Vivian, Radiant

Uncle Jessie crushed Vivian into the snow. The coldness seeped under the flaps of her hunting jacket—at her wrists where her gloves didn’t meet her sleeves, at her back as her shirt rode up over her belt. Blood trickled over her lips from the cut left by Jessie’s pinky ring. Her vision was murky under his clouded breath.

She flailed, wrenched an arm free from Jessie’s grasp, and frantically felt around until she found the pulleys of her compound bow. She ripped the bow from the snow and smashed it against Jessie’s head, and he collapsed.

She got to her feet as fast as she could. The tree line was about ninety feet from her. The trees would provide cover if Jessie pulled his .45. Vivian could make it to the trees, just like stealing second base.

Will sat hump in the pickup, sandwiched between her dad and Rick, a fellow sales rep. Her left leg crooked away from the gearshift and Dad’s belly pressed against her right side. Even with the stark, white mountains and the blue vaulted sky, the trip here had been uncomfortable at best. First, her dad had only spoken a few words to her the whole flight out from Philly. And then there was Dad’s business partner “Uncle” Jessie, and his son, and the nephew. Will was sure Jessie knew about her. But Dad never did anything about Uncle Jessie’s teasing. Like a brother, Dad called him. Will saw him more as Dad’s master.

Every November, Will put on her best butch one leg at a time. She read the newspaper’s sports page the week before they made the trek from Philly to Uncle Jessie’s ranch outside of Coeur D’Alene. She cut her hair short and tight. She packed flannel shirts, duck canvas overpants from Orvis, and her Barbour winter hunting jacket. The jacket was one of the benefits of guilting Dad about how she was a good son on these business trips, that this should be a business expense, and since it was a business trip she should look professional.

When she got the jacket, her sister, Peg, said, “Big whoop, it’s a jacket,” and she said, “But it’s a Barbour hunting jacket. Now I look like Papa Hemingway,” and her sister said, “What? You gonna draw the beard on?” And she would practice her hunting walk—slow movements, careful not to stumble, one move every thirty breaths. She was skilled at developing camouflage.

All the way up, Dad and Rick talked about work. They talked about crossbow sales versus compound sales versus recurve sales. They talked about the 1994 “Get Your Kid Outdoors” campaign.

“Where you going to high school next year?” Rick asked.

“Saint Joe’s.”

“Third generation McAddams,” Dad beamed.

“Playing ball there?”

“Dunno.”

“He’ll try out.” Dad gently shouldered Will.

She winced as a cascading sharpness traveled down her spine. “Yeah. I guess.” Her camouflage was fading.

“Will had the highest batting average this past season,” Dad said. Her Dad put as much effort into butching her up as she did.

“Really,” said Rick. “What was your average, Will?”

“625.” She squirmed a bit at being praised for hitting a ball with a bat.

“625?” Rick paused for patronizing effect. “That’s phenomenal. You have another Babe Ruth on your hands here, Mike.”

“I know. I know,” Dad boasted. “It was like every time he was up, you knew he was going to crack that bat. Now if I could only get him interested in golf.”

“Golf’s boring, Dad.”

“You better not let Jessie hear you say that,” Rick quipped. “You’ll break his heart.”

“As long as you play something. Maybe you can get a scholarship to college for playing ball. God knows how I’m going to afford it.”

Will closed her eyes and prayed for college to come soon and end these trips.

Ahead, the wire and wood-post gate, adorned with a red and white caution triangle, emerged from the soft snowdrifts.

At night, Will would float up the Wissahickon River, along the bluffs. Among the twisted curtains of wisteria, Novo, the Eastern Elk, the last of his kind, would wait for her. She’d throw her arms around his neck, bury her face in his reddish coat. She’d feel the softness of his fur, smell soil and lilacs, and hear distant rain. They’d travel into the deep, dark woods, Novo’s antlers glowing silver in the moonlight. They’d move through brambles past warm, shiny houses dotting the borders of the Wissahickon Valley. Peering in the windows, watching people moving inside, Novo would say, “Time will come. You will be the person you are to be. I will be there.”

Will hoped if she prayed long enough, at some point she’d wake up and be correct. Be the daughter her mom wanted. Be able to show her dad who she really was and say to him, “See. God did make me this way.”

Her sister Peg never had a problem with her being who she was, though she didn’t see the point in becoming a woman.

“You’ve never had a period. It’s not something to envy, in fact it can be cruel sometimes.”

“It means you get to have a child.”

“If you want kids, you can meet a nice guy and adopt mine. God knows I don’t want them.”

“I may not want to be with a guy.”

“Wait, so you’re a lesbian?”

“It’s about who I am.”

“Big words for the little man.”

“I’m not a man.” She turned away from Peg.

Peg sidled up to her and said, “Whatever you want to be is okay with me, but stop being such a girl about it.”

Will’s head sank. Her chin plowed into her chest. Peg lifted her face in her hands.

“I’m kidding, Will. You’ll always be my little sister.”

Uncle Jessie told his son Travis and his nephew Kyle that they were old enough to do the fire themselves. Will sat still, tucked away in the overstuffed wingback chair in the far corner, reading Uncle Jessie’s copy of The Archer’s Bible. Hiding in a tree waiting for the bears to pass.

Travis and Kyle poked at the newspaper ash under the logs, making sparks jump. They added more newspaper, but the fire didn’t take hold.

“Fer Chrissakes, you pansies, can’t you even start a fire,” said Uncle Jessie.

Kyle rolled his eyes. “I dunno. Maybe, the logs are wet. You do it.”

Uncle Jessie bellowed, “I told you to do it.”

Travis flinched. “We’re trying.”

“You sound like your fucking mother, Travis.” Uncle Jessie grabbed another beer from the refrigerator. He leaned the bottle cap on the counter and slammed his palm down on the bottle. “Ow. Fuck.” Uncle Jessie shook his hand in the air. Kyle and Travis guffawed.

“The bottle opener is on the counter right there, retard,” said Will’s Dad.

“Some help you are, Mike. You could have told me before.”

“Looked like you had it under control.”

“When does he have anything under control?” asked Rick.

Uncle Jessie grabbed his crotch. “Bite this, smart ass. Where’s that fire, boys? Hey, Will, what you doing? You staring like a queer or something? Go help those numb nuts.”

Will’s tree was shaken. She smacked her book closed, hoping her father would dissuade Jessie from making her come down. But Dad said, “You heard the man, son. Help those two get a fire going.”

“We don’t need his help, we can do it. He doesn’t know how to start a fire,” said Travis.

“Where is it then?” asked Uncle Jessie.

Will sauntered across the room, making sure to show that this was no big deal, as if she was always fixing the numb nuts’ messes. If she stopped, she would be shaking. If she tripped, she would cry. She paid attention to the folds in the threadbare Persian rug.

When she got close, Travis said, “Nice John Wayne, Willy.”

She repressed a wince. Will guessed that if she started giving orders, the boys would follow. She reached into the woodpile and pulled out a wedge of birch with peeling bark. She handed it to Kyle. “Get your knife and peel this.”

“Who the hell do you think you are?”

“We need kindling.” She grabbed a fire tong, pulled the pieces from the fireplace and placed them in front of Travis. “Split these. They’re too big.”

Uncle Jessie barked, “You heard the man. Get going, boys.”

She separated out twigs and small branches from the half-cord and stacked them as a triangle in the middle of the ash pile. She shredded newspaper, mixed that with the bark shavings, and gently placed them in the triangle. She took one of the pieces Travis had split, placed it in the iron cradle and lit the pile underneath. The wood caught fire, and she added more. Setting the fire would be her task for the rest of the trip, which wouldn’t be so bad. She could focus on this and not have to deal with them.

Travis knelt down next to her and whispered, “Willy, you know what they call bundles of wood used to start fires? Faggots.”

When Will was five, her mom took her to the Academy of Natural Sciences to see a dinosaur exhibit. In the end it wasn’t the giant Tyrannosaurus skeleton or the dino dioramas that interested her, but a small exhibit about recently extinct animals. She became fixated on one animal, the Eastern Elk. It used to range all over Pennsylvania. And it had been alive when her great, great grandfather was alive. That was only two greats, so it wasn’t that long ago. Also, it was huge, one thousand pounds, and its antlers were six feet across. The exhibit didn’t have any skeletons, but they had a cartoon of the large reddish elk standing next to a picture of a white-tailed deer for comparison. Her mom said that the last one was killed a long time ago. Why would we want to kill them all? Mom didn’t know. Underneath the picture was the word Novo. Mom said that was its name. Novo the Elk. Maybe if Will prayed enough, Novo would come back, she’d see him in the forest, and they’d be friends.

When Will was four, Peg would play dress-up with her. Parade her around in their mother’s clothing and high heels.

Mom would tell Dad, “It’s normal. Just a way for him to play with his big sis.”

But occasionally, Mom would see her in a dress with a string of costume jewelry, and she could tell that Mom saw her as a girl. Except for the short hair, Mom and Will looked so much alike in pictures— tall, thin, with delicate features.

When she was six, she and Peg were in the same ballet class, but Will was the better dancer. She’d flit and float about the room, lifting the girls into the air. Her mom was proud of her at recital—one of only four other boys.

Mom would tell Dad, “He’s good. Maybe he’ll be the next Baryshnikov.”

When she was eight, Peg and Will would play ballet Barbies in the foyer for hours.

Mom would tell Dad, “Some boys play with dolls. He’ll be a nurturer. Maybe a doctor, or a therapist, or something.”

When Will was eight and a half, Mom asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“I want to grow up and be a beautiful prima ballerina.”

That was when Mom made it all stop. Dance lessons, over. Baseball. No touching the dresses. Slacks and Oxford shirts. The dolls donated to Goodwill. Will got balls and bats instead. Mom schooled her in performance. Don’t cross your legs. Relax. You don’t have to look like you’re at attention. Don’t shake someone’s hand like that. Let me show you. Don’t do that. That, don’t!

Each change became a sticky, stinging layer of new, uncomfortable skin. But in her room Will had secret stashes. When she was alone she would lock the door and retrieve makeup and bits of clothing from secret spaces. She’d dress herself out, paint herself into existence.

Up ahead of Vivian, the thicket gave way to a grove, and beyond the grove was a clearing. The flat sky was turning a darker, metallic gray. Maybe an hour more of daylight. If she could get back to the snowmobiles, maybe someone would be there, then Jessie wouldn’t touch her. The worst thing that could happen was that Dad would blame her for ruining the trip. But then she wouldn’t have to come back.

Despite Rick’s size, Will was thankful when she’d get paired up with Rick. He didn’t want much of anything from Will but to be quiet when needed. The frigid air and snowy forest made it easy to be silent.

The tree stand was crowded with the two of them.

“Did you say something, Will?”

“No.”

“It doesn’t matter. Nothing’s been by. I think we got a stinker spot today.” Rick paused. “How’s school?”

“Good, I guess.” Rick talking with her wasn’t part of their script. She wondered how she would get down.

“Will, I want to tell you something. I watch you try and stay out of sight. You don’t try to mix with us, which is perfectly fine.”

Throwing herself out of the tree stand seemed a good option. It was only fifteen feet to the bottom.

“But you know,” continued Rick, “a couple years off, when you get to college, do whatever the hell you want. Do whatever makes you happy.”

“Okay.” Will shifted in her seat, moving toward the ladder.

“No, listen. I say this because, while you’re a good partner up here, sitting so still, I can tell you don’t want to be here. That’s okay. When I was a young kid, I didn’t look forward to my father’s hunting trips, either. It wasn’t until I was older that I appreciated it and took it up again. I’m not saying that’s what you have to do. I’m just saying that for a while I didn’t do this. Couldn’t even think of sitting in a tree stand for hours on end waiting for some deer to wander by. Part of that was because I didn’t want to do it anymore, but most of it was because my father made me. Ya get me?”

Will nodded.

“And choose a college far from your parents. Somewhere you can find out who you are without them, ya know. Somewhere your friends become family. I did that at least. But most importantly, do what you want to do when you get there. You want to do theater, you act your ass off. You want to major in English, write a fucking book. You want to do music, out-compose Mozart. Do what you want. Do who you want. Don’t listen to us. The world changes as you grow older, and the things you did to please your parents don’t really matter. They just make you neurotic. Don’t listen to us old men. We haven’t a fucking clue. We’re all posing at being the men our fathers wanted us to be, and it ain’t cracked up for shit. The secret is, if you’re happy, your parents will, most likely, be happy. And if not, fuck ‘em.”

Rick made Will feel uncomfortable, but also instantaneously became the coolest man she knew.

Will curled up on Novo’s back as they climbed up the mountain. The wind whipped stinging shards of ice and snow at them, but with Novo’s breath, the snow and ice turned to gold and silver dust and glittered through the air. At the top of the mountain, through the blizzard, Will could see the Winter Palace. The bright red crest of the palace crowned through the silvery clouds. The light from the gate cut a path through the storm, showing them the way. As they ascended, Will could hear a choir of children singing. The choral voices soared over the din of the wind and rang out, “Be not afraid. Change is at hand.”

The gas station attendant didn’t look like he belonged out here in Idaho or Washington, wherever they were. His hair was long. He wore a black leather jacket, a royal blue gas station uniform shirt with the collar popped, and a bright shiny red scarf. His fingernails were painted a lush, deep purple. Small chrome hoop earrings dangled from each ear. Will, hiding in the candy aisle, couldn’t help but gawk at him. Here was this gas station boy out in the middle of nowhere, where it was dangerous to be someone like them, at least according to what Peg told her. Before she went on these trips Peg would tell her stories of boys and girls beaten to death for being queer, for being different. She told her of Brandon Teena. But here was this boy in a gas station where lots of people saw him.

Gas Station Boy’s lips were thin and probably cold. With a nice shade of pink to compliment the scarf, a bit of pencil, and some lip gloss to finish, Will could make his lips seem fuller, softer, warmer.

Kyle shoved Will into the Charleston Chews. “Wake up.”

Travis cackled. “It’s past his beddy-bye.”

“Hey, Willy, check this out.” Kyle reached under his jacket and pulled out a copy of Penthouse opened to a scene where a girl was kneeling in front of a guy, his gooey, gloppy emission all over her face.

Will averted her gaze.

“He totally spooged on her. And she loved it. You like spooge, Willy?” Travis said.

“Hey,” the Gas Station Boy shouted. “Put the porn down.”

Kyle ripped at Will’s jacket and stuffed the magazine down her collar. “He’s the one doing it.” Cackling, Travis and Kyle ran out the door, leaving Will with Gas Station Boy and a dirty magazine in her jacket.

