Cae Hawksmoor Interview: “Civitas Sylvatica”

cae-hawksmoorRead “Civitas Sylvatica” in Reckoning 1.

Michael: This story I feel like has gotten exponentially more topical in the time since I first read it. We’re shown two people caring about each other and doggedly pursuing the advancement of knowledge while the world turns to ashes around them. Thank you for showing me that. It turns out I needed it.

I want to ask how you’re managing with that. Brexit starts today, as I’m writing these questions, and Trump has just rolled back what progress Obama made on climate change. For months I’ve been telling myself to keep making my small, positive contributions to the world despite so much of the rest of it falling apart before my eyes. It doesn’t get any easier. Have you managed to do the same? Are there any small, positive things you’ve been doing for the world you’d like to share?

Cae: Not to start off too heavy, but I guess I’ve always felt the world was ending. It just took me a while to work out how. Growing up through the tail end of the Cold War, I remember doodling mushroom clouds in the margins of my schoolwork when I should have been paying attention in class. After that, and despite the continued and calm reassurances of my rational mind, in the long dark when I couldn’t sleep I obsessed over the supposed 2012 apocalypse. It was just this feeling that’s always followed me around: the lingering suspicion that I’m watching something end.

It took me a long time to make sense of it. To see that civilisations rise and fall. I’m not talking about the showy and fiery apocalypse we see in Hollywood movies, social structures just quietly go on following their own patterns of growth and decay. And, despite our increasingly frantic insistence that you can have infinite growth on a finite planet, ours is no different. As far as our own society goes, we are living through the last days of the Western Roman Empire.

I don’t even feel like I have to argue that point much any more, there’s a whole shopping list of evidence that it’s happening. From the increasingly unpredictable and devastating effects of climate change, the worst mass extinctions since three-quarters of the living things on Earth died at the end of the Cretaceous, there are famines, war, refugees, the rise of fascism and xenophobia as representatives by alt-right political parties all around the world, and the prolonged economic collapse. At this point you can basically take your pick. Every day for the past few months especially, I feel like we’ve woken up in the morning, looked at the headlines, and felt our world grow a little smaller and darker.

I guess that’s part of the reason why I wrote this story. When I feel like everything is collapsing around me, it helps to think about our society in terms of the natural world, where things grow and die and decay and tip the balance back into life again. There’s a kind of rhythm to it, if not a meaning. A kind of comfort in the wider context.

In practical terms, I guess that I’ve been working on spending less time inside my head and more time living out in the actual physical world. Trading some of the chaotic (and often unrelentingly bleak) drone of news reports and social media for walking, volunteering, meeting up with other people. Helping them out as best I can. I think our society spends a lot of time convincing us to exist only in our own heads, in a fog of persistent anxiety where we are easily controlled and even easier to sell things. Being more in my body, and with what is actually physically around me, is the only medicine I’ve ever found for that.

Michael: “Civitas Sylvatica” plays with scale. The tree of civilization grows and flourishes and contaminates the earth around it and destroys itself, beautifully, against a backdrop of Atiador’s own civilization destroying itself. And at the end, I think Atiador encourages Kestlie to use the seeds he sends her to start the whole process again–though that’s open to interpretation. I fear I may be in the minority of SF readers in that I love a good metafiction. I like writing that encourages the reader to look up at the author, or to look back upon themselves from the perspective of the text. And I feel that, in playing with scale, “Civitas Sylvatica” is encouraging me to do that. Did you think this way at all as you were writing? Atiador mentions a Great Architect–I am too easily tempted think of that as you, Cae Hawksmoor, great gardener in the sky. And I wonder, if I went downward in scale, down into the tree of civilization Atiador has planted, if I’d find sentient beings planting their own gardeners and taking Atiador’s name in vain.

Cae: I can’t speak as to metafiction, but I definitely think that one of the greatest strengths of speculative fiction lies in portraying other worlds in such a way that we learn more about our own. Ursula LeGuin is the master of that, although I also feel as though I have to mention the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica–with its drum beat of the Cold War and the post 9/11 world always rumbling underneath the surface.

