Written in the Book of the Woods

LJ Geoffrion

I’ve never been lost in the woods, so of course I didn’t think I was lost now. I’d simply misplaced the trail. Eventually, I’d find it, because it was around here someplace. It wasn’t until I had stomped around for about an hour that I began to get the creeps, and not because I was lost. It was the sun.

It hadn’t moved; it just hung there in the sky at about twenty degrees above the western horizon. I sat down and lined it up with a cedar branch and watched it through the needles. I watched it until my ass was numb and it stayed there as if the tip of the cedar was holding it in place.

A wind moved though the woods, making the cedar and the tamarack next to it sway. The tamarack had begun to change, and a few of its soft yellow needles drifted to the forest floor. A single, red maple leaf landed on the back of my hand. I started and picked it up, twirling the stem between my fingers. Time was passing, the leaves were falling, and I realized that I had to pee. It wasn’t like time had stopped. Just the sun.

I stood, swaying a little bit until feeling came back to my glutes. A red squirrel was surprised by my sudden appearance and chattered at me from the maple. I popped my jeans open, slid them and my undies down and squatted to pee. The smell of urine and the dusty dead leaves swirled around my face and I hung my head down and then rolled it across my shoulders, thinking.

I picked a direction, but after walking for an hour, stumbled over the same butt-flattened spot I’d started from. I rested and went out again. And again. No matter where I began, I came back to my spot and the sun still balanced on the tip of that cedar.

There was a little spring around somewhere. I’d seen it last time I was out this way. Grimacing at the sun, I licked my lips and turned in a circle, my feet carrying the circle into a wide spiral, and found the spring just west of my spot.

The ground rose and a wall of black rock thrust up a hundred feet, an ancient mountaintop buried in forest leaves, small cedars growing in the cracks of its shoulders and red mountain ash scattered across its crown. Water seeped down the face of the rock and pooled at its base. I knelt and touched my lips to the pool, sucking in a long, cool drink.

Drinking down that water was like drinking down the world. I could taste the rock, iron and deep and dark, and the earth, moist and rich. Lightheaded, I leaned my shoulder to the rock. A dribble of water dripped down my chin, landed on my chest, and slid cool between my breasts.

It was dim in the shadow of the rock. A dozen staggering steps from the spring, a pile of freshly fallen autumn leaves had collected in a hollow. This wasn’t the first time I’d spent a night in the woods. I pushed down the panicked voice that was urging me to run and burrowed down into the leaves. Piling the leaves over me, I slept, coming awake once or twice in the shadowed late afternoon light, but drifting off again to the sound of wind in the pines or the buzz of a bee, and always the soft, warm crackling of fallen leaves.

Sleep flowed across me, warm current of contentment and a strong feeling of place that held me safe. I knew where I was and it was all right. I dreamt of sunlight falling softly across a pale blue autumn sky and the last falling petals of late summer flowers. Sleek bears rooted under logs, and bucks in rut blew steamy breaths at each other across evening meadows. I dreamt of a girl picking frost-touched choke cherries on the lee of the ridge.

Until I startled awake and it was night. I blinked in my leafy bed, eyes wide in the darkness, listening to what had woken me.

It was night. The sun had set.

Something moved in the darkness and I felt the hair lift up on the back of my neck. I slid out of the leaves and the whisper that they made was no louder than the wind in the trees. My jeans and shirt hung on me in ribbons of flannel and denim, and autumn leaves tangled my hair. I crouched there, my mind skipping from the leaves to the water to the earth beneath my bare feet. This was all that my mind could hold. A breeze pushed against my face and I turned into it. The air was crisp with a hint of coming frost but there was a fetid stench that came in wisps; a rotting smell, like old garbage or road kill, like brutality and grief. I turned toward it and breathed it in so I would know it.

A full moon hung low in the west, about twenty degrees above the horizon. I grinned at the moon and then turned my eyes back to the smell, finding it in an inky spot, black upon black, a thing that shouldn’t be there, didn’t belong here in my place. I didn’t know what it was, but that didn’t matter. I had no words, no thoughts. Looking at it, I knew what I had to do.

It stilled as it sensed me, but latent violence tingled against my skin. With a crazy shiver, it launched itself, black limbs wide and a dark gaping mouth. I screamed as I met it and we came together in a flurry of claws and teeth. I gagged, the smell of its fur like rancid grease on the back of my throat. Its teeth snapped in front of my eyes and I squeezed where I held it and then threw myself forward, using my own teeth.

It was nasty, but I ate it. I ate it right down.

I staggered away from the place of blood and torn ground and collapsed into the pool, the water clearing the taste from my head. I came to half lying in the pool, shivering with cold. A late day sun sent a shaft of golden light through the trees and across my legs and I pushed away from the spring and into the sunlight. Without thinking much, I stood and began to wander around my wood, picking a few late blueberries, running my hands over the trunk of a massive beech, and pulling up a bunch of purple loosestrife. I walked for hours and finally fetched up near the swamp and sat in a patch of rose mallow, combing my fingers through my hair.

I stopped and looked at my hands. My skin had taken on the pattern of the leaves, bronze, brown and yellow, and my nails were sharp. They were strong looking hands, good hands, but not the hands that had driven my truck. I squinted down at them, trying to remember.

Only small things came to me. My truck? I remembered the feel of the shift knob as I put my truck in gear. Coffee, bitter and rich, I missed with a sudden physical ache. Did anyone remember me? Almost, I could hear the sound of my lover’s voice.

My chest felt tight, sadness welled up, and tears ran down my face. I sat in the swamp grass and watched the rose mallow sway in the breeze. Rose mallow is a beautiful flower. I cupped one in my hand. The petals were soft and cool. A yawn cracked my face and I shook my head, bleary with tears and sunlight. With another yawn, I rolled over in the grass, curled between the flower stems, and fell asleep.

I woke to the sound of singing.

Grass had grown up through my hair, and the rose mallows grew around me like a circle of pretty girls. High and sweet, someone sang a wordless aria. I looked up and over the flower tops. Some feet away, a light sparkled in the air. It hung above the ground, dancing to and fro, shining now gold, now yellow, now new-leaf green. As it bent to a flower, it became infused with the delicate pink of the mallow.

The light pushed forward into the circle where I lay. It was an odd sight; as the light moved toward me, a face came toward me as if someone were pressing into a sheet of color-swirled plastic. First a nose, then forehead and cheekbones and a small, delicate chin. The sunken eyes glowed pastel blue and the eyelashes fluttered. The light skipped back and the face disappeared, but it came again, pressing against the barrier, the eyebrows raised.

I pushed myself up, hugging my knees with my arms, pulling them to my chest. With a sigh, I propped my chin on my knees and considered her. One of her hands pressed in next to her face, fingers spread wide.

Words came through the music. “Hello? Can you hear me?”

I was never a person who liked much company. I mean, some people are fine, but I can only take them like potent liquor, in small sips. Looking at the face with its outspread hand, I realized that I did not want this face, hand, or any other part to come into my world. The song and the light were lovely, but I did not want them to join me.

With studied care, I unfolded my arms and legs and rocked forward onto my feet, crouching now, with my fingertips just brushing the ground and my head tipped back to look up into the face. I thought of the black thing, with its smell and its bones crunching and how it never had the chance to scream. My lips lifted and I licked my tongue over my teeth, meeting the wide blue eyes, staring into them and letting them stare into me.

I blinked, and the face was gone.

The song faltered, then rose again with upward slides of curiosity. The light danced back and forward but not to the edge. Was it her edge or my edge? If I looked very closely, I could see the shape of a girl there within the light. Shaking my head so that my hair flew, I stepped over the rose mallow and away, back to the wood, leaving the light and the song behind.

I slept and woke and slept and woke. When the black things came, I ate them; they never got away. I could sit for hours watching the birds flutter from ground to branch or squirrels building their leafy winter nests. Once, a bear sow wintered on the south lee of the black rock and birthed two cubs. I helped her raise them and they come to me still.

The sun or the moon were always in their place, round and full, about twenty degrees over the western horizon.

Of course, she came back. She. Sometimes I could see her shape, wreathed with light. Or she would again press against the barrier that separated us. A girl, a woman, and then a strong-faced elder, white hair in simple braids pinned across her crown. She would sing and I would growl and when she came too close I would lift my lips into something that was not a smile.

Once when she came, her song was dim. I don’t know if she was sick in body or spirit, but I could see a blackness, a place of nothingness, pulsing at her center. I didn’t think; I snatched it out and gulped it down. Her song faltered and for a moment I thought I had extinguished it. But I guided the song and the light, guided her, with little pushes and pinches and waving of hands, to the black rock with its seeping water and the pool. She drank and the water swirled into her, deep green and fecund brown and hot red iron. I could see her clearly then, flaming beside the pool, a woman in her prime with work-roughened hands and smile lines at the corner of her eyes.

“What are you?” her song asked.

“A woman,” I said. “Just a woman.”

Her smile was soft. “No.”

I visited the pool later and found a pendant of agate, worked and polished, and wrapped all around with a fantasy of silver wire. It glinted up at me from the bottom of the pool, an offering or just a gift of thanks. It is there still, shining in the sunlight and the moonlight.

When I saw her again, her face was creased with years and her back was bent. She pressed tight against what stood between us so that I growled a warning at her, teeth bare. She lifted her own lips to me and showed me her teeth and I blinked and nodded with respect. At that, she laughed so hard that she clasped her knees, rocking back and forth. I laughed with her and leapt up and danced for a moment to her song.

I slept next high in the branches of the beech and I woke to the moon and something wicked moving in my woods. It smelled ugly and mean, of shame and willfulness and the desire to hurt. I slipped from my leafy bed and slithered down one branch to another until I crouched over a darkness so profound that my eyes slid past it, unwilling to linger. I noticed that my shoulders were up around my ears, my head tucked down.

I shook my head, impatient with myself. I was awake and it was night; there was a blackness in my wood and my mouth at least, dripping with heat and saliva, knew what to do. The black thing moved closer to the beech, drawn toward me, I think. I stood on the branch, stretched out my arms and fell upon it. It whirled, mouth wide, and scored me with hatred, a poisonous, acrid bile that it spat like fire. It scars me still, but who has not been scarred by hatred?

It thought that I wanted to win and that was its mistake.

After I consumed it, I staggered through the wood. Half of my face was eaten away and my left arm hung down uselessly. I collapsed amongst the blueberries near the black spruce. With my good eye, I blinked up at the moon, the moon that hung just twenty degrees over the western horizon. It is never about winning or losing. It is about risk and joy, leaps of faith and wonder. I closed my eye and all of reality ceased.

The taste of the pool seeping past my lips startled me awake. Something touched my face, a cool, wet cloth. One edge lay across my eyes, softening the gore that was caked there while the other edge trailed across my lips, leaking soothing moisture onto my tongue. After a moment the cloth went away. I heard movement in the grass, time passed, and then more movement and the cloth was back. I sucked at it, rock and earth, towering trees and delicate flowers, buck and bear and buzzing bees. It went away and came back again, three times, maybe four.

I could hear singing now, beautiful, more beautiful than I had ever heard. Tears came to my one good eye and the cloth brushed them away. I sat up and took the cloth in my own hand and carefully worked over my face. The wounds had closed up but the left eye was gone. I opened my right eye and looked into the face that peered at me from the light. She was very old, toothless and thin.

“I had to hear your song once more,” she said.

I shook my head. “I have no song.”

She laughed, shining so bright that it hurt to look upon her. I stood and made my way limping to the pool and she followed, the two of us staggering and weaving through the ferns and small brush. I slumped down on the pool’s edge, the ground soft and cool, and touched my lips to the water. When I could take no more, I rolled away and sought the hollow with its bed of new autumn leaves.

I woke, blinking up from the leaves. There is a cedar across from the pool, and the sun balanced there on the tip of a branch. I lifted my hand and it trembled. Light-headed, I rolled out of the leaves toward the seeping rock. And stopped.

There against the blackness of the rock was a damp pile of bones. I could see a femur and several vertebra. The skull rested on its side, a few feet away. There were finger bones in the pool next to the blue agate pendant.

I gathered her all up and carried her across the woods to lay her in the ring of rose mallow. I go to her on spring evenings when the sun has not set and we listen to the forest sing. I go to her on lazy summer evenings and watch the bees as they buzz around the mallow. In the autumn, I bring her red maple leaves. I bring her water from the pool, cupped in my hands, and when I drip it upon her, her bones melt into the earth. Together, we sleep the winter away.

Sometimes her light comes and I dance to her song but mostly it is just me and the bones. I don’t know where the light goes. It tried to get me to follow it once, but this is my place. I know that I am not what I once was, though I cannot guess at what I am. I just am. The one in the wood, the one who keeps this place, the one who watches. I am mineral water and blueberries and the full moon and a quiet spring gloaming. I am the one with teeth that the blackness fears. If you come to the place of the rose mallow, or the frost-touched choke cherries, or the weeping black rock, maybe you will see me. I am here. Listen to the wind and the crackling autumn leaves. That is my song.

