Night of No Return

Grace Seybold

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

Subscribe via RSS or on iTunes!

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.

The Alice Grey

Santiago Belluco

The spire grew from a tight mesh pushing out of the deep cracks of the street, converging into a pillar that loomed above the squat buildings, clipping one at the side. Alice circled high over the rising structure and the abandoned remnants of Krakow while her ship spit out the usual scans with a faint hum and stutter. This nanotech Grey was polite for such a big one, it didn’t extend defensive barbs into the air and showed no obvious toxicity.

The other collectors preferred passive flare-ups like this, but Alice found it hard to destroy something that didn’t fight back. Jake never seemed to care, but she thought a passive collection skirted the edge of cowardice.

“No use waiting then, Old Pig,” Alice whispered to her ship.

Alice had Old Pig throw out one of its sample collection probes, a pointless ritual to confirm the nanite aggregate. But protocol was protocol, and part of the reason the Grey kept coming back.

The probe returned as the spire sealed the small dimple created by its offending distant cousin. Old Pig opened the probe’s collection pouch and spilled the twitching machinery into his quarantine chamber. Extending the remotely controlled robotic arms and manifold tools, Alice dove into the sagging handful. Such a small sample rarely revealed anything important, but this was one of the best parts of the job, to see the Grey’s newest evolutions in such detail. This first look was the only reason Alice didn’t skip the initial probing entirely.

The sample’s outer tessellating microstructure folded into layers of protecting tightness. Each surrounding sheet grew into shapes evolved from the simple patterns at their central sheet, convolving into a blossom of wild elegance. Tough skin growing into sensitive flesh.

The Grey often came up with unusual strategies among its twisting symmetries and convoluted molecular designs. She had seen so much over the years, but every time it was new and terrifying. Certainly useful to the few who bothered studying the Grey anymore. Occasionally even profitable, when she managed to squirrel away something novel for her Duster friends.

A Grey as complicated as the spire below would usually be much smaller, easy to corral into the ship’s small autoclave until Alice could haul it back to the Black Drop. But she doubted the autoclave’s pressurization assault would work even if she could pack it all in. This sort of Grey would just hyperevolve its way out. She had once nearly lost her ship when a much simpler Grey cluster managed to escape and veer Old Pig into an evacuated building.

Time for Protocol again, but this time a sensible one, land and extend the secondary sensors. Call for backup.

Old Pig yawned in relief as the burdens of flight slacked around him, turbines wheezing still and landing gear moaning.

“Central, I have a T-40 here. Request reinforcement.” Audio only, hoping Fabrizio wouldn’t open the visual.

“Sorry, Alice.” No such luck, there he was on the screen, grinning and vacant. “Everybody’s out, even the off-duty. Lots of big ones popping up all over.”

“Sir, I strongly suggest diverting to this location. My target exhibits advanced tertiary structure and exponential repair. Sending preliminary data over now.”

There was a pause in his crass attempts at a flirty smile as he read the report. Then he bit into his thumbnail. “Um,” he finally replied to fill the awkward pause. “I can send you Takashi and Krin in about an hour.”

“Their ships are not equipped for this category, sir. I need two other class threes, minimal.”

“Let me get back to you.” Of course, she thought, you go find somebody else to tell you what to do.

Not wanting to wait, she began the next data collection phase, reaching out to the growing spire with an uncoiling sensory proboscis. Slow and unthreatening, Old Pig’s snorting and snuffling nose touched the spire’s surface, then burrowed in when he encountered no adaptive resistance.

That was how you dealt with the advanced nanites, careful and deliberate. The old self-replicating identicals would just burn themselves out when they ran out of local resources. Sometimes they even encountered something that could wipe their whole population with surprising ease. Once, in Venezuela, she’d watched beetles by the thousands gorging on pink nanite nets that stretched over a full square mile of farmland.

“Unit 14, standby for emergency communication.” Startled, Alice adjusted the volume of the UN direct com channel. It was only the third time it had been used since she got Old Pig, and this didn’t seem to be just another transmission test.

“This is Commander Sherman of the United Nations Nanomachine Defense Commission. Multiple nanite flare-ups have been detected across the globe, many of similar composition. This appears to be a coordinated assault. Eliminate your assigned target at all cost. Reinforcement will be sent as resources become available. Repeat, eliminate target at all cost.”

So it was really starting, just like Jake had predicted. Alice sat back and tried to take in the spire, reach across the gap of chemical incompatibility, timeline, and scale. Plunge into the heart of the living machine, if only to ask what it was doing, what it wanted.

In the beginning, it was easy enough to toss Grey into the Black like so much inconvenient garbage. The Grey would clump and fray as they tumbled down before reaching the event horizon, their final throes fixed in timelessness.

The varied fireworks of the dying Grey became something of a show. People brought their children to crowd the stadium that was built below the miniature black hole. They sold hot dogs and booked popular concerts. It brought in some tidy revenue for the Commission and was great at advertising the need to keep funding nanite cleanup.

A report lit up from a holodisplay, a tumbling bauble of jagged edges over splitting bulges. It was a cross-sectional representation of the spire, its layers and inner folds. The bulky lower tiers were packed high-energy polymers, followed by skeletal struts thinning into to bewildering complexity at the top. Not just structure: the telltale whispers of function.

Alice began the analysis, extrapolating expansion rates, available intermolecular free energy and evolution probabilities. These used to be enough, but now they were often wrong, sometimes dangerously so. This time they made no sense at all. This spire shouldn’t be growing so quickly. At its current size it actually had a negative free energy score and should have collapsed by now.

Well, it was time to earn her pay.

“Old Pig, load the Thierry-Malt function.”

Alice struggled with the formatting errors that often sprang up with new functions like this, but soon enough she worked out the kinks. The program churned to detect the free energy of each compartment subsection at the molecular level, the streaming pentabytes straining Old Pig’s processors.

What would this Grey burn into when thrown into the Black? Perhaps it would flash with rainbow colors and abstract shapes to woo the crowd, or maybe leer down with blood-shot eyes extending from massive sheets of billowing flesh, arms and legs and mouths and sex, almost human.

Alice preferred the latter, the deathknell that thinned the crowds as people realized they were watching an execution. Only the hardcore Dusters watched anymore, but they knew from the beginning what they were seeing, didn’t need for it to be spelled out with the grotesque.

Fabrizio beeped at the com. Alice ignored it, hoping he would just give up, but it came up again, then again. She finally opened the damn channel.

“Alice, this operation is getting too hot! They are popping up all over, there’s even talk of Q-strikes if we can’t contain them all. Please, if you can’t get rid of yours just get out of there, I’ll cover for you, just get out!”

“Thank you for your concern, sir.”

Then he just stared, his mouth partially open as if there was something really important he wanted to say but couldn’t quite find the words. He looked like a lost puppy.

“I have to go, sir.” She shut off the channel.

Always with the overreaction. The Grey showed up as something big and scary and it suddenly became a problem. People so easily forgot that nanites filled the air and seeped into the earth. Even in the fulldome cities, where nanite surveillance was maximally paranoid, every breath of air had at least a few hundred, if not thousands, of stray nanomachines. Remnants of true Grey dead-ended into particulate oblivion, sure. But still there.

Old Pig’s sensory extensions deep within the spire started to report large-scale shifts in isomerization and structural integrity. The gap between the high-energy compounds at the base and the complexity hubs above started to increase, filling with a tight honeycomb structure.

This was developing faster than she expected. Soon enough, nothing Old Pig had would touch it. Alice leaned forward and turned on the torches, but they didn’t even singe the outer shell. A burst of liquid nitrogen also had no effect, just slid across the surface and pooled into a slowly sublimating puddle on the cracked street. The sensory module died as the spire snapped against the umbilical wire connecting it to Old Pig, sealing the module within.

Alice ran through a few calculations and hedged guesses, then struck with a combination of acids and other caustic chemicals, again to no effect. She tried shooting the spire for good measure, Pig’s Gatling snout blazing red and yellow as it fired explosive rounds. The first barrage looked like it caused some damage, but the second barely scratched the surface.

The next option would be the PQB cannon. Alice wired Command for permission, but found it was pre-approved. She put some distance between Old Pig and the spire and unfurled the cannon from Pig’s underbelly. An invisible high-energy beam burst from it, tearing at the air, the ensuring thunder toppling the nearby three blocks of the dead city.

The spire listed a bit to the side as the building it rested on fell, but righted itself, the soft, melting surface that had taken the brunt of the blast clawing back up. Old Pig had enough charge to fire a second blast, but Alice decided to save the fuel.

Just last year, a routine geological survey broke into a massive cavern housing a Grey construct of over fifty metric tons. It fed off the magma flowing near its undulating edges, the fingers it dipped into the molten rock fine and glassy. It was written off as a fluke, but Alice knew better; the Grey probably extended into the very planet’s core. Imagining worlds upon worlds below teeming with Grey made her feel like a simple woodland animal staring at a busy campfire from the distance, the bustle of artificial tools and light incomprehensible yet strangely alluring.

Well, the UN did say at any cost. Alice touched the small metal circle at the side of her neck and called Smitha. Good old Silver, as she liked to be called now.

“Well, isn’t this a pleasure! Always glad to see you, my dear.”

“Hello, Silver, are you out?”

“Of course! Isn’t all this activity just wonderful? I’m in North Africa collecting an entirely unmolested quad growth, a neat little cube, harder than our best boson-tethered lattice.”

“I have something better here for you, highest complexity. If you help me take it out you can have the remains.”

“Now, now, are you finally switching sides? No longer Uncle’s nice little girl?”

“I have full leeway on this assignment. They’re a bit desperate.”

“I can imagine, I’ll break atmosphere and be at your position in a few minutes. Hold on tight!”

“Will do. I’m sending you the data.”

“Lovely.”

Together, they fired and cut. The unpainted metal bulk of Old Pig appeared crude beside Smitha’s sleek, jet-black Sagittarius. It was the newest model reentry collection and disposal craft, the kind the UN commission couldn’t afford to buy. Another product geared at Dusters selling illegal nanotech to companies too lazy to do their own R&D. Alice just hoped Smitha never tried to sell her wares off-world. Getting caught breaking the Earth quarantine net held a long prison term. Whatever it took to keep the colonies clean of the runaway nanites.

“Hey, Alice, this isn’t working.”

Alice agreed, so they paused to hover within sight of the spire, discussing which models to apply and calling on increasingly tenuous industry and academia contacts for advice. They were all aware of the coordinated Grey flare-ups. Everybody could smell something big, but, as usual, nobody knew what to expect.

“Silver, heads up.”

“Wow. So cool.”

The spire had started to shift, its top building in volume into a large sphere sitting on a narrow stalk. It looked like a starved fungal colony, dying cells rising into a suicidal pillar to elevate a bolus of spores meant to burst into the wind. The bolus quickly grew to almost a mile in diameter, by far the largest Grey Alice had ever seen.

A message came from the UN channel, not a general report like before, but a personal one.

“Unit 14, orbital satellites have detected accelerated growth at your location, we are sending a quantum-yield drone to your target, maintain pressure until it arrives.”

Another lifeless crater swallowing up the remnants of an old city. The responsible subcommittees claimed the fallout wasn’t so bad on the new Q bombs, but humanity would still lose more ground, crowding ever more tightly into the remaining fulldome cities with viable scrubbers. As if Earth was just a contaminant to be locked away and kept from spreading.

“Ouch. I’m sorry, Alice, but I should head out before they unscramble my serials.”

“Wait a minute.”

Alice hated going to him for help, but this had become more than just another collection. She took off her VR interface and got up from her immersion chair, calling out for Jake. Old Pig was no longer projected around her, replaced instead with her apartment’s small living room.