My favourite speculative fiction is always this sort of double image: the shadow of our own thoughts, structures, and systems of power overlaying a world that’s utterly alien and fantastical. It encourages us to look at the familiar with new eyes, through the use of symbol and metaphor. This story was definitely an attempt to go and play in that sandbox.

If you looked very closely at the branches of the civitas sylvatica, I’m not sure you’d see little people there, but I’m betting you’d find something that was undeniably alive. Something building, gardening, re-shaping their world to the very extent of their strength and abilities. And, just like Atiador and the Great Architect he worships, telling themselves it was godly.

Michael: Do you garden? Would you plant Civitas sylvatica, knowing it might kill everything else in your garden? Is it beautiful enough, fruitful enough, to justify the ruin it causes?

Cae: I think I’d probably describe myself as a mostly frustrated gardener. Plants fascinate me with their endless cycles and change. And there are so many wonderful reasons to learn to garden! To be a little bit closer to the skin of the world and learn how to produce a little of what you take from it.

Yet, despite all of this, all I can say is that my adventures in growing things have taught me a lot about weeds, a lot about surrendering control, and a lot about admitting defeat. I’m pretty certain, at least, that the caterpillars and blackbirds that currently reside in the tangled wilderness behind my house are much happier without my interfering.

And trust me, if I can’t grow a potato, then you really don’t want me trying my hand at the tree of civilisation! No, I’ll just continue to sow weeds around the edges for the caterpillars to hide in, and let the tree of civilisation do what it does, I think.

Michael: Can you tell me how you thought about the World Tree myth in writing this story? Were there any specific instances of that myth you were referencing in particular? I feel like there ought to be epic trees that play home to civilizations popping up in fantasy all the time, yet in some ways it seems a neglected trope. Thank you for contributing a little to its rebirth.

Cae: Trees are incredible creatures. They’re both like us, and not like us. A lot of the smaller trees are roughly the same height as a person and have about the same lifespan. And all the time we’re finding out new impossible things about them–how they communicate through root networks and support the weakest and sickest members of their colony. They’re just like us, except they’re also like a lung turned inside out that sheds its skin in winter, right?

They’re a gateway between the known and the unknown, but we also see something of ourselves in them. And we can recognise things about ourselves from our relationship to them. At the moment, a lot of what that relationship tells us isn’t good. I’m not just talking about clear-cutting and the worldwide destruction of our forests in favour of plantations that are basically factory farms for trees, although that’s part of it. Our relationship with individual trees can be just as telling.

As I write this, I’m not long back from a walking trip to Sherwood Forest where we went to see the Major Oak–a thousand-year-old behemoth that has the somewhat dubious honour of being “Britain’s Favourite Tree”. This becomes rather more amusing and ironic when you realise it looks like an old sock that most of the elastic has gone out of. The whole tree is strung together with cables and held up by girders to stop it from falling apart. It’s covered with lead plates to keep out the rain, all the trees around it have been cut down, and the ground’s stripped bare to help us desperately pump more nutrients into its ancient roots.

It’s a tree that’s had its day, and is dying. It only continues to live because we have put it on life support. I guess it seems fitting that it’s tied up with all the Union-flag-waving, God-Save-the-Queen-singing imperialist nostalgia-and-delusion that unfortunately makes up so much of modern ‘Britishness’. Hell, it’s even called ‘the Major Oak’. If I wrote this stuff down, you’d say I was being too heavy-handed.

To its credit, it’s worth saying that the Major Oak itself is still happily making acorns while its entire superstructure collapses like a half-burned candle, isolated from the rest of its colony over its last few days and years of its life.

Maybe a tree is exactly the right size to contain a whole civilisation after all.

Michael: Thank you very much!

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Civitas Sylvatica

Cae Hawksmoor

Atiador,

I hope you read this. I know we did not part well. Prexim says that your lungs are bad enough to confine you to the arboretum. I hope you’re not climbing the walls like a penned animal. I suspect it is a vain hope, but it’s my hope all the same.

Is it true that you finally managed to get one of the lacrimosia to take? You devil. I’d give my right arm to know how you managed to pull that one off. I’d give my left to see it bloom.

The Constantine heartlands are like walking on a red sand moon. Whatever arguments the historians make about how their empire collapsed, one thing is obvious: it took almost every living thing from this place with it. Farmed the topsoil until it fell apart, Prexim says. That was before the drought came.