“You going to pay for that?”

Will walked up to Gas Station Boy, placed the crumpled Penthouse on the counter, and tried to smooth it out. The edges were stubborn. She tried to smile. “I got to go.”

As she stepped away, Gas Station Boy grabbed her wrist. With the world crashing inside of her, all Will could do was manage a squeaky, “Please.”

Will had lots of friends at four, five, six, seven and even when she was eight. But after eight was nine, and by then she knew all the ways she was different. She would try and talk with other kids, but it was like they could tell she was this mannequin wearing the right clothes, walking, talking, standing, sitting in the right ways. For her tenth birthday, Mom asked her to start making the list of people she wanted to invite to her party, but the last two people she was on regular speaking terms with, Jenny and Gabby, had moved up the social ladder and stopped talking to her. Will wasn’t even on the social ladder. That was when she thought of the zoo.

And that was what they’d done every birthday for the past four years. Mom didn’t want to deal with the extra kids and Will didn’t want to let Mom know that there weren’t any kids to deal with. The zoo was her, Mom, and sometimes Peg. Dad would figure out something else to do.

At the zoo, most animals were grouped, and isolated, according to their differences. Some were allowed to be together, like chickens and goats in the petting zoo, or birds in the aviary, though they were still all birds. And the monkeys and apes were all sad and despondent. They’d shuffle around their enclosure, then when they remembered that they were a monkey they’d burst across, swinging from ropes, and screech at the people staring. One moment still and distant, then angry, wanting to shout, “This is not who I am! This is not where I belong! Look at me!”

At the zoo, people watched the animals and not her. No one really looked at each other.

On her twelfth birthday, she noticed a chimp in the far corner of the chimpanzee enclosure. The other chimps were hanging out together, and this one was huddled in the corner banging its head against a wall, over and over, each time with greater force. Then, with one particularly hard whack that made a small resound in the enclosure, the chimp stopped. No one noticed what had happened. People were moving on. Mom stood by the exit and beckoned. She looked back at the chimp, and on its forehead was a spot of blood, and in its eyes a distance so secret, so familiar.

That night Mom made homemade mac and cheese, and tomato soup. Dad asked, “How was the zoo?”

Will explained the event with the chimp and asked, knowing the answer, “Why do you think she did that?”

Dad said, “It’s sick or something.”

Peg said, “Probably had a fight with her parents.”

Mom said, “I don’t think that happened.”

“I saw it.”

“You only think you saw that. Monkeys don’t get like that, they’re animals.”

“I was there and I saw that happen.”

“I was there too and I didn’t see it. You are misremembering it.”

“Why? Why do you think that?” asked Will.

“Because if I saw that I would have said something to someone and you are only bringing it up now,” said Mom.

Dad asked, “Is there cake tonight?”

Later, she went back to her room, took out her cutting kit, laid out her supplies, freed the blade from the plastic, and went to that old, secret, familiar place.

She tried to hide her glances at the satin pearl gown with the delicate bead trim and the matching heels. She stood at a blouse rack shuffling shirts, catching glimpses of it between each hanger. It beamed moonlight. When Peg walked up to her and whispered, “It’s too expensive,” she wasn’t that surprised her sister had noticed. They were at the store for Peg’s homecoming dress, for a homecoming she didn’t even want to go to. She said it really wasn’t that big a deal, and she didn’t have a date. Mom had convinced her to get some of her friends to go stag.

“It’s your senior year and it’ll be one of those things you’ll remember for the rest of your life,” Mom said.

“You said that of my perm in fourth grade.”

“You still remember it.”

Will pleaded with her sister repeatedly to go, but Peg avoided answering or said no. But then one day after school, Peg said, “It’s all worked out. I’m going, little sis. But you have to promise to go to the pre-dance event with me.”

So a deal was struck. Will would go to the pre-dance event and be social. Peg would go to the dance and afterward give her the dress.

Their mom stood with an armful of dresses, each one more ruffled and garish than the last.

Will was mortified when Peg asked, “Can’t I get a suit?” But admittedly every party dress was a pooper. “Then find me a dress, Coco.”

“We’re looking for a dress. It doesn’t have to be a party dress.” And off she went into the business suit section and found a casual romper-style dress, with a black felt finish and a Madeline collar. She paired it with red tights. Definitely Peg. “You can wear your Doc Martins with this and it’d still look cute.”

Their mom was happy they found something, even though it wasn’t what she would have chosen.

Vivian’s heart was pounding, deafening. She couldn’t hear Uncle Jessie, but it didn’t matter. The swath of snow, grass, and branches she’d left behind her gave him a clear path to follow. In the clearing, footprints plodded down a slight slope, surrounded by a tunnel of denuded aspen. Only a few more steps to home base. Someone would be there; it was almost time to go home.

As they passed through the gates of the Winter Palace and entered the courtyard, Will felt a rapid, growing wave deep in her chest. Around the courtyard stood people with smooth skin and gentle features, people who were neither young or old, male nor female. People of many colors all dressed in gowns of moonlight. Novo knelt, and Will climbed off his back.

Novo nuzzled her hand and spoke. “You are home, beloved. Do not be afraid. I will be with you.”

And out of the heavens appeared a blinding brilliance, bathing Novo and Will. A thousand feathers brushed against her skin, and when they dissipated, only Will was left. And she shone with the brilliance of ten thousand moons.

On every hunting trip Will would plan out her movements before they all settled into the cabin. The fact that everyone was habitual made things easy. Last year had been different. Last year she screwed up.

The schedule was the same. The boys all were sent to bed before ten and the men would stay up another hour or so. If the men were really drunk, everyone retired at the same time. At the beginning of each trip Travis had trouble sleeping and was up and down all night. Uncle Jessie was the first awake, sometime around three. Will’s dad pooped after coffee around five, and he was in the bathroom for at least twenty minutes, sometimes thirty. There was only one bathroom, which was disgusting, but the door closed and locked.

Will determined that she had between twelve and two in the morning to do what she had to. Last year, she’d overslept the last night of the trip, waking up just before two. She grabbed her kit from where it was stashed behind the headboard and crept through the cabin, fast, but quiet. It was never safe, but she needed the release. All trip Uncle Jessie had called her a pussy, or a fag, or a fairy, because Will still didn’t want to learn how to field dress the deer. Her dad was disappointed, because his shoulders rose each time Uncle Jessie said it. Dad would tell Jessie that Will wasn’t ready yet, maybe next year. That was the extent of the defense.

Will folded her pajama pants neatly and placed them on the sink counter. She opened her kit, laying out her cutting pieces. She pressed the tip of the blade into her left calf. A small cut and the bite from the alcohol was enough tonight. The pain first, then the wash of bliss as the inside trickled out. Then someone knocked on the door.

“I’ll be done in a second.”

Will panicked. She threw everything in her kit, grabbed a wad of toilet paper and pressed it against her wound. She grabbed another handful of tissue and wet it under the faucet to wipe down the blood on the floor and tub. When she turned back to shut off the faucet, she knocked her pj pants into the sink. They were soaked.

“Come on, Will. I got to shit,” said Uncle Jessie.

She forgot that she was wearing her pink briefs. She had begged Mom for pink underwear when she was eight and they were boy’s underwear. She still tried to fit into them, though they were faded, becoming threadbare, the elastic wearing out. She was so careful to keep these things hidden about herself. She took care. She planned. She gathered her things. She shut off the light. She unlocked the door. There stood Uncle Jessie.

“You take longer than my wife.” Uncle Jessie turned on the light. “What happened to you?”

“I got my pants wet.”

“Did you piss yourself?”

“No. I. It was in here.”

Uncle Jessie closed his hand in a loose circle and moved it up and down in the air. “Were you jerking off?” he whispered.

“No.”

“Are those pink underwear?” Uncle Jessie grabbed Will’s shoulder and pressed her against the door frame. “You shouldn’t wear those around here.” He leaned down and said in a low, grumbling wheeze, “Someone may mistake you for a girl, and you wouldn’t want that.”

Uncle Jessie’s heavy hand pushed against her shoulder. Will heard footsteps in the living room and Jessie looked away. Will slithered out from his grasp and headed down the hallway.

“Nice ass, Sally.”

This year, she hadn’t snuck off to cut herself. She watched Jessie watch her. Her dad never mentioned anything to her, so Jessie must never have told him. Will kept her distance and tried to avoid being alone with him.

Peg pulled up to a large, colonial-style house. There were several other cars in the driveway and high schoolers milling about outside, smoking.

“I thought we were going to school for the pre-event,” asked Will.

“Stop it, nosy. Be patient,” said Peg. “We’re here.”

“This is the homecoming pre-event?”

She touched Will’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. It’ll be fun.”

The house was teeming with people. On the stairs, two boys were kissing. In the living room, girls were slow-dancing together. Will tugged her tie.

Peg took her hand and squeezed it. “Don’t be worried. These are our people.” She called out, “Claire. Claire.”

A tall woman pushed through the hallway full of partiers. With her red stilettos, she towered over the both of them. Her hair was long, jet black, with blunt, straight bangs. Her long gown and lipstick matched her heels. She had a sparkly black choker around her neck with matching earrings and bracelet. She was beautiful.

“Hi, Peg. Who is the starlet with you?”

“This is Will.”

“I’ve heard so much about you,” Claire said.

“Is it ready?” asked Peg.

“Of course. I have four Boy Scout badges for preparedness. Are you ready, Will?”

“Ready for what?”

“It’s a surprise,” said Peg.

Claire led them upstairs past the kissing boys, past the people with mohawks, past kids sitting on the floor waiting for the bathroom, and into a large bedroom. Across the bedroom, hanging on the wardrobe, was the satin pearl gown with the matching shoes.

“What did you do, Peg?” asked Will.

“Claire works at the store and she got me a discount. I used my money from working at the deli this summer, and with the discount it was enough.”

“I can’t do this. What about Mom and Dad?”

“Fuck ’em. They’re not here. Besides, I really want to see my little sister.”

Claire handed Will the gown. “Hon, it’s not about the clothes. It’s how you feel inside. But if you want to wear this dress, you have to lose the school picture suit.”

They sent Will into the en suite bathroom. She took off her clothes and slipped into the gown. In the mirror she looked like a boy in a dress. At the store, she’d pictured herself magically turning into her real self. She wanted to hide, to rip off her dead skin. She wanted to scream. Peg heard her, came in and hugged her.

Claire stood at the door. “Don’t be sad, starlet. We’re not done yet.”

“What happened to your arms, Will?” Peg pointed at the marks on her inner arms.

Claire interrupted, “Not to worry. Okay, Peg?” She led Peg away to the door. “Let’s bring your sister into the world. Wait out here.”

After Peg was outside, Claire motioned to the vanity and told Will, “Have a seat.”

The vanity was right out of some famous theatre, with wigs and makeup displayed for an actress preparing for a big role. But the role Will had prepared for was being Will.

“What’s your real name? Do you know it?”

Will had always known her name. Though she’d never met her grandmother, it was her name, too. “Vivian.”

“Vivian? That’s a fantastic name. What color is your hair, Vivian?”

Will chose a short, bobbed, blonde wig. Peg’s hair was short and blonde. They’d look like sisters now.

She began to pin Will’s hair back. “It’s a brave thing you are doing. I know being yourself, your true self, can be dangerous.”

Claire fitted the wig onto Will’s head. Though the change was small, for the first time since she was little, she could almost see herself.

“But you need to stay brave. Other people depend on that brave heart. But most of all, Vivian, you must be brave for you.” Claire touched Will’s chest, but then moved her hand to the inside of Will’s arm. She traced a scar, a scar Will had made when she was ten. One of the first.

“The world doesn’t need another dead girl. We need a bright, shining light; your light. You’ve got to fight for yourself, Vivian. That means recognizing who you are, even when everyone else wants you to forget. I know that fear and loneliness seem endless, but you have to reach out, find help, find others like us.”

She spun Will around, then dipped a small applicator into a concealer cream and began to apply it. “You’re lucky. You’re not alone. Your sister loves you. I had five brothers, no sisters. I would have liked one of them to be as loving and supportive as Peg. I have my Aunt Theresa, though, which is lucky for me because she let me move in here after high school. She’s helped me with becoming the woman I am.”

“And that’s what Peg is doing?”

“Right. When I was starting, Aunt Theresa told me to do this—when someone puts you down for being the girl you are, say ‘I am she. I am Vivian.’ Try it.”

“I am she. I am Vivian,” said Will.

“That’s a good first go, but ya got to reach deep down inside.”

Will thought back to when she’d never worried about he or she, to the time when she was Vivian, to a time when she didn’t have to be reminded. Dancing was where she found herself. Dancing in ballet class, twirling and whirling, pirouettes and pliés.

“I am she. I am Vivian.” Her voice bounced off the ceiling.

“Whenever you need strength, remember who you are, and say that.”

Claire finished with a light pink lip gloss. “Vivian, you have a long, wonderful future ahead of you. Difficult maybe, but wonderful.” She turned the chair around and in the mirror was Vivian, radiant. She looked so much like Mom. She started to tremble.

“Oh, honey. Why don’t we call your big sis in, okay?”

Claire pulled Vivian behind her and called to Peg. Peg opened the door and came into the room and tried to peek behind Claire. “Hold on, you’re going to ruin the reveal. Peg, I present your sister, Vivian.”

This was who she’d always been. She knew Peg could see that, because Peg couldn’t stop crying. She knew Peg could feel that, because Peg had never held her that close before.

But with each mile home, Will reappeared layer by layer and Vivian disappeared bit by bit. Peg said they could sneak in, and Will could stay Vivian for a while more. But they should have left Vivian at the party.

Their parents were waiting on the couch.

“Take that off,” Dad said so loud the windows rattled.

Peg tried to explain while Will pulled out the bobby pins. Mom pleaded with Dad not to be so hard on “him.”

Dad ripped the wig from her head. “It’s not coming off fast enough.”

“Stop, Mike. Stop.”

“Listen, Will. You can’t embarrass your mother and me by doing this shit while you’re under our roof. You want to make a fucking fool of yourself when you are older? Fine. You’re on your own then. But while you are here, Goddamnit, you will follow our rules.”

At five they assembled in the living area. Will dreaded this every morning, but especially this morning. She’d been paired up with Dad and Rick for most of the week, and the previous night Uncle Jessie had smacked her on the shoulder and said, “We gonna get ourselves a deer tomorrow, dude?” It was his turn.

