An Oasis of Amends

Floris M. Kleijne

You should have seen this, Rowan.

From the observation platform on the converted oil rig, I watch the giant conveyor lift the chunks out of the ocean, see them climb to the coastal plain, see the freeway width of the belt disappear over the horizon, and feel like a Lego figurine in a life-sized industrial zone.

The solid wall of noise makes me sweat as much as the heat does. The shouting, the mechanical roar of the conveyor, the screaming crunch of the ice, and the shattering splashes of the chunks crashing back into the ocean make it hard to think. So I don’t think, but let the memory of you pervade me, a bittersweet sensation I love and dread.

While I was still trying to fight the greenhouse effect, lobbying for emission agreements, investing billions in sustainable energy, strengthening sea walls around the globe, you were way ahead of me. I called you a pessimist when you said global warming was a given, the inevitable result of humanity’s carelessness. You told me nothing we could do to mitigate our mistakes would have measurable effects on any useful time scale. You argued that it was too late to fight causes, that all our influence and wealth were better spent dealing with the consequences. I called you fatalistic, mocked you for a harbinger of doom.

In the end, you relented, chose our marriage over your beliefs. This keeps me awake at night, that you gave in, relinquished your conviction to support my follies instead. Is that what love does to us?

I should have listened to you.

Another iceberg drifts stately into the bay, propelled by a trio of power pushers and its own embedded engines, into the maws of the Nutcracker. You would have loved that name. The enormous steel jaws rise from the waves and squeeze together, seeming to stop dozens of meters from the tip of the iceberg. Under water, the automatic drills deliver their charges, and the berg shudders with muffled explosions, the jaws recommencing their unrelenting squeeze until the ice shatters into house- and car-sized chunks. As the nutcracker opens, the sweeper ships move in, herding the chunks deeper into the bay. For all its violence and chaos, the operation runs smoothly, and in fifteen minutes, the first chunks rise from the ocean to be conveyed inland.

The explosions, the waves, the rumbling of the conveyor travel through the rig until my chest vibrates. Sweating, I climb the stairs to the ancient waiting Chinook, its twin rotors attempting to overwhelm the symphony of shudders.

This is how the dyke shook before it collapsed.

We were there at the breach when The Netherlands were lost. The worst south-western storm in the history of Western Europe took giant bites out of the Dutch dunes even as the Zeeland Delta Works succumbed to the onslaught. The evacuation of the country, which I had fought to postpone because the sea wall would damn well hold, wasn’t even halfway complete.

Was it guilt that kept me hauling sand bags? Was it love that kept you by my side? At least I know what it was when the dyke crumbled, and you were swept away while I was dragged to safety, screaming your name.

That was punishment.

I’m making amends now, Rowan. Don’t mourn what’s already lost, you told me. Deal with what’s left. You’re gone, my love, but I’m still here.

“They’re going to melt,” you said, shrugging. “Both of them, north and south. There is no way you can reverse that process now.”

“But if you’re right, if that’s true, sea levels will rise by as much as six meters. Whole coastal regions will be lost, millions of lives. You think I’m just going to sit by and let that happen?”

You shook your head and smiled. “They’re going to melt. The question is: can we let them melt where a gazillion gallons of freshwater will do some good?”

The Chinook passes over Nouamghar and follows the conveyor belt. On either side, the scorched sands of the Western Sahara stretch to the shimmery horizon. From up here, the conveyor looks like a foot-wide black strip loaded with crushed ice. But I know its actual width, and my mind locks up trying to calculate how much water is traveling inland.

We’re already raising the water table, Rowan. It took the fortune I amassed with sustainable energy and draws every Gigawatt of solar power from the Algerian farm, but it’s happening.

Sixty miles inland, melting station A feeds the Benichab irrigation hub. From the helicopter, I look down upon the slowly expanding circle around the hub, the green land, wadis that used to be dry most of the year now supporting dates and coconuts and meadows.

You should have seen this.

 

Goldie Locks Interview: “2222”

goldie-locksRead Goldie Locks’s story “2222” from Reckoning 1.

Michael: You live in Moscow. What’s your experience of nature like? My only knowledge of Moscow is through Russian literature in translation. Are there public parks? Do you visit them? Can you walk down to the Volga in winter and watch your fellow city-dwellers ice skating in winter? Please disabuse me of my romantic illusions.

Goldie: Nature is the best part of Moscow, especially in spring. There are many public parks and recreational forests in the city. Most of them are pretty commercialized, unfortunately, but one can find a pretty old tree away from eating joints and bike sharing stations to come sit on its roots.

Yes, I love visiting public parks, as well as strolling along downtown boulevards.

There is a river in Moscow, but it shares the city’s name. It is way smaller than Volga and mostly dirty. Swimming is allowed only where it enters the city. Nevertheless, it is inhabited by fish, ducks and seagulls throughout its full length. There are some water plants there as well.

I never saw anyone skating on Moscow river. Public skating rinks are quite common in the city. They are safer and easier to maintain than “wild” rinks that can be built on a river. Some (probably most) of the public rinks are free.

Michael: Did you grow up in Moscow, in the city, or did you move there later in life? What has been your experience of rural life, if any?