I suppose you’re old enough that I should ask you what happened here, shouldn’t I? Ha! The ochre sand gets into everything, and the sun is unrelenting. I wish that you were here to see it.

I’ve spent the last week in the ruin of a city. Its name is long lost to the sand, along with everything else. I did my duty and collected samples of every living thing that I could find, but I don’t think anyone will succeed in using them to green this blasted wasteland. Not even the sneering botanists from the university at Helixstead. If I’ve learned anything from you, it’s that some things in this world are beyond the repair of everything but time.

Perhaps the same is true of us.

I hope the seeds that I have sent survive the journey. I know that you will not be able to resist the temptation to grow the tree of civilisation. Who could?

I found them in a crack in the floor of a temple, half-smothered in sand and the same colour as the stone. If it wasn’t for that horrible tome of Vexesin’s that you made me read as an impressionable young woman, I would never have recognised them. Now, at least, I am glad to have read it. It made me realise that these seeds belong with you. Another impossible tree to add to your collection. If anyone has a chance of coaxing it to life, it’s you.

I hope they will make your convalescence easier to bear. I imagine that you’ll be back out in the field before I ever leave this wasteland.

Maybe the next time that we meet it will be with more fondness, less regret.

K.

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Kestlie,

Good of you to write, after everything.

Wish I could say that I was healing. After five centuries, my body does not recover as it once did. I am old down deep into my bones now. Held together by stubbornness and rage. Perhaps that is why we parted as we did.

I remember when this arboretum was just another of Prince Arexis’ drunken dreams four centuries ago. He sent for me one bright spring morning before the sun was even crowning, and told me in a wild frenzy that he planned to rebuild the gardens here. I helped to bring this place into the world, and watched Arexis grow old and die while I went on. There is no reason in it. No sense.

After that, I did what I could. Collected every seed and specimen from any shore where I could find a ship to take me. I taught a hundred rash and ignorant children how to tend to them. I made this place a glory, the likes of which have not been seen since the mist gardens of Elarin. And now I am a prisoner here. An old man puttering with his plants while Arexis’ descendants posture and crow like children playing at war. Perhaps the civitas sylvatica is fitting punishment for that. An ancient folly for an ancient fool.

Do not return here, Kes.

Atiador.

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Atiador’s Journal

Can finally breathe well enough to make a thorough investigation of the seeds that Kes sent. Highly unusual. Each perhaps the size of a thumbnail and perfectly spherical. The colour of pale sand, cracked through with filaments of red ochre. To the untrained eye, they indeed appear to be nothing more than small polished stones. Like sunblush marble.

I find myself driven by the same foolishness as every botanist before me. The seeds of civilisation—how enticing! Vexesin spent his full five hundred years of life trying to coax the civitas sylvatica into being. He failed, as all others have failed. The tree of civilisation does what it will, and cannot be persuaded otherwise. Like longevity, there is no rhyme or reason to it. Some of us simply go on living long after those around us fade and die. Still, perhaps the attempt will divert me.

No telling which growth medium will provide the best environment. Kes did not report much of the original condition of the soil in the Constantine heartlands, but I suspect that even if she had it would do me little good.

If Vexesin is to be believed, civitas sylvatica grows according to its own unfathomable pattern.

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Only two of the twelve have sprouted, both in a mix of sand and loam. It was more a combustion than a germination: a disordered chaos of sprouts growing in all directions, as fragile as old glass. Each shoot no thicker than a hair, although some have begun to knit themselves into more substantial shapes.

Under the highest levels of magnification, there is evidence along the earliest branches of spirals woven through and around one another, like primitive carvings in stone or paint on the wall of a cave.

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Lacrimosia finally came into flower this morning. Like a pale statue weeping. I stood for hours in the quiet before the day, breathing in her salt and stale perfume. It reminds me of one my grandmother used to wear.

When I finally dragged myself away, I found one of the two civitas sylvatica was dead. Suspect it is only a matter of time before I must find something new to distract me.

Many of the botanists and gardeners here are leaving. Fleeing the capital for their homes out in the country. Afeared of the draft. All talk on the wireless is of war. I tire of it. Who is to tend these gardens while our princes strut and play at leading armies? I cannot even kneel long enough to pull the weeds around the lacrimosia.

