you got to lose?”

“What’s the point? He could be sent to other work, like, miles away from here, any day. And then I’d never see him again.”

Selma smiled insinuatingly, nudged Olly. “But what about living in the here and now. And having fun?”

Olly waved his arm at the bleak mud fields. “Fun. Yeah, there’s loads of that about, isn’t there?”

“Which is why we should go to The Green Man.”

Olly laughed sarcastically. “Yeah, right. Like going to a twentieth century pub is going to solve all our problems.”

“I didn’t say it would solve all our problems. Just . . . that going might be fun.”

They trudged on in silence.

“So you gonna come?” Selma said.

Olly sighed. “Yeah, I’ll come.”

The staff at the big house weren’t pleased to see them or their muddy shoes.

“Take them off. Right now!” said the housekeeper.

Olly and Selma exchanged glances, then removed their shoes, powerless to do anything about the mud dripping onto the smooth, clean flagstones.

“We don’t really need you,” said the housekeeper, leading them through the servants’ quarters and up several flights of stairs. “We could’ve managed just fine, but Madam’s got us busy with guests so we’ve no time for this sudden whim of hers.” She gave a snort. “Spring cleaning!”

When they got to the dimly lit attics she reached into a cupboard, handed them a few bin bags and a couple of long sticks with brightly coloured ruffles at the end.

Olly and Selma, round-eyed, stared at the sticks. Olly tentatively touched the ruffles.

“Feather dusters,” said the housekeeper. “For dusting,” she added, her face grim.

“Real feathers?” asked Olly.

“Of course!” snapped the housekeeper. “Now get on with it,” she said, throwing open various doors. “You’re to dust and sort through the chests of fabrics and clothes. Anything moth-eaten or irreparably damaged goes into the bin bags. To be donated to . . . .” Olly assumed she’d just stopped herself from saying “the likes of you”. She cleared her throat. “Charitable causes.”

She swept out of the room and descended the stairs. “I’ll be back in a few hours,” she called. “To check on you.”

For a moment Olly and Selma just stood there, taking in the silence, the dust motes that floated in the beams of sunlight, the cool of the real wooden floorboards beneath their polyester-socked feet.

“What does she mean by moth-eaten?” said Selma.

Olly shrugged, then put his hand to the side of his head, to his earpiece, but of course he wasn’t linked up to the cloud. In working hours the AI cut their connection. “Don’t know,” he said. “But we’ll figure it out. You take that room,” he said, pointing to an open door, “and I’ll do this one.”

“Okay,” said Selma, disappearing into the other room, bin bag and duster in hand.

Olly breathed deep of the musty air, dozens of natural fragrances suddenly alive to his nose, and he smiled, for a moment happy. Of course it would’ve been better if Nate was here with him, instead of Selma, but he pushed away that thought and began to throw open chests, rifling through the beautiful fabrics, the feel of pure cotton on his skin a new joy.

At lunchtime the housekeeper inspected their work.

“Not bad,” she conceded, sweeping a finger across one of the window sills and finding it devoid of dust. She gave them a couple of bottles of liquid food.

“After you’ve taken your calories get straight back to work. There’s still a lot to do.”

“Please, Miss, I mean Ms,” said Selma, suddenly flustered. She didn’t know how to address the housekeeper. “But what’s moth-eaten?”

The housekeeper looked into one of the bin bags, pulled out a woollen blanket that was more holes than wool. “This is moth-eaten,” she said. “There were once creatures, insects, that liked to eat natural fabrics. They would nest in wardrobes, in the fabrics, and eat the cloth, destroying the garment.”

She put her hands on her hips and surveyed the room with suspicion, as though she expected dozens of moths to come flying out at her. “Well, keep at it!”

She turned on her heel and left them to their carbohydrate slurries, to their old-fashioned work.

Later that afternoon, when Olly was sorting through the last of the chests, a small, colourful object between two of the blankets caught his eye, something he’d only seen through the cloud. A bee. He gingerly picked it up, some long-dormant voice cautioning him to be careful, and lifted it closer to his eyes. It was remarkable. So intricate. He stroked it with his forefinger. And ever so soft. He wondered how long it had been there. Two decades, three? Just as he was about to call for Selma, he heard her scream. He immediately turned and ran to her, the bee falling from his hand.

“What is it?” he asked as he arrived by her side, her eyes wide, hands at her face.

“A, a . . . a thing . . . .”

Olly looked upwards to where she was pointing. There, in a high-up corner of the room, was a skeletal creature suspended in strings of dust. A spider.