Goldie: I was born in Moscow, but very soon after that my mother moved in with her mother and sister who lived in a small town, Khotkovo, about 40 miles from the capital. It used to be fairly rural when I was small. I learned to swim in a tiny river floating across a huge meadow rimmed by a forest. When our family dog was a puppy, we once took him mushrooming in the forest and carried him back home in a basket — because no mushrooms met our eyes, and little Sharik was too tired to walk. On a smaller meadow on the other side of my house there was a lonely swing I loved very much. A dairy-woman lived on our street — and she was not the only cow owner in the town.

But as an adolescent and a young adult I witnessed derurification of my small motherland (this is how we Russians call places where we were born or came to know this world). The meadow I used to fly over on my favorite swing was turned into a car park. The other one was partly overbuilt with summer homes. High-rise blocks or brick cottages replaced most wooden houses. Currently there are no cows that I know of. A road to Moscow was built, and city-bound cars became a menace of the town.

Michael: What does it mean to you to write feminist, lesbian fiction, in a language that is not your native tongue, in a place that actively discourages that kind of thought or action? Writing a story like “2222”, do you feel like you’re taking an ideological stand? Are you participating in a resistance? What does resistance look like to you, where you live?

Goldie: “2222” is literally the first piece of fiction I ever wrote outside a teaching situation, and I was quite amazed by the fact that it turned out to be so feminist and politically charged. But, I believe, it was quite natural, because I grew up in an all-female environment (I cannot say family, because it was a more complex phenomenon) which made me a grassroots feminist. The fact that women are strong and able to cope on their own was never a revelation for me, but always a reality.

It was important for me to write about lesbians because I saw it as a way to cope with a certain sad episode of my love life, and this would not have worked lest I was sincere. I needed to express my unrequited love and say a warm goodbye to it. Also, I believe that the world needs more Russian-made books about Russian LGBT. We have to be represented worldwide, because in the times of ascendant bigotry and wall-building, LGBT people of various nations are grassroots (I do love this word — too bad it is untranslatable into Russian) liaisons keeping the world together.

I wrote the story in Russian initially and showed it to a few people online. Thankfully, it is possible and more or less safe to share such texts in Russia so long as you keep a low profile (that is gravely important). My readers praised the story, and I decided it is worth an attempt to publish it. But I suspected it was unpublishable in Russia (probably I was wrong), therefore I decided to translate it into English. While I was at it, I changed many aspects of the piece. Sometimes I think about translating it back into Russian — not for publishing, sadly, but just for showing it to my friends who are not good at English.

Yes, I believe, I was taking an ideological stand when I was writing “2222” and especially submitting it for publication, albeit under a pen-name. I realize that should the story become famous (which is unlikely), it could cause me some trouble. What makes me so brave is the feeling that my voice is too quiet to be heard in high places.

I think I am participating in a resistance — at least, I made a statement of resistance for myself and my friends. I am quite an outsider, though, therefore there is not much I can tell about resistance as a sociological phenomenon.

Michael: I read a fair amount of radical feminist journalism, as it exists here in the US. This month’s BUST Magazine, for example, features an interview with Nadya Tolokno of Pussy Riot. Pussy Riot means a lot to radical feminism in the US, it seems to me. They are icons of defiant, fearless activism. We look to them, especially now, in the era of Trump, as role models. What does Pussy Riot mean to you? Are they accomplishing anything, are they accomplishing any real change, or are they just drawing attention to themselves?

Goldie: Ironically, when Pussy Riot held their punk prayer in the CCS, I was an orthodox Christian. For 4 years, I unconsciously used this disguise to hide my lesbianism from myself. I was not interested in politics and never realized the danger posed by Putin. Therefore, I was not too pleased by Pussy Riot’s action. But I certainly was appalled by their lawsuit and sentence. This disgrace made me start to pay more attention to things outside my nuclear family. If it worked for many people, Pussy Riot definitely made things at least start to change — but, sadly, at too great a price.

I cannot say Pussy Riot are icons for me — for aesthetic reasons. I never kept an eye on them. I even heard that the group does not exist anymore. But of course, I admit that they are (or were) doing important things. As for the attention part, I cannot comment on this, because I am not acquainted with any of the Pussy Rioters personally.

Michael: Who are your literary influences? “2222” reminds me of Chekhov, a bit, in that it relies heavily on dialogue and shows obvious empathy for all its characters; it believes in the humanity of its characters. It also reminds me of Tennessee Williams, for some of the same reasons, and for the subtle way it approaches taboo topics. What do you want readers to take away from the story?

Goldie: Thanks a lot for comparing me to Chekhov. I was fascinated by him as a child, and read almost everything he wrote. He still is one of my favorite writers, although I realized with much dismay that he was a misogynist and a homophobe. When I was writing the erotic scenes of “2222” I was keeping in mind Chekhov’s story “Volodya”, where a boy’s first sexual encounter is described so subtly that I realized the meaning of the scene only when I grew up. Unfortunately, I have not read Tennessee Williams.

My other influences are, of course, George Orwell with 1984 (hence the title of my story), Aldous Huxley with Brave New World and Yevgeny Zamyatin with We. I even had an ambition to write a novel, of which “2222” short story would be the first chapter, but I am not feeling up to such a big challenge. Actually, I wished to give this novel a happy ending. I even started reading books about revolution.

Michael: What kind of a risk are you taking in writing a story like this?

