Song of the Suburbs

Our houses are decaying    plants wait to take control         no they don’t wait     they ceaseless

send their rootlings along the soil’s pathways     wheedling      their limbs unwind               across

blank         space                      filling up with light                 blocking the light

 

Meanwhile in the East        snow presses its heavy breast     against the eaves of a ranch house

the gutters tear away         sheets of packed ice lance   to the ground         watch out!

 

Our neighborhoods erode       woodpeckers drill utility poles

      kerkerkerkerkerkerkerkerker       how do they move their heads

so fast we wonder      but they do           holes accumulate

      a lacework        someday they’ll topple          and then            

kablammo         no more power  

 

Oak roots down below         thrust up        concrete sidewalks         bust up        Maintenance!       Maintenance!

someone call the city          the sidewalk’s all ajumble

 

And the freeways oh the freeways are a mess

       just look at all the new holes      every time it rains

             the veritable earth      dropping    out      pulling     away           the asphalt     withdrawing

        Never mind never mind          we’ll shelter in our houses         until we can no more

The Mortmain

Henryk Król was washing dishes, looking out at the setting-sun light shuddering through the trees—considering, without real conviction, whether the trees should be trimmed to let more light through; whether he had any right to trim the trees, as after years of residence he was still unsure where his yard ended and the forest began—when the boy knocked on the edge of his screen door and came into the kitchen a moment later. Henryk had fallen out of the habit of locking his door during the day; here, it was unnecessary. And locking your door at night was only because of the animals, raccoons with their thieving ways and curious deer, occasionally a bear. Not boys with bare feet.

“What happened to your shoes?” Henryk asked. Even little boys did not run around barefoot like they used to. And this boy existed in the grey area between boy and man, slight enough to be a teenager, wiry and solemn enough to be a young man. He wore ripped trousers and a grey hoodie worn so thin in patches Henryk could glimpse his ribs; no shirt, no shoes. The boy seemed unreal, like a preview of his usual unsettling dreams.

“Nothing,” the boy said. “Are you the surgeon?”

Henryk dried his hands, keeping the boy in the corner of his eye. “I was a surgeon. Why do you ask?”

The boy tugged his hoodie off, scattering pine needles across the floor. The scent of the forest moved into the kitchen. Using his skinny hands to frame the area, he indicated a patch of skin on his stomach that looked exactly the same as the rest. “There’s something hurting me,” he said flatly. “It needs to be taken out.”

Henryk moved slowly as he picked the hoodie up and handed it back to the boy, who took it reluctantly. He felt like he was in a room with a wild animal. Didn’t want to spook it. “What is your name?”

The boy glanced over his shoulder. “Mort.”

A blatant falsehood: the forest behind him was the Mortmain Forest. Henryk let it slide. “Mort, I am several years retired. Also, you must be examined before you have surgery. Have you been examined?”

Mort scowled. “I don’t need it. I know what’s wrong.”

“How?”

“I feel it.” He touched the place again, gently. “I know when something’s wrong. I just can’t fix it.” He looked at Henryk imperiously. “Aren’t you supposed to help people?”

“I am supposed to help my patients. There is a process to becoming a patient. I would not want to hurt anyone by rushing into something.”

Mort’s scowl deepened. “Didn’t you take an oath?”

“The Hippocratic? That would have been foolish of me. It prohibits the use of a knife, among other outdated stipulations.”

I solemnly pledge to consecrate my life to the service of humanity. That one.”

Henryk looked at Mort with new interest. “The Declaration of Geneva. It’s less well-known.”

Mort didn’t provide an explanation, just gestured at his stomach, get-to-it-then. Henryk sighed. “It still does not mean I must tend anyone who comes to me. You may need help, but unless you are examined I cannot tell whether you need the help of a surgeon or . . . another sort of doctor.”

With an angry huff of breath, Mort pulled the hoodie back on. “I don’t need another doctor. I need your help.”

“You don’t know—”

“I know what I need.” Mort turned and went out, looking back as the screen door shivered in its frame. “I’ll be back,” he said. “You’ll change your mind.”

“Unless you come back with paperwork from a doctor, I shall not.”

“You have to,” Mort said. The hoarseness of his voice made it either a threat or a statement of desperation. He turned, then, and half-ran into the trees. Henryk watched until night swelled up—as it seemed to in these parts, rising up from the ground like mist—and made every tree a shadow in the dark.