I have never been lost in the woods and I am not lost now.

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Behind the Sun

Justin Howe

Protocosmo found me as it finds all its inhabitants: the lost, the lonely, and the wayward. I was stranded for twenty-three hours in Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Round about hour seventeen and in the wee hours of the night I took to pacing the long empty hallways past their inert coffee and fusion cuisine franchises. An attendant found me sleeping on one of those airport couches built to maximize subtle discomfort. He told me there was space available on the flight to Protocosmo, and possibly I could make my connection from there. I said, “Yes” and that was that. I was ready and on my way.

Little did I suspect where I was headed, nor can I relate exactly how I “flew” there, for Protocosmo sits within the Earth’s core, but there I landed.

The “sun”, as the Earth’s core is termed locally, never sets but simply smolders down to a cinder once every twenty-four hours. There are cities there in Protocosmo connected by mine-train and falling-bicycle. Its atmosphere has an unpleasant but refreshing spice that turns bitter things sweet. But these are all minor attractions. Protocosmo’s true attraction is that it is home to the terrible worm, the infeci, as they’re termed.

As is common with all recently arrived visitors to Protocosmo, I spent my first days in bed with fever. Natives name these endemic illnesses as if each were a fondly remembered melody. The Wilting Shivers, for instance, is accompanied by the scent of oranges and the sensation of the world sliding suddenly to the left. My first fever was called Conquistador, a type reminiscent of a failed jungle expedition while encumbered by a full suit of plate armor.

Outside my windows at counterpoint to my illness, a festive atmosphere prevailed. It was a kite-flying holiday. The air beneath the smoldering sun fluttered and glittered with kites of wormhide and multi-colored streamers. Every now and then a spark would set a kite aflame, a sight welcomed by an eager cheer. The trick was to pilot the burning craft through the pockets of noxious vapor about the core and set the chemicals alight, so that they burned with brief multicolored radiance.

Despite the attentiveness my landlady showed in administering to my health, I could hardly summon the enthusiasm necessary to enjoy the spectacle.

She was a native born Protocosmotic and wore on this occasion a brown blazer atop a green hooded djellaba with a blue hand-knit scarf about her head. Her shelves overflowed with Agatha Christie novels and she had a tic about her eyes that made her irises vibrate, as if the simple act of focusing on anything held the entire reservoir of her attention.

She brought me a lemon ice and listened to the recitation of my symptoms.

“It’s time you tried the worm,” she said and motioned me to follow. She bade me sit in the kitchen while she prepared her tincture. The rattle of the spoon played ten-pins upon my occipitals, and I swore I heard the drums of cannibals in the distance. Finally, she returned from the cupboard with the glass.

“Drink it down,” she said. “No complaints.”

Sick and weary and wishing I was far and away from there, I did as commanded.

The drink proved temperate, flavored with lemon juice and coffee. I expected to retch, but the opposite happened. My thirst slackened while my fever slipped away. When the glass stood empty upon the table, I could hardly keep myself from staring at it.

The taste no longer solely resided upon my tongue but suffused my entire body, pungent yet clarifying. The very air about me seemed stripped of all impurities.

“That’s infeci?” I said in disbelief.

My landlady, that radiant angel in tattered djellaba, smiled and shook her head. “That’s only infeci powder. When you get well you should find the real thing.”

Just then another shout came from outside. The two of us went to the window and saw a kite trailing green and yellow sparks across the sky. Overcome with a calm I can only describe as beatific, I ushered my savior from the apartment. Together we followed the music uphill, my fever falling further into memory with each step, my landlady’s hand pressed in mine.

Beneath the cinder of the smoldering sun, we must have danced ninety-nine times.

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Upon recovering my health, I decided to explore Protocosmo and hired a falling-bicycle. Such a journey must be undertaken at night, lest the canopy of the craft catch fire as we passed the smoldering sun. Yet still we tumbled so close to the core I might have reached out and lit a cigarillo. My pedaler, a lean man covered with wiry yellow hair scorched down in places to pink freckled flesh, focused on the beacons ahead of us.

“What do you know of the infeci?” I asked him.

“Had a touch of fever, did you?” he said, his face aglow with the light of our lamps. “Was it Clora’s Drift or The Dewy Ague? Did it have spiders, snakes, and creepy-crawlies?” He clucked his tongue and shook his head. “I can tell you about the infeci. I worked the tiles for a bit, saw them up close, worked a hook, and pushed them into the glass pits.”

We tumbled into a valley and steadied into a glide. The mesas in the distance sat upon the curved horizon like tilted pyramids. Patches of shadow covered the ground beneath us, dense in spots amid the ashen gloom. He eased back on the pedal, and our craft tilted. The maneuver afforded me a view of one of these shadows. Our lights barely penetrated the darkness. I saw nothing.

“Those are cracks in the Earth’s crust,” my pilot said. “All the rot from the surface collects in them. Infeci eat the stuff and grow. Might take a metamorphosis or two. (Months in Protocosmo were termed metamorphoses, as years were called resurrections). Pretty soon there’s no room in the cracks, only the infeci. When they reach the crack’s lip they pour out, full of poison and madness.”

“How then do they become such a boon and healing mechanism?”

“That’s a trade secret.”

“But there must be some way to stop them,” I said. “If they grow that way, they would take over all of Protocosmo.”

“You have to starve them. Lure them to a hole lined with fused sand. A glass pit. They can find no sustenance there, and they starve. It’s tough work, but we all take a turn doing it.”

Our vehicle righted. My driver nodded at the fissures below. “These are dormant,” he said. “Cleaned out. Won’t be a swarm out of these holes for some time. The most recent outpours have been in the East, where you’re headed. Take a cart down to the floor, and you should find some tile-work.”

In a city square somewhere under the Alps I bought lunch from a leaking refrigerated cart. I wrote postcards home explaining my disappearance (a task only slightly more difficult than explaining the decision that had led me here: pursuing a prestigious degree from a nonaccredited university), after that I sipped my coffee while reading a pamphlet on infeci put out by the Protocosmo Office of Tourism:

 

The adult infeci is a large, segmented worm as tall as a single volume of the 1923 edition of the Encyclopedia Britanca and as long as at least three adult golden retrievers tied nose-tip to tail. Their skin consists of twenty to thirty interlocking keratin plates behind a smooth dome-shaped head. Legless, the creature winds itself forward via vigorous undulating movements that manage to propel its bulk through the dirt and leave a furrow behind it that smells faintly of rotten broccoli.

There are neither male nor female infeci, simply a single androgynous gender that reproduces through violence.

The infeci diet consists wholly of poison—filth that seeps down to Protocosmo from the surface world. In this way, as the poison is refined within the terrible worm, the infeci serves a beneficial function in our planet’s ecosystem.”

 

A voice called my name. It was my pilot, eating his lunch at a café tent. I joined him.

“I bumped into an old friend,” he said. “A fellow I knew back when I was a tileman. He stuck with it. Told me there will be an outpour flowing past. Get down to the floor tomorrow morning and volunteer. They can always use spare legs for tile work, and you’ll get a chance to see the worms up close.”

He pointed at the pamphlet and formed a skeptical expression with his singed-pink features. “Words can’t describe it.”

Well, I would see, I said, and asked about this friend.

“Esteban’s a strange fellow, writes operas in his off moments. Heartbreak case, he gave up life on the surface and came down here. Said he wanted to retire. Strange way to retire: going toe-to-toe with infeci. But to each their own.” He shrugged. “As Cain said, I’m not my brother’s keeper.”

By the following morning, the cafes were all a-chatter with news about the approaching worms. Men and women lined up to volunteer, most of them only a resurrection or two out of school. I joined a line and was told by a civil-servant to appear the next day at a mine-train station.

The morning was clear, with light flakes of ash falling from the sky. Carts were running down to the valley floor in stages. I waited my turn while a winch squealed rhythmically. Every face about me was soot-streaked. We were a nation of the besmirched. The people around me conversed, and I heard talk of “eggs”, “dust”, and “bulls”: common terms invested with unfamiliar weight.

Soon we were on our way down the mesa, our train zig-zagging until the broad plain of the valley came into view. Far in the distance, a white and red river stretched from mesa to mesa: the infeci. And facing this river, the tiles.

One need only view the paintings of Paulo Ucello or read about the tactics of the Roman testudo to gain some concept of the tile. Armored men and women form square formations often thirty persons thick. Each carries a tower-shield that might become ceiling or wall, depending on the direction of the flow. Hooks and spears are used to prod the infeci towards the waiting pits. The professional Tileman, or Tileteer, since all genders may take up the occupation, maintains the “edge”, while the bulk of volunteers staff the middle and use their muscle as a brace against the brunt of the attack. In this way they form an island that serves to direct the flow and course of the crawling river. From the center of each, a captain peers through a periscope and shouts directions. From a distance, the maneuvering of the tiles displays a stark, formal quality, like the squares of a chessboard come to life and attacking the pieces.

Our cart came to a stop at the foot of the mesa, and I asked the attendant where I could find the pilot’s former companion.

“Esteban?” she said. “He’s still in his tent, but his tile is preparing their formation. Follow this group here.”

I fell in line again and marched where I was bidden. There was a cloud of dust on the horizon. Already some tiles had stepped into action.

We stopped at a supply cart where a plump woman handed out spears and sealed suits with tall boots and visors. Maneuverability was key, but also cleanliness. It was dangerous to come into contact with infeci in their squirming form.

Once we’d dressed and formed up, professional Tileteers moved among us, straightening our posture and adjusting our grip upon our spears.

“Nothing to worry about. Nothing at all,” one said, pushing my shoulders back. “Step closer to your left. Your shoulders should almost be touching.”

I bumped against the young woman at my side. She had a shaven head, a merry spark in her eyes, and she displayed a marked skill with the spear that made my own improficient efforts seem a newborn’s fumblings.

A tileteer barked us to attention and marched us through maneuvers, teaching us the commands required.

Bull—the massed push made with interlocking shoulders.

Egg—closing ranks shield to shield so we formed an island.

Dust—spears out and stab.

Eventually I caught on to the intricacies of the movements. By then, Esteban had emerged from his tent. A wide man with a deep, melodious voice and long hair, he cradled a daschund in one brown hand. He passed her on a waiting attendant and without a word donned his captain’s gear, armor similar to our own except for a bent contrivance hooked to his chest: the periscope from which he could look out over our island.

We parted solemnly to afford him passage to the tile’s center and marched as a square, spears balanced horizontally upon each other’s shoulders.

Tiles covered the valley floor. They bristled hooks and spears and made walls of themselves. The infeci collided with them, their mad twisting and flailing sounding like thunder in the air.

We were positioned near the edge of a pit, a sinkhole of fused sand. Our task would be to push the stream into the hole. Esteban ordered the shields mounted. Our spears formed a support that held up this ceiling. All was darkness. Chinks of light illuminated profiles and tufts of hair as the dank smell of human sweat filled the crowded space.

“Bull,” Esteban shouted, and down we marched, the weight of our numbers providing us with momentum.

I had no concept of where I was going and bumped clumsily against my fellows. It was insufferably hot, quite like a fever of a kind. I thought of Conquistador. The scent of so many confined bodies and stale breath closed upon me. I could little but trust to inertia and the experience of others.

“Easy, now. Steady.”

We came to a crashing halt, the recoil of which brought me into the back of the fellow before me.

“Bull!”

Groans and cries came from the edges. I leaned forward, each step taken against a weight as insurmountable as gravity.

“Egg!”

We strained to get our shields up. A cry escaped my lips. The woman beside me grunted. A great terrible wet flailing echoed in the darkness like we were being flogged by fouled laundry. Flickering shadows cut the light, and the air stank of rot and vegetation.

“Bull right,” Esteban ordered. He must have been close by me, because I heard his chanted whisper of: “Position. Position.”

The press of our opponents was constant. Each muscle stretched only to remain frozen as a steady rain of impacts and blows beat against the shields. Voices groaned in the dark. The ground shook, and my body vibrated as taut as a rubber band.

“Dust!”

From within our square, hooks and spears sprouted. Vibrations coursed down the length of each. Once or twice a snap and cry pierced the gloom. My grip held firmly to the cross braces. Dust roiled in the shafts of flickering light as a black, pitch-like substance dripped through the gaps.

“Careful,” my fellow tileteer said, “that’s poison.”

“Bull!”

We pushed at Esteban’s command. The balls of my feet dug into the earth. Each foot lifted to take a step would hang frozen in the air, and then the weight against it would lessen. The step would land. Another step forward, and another, and another, as if we were wrestling a river into changing its course. With a shout, Esteban ordered the spears set to construct a shield-wall. A cheer rose up as the weight against us turned fluid and drained away. Our task was done, the flood detained, and the worm tide averted into the glass pit, where it squirmed and seethed.