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Day by day, the civitas sylvatica begins to alter its growth pattern—no longer a wild disarray of hair-like shoots, but an intricate and almost geometric knotwork of darker branches. Fascinating.

One would expect the weakest hair-like shoots to die back until only the strongest remain, but that does not seem to be the case. Rather, they knit themselves together in a pattern that is only discernible by microscope.

But there? What wonders! What secrets are contained within the individual structure of its cells, even now while it is still sapling growth, such a fragile thing, so at the whims of its environment. I have been most cautious. If it dies, I will likely never see another. It seems tolerant to all but the driest of conditions, and in fact does not respond well to watering even when it is necessary. But it grows readily enough when fertilised with blood and bone meal.

I have not yet begun to hope that it will live.

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Atiador,

I heard this morning that they have called the draft. Even isolated as we are out here, the news shocked us. Most of the day passed in silence.

Hazir says that the king has lost his mind. I find it difficult to argue. It seems whatever happens now, there will be war.

Are your lungs healed? If you can travel, book passage as far as Constantine. I will meet you at whichever port you can reach at such short notice. The Empire is no longer a place for men and women of learning. Let me show you what we have achieved out here instead. I still do not believe that we can green this wasteland, but perhaps, with time, we may yet help it heal.

K.

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Atiador’s Journal

It has been two weeks since I saw so much as a groundsman, although that insufferable nurse continues to hound my every step with his fretting and his fuss. Perhaps I will not have to suffer him much longer. Even club-footed, I’m certain that the army will find some use for him. I am blessed that they have not yet discovered how old botanists can assist in fighting useless wars. Grass grows up between the paving slabs from the great glasshouse where I spend my afternoons all the way down to the arboretum.

I wish someone was here to see the civitas sylvatica. This morning, I finally brought it out of the potting house and planted it beside the lacrimosia. Perhaps it will bring some comfort to her weeping. The earth around her roots is caked with salt, and sometimes, in the haze of sunlight when I hover between sleeping and waking, I dream that I can hear her. Her sighs and falling tears like spring rain. Such a beautiful illusion. She no more has feelings of her own than the pulp of grass between the paving slabs. So it is with the civitas sylvatica. And yet . . . .

Through the eyepiece of my microscope, it becomes clear that the cells possess incredible potential for rapid change. Only yesterday afternoon, I nodded off for not more than two hours and found that the whole tree had shifted shape again. According to my recordings, the branches can grow by as much as an inch per hour and move as much as three. Day by day, the knotwork of its compound branches straightens and stretches into something like an archway. Like a fine architectural dome.

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I am certain now that the branches of the civitas sylvatica are marked with something quite like writing. If it is not language, then it is at least an imitation of it. Oh, would that the damned politikers and panderers were not so blinded by ambition! In any year but this one, the arboretum would be filled with men and women of science from dawn to dusk, all come to study this most incredible expression of creative force. I would have linguists to record the words that appear on its branches and plumb the murky depths of its syntax. Perhaps, between us, we could even uncover a little of whatever is being communicated.

Instead, today even that damnable nurse has not come. So I must stumble up and down the overgrown paths of the arboretum unaided. I feel wretched and miserable every time I have to eat or wash or perform one of the otherwise basic functions of human life. No matter what I do, I cannot seem to get enough air into my body. I gasp and I wheeze while around me, everything slowly reverts to wilderness.

I cannot save the annuals and perennials in the glasshouse, cannot pluck the weeds from the salt earth around the lacrimosia. But I can lay beneath the stately arches of civitas sylvatica and dream.

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Today, I woke saturated by multicoloured light—red and blue and green, the sun tinted by the leaves of the civitas sylvatica, as fine as any stained glass. The colours formed strange patterns on the ground all around me, tessellating into the strangest shapes and forms.

Keslie says that I should leave this place. Abandon the tree and flee whatever is going on down in the city. But how can I? Up here, in this abandoned arboretum, the civitas sylvatica will live. It will live, and there will be no one here to see it.

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Atiador,

I suppose your stubbornness must keep you from writing. Or rather I should say that I hope it’s so. I cannot get word from the Imperial Society of anyone still at the arboretum, and I cannot stand the thought that something ill has befallen you.