Olly took a step closer. “It’s an insect. Or rather, it used to be. Not sure what kind.”

“It’s creeping me out,” she said. “Can you get rid of it for me?”

“Yeah, okay.”

He took her duster, swirled it round the cobwebs; the spider dissolved into thousands of shards, sticking to the feathers of the duster. After a few seconds there was nothing left of what had been the spider’s creation.

Olly handed the duster back to Selma. “Try not to freak out if you find anything else, okay? It’s all gonna be dead, you know.”

“I do know that,” she said, whacking Olly with the duster. “There was just something about it. The way it looked at me.”

Olly wanted to laugh but couldn’t. He thought of the bee and hoped he’d be able to find it again. There’d been something about the way it had looked at him.

That night, when Olly and the other workers were in the dorm—most of them, like him, tuning out of reality and into the cloud—he pulled out the white square of cloth that he’d wrapped the dead bee in.

He turned to check that he was unobserved; Jack, Mo, Selma and Nate were all huddled together, most likely going over their plans for the trip to The Green Man, so he turned back to his package. He carefully unwrapped the bee, then stroked it. The bee made him feel something . . . what, he wasn’t sure. In his head, he began to list some feelings: happy, joyful, sad, sorry. The cloud supplied him with more: nostalgic, wistful, bittersweet. He liked the sound of that last one. Then one more word floated into his consciousness. Hopeful.

No, thought Olly, folding the handkerchief over the bee and putting it back in his pocket. “Never that,” he muttered, before tuning into his favourite social network.

Getting hold of the bikes had been the hard part.

“That bitch of an AI almost didn’t let me take them,” said Selma, hauling out four bikes. Olly, Mohinder, Jack and Nate helped her wheel them out of the barn.

“Only four?” said Jack.

“How about, ‘Thanks, Selma,’” she retorted.

“It’s just, you know, there are five of us,” said Jack.

“So two of us have to share,” she said. “As I said, the AI didn’t like that I was taking them out after work hours.”

“So what did you tell her?” asked Mohinder.

“Oh, some shit about how they were moth-eaten and needed to be aired. That got her stuck in a loop for a bit.”

“So who’s sharing?” said Jack.

The five of them were silent, their eyes on the bikes.

Nate started stroking the saddle of the bike he was holding. “The last time I rode a bike must’ve been, like, ten years ago. For some reason, Mum thought I should learn.”

“Me, it was the other day,” said Selma. “Back-and-forthing across the mud flats for no good reason.”

“They still got you looking for grass?” Nate asked.

“Yep,” she said. “Like I’m ever gonna find any. But Madam swears that she saw some a while ago, so Madam’s will be done. I reckon she just likes the idea of me out there in all weathers looking at mud.”

“But it’s better than having no job. Only taking the minimum of bitcredits,” Olly pointed out.

Selma nodded. “I know. But, hey, I like complaining. So who’s sharing?”

Nate said that he wouldn’t mind, and Olly quickly added that he wouldn’t mind either.

“Good, that’s decided,” said Selma, flashing a smile at Olly and mounting a bike. “Follow me.”

They cycled, haltingly, across the mudflats, some of them more confident than others (though Olly had an excuse for his wobbly progress—Nate was sitting across his handlebars). Jack kept checking into the cloud, to make sure they were going in the right direction. Selma kept up a steady commentary, asking, or rather telling, everyone how much fun they were having.

The Green Grass Moon, though not actually green, was huge, golden-coloured and close to the horizon as the sun began to set. As their muscles responded to the exercise, their skin to the feel of the warm breeze, they had to admit that yes, this was fun.

At The Green Man, a burly, bearded man covered in virtual tattoos told them to disconnect themselves. “We’re free-range here,” he explained, holding out his hand for their earpieces.

Selma pointedly stared at his shimmering, roving tattoos, and then at the sliver of metal above his ear.

The man crossed his arms, stared back.

“Turn yourselves off or you ain’t coming in.”

Mohinder nudged Selma. “Look,” he muttered, “we didn’t come all this way to get told to shove off.”

Mo made a show of disconnecting from the cloud, and handed his earpiece to the bouncer. They all did the same.

“You’re buying the first round,” Selma said to Mo as the bouncer stepped aside and allowed them entry.

“No problem,” said Mo, grinning. “Me,” he went on, rubbing his thumb against his forefingers, “I’m rolling in bitcredits.”

“Is that what I think it is?” asked Nate, when they’d got their first round of mead and taken their seats at a wooden booth.