Jake sat at the kitchen table, a handful of books neatly stacked to the side, his computer terminal lowered as he looked up to Alice in the doorway. She squeezed past the oven and put her arms over his shoulders, letting the incredible heat of his body leak into her. He smelled of fresh coffee and pine.

“Hello, darling,” he said, “welcome home.”

She hugged his chest and neck until she could feel his skin shift underneath. Alice enjoyed how it wavered between resisting her pressure and giving in.

“You know what’s going on with the spire?” she asked.

“Yes, I saw. Do you need help?” He looked up with his pale blue eyes, trying to smile.

A pause as she considered what she was about to ask.

“Please.”

“The inner segment of the base is not a supporting matrix or compressed raw materials, it’s an explosive store, high density. I don’t know what the top is, it won’t speak to me. But if you detonate the explosive in an uncontrolled way, the structure will collapse. The rest is too far gone to revert and rebuild, so it will probably scatter. Want me to upload some suggestions to Old Pig?”

“Thank you, Jake, your insight is more than enough.” Alice got up and turned back to the empty doorway, letting her hand linger on his shoulder.

“I love you,” he offered as her hand slid off.

He lied, of course. Jake enjoyed the quiet study in her tiny New York apartment, the crumbling books and ever-amusing human knowledge he hoarded while building himself with all the awe and giddy joy of a child learning about sex for the first time. But it was a strangely captivating mimicry, pointless and obsessive in equal measure yet still exhilarating.

“I love you too.” Alice looked back with a smile, knowing what the word meant and not lying.

With a step through the threshold she was back at her ship, the small cockpit inviting and warm, as if Jake’s heat followed her back.

“Silver, check your com for my plan. I hope your PQB cannon beam is narrow.”

“As a virgin butthole. All right, let’s do this thing!”

Alice got near to the base of the stalk, where it expanded into a large rectangular square. She detached her incendiary blaster, but waited. Then Silver fired her cannon, focusing the blast on a meter-sized area on the Spire’s base, Alice’s craft barely shaking from the aftershock. Alice knew Silver’s newer model PQB would be much better than hers, but didn’t expect such a stark difference.

The hole it left on the Grey was rapidly closing, but Alice had enough time to shove her detached torch inside, right next to the remnant cord of the sensor module that had first entered the Grey when it was still a spire. She quickly reprogrammed the sensor so its transmission and motility wire grabbed onto the torch and drove it deeper into the Grey, right where the explosive reservoir met the stalk.

“Payload set! Back off!”

Old Pig and Sagittarius rose up several miles above the Grey, then waited as the remote program turned on the torch. Alice held her breath in a pregnant second of blind inactivity, then another of shiftless anxiety, then another of fear that something had gone wrong.

A bright flare erupted from the Grey, saturating all detectors, pushing against their ships with an angry shockwave.

“Is it down?” Alice asked Silver, knowing her sensors would recover faster.

“Yes! Yes! It’s keeled over and half-chewed up at the bottom, looks like it’s dispersing!”

Alice leaned back as Silver dove to start collecting the escaping Grey. In the distance, a small triangle turned and disappeared, perhaps the called off Q-bomb drone.

With no small sense of professional pride, Alice sent a summary of her strategy to the other collectors, directly as well as through Central. She even thought of forwarding it to the UN commission, but didn’t. That would be a bit too cheeky.

The UN channel beeped. Not a message, a live feed. She turned it on. A graying man in a tight military uniform leaned into the cam, displacing the young communications officer turning away from his station.

“Collector Alice, superb job out there, we appreciate your effort. Please collect as much of the remaining Grey for study as you can, particularly remnants of the large terminal sphere. An advanced collection team is on its way, but whatever you can get right now would be of great assistance.”

“Yes, sir.” She replied with practiced detachment, wondering what the devil was going on. The Commission would never stoop to debris study. But before she could rearrange her wits well enough to ask, the soldier shut off the transmission.

“Silver, I just got a very strange call from the Commission. They ordered me to collect some of the Grey.”

“Well, come on down, sister! There’s more here than I could ever pack in my rig anyway.”

“Sure, but—”

“Silly, just load up the net, it’s all over the place. Things are going to get real interesting now.”

First Alice lowered Old Pig to begin the collection, but then she checked the public web. She immediately found what Smitha was talking about.

Hundreds of static and full-VR vids showed propulsion contrails rising from the ground with plumes of billowing orange and yellow. Each drove up a sphere similar to the one she’d just destroyed. Vid after vid showed dozens of spheres rising from multiple horizons to charge at the sky.

The reservoir was not a lateralizing explosive or digging apparatus, it was fuel. Alice stared at a leaked orbital video of countless Grey spheres spreading away from Earth, then personal snippets from Dusters and vacationers gazing at the comets passing their ships, drunk in the experience of the first extraterrestrial Grey excursion.

Several of the Grey spheres crashed into the quarantine grid and were destroyed, but most punched through. Layer after layer broke up in their wake, the shrapnel burning up in the atmosphere, leaving Earth naked again for the first time in almost fifty years.

Alice knew she was supposed to fear this and tossed that aside; she hoped the Grey would find a home for themselves. Not just in the asteroid belts and terraformed moons but in the places humans were too frail to enter. She wished for them to taste the far reaches of dark matter clouds, the burning atmospheres of gas giants and the very surface of suns.

Her hands trembled on Old Pig’s controls, not out of fear or apprehension, but at the sudden and overwhelming realization that she no longer wanted to be a collector.

The next day she would abandon her earthbound ship and purchase a Duster craft with her illicit savings from selling Grey on the side—one large enough for both her and Jake. They would chase after what they could only access through distorted mirrors and abstract mathematics, artifice desperate for artistry, Jake seeking the human and Alice the machine, each reaching out to distant fires not of their making.

 

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.

 

The Shale Giants

Marissa Lingen

We slide sideways.

You think you would see us, as big as we are, looming over the landscape, but the shale giants know how to slip quietly, one plane against another, and be gone into the fog. We like fog as we like all quiet things. Fog also comes in layers, and that makes us feel safe, at home, almost as safe as if we were still in our burrows.

We wait for our friends, our own kind. We come from slow waters, deep waters, quiet waters. Our friends take a long time to accrue, and too much pressure makes them hard, angry, someone else. Too much pressure makes us someone else.

To stay ourselves, we stand on each other’s shoulders. One upon another, we persevere.

For years the pressure that changes us happened accidentally, and we took it in good part, as we took everything in good part. There were no rituals to join with us, no offerings left for us. The turning of the year means something to the water, to the plants. Shale has no season.

We would take and turn the tiny creatures into parts of ourselves, in the quiet of time, in the seasons that meant nothing. We embraced and enveloped them, we encompassed them. No one gave them to us, but we sometimes offered them back. Sometimes we shared. Silently, with wonder. That was how we knew you warm living creatures best: through sharing the tiny past ones.

But now.

Now we have something you want.

You have taken note of our breath, you have breathed it in like gold, and you want it for your own. We want to slip sideways. You want to push us aside, steal our breath, set it alight in our lungs.

You want us to crackle and burn.

And we will burn.

We become something else when we are pressed, something hard but no less giant. Something that will not slip aside for you, and that will not slip into place for you. All of our deep waters have taught us, our cool waters have made us, and if you steal our breath, we will steal yours.

We are many-layered, and we are better than you at learning from each other, at standing on each other’s shoulders. We are vast. We want to be quiet. The thing we want most is quiet. The thing you want most to take from us is our quiet.

The shale giants have been. The shale giants will be. The turning of the seasons still means nothing to us. We can wait. If you want us to be hard and cracked and broken, we can turn those edges on you.

It may be time for you to think of offerings after all.

 
 
 
 

Podcast Episode 1: Delta Marsh

Subscribe via RSS or on iTunes!

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.

For our first episode, we’ve got Casey June Wolf reading “Delta Marsh”, her short story about mourning in suburban Manitoba that examines the commonality between civilization and wildness to be found in death.

I hope you enjoy. As Casey said on twitter, “Have a boo”.

 
 

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.

Delta Marsh

Casey June Wolf

The day after Mom’s funeral was cold for the season, rain heavy in the air but nothing actually spilling over, the sky a featureless silver-grey, and my whole body ached in sharp slivery ways. Her funeral was in Portage, where they lived, so I bussed out early from Winnipeg. Instead of going home afterward, I came back with Dad to keep him company and spend the night.

It was cold in the house when we walked in. There was a Mom-sized hole in everything. The frilly, faded cushions on her chair, piled together with a Mom-shaped dent in them. The clattering around that wasn’t happening. The not-invitation to sit down, put my feet up, tell her what’s been going on (keeping one eye on the TV while I answered). I stood by the front door taking in the emptiness while Dad made a beeline to his chair, without a glance at hers right next to it, pulled a beer from his jacket pocket, sat down and cracked it open. Then he picked up the remote and started clicking through the channels.

So he’d rather watch TV than talk. That’s Dad. This is me. I’d rather . . . I don’t know what I’d rather do. I watched him watching the idiots on the screen till my skin crawled and I decided to hit the sack.

I lay on my old bed looking at the ceiling for a long time. We lived—they lived—Dad lived on the edge of town right against the prairie, within spitting distance of the river. It would be half frozen by now. If I were to walk on its hardened edges they would squeak and crack and the river would slip around underneath like some water spirit, a drowned soul seeking release.

The brightness of the ceiling shifted now and then, when a car’s headlamps brushed it like paint across the shadows, or a silent owl for a second blocked the tall yard-light. Sometimes it was the light from the porch flashing on, to the sound of Dad rummaging in the icebox, and the clinking of bottles, and the door slamming shut. Then the light would die again.

I just lay there, a clamp across my chest, squeezing and squeezing, and dampness, just a little, around my eyes. Finally, I fell asleep.

 

I woke up early. Walked to the living room, sagged in the guest chair, a big lumpy thing that was hell on your back if you sat there long. The clock whispered every sixty seconds. Shh. Shh. Shh.

I had to get out. But go where? Not back to Winnipeg, that was sure; not back to work and questions and—I needed time. I didn’t need real life. I needed here.

An image rose in the back of my mind. Ducks rising off water, low sun igniting droplets as they fell, feather edges like blazing fans, trees black against the sky.

Delta Marsh. That was it. Wild as it gets around Portage. I could use wild.

Our marsh is famous all over the world. All sorts of scientists go there to do research, on the ducks and swans and the pelicans, too. It’s a special place.

I talked myself out of the deep, lumpy chair, pulled on a jacket and rubber boots and helped myself to the keys to Dad’s car. I filled the kettle and let it boil, poured hot water into a thermos and spooned in instant coffee. Took some biscuits off a plate on the counter, dabbed jam on them, wrapped them up and shoved them in my pack.

Gently opening the door to Dad’s room, I looked in to see how he was doing. He was asleep on his little iron bed, one arm hanging down, knuckles against the cold floor. His greasy white hair was scattered across his pate, his face was still. He was lying on top of his covers, funeral clothes disarranged, shoes dirty. Grey light came through his old sheer curtains, giving a cool lifelessness to the scene.

I withdrew. Walked away, my feet an inch above the floor, my arms no longer connected to my body. I pulled on my cap and left the house.

Their collie lay across the sidewalk. He looked up with faint interest as I stepped over him. Black poplars dominated the yard, leaves stiff and blotchy; a light breeze played them like castanets. I opened the garage, lifted the hood of the old Mustang, and checked the oil. Scrubbed the insects off the windshield and dust off the plates. Pulled the door open and slid in, starting up the car.

I like Winnipeg. But when I come back to Portage something uncoils in me, quiet and dark, like a garter snake waking up after a long winter sleep.