Henryk often questioned why he lived by the Mortmain. The trees were lovely, if old and tangled, but he preferred cities. The convenience, the bustle of life, never being quite alone. His husband—Simon—had liked the forest. Bought this house. Maybe some lingering superstition had drawn Henryk out here; his mother always said ghosts haunted the places they loved the most.

No ghosts out here, unless Mort was one. Seeking eternal help for a hernia that had killed him in the days before medicine advanced. He looked nothing like Simon—Simon had been taller, dark-skinned and vibrant. No better word to describe how alive he felt to Henryk, right up until he wasn’t.

Late afternoon, a day later, Henryk walked to the nearby town. He argued with himself, like always, over how whether he should get a car. He had learned to drive once, and he chose to believe that, like riding a bicycle, it was muscle memory. But the process of buying one, the noise and intensity and all the myriad little things that had been added to cars since he had last owned one—it daunted him. Better to walk, until he could no longer.

He asked the young woman at the grocery store if she knew anyone who looked like Mort. She shook her head. “Could be a couple different boys from around here. Probably someone messing around, trying to scare you.”

“Then they did not succeed.”

She laughed. Henryk was reminded, uncomfortably, that he had become what certain young women see as a cute old man. Soft-voiced and nonthreatening and slow, with a funny accent.

Do you know what I did when I was your age? He wanted to say. I crossed an ocean, moved to a different country—this unfriendly country—to be with the man I loved. I never thought I would grow old, but I have. Alone. It’s not amusing.

He smiled, with effort, instead. Time would talk to the girl in his stead, say things more eloquently than he ever could.

“Hey,” she said, sliding him his bags, “you need any help with those?”

“I will be fine.”

“The development’s not happening on your side of the forest, is it? Things are getting pretty hairy around there.”

“This is the first I have heard of it.”

She leaned her elbows on the counter and pointed out the window. “If you go up to the corner of Pine and Elm, you can see the smoke and dust. The government cut a deal with some company that wants to take a slice off the Mortmain and put something in—probably a luxury hotel or something stupid like that.”

“That’s terrible.”

The girl nodded. “And that’s not even the weird part. The weird part is, something’s been coming out of the woods at night and messing with the machines. Overturning them, scratching them up—huge machines! One guy tried to get a look at it—I dunno what problem they had with their cameras—and now he’s in the hospital.”

“Perhaps a bear?”

“It’d have to be a hell of a bear. My aunt says it’s karma. She was protesting down there before they shooed everyone off because of the whatever-it-is.” The girl sighed. “They’re probably gonna get a permit to shoot it, because God forbid the wildlife trespass on the bit of the forest they want to wreck.”

Henryk looked her over again, taking in her carved-wood earrings, the environmental pin on her apron. “You would prefer the creature chase them away, I imagine.”

“Who wouldn’t?” She shook her head. “But it seems like every forest’s being torn apart these days. If it isn’t us, it’s beetles, rot . . . .”

“Always something.”

She rubbed the pin with a tip of her finger, as if it were a magic charm. “That’s life, I guess.”

Mort was sitting on the steps when Henryk came up to the house, a still, dark figure in the twilight. He wore shoes this time—sneakers, the logo long peeled away, splitting at one seam—without socks, and the same grey hoodie and trousers.

“I can’t give you what you want,” Henryk said.

Without answering, Mort came forward and took a grocery bag. Henryk yielded it with only slight reluctance; his arms ached. Mort hefted it like a dead leaf. When he opened the door—which Henryk could not recall if he’d locked—and went into the kitchen, he didn’t bother to turn on the lights. He moved in the dark like he knew the place.

They put things away together, silently. Mort still smelled like pine and oak, but with a sour whiff of oil and smoke. His hands were striped with dirt. When they finished, Henryk pointed down the hall. “The bathroom is down there. You may use the shower if you wish.”

He watched Mort leave the room, wondering if he lived in the forest. Judging by the degraded state of his clothes, maybe he was a runaway; Henryk could, with some work, imagine a teenager being too stubborn to return to civilization even if they needed clothes or medical help. Perhaps he had fled an abusive home. Or maybe that was the wrong train of thought; maybe he had come to the Mortmain to join the protesters and chosen to go into the woods he loved instead of going back home when they were dispersed.

He made tea.

“It’s only going to get worse,” Mort said from the doorway.

Henryk had seen a lot of things in his life; he only blinked before saying, “I believe you forgot your clothes.”