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A festive mood reigned in the camp. I found myself milling from group to group, a stranger made kin for a time by our shared ordeal. A hand grasped my shoulder, and I turned to find myself face to face with Esteban. Once more his faithful dachshund was with him. He asked if I was a Russian. I told him no. He sighed and gave a toss of his head so that his curls danced lightly upon his shoulders. He motioned me to follow and led me back to an open-air kitchen.

Fires crackled beneath great steaming cauldrons. Smaller infeci had been corralled to one side, guarded by hook-wielding handlers. One at a time the beasts were taken and hefted into the pots, where the air beneath their contracting carapaces escaped in a screaming hiss.

“Would you like a taste?” he asked.

“But aren’t they poisonous?”

“Only if left to their own devices,” he said, passing me a plate. “It’s our labor that purifies them.”

Infeci flesh was succulent, similar to lobster but also unquantifiable. An aspect of the taste lay just beyond recognition, like a word dangling on the tip of one’s tongue. It recalled an unformed idea, and with each swallow I believed I came closer to its source.

“It’s the poison that gives them their healing power,” he said. His hand scratched the dog’s chin, and the creature gazed lovingly up at him. “We gain strength and a deeper appreciation of goodness by ingesting it.”

Nearby someone laughed. Esteban paused and let out a thunderous sigh before walking away. His stare matched his dog’s: downtrodden but free of despair. I realized he was a profoundly religious man, although what creed he might profess if any I could not imagine.

Another laugh drew my attention. I saw the woman who had stood beside me in the tile. She was with the falling-bicycle pilot who had flown me so far. She smiled, pointing to the empty glass in my hand, and the pilot waved me over. I took another bite of infeci. Words I couldn’t remember haunted my lips. The ashen sun cooled. Behind it lay my passage home. I doubted I would ever think of it again.

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The Hole in the Reef

Benjamin Parzybok

Across the flat horizon: only blue, no sign of other boats, of anything at all.

“Row row your boat, row—”

“Come on.”

“—this goddamn thing.”

The line and anchor had become entangled with something below.

“Pull like this,” Oliver said.

“Nope,” his father said. “Tricksy widget. Snake charmer. Battle slug.”

“Drink much?”

His father yanked back and forth on the line with an older-man’s violence, unsteady on his feet. His father’s dog, Crappy, yipped encouragement at his heels.

“Sit down, I’ll do it.” But he could not free it either. He looked again for sign of police, or sign they weren’t so alone.

“Nobody’s out there,” his father said. “Trust me. Here, have a nip.”

“I’m going to have to dive for it.”

“Of course you are, you fappy hucker. It’s got my goddamn logo on it.”

“You think someone’s going to find it?”

“Weirder things happen.”

“And if they did—”

“Certain jail time. I don’t make the rules, I just break them.”

“You are a cliché machine.”

“Don’t bother with that ugly face nozzle, it’ll take you thirty seconds, down and back. I can see it right there.”

“You can’t see it. You see the rope, it goes into nothingness.”

“Over the side with you, lout fish.”

“Just need my fins. Stay above me, right? I don’t trust you with an oar.”

“I was born to oar. I’m ad-oar-able. I will oar-rate to you while you fish that thing out.”

“Just stay seated.”

 

The plunge over felt like entering a planet’s atmosphere. The bubbles floated past like little stars, sparks and ash, aswarm with insects. And the sound—ten million molecules all sung together with a concussive white noise.

When the bubbles cleared he made his way down, his snorkel gripped tightly between his teeth, his breath tight in his lungs. The reef swam about him, brilliant and colored—displaying more colors than the cone-cells in his own eyes could detect. He was a stranger here; an alien creature, not biologically well-equipped. Unlike his father.

He scanned about. On dry land, they lived in two dimensions. But in the reef, danger came from any angle, above or below.

It was his father’s growing incompetence that had ensnared the anchor. Drunk and sudden and impulsive. He had studied his father for signs of dementia; a hobbling thing for a man so ruthlessly independent. As he finned further down he glanced back to see the otherworldly silhouette of their small boat’s hull above, where inside, like the meat of a nut, his father hummed some dirty ditty to himself.

At fifteen feet down he held his nose and blew, to clear the pressure in his ears. At twenty five feet they ached again, but he was still not close enough.

At thirty feet he could see the anchor in the foggy blue light of the bottom, nestled into an indentation between patches of coral, but the pain seared in his head and he was out of breath.

 

“Oh hey, it’s Oliver,” his father said. He had settled down into the bottom of the boat, his dog Crappy curled in the crook of his arm.

“Thanks for your help, you sonofabitch.”

He clung to the edge to get his breath back.

“What help could I give?—I was staring into the sky, you were diving into the ocean. Here, have another drink.”

“I couldn’t make it. It’s fallen into a hole.”

“The hole at the bottom of the sea, dee-deee-de.” The song ended in a deep cough, like wet sand sloshed about the bottom of a tin can.

“What should I do?”

“What do you mean what should I do? Go get it. Get back down there. Without it we will be forever adrift. Like wee bits of pollen floating on the ocean, colonizing undiscovered lands, et cetera.” The ‘et cetera’ ending in a wet cough that continued for several moments.

“OK, old man.”

“Have another nip. Fortitude.”

“Nah, I’m good.”

“Have it!”

“All right—but watch. In case I get to drowning I don’t want you falling asleep up here.”

“What would I do?”

“Dive in and pull me out, I suppose. Aren’t you the master at all this?”

“I’m half blind. I don’t know struggle from hello. It’s the sharks I’d worry about.”

“Nice. Thanks.”

“These ones just bite you and spit you out. Taste test. Nobody gets eaten.”

“Like I said.”

He lowered his snorkel back to his mouth and then tore the thing off his face; it was useless if he only dived straight down.

“Maybe don’t lower your goddamn anchor into the reef again?”

His father shrugged.

 

Sometimes it felt like gliding through a child’s crayon drawing in which turquoise had been over-wielded. He was here to spend some time with his father, the master diver, the expat. But instead found him as drunk and as belligerent as always. If not for the anchor, they would be on their way back, taquería-bound.

He scanned a moment too long for the movement of sharks. Tiburónes. He knew how their gray skin merged with the deeper blue of ocean distance, so that it appeared a shadow pursued you, a blue ghost. His father was afraid of no shark.

By the time he made to the bottom of the reef canyon— one reef wall a collage of vibrant oranges, pinks, maroons, the othera deadened white—and within view of the anchor—his air was finished. The anchor rested on a circular shape, three-four feet in diameter, tangled with some other bit of metal there. It was not part of the reef, and his first thought was: Some old ship has sunk here.

He turned and fled, kicking hard through the dim blue into the bright.

As he raced toward the surface he saw clearly that something was being poured out of the boat, its watery contents making a queer snowflake from below as they hit the water. He wondered if in the interval his father had had second thoughts about a life of drinking.

But as he came closer he saw instead that his father stood at the edge of the boat, pissing over the side.

 

“You’re such a prick. I’m in here!”

“Hey, don’t rock the boat!” His father produced a low chuckle. “It’s all fluid. You think they don’t shit in this water too?” His father pointed at the sea.

He maneuvered to the far end of the boat. “Anyway.”

“Let’s pretend you got the anchor.”

“It’s tangled with something.”

“We will put it in the boat and make our way home, under the glorious sunset.”

“There’s something else down there. Like a ship or something.”

His father zipped and sat. “There’s no wrecks under the reef. It’s another anchor. Pull that up too.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know if I can.”

“They ask: How do you dive so deep? You dive deep. That’s how,” his father said.

“You goddamn do it then.”

“You’re already wet.” His father stood again to look over the side, then took another draught. “You need to learn it.”

“It’s not my life calling, you know? I’m not ever going to be as good as you.”

“Learn it anyway.”

“If we just cut it, they’ll see both anchors, think a storm took them or something. I’ll buy you a new one.”

“Too late for that. I want to see what other son-bitch is anchoring up on my reef.”

 

First, to super-oxygenate his lungs, he hyperventilated, then he took an enormous breath and dove. He was stronger this time, and on the way down his ears hurt less. He’d gotten the lecture before. How he lacked inner fortitude, the ability to withstand pain. You’re as soft as a goddamn jelly fish. You’ve got no grit. Instead of following his father’s renegade path further into the remote and the wilds, he’d become a magazine writer and lived in a city. He married, had children (his father declined to visit); all of whom remained at home while he visited his father deep along the Central American coastline. By every normal measure—if you did not count his father’s opinion of him—he was successful. But it was hard to remember this, in his presence.

An enormous gunwale-gray fish passed across his vision, taking its muscular time, blotting out color, so that his descent experienced a hiccup of forward motion.

Within reach of the anchor, his feet dangling toward the surface,his head seeking further down, he grabbed the other metal first, which turned out to be something other than metal. Stone, or bone, or he wasn’t sure; it was covered in a slippery film of algae, which when scraped away revealed white. It was not an anchor, but a large looping handle that curved into the sea floor. He pulled hard and dust rose around the circular area where it lay. Like a plastic ring you might acquire at a carnival, he thought, only enormous. Its face sat against the sea floor, the girth of the stone handle that of his wrist. He gave another pull with all his strength and felt it give the slightest budge. The monstrous fish swam above him now, casting him into shadow. He thrashed away at an angle and shot for the surface, where he could see the shimmery image of his father leaning over the side of the boat. His lungs began to crush inward and then he breached into sunlight.

 

“You came back. Started to worry about you.”

“Really?”

“No, not really. I started to worry about my anchor. And that I might have to get out of this goddamn boat.”

“Thanks.”

“For what?”

“I saw a huge fish.”

“He won’t hurt you.”

“And there was a handle. It’s attached to a circular thing, like a big portal fallen off a ship.”

For a moment, his father’s eye caught on the horizon, but he himself could see nothing in the direction he looked.

“I said there was a sort of handle.”

“I heard you. Neverthelesset, is there or is there not an anchor.”

“I’ll get your anchor.”

His father nodded and sat heavily in the boat.

Oliver grabbed hold of the edge and pulled himself halfway up the side, so that he could dangle and rest his legs. The bottle was empty in the bottom of the boat. His father leaned slowly backwards, but then he swung forward and began to shout what may have been a song, if his father had anything to his voice but pea gravel:

“The hole at the bottom of the sea!

You’ll find it and that’s all there’ll be!

You’ll find it when you’re old and cannot see!

No one knows!

What’s inside the hole

in the bottom of the sea!”

His father leaned all the way back in his seat now, so that his back lay across their gear and his head wedged in an uncomfortable position at bow.

“What the hell was that.”

“What you were talking about. The ocean’s plug. I heard tell it’s around here somewhere.”

“That makes no sense.”

His father closed his eyes. “El agujero en el fondo del mar.

“What am I supposed to do with that?”

“—”

 

As he kicked downward with his flippers, his body felt eleven years old, to match the age his mind became in the presence of his father. His adolescent muscles frantically flailed with defeated inefficiency. But as he got deeper, his adulthood slowly returned, and his strokes downward became stronger and more self-assured.

The enormous fish made tight, sentry-like turns along the bottom of the sea floor, between the coral canyons.

The fish would not hurt him, his father had said. Still, they were two there in the space near the anchor, two consciousnesses, two planetary entities. The fish clearly the larger of them by several factors. When it swam in his direction, he did his best to acknowledge it by looking it in the eye and giving it a grim smile. A single bubble escaped from the corner of his mouth. The fish’s eye tracked its rise, and then it resumed its sea-floor pacing.

The idea of a plug for the ocean was preposterous. A ship’s hatch, a chucked-overboard he-didn’t-know-what. Did his father think it let the ocean out or let it in? If the ocean drained out, where did it go? Into the center of the Earth? And who put such a thing there?

This time he wrestled with the anchor, whose rope had tangled with the handle of the thing. The old man did not have many years left, and he worried that the plug was more evidence of his father’s slipping grasp of reality. You should go see him, his wife had said. He wondered if any of this mattered to his father; if they were closer for it.

The fish brushed too close for him, and the anchor would not come: between the rope and the anchor, it had looped about the handle a few times, as if someone had wanted them there. Around the anchor were the remains of the coral it had broken off as it descended and scraped. The dead coral peppered the sea floor, the ocean’s gravemarkers. His chest began to throb and pull for oxygen. He pushed off with his feet and shot like an arrow for the surface.

 

As he came alongside the boat he heard the sound of his father’s snore.

“Old man,” he said. In sleep his facial muscles were slack. He looked terribly old. His face wrecked by sun and sea. He looked away so as not to see his father’s face any more, nor to be caught looking while he slept. “Hey, I’m working here.”

His father awoke into song: “Working nine-to-five. What a way to make a livin’.”

“I can’t get your goddamn anchor.”

“Of course you can’t.

“—

“City boys can’t dive.”

“Lay off, man.”

“Going to have to row back in the dark. You know how to navigate?”