Winnipeg sprang up whole in an island universe of wild prairie; it squats on the land instead of growing out of it. Some day a big storm will clear it off, rake the whole mess of houses and trees and bright green lawns, the carefully tended gardens, the cars, the parking lots, take all the glass and steel and concrete and blow it all away. Blow, blow, blow, like giant tumbleweeds—far away, off the edge of the universe, back to the galaxy from which it came.

That’s what I hope for. I don’t even mind if it takes me with it. I just want the wild prairie back. But maybe Winnipeg’ll win the fight. That’s what frightens me.

What used to be endless aspen and wolf-willow, prairie sage and crocuses, wolves and bison and monarch butterflies, is now enormous squares of wheat, canola, rye, slashed down their middles with gravel roads. Porcupines, coyotes slip unseen. Wildflowers crouch knee-deep in the ditches. Aspens cluster in whispering, covert stands. And miles and miles and miles and miles of roads.

Once, when I was a teenager, Dad was draining a slough on his land. I’d known it since I was a kid.

It made me so sad. There wasn’t going to be anything left for the frogs and salamanders, or the birds that ate them. A bit of bush got sucked from the prairie every year. So I said, “Dad, what if all the prairie gets used up?” He just looked at me, snorted, and went back to work.

I was always the weird one, there.

I got the car backed out of the garage, steering around piles of machinery and tools and old bottles and cans, around chickens, coppery wings flapping as they scattered and squawked. I glanced back to see if Dad would appear in the window, then pulled off down the drive and onto the road to town.

Town had changed a lot, too. Spreading outward, fancier stores, more sophisticated people. But prairie breaks through around every turn. A tuft of grasses, a flicker of wings. Maybe the prairie would win.

I waved at Charlie Bouchet as our cars passed, and he waved back at me, smiling, on his way out of town to what I still think of as his parents’s farm.

You get born in one instant in ever-changing time and you think, this is it. This is what the world is like. But if you avert your eyes for a minute, you see the tail of it slithering away.

The prairie I thought of as endless, changeless. The people I fought with, played with, smoked with in the sandhills, the ones as idle and curious and mad at life as me, all moving away or stepping into their parents’ shoes and shifting everything around. The houses, the trucks, the fields. All ploughed up and planted with a whole new world. One I cannot understand.

I drove through Portage and continued past fields, farmhouses, great grunting machines bouncing over broken land, drove toward a low gathering of trees that extended over a large area and concealed the marsh, the prairie’s hidden heart.

As soon as I was there, I wanted to go the whole way. Not just peek at the marsh, but go to the research station. See what they were doing. What everyone was so excited about. I might have gone into science myself, if I had stayed in school. Studied the things these lucky people were studying. I was always very interested in the wild.

I steered the car up a short road that ended in a cluster of buildings. No one was visible. I sat there with the motor idling and looked at the dark buildings, the pale grey of the sky mirrored in their windows. I felt like an intruder, and certainly I had no claim to be there. What would I say if someone challenged me? “What the hell are you doing here? This is private property.”

I put the Mustang in reverse and drove back a ways to where there were some cottages, a couple of canoes left on their sides, and access to the public beach. I parked the car and climbed out, bringing my breakfast and walking along the path until I got close to the ice-fringed water. From the path I took, the marsh itself was hard to see. All I could catch was the occasional flat, reflected sky, with a view of ducks floating in conjoined pairs: one rightside up and the other upside down. Mostly all I could see were reed grasses and cattails, the dead of other years underfoot of the strong erect blades of this year’s growth, and some late-leaving red-winged blackbirds lecturing from the tips of the cattails. I walked along the wellworn path until I found a place to stop and look around. A flurry of feathered bodies scattered when I arrived, darting through the water, trailing black and silver Vs.

I drank some coffee, ate a few of the biscuits, listened to the chatter of the birds. When I’d been still awhile a wren came out of hiding among the rushes. A pair of gadwalls drifted by.

I thought about my mother. A long time ago she’d been jittery, excited, flaring up one minute and cheery the next. Other times she’d be staring out the window at the weather, her eyes large and questing, for months on end, it seemed. And then she’d be, “Come and sit with me, sweetie,” so I’d go and sit, but her attention would wander off till pretty soon I didn’t want to go to her anymore. Better to build castles out of popsicle sticks till it was time for bed. Better to look for empty bird nests, and mating snakes, and pitcher plants, their feet in muck, their pouchy faces open to the world.

I remember her, but it’s like a movie I saw years and years ago. No feeling, no colour even. Just that clamping on my chest.

A lady blackbird settled on the top of a reed. She was dull brown, pretty. I sat motionless till she dropped to the mud, scaring off the wren, and started kicking through the rushes. More blackbirds dropped down, or swooped in and clung to the tall brown stalks, or gathered in the bushes, clamouring.

This was it. This was where I needed to be. I felt that clamping ease a little. I breathed in the tart air. I was glad I was here.

At last the cold got to be too much, so I stood up stiffly, rubbing my hands together, frightening the birds away again. I walked back to the car, turned on the engine, the radio, the heat, and stared out ahead of me at fragile leaves on slender trees, paint peeling off the wobbly, incomplete fence, scratches against the bellies of the overturned canoes.

It was noon. Dad would be asleep still, most likely. I could go and wait for him to wake up. Try to get him to talk while he was sober. I could do that.

That dislocated, suspended feeling came over me again, like I was stranded in a bubble, floating apart from everything else. Nothing mattered; everything was bleak. I switched off the radio and headed back to the research station.

The buildings seemed deserted. I went from one to another, knocking loudly, shocked at the noise I was making, at the angry bludgeoning of my arm against the doors, but there was no response. I’d turned away from the last door, tears welling, and was walking away when a young woman stepped out from between two buildings. I waved at her, as normally as I could, walked up to her, smiled a thin, tight smile, said I was interested in their work, asked if I could have a look around.

She listened with a sort of forced patience, nodding. Of course I would be interested in their work. Their work, unlike everything in my world, was intrinsically fascinating. Above my level, probably. Over my head. But she decided to be nice. Or diplomatic. I imagined the cogs turning in her head.

She was a student, she said. She offered to show me around, which she did in a perfunctory way, with a half-smile, and then led me to a lunch room and gave me a seat at the table. A number of other students looked at me curiously as they came in with their food.

My brief, wild anger was gone, drained back into the marsh. I was deflated and regretted having come, but saw it through. I drank the coffee she made me, glad of its heat. I brought out the last of my biscuits and gnawed on them while the others ate their lunches. She sat beside me as if I was her guest, but we had little conversation, and she joked with the others about their research. At one point I asked what she was working on.

“It’s a little hard to explain,” she said, and they all laughed. “People don’t generally understand. But it’s going well, it’s going very well. Only problem is I’m running out of ducklings.” She looked at me with a grin and said, “I cut the tops of their heads off, and somehow they don’t last too long after that.” I stared at her, hoping this was a joke. She looked at a fellow across the table from us. “You got any ducklings I can borrow, Tom?” He shook his head emphatically. NO.

After offering to help with the dishes and being refused, I went back out to the car. I had a little trouble getting my key in the ignition.

I drove slowly through the rain, minding the traffic, listening without comprehension to the radio. When I got back to Dad’s I eased the car into the garage and sat there with the motor off, staring at the damp, unpainted wall ahead of me, the tools hanging there, the cluttered counter, the dirty windows. I stayed a long time, just breathing, barely conscious of my thoughts.

Dad was sitting in the living room when I finally went inside, the lights off despite the bleakness of the day. His eyes were bleary and he didn’t respond when I said hello. I pulled off the rubber boots and jacket and went into my room to change. I sat down creakily on the bed, then lay back and let my gaze drift gradually over the far wall. An old jigsaw puzzle hung there in its frame. Two wolves snarling at each other, blood dripping down one’s brawny shoulder, a smaller wolf, a female maybe, or a big pup, cowering in the background. On the dresser lay a couple of books, and some socks, nicely folded, that I’d left in the laundry basket some other day. When Mom was still alive. A small crucifix hung over the dresser. More death.

After a long while I heard a movement in the doorway beside me. Wondering if I had drifted off, I turned to look. It was Dad. His eyes still bleary, his legs a little unsteady.

“Can I come in?” he asked me.

“Sure,” I said.

He came over to the bed and sat down gingerly. He stared at his hands, stained fingers folded together. He stared at the floor. He stared at the wall. Finally, he looked at me. He pulled himself up and put on his Grownup look, and said, “Well, I guess you’ve just got me now—” Somewhere around ‘just’, or ‘me’, his voice broke and tears came spilling out of him. I was shocked, but I didn’t move, betrayed nothing. He turned away sharply as if he was letting me down to see him break, as if the best thing he could do was what he felt he’d never quite been able to: stand tough and be a man. “I shouldn’t cry,” he said. “I just never thought she’d go.” Then he did the other thing he had never quite been up to. He put his arms around me and held me, a big sob tearing from his throat. I turned my face away and stared at the wall.

 

There is a moment when the electric light in my dad’s yard is caught up to by the wakening light of day. At this moment, my eyes struggle open. The curtains are wide. A snore, low and steady, comes like waves of comfort from the next room.

On the wall the perpetual battle ensues, wolf against wolf, wolf bitch/wolf child cowering in suspense.

A thin blade pierces a tiny skull. I feel it piercing: accurate, calm, unhesitant.

A peeling back of down, of film-slight skin and paper bone. Like a tiny plum, a brain is revealed. No pain. In silence. Death.

 
 
 

Fourth-Dimensional Tessellations of the American College Graduate

Marie Vibbert

Alana’s ex-boyfriend, Steve, met her at the driveway to Windermere Farms, his three-acre orchard wedged between the Rapid tracks and East 15 Street. “Thank you for coming so fast!” He backtracked like an excited border collie, leading the way up the weed-choked brick driveway.

“Is it taxes?” Alana’s friends were always asking her to do math for them, like it took a degree in mathematics to calculate a percentage, and since Steve’s text had said “Urgent!! Need U ASAP!” she assumed he was in legal trouble.

“No. This is a real math mystery, I promise! With bees!”

Steve’s latest scheme involved buying different strains of honeybee from around the world. He hoped to solve global bee collapse and make enough money off honey to pay his rent. Neglect and white flight had left this farmhouse preserved and cheap. It was surrounded by chain-link fences topped with broken segments of barbed wire weighted down with wild grape vines. Vacant-eyed apartment buildings stared over it all.

“The closed ends of honeycomb are trihedral sections of rhombic dodecahedra,” Alana said. She loved the sound of the words, the hard consonants repeating like the repeating angles bees built into structures.

Steve’s beehives, like a miniature apartment complex, stood in three ranks on the concrete slab where the home’s garage had once been. “Huh? Yeah, you are so the only one who can solve this mystery.” Steve threw a bundle of mesh over her. Alana struggled with the netting while Steve lifted the wooden cover from a beehive. Then he knelt to unsnap clasps like old suitcase closures on the front. “Look!”

Alana felt a welling of feeling—of magic, sexual excitement, of fear. Like the feeling when you crested the first hill of a roller coaster and looked down the track.

“Well?” asked Steve. “What is it?”

Alana knelt. The wax was warm and sensual with glistening honey. Thin lines formed, not hexagons, but elaborate shapes, something broken, with polyhedral sections branching off and crossing through each other and seeming to undulate.

“It’s not even tessellating,” Alana said. “Honeycomb is supposed to tessellate.”

“I know!” Steve bounced on the balls of his feet. “Is it completely random? Do I have chaos bees?”

“I’m not . . . .”

“I took a section for you!” Steve ran to the house.

Alana stared. The shapes were impossible to track, but there was some order; it lacked the grace of pure chaos.

Steve pushed a Lucite cube at her nose. “This was a photo frame of my dad’s. Photo-cubes. He had them all over the house. Not the point. Look at the section. Is it fractal?”