Outside, Rick raced off into the black on his snowmobile with Kyle chasing after. Their headlights lit up the mountainside with each dip and dart, each drift and ditch.

Dad walked up to her, gently placed his hand on Will’s back, and asked more than stated, “You guys will be okay.”

“We’re going to be great, Mike. Don’t you worry, we’ll come back with two bucks,” said Uncle Jessie.

Will turned the key on her snowmobile and heard a series of clicks.

“Damn boy, whatcha do?” shouted Uncle Jessie.

“Way to go, Will,” said Travis. “Now we’re going to miss everything.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

Jessie and Dad started inspecting the vehicle. Gas in the tank, lights turned on, battery okay.

Dad said, “Throw your kit on mine and ride with me.”

“He can ride with me,” said Jessie. “I don’t mind.”

“No offense, Jessie, but you’d never make it up the trail with the two of you on your sled.”

Travis snickered and Uncle Jessie shot him a scowl.

She put her gear on top of her dad’s and tied it down. Jessie and Travis took off. She climbed on behind her dad and held onto the rails.

“Put your arms around me. It’ll be safer.”

Will seldom ever hugged her father. She moved her arms around her dad’s waist. “You can hold on tighter than that. I won’t break.” As they went into the mountains, Will squeezed her dad. The snow glittered in the headlights.

 

At the top of the trail, over her dad’s shoulder, the massive silhouette of Uncle Jessie stood waiting. She was hoping that Jessie had left with Travis.

“Get your stuff, Will. Let’s go. We’re burning daylight,” said Uncle Jessie.

She grabbed her pack, quiver and bow.

“We’ll see you back here in the afternoon,” said Dad.

“I’ll take care of him, Mike.” Jessie turned and headed down the trail lined with bare aspen to the clearing. Will made sure to hang back some, enough to keep him at a safe distance, but trying not to seem bothersome. They traipsed down the trail through the snow. Her dad stood at the top framed by the tunnel of trees, his face lit by the first rays of sunlight.

Will didn’t recognize where they were headed. Jessie had spotted a small group of deer, and they stalked them the first thing out. Will kept mental notes of things they passed—a grove, a stand of trees, a small mountain creek—in case they couldn’t find their way back.

They broke for a lunch: nuts, water, and jerky. Jessie produced a flask from under his jacket and took a swig.

“We’ll get close enough to them. It’s a matter of time.”

In the clear cold air, the sharp alcohol smell stung her nose. “Yeah. Okay.”

Jessie put the flask away, and the black-checkered handle of a .45 peeked out from inside his snow pants. “Why don’t you take the lead this time? You ever stalk?” asked Uncle Jessie.

“Not really.”

“Well, you’re going to do it today.”

Will soon picked up the trail again. The snow was matted down from their hoofprints, but she couldn’t really tell the direction. She guessed they were headed up the mountainside, where there was less cover and they could see who might be coming for them. Will tried to pick up the pace and maintain her physical separation from Jessie. She could hear Jessie panting as they headed higher.

The sun was getting shallow in the sky, and the shadows of the trees were getting longer along the snowbanks. Will spotted the herd, dotting the landscape like little marzipan deer on icing. She blindly waved at Uncle Jessie to stop, but kept hearing the crunching of snow. She turned back and Jessie loomed over her.

“Will.”

“What is it?”

Jessie punched her square in the mouth and Will hit the ground.

“You’re teasing me and it’s got to stop.”

Will’s world was wobbly and watery.

“I know you want to,” Jessie panted.

She tried to push off the ground, but Jessie descended on her, suffocating her. Color started to drain from the sky, and her vision filled with a swarm of static. Jessie clawed at her jacket and she tried to push him away.

If she died, no one would miss her. Maybe Peg. Peg would. But her Mom and Dad would probably be relieved. They would welcome not having to worry about her embarrassing them. They wouldn’t need to explain her to family or friends. Dad could go on these hunting trips all the time if he wanted. Will had no friends, she had done nothing with her life yet. Maybe this was what was supposed to happen to her. Maybe it was better to let it happen.

“Will.”

Jessie’s shadow moved, and sunlight warmed her face. Then she remembered what Novo had said: she was not who she was to be, yet. She remembered her name, and remembered that brief moment when she could see Vivian’s future ahead of her.

“I am she.”

Vivian reached out for her bow.

No one was at the rendezvous point. Vivian was winded and weak. She clambered around the snowmobiles looking for keys, but none were there. She heard a rustling in a clump of evergreen bushes a few yards from where she stood. She took an arrow from her quiver, strung it in front of the release loop, clicked in her trigger to the loop, and pulled back the bowstring. Her arms trembled. She tried to line up the peep sight with the twenty-yard pin, but she couldn’t get the pin centered. She only had one shot before he’d get off a round.

The bush moved and she let the arrow fly. A piercing wail of pain sounded, and a young bull elk crashed through the thicket. The arrow had landed squarely in his neck, almost invisible except for the orange fletching. The elk bolted into the clearing, stopped and locked eyes with Vivian. Clumps of snow spotted his forehead and muzzle. He blinked, and flakes fell from his eyes and sparkled in the last bit of sun. The young elk shivered, crumpled, and fell. He lay on the ground, heaving, steam curling from his nose and mouth. The snowy footprints started to turn red where he lay.

She knelt next to him. She could smell the soil, lilac, and the promise of spring rain. She lifted the mounds of red wetness, pressing it against his wound, stuffing the blood back in.

“I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to.” Under her hand, his heartbeat slowed. The snow crunched behind her.

“You got one,” said Dad. “Look, Travis, Will got an elk! What’s that? A six point!”

Will, that name was so distant.

“We’ve been out all along the ridge and didn’t get near anything, and here you are back at camp and there’s an elk,” said Dad.

“This isn’t me. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

Dad touched Vivian’s face. “What happened? Your lip is all busted up.”

Vivian buried herself in his chest and sobbed.

“Okay. Okay.” He held her tight. “Hey, Jessie, what happened to Will?”

“Nothing. He fell.”

Jessie tucked his gun under his belt.

“Why do you have your gun out,” asked Dad.

“What does it matter?”

“Did he hit you, Will?”

She nodded.

Jessie said, “Fucking . . . .” and Dad punched him in the jaw. Jessie stumbled, and her dad grabbed his coat and pulled Jessie back into another punch. Jessie threw his arms around him and they crashed to the ground. Dad landed on top and pounded Jessie’s head on the ground.

“Travis,” Jessie called out.

Travis stuttered a step, then stood still. “Dad, come on.”

Dad dropped his guard and shouted, “Stay out of this, Travis.”

Jessie punched him in the gut and the face. He pushed her dad off and got to his feet. He drew his gun. Then she heard a whistling overhead, followed by the thwack of an arrow hitting the ground.

Jessie jumped back and swung his barrel toward her. “Fuck, Rick!”

Rick nocked an arrow and drew a bead on Jessie. “You can stop now. It’s all over.”

“Over, huh? What’s over?” shouted Jessie. “You think you can shoot me before I shoot you?”

She heard the whine of a compound pulley, as Kyle aimed at Rick.

“Good boy, Kyle!” Jessie pointed his .45 back at her dad.

“Dad, come on. Stop, please,” wailed Travis. He swayed in the snow, hugged himself across his upper chest, eyes squeezed shut.

“Such a fucking disappointment. You’re a limp-wristed pussy like Will there,” said Jessie.

Travis buried his face in the crook of his arms. Vivian noticed that he was starting to shake.

“You’re a fucking weak monster,” said Vivian. “Gotta rape a girl out in the woods to feel strong. Huh?”

Jessie huffed. “I didn’t rape a girl in the woods.”

“You tried to rape me.”

“Shut up, you faggot.”

“Don’t call my son that,” Dad yelled as he scrambled to his feet.

“Whoa there, cowboy.” Jessie took a step back toward the body of the elk. The blood wasn’t visible on the ground, though the arrow was still buried in the elk’s neck.

“Don’t do anything you’d regret,” said Jessie.

There was breath steaming from the elk’s nostrils.

“Jessie, no one is going to kill anyone,” shouted Rick. “Put the gun down.”

“I didn’t rape no one. Tell ’em, Travis.”

Travis didn’t move, didn’t look up.

“Travis, tell them!”

Vivian had never noticed how afraid Travis was of his dad. Of course he was afraid. Vivian wasn’t the first person Jessie had done this to. The weight of all their eyes burned against her, except Dad’s. Dad was watching the elk.

The ground stirred as the elk rose to his feet.

“I’ll kill all of you fuckers if I have to.” Spit flew from Jessie’s lips. “In fact, it might be best if you killed your son first, Mike. Save you from the shame of him.”

Dad lunged at Jessie.

A piercing, inhuman scream filled the clearing. Jessie flew up into the air, impaled on the horns of the young bull elk. His body thrashed, casting a red mist over the white snow. The crack of the .45 thundered over them. The elk whipped its head and tossed Jessie across the clearing. His body folded into a ball. The bull reared up and came down in front of her, bowing, blood dripping at Vivian’s feet. She reached out and touched his muzzle. He chuffed, turned away, and headed down the mountain path into a twilight fog.

In the ranger station, she sat sipping poorly mixed hot cocoa and listened to the men lie.

They claimed that they’d thought the elk was dead and that Jessie was showing off. “It was an accident,” Rick said. The rangers said there’d be an investigation, and they may have more questions. Vivian had answers, but doubted that anyone would ask, or if they did, whether they would listen.

Travis, wrapped in a blanket, was sitting across from Kyle at a ranger’s desk. He hadn’t said a word since they left the clearing and he wouldn’t look at anyone. He still shook.

When the rangers were finished with the men, Dad sat down next to her. She offered him the remaining cocoa. It was no longer hot, but he cupped it in his hands and stared into the opaque liquid.

“I’m sorry,” he said with his eyes closed. “I’m so, so, sorry, Will. I am so sorry. I just.” He slumped over the cup.

She hugged him. He leaned into her and let go. She pulled him tighter and he was so small. She didn’t know what to say other than, “It’s okay.” And even though that wasn’t really right, it felt like a very small promise that it would be, one day.

Exit Here

It was the year the lake turned to glass. It was as though the water wasn’t even there, the shore simply extending further and further into a barren landscape. The lakes had been cleaned in recent years, some meager effort to beautify the city, but that made it all the worse. Every discarded bottle, every useless tire rolled into the surf, they petulantly stared back at you when you walked along the water. It wasn’t just the trash, either. The lake itself turned malevolent.

I was part of the team trying to figure out how to save the lake. Or maybe what had happened to it. Or, more specific to my actual job description, how to get the public to accept the lake as it now was—as a blessing rather than a curse, a sign of the times which no one wanted to read, but everyone already knew said EXIT HERE.

We had a set-up on the unpopulated side of the lake in an area which had been poisoned long ago by a paper mill but the city swore wasn’t toxic anymore. Nobody believed the city, not even those of us who worked for them. It wasn’t just that the grassy slopes of the hills around us looked like mange, patches of dry dirt resistant to grass, the soil powdery to the touch. The air had an oily feel. It settled in the lungs like a conscience. And the animals. I had trouble looking at them, even the malformed rabbit Talia took in and designated the project pet. Talia was a biologist, but not a very good one. To be honest, none of us were very good at our jobs, which is why we had this job. City finances being what they were, people left if they had any other option, and only came for work when the rest of the world failed to appreciate their virtues.

And, to be fair, the rabbit fit right in. It had one eye permanently half-closed, while the other eye’s pupil was blown out. Its teeth were too short and its limbs were too long and seemingly all different sizes, so it moved with an awkward hop where it was never quite clear what direction it was heading. Talia had named the rabbit Thumper.

We lived and worked in a concrete warehouse. It had been built as a boathouse right before the lake began to die in earnest and had never been used. But instead of being fresh and new, a few years of abandonment had rubbed the concrete raw, smooth and discolored. Pink. Concrete shouldn’t be pink, should it? Like skin trying its damnedest to heal? But we made the best of our new home. Yiannis, the chemist, hung tarps as tapestries and painted them with correction fluid and agar, abstracted images of the landscape and the lake. His hills were filled with mold. The bottom of the lake seeped rust.

Out at the lake’s edge, I took pictures. This was more time-consuming than it should have been, since the water only shone at the right angle, and if the lake wasn’t visible, then how could I convince people the lake was worth saving?

Klarissa followed behind me as I snapped pictures, deliberately scrunching her feet through the crackling, pristine sand. The sand had been imported years before, back when the city was a tourist destination. Enough sand to bury a small town.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she said.

“It’s water.”

“Still. Despite that. Just look at it. Could you paint something as perfect?”

“No.”

We all had little quirks, strangenesses we had to get used to in hope the others would endure ours. Klarissa was simply blind to the world, seeing everything as separate from her. As if life was a casual stroll through a museum and one day you died lonely and forgotten in a niche the docents hadn’t even been to in years, surrounded by minor Renaissance still lifes.

But she was right. The lake looked like a painting by someone who couldn’t paint anything living, and so just cut animals and people out of the equation entirely. The water glowed. The sky was feathered with clouds. Far in the distance was an island with a few brown sticks of trees which looked like telephone poles waiting for harvest. And closer by, a yacht rested on the lake floor without any obvious damage. The red hull was as lurid as a fresh scab.

Klarissa was an urban planning specialist; her job focused on how to get the water to be drinkable, sustainable, and unpollutable. Inside our warehouse, she flashprinted miniature dioramas of her plans, all of the pipes and water pumps and filtration systems working at that tiny scale. It didn’t matter how much she planned, though, if the lake refused to live again.

We had a time limit. The city wouldn’t tell us what the time limit was, but we were instructed to hurry. Lack of sleep was encouraged, as was generous use of the stimulant provided to us. The time limit was tied into the vegetation death encroaching on the city’s shores. That was one thing. Another was the diminishing population. Not through death. Well, not that we were told, anyway. Houses were being abandoned at an alarming rate. Put up for sale and then evacuated. Eviscerated. Every last appliance. Every built-in shelf. As if the owners knew the house was never going to sell and they were never coming back.

Harold was the project leader and also a philosopher. Not just in temperament, but in occupation. He’d headed a philosophy program at a sub-Ivy League East Coast school before being driven out by some scandal he refused to discuss and I refused to look up. Not out of respect for privacy, but for fear of what I’d find. It was easier to live not knowing.

“We can’t live in ignorance!” Harold said at almost every weekly meeting. “What happened to the lake is our fault, and we can only atone for what we’ve done when we’ve fully admitted what we’ve done.”