“—”

“Case and point.”

“It’s caught on that thing, tied around it.”

“I ought to sink this boat, make you swim in.”

“OK,” Oliver said. “Seems like you might have a little more to lose than me there, but go for it.”

“I’m tired of waiting here!” His father stood unsteadily in the boat and glared down at him. “I’m drunk and I’m bored.”

Oliver snorted, and in the process inhaled seawater, so that he spent a moment self-consciously coughing.

“You get back in the boat, I’ll go down.” His father put his diving goggles on, so that he looked like a mad aviator.

“I’ll go with you.”

“Whatever you want, jelly fish.”

 

His father leapt from the boat’s bench seat and arced into a dive, all of the rotting muscles and slack skin finding sleek purpose in the sudden transition to water. Once under, his father did not surface for air.

Crappy barked at his master’s disappearance and ran between sides of the boat.

Oliver took a breath and followed him down, feeling the exhaustion of the previous dives in him.

He swam through the turquoise, glistening with the slivers of exotic fish, and down into the dim world below, where the enormous fish continued its lonely swim near their anchor. His father’s feet, gnarled and calloused, receded into the distance, and he wondered how the old man swam so fast without fins, as drunk as he was.

By the time he caught up, his father stood on the sea floor, the strange handle in his hands. In the current his father’s thin hair stood loose and undulated like a groping bit of seaweed.

His wife had said: The reason you go see an estranged parent is to not be like them, and he understood what she meant. His job was to reacquaint himself with the peculiarities of his father, to check those against his own, to figure out which had been blooming unbeknownst within him, passed down silently from generation to generation; a sly violence, a desire to be left alone, a way of poisoning conversation, every compliment loaded with barbs.

His father ran his hands along the handle, clearing the slick of sea sludge from it, which revealed the bone-white underneath. Then he looked up at Oliver and grinned.

Oliver’s air had begun to run out, and his father pointed them back to the surface, and then passed him on the way up as well, his body half-seal, carving between the molecules of water.

That they had not fetched the anchor meant more deliberation, and at least one more dive down to discover whatever it was that lay below. He wished only to be rowing home.

With one arm gripping the side of the boat Oliver leaned his head against the side and let the ocean’s movements jostle him for a moment. He was exhausted.

His father’s face was red and his eyes were bloodshot. Oliver thought: this will be the moment he has a heart attack.

 

“Ho! It’s the goddamn plug. It’s the hole in the ocean.”

“You didn’t get the anchor.”

“Other fish to fry, peckerwood!”

His father hoisted himself halfway up and rummaged around in the boat. “You drink the rest?”

You drank the rest.”

“Son of a bitch,” he turned to wink, ever-enjoying the curse’s claim upon his ex-wife.

“Listen—it’s too dark to be doing this. Let’s mark the spot. We’ll row home.”

“You don’t understand what I’m saying.” His lifted his goggles up, baring the red pressure rings around his eyes. He gripped Oliver’s bicep with one hand, his other hand held the boat. His eyes bulged wide: “It is the hole in the ocean.” A sputtering of sea-salt spittle followed.

“What does that even—?”

“I don’t know yet, boy!” he released Oliver’s arm and tapped his own temple. “How will we know until we open it?”

His father’s head disappeared below the water, leaving Oliver alone for a moment to sigh and cuss. Then he dived after him. But his father was not ahead; there was no sign of him. He glanced toward the surface and saw his father’s legs on the other side of the boat. Oliver doubled back.

His father rummaged about in the thick layer of detritus at the bottom of the boat—”I’d chuck this shit overboard if you weren’t along.”—Socks, fishing line, beer cans, old plastic bags from long-eaten snacks, and the fish they’d speared, having breathed their last breaths. From it emerged a half-drunk bottle of Rosé.

“Ha!”

“You sure that’s still good?”

With the cork off his father took a healthy pull off the bottle, and followed it with an uneven expression.

“It’s gone bad, hasn’t it.”

His father scowled at him. “Wine doesn’t go bad.”

“Pretty sure it does. That one started bad. Can’t have improved much in the bottom of the boat.”

“It’s a little bit bad.”

“Can I just talk some sense into you for a moment.”

“Here—” His father re-corked the wine, and then disappeared below the surface again, and reappeared next to him. “Have a drink.”

Oliver measured the partial drunk his body already worked, alcohol and exhaustion and sun all laying their claims upon him. The sun sat just above the horizon now. The turquoise below him had dimmed. He took a drink anyway.

“A fine vintage. Sparkling nail polish remover.”

His father laughed and slapped him on the back. “Snob!” He was clearly having a good time now, and Oliver was loath to interrupt it. The two of them companionable in the golden light, each with an arm on the boat, smiling at each other as they floated above some strange new discovery in the waters below.

“That is the largest goddamn Grouper I’ve ever seen.”

“— that fish?”

“That sonofabitch knows something. Where’s my diving light?”

 

After his father disappeared below the water, Oliver dipped his head below the surface to watch him descend, until he could see him no more. Crappy ran from edge to edge of the boat, as he did every time the old man went below.

“Hey Crappy,” he said. “That’s enough.”

To his surprise the dog calmed and stared down at him in the water. Perhaps the dog did not worry, with his small frantic mind, but only performed the duty he’d been taught, and having been excused of it he was free to ponder other things. It was hard not to apply the analogy to himself. In an unsettling moment of introspection he wondered how many of his own habits were simply his replaying back the chords he’d been taught.

He very much doubted there existed such a thing as a hole in the ocean. To ponder it was to upend reality. Did humans put it there? He could not imagine why or how they could. The hole’s existence implied some other’s intention. Amidst all of the slow, wild processes, here was something that was a fabrication. It suggested he lived in a playground, a test bed, a Petri dish. Where the light of the lab might be turned off at the end of the work day.

What was a hole in the Ocean for? It seemed more akin to

The knot in a balloon

The cork in a bottle of wine

The pin in the grenade

It was no finishing touch on some design, it was the kill switch. A terror crept into him. He felt incredibly small, a tiny, insignificant dot, treading water above the opening, in a wide, open sea. At the moment, he did not know in which direction land lay. The sun lay half in the ocean, half out. He lowered his face into the water to search out his father and saw a glow deep down.

Lifting his head up he said: “Crappy?”, and the dog perked up. “When given a choice, I have only ever known him to take the worst one.”

The dog barked his agreement.

He turned and swam hard for the light. The water’s turquoise hue had gone, leaving a murkiness with hints of large creatures at the edges of his vision.

Following the anchor rope he passed the coral canyon walls, now ominous objects in his periphery. Further down, the dark form of the grouper paced in the narrow box over the portal, and he swam hard to miss its trajectory. The diving light sat at the hatch’s edge, the anchor remained tangled with the handle. There was no sign of his father.

His air dwindled and Oliver flipped and swam hard for the surface, bursting into the air as the last tip of the sun hovered at the water’s horizon. He called out and the dog answered, but his father did not.

He gulped another, insubstantial breath of air and then dived again, wishing he’d not left the diving light on the sea floor. The panicked breath did not hold. He floundered mid-way between the sea floor and the surface, scanning frantically, and then returned to the dwindling light. Without the iron will of his father there, the sea felt endless. It was not only his father’s safety that crossed his mind.

This was how his father would go, he thought. This was the only way. His father brought him down here specifically to disappear into the wild, down some hole, to lose himself even further. And Oliver was here to clean up whatever mess he left behind.

He held onto the boat’s edge and panted. As the sea darkened, the diving light below shone more brightly. He knew then he would have to open the ocean’s plug and peek inside.

“Crappy,” he said.

The dog whined in answer.

“Fuck knuckle,” he said, hoping to divine some part of his father, “shit nozzle. Crutch sucker.” Then he took the proper breath and dived again, using the anchor rope to hand-over-hand his way into the depths and toward the light.

He retrieved the light and trained it on the grouper above him, who continued its relentless pacing across the space. The fear was burning all his oxygen; his breath was finished and so he rose.

At the surface his exhaustion pummeled him. He tried to strap the diving light to his wrist while he treaded water and could scarcely keep his head above the surface.

“Dad!” He yelled out into the dusk, and the old man’s dog answered with a reciprocal yelp.

There was no time to waste. With the diving light on, he dove again, pushing his worn muscles hard to reach the bottom. He knew what he must do.

He gripped the bone-white handle and pulled. The hatch was heavy and did not move. He braced his feet and pulled harder. Stubbornly it swung toward him until it was fully open.

But what lay below it was only sea floor. A shellfish skittered away; something retreated further down a small, rough hole. His chest had begun to convulse but he ignored it as he searched the circular indentation left by the hatch at the bottom of the sea, hoping somehow his father might manifest where there was no space to do so. He swung his light in an arc, but no body floated unconscious at its periphery.

Then with deft, brute force he freed the anchor and swam hard for the top.

He clutched the edge of the boat and heaved. He’d swallowed some water, and it came out of him along with the Rosé and Tequila and whatever other crap he’d put down there over the course of the day: Central American convenience store fare, packaged in small neon-colored bags, which his father had purchased for their outing. With the diving light he continued to strobe the water, below and above, but there was no sign of the man.

“Crappy,” he said, but the boat was quiet.

He wearily pulled himself up the side and there found his father passed out at the bottom of the boat, his small dog asleep next to him.

“You sonofabitch,” he said. He pulled himself the rest of the way in, vaguely aware he emitted a low groan, the sound of an exhaustion. Once in, he began to haul in the freed anchor.

“You selfish drunk bastard,” he said. “You selfish sonofabitch.”

His father made no response, other than the buzz of his snore.

After the anchor was onboard he sat and stared down into the water. The night was still.

He realized suddenly he could not leave it there.

His reasoning was difficult to parse out. It would make his father angry, to see the thing that had so stalled them in his boat, and there was some impetus there. But his desire to remove it contained elements of their lifelong petty war, over what you keep and what you throw away, what you guard and what you leave to wreak havoc. He himself was a sort of throwaway. He vowed that thirty-five years hence, when his two small offspring were grown and thought of him, their own father, there wouldn’t be a hollowed, rotted acorn in place of their hearts, their real ones having been left abandoned at the bottom of some ocean.

But he also just wanted it, a massive souvenir from the ocean’s floor.

He untied the anchor from its rope, lowered his goggles, and turned the diving light back on. Then he slipped over the side into the water, trailing the rope down into the darkness with him.

His arms ached with every stroke.

This time the grouper seemed to stop and observe him, its enormous black eyes reflecting the glow of the light, its behemoth undulating body paused.

He had all the breath in the world now. Or perhaps time had stopped without his knowing, the universe paused to observe this unexpected act, to see what would happen next. He heard little in the dark movements of the reef, the sea calm above, the boats all gone home but one. He looped the anchor rope around the handle of the fallen hatch and tied it fast. Then he swam for the dark surface, following his own bubbles in the diving light for cues to direction.

 

“You got something on the line?”

“Your ocean plug. Hauling it out.”

“But what if—anyway, what you want that for.”

“Help.”

His father sat up and lent a hand. They both strained against the line until the object surfaced, heavy and metallic. The weight of it pulled the edge of the boat lower.

“Cut it,” his father snarled. “Let’s get out of here.”

“It’s coming with us.”

“What the hell are you going to do with it?”

“It’s my business.”

“It’s my business,” his father mocked.

They heaved and pulled the heavy disk into the boat. Crappy barked and ran to the far end. After the exertion, they panted and did nothing for a moment.

Don’t anchor your fucking boat on the reef again,” Oliver said, “or I’ll cut your balls off.”

His father did not reply, and the comment stayed over-harsh in the night, a bit of venom from the younger snake, taking cues from the older. Instead his father lay back in his seat, and a few minutes later he heard his snore again.

“Please,” he whispered much later, too late for his father to hear it, uncomfortable still with the harshness of his request.

Crappy came to sniff what they’d pulled from the sea, and then returned to sleep next to his master.

“At least he loves you,” Oliver said, not sure whether he referred to the animal or the man. But the bitterness of it instantly faded. He would fly back tomorrow to his own family, where the subject of love was not a question. He put the oars in the oar locks and began to maneuver the boat in the direction he believed to be land, caring less about getting there by night’s end than he expected.

As he rowed toward his father’s home, the stars filled in the black canvas above.

The moon rose, slivery and delicate, a dark yellow hook at the Ocean’s edge, which he pointed his prow toward. And in the dim light, he watched the cargo of the boat gently rock with each oar-stroke, the old man, the dead fish, the small dog, and the glistening hatch that had covered the hole in the bottom of the sea.

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Eel of the Lake

J.R. McConvey

“Our water!”

OUR WATER!”

“Our life!”

“OUR LIFE!”

“Our water!”

OUR WATER!”

“Our life!”

“OUR LIFE!”