Alana turned the cube. In motion, the seemingly random shapes tessellated—they repeated.

“Alana?”

“Hecatonicosachoron,” Alana said. Syllables locked into each other, building meaning like links build a chain.

She felt Steve move the wooden hive-door in the grass and kneel beside her. “You know what it is?”

“I think . . . .”

She reached out and poked a hole in the beehive with her finger. The hole closed. When a fourth-dimensional object rotates, it will seem to heal because not all faces are perceived in the third dimension. “I think it’s a 120-cell. A hyperdodecahedron. Maybe. Tiled with other shapes. I need a camera.”

“I already took some pic—“

She shoved Steve. “Quickly!”

“Hey, there’s no rush. It’s been like that for . . . .”

“Go!” She slapped at him until he ran for the house. She didn’t want to take the time to explain her fears. It wasn’t hot enough to melt the wax, but wax deformed with weight, with gravity. What if the shapes went away, like unobserved quanta?

By the time she got all the angle shots she wanted, she was sticky with honey from pressing close and pulling sections of wax apart to capture the structures within.

She looked down at the smeared camera. She tried to lift her veil and it got tangled in her honey-slimed fingers. Steve was standing near at hand with the smoker pot. “Wait, where are the bees?” she asked. The next rank of hives were covered in a soft, moving matt of bee bodies all along their fronts, but there were none on the open hive and only a few in the air nearby.

“I don’t know.” He laughed. “I haven’t seen a bee on this hive in months. I thought the queen was dead. I found the weirdness when I started taking it apart. The honey is just . . . appearing. Isn’t it wild? I was so scared there wouldn’t be enough honey to sustain the hives, or enough pollination for my grapes.”

Alana walked away from the hive. She had to think and she couldn’t look and think at the same time. The complex geometries and the inner glow of wax and honey were too mesmerizing. She sat down on an overturned tub. A police siren wailed in the distance.

A glass of iced tea, sweating, presented in front of her, attached to Steve’s hand. She took it. “So,” he said, “You still haven’t explained it—I mean, you gave it some names, but what is it? What could have made my bees do that? At first I thought it was disease or poison . . . the messed up area gets bigger each day. It’s jumped to the two closest hives. But the honey is still good!”

“It’s a fourth-dimensional shape,” Alana said.

The hollow tub echoed with the force of Steve’s butt dropping onto it next to her. “Whoa. Fourth-dimensional bees? Are my bees invisible? I could be stung by invisible bees!”

“No, it doesn’t mean that. We perceive three dimensions. Fourth-dimensional shapes appear to us as three-dimensional. It’s . . . if you poked your fingers into water, a being who perceives only the water surface would see five circles, not the one shape of your hand. We see what intersects our plane of existence.”

Steve shook his head. “Wait, wait—the fourth dimension is time, isn’t it? Fourth-dimensional bees sting you in the past! I’ve already been stung! My bees are dead! It’s a paradox.”

“The fourth dimension isn’t time.” Alana had to breathe out slowly and calm herself down. This wasn’t the fiftieth time she and Steve had had this conversation. Usually some movie or TV show was involved. “Look—this is—yes. Thank you. Fourth-dimensional geometry is my specialty. I never thought anyone would ever call me about my specialty.”

Steve smiled goofily. “What are you going to do?”

“Analyze the photos. Write a paper.”

“Okay, but I’m going to start advertising honey from beyond our dimension, like, yesterday!”

Alana’s current boyfriend, Huy, smelled of turpentine, as did his attic apartment on Hessler Street. Splatters of paint—a past resident’s work in a mathematically improbable evenness—decorated the slanted walls. A bower window looked out on the top of an oak tree and let in the smell of someone grilling on a porch below.

Huy was as excited as Alana. He propped the painting he had been working on against the sofa and put a fresh canvas on the easel. “Fourth-dimensional bees.” His fingers moved quickly, just a tremble, a quick wiggle, and golden lines formed on the canvas. “Bees change gender chemically, you know.”

“Only at birth, and you wouldn’t want to be a drone,” Alana said, lying on the bed, which was musty from not being changed, perfectly boy-like. “As soon as food was scarce, the hive would kick your gigolo ass out.”

Huy laughed with his tongue against his top teeth, which were white and strong and always set Alana’s heart racing. “You know, Steve is cute,” he said, teasing her back. A mutual attraction to Steve had been their first connection. Art was their second. Once Huy painted water on her with his favorite sable brush. It was a sweltering day, and what started as a cooling technique became breathless foreplay.

The same brush strayed through sunshine yellow and goldenrod and ochre. “What are they building, these mathematician bees? What do they think they are making?”

“Bees don’t understand geometry,” she said, “But they make perfect hexagons. These bees . . . they can’t know fourth-dimensional physics or what they are creating.”

Huy crawled onto the bed. He teased her with the possibility of brushing paint on her belly where her shirt lifted. “Blind, passionate instinct,” he said.

“So where have the bees gone?” Alana asked. “They aren’t dying. They are just . . . gone.”

He shrugged. “That is the weird question.” He bent backward, unfolding in a boneless way that made her want to touch him. Huy had been a dance major, first, before painting. It left him unfairly graceful. “What are you going to do?” He went back to his easel.

“Find them,” Alana said. She twirled a finger in her hair, locking the curls into a column. “No one else has published on this. I checked.”

“Better get cracking, then.”

Alana twirled another lock, then another. She remembered twisting her younger sister’s locks, making tessellations of little puffs of afro. She glanced at the cracked mirror above the dresser. Could she make a hex pattern in her hair? She was procrastinating. She picked the twists apart as she looked for her laptop. She only had an hour before her shift at the coffee shop, and after that she had a MATH 102 class to teach.

The oddest question was: why hadn’t the bees made a 24-cell? That could tessellate on its own in four dimensions. Mathematicians called the pattern “tesseractic honeycomb.”

Alana was in her favorite coffee shop—not the one she worked at—a reclaimed Victorian druggist’s, the teas sorted in tiny little drawers with brass label-holders. The corners were braced, making flat hexagons, and she unfocused her eyes, turning her head to appreciate the honeycomb of wood.

She stopped. She looked down at the photographs and notes splayed out in front of her. She had printed out perspective drawings of three-dimensional projections of hyperdodechedra and other hyper-objects. She had been laying these, on tissue paper, over the photos and marking similarities and differences. And there were differences.

She got up without paying for her second cup of mocha.

Steve didn’t answer her text, but he showed up shortly after she was arms-deep in one of the hives they hadn’t opened yet.

“What are you doing?” Steve asked. “Careful! Don’t waste the honey.”

“I’m . . . rotating it.” Alana huffed with effort. She did damage the honeycomb, and spill honey, and there was a terrible ripping sound of two layers coming apart, but then she had the comb turned. She sat back and licked a glob on her arm.

The tessellation was off. There were interruptions in the pattern. Of course there were—120-cells didn’t tessellate. They didn’t stack like hexagons; they needed structures between them. Joinings. Ligatures.

Wiping her hands as quickly as she could on the grass, Alana got the camera out and took pictures. “There’s . . . something in there. In the math. It’s not simple repetition, there’s chaos in it, randomness.”

Steve said, “Well, yeah, it looks random to me.”

“But it’s not perfectly random. Do you know what that means?”

Steve shook his head.

“It suggests intelligence. It suggests direction. It suggests . . . .” Alana almost couldn’t breathe. “It’s a message.”

“Cool! From who? The bees?”

“I don’t know!” Alana’s sticky fingers hung in the air in front of her face. Evidence of non-human intelligence dripped and sagged in front of her and she didn’t know how to prove her theory.

Steve guided her onto the back porch and sat her down. The screen door opened and shut with a yelp of springs and a slap of wood. He brought out a bowl of warm water and washed her hands and arms and face. The rag smelled of beeswax and lemons. “There we go. Easy. This was supposed to be fun.”

Alana sniffled. She felt so comforted. Why had she ever broken up with Steve? “I don’t know how to interpret the message. I have data . . . but is it language? How do I decode it?”

“Hey, you know who is a whiz at that stuff? Laurel. The programmer? Why don’t we call her and have her take a look?”

“Are you guys still dating?”

Steve rolled his eyes. “You’re joking. Laurel was before Christian.”

“Oh. Right. Is he around?”

“Alana. Seriously? Christian was two girlfriends and a boyfriend ago.”

Laughs bubbled up through Alana. She bent over. Misunderstanding, Steve set his rag aside and hugged her. “Hey, hey. It’s okay. You’re okay.”

Alana got control of her breathing with a snort. “You have a repeating pattern,” she said. That was why she’d broken up with him. He didn’t get the joke.

Huy peered into the hives with all the absorption of an artist. “It’s more meaningful in three dimensions,” he said. “I should sculpt. Or just . . . heavy paint. Slather the canvas in dripping amber.”

He backed up into Laurel, who had been looking over his shoulder. She was taking a break to smoke a cigarette while her computer ran a dozen pattern recognition programs on the series of ones and zeroes Alana had interpreted from the presence and absence of ligatures in the honeycomb. Laurel was very well groomed. Her eyebrows were like black tildes marking her blue eyes as operators.

Alana didn’t like the way Laurel’s eyes travelled down Huy. Worse—he blushed and looked away.

Steve came out of the house with a tray of glasses. He puffed his chest up. “Who knew in undergrad we’d be unlocking the secrets of the universe at my farm?”

“The odds were good it would involve your exes,” Laurel said. She took a glass. The lemonade caught the sun. “Was there anyone you didn’t date? We could use a biochemist.”

“What for?”

“Alana thinks the honey might be alien.”

Alana felt everyone turn their attention to her. She hoped she hadn’t been scowling. She cleared her throat and sat up straighter on the hay bale. “It might be helpful to see if the honey was formed from different pollen than Steve’s other, normal hives.”

Laurel’s computer beeped. “Oo! That’s the compiler.” Laurel handed her lemonade to Alana and bent over her laptop, which sat on top of another hive. They were all ignoring the usual safety precautions around the strange hives. No one had been stung by an invisible bee yet.

The morning had been spent in figuring out the order of the message—how do you start and end in four dimensions? Top-bottom, left-right? Horizontal or vertical? There were 384 combinations in a fourth-dimensional grid. Steve presented the solution: time. “The fourth dimension!” he crowed, though really it was a first-dimensional solution. He talked endlessly of travel-stain and brood-comb—beekeeper jargon that helped track the age of each section of wax. Steve traced the ligatures into an order, oldest to newest. Alana had assigned each ligature shape a number, creating a string of numbers for Laurel to put in her computer.

Codes. Line up a string of numbers. Guess that the three represents an E because there are more threes than other numbers. You start to see two numbers always before 3, they are T and H. You’ve accomplished the code-breaking of middle school passed notes. Alana had thought—and gotten excited thinking—that she would have to write new algorithms to detect patterns, but the business of code-breaking was well-trod ground for computer scientists and Laurel hadn’t even had to download any new software.

Laurel stepped back from her computer. “Huh. Um. Crap.”

“Did it not work?” Steve asked.

Laurel frowned and typed furiously, ash scattering from her cigarette still held between two fingers.

“What is it?” Huy asked.

Alana tried to see over Laurel’s shoulder. Lines of text scrolled up the screen.

“I don’t like that look. That’s a bad look,” Steve said. “She looked like that when we broke up.”

“Shut up,” Laurel said. She picked up the laptop and carried it to the porch.

Alana, Steve and Huy followed. Alana drank the lemonade. It was too tart and cold.

Laurel had the laptop balanced on her knees. Her cigarette burned down, forgotten between two fingers. Alana was amazed at how she carried it like a ring, tossing smoke curls as she gestured. “There’s a pattern, all right. I’m sorry, guys. I don’t know how else to interpret this.”