“This isn’t a religion, Harry,” Yiannis said. Talia nodded, petting Thumper.

“Isn’t it?” Harold pressed.

I expected Nadia, our geneticist, to argue with him, but she refused to look up from the table. Her hands were splayed on the surface like she was going to push herself up and away from this entire conversation, this entire place. But her fingers only twitched impotently.

She hadn’t realized before arriving that all of this was our fault. Or, more specifically, her fault. The fault of geneticists like her who believed in the power of their newly strengthened science. The Yellowgills invaded the lake due to people dumping the troublesome, custom-engineered pets they no longer wanted into the freshwater because they didn’t want to kill them; eventually the Yellowgill population grew so thick schools of them were chopped up by powerboats, so the geneticists created Razortooth Gar. The Razortooth Gar decimated the Yellowgills, as well as every other fish in the lake. A disease named Red Rot was introduced to the Razortooth Gar and ruined their gills so they suffocated, which resulted in a thick scum of dead fish on the lake’s surface. Worse, the disease bacteria mutated so it separated from the fish entirely and turned the lake maroon, clouding the water and staining the flesh of anyone who swam in the lake. And so modified Gullet Mussels were seeded to filter the water clean. That last was a success. They filtered the lake clean of everything.

We each did our jobs, such as they were. Harold took everything we did and combined it into reports, which he sent off to the city. He never told us the results of those reports, just patted us on the back whenever he saw us, smiling beneath his thin moustache in a way that was meant to be comforting but always came off as the smile a priest gives a person about to be executed.

It sounds dark. It was dark. Even during the clear, fine days of spring and in the height of summer, sunlight skipped over us. It shunted off to the city itself, that distant line of buildings that glittered in the light like frosting on a cake in a display window. None of us had been back there since our jobs began. Regularly, automated ferries crossed the lake bringing supplies. We were cut off.

But there was still beauty to be had. Playing with Thumper. Walking through Yiannis’ garden, laying bets on what each seed would look like after growing up through the poisoned soil. Celebrating each newly launched experiment of Nadia’s, drinking champagne as the spider-legged frog skittered into the water or a jar full of net-winged insects twirled and dove over the surface, chitinous bodies already crisping in the lake’s vaporous glare. Sitting at the end of the long dock, staring down through the water to the perfectly clear lake floor, imagining it as a long drop through the air, as though I were on a cliff rather than just a few feet away from what would hold me up, what wouldn’t let me sink.

We made no progress. The land refused us. Nadia’s various animals, slowly or quickly, all died. The chemical composition of the lake and the soil fluctuated, but from poison to poison. My record of events was one of failure, and no one read it. Maybe after the city was dead, the city and all its surroundings a shell, someone would come and find the diary of our efforts and understand the obvious thing that eluded us.

“We can’t give up,” Klarissa told me. She’d caught me at the end of the dock dangling my camera over the water’s edge.

“I’m not giving up. I’m admitting defeat.” I firmed my grip on the camera strap, but still held it over the water. “Let’s just go somewhere else. Somewhere living.”

She nodded across at the city. “They’re counting on us.”

“You don’t care about them.”

It was true. Her voice was flat. It was just a talking point, what we were supposed to repeat in our heads when depression came calling. But what I was feeling wasn’t depression, but elation. Excitement. To leave. To get the hell out of that hell.

“Maybe.” She wouldn’t admit it. It was hard, I knew, because that’s what I’d been wrestling with for weeks. “But there’s no point in running, because there’s nowhere to run. What happened here, we’ll take it with us. The poison is in us.”

I argued. I tried to convince her to come with me to the coast, that we could start a new life, the city and the lake and everything here be damned. The lake didn’t want us here. Nothing wanted us here. Everything we’d tried, I rehashed it right then and demolished every one of her objections, but she didn’t budge.

“I don’t need to convince you,” I said finally, pissed off, and threw the camera into the lake, except Klarissa caught the strap.

“No.”

I was done with words. I yanked the camera back, but she wouldn’t let go. The dock rocked beneath us, and we didn’t care. We grunted and pulled and pushed. She was stronger than me, and she tugged so hard I fell into her. We tumbled onto the sun-worn wood, the camera between us. It broke with a snap, and we stopped struggling.

Klarissa rolled off me and sat up, pointedly looking away from me, out at the lake and the city’s ghostly skyline. “You got what you wanted.”

The body of the camera looked undamaged, but the lens had shattered, lacerating my fingers. The cuts were shallow but bled freely. Exhausted emotionally, physically, mentally, I stretched out on the dock, head and arms over the side, and lowered the camera into the water. None of this was what I wanted.

The dock shuddered as Klarissa rose to her feet and walked back toward the warehouse. Blood from my cuts dripped into the water, each drop spreading like cream into coffee. The breezeless air settled around me like a second skin.

I didn’t realize it at first, but my blood was changing something in the water. The red didn’t just spread out and disappear, it drifted away in fractal swirls, as though something was sucking it up. Where my blood dripped, the water turned from glass into, well, simply water.

“Klarissa!” I called out, and she ran back at the excitement in my voice. Seconds later, she was stretched out next to me, watching my blood slowly drip with the same fascination. She was there when the silt below us popped with a dozen tiny cloudbursts and the most miniscule fish I’d ever seen swam up to us, so transparent they were just bones with peppercorns for eyes.

I unstrapped my utility knife from my belt and flicked the blade open. The first cut was hard to do, a thick jag across the meat of my thumb, but the others came easier. I wasn’t killing myself. I didn’t want to die. But the pain, oh, it felt good, if only because with every slurry of my blood into the lake, more happened in the water, the blood setting an entire cascade of consequences into action. It was hypnotizing. I only heard the tail end of Klarissa calling the others on her phone, saying they needed to come down to the dock quick.

Then she held out her hand for the knife.

“My turn.”

Under the Sunset Hill

Walking through the forest under the lights of the setting sun, I asked, “Is this all true?”

Pervu said, “Nobody here lies about the Sunset Hill, but the city-people rarely believe what we say, Sir.” The way he spoke made it clear that he didn’t have much respect for the city-people. An awkward silence fell as we walked, crushing the fallen yellow leaves under our feet.

When I questioned his ability to serve me as a guide, Pervu had admitted he was seventy-three. But he had been walking with me for almost two hours in this hilly forest area without a sign of tiredness. The old man was thin, but his bones had more strength than mine.

The sad light of the afternoon rested on the top of the towering trees. Cold had started to rise from the dark reddish earth. The crickets had already begun to sing. Rabbits crossed our path several times; once I spotted an iguana behind a bush. The forest seemed full of animals.

I noticed a spotted deer through the long Sal trees. It seemed to have no fear of us as we stopped to look closely at its beautiful hide.

None of the animals had run away seeing us. That seemed strange to me.

Pervu had spent his whole life in the forests of the Belpahari region. Breaking the silence, I prompted, “It’s good to see so many animals here.”

Pervu’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Why, Sir?”

“Just saying,” I said.

His face had suddenly changed color, but he didn’t say anything more. I saw that he was lost in thought, walking like a robot along his familiar forest path.

We saw three more deer in the next five minutes.

Pervu warned me, “Not that way, Sir. Follow me; this is one of the shortcuts.”

The way he led me was hardly a way. Through the gaps between the huge trees were only more trees. The sun had leaned more to the west. Flocks of birds were returning to their nests and we could hear their cries overhead.

Suddenly Pervu asked, “Do you like hunting, Sir?” There was something strange in his voice.

“Hunting? No, Pervu. I don’t enjoy taking innocent lives. Why do you ask?”

He must have sensed my curiosity. He said, “It’s a long story. Would you like to hear it?”

“Why not?” I said. “But tell me, first, is this really a shortcut? We’ve been walking for hours. How much further to the ashram, Pervu?”

Pervu said, “Not much. One branch of this shortcut leads directly to the foot of the Sunset Hill. Hundreds of wild beasts roam freely at that part of the forest. That’s why it was once the poachers’ favourite part of the forest. But you know, Sir, now even they don’t want to go there.”

I hazarded a guess at his strange demeanor. “Don’t be afraid if something dangerous happens to cross our path. I have a revolver with me.”

Pervu said, “I know. It’s under your shirt, left side. Am I correct, Sir?”

I was so astonished that for a moment I couldn’t speak.

He said, “You don’t like hunting; then why are you carrying the gun with you, Sir? Don’t you want a rabbit, or at least a wild turkey?”

I recovered with a smile. “I’m a policeman, Pervu. Carrying the service revolver has become a habit even when I’m just out travelling. And I’m not interested in your rabbit or wild turkey, thank you very much. Now please walk faster, and take me to the ashram through your favourite shortcut before it’s too dark in here.”

Pervu smiled and again I had that uncomfortable feeling. Is the old man hiding something from me?

Our path was gradually becoming more prominent. It was evident that Pervu knew this jungle’s alleys well. He said, “Let me tell you the story then, it will help to pass the time.”

A hyena saw us coming and sat down to watch us. The sun moved behind the pillars of the trees.

Pervu met Sardar Harman Singh in this very forest. The forest was younger then; so was Pervu. The mighty Sunset Hill loomed at the northern end of the forest, as it had from the beginning of time. Sardarji beckoned him with his fingers. The fingers held a five hundred rupee note.

Pervu had never touched a five hundred note in his lifetime. He felt an urge to hold it in his own hands. His family was so poor that they used to eat ant-eggs at dinner. Pervu’s little sister was an expert at robbing those delicacies from the ant-holes.

Sardarji said, “This is yours, boy, if you do as I say.”

Pervu’s eyes brightened. “What do you want me to do?”

“I need you to go with me to the forest under that hill. Tonight.”

Pervu retreated at once. Everybody knew that that part of the forest was not to be visited even in the broad daylight. And here’s this man, speaking of going there at night! No amount of money could make him say ‘yes’. “I’m sorry, Sardarji.”

Sardarji’s gigantic figure advanced upon him. When the boot hit his abdomen, Pervu was so surprised at first he felt no pain, only the strange feeling of flying through the air. The pain came when he landed upon the dried leaves.

“Bastard!” Sardarji bellowed. “Nobody survives saying ‘no’ to Sardar Harman Singh, you dirty beggar.”

Shivering in pain and fear, Pervu saw the unshaking muzzle of a revolver pointed at his chest. He tried to remember his little sister’s face for the last time.

Then the muzzle dropped. Sardarji said, “Well, you get to live this time, boy, because I need you.” The five hundred note was replaced by a thousand rupee note. “What do you say now, beggar boy?”

The face of his sister flashed before Pervu’s eyes again. This note could change our lives. But that part of the forest was forbidden after sunset!

Sardarji said, “Let me put it straight for you, boy. Either you take the money and walk with me, or I shoot a hole in your worthless skull and walk alone. I give you thirty seconds. What do you want?”

Pervu said what he had to. “I’m going with you.”

“Good,” Sardarji said. “Now pick up that box and start moving.”

Pervu wanted to run, for he knew that what they were about to do was not only forbidden but wrong. He knew why Sardarji wanted to go to the foot of the Sunset Hill. He tried for the last time. “Sardarji, that place is not good at night.”

Sardarji laughed. “I know, I know. I’ve heard the story of that f***ing Keeper.”

Pervu shivered, hearing the name of the Lord, the Keeper of the Forest, uttered with so much irreverence. He silently prayed, “Forgive me, O Lord! I’ve said nothing bad about you!”

He said again, “Sardarji, those who have gone there to hunt, have never . . . .”

“Returned?” Sardarji snarled and showed him the revolver again. “If I don’t return, you will rot there with me.”

Pervu lifted the large box Sardarji had with him. He didn’t need to open it to know what was inside.

The Keeper of the Forest wouldn’t be happy! Forgive me, Lord.

Pervu wanted to cry. If he didn’t return, his parents would never be able to find a suitor for his beloved sister, for he was the only earning member of the family.

He recalled a saying he had heard from his father, who had taught him to look for the signs the forest gave to those who knew to see them. His eyes fixed upon a Neem tree that was gradually darkening under the twilight.

“One sparrow—no fear.

Two sparrows—dead tear.”

He remembered his father’s voice and prayed with his whole heart for the sight of one sparrow flying away from that tree.

Two sparrows flew from the tree’s leafy crown.

As they approached the part of the forest beneath the Sunset Hill, Sardarji said, “I know there are rare black bucks in this forest. Do you know how much money that animal may earn you, you beggar?”

Pervu said nothing.

“More than you can imagine. So open that box and help me fix the gun.”

They fitted the parts of the rifle together in silence. Finally Sardarji adjusted the scope and said, “Let’s go.”

They came to a juncture where the narrow road went into three different ways. They took the one that went north, and after fifteen more minutes’ walk, came almost under the Sunset Hill in the light of the sunset. To Pervu, it stood like a colossal, dark prohibition. In front of that enormity, Sardarji seemed even less significant that an ant.

Sardarji ordered him to stop at the edge of a rainwater pond. The tall trees seemed to be getting closer to each other in the spreading darkness. The silent air was almost suffocating. Sardarji climbed a tree and ordered him to climb another. As Pervu adjusted himself on the branches of the Jamun tree, Sardarji got ready with the rifle, facing the pond.

The black buck appeared at once.

Pervu remembered another lesson his father had taught him. The animals we see in the forest might not be just what we see.

Sardarji aimed his rifle; the black buck was drinking water at the edge of the pond. Pervu almost forgot to breathe.

He heard the sound of the gun. He was taken aback discovering the buck standing upright beside the pond just as before.

Sardarji has missed!

It was unbelievable. Such little distance and such a steady hand, yet the animal was calmly walking back into the forest, clearly not afraid.

Even Sardarji himself couldn’t believe his own eyes. “How did I miss that f***ing beast?” he murmured. He climbed down from the tree and ordered Pervu to come down, too. “Come on. I’m not going to spare it.”

Sardarji started following the buck. Pervu knew that this was his chance to run away, but he didn’t. A strange attraction lured him behind Sardarji to the Hill. He thought he knew what waited at the end of this drama, but it was as if the Hill wanted him to witness the ‘how’.

Another gunshot, another miss. The long muzzle gave off an uneven trail of smoke.

The black buck waited unaffected a few metres away, as if tempting him to try again.

Sardarji wiped perspiration from his forehead. “What the hell is happening? This time I’m sure I hit it!”

Pervu said, “I told you not to come here, Sardarji. There’s still time; let’s go back, please.”

“You shut up, beggar’s son! You got the money; now do as I tell you.”

Sardarji reloaded the rifle. The black buck retreated through the jungle at the foot of the hill. Once, it turned its head, as if to see whether they were still following.