“What’s what you think it is?” said Jack.

Nate inclined his head to the fireplace. “A real log fire.”

They all turned their heads to look.

“Looks real,” said Selma.

“But think about the cost,” said Nate, taking a sip of his mead. “God this tastes good.”

They all began to drink; in the silence that followed they experienced a taste of spring—apple blossom, heather, primulas, daffodils, bluebells.

Selma glugged back her pint, then began to giggle. “This is just too weird. And good.”

“Steady on, Sel,” said Jack, “otherwise you’ll be pissed in no time.”

“Maybe I want to get pissed!” she retorted. “Who wants another pint?” She quickly stood, then put her hand to her head and sat back down again.

“Take it easy,” said Mo. “Jack’ll get the next round in. When we’re all done, right?”

“Yes, boss!” said Jack, giving him a mock salute.

“Fuck you,” said Mo, taking another swig, his eyes on Jack who was also knocking back his mead.

For a moment there was an uneasy silence.

“Me,” said Nate, trying to diffuse the tension, “I’m just gonna savour this pint. It’s absolutely delushious.”

Selma laughed. “Delushious,” she said. “I like that.” She slurred “delushious” over and over, and they all laughed.

It was then that Olly noticed the strange man at the bar. He put his hand to where his earpiece would usually be, thinking that the image had come from his feed, then realized that the grinning green man with leaves all over his face was, in fact, real. Olly lowered his head and spoke under his breath. “That weird guy’s watching us.”

Selma immediately raised her head to look.

“Don’t!” hissed Olly, pulling at her arm.

“You’re right,” Selma said slowly. “He is.”

Jack, Mo and Nate surreptitiously flicked their eyes over.

“Cool skin,” said Nate.

“I don’t know,” said Selma. “Green’s a bit last season. Madam’s wearing this gorgeous powder pink skin at the moment. And she’s always bang on trend. When I earn enough bitcredits I’m getting myself a turquoise skin. What do you think, Jack?” she said, giving him a nudge. “Will you still lurve me?” she slurred, somewhat sarcastically.

Jack ignored her, drank some more.

“But what’s with the stuff on his face?” asked Nate.

Mo shrugged. “Enhancements. Virtual markings. Disease.” Mo suddenly laughed. “Maybe he’s an alien. Who knows?”

Olly was just about to tell them that he’d seen this man before—either in his dreams, or in his feed—when Jack finished his pint and got up. “Right,” he said, “I’m going to the bar.”

“Me too,” said Selma. “Actually, I need the loo.”

“So do I,” said Mo. “Here,” he said, helping her up. “I’ll take you.”

Selma grinned at Olly as she left the booth. “We’ll leave you two lover boys to it, shall we?”

Olly reddened, bowed his head, but Nate simply laughed good-naturedly.

When they’d gone, Nate and Olly were silent for a bit. Olly tried desperately to think of something to say. He then remembered the bee. Taking the handkerchief out of his pocket, he told Nate that he wanted to show him something.

“What is it?” asked Nate as Olly unfolded the thin square of cloth.

“A bee,” said Olly, triumphant.

“Whoa!” said Nate. “That’s like ridiculous!”

“I know,” said Olly. “I found it in Madam’s attic. Must’ve been there for ages.”

Olly began to stroke the bee, then risked looking up into Nate’s blue eyes, which were disquietingly close. “Isn’t it beautiful?” He wanted to tell Nate that he was beautiful too.

Nate agreed, yes, it was beautiful. And amazing. “But just think,” he went on, “if bees ever came back to Earth, we’d be out of work, wouldn’t we?”

Olly, feeling rebuffed, covered the bee up again. “It’s not the bees who are the bad guys here, Nate. It’s those fucking miniature drones that are going to put us out of work. Or voluntary labour. The acquisition of bitcredits. Whatever the fuck you want to call what we’re doing.”

Olly put the bee back in his pocket.

“I’m sorry,” said Nate, putting a hand on Olly’s arm. “It was just an observation. The bee really is amazing.”

Jack returned from the bar, interrupting them with the announcement that they served chips. “Great big fat steaming chips,” he said. “Made from real potatoes. D’you want some?”

“Yeah,” said Nate. “That would be–”

“Delushious,” said Olly, with a laugh.

They continued to drink and make merry, and when Olly felt Nate’s hand on his thigh, he could honestly say to Selma that yes, this was the best pub in the world. And that he was having the most fun he’d had in, like, forever.