Goldie: Well, it is tempting to put on a solemn face and write about people sent to GULAG for lesser offenses. But GULAG was a long time ago, and the current situation in Russia is not so dire. However, civil activists are arrested and sent to prison. So, there was, probably, no risk in writing the story, but really vocal publicizing of it in Russia could have some ramifications. They depend on the extent of the publicity.

Michael: You’ve lived with the reality of a repressive, conservative regime. Do you have any advice for those of us in the US who are facing a new, dangerous reality of political suppression?

Goldie: I am in no position to give advice. I can only plead: Please don’t stop! Don’t stop your protests. Don’t stop listening to minorities—they are naturally the first ones to feel the screws tightening. Do not stop paying attention even if everything starts to look fine. Strongmen are as sly as power-thirsty. And please try to understand what encouraged Trump voters to choose him over Clinton. What injustices made them see their advocate in such an unlikely person? What can be done for them without turning the USA into a dystopia?

Michael: Will you please write more fiction in English?

Goldie: I will try, definitely.

Michael: Thank you! I really appreciate your talking so candidly. I’m going to go get out my Chekhov and read “Volodya”.

And I promise not to stop paying attention and speaking out.

2222

Goldie Locks

Reckoning 1

“I like a boy.”

Julia silently pushed a button on a remote control lying in front of her on the table, on a pile of celebration stuff. A larger than life fir cone in the lightest corner of the room hissed out nine tentacles of unequal length. With a loud spat of suction cups, the treerootlike offshoots firmly attached themselves to the floor. The cone erected and started to telescope. Collapsible fir-tree branches covered with silicone needles were shooting from under its scales.

Julia and her daughter Nastya were observing it from the opposite sides of the table—”The Botticelli Venus who sold her hair to buy a pair of jeans and a tee, and Leonardo’s goldilocks angel”, as they were called by Klara, an artist, their friend. In about five minutes a gorgeous New Year tree was standing in front of them.

“My best idea ever”, Julia said. “Much unlike that lame decision to send you to a mixed school. Well, do you want to tell me more about your crush?”

“Wanna ask. Who can marry a boy?”

“Only women with immaculate genes.”

“Do I have maculate ones?”

“You will get tested later in life to find out.”

“This boy, Misha, has a younger brother. Cute one. I held him.”

No idea what to say? Find some work for your hands. Julia picked up a tangled set of fairy lights and started to puzzle it out. Nastya took a sheet of paper and began to fold it to make a snowflake.

“To raise kids, it is not necessary to marry a man and move into Gene Pool Square. Sveta and I wanted a baby and adopted you.”

“But why could you not, like Misha’s mom? You know . . . .”

“Give birth to our own children? As for Sveta, ask her yourself. And I have poor eyesight. My kids would have got my nearsighted eyes.”

“I would like to have eyes like yours. Blue ones with orange halos around the pupils. Your eyes look like eclipses of suns.”

“Thanks. But my eyesight is poor. And yours is fine.”

“But don’t you feel . . . deprived?”

“What a wording! That’s my girl.”

“I am serious, you know!” was the indignant answer. “It does not seem just.”

The unraveled set of colored lamps was lying on Julia’s lap like a long wreath of flowers with tight small buds and dry wiry stalks. Julia rubbed her temples.

“I never thought you would grow up so fast,” she said. “Sunshine, this system is ages old already. And it was not invented by a single person. When people think together, it is harder for them to make mistakes. For instance, look at our New Year tree. The idea is mine, but I am a writer, not an engineer, and my tree was just letters on a screen. And engineers . . . .”

“American ones, Mom. Why not ours?”

“Now, is that good talk for a holiday? Let us discuss it later. I need to think of the right answers. For now, let us decorate this tree. Sveta will be glad to see it when she comes from work.”

Julia opened a yellow cubic box and produced from it an indigo bauble with lemon yellow dots and golden hanging loop. She gave it to her daughter. The girl examined it carefully, kissed it and hung it on the most prominent branch of the tree.

skull_green_scenebreak

We seed culture everywhere, but nobody seems to care,” Kira sang.

The second line was sung an octave lower.

“New song?” Sveta poured more wine into her friend’s glass. A beaded bracelet on Sveta’s slender wrist sparkled in the candlelight.

“Improvisation. Themed on yesterday’s events.”

“What kind of events?”

“Got myself a new student in the Pool. Rita. Five kids, can you imagine? I even agreed to go to her place, because there is no way she can get to mine.”

“What’s she like?” Sveta asked. From the tone of her voice and the look of her shiny hazel eyes it was clear she was genuinely interested.

“She is good. But the atmosphere . . . . We went there with Klara. She is drawing Rita and her baby for a picture. Madonna thing, you know. We went to a café after the lesson. We were eating and talking. Then a waitress came and told us: ‘Your conduct is obscene, stop it or I will have to make you go.’”

“But what were you doing?” Sveta asked, her warm, low voice sounding slightly amused.

“Nothing. I was telling about my first girlfriend. Under my breath. Some pregnant skirt was sitting next to us and left after a while with sour face. She must have ratted when she was walking past the kitchen.”

“Well, I can understand her,” Klara said. “She probably never heard anything like that.”

“So what?” Kira asked. “Is she afraid to give birth to something unnatural now? She should have asked me; I would have told her that sexual orientation is not transmitted to a fetus from its mother through her ears.”