“Is it a message?” Alana asked.

“Yes, and the message is: Danger. Quarantine.”

“Are you sure?” Steve asked.

Laurel gave him an insulted look.

“But who is the message for?” Huy asked, “Is it for Steve? Humanity in general?”

Laurel flicked her brassy hair away from her tildes. “We’re the ones who are killing them off with pesticides. It’s a warning to other bees.”

Alana got out her phone. “Steve dated a biochemist. I’ve got him on twitter.”

“Maybe we won’t need him,” Huy said. He opened Steve’s refrigerator. “I was researching honeycombs and color for my project. There was this wild story. It was in Salt Lake City. Suddenly, all these bee hives were producing red honey, in three different counties.” He stuck his head deep in Steve’s refrigerator, pushing and sorting jars and take-out boxes. “Dude. Clean up now and then. Anyway . . . yes.” He straightened, brandishing a fat jar half-full of red liquid. “Turns out, it was a maraschino cherry factory dumping its wastes. The bees would fly past miles of flowers just to eat corn syrup and red number five. Or . . . whatever is in this.”

Steve and Laurel had gone back onto the porch, talking over each other. “That’s idiotic,” Steve said. “Alana! Do you know why she’s interpreting this message that way? Semaphore.”

“It’s a beautiful visual system.” Laurel leaned in the doorway. “What would you use to communicate across languages? Shakespeare?”

Huy pushed between the two of them. “It’s certainly human to jump to the conclusion that everything is a warning. Everything is out to get us, so spray the bullets and the chemicals!”

“Easy, art school,” Steve said. “This is about data, not emotion.”

Alana helped Huy lay a cookie tray in the middle of the hives. The cherry juice shone like stained glass in the sun, like it had depth beyond the scratched tin sheet.

“The pattern repeats in a perfect checkerboard,” Laurel said. “It’s exactly the semaphore signal for danger or quarantine, minus the color.”

“Maybe it’s not a message at all,” Huy said. “Maybe it’s art.”

“How long until we can tell if the invisi-bees are eating the cherry juice?” Steve asked, argument forgotten.

“Invisi-bees?” Huy said. “Really?”

“I haven’t patented it or anything, dude.”

Alana stopped at the corner store after work and loaded two jars of maraschino cherries in her backpack alongside her laptop. She had wanted three, but there wasn’t quite room. As it was, she worried about the clinking sound when she went over potholes on her bike.

Huy and Laurel were already at Steve’s, playing cards with him on the screened-in porch. A jar of de-juiced cherries sat in the middle of the table, like the eggs of some alien insect.

“Hey,” Steve jumped up. “Do you think it’s been long enough to check the hives for red honey?”

“No,” Huy and Laurel both said, glaring at each other. They glared like the rest of the world had vanished. Alana felt uncomfortable. Steve ran into the kitchen. Alana followed.

Steve lifted an old-fashioned microscope onto his counter. “They’ve been arguing all day. I think they like it.”

Alana bit her lip. She set her backpack, laptop, and jars of cherries on the counter that separated the old butler’s pantry from the kitchen.

Laurel swung the screen door open with a bang of her hip. She held two glass slides and a lit cigarette aloft. “Anyone who looks at the math can see the pattern.”

Alana opened the file of data.

“Hey, you can’t smoke in here. We’re doing science.”

“Oo, so commanding.” Laurel bumped Steve with her hip, too. She played at holding the slides away from him.

“Quit it. You’re getting ash on the science.”

Huy shouted from the door, “Is anyone going to help me clean up?”

Steve waved Laurel away like she was a fly and bent to the microscope, adjusting the knobs. “Yes! There’s red in there. So is this one the weird hive or the normal hive?”

“If I tell you before you check both samples it will bias you. Here’s slide B.”

Alana had been trying to concentrate and listen at the same time. Something jumped out at her in the numbers and she stopped listening. She checked her figures. “It’s tessellated.”

“What?” Laurel said. “Shut up,” she said, when Steve tried to tell her about the slides.

Alana said, “The message—the pattern you found. It’s not one pattern, it’s a repeating pattern of a repeating pattern.”

Laurel nudged Alana out of the way and nearly burned her with her cigarette. Laurel said, “Loss-prevention. Redundancy. That’s why it looked like a checkerboard. They really cared about the message coming through.”

“Makes sense,” Steve said, “If you’re sending a message through beeswax. I mean: one fire and kaplop.”

Alana nudged Laurel out of the way as she saw her about to mess up a perfectly good formula. “I’ve been doing work on tessellations and fourth-dimensional geometry. Wait . . . stop.”

Laurel tried to push her aside again, then stepped back. “Okay, but don’t forget the second-order changes.”

Alana felt even more anxious than the first time, higher on a steeper roller coaster. A clean line of numbers formed. “There it is. Our message.”

“But . . . .” Laurel’s tilde eyebrows were tighter, almost square-root signs. “But what does it mean? What language do we decode it to?”

“How about English?” Steve asked. Alana realized she’d forgotten about the boys. Steve shrugged. “I mean, these are American bees, right? What other language would they have seen?”

Huy shouldered his way into the kitchen with the honeycomb separator and eyedropper. He pushed Alana away with his elbow when she tried to touch him. “I’m sticky,” he said. He bent over the kitchen sink.

“I love a man doing housework,” Laurel said, luxuriating on every vowel she spoke like it was the dirtiest joke.

Huy gave her a heated look. “Thanks for not helping, assholes.”

Alana left without looking at them.

Alana stayed in her own apartment that night, a joyless single-bedroom box all in cream and taupe. She wanted to move in with Huy, but for now she was glad she hadn’t. Math was a better boyfriend. Numbers didn’t care if you understood them, didn’t get angry or jealous. They just were.

She had dozens of texts. She didn’t read any but the one from Steve saying that both populations of bees had fed on the red cherry juice and to please stop buying cherries. She’d read it because she saw it was cc’ed to everyone.

There was a knock at the door. She ignored it. Then there was the sound of a key in the lock. She put her pillow over her head.

Rustle of paper bags. “I brought Chinese,” Huy said.

Clink of plates being set out on her table. She was not going to give in. But she was hungry and now she could smell ginger and soy sauce. She burrowed deeper under the pillows to block the delicious smells with her own hair-oil and sweat.

Huy touched her elbow. “Come on. I got dumplings. You love dumplings.”

Alana made a muttering sound she hoped could be interpreted as both ‘go away’ and ‘thanks’.

Huy sat next to her. The mattress dipped toward him, creating a gravity well she could easily fall into. She wanted to wrap around his comforting solidity. She held firm and scooted toward the wall.

Huy plucked the pillow from her face. “I flirted with Laurel. Laurel, I think, flirted back. It was childish and stupid. I’m sorry.”

Alana wanted to stay mad so she scowled and stayed put. He backed up, pulling her off the bed. “I’m not interested in her. Be more worried about Steve. Or dumplings. There’s your smile.” She fell against him naturally. His hand on the small of her back, he rocked her in a four-step. He started singing, “Dumplings . . . dumpling dance come dumpling dance with me.”

Alana froze. Huy frowned. “What?” he asked.

“Dance. Bees communicate through dance.”

Huy laughed as she clambered over the bed to get to her laptop. “I thought you were mad at me!”

“I am,” Alana said. “Bee dances are all about repetition and angle.”

Angles. She had been treating the ligatures as binary—presence and absence. Then she had tried shape—thin, fat, hourglass. What if it was the angle of each that mattered? Relative to what? The center of the polyhedron? She scampered to her dresser and found her initial photos and drawings still laid out.

“I’ll put the food in the fridge,” Huy said. “And call Steve.”

Laurel was at work, so they met in her research lab. “All right, I admit, I was totally wrong about the danger flag. It’s English.” She frowned at Steve’s smug grin and said, “Hush. Anyway, the language predictor said 98% chance of English, so I did the translation assuming that, and there are, like, sentences.”

She laid a tablet on the table. “This is real arm-hair-raising shit.” She backed away.

We have gone where you cannot kill us. You see us but we also see you. We could take our food. We could starve you.

“I . . . need to check your math,” Alana said.

“Please,” Laurel said. “But once I saw there were 26 distinct angles, I just assigned a letter to each and brute-forced it. I cold have done this on a napkin with a pencil.”

“We chased them into the fourth dimension,” Steve said. He slumped against a slate counter. “Guys? Humanity just got dumped.”

“There’s more to the message,” Alana said.

Laurel said, “I wanted to be sure. There’s about fifteen percent more, if I got the punctuation marks right.”

“It’s not going to end with ‘lol kidding’,” Steve said.

“Have a little faith.” Huy put his hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Let’s get coffee while the girls get their math on.”

An early winter storm lashed the storefront as they gathered four months later. Laurel chewed her nails, staring hard at the “no smoking” sign while Steve fetched their combined coffee orders.

“To us!” Steve declared, holding a glass aloft over the magazine spread on the table. It was as glossy as a freshly painted nail. Real print. Huy’s painting graced the facing page at the beginning of Alana’s article. They were all co-authors.

“I like Margot,” Huy whispered, glancing at Steve’s new girlfriend. She was a rubenesque beauty with a passion for organic foods. “But I’m not going to grow attached. Seeing him with a new partner is like seeing a kid with a new goldfish.”

Alana poked him in the ribs and he kissed her bicep.

Laurel said, “What gets me is the large size of fourth-dimensional space. It’s huge, right? Way more room for way more bees. Enough to build a hive mind larger than ever before. Forget writing us messages—these bees could be creating singularities! We could have a whole other article on measuring hive-intelligence.”

“What gets me,” Steve said, marveling at the article, “is how the weird hives stopped. I mean, for a while there . . . .”

“We should have taken measurements,” Alana agreed.

“More weird hive by ratio each day,” Steve said. “And now . . . it’s steady. Maybe it’ll shrink.”

“Maybe they know their message was received,” Huy said.

All four friends grew quiet, reading the displayed page. Above the technical title, “Fourth-Dimensional Aperiodic Tessellations in Geometry of Honeycomb,” was the text of the bees’ final message, as near as they could figure, in English.

The end of the message made Alana’s heart clench. Made her squeeze Huy’s hand under the table.

“We love you,” it read. “We forgive you.”

 
 

The Complaint of All Living Things

Joanne Rixon

This is a memory: a white-washed picture frame around a needlework bouquet of roses. It hangs on a wood-paneled wall in the only direct sunlight in the room, a thin sliver of bright coming down the stairs and slicing in half the wall, the roses, the pull-out couch’s thin, raw-springed mattress.

I am holding myself very still, on my back, thinking about needlework. I think about Midwestern farm-kitsch, about the musty smell of old cardboard rising off the boxes stacked here beside the couch in his grandmother’s basement. He moves over me, inside me, making wet sounds—this blanked out space of a person I’ve almost entirely erased.

I still have a few of my thousands of memories of him. His dirty dishes left on the coffee table, the way his jaw tightens when I ask him a question, the way he threatens to break up with me even though, he says, he doesn’t know where I’d go if I wasn’t staying here with him in his grandmother’s basement. I let him fuck me because he’s right. I don’t know where I’d go either.

I hold myself very still. He grunts and sighs. His movement moves my body and I think about doing laundry so there are clean rags, so that when my body recovers enough from this that I can stand, I can dust the picture frame, the needlework roses. This is what security looks like: the way he moves hurts my injuries but he never takes that long. The dust on the picture frame bothers me. I’m supposed to keep the basement clean—I clean because I don’t pay rent here—and I worry that in my fog of pain I’m not doing a good enough job.

