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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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 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.”
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.