“Why do you even care?” Klara stroked her wife’s shoulder. A strand of Klara’s blonde hair she’d thrown behind her back slipped forward, into her wine glass, and became pink at the tip. “I think you should drop this new student Rita. I do not want you to get so upset every time. You will find a new one in the Gyn.”

“Well, it isn’t Rita’s fault. Insensitive people can be found everywhere. We probably are a breath of fresh air for her.” Kira shut her lips tight, as she always did after saying something too far from her usual sarcasm. She met Julia’s eyes and said, “And why are you so silent?”

“Just watching. You know, if anyone made a ‘the strangest couple’ competition, Sveta and I would vie for the first place with Klara and you.”

“It reminds me of what Pushkin wrote in “Eugeny Onegin”, Kira said with a smile.

So, verse and prose, they came together,

No ice and flame, no stormy weather

and granite, were so far apart,” she declaimed and stood up, her wine glass lifted.

“Let us drink to that,” she added. “To dialectics!”

“Happy New Year, girls!” Sveta said merrily and also stood up with her wine glass in hand.

Klara, Julia and Nastya also stood up. Nastya rose on tiptoes to make her glass of orange juice meet with the adults’ glasses over the middle of the table.

skull_green_scenebreak

“Sorry, can you say that again?” Julia turned the water off.

Nastya finished drying a plate, put it onto a kitchen shelf and repeated her question. “What are Pool and Gyn?”

“Gene Pool Square and Women’s Square. Sveta and Kira invented those nicknames ages ago.”

“Have they known each other for a long time?”

“Yeah, since they were kids. Kira made the bracelet your mom is wearing. It is much older than you.”

“Do you like her?”

“Who, Kira? Yes, she is clever and nice. But not as simple as she might look.”

“She is so loud. But only on the outside. And deep inside she is quiet. Like you.”

“Yes, right you are.”

“But why?”

“Well, I believe she protects herself this way. It is not easy to be a quiet person, especially when you are an actress and a singing tutor.”

“Oh, she’s an actress? I thought she might be. She is pretty, you know. And bright, like a picture. Her hair is so red. Her eyes are so green. Her skin is so white . . . But she probably does not think she is pretty enough.”

“Hence the loudness?”

“Yep.”

“And what do you think of Klara?”

“Klara is nice. Like a kitten. But I would not cuddle a kitten like that, because it knows what to do with its teeth.”

“You are so grown up . . . And the things you say about people are very bright.” Julia took a stack of washed dishes out of the kitchen sink and put them on the table. Nastya picked up her kitchen towel again, but Julia shook her head. “But still, you are too young to stay up so late. I can see you are tired. Kiss Sveta, if she is not asleep (she had a long day at work), and go to bed. I’ll finish here and hit the pillow as well.”

“I’ll kiss her, anyway. If she is asleep, I’ll take care not to wake her.”

skull_green_scenebreak

In conclusion, the weightless fingers traced a young moon under Julia’s belly, as if finishing a declaration of love with a one-bracket smiley. Julia caught Sveta’s hand and stroked it. Then, by a well-honed synchronous move, each of them took her usual place for heartfelt night talks and sleep. Julia moved to the edge of the bed (a good place for an insomniac who often gets up at night), Sveta snuggled up to her from the side near the wall and pulled the blanket over them.

“I like it when you do that to me.”

“I like to do that to you.”

“Why do you do it so rarely, then?”

“I was afraid you would take it wrong.”

“How exactly?”

“As an attempt to remind you . . . .”

“Of what cannot be forgotten?”

“I thought you might think I want to underline my importance.”

“I see this gesture as an expression of affection to me and the past we shared. The thing you did for me then does not need any underlining.”

“This is the best thing I have done in my life. When I look at your scar, I feel so strong. I am so proud of myself. But this is your body, and I . . . .”

“And you make it absolutely happy. And once you saved it from grave trouble, putting your carrier and even freedom at risk.”

“If it had not been for that, would you be with me?”

“Don’t you remember my first check-up?”

“Oh, I remember your first check-up. But will you tell me about it? Please.”

“You wicked girl. Telling it will make me want to have at least one more round.”

“And you will have it. We can sleep as long as we want tomorrow, and I rested after my shift while you were doing the dishes. So, if you do not mind . . .” Sveta slid her index finger down Julia’s high cheekbone to her lips.

Julia kissed it and said, “Of course I don’t!”

“Well, where is my story then?”

skull_green_scenebreak

“I was lying on my back, in the most tattletale pose. I am sure that chair was invented by a sadist. I was looking at the dimly lit ceiling and waiting for your footsteps. To distract myself—as if it could help—I was recalling how it all started. That day my body also produced much biological liquid, although it always responded rather scantily to emotions. Tears were running down my cheeks—for the first time since my childhood.” Julia paused, closed her eyes.

“Yeah, I remember,” Sveta told her.

“You were looking at me without disapproval, as if it was quite a usual thing to burst into tears instead of answering a simple question. You asked me, ‘What’s your gestational age?’, and I just felt my face was wet.”

“And I told you, ‘Calm yourself, please,’ and gave you a tissue. Actually, I keep them on my desk for a reason.”

“When I took the tissue from my face, it was dripping wet. Then you looked straight into my eyes. That moment changed my life. Because of that moment you called me to the Shelter, and because of that moment I was wishing the earth would swallow me when I was lying on my back at your Shelter office and waiting for your footsteps.”