Five years later, this is not yet a memory: I crouch down and pick up a three-legged sea star out of the wet rocks at the high tide line. Its pale orange exoskeleton is rough against the pads of my fingers, the sand wet with the kind of thick, grimy water you only get on the Gulf coast. The irregular, broken-off stubs of two of its legs show signs of re-growing, the budding of recovered flesh slowly reforming into something new. When so much is broken, the re-growth must form an entirely new creature, I think. I wonder what it remembers, if it can still feel the missing leg-tips like ghosts attached to it forever.

I feel it in that moment, not a ghost but whatever makes a ghost before it dies: the sea star as vast as the ocean beside me in its small perfect broken shape. For a long time I don’t feel anything else. I cradle the sea star in my scarred, crooked fingers and it makes me as vast as itself, as perfect.

Then I set it down again and keep walking, settling the memory of the sea star in the socket in my mind that used to hold needlework roses. The sea star pushes out the picture frame and unbalances the rest of the memory, dulls the bright stab of sunlight to something a little more bearable. That feeling of peace, that huge, cool depth, echoes through my ears like I’m underwater, like I can hear the crabs scuttling along the bottom of the Gulf. Even hours later, when I limp back to my car, I walk with a joyful swagger only half caused by the way my cane catches in the sand.

Padre Island Seashore is a good place to camp. There are plenty of people who stay out here, even in the winter—if you can call this winter, this balmy south Texas January. I’ve stayed worse places. Rest stops, gas stations and Walmart parking lots are full of people who want you to hurry along, who measure your stay in hours not days. Same with municipal parks. State parks are sometimes alright, but more often you have to pay steep fees to stay there, sometimes $25 a night.

High-density residential areas aren’t bad, but relative anonymity is balanced out by sidewalks and the high-strung apartment-bound dogs that people walk along them at six a.m. And even if the parking isn’t metered and you’re careful to park in different spots from night to night, eventually people corner you and ask what you’re doing there.

Rural neighborhoods are the worst. People spread out in houses on wide acres shouldn’t care, but they’ll call the cops on you if you park there for even a minute. Half the time I can play Nice White Lady and get the cops’ sympathy. But then there’s the other half.

No, national parks are the place to be. And Padre Island Seashore is a good one; pay twenty bucks for the annual pass and they’ll let you camp on the beach for free for two weeks. Then you leave for two days and come back for another two weeks on the same pass. And so on. In some national forests, you can camp without breaks, for free, but here not only are there toilets, there are free showers. Cold water, but clean is clean.

Today the cascading water reminds me of something: I was in east Texas, near Nacogdoches, in Angelina National Forest. This was maybe two years ago, and I was spending a couple of weeks in the woods. One night a thunderstorm rolled in fast, hot like a swollen belly, the sky crackling. Long red-brown pine needles caked the forest floor, inches deep and so dry. I had the seats down in the back of my car so I could sleep flat, and I swung my head around so I was looking up at the sky through the back window even though I was parked on a slant and the front end of the car was higher. I lay there, all the blood waving inside me like a jostled coffee cup, and watched the storm break the sky open, wondering if I was going to burn alive in the middle of falling water. Half wishing I would, just for the thrill of the fire.

After my shower, I re-park my car on the sand up away from the high tide line and then pull out my worn little notebook. “Lightning in Angelina” is written in the middle of the second-to-last page; it’s relatively recent. Many of my notes are like that, good memories. Even more of them, I no longer understand. I keep those on purpose, I re-read them. Not every day, just sometimes. Just when I start wondering if I could live differently.

“Endlessly talking, red and blue lights harsh on his face.”

“He held my hand while they picked the fragments of glass out of my thigh.”

“The bathroom with the cornflower tiles on the wall behind the toilet.”

“The IV with the kink in the line.”

I don’t know what they mean. I don’t want to.

I settle down in the passenger seat of my car, flip on the solar LED lamp attached to the dash as the sky darkens into night, and make myself a peanut butter sandwich with the fixings tucked into the crate in the footwell. Then I dust sand off the spine of my newest paperback from the fifty cent bin and get lost in the complicated betrayals that plague this band of Scottish highlanders.

The next morning I wake up as the sun rises. Already there are a scattering of other people awake and out on the beach, retirees mostly. They like Padre Island for the same reasons I do, even if for them ‘cheap’ means they park here in their fifty thousand dollar RV, not a 2008 Toyota Yaris with tinted windows so no one can see me sleeping in the back. One gray-haired man walks with his pant legs rolled up as a fluffy white dog gallops through the surf nearby. A woman sits in front of her RV a dozen meters down the beach in a folding chair, sweatshirt hood up to block the wind, drinking coffee.

I do wish I had hot water. I’ve thought about getting something, maybe a tiny kettle I can run off my car battery. But I’ve been wary about anything that drains my battery ever since—ever since I can remember.

I drag on my own sweatshirt, hunch my way into the front seat and resign myself to air temperature instant coffee shaken into the water in an old plastic water bottle, like I do every morning. Looking out the window, I realize that the memory I’d been thinking of setting loose today—the heaviness of July air in St. Louis when the AC in my car went out, the hunger-nausea in my belly, the way I sat paralyzed in the hospital parking lot for an hour wondering if I could sleep there beside the hospital safely or if they would call the police on me—isn’t right for the day. The beach is littered with blue blotches. I could squint and still not see them well, but I know what they are: man o’ war, freshly washed up onto the sand.

I drink my coffee and think, letting the echoing from the sea star memory yesterday strengthen my bones. Man o’ war are special. As the sun rises, my certainty grows: it’s a sign. I’m here, in the right place, in the right time to rid myself of a major thread in the mess of my old pains.

I leave the car as the sun leaves the horizon, sinking a little into the sand as I walk down into the water. Ankle deep, I turn southwest, into the Mexico-end curve of the coast, and start wandering. The waves suck at my feet, and I go very slowly.

This coastline isn’t as impressive as the cliffs of Oregon or the white sand beaches of South Carolina. Dull brown sand, not a tree in sight, ugly sponge-scrub bushes that hug the dunes, sand flies buzzing in the air above them. But nothing can make the ocean ugly, not even the trash tangled in the brown, rotting seaweed that washed up with the man o’ war.

And the man o’ war are magnificent. Blue so bright it looks like plastic, root-vegetable shape with long tentacles trailing off the thickest end, rippling crest the sun shines through. As they die and deflate, they lose their beauty, but it’s early and they’re still damp and glowing in the sunlight. They look like aliens. The first time I ever saw one, I didn’t think it was real, but I loved it.

After half an hour of poking along, I find what I didn’t know I was looking for: a pair of man o’ war, tipped up against each other, tentacles tangled. When the waves set them here, they grasped at each other. I squat down beside them, toes inches away from being stung. From this angle, I can see down the beach through the nearest man o’ war’s glassy sail.

I fill my lungs with the humid smell of decomposing seaweed and salt.

I breathe easy these days. It wasn’t always like that.

I draw the memory down into my fingers: I’m flat on my back, holding myself carefully motionless under the bright lights that are shining down on me. Masked figures bend over my body below my ribcage, moving over me. I can’t feel exactly what they’re doing to me, because they’ve used a local anesthetic, but when they cut deep enough the sharpness of it lightnings through me.

Worse, whenever they cut away a piece of tissue, at the end of the cut, there are wet noises and tugging, pulling the flesh tight so the scalpel can slice cleanly. That tug panics me. I start to shake and can’t stop, can’t breathe because my chest won’t work right. They’re taking me apart.

I don’t know how they can perform surgery on my stomach when my chest is heaving like this, my limbs trembling.

Somehow I hold myself very still on the table. I don’t bolt. I don’t pass out, either, though I get lightheaded and dizzy from the way I can’t get my breath. A long time passes, and somewhere in the middle of it, one of the nurses turns to me and says, absently, “It hits some people this way. Mostly it’s the toughest old men who cry during surgery, isn’t that funny?”

She laughs.

I breathe in the salt air.

Squatting slowly, I examine the man o’ war as close as I can get my face to them. In a way, they’re like the physical embodiment of a laugh: I’m in love with their impossibly blue-purple glossiness, their asymmetry, their shape like nothing else I’ve ever seen, the clutch of their tentacles: holding on and holding on. The world is so big; it contains such strange things; it contains so much love.

The man o’ war are a better memory, of course. I pull it into me, letting it crowd out the other thing: the sound, the sense of desolation. The echo of a laugh falls away the way wet sand dries on your skin and then is brushed off: leaving the faintest of after-sensations but nevertheless completely gone. The memory of the man o’ war, in my mind and also still in front of me on the sand, lifts me up like sunshine in my blood.

I go along the beach a little while longer, trading a brief flash of a silent waiting room—doubled over, pain-sweat itching between my shoulder blades—for a purple-cream seashell half worn away by the waves into the shape of a minnow. I exchange the constant beep of a monitor for the wing-flick of a gull that screams as it flies away from me. For mouse tracks on the sand underneath the dune grass, the persistent, rhythmic twang of old mattress springs.

Too many exchanges in too short a time: my mind rebels, leaving an aftertaste in my peripheral nervous system, a creeping malaise. I lie down on the soft sand, hiking up my t-shirt and edging down my track pants so my soft, scarred belly is naked to the sunlight. Sometimes when I lie flat the scars pull; sometimes the stress on the sliced nerves makes them tingle and spark with pain. But the sun’s warmth makes up for that. I plop my forearm over my eyes and let myself drift, neither awake nor asleep.

Sometimes living like this is terrifying: whenever I see a police car my heart jerks nervously, whenever I park somewhere I’ve never been before I can barely sleep because I can’t settle off high alert. Having nothing between me and the world but a car window and whatever basic decency a citizen might scrape up for someone like me—it rattles my head.

But other times being homeless is everything I’ve ever wanted, and this is one of those days. The sun is crayon yellow in a watercolor sky, high white clouds blurring softly into the blue. The old man with the dog is fishing, far enough down the beach that I couldn’t hear him over the white noise of the waves even if he shouted, and other than that, it’s just me and the sea birds, in love with each other, in love with ourselves.

A week later, I return from two days parked on the side of the road near an intersection with four apartment complexes on adjoining blocks. Nobody gave my car a single suspicious eyeball, and I had a chance to spend time in the public library. Of course I can’t check out books without an address, but I got online and checked my bank balance to make sure my disability benefits, all $350 a month, haven’t been mysteriously stopped. They turn off the direct deposit sometimes, if they try to deliver me mail and can’t, but this month everything is ticking along, and I have money for gas and food.

I’m lucky. Plenty of street people have to panhandle, but I never picked up a habit, and I eat light.

The next morning I wake up early so I get out and sit on the hood of my car to watch the sunrise. Something about the way the birds wake before the sun does, the way they start talking to each other, sends shivers of happiness through my muscles. Even on nights when I can’t sleep because of the pain, my heart lifts a little when I hear how interested the birds are in every single new day. And then the soft pearl of the sky as the light begins.

Today is a good one for birds. They’re migrating, of course, though I’m honestly not sure if they’re going north or south. It’s late January—it seems like it could be either. I don’t know. All I know is that a congregation of many different kinds of wings surrounds me. Little shorebirds with stilt-legs, gulls with wide nasty beaks and attitudes to match, a few bulky brown pelicans. They settle down in the fresh tide, picking through the seaweed and shallows as the water recedes.

Even this far south, the air is cold this early, and my muscles are tight. My mind aches, too, memories all tangled up, stuck to themselves and other things, sticky adhesions like a wound healing wrong, stitches only half dissolved. Blank spaces in the middle of everything, connections reduced to feeling, not knowing: this is the price I pay for living only in the present moment. Shapes cut out of my brain and replaced with the stunning loft of redwood trees in Six Rivers National Forest out in California. I can see the arc of the memories, where they used to be, but those spaces are filled with the softness of moss and ferns in the middle of a dense, dark wood.