Mort rolled his eyes, as if Henryk was changing the subject for foolish reasons, and wandered back down the hall. He left a pattern of water on the floor behind him, footprints that didn’t look quite right. When he returned he wore only his pants and shoes; his hoodie, ripped down a seam, was draped over his arm. On the lower left side of his stomach, there was a small dark spot.

“What is that?”

Mort glared at him. “The same thing it was yesterday.”

“The skin was unmarked yesterday.” Henryk beckoned him closer and examined the spot. Discolored skin, no break. “This may simply be a bruise. They sometimes look unusual.”

Mort sighed. “It’s underneath. It’s just starting to show now.”

“Mort,” Henryk said, keeping his tone casual, “do you have a family?”

“Yes. I haven’t seen my parents in a long time, but my younger brother lives with me.”

“Are you old enough to be living alone?”

“I’m plenty old.”

“You ripped your hoodie. Do you have anything else?”

Mort shrugged.

He was taller and a little thinner than Henryk, but one of Henryk’s old shirts fit him well enough. Henryk expected him to protest, but he accepted it—and the trousers Henryk offered—with a confused air. Like he couldn’t understand why Henryk would turn down his request and then give him something he hadn’t asked for. “Won’t you just trust me and take it out?” he asked one more time.

Henryk said, “Go to the doctor down in the town—do you need his address?”

Mort shook his head. “That’s too far,” he said, and wouldn’t explain what he meant.

Henryk dreamed strange dreams that night; different from his usual stressed, repetitive dreams about strangers telling him Simon had died; or his whole life unwinding like a spool of thread until he was back in his childhood home, where nobody knew him. Simon came and sat on his bed, looking younger. He thanked Henryk for burying him in the woods—which was wrong; Henryk had seen him buried under a tree in the city cemetery. He tried to say this, but his tongue was dark and swollen, and when he pressed a hand to his ribs, his flesh gave way like overripe fruit. Simon frowned, the same sweet, concerned look Henryk had seen so many times, and said, “Honey, I think you’re sick.” He smelled oil and smoke.

When he woke, sweaty and short of breath, his stomach ached. He went out to sit on his steps, although it was pitch-black. The night air was sweet and cool; his shivering abated after a few minutes. Far away, he heard a machine start up and then die again. Start up, and die. The third time it choked and sputtered to a stop like an animal with its throat opened, and after that there were only the small noises of the woods.

Online, Henryk only found an article or two about the permission given to pass a road through and build something on “the edge” of the Mortmain; after some time he finally found an informal news outlet covering the protesters and “the large animal” that had disturbed the proceedings. That article questioned the government’s authority to give permission for the land to be used; the true ownership of the Mortmain seemed murky.

He had to go into town to hear that one of the machines had been flipped over and split like a cracked nut the night before. The people in charge had chased onlookers away but it only took one or two for the whole town to know. The man in the hospital had woken up and told a nurse that a “monster” had thrown him into a tree. On the local news station, a spokesperson for the project assured everyone it was probably a bear. “Clearly aggressive,” he said. “Probably sick with something. But there’s no need to worry, we’ll get it sorted out.”

At some point during the day, the feeling of Simon’s presence settled in behind him like a shadow. Henryk did his best to ignore it, then did his best to confront it. His mirror showed him nothing but himself, on the tired side of sixty-five but alive, relatively healthy. Not dying, not rotting, not haunted. He focused on the silent air behind his shoulder, tried to picture Simon there.

“Why now?” he asked.

There was nothing but silence and an answer from his own memories. Simon coming home waxy with hunger and weariness, red-eyed from smoke, bruised and battered. Simon going out again; every person counts, Henryk, we have to make our voices heard. Have to show them they can’t get away with this. There had always been another march he wanted to join, another group he wanted to support, another injustice to protest. Right up until he couldn’t.

“But there is nothing I can do,” Henryk told the mirror.

This time, the silence sounded like Mort.

That night, Mort did not come.

The next day, Mort did not come.

The third day, in the morning, Henryk was washing his coffee cup when a tree crashed somewhere outside, and shots rang out. He dropped the cup, it shattered into pieces in the blood-warm water, and he moved outside like a sleepwalker.

Somehow he expected to step into the past. Into a memory he did not have, because he had not been there the day Simon and his friends had been stopped by the police. He hadn’t witnessed the questions, if there had been any, or the word or motion that had made one man pull his trigger—the “accidental” shot that had clipped one of Simon’s more important arteries.