When it was Olly’s turn to get a round in, he found himself standing next to the strange, green man at the bar.

The man smiled at him. “Having a good time?” he said, his accent strange.

Olly nodded. “Yeah. We heard about the mead, how amazing it was and–”

“Where you from?” asked the man.

Olly, too drunk by now to worry about what he disclosed to a stranger, told him that they were from the nearby farm.

The stranger looked confused. “What kind of farm? What do you do there?”

“We pollinate the flowers of apple trees. And the other fruit trees and bushes. We spend most of our days under glass, dabbing at blossoms with a paint brush.”

“That’s good work you’ve got there,” said the man. “To be amongst apple trees, the clean air that surrounds them . . . .” The man took a swig from his pint, then smiled. “Handling pollen, the very essence of life. Good work.”

Olly couldn’t help but stare at the strange enhancements on the man’s face. They really were incredibly life-like—like real leaves. And there were also some—what were they?—acorns amongst the leaves. Before he could help himself he asked the man where he was from.

“Not from here,” he replied. “But from time to time I like to drop by. I noticed the sterility, the barren soil, and thought I’d stop. Tell me,” he went on, “how long has the Earth been like this?”

If Olly had been more sober he would’ve laughed, asked the man what planet he’d been living on. Instead he said that it had been like this for most of his life. “About twenty-five years.”

“And what do you young folk think about it?” The green man inclined his head to the table at which his friends were sitting.

Olly shook his head. “We don’t want it to be like this. But I guess we feel . . . ” He sighed. “Powerless.”

The green man nodded. “I see. So the situation’s hopeless?”

“The scientists are working on it. Or so we’re always being told. But I reckon that the people at the top of the food chain, people like Madam, I mean, don’t give a shit. So nothing’ll happen.”

The man fixed his green eyes on Olly. “Do you think the situation’s hopeless?”

Olly thought of the bee, and the words his neural feed had thrown up the other day: nostalgic, wistful, bittersweet. Hopeful.

Tears came to his eyes, and embarrassed, he hung his head. He didn’t know how to answer.

“All right, son,” said the man, putting his hand on Olly’s shoulder. “It’s going to be all right.”

The five of them left the pub in the early hours of the morning, just as the sun was beginning to rise. They cycled across the mudflats, making slow, wobbly progress, the only sound the drone of driverless cars in the distance. They laughed and sang and talked about the mead, the chips, the tobacco smoke, the folk band that had rocked up to play some ancient tunes. The oldies who had danced, and persuaded them to dance.

“Delushious,” said Selma, “it was all so delushious.” The strange, green man was forgotten.

Suddenly, Olly stopped cycling, propelling Nate off the handlebars. “Oh God, sorry, Nate. I’m so sorry,” he said, helping him up. Nate, more surprised than hurt, told him not to worry. The others slowed and then stopped.

“It’s just . . . .” Olly pointed over to the east. There was the green man on the horizon, striding towards the rising sun. He seemed to be getting taller with each step.

“That’s the green guy,” said Jack. “From the pub. What the hell’s he up to?”

Olly shook his head. “No idea.”

The green man stopped, turned to face them, plucked an acorn from his face and then knelt, plunging the acorn into the soil.

The five of them felt a tremor, as though the Earth itself was sighing with relief. And then came the small noises—the squeaks and murmurings and gurgles of life returning to the soil. The green man rose, gave them a smile and then turned his back. He continued to walk towards the sun, then vanished into the first rays of light.

Nobody spoke. Nobody moved. In time, they each mounted their bikes and rode back to the farm, too exhausted, too awe-struck to speak. And as they returned to their dorm, to slip into sleep, Olly knew that they had witnessed the beginning of something new.

Outside, grass began to grow.

Reckoning 4 Submission Call – Poetry

I welcome poems that address our fiction editor Arkady Martine’s call for stories about “the relationship of humans to the built environment,” but more than that I seek poetry that moves beyond rant and beyond the obvious (i.e. oil spills are bad). I want to be surprised by form, content, and language. You can disappear your ego entirely or write from the personal, as long as it’s searingly so, visceral, I want to feel something.

Speculative poetry? Absolutely. Narrative? If it still surprises. Rhyming? You can try, but it must feel organic. If it brings your idiosyncratic understanding of the world as a consequence of humanity’s relationship with the earth, and brings something new to form or content, I’d love to see it.

Read the full guidelines and submit here.