Neon poster boards glowed pink and yellow in the late August sun, like opalescent scales rippling on a monster made of myriad bodies. Each sign bore a slogan, praise for the lake or a condemnation of the corporate befouler, Lennox-Mills; and the protestors shook the signs in unison, so they fluttered in time with the chanting. Drums pounded. The smell of burning sage filled the air. The day was warm and good for anger.

Mizay did her best to get some oomph into her voice—OUR water, our LIFE!—but found herself holding back from full volume, so she could listen to how Taslin chanted. There was such authority in it, as though her friend were chopping thick logs with her words. Taslin had tattoos that Mizay loved: a pair of iguanas on her tanned calves; a dragon with a spear in its talons on her bicep; an octopus crawling up her back, one of its tentacles tracing the line of raised, red tissue that ran down her left shoulder. Tas was a warrior, for real. If Mizay was honest with herself, Tas and her passion for these things was the real reason she’d come to the demonstration—that, and a day outside in the head-clearing breeze off the lake.

Not that she wasn’t angry, too. The facts were shocking: fifteen per cent of the islands gone in the last two years. Since they’d stabilized the bluffs and built out the new pier in the port lands to put up the casino, the natural currents that carried sediment and gave the islands their shape had been reduced to a slow trickle of sand. Mizay knew most of the facts from Tas. But it had been her mother who’d first told her about the problem, and all the others it was creating—the islands eroding, the north shore crowded with plastics washed up in the altered current, ducks and plovers caught in the tangled knots and strands, toxic algae blooms smothering the inlets.

Mizay fingered the leather pouch on her neck and stared at the clouds gliding across the blueness above. Our people’s land, her mother had said.

Your people, she thought.

“Hey, you okay?” Taslin poked her in the arm. “Gotta keep up the chant, or the man will think you quit.”

“I won’t quit.”

“I know.” Taslin looked at her and lowered her electric green sign. Her thin lips were raisin dark, and a few strands of her blue hair lifted and fell with the wind. Against the mosaic of neon, it looked like a halo of water around her pale skin.

“You wanna take a break? Get a bite, a cold drink, maybe?”

“Yeah,” Mizay said, letting go of the leather pouch. She wasn’t at all hungry. “I do.”

“Cardboard.”

Taslin chewed forcefully, a grimace on her face, and pointed to the water. “They throw the plastic in the lake, and use the cardboard to make pizza.” She tossed the remains of a gnawed-on slice onto her greasy tray. Mizay resisted the urge to pick it up and nibble on it. She was already too aware of her sweat-slick weight leaning against the fiberglass snack table, so different from Taslin’s lithe, dry body.

“You’re quieter than I expected,” said Tas.

Mizay laughed. “You calling me loud?”

“That’s a compliment.”

“From you, yeah. I guess it is. You were shouting pretty good back there.”

“They don’t hear otherwise,” Tas said, sucking sauce off her finger. She sighed. “They don’t hear anyway.”

“It’s still early,” Mizay said, though it wasn’t true. The sun was leaning west; the waves lapped away at the cluttered beach across the main path, licking away sand, trading it for crushed water bottles and faded silicon bracelets. For months, Mizay had felt a sense of things tipping, some shift in the energy of the city. The weather swung wildly, from sulky heat to heaving storms to cool, clouded days. People on the street got enraged at random. Nothing was consistent. Except Taslin.

“It’s late and you know it,” said Tas. “And you know I know you, Mizay Taylor.” She took a sip of soda water and raised her eyebrows, eyes goofy and wide, then looked away again. “Thanks for coming today. It means a lot to me.”

They’d known each other for five years, since Mizay had moved downtown from her childhood home in Ajax. Taslin had been one of four housemates sharing the crowded apartment above the store in Regent Park. They’d hit it off over a shared love of old school hip-hop and monster movies, The Toxic Avenger series and The Host, especially. Tas moved out to live with a doomed boyfriend soon after Mizay arrived, but they’d kept in touch and gotten close over the years. When Mizay’s father died, Tas had been there to guide her through the delirium, the sadness and hatred and guilt and relief; and Mizay had seen Tas burn through dozens of men, and was the person Tas had called on the night the worst of them ran a hunting knife along the curve of her shoulder blade after one too many pills. She’d had Taslin’s blood in her hair and her eyes, as she clutched her friend’s hand in the hospital bed while the nurse put forty stitches in her. Tas had refused any anaesthetic, spent the procedure staring into Mizay’s eyes, saying fuckerfuckerfuckerfucker, over and over again.

Mizay looked out at the lake, the haze gathering on the blue horizon. Without thinking, she reached out her hand and put it on Taslin’s. Right away, she realized how sweaty it was.

Tas let it sit for a second, then drew her hand back and smiled.

“Need to hold hands, lovey? I thought we were being civilly disobedient.” She looked back toward the protest and shook her head. “I’m all for moments, Miz, but I can’t help thinking about why we’re here, you know? These islands. The lake . . .” She shook her head. “Whatever it’s whispering to you right now, Miss Mizay, the assholes at Lennox-Mills can’t hear it, even though it’s screaming it at them. Because of them. We have to make the message louder.” She sat back, hoisting her neon sign with its blunt war cry, LENNOX-FUCKING-KILLS. She looked up at the sky.

“It makes me fucking crazy, you know?”

Mizay smiled, but she felt a bloom of heat in her face. She was an amateur, distracted, and afraid her falseness was showing on her cheek like a mole. She couldn’t commit to causes like Taslin. It was all too slippery, too hard to hold onto.

Tas got up and saluted her.

“Permission to visit the head, captain,” she said. “Be right back. Watch this for me, kay?” She let the sign fall on the table and strutted away. Mizay watched her go, all pumping thighs and chunky leather boots. She felt a tickling in her spine, and thought again about her mother, her father—prayers and smoke, both of them, in different ways. Her father of devout Irish stock. Her mother, Ojibwe, steeped in the brutality of the residential schools.

Our people, Mizay.

With her mother, now, it was always stories from the past. Wordsmoke. Everything was some elliptical tale, relayed in the slow, deep voice that had only slowed and deepened since Mizay’s father died. Wanda Taylor, née Littleshell, had enough stories to last a dozen lifetimes; Mizay called her twice a week to receive them. She was bored by her mother, but loved her.

With her father it was something else. Even now.

Mizay stood up, grabbed Tas’s sign and walked toward the shore, noting clusters of willow and wild strawberry huddling close to the water past the strip of beach. Overhead, gulls curved in the sky, shrieking in hunger or warning. A few sailboats dotted the horizon, far out. Mizay closed her eyes, savoured the kiss of the wind on her face, the smells of seaweed, wet muskrat and dry stone. She imagined herself out in the water, swimming with the current, moving like a torpedo, smashing into the concrete pier and sending the casino toppling to the bottom of the lake. This was her home—this island. This city. She was her people. Her, and Taslin.

“Can you put your filth away, please?”

She opened her eyes, disoriented by the dazzle of the sun on the sand. Swooning, she turned, searching for the source of the sharp, angry voice. She saw a man, white, white sneakers and white socks, red polo shirt and tan shorts, standing beside her, scowling.

“There are kids here, in case you didn’t notice.”

His long, white finger pointed at Taslin’s sign. Behind him, a young boy, maybe six, looked at Mizay with terrified eyes.

“You think you’re making a point? It’s embarrassing.”

“Sorry?” Mizay looked down at Tas’s sign. She took in beauty of it, the bravery, black magic marker scrawled in Taslin’s curly hand on the humming green.

“You should be ashamed of yourself.” She followed the man’s eyes as they traveled up and down her body, lingering over her middle. Mizay sucked in her gut out of instinct, to make herself smaller.

The man turned to go with his son. Mizay looked around for Tas. After a few steps the man glanced back at her, hesitating for a suspended moment before intensifying his scowl.

“Goddamn Indian bitch,” he said, the words pitched like sharp stones.

Not your people.

Mizay wanted to shout, lash out at him. Say fuck you and your people. Fuck you and your world, your plastic and your piers, your terrible manners. Fuck you and your old, stupid ways.

Instead, she stood mute, burning, then folded the sign in her hands and fled, walking quickly away from the man, who had turned around to follow his son along the beach, and had probably already forgotten she existed.

She looked around. The man was right: there were kids everywhere, running, kicking balls, eating ice cream. The protest was only a few hundred metres away, but in leaving its safe space, she and Tas had walked into a different world, a world in which innocent children ran among people who did not welcome her here, and could become them. Natives, Mizay, her father said. Indians, Mizay, her mother said, waggling a status card at her.

Flight instinct flooded her like piping steam, spiked into her belly, made her clench up and hunch and stumble forward, unthinking. She walked, ran, blind, going until she was away from the promenade. The words in her head slapped like a lash: Indian bitch, Indian bitch. It was the normalcy of it, the plainness of the man, that got to her. That, and his son, blond with blue eyes that watched and absorbed. Mizay walked, ran, slithered, seeking damp ground, seeking space.

When she finally stopped, she was on a part of the path overhung with the canopies of tall ash, maple and oak. Greenness surrounded her. The buzzing of the crowds and the faint chanting of the protest were swept over by the wind whushing through high branches, and the rattling of brittle leaves lower down, spackling the path in shadows.

She stood, shaking, huffing breaths, not crying. She was not what her father said, not what her mother said; though she was exactly these, both.

Mizay had no idea how long she’d been standing there when the woman rounded the corner and came toward her, walking with intent. Mizay felt the air pulse, like wind pushed by a great flapping wing. The woman wore a denim jacket and high boots and had hair tied back in a long braid. She wore a satchel on her shoulder and held a smartphone in her right hand.

“You look lost,” she said to Mizay.

Mizay felt a foaming in her belly. She stared at her dark, speckled wrists. She thought of her mother, of the yellowed suds gathering in the stilled bays around the island. She looked up and to her right and saw the high concrete tower spearing above the treetops, marking where the city skyline pushed against the edge of the harbour. She thought about her father, who had also looked so normal, who had been respected and admired among his friends and colleagues.

“No,” Mizay said. “I’m home.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah. I think . . .” Mizay trailed off. Why should she the one to feel shame? She tested it in her mind: he devalued me. Something inside her said she should be used to the slurs, and the thought filled her with rage and despair.

“I’m Cora,” the woman said. Her eyes were deep, black. Mizay thought how they smiled and howled at once.

“Mizay,” said Mizay. The next part like a confession: “Taylor”.

Cora cocked her head and smiled. “That’s an interesting name,” she said. “Do you know what it means?”

Mizay knew what it meant to be Taylor. Then, other times, she didn’t know—couldn’t process being Taylor, because it was part of her, and that in itself was something she couldn’t understand. She’d never liked the first name her mother had chosen, never cared to know what it meant. It was enough, to know it was an Ojibwe word, one of the only concessions her father had ever made to her mother’s ancestry, one he’d always resented.

She shook her head, no.

Cora turned around and surveyed the trees.

“Your mother knows what your name means,” she said. Mizay twitched. Cora walked to the side of the path and rubbed a bit of tufted grass between her fingers. Suddenly Mizay heard the water, lapping, sighing, just past the trees and down the rocky beach to her left. The leaves became more distinct. The sun burnished the clouds a dusky gold. The woman turned and stared right into Mizay’s eyes, which were still puffy and red. “But I think you should ask the grandmothers and grandfathers.”

Mizay blinked. “They don’t talk to me,” she said.

The woman smiled. “They’re just waiting for the right time.” She took a slow step toward Mizay and slid a reed behind her ear, where it tickled like a fuzzy caterpillar. “They don’t judge anyone.”

Mizay swallowed. Her throat was dry. She thought about Tas, about her fiery, mad heart, and her gut wobbled. Tas would be looking for her. Worried. Maybe frantic. How long had she been gone for? She tried to remember what she’d done with Taslin’s sign, and couldn’t. Suddenly she panicked.

“I have to get back,” she said to the woman.

“I think so,” the woman said. “But wait a minute.” Reaching into her satchel, she pulled out a steel water bottle, unscrewed the lid and offered it to Mizay. Mizay reached out and took it. She tipped it back into her mouth, feeling the cool water course down through her body, and handed the bottle back to Cora.

“Thank you,” she said.

“You’re welcome. One more thing.” In a single motion, Cora leaned in and wrapped her arm around Mizay, held out her phone, and snapped a selfie against the backdrop of lush green, the lake peeking through the gaps in the leaves. Mizay saw herself on the tiny rectangular screen, and realized she was trembling.

“Why do you want a picture of me?” she asked.

“Because,” Cora said. “You’re beautiful.” Head down, tapping her phone and humming, she walked back the way she’d come, disappearing around the corner.

Mizay stood, unable to move. She needed to find Taslin . . . but she was afraid. Her hand on Taslin’s hand: she hadn’t even known it was happening . . . even though all she’d wanted, all day, was to take her finger and trace the shape of the octopus down the smooth, scarred blade of Tas’s back.

That man and his child: they were just excuses to run.