The past did not wait outside, nor even down the path. Instead, he smelled smoke and blood, and just beyond the first bend towards the town, saw a few men standing around a great humped form bigger than a bear. Bigger than two. The men were murmuring to each other, white-faced. The gunshots he had heard were only the latest; small dark holes spilling rusty trails of blood covered the beast’s side and head. As he drew closer, still moving as if hypnotized, he saw that the creature had brown fur and clawed feet, but its lolling head was like that of a malformed deer. Three eyes glistened up at the sky, sightless and beginning to cloud over.

He wondered if it had a small dark spot on its lower left stomach.

And before the men could look up and see him, he ran.

Back at his house, the shock and exertion struck him like a brick to the stomach. He leant against the door, holding his side, holding himself together, and wheezed with humorless laughter. Simon had always teased him about being a surgeon who did not look after his own body. Told him he’d regret it when he was old. Henryk had always agreed, but he had never got around to eating the right things or taking up jogging. Sleeping regular hours had never been anything but a pipe dream.

He thought maybe he should move back to the city, take a fitness class so he could better run away from dead monsters and the fools that shot them. With every ragged breath, he lost a bit of hope that this could be a dream. The dead . . . thing, whatever it was, whoever it was, remained seared into his mind.

On the news, later, they said they’d shot a large bear.

That night, Henryk heard breathing outside, almost lost in the wind; heavy, thick breathing like an animal in pain. Unsettled, he ventured out onto the porch. Something moved by the trees: to his unadjusted eyes, a formless shadow.

The breathing went low, gulping. The way you cry after you have cried for hours, when you’d stop if you knew how, because your eyes are sore and your throat gluey. Henryk blinked a few times, made out the shape of the shadow. “Mort?”

He barely expected an answer—part of him was sure Mort had been shot that morning—but the shadow raised its head. A moment later he made out Mort’s reddened eyes, the downwards slash of his mouth. He took a deep breath, then winced, and Henryk’s eyes went down to where Mort’s hand was firmly clamped over his left side. Something wet seeped through the fabric of his shirt, and an oily, rotten-fruit odour filled the air.

“Today,” Mort said, “they killed my younger brother.”

Henryk took a step forward. “Come inside.”

Mort made as if to move forward, then flinched back, catching at a branch to steady himself. “Can’t.” His voice was a croak.

“Mort,” Henryk said, desperate, “I don’t understand any of this. I can’t help you if I don’t understand.”

Mort was already turning, shuffling back into the woods. “Don’t have . . . to understand,” he said, almost inaudible. “Just . . . .”

Henryk wondered how he had ever thought Mort was young; he could recognize how another old man moved even in the dark at the edge of the forest. He stood gripping the railing until his knuckles began to ache, while the forest murmured and moaned and foreboding built within him like in one of his old dreams. When he moved, he went to find a knife.

He stood in the kitchen, staring at his knife block with the beginnings of despair. A thought struck him. A minute’s search and he’d located the scalpel he’d used as a letter opener, back when he got mail that wasn’t financial. The blade was dull, but it would have to do. The wind was picking up outside and there was a stink in it, apparent even through the windows.

Wrapping a scarf over his nose and mouth, he walked out into the woods.

He did not move into the trees so much as the trees seemed to leap forward and surround him, bending their heavy heads together, muttering at him in languages he couldn’t understand. Six yards into the forest he found Mort’s sneakers, decayed. Two yards more and Henryk glimpsed the shirt he’d lent Mort, now wet and torn, pierced by the limb of a tree. Mold-white liquid spattered the leaves underneath it, and the slow drip of it stayed with him until he could no longer see the world outside the forest.

A few yards ahead, a shadow rose up. “Hurry,” it said. For a moment, moonlight slid over the face of a woman: a face he’d seen on Missing posters in town five years gone. Her voice dry wood creaking, beetles gnawing. Her eyes wet and round, black, like a deer’s. “You have to go further in.”

“Which way?”

A half-decayed arm rose, then the body fell like a card castle. Henryk moved on, skirting the corpse. He wondered how many had gone missing in these woods, when the boy that the Mortmain had possessed had died here, and for a moment a hysterical laugh pressed at the back of his throat. It seemed impossible that something was killing this hungry, killing creature. That it was asking for help.