Reckoning 4 Submission Call – Fiction/Nonfiction

For Reckoning 4, I am specifically seeking works which address the relationship of humans to the built environment: the city as organism; climate-changed urban spaces; architecture as environmental in/justice; the point of contact where human alteration and ecological alteration touch; fantasias of density and of absence; blurs between organic and inorganic forms, places, and persons. Etcetera.

I am primarily looking for fiction, but am also interested in creative nonfiction on the above theme. A speculative element is preferred, but not necessary, for fiction. I will also consider work that falls outside the theme if it is otherwise deeply compelling and fits Reckoning’s general guidelines.

Read the full guidelines and submit here.

From the Editors: How Can I Look Up

for Michael J DeLuca

 

How can I write you this letter

 

through thick smoke the sun

a red dot in the sky

I should not be able to stare into

 

How can I make an appointment

with the car dealer

while mother Tahlequah takes

her tour of duty      displaying for us

hairless monkeys what the rest

of the natural world already knows

 

How can I take a shower

when thousands of people have poison

                              to drink

How can I look out the window at the moon

stroke my cat’s chin

                    make my bed

How can I admire the late blue background

and mountain silhouette on the ferry heading home

 

How can I take a seat on a bus

hurtling toward a city of dog-walkers     businessmen

and concerned shrugs of passers-by

it’s terrible this smoke it’s all terrible

I know          it’s really terrible      I know      I know

 

How can I bring the sleeping children home

after a long day of amusement park

fried foot-long corndogs

How can I look up my visa bill when

our relationship with the earth

is toxic

stored now in blubber

of whales that send us warnings

and raw grief

a suffocation of sound and light

in the realm of the dead

 

How can I make plans with a friend

     buy groceries          drink tea

while we are plunging toward an inevitable

tipping point

no return

extinguishing what has been

like a comet

or a cancer

or a chapter of some future history book

 

when we alter landscapes          lose habitat

when the world shrinks

gets hotter     tighter    angrier

goes hungry

 

How can I search for a lost coat

my favourite          when

we are losing                    every day

pieces of our humanity

of green

of corals and bees

and owls and streams

 

How do I rekindle passion’s poetry without falling into despair

feeling holding me there

when I exist in coffee pots          lists          renovations of the old

dish-washing          laundry          finally unpacking all my books—

finding homes for paperwork and tools

getting on them weeds in the garden out of control

testing recipes

collecting that fruit before it rots on the trees

 

How do I do the deep work

maintain connection to that slightly

MAD state

and go about my day                    lost as I long to be

 

How can I sit in an alley playing drums with a Turkish immigrant

How can I breathe smoke on the shoreline while

using my cell phone as a hot spot to

send an email about a postcard for a

talk about climate change

 

How can I sleep?

 

How can I ask a friend how I can do these things when

he says

How can we anything

 

My heart breaks because other hearts do not

my heart breaks and I go on making plans

scheduling dates

daydreaming about getting laid

calling out to alley cats

          to birds overhead

          to the leaves in the trees

 

How can I dress myself for success

add accessories

buy lemon tarts

browse antique stores

try on possible new shoes

 

my generation acquiesces to the inevitable

while millennials dream of Super Heroes

bursting through the screen

 

Somebody

do

something

do

something

I want to scream

Let go of every device in your hands

and look up                    are we going to lose

the sky          on our way to losing the sea

 

How can I leave space                    for us

to breathe

 

How can I

unbury your ears

shape a new kind of listening

to what is under our feet          and floating

still-born          (yet still hoping)

all around us                    stating the obvious

 

How can we anything          he asks while

chopping onions and peppers

to feed his young family

in the midst of idling engines

cooked rivers

air-conditioned ignorance

and addiction to machines

Podcast Episode 3: Michael J. DeLuca Interviewed on Natural Alternatives

Subscribe via RSS or on iTunes!

Welcome to the Reckoning Press podcast. Reckoning is a nonprofit, annual journal of creative writing on environmental justice. I’m Michael J. DeLuca, publisher, and also the editor of Reckoning 2.

For our third episode, here’s an interview I did with Phil Merkel of WUSB Stonybrook in Long Island back in September, in which we listen to a climate change aria, talk about environmental justice, climate SF, and some realities of post-industrial Southeast Michigan that influence what I’m doing with Reckoning, then wrap up with an excerpt from Jess Barber’s reading of “Lanny Boykin Rises Up Singing.”

 
 

This podcast is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). Content and audio recording are copyright by the author.