“How come?”

“I did not know whether you liked me. And I had no chance to hide I liked you.”

“Poor thing,” Sveta kissed Julia’s temple.

“Then I heard your footsteps. You sounded surprised and amused when you asked . . .”

“I asked, ‘Is this your usual reaction to a check-up?’ Actually, I have heard about such things.”

“But it was my reaction to you. I told you I was having it for the first time in my life.”

“Too bad you were not looking at me at that moment. It would have been hot.”

“I was so ashamed! I could look only at the ceiling!”

“You were looking up there as if you were trying to drill a hole into it with your stare.”

“Yeah, right. That would have distracted you, would it not?”

Sveta laughed and hugged her wife. They lay silently for a while.

“Then you asked me, ‘But what about your man?’ And I told you we broke up. And also—that I never wanted or loved him, just got trapped. Could not find it in myself to turn him down.”

“Then you sat down and pulled your sweat-shirt almost to your knees.”

“Yeah, at last I remembered I could cover myself.”

Sveta smiled and stroke Julia’s naked body, hot under the blanket, from neck to delta, where she left her hand. Julia took that hand in hers and replaced it on her left shoulder.

“Sorry,” she said, “the story is more upsetting than arousing so far. I should not have mentioned Nastya’s father. I never told you, but he never used condoms: they made his stuff soft. He promised me he would always pull out—but did not do it that day. Intentionally, I am sure. I still remember the look on his face. I feel so angry and abused when I think of that.”

“So sorry to hear it, honey. But I was suspecting something like this. You never seemed badass enough to have conceived an illegal child deliberately. But I do not want to talk about assholes anymore. I want to make love to you.”

Julia closed her eyes and concentrated on her private parts. She was trying to imagine blood flowing there, making her hot between her legs. But she could not help thinking of the moment of her daughter’s conception.

skull_green_scenebreak

When menstruation did not come, on the third day of the delay she put her pass to Men’s Square into the top drawer of her office desk. On the fourth she took it out at lunchtime, when her colleagues were at the dining hall, and underlined in pencil the abortion clinic address. Too far to walk, and no bus goes there. And they say that taxi drivers report where they take their passengers. On day five she was standing in front of a curvy woman in white coat (she was cute, despite weary sternness). Tears were running down Julia’s cheeks.

“What are you thinking about?” Sveta asked.

“How lucky I was to meet you. And how brave you were to write I was not pregnant in my file and to invite me to the Shelter. And how you rock your white coat.”

Julia turned to Sveta and stroked her short, chestnut hair. “Then you asked me how I managed to meet a guy. And I answered you, ‘I have a pass to Men’s Square, I am a journalist.’ And you said . . .”

“And I said: ‘Lie down, journalist. I need to take a look at you.”’

“Then you palpated my belly ever so gently, and it was the sexiest touch my body had ever felt—I mean, before we actually made love for the first time. And you told me, ‘Your uterine tonus is fine, so you can jump into this chance.’ And I stroked your hand.”

“You were still looking at the ceiling. It was hard not to giggle.”

Under the blanket Julia took her wife’s hand and stroked herself with it just like Sveta had done minutes ago.

skull_green_scenebreak

“I never loved or wanted anyone but you in the last twelve years,” Julia said, when they had finished their second round. “So, if you are worried about my feelings, please don’t be. But we have to worry about Nastya.”

“What happened to her?”

“She likes a boy. She wonders whether I feel deprived because I cannot give birth to children. She asked why my fir tree was made in the States. Actually, I feel confused. We can tell her the things she will hear at school next year. But she is a bright girl, and sooner or later she will understand . . . .”

“That the stuff is bullshit.”

“And she will lose faith in us. We can tell her the truth ourselves, but what if it will make her unhappy?”

“It won’t if we find the right words.”

“Today I told her my kids would have poor eyesight. How can I look into her eyes and disprove my own words?”

“Don’t look into her eyes. Write her a letter. Sorry, I am falling asleep. Good night.”

skull_green_scenebreak

Dear Nastya:

Sveta and I discussed the questions you asked and decided to give you the answers you deserve. That is, honest and serious ones. It is very risky, since it is not easy to know all that and be happy. But you are a smart girl and sooner or later will learn the truth. And if it happens without our involvement, you will lose your faith in us, and we all will be unhappy.

I told you enough lies already, but still I hope you will forgive me.

My kids really could have inherited my poor eyesight, but not necessarily. You will not read it even in the fattest books for adults, but it is true. I know it for certain, because you are my daughter by birth and your eyesight is fine.

At the swimming pool you probably noticed a scar under my belly. You never asked me about it, because you are so delicate, but now I have to explain how I got it. It happened the day you were born—and for you to be born.

Women with as poor sight as I have are not recommended to have natural childbirth, because it can damage their retina and even make them blind. Since the “Gene Pool” program was introduced, they do not have the chance: nearsighted women are not accepted to the Gene Pool. But earlier, when any woman was allowed to have kids, nearsighted women and those who were unable to give birth naturally because of other conditions could have a special surgery called caesarian birth.

It was invented in ancient times and has been practiced ever since. But in our country it was outlawed a century ago, when the “Gene Pool” program was introduced. The official explanation was that a healthy nation does not need caesarian birth. But the truth is our state just cannot teach enough doctors to do this surgery (and many others). We have no money for education, we have no money for medicine.