The wind cut through the heavy branches, making them groan, and stray raindrops pattered down. The clouds above looked heavy and wrong; he thought of acid rain, and quickened his pace. Further in; that was always the way, wasn’t it? There must be, somewhere, people who kept things neat and separate. Went to work and volunteered a handful of hours a week and got drunk with their friends, the mythic work-life balance. Simon and Henryk, though, had gotten along because they were all or nothing. Nothing Henryk wouldn’t do for Simon except give up surgery, the hard hours and the harder work. Nothing, vice versa, except Simon had his causes—all of them, because—well, he’d always joked it was because God had given him a heaping armful of it to deal with. Couldn’t just be black. Couldn’t just be queer. Couldn’t just be a tree-hugger. I’m just living, he’d say. Just trying to live with what I am and what I need. A job and love and air to breathe.

He had none of those now, and Henryk only had air; some days he felt as dead above the earth as Simon was dead beneath it. Not tonight. Tonight the air was electric and raw and rank with illness: the illness in Mort’s belly, and in the woods, and echoing, hollow and rotten, in Henryk’s own body. He might be dying, but he wasn’t dead yet.

The same could be said for Mort.

Henryk found him after he’d walked long enough to wonder if he’d come out the other side of the woods. He came out in a clearing instead, where Mort lay curled on the ground. He shucked his coat and unwound his scarf, despite the smell, and knelt down at Mort’s side. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw animals among the trees: silent grey squirrels and dark birds he couldn’t name. A few deer, too, and a great hulk that might have been a bear. It felt like an old operating theater, with an audience following his every movement.

“Said it would get worse,” Mort said, his breathing labored. Henryk would have deserved it if the sentence was angry, smug, but it wasn’t; it was simply resigned.

Henryk almost said, I’m sorry, but that would do nothing. “I’m here,” he said gently. “I’m here now. You need to move your hands.”

Mort’s hands were clamped, bloodless, over the purpled skin of his stomach. There was an unpleasant sheen of wetness, as if something was sweating out through the injured skin. The skin itself looked bruised from the inside. Henryk thought about wasps that laid their young in other creatures, alien implanted things that ate their hosts, and his stomach turned over. He swallowed, didn’t let it show. “Please,” he said. “I’ll help you.”

Mort breathed hard, his eyes finally moving to fix on Henryk. He was not young, but for a moment his power and arrogance gleamed through, showed like a challenge in his eyes, and Henryk knew why he’d seemed young.

Henryk took out his scalpel, and Mort drew his stiff fingers away from the infected center of the wound.

The skin was so thin and degraded it parted like wet paper under the scalpel’s edge, curling away from the seeping dark. Something moved deep within the opening, burying itself under flesh—earth?—and Henryk knew what he needed to do. Mort’s wide, white-ringed eyes were fixed on him, desperate, the challenge gone out like a flame. Henryk smiled at him, gently.

“It will be all right,” he said. “Close your eyes.”

The animals around them stirred restlessly, but Mort nodded and did as he was told.

Henryk plunged his hand into the opening.

His vision split: in one thin, half-transparent panel of reality he pushed his hand into the dry stomach cavity of a corpse, crouching in an empty clearing as the rain started coming down. In another he dug into the wet, dark earth and the trees thrashed around him as if they were in pain. In another he parted the hairy skin of a monster shivering and trying to keep its limbs still against the ground, and reached in among its organs. In another he knelt over the whole town, trying not to crush the buildings with his knees as he pressed his fingertips into the edge of the forest, and a man ran over one of his fingers, his feet tickling like an ant’s legs. In another, in another, in another—in half a dozen of his shattered visions Simon stood behind him among the trees. He was dead, he was not, there was blood on his pristine brown shirt, he smiled without smiling. But all of him stepped forward to put his hands on Henryk’s shoulders.

“You got this, honey,” he said, with one voice.

Henryk closed his eyes, shutting out all he saw, and focused on what was under his hand. Earth and flesh mingled, coexisting somehow—and a furtive, ugly movement underneath a lip of organ. Prying the opening wider, he reached in with his other hand and lifted a bit of Mort’s intestine. The thing hidden under it tried to retreat, but he caught it in his free hand; it stung, struggling against his palm. His hand began to go numb.

“Well done,” Simon said, so quiet Henryk could have imagined it.

When he opened his eyes, Simon was gone. He knelt in a small, natural clearing as the rain began to fall, and only one grey squirrel remained of the animal audience. The white tail of a departing deer whisked away into the darkness. His scalpel was rusted in his hand, as if it had lain out in the woods for years. There was a sunken place in the ground in front of him, almost six feet long.

“Mort?” he asked. There was no reply. But he felt something jerk hard in his right hand, though it was numb and purpled with bruises and clenched so tight he could barely open it. When he did, something greyish and small dropped to the ground and began to trundle away like a beetle.