This is a memory: I’m standing in front of a desk covered with papers, leaning heavily on my cane as a man speaks sternly to me about the consequences of pretending to be injured when I’m actually fine and need to go back to work.

This is a memory: the man whose grandmother lets me stay in her basement snaps a question at me, irritated. He wants money—my disability benefits, I think. He was working part-time, but lost his job, or quit. I’m not sure; I haven’t asked. He wants to know if I’m planning on contributing anything at all worthwhile to this household or if I’m deadweight. I don’t know, I say, very quietly, no breath to speak with, and he slams his way out of the room, disgusted with me.

This is a memory: a medical exam room is instantly recognizable by the posters on the wall urging flu vaccination, hand washing. I’m frozen on a pneumatic exam table covered in paper sheeting. There’s a distinctive smell to these rooms, like they all use the same brand of antiseptic cleaner, and it terrifies me.

I close my eyes, then open them and lurch off the hood of the car, aiming myself down the beach where the sand is wet enough to be solid. Holding myself still only makes the memories stronger, so I move even though it hurts. I stumble over wet sand—I’m not walking very straight, my hips are all wrong—I fall on my ass. My hand lands very near the shallow waves. When I lift it up, water seeps into the handprint like a mirror. It’s enough. Grateful, I let the smell of antiseptic slide away from me into the salt damp.

I sit on the beach until the sun is high and I’m sweating, t-shirt sticking to my back. Memories wash in and out of my mind like waves, and I let them. Down the beach, four or five gulls squabble over something they’ve found in the piles of brown seaweed. The wind is coming in off the water, a steady rush of noise that smooths me out like my mother running a brush through my hair.

That isn’t a memory; I read it in a book, but I like the idea of it.

I rest for the remainder of the day, getting up to eat soup from a can when I remember, in the middle of the afternoon, that I haven’t eaten. My milk-crate storage bin is full of soup cans, bought when I was in town. I won’t eat them all for weeks, but I can’t handle not having food with me. It makes me feel crazy, precarious. The cans take up space in my car but I just have to know that I have enough food around me even when hunger gets lost in all the other pains in my body and I lose track of eating. I’m not proud of this, this animalistic need that makes me feel homeless in a way sleeping in my car doesn’t, but it’s not a memory; I can’t send it away from me.

I creak the next morning, making coffee slowly and indecisively, poking around my car trying to decide if I want to go to the laundromat. I don’t need to, but I consider doing it anyway. I’m avoiding the memories crowding in on me: I’m holding myself very still. My lungs stutter so I can’t breathe. There is a very bright light in the corner of my eye.

I step onto the sand, feeling like a loose tooth about to come free.

I’m holding myself very still.

A dog runs up and down the beach, barking at the gulls as they fly away from him. Further along, a giant motorhome wallows in dry sand as the driver pulls out, leaving early. The bright light in the corner of my eye is only the rising sun. I rub my palms along my hip bones, pressing where it hurts to remind myself that this is my body. I am here, now, in the warming sunlight, smelling the salt-fish tide.

I just want to be done with this whole tangled mess. I’ve been working away at the knot of it, the helplessness, the despair. But it blurs together. I can only exchange one scrap of memory at a time, one detail for one detail. Now I don’t know: is there one arc of memory, or two? Much has been cleanly excised, and some of what I haven’t replaced is almost funny: the ER nurse scolding me viciously for not peeing in a cup for tests she needs to run, me in a ball on the floor too tight with pain to straighten even enough to sit on the toilet. Her primary-color scrubs signal allegiance to some football team I can’t identify, and she stands so close the matching shoes fill my vision. Matching shoes! Like a clown!

Don’t make me leave, I’m saying. He sneers. Why would I keep you around if you’re not going to put out? It seems like a fair question. Not fair to him to try to keep this relationship going under false pretenses.

No, that’s a memory. This is real: I hobble down the beach—my knee is bad today, I slept wrong. The birds are flocking this morning, hundreds more than I’ve ever seen, making a tremendous noise. The little brown stilt-walkers are my favorite. They dance with the waves, always moving in and out to keep the water just up to their knobby knees, the white foam painted pink by the sunrise.

The salt air smells like that one brand of antiseptic, smells like old cardboard, but I stop and watch the birds. The early morning cool plus the wind coming off the water make me grateful for my sweatshirt. I sit on the slope of a minor sand dune and breathe. There’s something, some seaweed smell, that layers under the particular regional smells that make beaches different. There’s always something that smells the same. It’s comforting, that the Gulf holds some similarity with the swampy beaches of South Carolina, the salt deserts of California. The wet Oregon coast, too, rocky and cold, has that same smell, that ocean miasma rising up from the deepness.

That makes me think of the redwoods, the way it felt to camp there the summer I drifted down the West Coast. I have a lot of memories of them now, stewing in the mess in my brain. The straightness of their trunks, the way they take up space in every dimension, unafraid to have mass.

I wonder, sometimes, where my memories go when I release them. If they fill up the redwoods, festering inside their trunks in some mirror-process to the gentle blossom of new memory in me. I don’t think they could. Maybe a tree could take on a memory, but how could a sunset, how could a particular turn of a half-wild rabbit’s head, the flicker and crash of lightning in the east Texas sky? No. I think the world composts my old pains, turns poison into fertilizer, into fundamental elements that grow something entirely new.

The birds flee a large wave and then instantly return to the surf. I begin to pick gingerly at the lump of memory that I’ve been chipping pieces off of for years. It’s much smaller now, but more prone to splintering. In the past I’ve been too abrupt with it, cracked it and let it bleed. This time I’m determined to treat it more delicately.

It’s slow going. By the time the sun is a quarter of the way up the sky, I’m sweating, and I have to take a break to find some shade. I stake a sheet between my car door and some sticks of driftwood, settle in the patch of shade with a box of crackers and get back to work.

The tendrils of memory are fragile, like little white roots crawling through the cracks of the bricks of the better memories I’ve built up around it. I pull gently on each one without snapping it off, rolling it up and pressing it into the main body of the memory. Tiny shivers of guilt, wavers of confusion, layers of contradictory facts that will shatter into sharp shards if I put pressure on the wrong edge.

Sometimes I slip, and the memory takes hold of me: I’m on my back, holding myself very still as someone moves inside my body. It hurts in a sick, tugging way that is unique to pains deep inside, where the nervous system is different. I tremble, and try to hide how scared I am.

I put my hand on the sand beside me, outside the patch of shade. It’s hot, almost painful, after hours in the Texas sun. The sting of it grounds me in the present and I keep on.

Finally, I hold the mass of it. It’s heavy, sticky, constantly trying to send out new shoots to re-attach itself to me. But I herd it together, balancing it.

I no longer know if this is one memory, or many. It doesn’t matter. I’ve gone through it, out the other side, and kept going, to the Gulf coast, to the ocean. To the man o’ war, in all their alien beauty. To the gritty brown sand and the small orange sea stars and the gulls flying low over the dunes.

Outside my mind, the sun is setting. Red and coral-orange soak the sky, the clouds like sponges absorbing the color. The waves coat the sand with a thin layer of water that reflects the colors of the sky for a moment and then sinks down into the sand. Over and over: orange to wet-brown, orange to wet-brown.

Two sandhill cranes stalk through the waves toward me. The red feathers of their crests rise off their heads into the sun-red air. Long, narrow beaks plunge into the shallow waves. I’m sitting so still that they don’t notice me, coming as close as the water comes to my feet: maybe two yards away.

I watch as one catches a crab. The other tilts his head, reptilian eyes coveting the tiny struggling thing. The crab must be mostly shell, small as it is. The crane gulps it down and the other makes a low noise, complaining.

I breathe in the salt air. When I exhale, my mind expands beyond myself. For the space of that breath, I am as big as the ocean. I extend into the atmosphere, into the heavy cumulonimbus clouds that hang in the sky and above them, through the breaks that the sunlight streams through. We—the rays of light, the cold clouds, the water, the cranes with their naked legs and gray wings—move on the same wave, expanding and contracting, like the pulse of blood through a heart, like the pump of blood out through an open wound.

When I contract again, the memory I was carrying doesn’t return with me. This moment, these two sandhill cranes teaching me the complaint of all living things, rests comfortably in the hollow I’ve made for it, already growing thin, tender roots into the matter that surrounds it. I feel so light I could rise upward on the road made by the sunset streaming through the damp air. The crane memory isn’t quite enough to take me up, but I’ve never been so close to the true soul of the world, so close to the love and forgetfulness that rests at the center of all things.

 
 

To the Place of Skulls

Innocent Ilo

What do you take to the Place of Skulls?

Your head, brewing with the thirst for adventure. Your empty stomach to remind you when to come back home for lunch. Your spindly legs, dragging your chapped feet.

Who will you meet on the road to the Place of Skulls?

We don’t know. But we know if we see any simé-simé person; those ugly ones with a big mound of nose sitting between their eyes and mouth, we will hurl stones at them.

What will you do at the Place of Skulls?

We don’t know, let’s get there first.

What will keep you safe on your journey?

Our laughter. Our face smeared with innocence. Our heart bristling with vigor.

We are going to the Place of Skulls; Saro-Wiwa, Babbe, Gokana, Ken, Nyo, Ueme, Tai and myself. For you to know, this is not the place Bro Lucas said Jesus was crucified when he was spitting into my face from the broken lectern during his sermon, last Sunday. The Place of Skulls is where a stark reality stares us in the face. We all have after-school exhaustion, Babbe’s diarrhea has worsened, Gokana is still nursing the burns on his legs from our last visit and Mama will yank at my ears if she hears fim about it, but we must go. The Place of Skull is that important.

The ground under our feet grumbles, like it’s annoyed we are threading on it, as we run down the crudeoil-soiled paths of Oloibiri. We stop running only when we get to Exxon Bridge because the bridge is rickety and too narrow for us to run across at the same time. Nobody wants to slip and fall into dark mass left of River Brass. I cross the bridge first, my arms spread wide, like petals in the sun, for balance. My friends follow, carefully, not to tread too heavily on the broken planks. I look into River Brass when I get to the other side of Exxon Bridge and it seems my Basic Science textbook just flung open to the page on immiscibility:

“In a mixture of two immiscible liquids (e.g. oil and water), the less dense liquid (oil) floats over the denser liquid (water).”

The water is black-black with heavy punctuations of lobster and fish carcasses. Poor things, they must have struggled to the surface for fresh air and then drank death. Mama warned me never to dream of eating anything from River Brass. We only gather the carcasses to fuel the cooking fire. The crudeoil-saturated lining of the fish’s intestines made the carcasses burn brighter than wood.

“It’s like burning food to make food!” Mama calls it with mock laughter on her pursed lips.

It is mid afternoon by the time we get to the broken fence of Ompadec College where we go to school. From the road, we can see the emptiness of the classrooms gaping through the broken louvers. The desks they brought two years ago only stayed long enough for the Government Inspector to take pictures of us sitting at them for their campaign poster. The desks had disappeared when we got to school the next morning. Tai hurls a stone at a rascal peeing on the wall of headteacher’s office. The little boy sticks out his tongue and scuttles off. Tai picks another stone and aims carefully. This time the stone strikes the poor boy’s head.

“Your mother’s toto!” the rascal yells. He pulls down his flimsy shorts and splays his buttocks. “Your father eats my black ass.” His voice soon fades when he corners onto the road leading to Exxon Bridge.

“Haha, your mother has no toto!” Tai calls after the boy.

We cackle up with laughter and continue our journey to the Place of Skulls.