Pervu knew that black bucks couldn’t smile. It must be an illusion!

The buck ran, and they ran behind it. They ran until they came to the very foot of the great Sunset Hill.

The buck waited for them under a big Shimul tree. Sardarji uttered under his breath, “This time you’ll taste real hotness, my friend!”

But Pervu noticed another thing under the tree. An old, rusty rifle, half-buried in the ground. Must be the property of a hunter who never returned. He remembered the scene of the two sparrows flying away from the tree. He was breathing hard. His heart was pounding dangerously just under his throat.

Sardarji’s gun thundered again.

“Got him!” Sardarji punched the air in excitement.

The black buck was lying on the ground. Sardarji proudly moved to his prey. The forest looked denser than ever in the darkness. Silence prevailed; even the crickets were not singing.

Suddenly Pervu felt that he was sinking in the hard ground, as if he had been standing on quicksand. The earth was swallowing him.

Panic-stricken, he screamed, “Sardarji!”

Sardarji ignored his cry; he was gazing at the buck on the ground.

The black buck was not dead yet. Its legs were still trembling a little. But, Pervu sensed, something more was happening around them.

The earth had captured him; he wasn’t sinking anymore, but he couldn’t move, only watch, and he realised this was his role: to see.

The black buck was transforming. Its hind legs became the paws of a lion; its teeth changed to the fangs of wild dogs, its front legs to human hands and its body to a human torso. Its eyes shone like two burning stars. The figure stood up.

“Oh, Lord!” Pervu whispered.

The rifle dropped from Sardarji’s hand; he stood petrified in front of that terrifying presence. The whole forest was filled with the unearthly red glow radiating from the furious entity. It seemed that the trees were on fire.

Two jackals passed Pervu and went to the place where Sardarji had been standing. Pervu saw hundreds of animals gathering round them to see the final moments of the man who had come to kill them. The red glow made them all red—their fur, their fangs, their paws, their eyes all warmed with the angry hue. They stood motionless, as if they, too, didn’t belong to the realm of the living.

The eyes of the entity were burning like coal, and Sardarji’s eyes were fixed on those glowing fireballs. His mouth was open, his hands were stiff. It came forward and touched Sardarji’s forehead with a burning finger.

Pervu lost consciousness with the explosion. In his dream he saw the dust from Sardarji’s disintegrated body getting mixed with the forest soil.

When he came back to his senses, he found himself lying at the familiar juncture of the three paths, although he couldn’t make out how he had come to this place. But he could recognize the Neem tree from which the two sparrows flew away.

He would have dismissed the whole incident as a dream, but the thousand rupee note inside his shirt-pocket was more than real.

We were still walking on the forest path when Pervu finished his story. He said, “Not only Sardarji, but a lot of poachers tasted that same medicine. No poacher returns after visiting that place.”

Pervu had the gift of making an unbelievable story palatable. I was about to tell him just that when, all of a sudden, he fell to my feet and started crying.

“Hey! Hey! What are you doing, old man?” I was so surprised that for a moment I didn’t know what to do.

I helped him to his feet. Tears were still pouring out of his eyes.

“What is it, Pervu?” I asked. “Why on earth are you crying like this?”

“Forgive me, Sir.” He was still unable to speak properly. His body was convulsing with powerful emotion. “Forgive me. I misjudged you.”

I was more astonished than ever. “What the hell are you talking about? What misjudgement?”

Pervu grabbed my hand and said, “Forgive me, Sir. You talked about the animals in the forest, and I saw your hidden revolver. I thought that you, too, had come to kill them.”

A bit harshly I asked, “What made you realise your mistake, wise man?”

Pervu pointed his fingers to a tree. “Look there.”

I at once saw the black buck looking at me from behind the tree. I couldn’t understand what Pervu meant.

I was going to say something when I noticed the beast’s eyes. They were glowing like two burning stars.

Pervu again fell at my feet. “I’ve lured you with my story under the Sunset Hill. This is no shortcut, Sir. I thought that if you’d come to poach, He’d take care of you.”

I couldn’t decide how angry I should be with him. The black buck was calmly watching us.

“But the Lord, the Keeper of the Forest, has shown me that you’re a good man, Sir,” Pervu said again. “Please forgive me, Sir. Please.”

Black bucks can’t smile. I know that black bucks don’t smile. And their eyes don’t shine like stars. It must be an illusion!

The buck moved away from us, deeper into the forest. The enormous presence of the Sunset Hill hulked behind the darkening trees.

My voice trembled when I spoke. “How do you know that I’m a good man, Pervu?”

“The Keeper of the Forest knows everything of nature; human nature, too. There! Look there!”

From the branches of a tall Neem tree, a little sparrow flew away.

Pervu whispered, “One sparrow—no fear. Let’s go back, Sir.”

Podcast Episode 4: The Eater of Dirt

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Welcome to the Reckoning Press podcast. Reckoning is a nonprofit, annual journal of creative writing on environmental justice. I’m Michael J. DeLuca, publisher and sometime editor.

Today I am very pleased to share with you Marie Vibbert’s reading of “The Eater of Dirt”, her flash story from Reckoning 3, the text of which comes out today at reckoning.press.

Besides selling thirty-odd short stories (six to Analog!), twenty-some poems and a few comics, Marie Vibbert has been a medieval (SCA) squire, ridden 17% of the roller coasters in the United States and has played O-line and D-line for the Cleveland Fusion women’s tackle football team.  Her college coursework was in Environmental Geology but by day she is a computer programmer.

And as of this spring, she’s a member of Reckoning’s editorial staff!

Let me just offer a friendly warning: Marie’s performance is, how shall I put it, intense. You might want to listen someplace private? I hope you enjoy!

Thanks for listening! In case you haven’t heard, we’re fundraising to increase our pay rate for prose from six to eight cents a word by September. If you like what we do and want to help us help writers like Marie, visit reckoning.press/support-us.

 
 

This podcast is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). Content and audio recording are copyright by the author.

The Eater of Dirt

Among her many names, the one that remains is Eater of Dirt. The rest have been cast off, but one name is enough to sustain her. The filth-goddess knows the flavor of fairy footsteps, the crumble of dead magic and the taste of tiny living jewels with wings that crunch in her teeth. Men may fling her holy name about as an insult, but they don’t know how sweet and savory and fulsome on the tongue dirt can be.

She was once a goddess of purification and lust with stone temples and glistening priestesses in cloaks painstakingly sewn of feathers and beetles. Young men gazed at the walls that encircled her rites and yearned for the barest syllable of knowledge to pass from those red-stained mouths to theirs. Any one of those boys would leap to her pleasure, and did, and she tasted their youth and fears when she grew bored with supping on the death of trees, of monsters, of orchids.

Time grinds temples to gravel. Fires wash trees to ash. There are no more fairies and monsters to dine on. She learns the taste of oil-slick and lead. Women forge handles out of words and grasp and sort and judge concepts as they once did weapons or fruit. Humans become too self-aware to worship any being too like themselves. The gods are trimmed: The hands and eyes and scepters cut away, anything that will hold a handle.

The Eater of Dirt persists, minus her earlobes, her feathered headdress, her girdle of insects. So much waste. Long after the Sky and the Warring Twins and the Judge perish, she tastes their trimmed-off attributes in a tea of autumn leaves or a confetti of salt-washed shells.

New gods are forged with vague shapes, wrapped in contradictions and paradoxes to confound the handles. They have the illusion of permanence in their first blush of adolescence.

New cults reap and sew inedible fetishes for their new gods. More than she can digest, and not filling in the slightest. The plastic confetti and weeds of propylene stick in her gums and she despairs.

She squats beside tiny worshipers, sometimes a rabbit, sometimes an iguana. They bend their knees and open their mouths to the Eater of Dirt. Together they savor histories digested, civilizations mulched.

She will outlast because humans still kneel to her. Still reach soft, plump fingers like worms into her repast and lift it to slick wet tongues.

“No, that’s dirt, baby!”

True worship is compulsion, and the compulsion persists, to taste the world. Like the compulsion to attach words, to kill and mourn magic in the same breath.

“Should we call the doctor?”

“She’ll be fine. All children eat dirt.”

The tiny priestess laughs, her teeth delicately lined in grains of darkness. She revels in the fulsome earth and her prayer is sustaining.

Humanity will forget the goddess, but never forget the banquet: soft and grit, fresh and old. She is in their tongues and teeth and throats and in the urge forever to open, to taste, to savor. And so she will survive, and eat the new gods, returning all to earth when its time comes.

The Blackthorn Door

Akari saw the restricted tree first.

Wrestling the Agency’s sleek sedan around the treacherous holes in Zimmerman’s pitted rural driveway held my full attention. We’d passed the mailbox fifteen minutes back, leaving me certain we’d missed a turnoff to the old man’s place—then Akari slapped the dash. “Frank! Pull over!”

Akari snapped off her seatbelt and lunged out the door into the bright summer heat before we stopped moving. Dust and ash-exhaust billowed over the car. My junior agent’s silhouette vanished in the rusted cloud. When the air cleared, I saw what she’d seen and fumbled my seatbelt off too.

“Is that a—?”

Betula pendula ‘Laciniata’.” She stepped aside as I joined her in front of the young tree. “Weeping birch. A Level Four restricted cultivar.”

Tendrils of leaves spilled over the pale bent trunk, curtaining it like stringy hair over the face of a cowering girl. I’d only seen this species in file photographs.

My partner puffed out an awed breath. “Just . . . growing out here on the side of the road!”

“I take it he doesn’t get many visitors.”

Akari took a sample, sealed it in a ziplock baggie. She sat with it smoothed out on her lap as I eased the sedan back onto the dusty road. Would’ve been nice if the Agency had given us a four-wheel drive for this job, but they’d started phasing them out on account of how much Thaum they burned. Punishing us because the rest of the world couldn’t keep their wands in their pants.

None of us had known how hard it would be to find Zimmerman. He was just another name on a shipment list. A wrist to slap. These sorts usually turned out to be crackpots meddling in Low Magic—nutters who thought they could achieve miracles with a stick of willow.

That tree, though? We were here to investigate a shipment of wood, not living trees. That tree had come from a cutting, and it must’ve been growing here for years. It spoke to forethought. I ran my thumb over the stinging-hot vinyl steering wheel. The office didn’t expect us to check in for another six days, and we’d left mobile reception behind forty minutes back. Still, maybe we’d have some news for them earlier than expected.

Akari must have been thinking along the same lines. “D’you think we’re onto something?”

“Maybe. One tree does not a thaumaturgical terrorist make.”

“Terrorist!” She laughed. “That’s a bit racist, Frank.”

I bristled. One tree may not make him a terrorist, but Vrata Zimmerman’s scant background information, his hectares of bushland in the middle of nowhere, and his name on a list of purchasers of restricted woods sure might. “Call it what you like—I call it sensible caution. He could’ve slipped into the country with the Thaum refugees—”

“—who’ve mostly integrated without any issues.”

We’d had this argument before. The new agents were all like this, fresh out of university packed to the gills with compulsory diversity units and doublethink. It wasn’t their fault—they hadn’t even been born back when the Thaum War ended and the flood of refugees began. They didn’t know what it had been like. “Tell that to the Fed Square victims.”

The kids remembered that all right. Akari looked away. “Turn the aircon down, will you?”

My long-sleeved business shirt clung damp to my back after our little botanical excursion. The old scar on my wrist pricked with sweat. “Put on your jacket.”

“Environmental vandal.”

My fingers tightened on the steering wheel, and then I caught Akari’s sidelong grin. It deflated my temper like a pin to a balloon, same as ever. “Latte-sipping tree-hugger.”

“Misanthropic dinosaur.”

The kid was all right. I never had any of my own—burned through a couple of wives, but no kids. You could do a lot worse than someone like Shoji Akari. She just had to remember to stick to her timbers, and let me handle the arseholes growing them.

We almost missed Zimmerman’s place. Tucked away in a grove of eucalypts, the low-slung jumble of timber extensions sprawled in every direction like an aboveground rabbit warren.

We crunched into the yard and parked beside an ancient boxy truck, its tray bristling with shards of eucalyptus bark. Ah, the trusty old inert eucalyptus. If our antipodean woods have any special properties, nobody’s been able to tease them out yet. They call Australia a thaumaturgical desert. There’s nothing here worth warring over—a curse that became a blessing when the Old Country forests burned. We don’t have Thaum, but we’ve got green trees of the ordinary kind, and blue skies, and clean air. And now every bastard wants a piece of us because half the world incinerated the forests of their enemies into ash but us, well, we’re only cooking slowly. The lucky country.

The sedan’s engine ticked. Akari and I stepped into the oven of late afternoon. I pulled on my jacket despite the heat. Patted my breast pocket to check for my badge, an old habit. Nothing broke the stillness of the place but the shrill of cicadas and the thump of Akari’s car door.

She stared at the house, a faint crease shadowing her smooth brow. “This place doesn’t look up to code.”

“No kidding.” I frowned at the tops of trees visible over the back of the low-slung house. I knew the hulk of a willow tree when I saw one.

In the cleared area in front of the house, a charred and blackened circle of ground indicated a recent fire. Ashy scraps of paper twitched in the hot sluggish breeze.

“Look at these timbers!” Akari bounced towards the house. “The window frames on that extension there—look at the colour, the grain. Is that yew? Where the hell did he get yew? Oh my god, and I think this door is golden ash . . . ”

Waving her quiet, I knocked on the honeyed wood. I fancied a shimmer of power tingled through my knuckles. Akari brushed a smudge of dust from her dark suit jacket.

The door opened wide. An old man peered out, hunched and tangled as a stunted willow. Watery mud-puddle eyes glimmered over small spectacles curtained between a tangle of grey hair and an unkempt long moustache in the Old Country style. He gave us a grandfatherly smile. Maybe it was the smell of fresh-cut wood that surrounded him, but for the first time in years I thought of Geppetto, the old carpenter from that kids cartoon that got banned after the War.

Akari relaxed beside me. I couldn’t blame her. This guy wasn’t a danger to anything but sugar cookies.

I flipped open my badge. “Mr Zimmerman? I’m Senior Agent Francis Sawyer, and this is Probationary Agent Shoji Akari of the Thaumaturgical Regulatory Agency, Division of Restricted Materials. We’d like to ask you a few questions concerning a shipment of timber you received in late November last year.”