The woman had asked Mizay her what her name meant, but Mizay was certain she knew the answer. Ojibwe, Mizay. On instinct, drawn by a current that calmed her breath and gave her lightness, Mizay went after her.

Rounding the path, she came to a clearing, where a stone beach sloped down to a full, wide view of the lake across the curve of the islands’ south shore. Halfway to the tip, a gap funneled inward, the water carving a rill between the clustered trees. In the distance, over on the eastern mainland, the casino was a tiny grey box on the jutting pier, studded with electric lights that blazed in the waning sun, baiting the dusk and the early moon. Cora was gone.

Mizay felt a flexing, an undulance, shoot through her back and down her legs.

Our water.

It breached right in front of her, some thirty metres out. A curving loop of silver, slick and shimmering, muscled and lithe, huge as a subway train, exploding above the polished surface of the lake. Mizay gaped at it, the coils of its snakelike body, its ribbony fin, the feline cast of its head, droplets of foam splashing up as it plunged back into the heaving blue, throwing up plumes of water. As it went under, she felt its presence as a bulging in the sky, a slithering of the sand beneath her feet, a deep rumbling in the wind.

And she knew, in her heart, that what she saw was real. More than that, she knew it was no blasphemy born of pollutants, no scream from the crying lake . . . but a gift, telling how the past would become the future. How destruction and healing would always exist, side by side, in cycles.

She knew that this was the lake returning.

Mizay breathed in, filled with the sun’s warmth, the murmuring sounds of the city and the echoing ripples on the water radiating out from where the eel had surfaced. She heard her mother’s voice. She heard others, too. She would speak with them all, soon.

But first, she would go and find Taslin, and tell her, something new is happening.

Read an interview with J.R. McConvey about “Eel of the Lake”.

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When No One’s Left

Lora Rivera

“David.” I roll his name around in my mouth like it is a prayer. David Malouf. He laughs when I use his family name. It means nothing now. But I like it. I like how when I use it, I remember.

In some ways, it would be easier to forget. And then, we’d be back at the beginning of time, just the two of us, as if none of it had happened. Just bodies. No past, no future.

David Malouf. David, my David.

I stand from where I’ve been stooping along the riverbank, gathering wild onions.

We do think about it. I do. Here, holding the weight of the onion heads against my belly, tucked inside my makeshift shirt, pulled up apron-like. I, who never wanted to be married, never cared for children, who could think only of the next track meet or of prom coming up and who scoffed at the idea of college—no one with our kind of money would bother. I, now craving the swell of life inside me, foreign and mysterious, and yet so bound to my genetic coding it’s all I can do to fight the primeval urge that wills to devour me.

It’s there in his eyes, too.

I roll my shoulders to relieve the gelled pinch that sits at the base of my neck. The muscles loosen easily, perfectly. It’s been thirty-eight months (although David swears thirty-nine and has stubbornly fasted accordingly) since we left the capsule, and still I remember the break in my clavicle, the blast of pain deep in my bursting eardrums as the world incinerated itself—when the first of the bombs hit. I remember the bullet in my thigh, how the exploded metal screamed under my skin. I shouldn’t have been alive to take her spot. It was supposed to be her, not me, in the capsule beside David, slumbering through the centuries.

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But she didn’t make it. Her skull cracked open when the earth quaked and she fell. I can still see it, the gore spilled out . . . .

We’ve seen no birds, and so no eggs. We wouldn’t be able to stomach it, cracking them open.

For a long time, we made no decision. We didn’t touch. Even accidentally. There was too much grief.

But survival is a cruel and unfoilable taskmaster.

I look over the small field at him, the one we found several months ago rife with edible tubers. We will have to move soon, because they are mostly gone. Winter is coming again. We will need better shelter. David is turned toward the setting sun. He always knows where west is, day or night. Once, early on and in a rage, I told him his God was gone with his Mecca and why bother? His face became a shadow that took a long time to clear.

His back is covered in what is left of his uniform, now stitched with plant matter to reinforce it. He is strong and tall. Perfect, just like me. We had a half millennium in the amniotic bath to be transformed, re-generated, made into exactly two people robust enough—given vastly elongated lifespans—to reclaim our planet.

We swore we would.

But the people we swore to—the people to whom we paid money and blood—are gone now. It is only me and David. And this broken species of ours should never again have dominion over the earth, now that it’s free. We do not deserve this second chance. I’ve told him this. He agrees.

He turns and looks my way, looks down at the bulge of onions.

It is in his eyes.

Where is the goddamn pill when you need it?

I want to go to him. Drop the onions in a heap and wash our bodies in the river and fuck under the hot, indifferent sun. But—David Malouf, we swore to each other. We wouldn’t. We won’t. We are the last, and we will make the right choice. Now, after so many wrongs, after so much failing.

“Is it life, what we have?” he asked once in his right-to-left kind of way that I’d grown to love. He took my hand, and his touch electrocuted my skin, his fingers like the first rays of sunlight on a dewcold morning. “In childbirth, you would not be weak or die. You are stronger, no? The bath made you this?”

Yes. My body is strong. It isn’t the lack of hospitals I fear, not the absence of cervical blocks or local anesthesia.

But I pulled away, glared at him. We’d discussed this, what I’d have to do.

I won’t die. But when I let our baby die, or if I kill it myself?”

He shuddered, nodded. Shook his head. “No, no.”

“We can’t.”

“No.”

We did not touch again.

But as the months turn, we are both falling.

Now, he stands across the field, and I wonder what he will say if someday after we fall there is more blood between my thighs than the months before. He notices things. He will ask, and I will tell him. We talked about it, true, we agreed, true, but talk is not real. Blood is real. Death is real. It is my body, not his, and so my burden, my responsibility. Will he hate me? Will he understand?

I must be strong.

After all the world has been through and now abandoned—

I do not feel strong.

David approaches. My hands tighten, and then something lets go. The onions tumble. Their scent makes my eyes water, so that he comes to me in a field of molten green and liquid sky.

I don’t know who moves first, but our hands reach out and close the space between us. Blood surges. Ours is the only human touch on the face of the planet.

It is the only thing that matters in the whole world.

What is the right choice anymore? When no one is left?

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The End of Occidentalism

Robin Wyatt Dunn

Not man in a metal hat aboard a floating city, not carpetbagger walking jauntily from the train. All colonies begin, after all, in the mind: longing for that hub, the warm fire of London, Paris, Berlin, Lisbon, Rome, Jerusalem. Only there can the gravity of this life achieve its divinity; there, past the horizon, wisdom is won on streets of gold.

Next to this mental promise is always and forever the sword, the mighty brittle sword, cutting straight to the native’s throat.

You who long for the pure identity, for the aboriginal truth, for the phantom heart we left behind when we accepted the alphabet or the railroad, you who know that language conquers all including dream, you who have sunk under the meniscus of Reason into the midnight shadow of what anxious scholars call the subaltern, which only means servant, but no less scary for being quotidian, you bold believers in revolution, remember:

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My father showed me his Social Security Card. A small rectangle of time-worn paper printed with dark and light blue ink, with a simple string of nine numbers typed across the middle below his name. Paper.

“Boy,” he had told me, “this card meant I was part of the eternal vigil for the General Welfare intended by our Founding Fathers, as they wrote in the Preamble to our Constitution.”

It was another vigil that took my father away, the hunt for talkative men, opinionated men who spoke about what they thought.

Our Holy Office is eight hundred miles to the east, the Route 66 Building in Chattanooga, Tennessee. My father is interred there in an unmarked grave. Our corporate charter is unusual in that we do not lay claim to particular territories; we build and maintain roads, and as such subcontract with a variety of governments.

Even so, movement is discouraged. The roads are seldom used. Taxation provides Our Holy Office with the majority of its income.

I am a customs agent. I supervise the scanning of many of the shipments that pass this way, here outside Elk City, Oklahoma. Elk City, a city founded by railroad men, for railroad men.

It is such a slow slip into the river of time, is it not, the tight and eternal bonds of blood between nation and merchant-tyrant, the business of both Americas, O Coolidge, is business, the business of your short-statured smile, of your diesel appetite, of your divine love.

Oklahoma did not fight long for the Constitution. Religion and jobs were easy replacements for the people of Elk City; after all, it was how they had been raised.

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Not man in metal hat or traveler with carpet bag, no more, the colony extends within, always and forever within, seeking markets in our soul and trading posts in the medulla. The logic of trade is tragic in its immensity, having no innate moral valence: it is like the physics of asteroid fields, marking transits of orbit to orbit, collision to collision. The only end is movement; wheat, fetuses, gold or slaves. Movement, forever on the move, old son, old daughter of my eye.

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“Run!”

She is under the train and the jackboots are scanning her from above but I don’t think they have X-rays for some ridiculous reason, probably a copyright dispute. Remote monitored but not directly controlled; they hover at one hundred feet as I crouch under a lip in the railroad embankment, my daughter only 25 meters away, under the old steel train, attaching her mapping pod.

Maps are treasure for us. Reliable data.

I have my rifle but it would be slow suicide to fire on the drones; I am not wearing my ID. In this, again, I am unusual man: to facilitate my movements I have been only partially biometrically scanned. Though I have not visited the neighboring corporations, being only imperfectly databased is an advantage when it comes to such official travel: you can still talk fast and make impressions before executive summaries are sent to buyers’ hands.

I close my eyes and wait for the hum to diminish: a statistical forty seconds elapse between stimulus and response for this model drone. I can hear my daughter’s breathing.

Brother, this is my testimony to you. Do you remember that old flag? Have you seen it? Do you remember the state birds and trees? For my father it was mockingbird and pecan. What was it for your father? I wish I could sing with you some old song we both might know.

The hum is fading away, fading west.

“Rebecca!” I hiss.“Strap it on already.”

“I’ve got it,” she whispers back. And we are running back home, running, running in our night.

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Every night I see the debates on the inter-county screens: the thousand comparative sufferings that are the legacy of a complicated continent. I know my father felt as I do, old unreconstructed Marxist that he was, that this obsession ultimately slowed revolution, slowed the mobilization of angry populations to war.

Our Holy Corporate Office does not care what color my skin is except insofar as its melanin concentration marks a biometric datapoint. My native language is interesting demographically but not politically. No, no, it is my access that counts in the end, a number on the screen, a codeword coded down into a variety of linked mountaintops, satellites, and nuclear submarines, an invite list for oligarchy. Which house, which train, which river and which orbital flight belongs to me and mine? None for me, brother, and none for you either.

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The Chattanooga Choo-Choo will leave Elk City at 23:00 hours tomorrow night: the mapping pod will record its route and transmit this data in a final burst when it reaches the Pacific, some two days later. By then I hope to be in Texas.

“Jamila isn’t coming,” Rebecca says, watching me, watching the sky.

“We can still trust her,” I say.

“What will they do if they catch us?” my daughter asks.

“They won’t.”

“But what if they do?”

“They won’t.”

Texas, my father’s state, is already almost mythical to me. Original and aboriginal.

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I told my daughter we were lighting out for the territory. The territory, child, always and forever thirsty, which is what a territory is by root: a thirsty patch of ground. I who thirst for the ways of my ancestors am lost, and lost again, because I no longer know what it means to be a man.

I am not a tree or a bird, I am not a national or a tribalist. I believe only in the community of Man, and yes, our manifest destiny of the stars. Is an absence of boundaries a boundary? It is what Che Guevara longed for, that old madman.

I watch my daughter walk ahead of me and admire her strong legs: we will make it to New Mexico on foot, I know it.

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Wine and Wisteria

Diego Reymondez

“I try to put myself in people. See them, at least. I think it helps. Even though I can’t remember her, I see vines of wisteria and grape, and when they get mixed in with the few other things I know about her, I get a pretty clear picture of my grandma.

“I imagine that last little pat on the ground when she finished planting them. How she straightened up, supported her back at her hips and made this stern face. She was always stern-faced, I think. Yeah. Maybe she looks kind of upset. She can’t relax and watch it grow even for a minute.

“You should probably know that the main word my aunts use to describe her is, ‘Trabajadora. Muy, pero que muy, trabajadora.’ Which means—‘A hard worker. But a very, very hard worker.’ Except I think I’ve got emotional memories that urge me to disagree. When I was two, and she spent that year with me in Yonkers, I understood in my own way that she was a loving woman who regretted never quite learning how to express it.

“So. She was upset that she couldn’t take that minute to appreciate what she’d planted, which was, more than anything, shade for me all these forty years later. What she did instead was breathe her relief that she’d finished another thing and move on. I can’t see her as a hard worker. I see a victim of the setting sun.

“Then there’s the moment before that. Where she had to step out, feel the sun, look up, and decide that there needed to be something. It was a chain of thought that could have arrived at any vine on Earth. Or tree. And she went with two: the pretty one they planted in the city, and the one she drank daily with lunch.

