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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