The old man’s smile brightened. “Oh! I’ve been expecting you.” His accent was pure Old Country, as though he spoke with a large marble cupped on his tongue. “Please, come in. Come. I have ginger beer.” He turned from the door and shuffled back into the cool dim of the house before I could respond. A keyring at the belt of his trousers jingled like a cat collar in the gloom. I pocketed my badge and followed him into the narrow hall at a polite half-speed, casting a glance back at Akari.

Expecting us? she mouthed.

Most of the doors in the hall were shut, bar two at the end: a cramped kitchen and the stuffy, windowless sitting room Zimmerman deposited us in before he left to fetch drinks.

If something was amiss in the house, it wasn’t in this stark room. The elderly have what Akari would call a ‘gendered’ divide when it comes to mess. If there’s a woman involved, you’ll see doilies and pointless little china figures. You’ll smell polish. And once you’re sitting down, good luck getting up again through all the cushions and rugs and crap strewn around the place. Houses like those are clean but cluttered. This sitting room told me that Zimmerman had no woman in his life. The wooden furnishings were sturdy and finely made, but nothing adorned their surfaces except a layer of dust. In the far corner, a hutch held a white rabbit splayed out in a nest of straw, asleep, breathing in that rapid way rabbits do.

Akari and I perched on the edge of a settee with wooden arms carved to resemble ocean waves, as beautiful as the pea-green upholstery was ugly. I touched the timber waves. Perhaps this was the ultimate fate of that shipment of blackthorn. I glanced at Akari to confirm. She shook her head.

“He takes his doors seriously though,” she murmured. This room had two: the heavy hallway door we’d entered through, and what must have been the back door, a sliding screen made of some kind of translucent paper over a light lattice of wood, diffusing green daylight into the dingy room. Akari inclined her head to the open hallway door. “Notice anything weird?”

I frowned at it. “Frame’s reinforced with metal.”

“Oh,” she said. “I meant the doorknob. It doesn’t have one. Just a deadbolt on the other side.”

A little spasm of suspicion shot down my spine.

Akari nudged me and pointed at the other door. “It’s fine. He’s no Buffalo Bill, and that sliding door is practically plywood and tissue paper. You could huff and puff your way out of here, Frank.”

“I knew you kept me around for something.”

“It’s your sunny personality.”

Zimmerman shuffled back into the room, clutching two chipped mugs. He pressed these into our hands and eased himself down into the worn armchair with a sigh.

“Now,” he said at last, “best we talk.”

“It’s the blackthorn, Mr Zimmerman. Your name appears on a shipping regist—” The hall door slammed shut. I sloshed ginger beer onto my shirtsleeve. Beside me, Akari laughed, hand splayed across her heart.

Only Zimmerman seemed unfazed. “Again it does this! Perhaps this house has ghosts. When you are old, always you live with ghosts.”

Biting back annoyance, I rubbed at my wet sleeve, only half-aware of the rough circle of scar tissue under the thin cotton.

“Or, perhaps I have hung the door wrong.” Zimmerman got to his feet. “The frame is solid though. That is the important—ah!” He’d reached for the keys at his waist, but they weren’t there.

That little crease reappeared between Akari’s straight black brows as she studied the sturdy facade of the closed door. “Are we locked in?”

“No, no. We can get out through the back door.” He sat back down and gave Akari a sad smile. “My memory these days is not so good. You know how it is, when you walk through a door and forget what it was you meant to get.”

I let go of my wrist and splayed my fingers, fighting the urge to make a fist as my adrenalin ebbed. “Why the security, Mr Zimmerman? Are you expecting trouble?”

Zimmerman said, with utmost seriousness, “I do not like doorknobs.”

Christ. We were stuck with a batty old bloke from the Old Country who bought in a bit of illegal wood because that’s how things were back in his day. At his age he wouldn’t even get time, he’d only waste a lot of ours.

I cleared my throat. “To the matter of the wood . . . .”

“It has a name, this effect.”

“Pardon?”

“The forgetting, made by doors. This is the ‘event boundary’.”

“We need to talk about the wood.”

“Yes.” His voice hinted impatience. “I bought it. And many more such shipments before.”

Akari and I exchanged a glance.

“Whatever I could find, I tried,” Zimmerman continued, waving a knobbled and unconcerned hand. “But blackthorn is best for my purposes, you see.”

Akari put her drink aside and leaned forward. “And what are your purposes, Mr Zimmerman?”

“Forgetting. As I have said.”

“You were building . . . doors?”

“Let me start from the beginning,” said Zimmerman. “Let me start from the war.”

I suppressed a sigh. Sure, let’s go back thirty-five years and listen to this senile old man’s life story. We TRA agents had nothing better to do with your tax dollars.

Ever the good cop to my bad one, Akari fished a notepad from her jacket pocket and studied the old man, pen poised to strike.

“In the Old Country, I was a carpenter.” He paused, his eyes moving from Akari’s face to mine. “I know what you are thinking. I was not part of the development of large-scale thaumaturgy, and I wanted no part in it. A brute goes first to force, and misses finesse. You see. This energy in the woods, it can bring light, and it can bring warmth, but the Steuernden sought only to bring fire. I lived on the coast with my family and used Low Magic to make furniture, seeking always to learn what shape the woods wished to become, and what gifts were locked in these forms.

“When we began to lose the war—when the United Forces bombed the Schwarzwald-Projekt base and killed most of the High Thaumagi—the Steuernden soon came looking for everyone else who worked wood. They were not asking.”

I pressed my lips together and raised my empty mug to my face to hide my expression. There’s not a Thaumagus alive who doesn’t squeal about how pure and innocent they were during the war. The rapt attention on Akari’s face made her seem childlike. It left me with a twinge of something like exasperation, something like affection. I bet she was one of those kids who brought home any half-dead wild animal she found and then cried when the thing bit her.

“My wife died early in the war,” said Zimmerman. “Always she was ill, and soon the food and hospital bed shortages—well. It was only my daughter and I left when I heard the Steuernden were sending troops. So we ran, all the way to the other side of the world. I gave my life savings to a man with a ship and we came across the ocean, and your border patrols picked us up and put us in a refugee camp. For three years we—”

“Mr Zimmerman, with all due respect, we’re here to talk about a shipment of another sort,” I said. The air around Akari turned frosty, though to her credit she barely twitched. My left hand clenched in a stranglehold around my right wrist, flesh and bone tight across the numbness of the two crescent scars. “The government has the utmost sympathy for your situation as a refugee, but legal reparation was made decades ago, and that’s not—”

“My daughter,” Zimmerman interrupted, “died two nights after our resettlement on the mainland. I found her hanging from the doorknob in her bedroom.”

His words hung in the air. I’d seen a couple of short drops in my time at the camps. Nasty way to go.

Akari’s hands twisted in her lap. “I’m sorry.”

“So am I,” said the old man. “Pain such as this takes root in your mind. It can never be unmade. Would that I could open a door and step back to the time before I fled the Old Country, I would let the Steuernden take me.” He looked me in the eye. “If it saved my daughter, Agent Sawyer, I would set fire to the world.”

Twenty years with the TRA, and that was the first time a suspect ever said something like that to my face. “Tell me about the doors, Mr Zimmerman.”

“The doors. Yes. I had reason to think of doors, after what happened. I dreamed of them, many times. So, when the reparation money came, I bought this land, and started building my house, and I began to make doors. I made doors of golden ash and silver birch, doors of willow, bloodwood and yew . . . .”

Beside me, Akari bit her lip and made a few reluctant notes.

“Some thaumaturgical woods worked better than others. Certain dimensions helped also. To test my doors, I wrote a number of items in a list, then stepped through the door, and wrote again as many items as I remembered on the other side. The doors were working, but not enough: I would forget minutes, even an hour, but I could not forget my pain. So still, I worked.

“I learned soon that the active part was not the door, but the frame, saving me much time. I found later that I could layer the doors, pressing many frames together in a row, allowing me to combine different woods. Advancement was slow; the materials were costly and hard to get—you know this well. The risk made me economical, made me experiment with thinner layers of doorframe. This necessity led to my finest breakthrough: making the frames thinner did not make them less powerful, so I could stack many more into a smaller space. A day came when I walked through a doorway made of more than sixty thin frames. I forgot the past week of my life.

“When the forgetting grew bad enough to be inconvenient,” he said, “I started writing a letter to my daughter each time I was to test the door. I pinned it to my shirt before I stepped, so I could read it after, and remind myself what I was doing, and why. It felt like talking with her.”

I tried to catch Akari’s eye, wondering if she could shed any light on what sounded like the ravings of a lunatic. I’d never heard of thaumaturgy used like this before. Parlour tricks, yes. City-levelling explosions, absolutely. But if the old man was telling the truth, he’d created something else altogether. Something subtle and dangerous.

“You don’t believe me,” he said. Astute.

“It’s quite a story.”

“Here.” With a grunt, he pushed himself up from the armchair and hobbled to the rabbit hutch in the corner. As he unlatched it, I swallowed back a surge of unease.

Zimmerman lifted the rabbit out of the cage and carried it to the coffee table. I thought for a moment that the limp, motionless creature must be dead. I hadn’t seen it move once during Zimmerman’s tale. But when he lay it on its side on the table I saw again the rapid rise and fall of its chest, the black shining stare of its open eye.

“What’s wrong with it?” Akari’s voice was uncharacteristically flat.

“You know.” Zimmerman fixed her with those still pondwater eyes. “It’s been through the door. Washed clean. Even the motor skills, vanished. All it has now is reflex . . . to suckle, to breathe—and it can feel sensation, though I cannot say if it knows what is pleasure and what is pain. When the body passes through the door the mind is left behind.”

I touched the rabbit’s soft fur, waved a hand above the open eye. Nothing. “How does it work?”

“Truly, I cannot say. It is like a magnet to a computer disk. Or like a fire to a shrub. It does something to the mind. Takes the tangled pathways you’ve grown in your head over the years and burns them away.” Zimmerman gathered the limp rabbit in his puckered hands.

“It’s cruel,” Akari said.

I made a mental note to talk to my junior agent about emotional overinvestment when all this was over.

“Life is cruel, young lady. This creature is at peace.” The old man walked to the hutch but seemed reluctant to let the rabbit go. His bony hand smoothed, smoothed the long white ears. He lingered, half turned away in the corner of the room where the shadows gathered. “I put them down humanely after the tests. This one, I kept alive to show you.”

He’d implied knowledge of our arrival before, too. “What made you so sure we were coming?”

“I’ve been buying restricted wood for thirty years, and never have I been on a watch list until now. Why do you think this is?”

“You wanted the TRA to come.”

“You’re very close to the truth of it, Agent Sawyer.”

I wondered if it was as simple as him needing his story heard. Or perhaps after thirty years of work he realised he could sell his door; profit might satisfy him more than artificially induced dementia. Hell, maybe when he’d finally faced the reality of wiping himself out of existence, he just chickened out.

I remembered the burned papers out front and realised I wasn’t wondering—I was hoping. Some thought scratched at the back of my mind like small fingernails clawing at me and I couldn’t let it through, not yet. Not that memory.

Zimmerman spoke again, almost too low to hear. “As the door grew stronger a strange thing happened—I no longer wanted to forget. You see, her death had begun to recede into the past over time, but the door washed away those years, day by day. The past—her death—crept back towards me, and so did my rage. Forgetting her wasn’t enough. I had to avenge her.”

“Avenge her? How?” Akari’s voice tremored.

“It’s already done.”

Akari jolted to her feet. I put my hand on her arm and moved her behind me. She stumbled on the coffee table, clung to my wrist. Not for the first time, I wished they gave us TRA agents sidearms, or even truncheons. My hand itched to close around a truncheon again. All that had stopped after the fuss over the refugee camps.

Zimmerman looked over his shoulder at last, his eyes malevolent, his eyes clear. His eyes so very young. “My daughter was too ashamed to tell her Vati much of what happened to her in the camp, but I knew enough to know when. She was not the same, after. Once the reparation trials released the guard duty rosters, I knew who.”

Akari clung to my wrist, her frightened eyes piercing me “Frank? What is this?”

I remembered another pair of frightened eyes. They’d been the colour of pond water. My dry throat clicked. “You’ve made a mistake. I never knew any Zimmermans.”

“Our name was Janus,” he said. “Perhaps you don’t remember that, but she left you with a reminder, didn’t she? My daughter had a crooked front tooth. What is on your wrist, Frank Sawyer?”

I jerked my arm away from Akari, but I knew she’d touched it through my sleeve as she clung to me, felt the two rough crescent scars of the bite I’d never had treated. I saw the terrible knowing in Akari’s eyes. I turned away. “Christ. I don’t know how it happened. I was young and angry.”

“So am I,” said the old man. He settled the rabbit against his chest, stroking it with his free hand.

“You can’t do this. She hasn’t done anything wrong.” I reached back for Akari’s arm. She recoiled from my touch.

The old man watched us, eyes bright and clear in his seamed face.

“You can’t keep us here!” I snarled.

“You are not prisoners, Agent Sawyer. On the contrary, you should not linger. I may have forgotten to turn off the oven. My memory these days is not good.” He slid open the flimsy screen door.

With a dull, shocked understanding I knew what the odd thickness of the frame behind it meant. I knew the meaning of the strange texture of the wood, the fine ridges pressed together dense as the grooves on a record. Thousands upon thousands of sliver-thin frames. Beyond the doorway, sunset filtered through narrow bars of bone-white birch.

The old man turned away from us, cradling the rabbit on his shoulder like a sleeping child. “You are free to leave whenever you please,” he said, and stepped out into the light.

The Feather Wall

Dog would eat anything. That was a comfort. If Martin had had to starve the poor bugger he might have thought twice about keeping quarantine, because the only other alternative was unacceptable. At some point, hunger would likely have pushed Dog to break his training and go for the kakapo, and the two of them had worked too hard on Resolution to see that happen.

There were staples enough in the ranger hut to last the season, if he stretched them, but no chance of restocking from the mainland any time soon. He checked the radio every day, calling out in case the plague was over, in case anyone had survived, but there was never any answer. Perhaps that meant it was safe to go back, perhaps the thing had burnt itself out, but if it hadn’t . . . .

Martin wouldn’t have minded if it had just been himself. It wouldn’t be much of a life anyway, the last man alone or as good as, at the arse-end of the world where no-one was likely to come along. There’d be no-one left behind to grieve for him but Dog, and even knowing that he’d laid awake at night, stroking the soft head and wondering if a bullet wouldn’t be kinder. He promised himself he’d do it, if he felt the sickness on him. Better a quick end at the hand of the human who loved him than slow starvation and loneliness.