Will We Be Good and Kind at the End

When the long drought comes,

scorches the hands of the healers

will we bandage them

with clean white gauze

so they can continue their work

and when kindness faces starvation

will we look into our pantries

and gather, quickly

to feed her

 

when the winds come

raging and spitting

and buildings begin to buckle

at the knees,

will we rush to the labs

swing open all the cages,

release the macaques and chimps and baboons and dogs and rabbits and mice and rats

finally,

finally

 

and will someone run

and free Adam Capay

and all the others

and all the plexi-glassed

others

 

and when the sea’s belly

swells and lifts us up

above rooftops and eagle nests

will we grab hold of anything we can

and hold its head up—

try to save it

 
 

Night of No Return

Someone who’ll forgive me,” the ghost captain said.

Gilly wasn’t sure what kind of answer she’d been expecting. What was usual, for ghosts? What were they likely to be looking for?

Silent, she studied him. Her head came level with the middle of his chest, and his limbs were broad with muscle; her kind of ship called for a dancer’s lightness, and his for someone who could stamp and bellow. He wore a dark blue woolen shirt, salt-stiff and sweat-felted, with one elbow roughly darned with hemp twine. Conscious of her grey skinsuit’s smoothness and the transparent membrane covering her face, Gilly wondered what he thought of her.

“Forgive you?” she asked.

He nodded. “Hear my whole tale, told truly, and forgive my deeds, and all before the sun rises.” A callused hand fended off the low eastern hills. “It’s only this single night in a hundred years we make port, my ship and all my crew and I, to seek someone who’ll hear my story and the way I damned us all. And you—” now his look turned frankly appraising, “lovely creature that you are, seem to be the only one here.”

“Things have changed some,” Gilly said.

“They have,” the captain agreed ruefully. “The last two nights before this I could find no-one to speak to at all. My crew had begun to wonder if all were gone, and our hope of rest gone with them.”

“Not quite all,” Gilly said. “Not quite yet.” Over the captain’s shoulder, spectres crowded the wooden rail, jostling for place. She counted fifteen men, all with their own faces; they were part of this, themselves, she guessed, and not just background for the captain’s suffering, though none of them seemed able to speak. “Is that what you hope for, then? Oblivion?”

He gave a short laugh. “We’ve no hope of Heaven, any of us. And as for Hell, well, what should we hope for there? Unless this is Hell, and all our hope for release merely a torment—” He broke off, looking askance at her. “Do you know those words? Heaven, Hell—”

“I’m well read,” Gilly said dryly. “Yes, I know what you mean. Punishment or joy, forever.”

“That’s well.” The captain looked relieved. “The language changes, you see. This curse grants me a gift of tongues, to tell my story the better as the generations pass, but what use are the words when the ideas behind them are missing? I spend half the night explaining whaling and adultery and England and murder, and there’s scarce time left to plead for mercy. No knowing of murder, can you credit it? There was a woman one time, many nights ago—” He trailed off, and was silent for a long moment before giving a sudden shake of his head. “Pardon me, do. I maunder.”

“It’s all right,” Gilly said. She put out a hand as though to lay it on his arm, then thought better of it and drew back. To her eyes he seemed solid, and to her other eyes as well, but she was reluctant to make the test. “It is, though, truly. There’s time. This night will be long.”

“Are they getting longer?” the captain asked.

“Yes.”

“I thought they might be.” He sounded dubious. “Hobson, my second mate—he’s made observations with the telescope, he’s kept records. I brought him some books once that someone gave me ashore, children’s books, you know, that this little boy had—marvelous things like glass scrolls, they were, that told all about the sun and stars. There are ships up there, you know,” he added parenthetically, with grave wonder. “Marvelous— And Hobson said the sun was getting warmer, or closer, or some such thing. I thought he might be mistaken, it’s hard to take observations at sea, and time moves so oddly sometimes. But you say it’s true.”

Gilly nodded slowly, wondering how much to tell him. At last she said, “I’ve been out there, on those ships. Your crewman’s right. The sun is—well, it’s very old. When suns die—” She gestured around them, at the distant shadow of the hills, the stone pier where they stood, the shingled beach below and the frozen sea. The ancient vessel bobbed at anchor in an incongruous patch of shining water. It looked like moonlight, Gilly thought; Earth had had moons—one moon, at the time this ship had sailed. Old light, old shadows. “You can see what’s gone.”