“You haven’t seen it yet, but if you walk two or three minutes that way, we’ve got about an acre of grape. The same land she overwhelmed herself for a quarter of her life to save and buy. And I genuinely can’t process why. I know the thinking was that if they had more wine, they could sell more, but they only needed to sell more to make enough to buy more land. If your surplus is always tied up in savings, then isn’t that effectively the same as not having surplus?

“I’m overwhelmed when I consider the dissonance in how she felt about adding probably an extra twenty percent to her work load, with no extra time to do it in, and no extra cash. “And making wine is hard. It was weeks of walking up and down hill, pruning, years of weeding by hand until they bought the tractor, and even the tractor wouldn’t go directly under the vines, so she still had to do it by hand.

Then there’s upkeep on the barrels. You take them out in summer, wash them, one by one, that’s two days by itself. Then you have to seal them up and roll and maneuver them back inside. Then there’s the harvest. Which is thousands of individual . . . things of grapes. In Spanish they’re called racimos. I never needed to learn that word in English, so I don’t know it. Although now that I think about it, it’s probably something simple, like bunches. Or . . . groups?

“Anyway, so the grapes won’t spoil, you have to physically make the wine. That’s another, like, two days of actual nonstop hard work right after the harvest. You’ve got to lift and dump all the buckets into the lagar, which is the place where we start the fermenting. Then you step on them, press them, move them into open barrels to ferment more. Then, the next week, you’ve got to move those thousands of liters into closed barrels so they can finish fermenting. And not long after, you have to prune, and you get the point.

“And this is something they’d do even if they didn’t sell a drop. Mostly so everyone could have their daily glass or two of wine with lunch.

“Now it’s me taking care of the vines. And it just seems she could have done less and lived just as well. I mean, I make a bit less than she did. But I do way less. Like, if you weed under grapes you have a basic misunderstanding of how roots work. It’s work without purpose. I give the vines their scattered week of my time each year, and it’s already too much. I’d really just rather let the vines grow wild and occasionally reach up some long stick and knock them down to watch my ducks run up, mwap mwap mwap mwap mwap, lean over, and scarf them down. Then they just start dancing. It’s fantastic. They do this thing where one of them trills and shakes their butt feathers, and circles their neck, and always stops when their head’s far out from their body. Then they all start dancing. And—if you ever get a chance, look up Muscovy duck dance on youtube. It’s fun. They enjoy the sugar way more than I do a daily cup of wine.

“But the wisteria I like. You know, it blooms for that week or two, or whatever, but I look forward to it. You see them, and you know winter won’t stifle growth anymore. You can start to really plant out the nursery.

“Thanks for letting me vent, by the way. I try to have these conversations with my parents, and they just tune it out. They want something else out of me. I gave them a similar kind of rant once. About the wine and the wisteria. I didn’t have it this well thought out, but.

“Every time they visit I end up, like—we end up battling. I just end up trying to prove, with shouting, that they have to enjoy losing time. Or they’ll get locked into that same rundown their parents had. Where they spend their lives stressed out because they work so much, but need to work to be able to buy all the things they need. And I tell them they need to need less, but I’m trying to educate my parents. I’ve got the dynamic backwards.

“We could argue all day. They have each other to reinforce their position. So, inevitably, I have to be the one to step away and accept I won’t change them, knowing they tell each other the same thing about me. And that’s not something I’m very good at.

“After we argue, sometimes, I climb up to the attic where I can concentrate, and I stare at nothing. And before each surge of anger rises, I remind myself that in their hearts they’re just doing right by their culture.

“Out of hundreds of stories the Celts and pagans had, only the santa compaña, the magic cauldron and the lavandeira survive. The santa compaña lets us be afraid of the dark. The magic cauldron became the Holy Grail. And for the lavandeira, well, there’s even a little bird flitting about keeping its namesake.

“And it goes like this.

“When most people tell it, lavandeiras are spirits who died in childbirth, or had a child die without baptism. If you go out past a riverbank when the moon’s full, you might find her. The lavandeira will be dressed all in black, washing sheets with blood that won’t scrub out. She’ll plead for help. ‘Help. Please. Please. Can you wash it out, friend?’

“At this point, now, you have two options.

“You can just keep on walking. Just, ignore her completely. Just—‘Doo-doo-da-doo—there’s nothing going on.’

“Or you can help her clean the blood out of her sheets.

“Obviously, you know, if you walk by as if nothing’s happening, nothing terrible happens to you. So the moral goes that if you see some terrible, terrible thing, it’s best to walk on.

“But if you choose to help, it divides into two more options. When you wring out the sheets, if you wring the same way as the Lavandeira, you die. Right there. Dead. If you wring the sheets the opposite way, you survive, but with bad luck for the rest of your life.

“And something about not ignoring the terrible soothes me. I head in, look at the terrible, and wring different. But the myth must be true, ‘cause it’s unbelievable how many of my conversations become arguments. I must be unlucky.

“By the end of the night, I can climb downstairs composed. With a little help from a myth, I know that the same way that they ignore the terrible, all I have to do is take note and then change things. I can accept that they’ll work hard to make sure there’s enough to drink, but that there needs to be enough to drink because they work hard.”

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Insanitary

Danika Dinsmore

Tourists blocked the entrance to the caves. I’d known they would come, eventually. You can’t keep a thing like this silent in the information age. Downdee, population 1,320, home of the Singing Caves™.

They were told ghosts of mermaids and embraced that tale. Course we of Downdee know the truth: mermaids are horrible singers. No, it’s the caves themselves that sing. It’s a matter of the earth and wind and sea and little holes no wider than a pinkie. But sure, mermaid ghosts.

We’d been kept to ourselves on the edge of the world. No one had ever stopped by on the way anywhere other than to throw themselves into the sea. But thanks to that young turd that thinks it’s a pop star . . . well, he’d come back and “sampled” the caves and put it to music. Called it his hometown mermaid backup. Rolling Stone labelled the music “haunting,” feeding the scheme.

Above the beach, vendors sell t-shirts and key chains and miniature wind up caves. The sound isn’t at all the same. It doesn’t soak up through the bottom of your feet into your bones. Of course, we can’t feel it like that any more because it’s too “unsanitary” to visit the caves in bare feet. Now we need proper shoes and a tour guide to navigate us through the territory of our childhood dreams.

The red and white sign on the Singing Caves™ kiosk reads: Open 9 am to 6 pm daily. Apparently even dead mermaids need their sleep.

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Civitas Sylvatica

Cae Hawksmoor

Atiador,

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps the same is true of us.

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

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

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

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

K.

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Kestlie,

Good of you to write, after everything.

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

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

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

Do not return here, Kes.

Atiador.

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Atiador’s Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Atiador,

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

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

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

K.

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Atiador’s Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Atiador,

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

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

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

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

K.

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Atiador’s Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I still cannot see anything or anyone moving down there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

K.

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Atiador’s Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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Kes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Bumblebee-Maker’s Kiss

Reckoning 1

Johannes Punkt

The first time your worlds crossed paths you felt your fate short-circuiting. It had been a whetstone-dull day, and you had stopped counting the dull days. They bled into each other; you never knew when to make a hatchmark on the wall. But the air was thick with meaningless perfume-smog and you stopped to examine something on the ground.

A bumblebee without its wings. Every twenty seconds its machinery whirred but it was immobile as a whole. It must have been missing legs too, or maybe it did not have legs in the first place. There was a lovely gilded spiral painted on it, and a serial number on its side, and here is when you felt it. You thought: poor little thing, some sadist child caught you, huh? What did he do with your wings? And your next thought was that at least it was a machine and not a real animal. You found one of the wings at the same crime scene and you pocketed that for some reason obscure to you. As for the bumblebee itself, you held it in your cupped hand. It was exquisite.

And it took you a long time to realize that this was not a dull, blunt day anymore. It was not joy that you felt in the intermittent buzzing in your hand; you always imagined it would be joy that brought you out. The relief of a dead friend sending a new text message, one that began with “Sorry.” The safe reciprocity of some perfect stranger smiling at you from his train window as he left the platform. The vicarious oblivious bliss that you sometimes felt watching kids play in the park, like a memory you didn’t have to remember because it was right there. But there were children playing some bastardisation of football thirty metres behind you when you knelt to pick the bumblebee up and you hardly noticed them.

Oh, Tilda.

You found a local workshop and looked inside. The mechanics in the barnlike building were sat at their long desks welding and soldering and not looking up. They had all rolled up their shirtsleeves and some of them wore long, thick gloves so only their elbows were naked. The manager came up to you after a spell and asked how he could help you, and you presented him with the bee as if he would know what to do with it.

“I came to return it,” you added.

He told you it was not created there and you would be better off just wearing it as jewellery or throwing it in the trash. Later, you would thread a gold chain through its body. You asked how one knows where to go. There was a registry, he told you, at the registrar’s.

It was an easy building to find, because all bumbling bees created in the city must first migrate there in order to be approved so that they show they’re capable of flight and pathing and so that the creator will get paid, before the bees can go do their real work; this he told you with a magician’s flourish of his hands and the bee he had been holding on to took leisurely flight out from the barn, down along the canal following some simple scented path planted a decade ago in colours that are lost to us now, crossing the road a few times far above eye level where you almost lost it, and then in through a small hole in an unassuming building with a little golden government plaque on the outside.

Inside, all you saw of your guide was a glimpse of red as it zipped into another opening. Far up on the wall. But with a vine or two creeping out of it, almost come-hithering. Above the borehole-cum-crevice, wiring ran to the right, leading your eyes to a massive painting, a reminder of the far-reaching consequences of the Nimbley Legislation restrictions. It depicted a scene from The Android and the Primadonna, the android sat at his easel with his brain encased in glass atop his head, the mirror in front of him displaying the brain with parts missing, a blueprint taking shape on his canvas with all his best guesses about what those pieces might look like. A painting opposite, above a waiting-bench, showed a Chinese man up an orange tree. He was perched like he had done this all his life, and his alchemist’s belt held different potions in coloured flasks and pouches, and in his hand he held a pipette, and he must have been fertilising the flowers. The sky was abstract; the man was almost a photograph except for the seven fingers on each hand.

You took a number and eventually someone came to see you. They confirmed your suspicion that the bee still had two months of warranty left, so to speak. Three times they asked you why, before they told you the address of the workshop, Margot Hanel’s Path 41b in the northern quarter. “But the woman who works there is weird and you’re better off—”

“Making jewellery out of it. Yeah yeah. Thank you.”

You passed another red blur on your way out. In the workshop you had been to, they had all simply dipped their creations in inkpots, let them dry off, and then set them flying. The one you carried in your hand was painted with some form of elegant fool’s gold.

And on your way to your first encounter you went out of your way to pass the old placeholder statue in the square a few blocks from where you grew up. The one without a title, which the locals call Disgrace. You looked at it for the first time in years, and this was life returning to you, and maybe you would have stopped it if you had suspected what was going on. There is a mat of spikes, hostile architecture, which was put up as a temporary measure to “dissuade pest birds” while the sculptor completed the statue on an extended deadline. Dirty doves and pigeons white as untrodden snow had soon learnt to walk between the needly spines, and now they roosted there instead of any marble or bronze. On days when it hasn’t rained for a while the sides are painted white with droppings. When the locals say disgrace, they smile.

You had missed life. You did not know this.

Her workshop was a little shed. There was a lazy wisp of smoke making its way out of the open door, originating in a container on her desk: a coffee cup of grey water, housing a soldering iron, and its cable continued the snaking motions of the smoke down to somewhere under the desk, where electricity conducted itself underground until it was untraceable in the grid. Her gloves were on the floor next to her feet. In front of her was a tool that looked like a gyroscope, or a three-dimensional spiderweb. A bumblebee splayed open in exploded view was caught there.

The spider must have seen you in the curved reflection of her safety visor, because she did not look up. Just held her hand out in expectation. “Could you hand me the steel pincers? Mind the iron.”

Tilda, already you were in love. Something about the ionized air, the perpetual and artificial spring, the accident of neurons, the disposition of yours to love when you can, the grace of the bumblebee-maker. Something. You did what you were told.

She did not tell you thanks. You, in turn, did not mind.

“I came to give back something of yours,” you explained to her indifference.

She twisted some minuscule mechanism in the bumblebee’s loose heart.

You went on, “It’s a bee and you made it. I thought perhaps you would like it back. It is broken. My name is Tilda, by the way.”

And she turned a little crank that made the spiderweb coil up like every steel thread in it was the same yarn. You could have sworn the circuits closed, though, going around the ball. The constructed bee became whole. “Let me see.”

And you handed her the little machine.

She turned it over in her hand. It had stopped buzzing by this point. “Yes, it’s broken.” She placed the wingless thing in your hand again. The next task on the table was to brush the coat of the new bee ever so gently with tar from the cup. The brush she used was fine and seemed to melt and get shorter with every stroke. You held the broken bee in your hand and your heart hurt but, Tilda, your heart hurt. Brief thoughts of train tracks warped by the summer heat, which must have looked like a seismogram from far above. A memory you couldn’t place. You could feel your own heart like hesitant wheels rolling over jointed tracks.