He dreamed of it sometimes.

Sickness on him, and sweat. Huddled in his bunk, and in his dream he could never find the gun and Dog was by him always, pressed against him, trying to keep warm and comfort. Growing thinner over the days, because Dog would never leave his human to try and find food, no matter how much Martin cursed him away and tried to make him go. Dog’s ribs like toast racks against him, and the fever burning him up until it broke.

Dog licking the salt off his face and that face getting less red and less wet. Dog going to sleep beside him, curled in a hard and bony ball, pushing his nose under Martin’s hand. Dog waking to the sensation of cold weight against him, and no pat.

Dog nudging him and whining, Dog taking his fur between his teeth and pulling, Dog licking a face that wasn’t warm any more . . . .

The dreams came often, and less often when he checked the gun of a night, placed it carefully under the bed so that it was in easy reach if ever he lost strength enough so that he couldn’t even walk across the room. That was how it happened, he’d heard. The quiet incubation period, the sudden loss of strength. Massive contagion, massive mortality, and him and Dog away from it all, on an island they tried to keep predator-free because there was such a thing as conservation even now, and the kakapo would have died without it.

He’d always loved them, dozy as they were: giant flightless parrots on islands full of flightless birds, fat and plentiful until the people came. And the moa died, and the takahe nearly, the kiwi and the kakapo close to as well. Bad enough the human hunters all too eager to take kakapo for trophies, but the daft things couldn’t stand against what the humans brought with them—rats and cats and ferrets, creatures that could stalk the kakapo to its burrow and make an end of it, and did so in their thousands. Their tens of thousands, until only a handful remained, and two dozen of those on Resolution.

The island was a good enough place for stragglers to wait out the end times—the ranger’s hut was small but well-insulated. It needed to be, because the weather was always shit and Martin didn’t know why they’d bothered to put solar panels on the roof because there was never any bloody sunshine anyway, but there was an axe and plenty of wood and he cut some every day, enough to see him through the night and some put away for winter. There was cookware and bunks, a table, a fireplace. Water enough nearby and a tank for storage, a dunny out the back. He could dig a new one when it filled. A few books, not that he was much of a reader, but they’d belonged to one of the other rangers and so had the fishing kit, and he’d made more use of that.

Apocalypse was nothing like Martin thought it would be. Not that he’d ever given it a great deal of brain space, the only times he’d really considered it were superficial ones and in response to a movie usually, or a book. In those the problems were always resources, and he’d always felt a certain sense of smugness at the trouble and conflict it caused. Armed groups scavenging supplies from a local supermarket, warfare over water . . . it all seemed hysterical to him, and not the funny hysterical either. The land was easy enough to live off if you knew what you were doing, and he did.

The angler’s kit was basic enough but the water was full of hapuka, of blue cod and gurnard, blue nose and blue-fin. He was able to keep himself and Dog fed, and he knew enough about the local vegetation to keep scurvy at bay. That was how the sailors did it, back when Captain Cook was exploring New Zealand. Back in 1773 it was, in Dusky Sound which was only a stone’s throw from Resolution, really. He’d brewed up rimu leaves for a sort of spruce beer, old Cook, but it had been too bitter and so he’d added manuka leaves to soften the flavour. It wasn’t exactly craft—Martin found it a bit foul, really, and even Dog didn’t do much more than sniff at it, but it was better than loose teeth and open sores, a deficiency of vitamins.

It wasn’t keeping himself alive that was the central problem of apocalypse. It wasn’t even loneliness, he’d found, because he had Dog and the kakapo, and it wasn’t a life for social butterflies anyway, ranging. The Department of Conservation had enough isolated huts that there was always room for rangers to spend weeks, months sometimes, with little enough for company but other DOC rangers, the odd tramper. There’d been two others on Resolution with him, but they’d had families, and at the first radioed hint of trouble they’d left, had promised to come back when it was over.

It was over, and they hadn’t come back. Martin was pretty sure their promises hadn’t been broken on a whim.

No. The worst thing about apocalypse—and he’d had some weeks now to think it over—wasn’t food or change or abandonment. It was loss of purpose.

Martin was under no illusion. Most people, back when there were enough people to make “most” an adequate descriptor, didn’t have any sort of lofty goal. It was get through the day mostly, pay the bills, raise the kids if you had them. Be a good mate, maybe leave things a little better than you found them. And if that was a small purpose it was a good one, or good enough. It was the same kind of thinking that sneered at small purpose that made hysteria the primary response to apocalypse, he thought.

“We’re an operatic bloody species,” he said to Dog. “Always so convinced there’s a need for high drama. That it’s best, that it’s living.”

Dog’s tail thumped against the wooden floor as if he understood. He probably did too, Martin reckoned, because dogs were pretty operatic themselves, and he’d certainly seen Dog get all over excitement at the prospect of bones.

Now that his purpose was smaller than ever—catch some more fish, feed self, feed Dog, check the radio—it still seemed good. It was that which kept him tethered to Resolution.

“Oh, there’s fear in it too,” he said to Dog, out of habit more than anything, and because there was always comfort in a good listener. Dog was the best listener that he knew, and the most intelligent. He could spot a lie, could Dog, and Martin liked to work things out with him because it was difficult to look into those intelligent eyes and lie. “I’m not a brave man,” he said. “I’m no bloody hero, mate. It’s easier to believe people are still out there than to go look and find otherwise. And what would I find, eh?” Corpses, probably. Lots of them, and madness to follow no doubt. “Oh, I’d hold it together. Check it out and come back here, probably, hunker down. And spend the rest of my nights dreaming about what I found, and what I couldn’t change.”

He dreamed enough about that, and Resolution comforted him because there were things there he could change, still.

It was the kakapo kept him there. And maybe that was his own little streak of operatic, right there, the lone man holding out against inevitability, but he’d heard the booming come back to Resolution, and it made the large things seem possible, somehow. He heard it at night. Short deep bursts, the sound made when blowing over the mouth of a beer bottle. Not all of the males were booming—he could only distinguish two or three of them—and there was no guarantee that any of the females would respond to the mating call, but it was better than silence. “Used to be a time you could walk through Fiordland and hear the booming from every corner,” he said to Dog. But that was long before his time, long before his granddad’s even. Only old stories now, about how kakapo had been plentiful, and there’d been a time when he’d hoped his work would be one step on the road to making them so again, but apocalypse had put paid to all that.

The other predator-free islands, Codfish and Little Barrier . . . there was no guarantee that any other ranger survived, no reason to think they’d stayed on the islands if they had. Martin had no family left, but most people did; they might have left to go to them like his mates on Resolution had. No guarantee, either, that the predators would stay off them, that one day a clinging rat wouldn’t wash up and go hunting for eggs. All the work would mean nothing then. It’d only be a matter of time. And the rats would be growing—a population explosion come from feeding on the bodies of the dead. Possums, as well, with the pest control down to nil and an entire country full of starving pets looking to decimate what was left of the birds. Feral moggies, feral dogs.

He dreamed of it sometimes.

Dog coming back to the hut of a night, limping, scrawny. Dog coming to sit beside remains that wouldn’t answer—Dog drooling, sometimes, but he never dreamed of being eaten, of his remains going down that friendly gullet. Partly because the thought of what would happen to his body didn’t bother him, even in waking hours, and partly because he shied away from thinking how Dog would need to be, how lost and starved and desperate, before he began to feed.

He was a good mate, was Dog. If Martin died he’d be a last resort—something to be devoured only if Dog was too weak or too sick to catch his own food, and maybe not even then.

But mostly it was because there was something more horrifying to dream about than his own dead self, and that was dead kakapo. He dreamed it near every night—Dog, overcoming training before love, and his mouth stuffed full of parrot. And all the parrots gone, eventually, because they could never escape Dog, stupid feathery things that they were, all whiskers and no brain, and he’d been trained to hunt them down.

That was their tragedy. Kakapo could never escape anything.

Funny, that. In most places the sudden absence of humans would be a shot in the arm to ecosystems. No more poaching, no more pollution. The climate might even get a chance to stabilise—that’d be a good thing. But here and there would be species, remnant populations, dependent on intervention, on protection. “What’s going to happen to them, mate?” he said, stroking Dog’s floppy ears, and Dog gazed up at him, eyes closing under strokes. “What’s going to happen to the kakapo without us to look after them?”

A matter of time only. He knew it, and it wasn’t enough to make him go away. He knew every one of those two dozen birds. Knew them all by name, knew their personalities, the way they’d waddle up to him for attention and bits of treat, their great green faces trusting, wistful. Resolution gave him a duty and a purpose, and if apocalypse had taken everything else it hadn’t taken that.

Martin wasn’t a religious man, but he’d come to feel as an anchorite might, he thought. Wedded to a place, to a purpose, a world made small and the knowledge that there might be someone, someday, who would come and take their place. Maybe. “Too much for us, eh?” he said to Dog. Matters of faith were beyond him. He preferred tools he could hold in his hand: the axe, the traps. Nothing prayerful about them, they were simple and they worked.

It wasn’t a difficult job. Meticulous, yes, because he had to check the traps every day, make sure there was nothing in them and reset them if there was. Mostly there was nothing. That was lucky in a way, but it always made Martin wonder if rats had made it back to Resolution and had simply avoided the traps. He set out as many as he could, spent the evening light building more from odd bits of plank, from leftover wire and hinges. But mostly he relied on Dog. They tramped Resolution together, he and Dog. When he’d caught enough fish for the day he’d cook some up, leave the rest for dinner and they’d head off walking.

Dog’s nose was better than all the traps combined, and a good thing too. Martin saw the telltale behaviour one afternoon, the whine and hunting pose, and they were off through the bush, slower than he would have liked, for it was mud all through after rain, and it always rained on Resolution. He tripped and slipped behind Dog, gun slung over one shoulder, hoping for a clean end. If it was a stoat, if it was a ferret, and he couldn’t find it before dark there’d be no guarantee the kakapo would last the night. Not all of them, anyway, for the mustelids had a blood wish, sometimes, and killed more than they could eat for the sheer pleasure of the killing. Kakapo, big and plump in their burrows, wouldn’t be a challenge. He’d find them cold in their entranceways, the beautiful feathers dull and the features uncomprehending. “Find it, Dog!” he cried, mud all down his front and his waterproofs all slick with rain. “Find it!”

Dog was muddy too, his fur damp and with rivulets running off, but there was an eager gleam in his eyes, in the way he scampered along, more stable on four feet than Martin on two. But for all he was a good tracker there wasn’t much fight in him, though he bared his teeth and growled willingly enough when the stoat was back up against a corner of rocks. In other circumstances, Martin thought, as he shoved Dog aside and took aim, he’d enjoy the beauty of the little beast. For they were beautiful, in their way—the long sinuous bodies, the sharp little faces—and they moved like a dream, not like the poor waddling kakapo, who had at best pace a bastard mix of shuffle and scuttle.

The gun echoed over the island. “Got you,” said Martin. “I’ve fucking got you.” The small sleek body was warm in his hands, still. He thought he might try skinning it, not that it had a coat like a possum’s but it might be useful someday, and it would be something to do of an evening. He stroked it, admiring, and a little sad as well. A brave little thing, but he couldn’t be truly sorry.

He went out again the next day, used Dog’s trained nose to track down eight of the kakapo, found the other five the day after that. They blinked at him when he found them, all of them hale enough, and it left him weak in the knees that he’d not let them down, that they hadn’t been left a ragged pile of feathers with a broken body beneath.

“No, I’ll not leave you,” he said, stroking one of the big soft heads. “Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere.” They were as good as quarantine, were kakapo. It was as if Resolution had a wall around it of feathers and expectation, a thin wall and a flexible one but one that kept him in regardless. And there was nowhere else for him to be, really. His biology had been ecology and conservation more than anything, his university experience a series of field trips punctuated by lectures, and if there was anyone left out there looking for a cure for plague he’d be pretty bloody useless. Better to stay with the birds and hope that Resolution was isolated enough to keep him healthy, hope that if he caught sick anyway the species barrier would protect them.

They were still, he thought, the more precious population.

“It’s a funny thing, yeah?” he said to Dog. “We’ve been trying to keep those fluffy little bastards alive for so long. For years.” There’d been a time when the population was less than a hundred, and DOC had an almighty battle pulling them back from the brink. “Now there might just be more of them than there are of us.”

It was almost a cheerful thought, though it never lasted. Kakapo were still wavering on the edge—several hundred only, and slow at the breeding—but the establishment of predator-free islands like Codfish and Little Barrier kept them safe from ferrets, from cats and rats and other introduced species that spread over the southern lands like a plague. Resolution was the newest of the refugia, but it wasn’t too far off the mainland and rats could float over to it occasionally still, if the tides were right.  

The days were a round. Trap, hunt, fish, and the routine of it, the purpose, kept him from feeling alone even though he was.

Then the radio went off, and he was reminded. “Would you listen to that, mate,” he said to Dog, a wondering hand resting on the back of Dog’s head. “We’re not alone after all.”

Scientists, more of them, coming in from field work even more remote than his. Isolated, like he was, while the plague burned itself out.

“I’m out on Resolution Island,” he said. “With the kakapo.” He couldn’t leave them.

Turned out, they didn’t expect him to. The voice on the radio was almost broken with relief. “They’re alive?” it said. “I mean, we sent someone to Codfish, most of them seem alright, we got there quick enough.” Little Barrier had fallen. “I know it seems stupid to worry about birds, but, well . . . .

They weren’t about to throw everything over because of apocalypse either. “Seems a bit much, doesn’t it?” said the voice. “Better things to do than fight, am I right?” There were plans to retrieve the New Zealanders working at Scott Base, down in the Antarctic. “Some of the penguin guys are shifting over to kakapo.” It wasn’t as if penguins needed the help. Millions of the bloody things. “We’ll get someone over to spell you soon as we can.”

“I’m good,” said Martin. “I want to stay. Wouldn’t say no to some more supplies, though. Pretty sick of fish.”

They were setting up in Dunedin, the rest, over on the other side of mainland. “I belong on Resolution,” he said. “Me and Dog and the kakapo.” Because they’d weathered an apocalypse with him, even if they were too thick to know it, and he wasn’t interested in leaving them behind.

“I suppose it’s not the first one they’ve seen off,” he said afterwards, to Dog, as they made their way back out into the bush. Their world had ended once, too.

The kakapo that were left, they were the survivors.

A Diary from the End of the World

Worlds depart; their light endures.