“There were trees here once,” the captain said. “I remember it. This was a green place.” He frowned. “There was a rain of fire while we were at sea, some time ago. Some of us thought it was Judgement Day come at last. But it passed, and we were still afloat. Only after that, there was no-one here when I came ashore.” He scuffed at the stone with the toe of his boot. “This is the third time since then; three hundred years, it must be. I thought the trees might have grown back.”

Gilly shook her head. “They won’t. The air itself is burned away, now.”

“Hobson said he thought the stars were clearer.” The captain gave his short bark of a laugh again. “I suppose we didn’t notice. The air, truly? But you’re breathing still.”

“With this.” Gilly touched the interface at the base of her throat. “It’s a sort of machine. It breathes for me, and the shield keeps my skin from the cold and the vacuum—the lack of air. Actually, down there, the sea—that’s the air that’s left, that ice. I’m not even sure how I’m hearing you, to be honest.” She saw that he wasn’t following her train of thought, considered explaining, and decided a lecture on physics wasn’t the best use of their time. Physical law only seemed to apply sporadically to him and his crew anyway. “Well. I came protected.”

“How marvelous.” The captain glanced back at his ship. “Then you don’t live here.”

“No-one does,” Gilly said. “I told you I’d been on starships; in truth, I fly one.” Not truth, exactly; but that explanation would be even more difficult than frozen air. “I only came here for a little while, to do a task. And to see.”

“Then I should tell you my sordid tale now, before you have to leave again,” the captain said. “Before the sun rises.”

The sharp stars hung over the hills, their light giving edges to everything. “This night will be longer than you think,” she said.

“You told me that before,” he said. “How long?”

Their eyes met, and locked.

“The sun is dying,” Gilly said bluntly. She hadn’t been sure, before, how much to say, but she couldn’t remember now why she’d wanted to hold back. Pity, perhaps? This body had been troubling her with stray feelings since it had come to her, and she was still sorting them out. “This world is dead already. When suns die, they grow swollen and kill their planets in their dying. Then their fire recedes, and they shrink to a kind of ember. The world can’t turn as it did before; it becomes tidally locked. Do you know what that is?”

“I—no. Tides I know, but—well, go on. I’ll follow as I can.”

“The world slows,” Gilly said, “and then it stops. One side faces the sun, for always, and the other looks outward to the stars.”

“Forever,” the captain said slowly.

“For as long as the sun burns at all. This night won’t end, Captain. The sun isn’t going to rise.”

“I must tell Hobson,” the captain muttered. He started to turn back toward his ship, then stopped. “No, what am I doing? Forgive me, fair one. I need to tell you my story. But if you—if the sun doesn’t rise, if the night—” He shook his head, bewildered. “What happens to us now? Do we sit at anchor forever? Do I keep telling my tale to everyone who comes here, without sailing in between?”

“No-one else will come here,” Gilly said quietly. “I’m sorry, Captain. That’s the rest of what I have to tell you. I’m the last. I’ve come to dismantle the gate here, now that Earth and Mars are dead, and take it elsewhere. T-space gates are valuable; we can’t build them ourselves, only scavenge the ones that exist already, and no-one wants to leave a gate here when it’s so badly needed elsewhere. Not even the species’ first home is worth that much, not as a monument alone.” She was surprised at the bitterness her voice betrayed. Feelings, on and on. “Forgive me, Captain. My people’s politics aren’t your problem.”

“They very much are, I think,” he corrected her mildly, “if they determine my crew’s future, and my own. And you’ve yet to answer my question, lovely one. What happens to us now?”

“Now—” Gilly shook her head. “Captain, I confess, I have absolutely no idea.”

“Can you stay for me to tell my tale, at least?” the captain pleaded. “You may be my last chance.”

“I may,” Gilly admitted, “but I don’t think I can give you what you need.”

“Try, at least,” the captain said. “If you’ve any mercy at all in you—”

“I truly don’t.” Gilly saw his stricken look, and added, “That’s not a slight against you; I mean it literally. I’ve no mercy, no, nor much else in the way of feelings. You perhaps noted that I showed no surprise at seeing you, when your ship appeared.”

“I wondered at that,” the captain admitted.

“In a way, I’m a ghost as well, though not like you,” Gilly continued. More difficult than frozen air, indeed. “This body, this young woman whom you call fair, suffered an accident that killed her mind but left her flesh intact. When that happens to someone, we have a use for the bodies, we ships. It was given to me to be my other half, to give me—flexibility, you could say. My mind, my self, my continuity, is a machine. This body, with its feelings and its wants, is peripheral; I can pity you, I can care about you, through this part of me, but it’s transient, not part of my core. It would only be the feelings of the dead. I’m not sure I can help you, captain. I can listen to your story, I can decide whether I think you were justified in what you did, but I don’t know that that would be forgiveness. And even if I feel as though it is—well. Coming from me, I don’t know that it would count.”