She placed the finished bee on a tray along with several others. Took a small break to tell you her name—”Clover, like the plant”—and then she handed you a visor and darkened the sky with her blowtorch, working on the chassis for the next bumblebee. When you took off your visor it was dark outside. She had made the sun set, then. You took it off because she did, and the both of you went outside with the tray. Put it down on a tree-stub in the garden. The paint had not yet dried on the most recent mechanical bee but it was a wonderful green white mandala thing with twelve little legs that rattled against the baking tray. They all had different features, like she refused to make the same thing twice: the springs and the sprockets and the very shape and the number of thimblebaskets and wings and the dimensions of the wings and the way they folded and whether they folded at all. Presumably the mechanisms inside were different too, with different ways to identify blossoms and pick paths to travel. And there was the paint.

“This one’s not painted,” you said, pointing to a grey number in the middle of the tray. There were maybe thirty of them all in all and this one shone grey where the others were adorned with patterns in one or two colours from her array of indigo blue, ivory white, pale green, rosehip red, and royal purple. You didn’t mean for it to sound like an accusation. You did not understand it and you wanted to learn. In the silence that followed there was nothing to soften the edges of the sudden gash in the air. But maybe she could see the old colours.

“It’s painted with glue,” she corrected.

You were once taught that nature abhors a vacuum. If you stay silent, people rush to fill the void you make.

Some people’s chests are airlocks, though.

You asked the question. ”Why?”

”It’s a chemical, magnetic thing.” She spoke, she speaks, in bursts of indicative air like a valve spinning open. “When the nectar touches it, it sticks. That’s how yours is gilded.”

In the daylight her skin looked like yours but in the spectrum cast from the orange torches that hung from the eaves like lanterns she was gilded. But she wasn’t yours.

“They run on wind. The bumblebees, like windmills. Mine do. We’re never going to run out of wind.”

”Is that unusual, the windpower? Sometimes I see them at night, they’re around the lampposts, I think they have UV panels on their wings. I think the bumblebees I see have that.”

”There’s no computer in mine. They’re all mechanical. It runs on cycles, though. It’s like clockwork but it’s not clockwork like that. That’s why yours is. . . .” She stopped talking, and took the little thing from your hand, touching your palm with her fingers in the process. You hadn’t realized you had been cradling it.

She threw it in the air and caught it: it was ticking again. In a room you visited once there was an electric light that buzzed and ticked. It could never stay lit for long; the shock of shining brightly knocked it into silence again. Then the hum would begin. Like cicadas, someone said. Or like bees. People bragged about the insects they knew the names and sounds of. And with a metallic tick likened to a chirrup, your bumblebee proved it was alive.

”This is better,” Clover said, and you couldn’t tell if it was as if she was sure you loved the clockwork like she did, or if she was trying to impress you. If she was trying to impress you, you decided, she would be looking at your face when she showed you whatever she would show you. But you couldn’t look at her face, because you needed to experience what it was. And she grabbed the tray by one end and flung the little things up in the air, and they took flight in stutters and stalls but none of them touched the ground. They were the moment before the rain hits, a coruscation, and then they were gone.

Your own bee buzzed with longing in your palm. You had not seen her face when she would have looked at yours, if she had.

skull_green_scenebreak

You went back three days later. There was life in you, which you fought for two whole days. But the hydrology of your heart was stubborn.

You built concrete walls to keep yourself alive, someone had said. He had tried to save you once, while holding your shoulders so you couldn’t leave or really look away. He had told you there was a difference between living and being alive. He had probably got this from some movie. He was a lover; you never meant to have lovers, though there is love in you to give. It takes the smallest hint of UV light as proof of concept.

As a kid you used to throw exotic fruit seeds—from the ghost mandarine—into the tarmac when the men and women in hard hats tilled the black earth and laid the roads down. You had been given those seeds to eat, a profligate luxury.

Something was sprouting from your heart, Tilda, like you had swallowed seeds years ago. She told you about scents that day. It was not like you were asking questions, and it was not like she was teaching you, nor was it like you were having a conversation. It was like she was translating on the spot from some other language that only she spoke, sunlight. You drank it up.

“So, this is actually better than the ones with circuitboards?”

“Better?” She chewed on her tongue a little and you wanted to distract her. You wanted to have her not troubled.

“How are your bumblebees able to smell?”

There was an old watchmaker who died. When he was alive, he was the last of his kind. They called him the great turtle—although with the quickness Clover spoke with you could not figure out who they were, if there really were none more like him. He had a slow, mechanical mind like an orrery. And it was falling apart. But there was genius there, and seven years before he was gone completely he started developing a technology that no-one else had thought of. He couldn’t possibly have accomplished what he accomplished with an unruined, pristine mind. When you asked her what the technology was called she had to stop and think.

In the pause, you said, “Destroy the instrument to make the music,” and your new friend did not understand. She had put down the tool she was using, a magnetic cone of some sort. You smiled wanly, “It’s from a poem.”

“I don’t make the music,” she said. “And it has no real name. It’s just technology. Technique.”

The watchmaker could not finish his thoughts anymore, and started writing “Fermat,” “Ferm,” or simply “F” in the blank spaces of his blueprints. Some of the holes in his plans were filled with failed attempts to write the dead mathematician’s name in his florid, wilting handwriting. Like someone had lovingly transcribed the results of resting their hands on a keyboard. Like the sound of a fuse burning.

As his brain folded in on itself, the schematics became less and less accessible. They lost convention, becoming recipes and fragments and eggs of ideas.

It was the consensus of people who came after the watchmaker that the things in gestation on his paper could never be carried to term, and it was impossible to tell what the results were even meant to be: a machine-made facsimile could not be produced.

One of the gadgets he’d written up, just one of them, made sense to Clover.

A reverse butterfly mechanism: drum up a hurricane to flap a little insect’s wings, when your tools could never be small enough reach those hinges directly. She had improved on the mechanism. Extrapolated from it. She showed you how it worked but the point was that you couldn’t see the last of the dominoes falling. You end up with a mechanical system that can smell flowers.

“Essentially, you weigh the molecules.”

skull_green_scenebreak

You found out that her last name was Aguinaldo. Which accounted for her copper-pollen skin and the quickness in her speech, like she was still in Spanish gears. You found out more but you shouldn’t have searched for information about her, Tilda. You believe you shouldn’t know more than what someone wants to tell you about themselves.

“My full name is Matilda Barrow,” you blurted out. You were getting used to the tiny weight around your neck now, which sometimes buzzed for a heartbeat. ”I just say Tilda because otherwise it always sounds like people are calling me theirs, and I don’t like that. I don’t even like it when people say ’my friend’ or things in that same. . . semantic area. Now you know this about my name.”

Clover Aguinaldo remained enthralled by the sparks and the spiderweb in front of her.

You had brought dinner. You had asked the day before if you were allowed to do so and she had agreed, not indicating that she would like it. Not indicating that she would not like it. She had written AGRADCR on a post-it-note on her desk before you arrived, which was just under eye level when she sat. The note had just been existing there, arching upward a little. And after the meal she had taken the note, looked at it, looked at you, thanked you, smiled, crumpled it up, thrown the note away. Returned to the bumblebee. This one was an eight-winger. It could fly with only two of them, but it was important that they fall off in pairs.

She took a deep breath like you do when you’re about to say something you have prepared. And her visor fogged up when she talked. “Could I have the tool that looks like a stripy wrench that has been hollowed out?” Holding out her gloved hand. “It’s in the drawer by your left knee.”

A strategy of talking around what you wanted to say so she would eventually ask what you were getting at might have been unwise here, Tilda. Your lips along the edge of a drinking glass. You found the tool and handed it to her. You wisened up.

Maybe the weight around your neck would grow back its wings if you told her unambiguously.

“Do you know why I come here? No, that was too general, sorry.”

Maybe there was something in your voice that made her cotton on. Maybe that was wishful thinking. But she put the wrench down on the desk, turned her visor to the side and looked at you without filters.

You put yours to the side.

“You seem to come by for different reasons. One day you came to show me you had hung the bumblebee you found around your neck like a collar. Amulet. Necklace. Today you wanted to bring me food. It was good food. I like crushed peanuts. Once you wanted to ask about the Nimbley Legislation and if that was why I do not use electronics.”

“Right. Those are all true. The deeper reason is I like you.”

Beat. “Thank you.”

“Do you know how I like you?” You shook your head at yourself. “I mean, have you figured it out?”

“It’s a riddle,” she said, then she titled her head like she had asked a question.

“It’s not. It’s just—I want to kiss you. I just want to kiss you.”

“Okay.”

You gripped your amulet to stop it buzzing, but of course it wasn’t at all. “Okay as in you understand what I’m saying?”

“I do understand the meaning of your words. You may kiss me.”

You did.

You were aware love makes you do foolish things.

But you thought it was the generic, impersonal, indefinite you; not you specifically, personally, definitely. You pulled back when she didn’t kiss back, just sat there like a statue with soft but cracked lips that tasted like tofu and crushed peanuts.

She smiled for a heartbreak. “Have you got it out of your system now? Did that make you happy?”

How operative was the word just, Tilda. You shook your head slowly with a “No, it didn’t.” Of course.

She makes the bumblebees, Tilda, that little kids follow across a soccerfield, distracted from the game, because there is a trail of clovers riverring through the field there. Little kids are made without empathy for machines, Tilda. And she makes her machines without a sense of self-preservation.

“Do you want me to go now?”

It was a yes-or-no question, and you know she has trouble with those.

“Perhaps that would be for the best.” It sounded like she was quoting something.

“Can I come back in two days?”

She sat stock still but her eyes followed some invisible insect back and forth. Closed her eyes in concentration. You still had the kiss on your lips; you had been greedy.

“No because I will be elsewhere. Technically you can come back here but I will have locked the shed and I keep the only key and it might rain. You would get soaked waiting for me. And hungry, probably.”

“Oh, I thought you were always here. I. . . shouldn’t have assumed that. Can I ask—I mean, what is it you will be doing?”

“It’s the referendum. You may leave now, please.”

You did.

skull_green_scenebreak

It was the three thousand and seven hundred eighty-first day of spring and you were staring at your ceiling. Or, the point where your ceiling became walls. Your hands interdigitated, resting on your chest, you were performing your best approximation of a corpse. If a brain was rotting and someone zapped it with electricity, would that electricity running through the dilapidating pathways in the brain count as a thought or not? What was with your heart?

How could you possibly go on like this?

At some point your eyes migrated toward a screen and you read about tamefires. You are not a voracious reader, but you used to go days without eating and other times you ate because there were things in front of you to eat entirely unrelated to hunger. There were things in front of you to read; the screen bumped the paragraph up a few notches when it noticed you reaching the end of the line. And repeat.

How flowers bloomed themselves to extinction like goldfish bursting; how some of them, after a few consecutive springs, went dormant for a prime number of years only to bloom again, peeking out from under the dirt to see if the coast was clear; how certain councils were starting fires to reset this clock, to let the crops grow right and avoid a famine. Resetting this clock itself was a ticking timebomb; fire was never tame, not even in a hearth. Everybody knew this. At the end of the article, your screen glitched for a few seconds before resizing to show you the attached image, an orange-tinted close-up of a woman planting lengths of rope like fuses in rows in a field of dirt.

It was the day before the referendum. It was a big one, because it was ten years ago it last took place in San Ginebra. Strawpolls indicated a landslide yes majority, which was why they held it here at all. But rumours brewed. Subterfuge. An underground union. People circling the wrong answer like lanternlights, hoping to draw the monster out from the dark, then teething down as one on a no. Politics.

Last time they called you up they had been asking irrelevant things, hiding their target in layers of lifestyle and opinion. And then a simple question wrapped in hypotheticals, which you boiled down to: should we prolong spring another period, yes or no?

Oh, there would be consequences. In fact, maybe you had already ruined everything. Said the wrong thing. Kissed her. Kissed her. Kissed her.

Okay, there was no-one in your home but you.

You wavered like air over asphalt. Tried to strip the metaphor from your words, but ended up tonguetied. Speechless. Told yourself: this was not a build-up period. Not a progression from friendship to love.

You were in love from the start, and though it has brought you joy that is not its purpose.

What’s more, the joy you felt in the moments before rain hit the ground might have been full of desire but they were good moments regardless. You do not have the right to make them bad memories, now. You have the right to hurt, you always do.

You always do. At least on the days that are not dull.

You had solid ground underneath your feet, which meant you weren’t falling in love.

There was no story, as such. There was nothing failed. No foreplay, nothing thwarted.

Your love was not contingent on a promise of more. Your love was anchored around your throat, threaded through with a needle and a gold chain. It was not with joy that you had pierced its hull, but with metal, like the thing itself. You already knew how you possibly could go on: there is life in a beating heart.

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