Sveta performed that surgery on me. We met in the very beginning of my pregnancy and were expecting you together. She learned all about caesarian birth from old books, and it was insanely risky for her to put that knowledge to practice. But she did, and the fact that you and me are alive and well shows how brilliant she is. It is very right that she is your second mother. She did for your birth even more than I. She had to take care of me and perform the surgery secretly, in an underground hospital. If it is discovered, Sveta and me will go to jail for undermining the Gene Pool.

You asked me today why my New Year Tree was made in the USA. The reason is, our country is too poor to teach enough engineers for some of them to have time to turn a piece of a sci-fi novel into a set of telescopic tubes and hi-tech materials.

I am full of grief now, to have to write all this stuff to you, because I’d rather tell you only good news till my dying day. But I hope that my letter will not make your life less interesting and happy.

I love you very much.

Mom

 

Julia went to Nastya’s bedroom and put the letter on the girl’s desk. A reddish beam infiltrated the room through a slit between heavy curtains in the window and highlighted Nastya’s half-face on the pillow, a tabby cat curled up next to the girl, and the yellow silk holiday gown she had cast on the bed. Julia sighed and turned on the desk lamp. She took the gown and hung it into the wardrobe. Then she bent over the desk, took a pen from it and wrote at the end of the letter,

I was upset to see how you treat the beautiful gown Klara made for you. I put it away because I did not want Murka to tear it with her claws. But your clothes are your responsibility.

Then Julia went to the bathroom to take her contacts off.

When she went to bed, she felt a sheet of paper on her pillow. It was her letter. She went to the window, slid under another pair of heavy curtains and read a write-up in the reddish light, with her nose almost touching the paper.

Mommies, I love you so-so-so much. Please tell me who is my father. It is better to burn the letter. Sorry for the gown.

Julia looked at the sky. Over the sleeping city, straight above the Central Square, a congratulatory hologram was shining the year in all colors of the Flag of Russia. Four identical digits—2222.

Wolphinia

Giselle Leeb

Reckoning 1

It used to be that I didn’t dare stop driving around—people would notice; I’d make them feel guilty and they might attack. Now, on my walks through the harbour, all I have to do is duck the cars that smash through the barrier high above my head. And flinch when they hit the heap of metal that lines the sea wall.

Ride not riot. That’s the tiny government’s latest slogan. Not that anyone’s listening since the election turnout dropped to 2.3%. But the people keep queueing up for their petrol. Fucking lemmings!

I follow the harbour wall that ends at the old customs house, tucked underneath the flyover, now the seat of the tiny government. I’m wondering what they actually do, besides doling out petrol, when out of the mucky water pops this wolphin and I jump a fucking mile.

I put my hands up. Wolphins aren’t stupid. It’s very likely to be pissed off: every time another car ‘forgets’ to take the curve and flies off into the sea, a wolphin floats belly-up afterwards.

Still, what on earth do I expect it to do? Gun me down? Wolphins don’t have hands.

I look closer. It’s way too big to be an English wolphin. Maybe the rumours were true, maybe it’s ex-Russian. Not that anybody cares. Even the Nationalists have given up—more important fish to fry and all that.

The wolphin half-rises from the waves and opens its mouth, as if it’s struggling to say something. I’m interested. Conversation is pretty scarce these days. I edge closer, keeping my hands up, but the wolphin moves back. You can’t blame it for being suspicious—I am a human, after all.

Though hardly anyone’s fishing anymore. Even the police just drive around. To be fair, there’s not a lot else left to do.

Whistle, whistle goes the wolphin and it flips over and wiggles its tail.

I wasn’t too hot at Wolphinese when everyone was into it—before the wolph-fishing started. Anyhow, I don’t even know if it speaks Wolphinese, let alone English.

I sneak a look at its undercarriage, but I can’t tell if it’s F or M. Oh well, nobody gives a shit since the babies stopped coming. It probably can’t tell about me either: I’ve shaved my hair off now Mom’s not around to tell me to act like a proper girl.

I’m trying to remember ‘hello’ when another wolphin swims up, a big grin on its face. Well, it’s hard to tell really when a wolphin is smiling.

Maybe it’s for the best I don’t speak Wolphinese: the fanatically fluent were the first to start eating their new friends.

I put on a lame grin and lower my hands.

Whistle, whistle goes the first wolphin again, and the second hesitates, then rolls over.

Fuck me! It’s got little hind legs.

I’d read about this during the wolphin craze. Super-rare. And these ones look like proper legs—like they might actually be going somewhere—not like the tiny buds in the pictures.

I’m literally at a loss for words, but I want the wolphins to know that I would never eat them—unlike some, I recognize their official person status. I’m not a fucking cannibal! I look towards the concrete bunker of the tiny government and I flip the finger and spit afterwards for good measure. The wolphins do a little jump and I know they understand. They start to swim away, but then they turn and look back at me and I wish I could go with them.

But I can’t. Sure, I’m a little mercury-toxic already, but it’ll be swiftly over if I so much as touch that water.

I can’t even say ‘tomorrow’ in Wolphinese, so I point to the sun, then roll my hands, and they do another jump.

I watch them swim out to the harbour mouth. I wonder if they’ve managed to get anywhere beyond this crappy island.