Silence, while the waves lapped the pier in that circle of otherworldly sea. “But you must try, fair one,” the captain said. “Fair machine person. Whatever you call yourself. You must. Even if you are a, a ghost of sorts. You’re all we have.”

“That isn’t so,” Gilly said, and all at once caught up with herself, and knew why she’d decided to explain after all. “Not to my thinking. If the forgiveness of a ghost is enough, and I don’t deny it might be—then can’t you forgive each other?”

Long silence.

The captain spread his hands helplessly. “How could that be? We were there. We know what happened, what I did, what they did. I’ve carried it so long—”

“And have you once,” Gilly inquired, “in all your wandering, asked your crew to forgive you? For leading them to this?”

“They wouldn’t,” the captain said, but uncertainly.

“They might,” Gilly said. “Ask them.”

“But if I go back aboard,” the captain said, “I may not be able to return to you. I may not get a second chance. I should—”

“Hedge your bets?” Gilly finished gently. “I never believed in ghosts, Captain; all I know of them is stories. But the logic of stories tells me—that’s not how this kind of thing works. You need to make a choice. Trust, captain. That’s where this goes. Laying your story on strangers—maybe that was never going to work. Let your crew judge you, and forgive you, and move on.”

She saw the agony of indecision chase itself across his face. He looked back, over his shoulder, at the blurry figures clustered along the rail. How much could they hear, or see? The captain looked solid, unwavering, fully in the world to everything her flesh eyes and her sensors could determine. Except the world was an airless stone, cold as space, and he stood before her in his mended sweater as though it kept him warm enough.

“I don’t think I can,” he said.

Gilly shrugged. “Then tell me your story,” she said. “If that’s your choice.”

“I don’t—” He stopped, shaking his head. He couldn’t choose, Gilly thought. All these billions of years, these billions of nights doing what he’d been told (by whom? she wondered) was his only hope—he’d gotten well out of the habit of volition.

She was guessing, as she always had to guess when things moved beyond verifiable data. But she was more sure than was usual for her, when logic failed. This body, this latest one in the long line of corpses she wired herself into because human brains dealt so much better with fragmentary systems than her core self did—with this latest body she’d found a new confidence in stories, a closer and clearer sense of the narratively appropriate; and how else, after all, did one deal with ghosts, except through story? It made no sense, and complete sense, and on that thought Gilly found herself turning back toward her landing site.

“Wait, fair machine, wait,” the captain called after her, reflexively, she thought. Not true choice. She would choose for him.

“If I’m wrong,” she said without turning, “forgive me.”

Her feet crunched on the frozen ground as she walked, sending little shocks of vibration up her legs. The ship, the rest of her, glowed coral-coloured on the ridge. He didn’t follow, or couldn’t. If she was wrong, she thought, perhaps she’d be condemned herself, in narrative symmetry, doomed for her hard-heartedness to wander the endless stars.

But that was her fate regardless, she thought, as light spilled from the airlock and she welcomed herself home: to wander endlessly, and to be alone. The missions changed, the planners changed, she was rebuilt and rebuilt and rebuilt. Perhaps it was only that the latest body was mad, or broken; but she had begun to wonder, lately, if she was lonely.

Perhaps that’s the fate of all ghosts, she thought.

The ship rose up and left the world behind.

 
 

Podcast Episode 2: Lanny Boykin Rises Up Singing

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Welcome to the Reckoning Press podcast. Reckoning is a nonprofit, annual journal of creative writing on environmental justice. This podcast will feature very occasional poetry, fiction and essays from the journal, plus interviews with the authors. I’m Michael J. DeLuca, publisher, and also the editor of Reckoning 2.

This is our second episode, and it’s long. If you’ve got a couple hours’ drive ahead of you, preferably over forested hills wrapped in summer haze, this’ll be perfect. Here’s Jess Barber reading “Lanny Boykin Rises Up Singing”, her novelette from Reckoning 2, with musical assistance from Gillian Grogan.

Jess’s bio is below; to learn more about her vocal accompaniment, try gilliangrogan.com.

I defy you to listen to this, or read it, and not find the title come back singing in your head every once in awhile, reminding you there’s still beauty in the world.

 
 

This podcast is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). Content and audio recording are copyright by the author.