Over five years before, I had arrived on the planet we call DA3(1), the Third Daughter of star Alkahran and the only life-bearing body in the system. As with most planets, this one had no specific name in the language of its natives: they called their sun the Sun, their world the World, and its inhabitants People. This world was not dying, but signs of the extinction of its dominant species were already there: squeezed between a voracious and utterly unviable relationship to their habitat and a generalised sense of doom, the people of DA3(1) might yet recover, or they might not. The savants of the galaxy already mentioned them with the tinge of regret reserved for disappearing beauty. Recording the glow from their fading embers was the perfect job for an exoethnologist, and so I was given an assignment there, to gather as much as I could of their culture in case it was lost forever.

I had spent the past few months in a place called Montevideo, sipping mate tea from a gourd and adding sketches of parakeet vendors to a string of unsorted field notes, when the mental call from Brood Mother came.

‘The Grand Central Reactors have failed for good,’ she said, her voice shaking with more than interferences from stellar winds.

The implications did not reach my brain at once. It takes longer to form an adequate reaction when you have transformed your body into one of another species, and for a moment, all I could think of was the warm mate cup in my hand and how annoying it was to be unable to receive space transmissions properly.

‘We have to evacuate,’ Brood Mother said. ‘Me, your sisters, we all have to leave. They say it’s hopeless. There will never been enough fuel to start them again.’

I put the cup down. In the dying throes of our sun, the Grand Central Reactors were all that kept the cold at bay. If we had only known they would run out of energy so fast . . . .

‘How long is there left?’ I said.

‘A month or so. We can’t be sure. Please, daughter . . . please come back.’

I blinked. My eyes, native eyes in a native body I had composed five years before, suddenly seemed to remember the soft red light of my own sun, and the glare of DA3(1) blinded me. Getting near my ship would be simple enough: air transportation operated all over this planet. It was the last few dozen kilometres that worried me. I had left my transporter hidden on a remote island to make sure it would come to no harm, but that meant it would be days, at best, before I could reach it.

‘I’ll be there, Brood Mother,’ I quickly said before she could sense my uncertainty.

There are thousands of records of worlds ending, but I had never seen anything quite like the place they called World’s End in Tierra del Fuego: a colourful city sprawled between mountains still capped with snow, with the sea glistening greyish blue some distance away. Boats swayed in the port under a weak breeze: mostly travellers, people of means and wanderlust, with little need for extra crew. It might take days before I found someone to take me to the other end of the Beagle channel, through its maze of islands, to where the transporter waited for me.

It was a strange city, Ushuaia, a place where no one seemed to linger, and yet where everyone appeared to come seeking a truth of some sort. End of the World, it said everywhere, as if it was a great thing. I sat in a café full of tourists in expensive hiking gear, like a very expensive interstellar tourist myself.

I tried listening to the conversations around me, out of habit. But there was little I managed to record. After five years on another planet, in another body, taking notes on everything until it became second nature, all I could now think about was a reddish sky illuminated by a huge sun, with purple trees bending in the wind.

I finally embarked upon a sturdy steel-hulled schooner manned by three Frenchmen—a sailor, a violinist, and a biologist, who taught me about birds in between bouts of peering at seawater through a microscope. Less than two days into our voyage, there was already no trace of human occupation left around us. Glaciers dropped into the sea from black, naked mountaintops. Flocks of penguins, albatrosses and petrels fled before us, inaudible with the whistle of the wind in the halyards. Aside from these and the occasional sea lion surfacing like a black blot in the distance, there was no animal presence, although many beasts roamed the depths of the sea, my companions had assured me. I had never seen the near-mythical beast they called a whale, but around here, those animals were undisputed queens.

On my home world, there were very few places so entirely devoid of people.

‘Hasn’t anyone ever lived here?’ I asked.

‘They used to, yes. They were slaughtered.’

I remembered encountering countless black-and-white pictures in Ushuaia of a long-gone people wrapped in furs and staring at the camera with nostalgia. Their names, Selknam, Yaghan, Haush, Kawésqar, were mentioned with reverence. Nowhere did anyone allude to the fact that they had been exterminated in less than a century to make room for cattle and fishing boats.

We’d had our genocides at home too. We did not like discussing them in the open either, and I could only suppose that now the end had come, most people would prefer to feel sorry for themselves and forget past guilt. That was how it seemed to be happening on DA3(1), at any rate.

‘Would you like a sip?’ my biologist companion offered, handing me the mate cup, once the waves calmed down a little.

It was a welcome respite from thinking. We sat together in the cockpit, enjoying a few minutes of warmth from the tiny, bright yellow sun.

‘You’re very silent,’ one of them observed. ‘Is everything fine?’

It was. It had to be. The panicked call this morning from Brood Mother was nothing; you would expect her to feel nervous in a time like this, and I was going to the transporter as fast as I could. I had acquired a decent command of most of this species’ expressions by then, so my broad smile reassured them.

‘Penguins,’ I said, pointing out to the now-quiet waters of the channel. ‘Look.’

As the ship approached, the tiny, black-and-white shapes dropped one by one into the waters. I gazed at a massive ice field cascading into the sea, surrounded by smooth rock where the ice had retreated. When I was a hatchling, my brood used to worry about the ice creeping up to our village, not away from it. I grew up to dread the sight of ice. Yet for some reason, with two hundred metres of cold, dark water under the hull and steep banks covered in impassably convoluted trees on either side of the channel, the situation felt peaceful, comforting.

The loss of an intelligent species is not the end of the world, I reminded myself. It was hard to keep that truth in mind sometimes. If humans disappeared from DA3(1), this place would hardly change at all.

Three days in, we approached the other side of the channel.

‘We could see whales around here,’ my biologist friend said. ‘We’re close enough to the ocean, and the waters are deep. I hope we’ll see them.’ He grinned like a child, a hand on the rigging to steady himself as he half-hung above the water—two hundred metres of kelp and darkness and massive wandering beasts.

‘Everybody seems fascinated with whales,’ I remarked.

‘They should be. Whales are as intelligent as we are. Just imagine, we could learn their language one day! How cool is that?’

I thought he was joking, but his grin was one of excitement, not of irony.

‘I thought you—’ I checked myself. ‘I thought we were the only intelligent species on this planet?’

‘Lots of species are intelligent,’ he retorted. ‘They just don’t write books about it.’

I had never thought of it this way, not even back home. I stared into the depth. But the water was so dark you couldn’t see anything one metre below the surface. I realised that, after five years on DA3(1), I knew next to nothing about whales, or any other species for that matter. Perhaps I had talked with too few biologists.

There were few whales left, my friend said, but this was one of a few places on Earth where they regularly came to hunt. Now I thought about it, on the day I had landed, I had seen a dark shape rise over the surface of the water and sink back down in a couple of seconds. I had not known about whales back then, although I had taken time to study local cultures through the haphazard messages they sent to outer space.

‘I hope we’ll see whales too,’ I said, to keep my thoughts from straying towards those years when I studied exoethnology from the comfort of my doomed home.

The sea spread like a sheet of metal ahead, so smooth the reflections looked as vivid as the mountains themselves. I gazed in the distance for the tapping of albatross feet in the waves, waters poked open by the back of a Chilean dolphin, or perhaps even a tall plume of spray that would announce the coming of a whale. The rumble of the motor blurred all other sounds, isolating hearing more than silence itself. But the broadcast echoing in my head bypassed exterior noise.

‘It’s over,’ Brood Mother said.

I did not answer for a moment. I was taking the news surprisingly well. I was not sure how the body I had adopted was supposed to react, but so far it hardly seemed to react at all.

‘You said there would be a month left,’ I said.

‘They ordered evacuation today. It’s over. We won’t ever come back.’

She said more things afterwards; that we had always known after all; that my sisters were not adjusting badly, all things considered; that the barracks on GDKZ5-3 were clean and pleasant. She did not say how our planet looked as the spaceship soared away. I imagined it would have shrunk to the size of a ball, then a tiny, cold silver pebble, alone and dying in the emptiness.

Something warm started to flow from my eyes, as if, of its own accord, my borrowed body knew about the beauty of the lakes on my home world at moonrise, the bellows of the storms in the trees, the cries of river birds in the morning. Water ran down my cheeks, so familiar after five years of use, yet so foreign in that moment. I tried to push myself out, to throw my mind towards the transporter however I could and fly away I didn’t know where. But grief tore my focus apart. I’d have to reach the transporter before I could get away from the form I had adopted, and so I stayed there, clutching the rigging, trying to remain motionless even as my mind cracked piece by piece.

There was a hesitant touch on my arm.

‘Are you all right?’ one of the crew asked. I forced my face into stillness.

‘I . . . .’ My voice croaked. I blurted out the first justification that would not sound too strange to them. ‘It’s . . . the anniversary. Today. My mother’s death.’

I did not turn to face him, but I received his words nonetheless. They were kind and awkward and brief. People here did not know how to deal with endings. He walked away soon and they left me alone, respecting a grief they understood so much less than they thought.

Island after island, channel after channel, the labyrinth unfolded towards the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

I did not discuss my supposed mourning any further with the crew. Instead I asked them about whales. I asked about whale song and what calves might learn from their mothers; whales helping out other beasts although nobody knew why; whales giving each other names; whales staying behind when hunted so that their pod members would not die alone; whales approaching ships without fear and being slaughtered for their flesh, even though nobody ate it anymore. We talked about albatrosses and penguin families and the tiny passerines that flocked to see what curious sorts of beasts we were when we neared the shore and shut down the motor. We talked and talked, warming our hands on mate cups and sipping the bitter warmth of the tea with delight, but we hardly looked at one another. Our eyes remained riveted on the blue and white humps of the mountains around us, the silver stillness of the sea.

Once, as we passed a waterfall gushing from under a glacier, I said—

‘There was a river near our house, when I was a child. And a waterfall, just like this one.’

My biologist friend nodded gravely and let me go on. So I told him about cold mornings bathed in red dawns, and taking walks near the water to pick tart little berries in woods rustling with beasts he knew no name for. I told him how I heard the voices of my grandmother and aunts in the wind and he smiled, no doubt thinking I meant it as a metaphor. I did not tell him about the daily reports on the central reactors that kept the core of our planet warm even after the warmth of the sun had failed it — about peacefully waiting for an ending everybody thought they would accept without question, as if we would always be able to hear the voice of our world and of our dead sun in the galactic wind.

I heard my own voice splinter before I felt it in my throat. I stopped talking.

My friend looked away and pointed at the shape of a sea lion, to give me a moment of privacy.

‘We lived in a house by the sea when I was little,’ he suddenly said.

I remembered what I had learned about warming climate and rising sea levels on DA3(1).

‘Is it still there?’ I asked.

He nodded.

‘It’s not going anywhere,’ he replied. ‘It’s just that there are more storms now. It gets flooded more and more often, and it won’t get better. I haven’t been there in a while.’

He did not sound as buoyant as he usually did, and I did not insist. But his smile came back after a brief silence, as he told me about a childhood on the beach, glimpsing octopuses and hermit crabs in beds of seagrass, eating bitter red berries from trees that grew short and dense in the salt seaside heat. The more I listened, the more I seemed to hear another voice under that of the seasoned sailor: the voice of an excited little boy reading about fish and dolphins, running on a beach and lecturing his family about the cuttlefish bones and seashells he found there, building up a steadfast love of the sea when everybody thought he was just playing. I remembered lying down in the grass and gazing at the stars, revelling in the certainty that there were other worlds to explore even as the first reports of alien probes reaching our orbit were broadcast. Without the strange shape of his limbs and face, this alien could have been a sister of mine.

‘It will stay there,’ I said. ‘None of it is going away.’

But I was not sure what I was talking about.

I recognised the shape of the island even though it looked exactly like all the islands around. It was the first thing I had seen of this world after landing, the place where I had left the transporter five years before.

But the familiar pulsing noise at the back of my head was absent. Aside from the song of the halyards against the masts, there was nothing to be heard. I reached with my thoughts. The body I had adopted was less sensitive than my native one. But there was no sound even as we neared the island. When I tried to empty my mind, I could not find the familiar echo. It was as if my own heart had stopped beating.

I stood still on the side of the ship as the realisation dawned on me. The transporter was in constant contact with installations on my home world. There would have been no reason to keep them running as evacuation neared completion. Without its transgalactic anchor, my ship could not function. It lay there inactive, dead as the world that had made it.

I would never be able to go back.

Hours passed and I still stood gazing at the island, probing with my mind even when I knew there would be no answer. Far ahead, the islands grew farther apart, the wind and waves more insistent. To a sailing ship, the passage to the open ocean was trickier than crossing half the universe had been to me. But when would my people start exploring the galaxy again if they had a whole world to rebuild?

I was alone, and stranded, and even if I ever found a way to go back, there was no ‘back’ anymore. I would only land in yet another new world, one where I would speak my native tongue and where people looked familiar again, but where the rustle of the trees and the smells and tastes and bird songs would never be the same.

As I desperately reached into the silence, a hollow sound burst through the sea, immediately followed by shouts. I jerked back to the ship as the sailors rushed to the prow.

A huge shape broke the water, shiny and black, its blowhole visible for a second, then the length of its back, then the tail unfolding out of the water and sinking again, as large as my entire body, not twenty metres from the ship. The sound of its blow had split the air like a horn, but it sank soundlessly, while the crew whooped and ran across the ship in hope to see it surface again. But in the wasteland of my mind reaching out for a signal that would never come, another sound rushed like a wave, the echo of a mind bigger and deeper than any I had ever encountered—

Little one little calf on the water hurt are you hurt I am here little one I will help . . . .

I stepped on the bowsprit, as far as I could, a strange feeling of weightlessness washing over me, as if I had reached the transporter and was changing into my native form again. I spread my mind open. Concern, gentle worry for a strange creature flooded my thoughts, and I probed for a way to respond, no hurt I’m fine I’m fine stay please stay here . . . .

The sound of the blow echoed again amid cries of wonder, and perhaps I saw the whale surface again, although sight and thought were too mingled to tell apart. Amid hissing waves and grey summits, I let myself drift for the last time, letting go of my borrowed body and perhaps of my native one as well, too far away from the safety of the transporter to know how it would end, and too far gone to care. The shouts of wonder turned to cries of warning, but overlaying my senses came the vast drifting thoughts again, little creature little stranger I will help you hurt no hurt you’re safe you’re safe . . . .

My feet lost the bowsprit, but there was no cold to meet me. I greeted the water like a long-lost home, I felt my mind change into one I had never imagined, and just before I lost words to enter a never-ending song, I realised that I was swimming home, in the only place in the universe where the world was not ending.