I meander in the direction of the customs house. The tiny government blew the remains of the budget on bulletproof window glass and fenced off the last working petrol pumps—conveniently located next to the customs house, underneath the flyover. Rumours are they even recruited a few ex-Russian wolphins to protect them on the ocean approach. Hush hush, of course: the soldier wolphins were officially all home-bred British. Fucking Nationalists.

There’s a ripe breeze coming off the cars that didn’t make it into the water and I pull my scarf up over my mouth as I stare out to sea. It looks almost beautiful, a grey gleam catching the sunshine through a break in the clouds. But I know what’s in that water.

Still, plenty of fish in the sea, if you don’t mind eating just a little mercury.

The wolphins frolic in the dim sunlight, a bit creaky, but basically survivors—the new roaches of the sea, as their ex-friends, the wolphinistas, took to calling them, just before they started eating them. After they conveniently forgot they had person status.

No one would dare eat them now: they are packed to the gills with mercury. But somehow thriving—like the tiny government is rumoured to be. Everybody used to want to know their secret, when they still cared about living forever.

I pull out a cigarette. Mom and Pops went on and on about it, before they started the big drive, but really, my lungs can’t tell the difference. I lift up my scarf and take a drag and pretend to blow the smoke out through the top of my head, like a wolphin.

The tiny government hasn’t been sighted outside their bunker for some time, except for their petrol people, doling out the rations.

I cough in surprise as a school of wolphins swims right past me—at least forty. They roll over and wiggle their legs. They all have the legs! Except for the leader, who I take to be the first wolphin I met. They clear their blowholes and swim in formation in the direction of the tiny government.

Once, I would have run to tell someone the news . . . now, I just stare. Who is there to tell?

But it’s a bit like old times. I haven’t seen a wolphin parade since before the wolph-fishing. As far as I was concerned, conscripting them was cruel, more soldiers for the useless cause. God knows what they were actually making them do.

The wolphins surface way past the customs house and swim back out to the harbour mouth.

I can’t help wondering what they’re up to. Do they have a plan? Or are they just stupid great fake-fish in the pay of the tiny government?

Still, what would they pay them with? Wolphins don’t need petrol, and even if they could drive, they’re already in the sea.

Whatever. I may as well try and find out. I don’t exactly have anything else to do.

It’d be less suspicious to get close to the customs house in a car and I’m sort of regretting my resolution to give up driving. But there are a few people who approach on foot if they’re dumb enough to run out of petrol . . . usually women, according to the government.

I never thought I’d count myself lucky to be a girl. How could I when the tiny government are all men? It’s kind of a sicko joke now that women are crashing through the barriers into the sea in equal numbers.

But I’m not stupid enough to just walk right up to the bunker empty-handed. I’ll have to go home for some props.

skull_green_scenebreak

It’s been a while since I’ve seen the house. The dead telly reflects slices of yellow grass between the window slats. Mom and Pops used to spend a lot of time watching the news; later, they just watched the crashes.

I run upstairs to their room, grab one of Mom’s wigs and Pop’s binos and run back down to the kitchen. I’m ravenous.

I open the cupboard and stare at the tins and tins of fucking fish.

“Eat your little fish, Monkey,” I hear Mom saying, and I force myself to move on to the garage.

I fling a rusty petrol can into the back seat of the saloon.

The keys are in the ignition. I haven’t driven my car since Mom and Pops sailed into the harbour, in a manner of speaking. I start the engine and collapse against the wheel, laughing. When I remember that mood incongruence is one of the early mercury symptoms, I laugh even more, until I’m weeping. Eat your little fish—what’s a little poison on the side? Mom and Pops couldn’t help it. What else was there to feed me? Ha ha ha!

I hoot and wave at my one remaining neighbour as I cruise past. Once she would have been so proud I’d started driving again. Now, she doesn’t even look up. She just carries on checking the petrol in her tank.

It’s dusk by the time I get back to the harbour. I drive right past the bunker. Hopefully they’ll pass me off as just another petrol junky, desperate for my next ration. I scan the sea as I take the entrance to the flyover.

I’m not supposed to stop up here, but it’s almost dark and I pull over to one side, where I can get a good view of the customs house. Just in time, it turns out. A small van accelerates through the hole in the barrier and lands way out. Talk about making a big splash!

I aim Pop’s binos at the bunker to avoid looking at the red stain spreading across the water. I can tell it’s blood, not petrol. They must have hit a wolphin. And that’s when I see the dinghy heading out from the customs house.

I didn’t know there were any boats left. It’s even got an engine and there are three MPs crouched in it. They have a long pole with a hook on the end. They putter out and snag the wounded wolphin as soon as it surfaces.

What the fuck? Its best chance is to be left alone. People know about the self-healing power of wolphins—that’s what got them started on eating them. And it’s the tiny government that banned wolph-fishing in the first place, once they realized about the mercury. Maybe they are trying to save it?

The wolphins surround the dinghy and start jumping out of the water. They almost knock the pole away, but the MPs speed away, back to the bunker, and haul the wolphin out onto the fenced-off slipway. It makes a strange, strangled scream and tries to thrash free. They deliver a swift booting, and I know for sure that they are not going to save it. They drag it hurriedly through the big metal doors, to the answering screams of its fellow wolphins.

Fuckers.