Our next stop is Nddc Hospital. A wide stretch of muddiness separates the hospital from Ompadec College. Mama said I was born there. That was long before the expatriate doctors and nurses and midwives and all those people who wear smart clothes sewn with calico white fled Oloibiri during the kidnapping spree. The once gleaming white wall of the hospital is now coated with creepers and mistletoes and vines and nasty weed. But we love the hospital. Maybe because the traps we set there catch meaty rodents. Today, only Ueme’s trap caught something—a humongous squirrel. I pick up a wooden club and put our prey out of its misery. We shove our catch into Babbe’s old school bag and vamoose from the hospital.

Just when we are about to hit the road again, Nyo notices that Saro-Wiwa is not with us. Gokana says that we must have lost him at Exxon Bridge. Ken, Nyo and Ueme nod in agreement. This is why we never like going out with Saro-Wiwa, he keeps scribbling on his notepad, slowing the party down.

“Where did he wander off this time?” Babbe groans.

“Maybe to the sky,” Ueme scoffs.

“One day, he is going to get lost in books!” Nyo intones with biting sarcasm.

We laugh even as our eyes dart round the bush looking for any sign of Saro-Wiwa. Babbe whistles. Nyo screams his name. Ueme suggests we continue our journey without him but we don’t listen to him. He is not the strongest among us and so cannot dictate what we should or shouldn’t do.

“Eureka!” Saro-Wiwa’s voice came calling from the bush. “I just finished this piece of fine poem. It has been in my head for a month.” He waves his notepad above his head. “See, let’s read it together!”

We cluster around Saro-Wiwa and read aloud:

They came with new voices,

They said the former was old,

They came with so many tales,

About wealth and brewing gold.

Our faces remain blank when we are done reading. This makes Saro-Wiwa’s glowing eyes dim, he wanted the poem to liven up our faces. It is such a shame we don’t seem to get Saro-Wiwa, the chap behaves like someone living in another universe. I, for one, cannot understand why he would spend so much time coming up with that poem. A month. It took a month for the medicine man to remove the bullet in Aunty Esuene’s calf. And when they brought it out, it was a shiny silver thing unlike Saro’s poem, which is neither shiny nor silver. Nyo wrinkles his nose and yawns, Ueme and Babe exchange knowing glances, Gokana and I try to suppress our laughter. Only Tai pats Saro-Wiwa on the shoulder and says: “I might not understand all of it but I think I know who they are.” Saro-Wiwa’s face brightens. I wish I was the one who said those words.

Opec Estate throws its gates open as we approach. The two soldiers at the gates are snoring away the little life that is left of the afternoon. We tiptoe pass them, holding our breath. If we wake the soldiers up, they will fling us as far as their bulky hands can. The estate has the kind of serenity even heaven could die for. Willowy trees line up the pavement of the tarred roads, intricately patterned terracotta fences guard the huge white mansions and fat, ugly dogs bark all day on the well-tended lawns. This is where the oil workers and their families live. They are mostly purple-haired, red-nosed and they all have an enduring nasal accent.

Tai says he is going to live in the estate, with his Indian wife and biracial children, when he becomes an engineer. Gokana mocks him and mumbles: “Before then, you must have inhaled enough air in Oloibiri to give you lung cancer.” Tai hears this and makes for Gokana’s jaw. The blow misses Gokana by hairsbreadth and lands squarely on Saro-Wiwa’s jaw. Saro-Wiwa holds his jaw. He says nothing because he thinks, in his small head, this is the price to pay for peace to reign.

We continue our march.

“I know the fastest route,” Saro-Wiwa announces out of the blue when we are at the middle of Opec Estate. This is the first time he is offering to lead the way. We are not quite sure of his claim but we still follow him. Maybe this will make him forget Tai’s blow.

Our feet tingle in the sensation of walking on the marbles of Nnpc Street. The little children playing catch on the balconies of those white mansions point our direction like we are dirt, like we are not wanted here. We ignore them, this journey is more important than spoilt-faced children’s melodrama. We continue. This time we waltz through the cobblestones of Chevron County. With the same slippery ease, we saunter down the glassiness of Mobil Lane until we get to the golden streetlights of Shell Close. We dust our feet and make our exit out of Opec Estate.

The world wears a different shade outside Opec Estate. The air here is different, it’s not even air at all. We can see the many amorphous flakes of carbon sailing through space and collecting at our nostrils. The earth under our feet is hot like we are walking on plugged-in hotplates. Our eyes begin to itch. We rub them to a reddened soreness. The Place of Skulls must be very close because my skin is on fire. It is melting on my scrawny bones and I can almost hear its drip drip doing tyang tyang on the boiling earth. I reek with burning death. Confidence loosens its hold on me. I want to run back home and play jara with Dokubo, but we have come too long a way for us to go back.

Now, we are running fast to ease the baking heat of the sun on our naked soles. A thick smog envelops the horizon, darkening our path. Saro-Wiwa is still in front, eating up the hills like a plate of moin-moin. We round up another bend, shooting straight into Pipeline Alley where the crudeoil is pumped out from our veins. We feast our eyes on the web of leaking metal pipes. Plink. Plink. The black liquid deepens into the ground. We don’t linger for too long at Pipeline Alley so we will not end up like Uncle Biriye. They shot him here last Easter. They said he was trying to cut the pipe open and steal liquid gold.

Our hearts start beating in ferocious rhythms, stop and then continue to beat when we enter OBJ:1999 Express. The road is still covered with blood and corpses, lying in mildly contorted poses. The sky here is also dripping red with blood—blood of the townspeople who marched to Abuja demanding a clean and unpolluted environment. They said men in rickety trucks, wearing forest-green uniforms, rained their bazookas on them. Mama told me that was the day Papa was shot dead. Sometimes I imagine Papa; all trimmed and fine-faced, dying with chants of “Give us clean water! We need clean air!” on his lips.

“Look out, on the tree over there!” Nyo points at an eerie-looking tree on the other side of the road.

We stop dead in our tracks. I whimper and hide behind Babbe. Horror stares into our faces when we look up to the tree. Seven men are hanging on the tallest branch, their lifeless bodies swaying to the tune of the wind and buzzing flies. At the foot of the tree, a signpost reads: “The Ogoni Seven: May We Know Them. May We Be Like Them. May They Live On.”

“They share the same names with us!” Ueme shouts with fingers darted at the name-tags nailed to the heads of the dead men.

“Isaac,” Babbe turns towards me. “They don’t have your name, why?”

I look away, not answering the question, sulking that none of the men hanging on the tree bore my name. I shrug my shoulders because somehow I don’t feel left out of the fight. I was named after Isaac Adaka-Boro; the big-big man who started the struggle. I came before the men hanging on the tree. This is what Mama told me but I will not as much as dare to tell my friends, they will laugh my bones to powder.

Fresh energy is filling up my lungs, so much that my feet spring up and start running on their own. My friends join me, begging me to slow down. I don’t know how to slow down because in my mind, I am the wind. I want to be the first to reach the Place of Skulls.

At last, we are at the Place of Skulls. It is in Gelegele, just a stone’s throw to Kolo Creek. A tall-tall fence surrounds the Place of Skulls the way a set of teeth guides the tongue. This is where Phat Oil pumps bright yellow gas into the clouds. Puff. Puff. We sit on the dry mud and watch the long pipes deface the clouds with the yellow gas. Here, the sky is not the sky at all, it is like a slush pile of cotton wool soaked in tar. The fire in the Place of Bones is burning like the hell Bro Lucas talks about during Friday Bible Study. Still, Bro Lucas is not too right, people don’t have to die to go to hell, they just need a trip to Gelegele.

“The tanks over there look like silos,” Tai says. His eyes are gesturing towards the huge metal tanks peeping out at the edge of the fence.

“Taaa! Silos store grains of food,” Babbe refutes Tai’s claim. “This one only has death inside it.”

“How do those oil workers survive working inside there?” I ask, torn between awe and confusion.

“They must have huge AC’s to filter and cool the air,” Saro-Wiwa suggests.

“Do you know that as the gas flares, it bores a hole in the sky?” Babbe chips in.

“That is what Miss Makinde, the science teacher, calls ozone depletion,” Nyo adds as he brushes a fly off his knee.

“I want to stitch the hole in the sky with the words of my writing,” Saro-Wiwa drawls dreamily.

“I don’t think words are just enough,” I clear my throat. “The hole needs to be rebuilt. When I become an architect, I will design the plan.”

“No,” Tai proudly disagrees. “I will be the engineer to build efficient and less-polluting machines.”

“Don’t forget that I am the doctor that will cure your cancer,” Gokana guffaws, dampening the proud smile on Tai’s face.

“I will be the teacher that would enlighten the young minds on the Green Economy,” Ueme adds with so much enthusiasm.

“Don’t you all forget the Human Rights Lawyer who will fight for our cause,” Nyo quips in a matter-of-fact tone.

We all turn to Ken. He does not talk much ever since an oil well exploded near his home. He says he still hears deafening explosions. He looks up now and nods his head; a way of telling us that he would also like to stitch the hole in the sky.

The swallows are coming back home so we know it is also time for us to go. We stand up, dust our clothes and hit the road before the security men start hurling their mean batons at us. They broke Ueme’s nose last week, when we wasted time leaving. All the way back, we are laughing, we are chuckling, we are mimicking the whistling of burning flames and we are nursing dreams of stitching up the sky.

It is almost twilight when we arrive at Oloibiri. The bleating goats are just settling in their pens. We huddle up in Mama Babbe’s kitchen to grill the squirrel Ueme’s trap caught. We light the fire and place the meat on a rusty wire mesh. Babbe brings palm oil sauce for eating the meat. We keep our voices low as we eat. We don’t want to share our food with the girls playing suwe in the next yard.

After the meal, we run off to the latrine at end of New River. We all enter at once, surrounding the pit with our dried-out buttocks. We start off at the same time, the little lumps of our shit going thaump thaump as they sink into the river. Sometimes we brag about whose shit sounds the loudest or smells the foulest. Gokana always wins. Gokana always wins things like that. We head to the other end of New River to drink to our fill. Because we are very thirsty, we don’t seem notice that the water tastes of so many things apart from water.

Soon, darkness starts to call on us in jet-black voices.

I relish the splendour of nights when the moon is in full glistening, the stars in steady twinkle and crickets chirping away the velvety darkness. I lie on my straw mattress, counting time, waiting patiently for Mama’s bedtime stories. Her stories are always unpredictable. Today it’s about Edumare and Chuku battling over the universe, tomorrow it’s about the great tribal wars between Benin and Bonny. This night, Mama’s story is about the rains; endless streams of crystal-clear watery pellets that fall from the sky. She calls it Edumare’s tears. The fields suck it up and ripen into a bountiful harvest. The children play in it for good health. Ma tells this story in a sing-song, like a dirge of the caged bird, with tears tumbling down her cheeks. She talks about how they always prayed for the rains to come.

Me? I don’t want the rains to come in Oloibiri. What’s the use of the misery? It’s like plague falling from the sky. Miss Makinde said it’s acid rain. If the rains come, it will rust the new zinc Mama put up last week. The rains will flood the leaking oilfields and wash into our farms and New River. We never play in the rains because it causes skin yama-yama. Once, we made fun of Saro-Wiwa that he was going to die because the rain beat him on his way home from school. “The acid will eat deep into your stomach!” We taunted at him in ghostly shrills.

Something unusual happens tonight. I dream of myself, Saro-Wiwa, Babbe, Ken, Nyo, Ueme, Gokana and Tai, stitching up the sky in our own way. For the first time in forever, I also dream of the type of rain in Mama’s story—clear, fresh and invigorating rain. It is cascading down the hills of Gelegele, quenching the flaring gases, it is washing the bloodied paths of OBJ:1999 Express, it overflows the banks of River Brass and spurs the fish and lobsters to life, it purges the crudeoil-soiled farmlands and the cornfields sizzle with the greenness of life. I smile in my sleep and tuck my dream under the pillow where nobody can steal it.