They say the war is going well, and all the broadcasts on the wireless talk about our latest victories, but I do not think that anyone believes them. I heard Hazir say this morning that deserters from the imperial army have made it as far as the northern shore of Constantine, and I’d trust a man that I have worked with these past two years long before I’d trust the voices on the wireless. If deserters have made it so far, how must the war be going?

The expedition here goes well enough, but my heart is no longer in it.

Tell me to come back, old friend, and I will come. Tell me anything. I worry for you, Atiador. I worry for us all.

K.

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Atiador’s Journal

The tree is moulting again. A pity. A part of me had hoped that it would retain its lofty arches, its unfathomable writing, and its stained glass leaves forever. The last few days that I have slept beneath it, I have even thought I smelled the rich musk of incense coiling slowly upwards through the air.

But today the wild growth has come again, the panic of tiny shoots and stalks. It is not quite as it was before. There is no longer any randomness in its growth. It seems to be following a pattern as precise and intricate as a spider’s web. Every strand has its purpose and its place. It happens so quickly that I can almost see it grow before my eyes: thin filaments of light trailing between the branches.

The central trunk has grown increasingly straight, fluted like an ancient column, but the dull grey of old steel. It is difficult to see it clearly through the nest of glass fibres.

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Last night I stayed out long into the dark, too weak and too stubborn to move from my place. Not long after the sun drained out of the summer sky, the most miraculous event occurred: the civitas sylvatica came alive with a thousand tiny lights. Blue and white beads like drops of water ran along the filaments of its branches, chasing each other through the dark. Kes would be the first to say that I am an iron-hearted old man, but I am not too proud to say that I wept at the sight of those lights.

I seem now to exist in a state halfway between this world and the next. I cannot rest. Every time that I lie down I wake as though I’m suffocating and spend forever gasping at the air. Tonight, I will stay awake instead, and watch the civitas sylvatica blazing with pluses of light like the beating of a heart.

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Just before dawn, I was jolted from half-slumber by the sound of something screaming very far away. Like a fox come out of the wood, but mechanical, man-made. I left my blankets soaked in last night’s dew and walked as far as the outer terrace to look down into the city. All looks peaceful, but changed. It’s been so long since I made it out of the arboretum, it took me some time to realise that I could see nothing moving in the valley below.

The shrieking stopped not long after. I rather think it must have been sirens. I could not find out from the wireless. There is nothing on any frequency. Perhaps they are afraid that the enemy will overhear.

I cannot help but keep glancing at the sky. I am afraid of seeing the enemy’s ponderous zeppelins trawling through the thin haze of sliver cloud. But they have not yet come, and I have not heard the sirens again.

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I believe the civitas sylvatica is reaching maturity. It has begun to grow some kind of canopy, the leaves black and flexible as rubber, spreading out like a dish against the sky and blocking out the light for everything unfortunate enough to be below.

The lacrimosia stands in shadow now, poor creature. And what the canopy of the civitas sylvatica does to the light, its roots do to the earth. The soil all around is so dry that it catches in the lightest breeze. Drifts of it collect like fine sand at the edges of the weed-choked paths.

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Many of the plants beneath the civitas sylvatica are dying. Some are already dead. It does not seem to matter how much water I bring it. I could empty an entire river into the earth and the water would simply sink down into the void of its roots. The lacrimosia is so dry that she is almost hollow, and when the wind blows through her it keens—not so much like a voice, more like the high hum of a shipyard in a storm. I do not think she will last much longer.

And yet the civitas sylvatica is so glorious that I cannot bring myself to hate it. I am bewitched and bewildered. Cannot help but wonder what I did to help bring this thing into the world when so many others have failed.

Skeletal branches grow from the black dish of its canopy. They change the feeling of the air somehow, as though they are generating a magnetic field. At night, the light pulsing through the glass web seems to lens and haze around the edges of this field, rippling like the aurora. It seems to be some kind of transmission of energy. Of information? Could this be how it reproduces? It seems impossible, and yet, even this wonder must surely fulfill the most basic principles of life?