I can’t stop thinking about Mom and Pops on their final trip into the harbour. Did they even remember me before the big crash?

Whatever.

I sit until it’s almost dark, watching Mom and Pop’s mascot wolphin swinging from the car mirror. They used to worship the wolphins for being mercury-tolerant, but in the end they were jealous.

I’m badly tempted to just keep on driving.

I roll the car forward until it blocks the gap in the barrier, pull on Mom’s wig, get out and throw the keys over the edge.

I feel my way down the flyover, one hand on the barrier, petrol can in the other.

A weak moon lights up the dirty mist floating over the harbour. I imagine the wolphin ghosts, torn and twisted, rising healed from the water—like Jehovah’s Witnesses on resurrection day—and marching back onto the land, while the humans drop into the gloom, trailing red, clutching their precious steering wheels.

I put down the petrol can and creep towards the bunker. I make it to the wall that runs at right-angles to the sea. I inch along it, before I notice the MP sluicing the wolphin blood from the dinghy. It’s tied to the inside of the fence that juts out from the wall into the water. I press myself against the wall until he goes back in.

I slowly lift my head. There’s a small circle of light showing through a hole in the blackout cloth over the only window. I have to stand on tiptoe to peer through.

Luckily, the MPs have their backs to me. They’re sitting at a long table, watching a tall man. He stands facing them, eyes closed, hands uplifted, doing some sort of prayer, it looks like. There’s an enormous white plate in front of each of them. I strain closer, until I see that telltale black wolphin meat with the red edges like hot and angry coals.

I turn and shuffle away as fast as possible, my hand over my mouth.

Fucking cannibals!

I wish those wolphins would reappear. I need somebody to talk to. Nothing makes sense. Not because the MPs are eating wolphin—you never know what to expect from humans. It’s because I realize that there is not one sane person left.

Why am I so surprised?

I crouch by the wall until the night smudges into another grey day, half-hoping the wolphins won’t come. I’ve never touched a sliver of wolphin meat, but how will they know that?

The wolphin surfaces alone. I don’t expect sympathy after its companion has just been offed by its supposed fellows. But I remove Mom’s wig. I want it to recognize me. I want it to know that not all humans are the same.

“Sorry,” I say, and it does its little jump.

And it makes everything worse. I stand looking away from it, pressing my sleeve against my stupid mouth, trying not to laugh. Fucking mercury! I’m losing it!

“Sorry, sorry,” I say, and I look it straight in the eye and almost reach out to stroke its shiny poisonous flank, the red tip of its sore fin. I almost do. But I can’t. Even a few drops of water on my skin will . . . but what difference . . . .

The wolphin whistles at me, then turns its nose to point at its fin, then whistles again. My eyes have gone all blurry. All I can think of is Mom and Pop’s last drive and I realize I’m crying . . . . Better than laughing, I suppose.

It whistles again and I wipe my eyes. I finally understand what it’s trying to tell me when I see what it’s got wedged between its fin and body.

I look up, trying to clear my head. The school of wolphins have gathered at the harbour mouth and are swimming patterns in the water; it feels like they are showing me the way when they roll over in unison and wave their stubby legs.

I understand what it’s like to be them, I understand what it’s like to be ignored. What did the tiny government ever do for us?

I take off my scarf and wrap it round my hand. I lean down and gently lift up the grenade.

Pops was ex-military, like almost everyone since we became disconnected from the other continents and there was no longer any cause. He used to tell me tales about kamikaze Russian wolphins. “They couldn’t get the English ones to detonate the grenades,” he’d whisper.

I’m pretty sure he never dreamt I’d be dumb enough to try it one day. Even if I was a girl.

But now I’m finally a young woman. I breathe out. What next?

But I know already. I point towards the bunker, towards the remains of that feeble atrocity, the tiny government. “Now?” I ask, and the wolphin jumps up high.

My fingers are so numb that I let the scarf fall and hold the grenade with my bare hands. I can’t help flinching as the drops of water touch them, but I’ve got a feeling I won’t be needing them soon.

I’m shivering as I clasp the grenade and sneak over to the bunker wall. No sign of any MPs. I unbutton my shirt and tuck the grenade inside, then clamber along the outside of the fence and swing myself round to the inside where the dinghy is tied up.

The hardest part is getting into the boat. I still can’t stop trembling at the thought of all that water. Maybe Pops was right: those Russian wolphins must have been nuts to blow themselves up.

But then they didn’t have a good reason.

The dinghy rocks from side to side as I untie it and use the pole to push it close enough to the open metal doors.

The MPs stare at me as I bob into their line of sight.

The wolphins know that I’ll die in that water. And I know now for sure I will never join them when they march back out onto the land.

I may as well make myself useful.

“For Mom and Pops,” I yell, as I pull the pin and lob the grenade straight through the doors.

There’s a bright flash and I feel strangely illuminated from the inside out as I’m blown through the air into the poisonous sea.

skull_green_scenebreak

The wolphins push me up to the surface to breathe, and the feeling of being carried aloft on their little hind legs almost makes up for the fact that it’s nearly all over for me.

But my rage has gone now that the tiny government is wolphin food. The grey water actually appears blue and fresh. An obvious delusion, but I have to admit, I’m enjoying it.

At least it’s better than just driving around.

Read Michael’s interview with Giselle about “Wolphinia” here.