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Smoke rises from the city this morning, pale and translucent as mist gathering in a river valley. I stood and watched it from the tangle of briar and starflower that covers much of the terrace now.

I still cannot see anything or anyone moving down there.

It has been so long since I saw another living soul.

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Oh, but I am a fool! I have been spending so much time on the terrace, watching the city, that I have neglected to tend the civitas sylvatica.

It has undergone some terrible collapse in my absence. The great glass webbed dome, with its filaments of electric light, has dissolved into a chaos of broken pieces, like the floor of a pin factory. I gathered a few for further inspection, but have so far been unable to discern the cause of its deterioration. The filaments are grey and brittle. Already, they break down into fine silica and drift on the pathways with what is left of the topsoil.

The lacrimosia is dead. Everything growing within two hundred feet of the civitas sylvatica is dead. Its leathery black canopy is still intact, but pores have opened on the undersides of the leaves, and ash falls like spores on everything below. This, too, I have sampled, so that some poor soul may analyse it if this blasted war is ever over. One thing is certain: the ash is poison to everything it touches. Everything that is not already dead.

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I can hardly bear to watch the ash fall any more—killing everything without care or discrimination, but killing the tree itself first of all.

The trunk is dying. What little is left of the sapwood still strains upwards, slowly peeling away from the void where the heartwood should be. I feel that selfsame void inside of me, some hungry wound that will never be healed. For all my daydreams about the transfer of information, there is no sign of fruit or seed.

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The sirens sounded again last night, and with them the most terrible rumbling. I don’t remember when I slept last. I sat in the arboretum and watched flickers of blood-coloured fire against the low night cloud. Then, late this morning, people finally came. How much have I wanted to see them, to see another living soul? But today they came at last, and I hid myself away.

They came by the glut, by the furlong, until I thought that the whole city must be emptied. Their heads hung as though their backs were broken. They did not stop to look at the gardens, just kept trudging south. Who knows what they expect to find on the other side of the hills. Only, perhaps, something better than what they’ve left behind.

I wish that I had never begun with the civitas sylvatica. Wish that I had gone to Kes when she asked, when I still had the chance.

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Great Architect, Atiador, they say the capital has fallen. I cannot get the story straight from anyone. Whether it was the enemy, or if it was burned out by our own. I think the king is dead. No one has heard from the palace in months.

The last broadcast said that the great library at the Imperial Society is gone. Burned or looted. All of those books! It’s more than I can bear.

I cannot stay in this blasted desert any more. How can I do anything for this wasteland? How can I can stand by while my home becomes the same?

K.

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Atiador’s Journal

The civitas sylvatica has begun its final starvation. A dark red fluid, like yew sap, oozes from the cracks and pools in the feather-dry dust, staining the grey to black.

I have retired to my rooms in the groundskeeper’s cottage. More refugees came up the road today, walking south, as though they were ghosts of themselves. Perhaps I have died and have come to the land of the dead.

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It must have ignited at some point over the night. The ash was warm underfoot this morning, thin coils of smoke rising from its rotten core.

Rain falls on the remains of my great folly. When I came here, I was assured of a quick recovery. I do not think I will be leaving.

When they find this . . . Kes, when you find me: burn my body. Scatter my ashes with the ashes of the civitas sylvatica. With the hollow and whistling shell of my poor lacrimosia.

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Kes,

What a mystery this world is. Unfolding in some pattern that we cannot fathom, but only brush up against in dreams.

I had resigned myself to die a miserable old man, mad and alone in his grief. We become so invested in the stories that we tell ourselves, we forget the world has other plans.

The winter passed, and the days drew out into the pink spun-sugar sunsets of the early spring. The rains fell forever, washing the world clean and leaving the first east winds to blow it dry. Spring must always humble us, teach us that we are children fumbling with things beyond our understanding.

I shuffle down to the arboretum and start shovelling away the wet poison ash that drifted two hundred feet around. There was not a fragment larger than a grain of sand, save for the dozen small beads that you’ll doubtless find with this letter. Beautiful, aren’t they? Like fine gold writing on the deepest lapis.

If you are reading this, I am gone. I do not think it will be long now. Leave the shell of this miserable country. Go where growing things can thrive again. And take these lapis beads with you.

I am sure that you know what to do with them.

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