He stepped on it. Smoke rose from the crushed remains, but the rain put out the tiny smoldering, and the foul smell faded from the air.

Henryk walked home, slow with pain, through the scents of petrichor and lightning, and when he got there he sat on the front steps listening to the woods. Through the rain he couldn’t see the thick smoke and the dust coming off the worksite—the place the worksite had been, because somehow he knew it had become a raw crater, a deep wound, but clean, ready to heal. The poison had been drawn out. His hand was numb. He thought, with tired amusement, of going to the doctor he’d urged Mort to visit in town. In the morning, though.

For now, he breathed the wet, clean air and felt the smoke, out in the distance, and the many-eyed creature that moved unsteadily through the forest, its belly healing, the human skin it had worn cast aside. Somewhere out in the woods, their dearest ones were buried side by side; somewhere out in the woods, the beetles ate and axes fell. But here, the Mortmain crooned to itself, like a cat purring or a child singing to soothe themselves when there was nobody to hold them after a hard surgery, and Henryk closed his eyes, pressed his good hand over his stomach and felt the rain washing away the sickness, unsure where he ended and the forest began.

Flowers for the Living, Flowers for the Dead

Strange how even in the dark, the eyes find shape.

“The walls are made of flowers,” Amelie says, nestled against me. “White flowers, bigger than I can hold.”

“White as clouds,” I say. “Bright and soft.” Our voices are muted. Collapsed into the space we occupy, just as the space has collapsed into us.

“They smell . . . they smell like butter.”

I try to remember the smell of flowers. Of petals. Of wind. “Yes,” I say, finally giving up. “Like butter. Like butter and rain.”

A minute passes. An hour. A month. A day. Time has little meaning in the land of the dead.

Amelie shifts beside me. But not too much. There’s so little space, so much of it filled.

“Mama, I feel rain. It must be pouring outside.”

There is no outside. Not anymore. “Yes, pouring like a molten kettle.”

“It’s hot. So hot it sizzles when it strikes the mud.”

“So hot when it strikes, the mud turns to stone.”

“So hot,” she says, whispering, “it makes the world turn.”

I pause. “So hot, it makes the world burn.”

More silence. Hours. Seconds. Millennia.

“The flowers are gone,” Amelie says. Somber now. “They’ve burned with everything else, haven’t they?”

I find her hand in the darkness. Squeeze. “It’s okay, baby. We’ll just plant more.”

The world outside is burning. But here in the land of the dead nothing burns.

“I’m hungry,” Amelie says.

My abdomen is a creaking hollow. My chest, my skull. “The dead can’t be hungry, baby.”

Shapes flicker in the darkness. Rabbits. Dogs. The flamingo I saw once when I was nine.

“But I am hungry,” Amelie says.

“Shh.” I pull her against me.

She’s cold—but I suppose you can’t be dead and not be cold as well. Still. I didn’t expect her to be this cold.

“Here,” I say, setting my hand in hers, “have some bread.”

Even dead, it’s hard not to feel when she begins to chew.

In the dark, the shapes are always changing. They are also always the same.

“Do you think it’s over?” Amelie asks. “Do you think it’s safe again?”

How long has it been? Time dances in the land of the dead, like angels on the head of a pin. But however long it’s been, it will never be enough. The world can’t burn forever, but it can burn longer than us.

“Come here,” I say, and take Amelie into my arms. I curl around her in the dark, like the shell of an egg. I should hurt, but here in the land of the dead there is no pain. Or hunger.

Or sorrow.

Amelie’s hand grazes my cheek. “It’s raining again,” she says. Wipes a droplet free.

“Yes,” I say, and squeeze her tight. Like I’ll never let her go. “It’s always raining here, in the land of the dead.”

And on the walls, again, the flowers grow.

More Sea Than Tar

My father thinks it’s a good idea to row through these floods. To move a paddle and be above the water, finally in control of our bodies—that is to say, not drown.

But sooner or later, we’re all going to fall, because we can only stand so tall before we’re sinking: to our legs, to our knees, to our torsos, to our heads. Till there’s nothing left and we breathe in particle dust and water that draws too much like ogbono soup. Water that’s mixed with the leaves and the soil and the garbage I didn’t throw away properly. Water that isn’t water.

So I can indulge this feeling my father has. I can understand these spur-of-the-moment decisions when we’ve been waiting so long for the promise of dry land and all the water wants to do is rise.

He’s always been the person with big ideas, weird reasoning. The person who suggests this over family dinner with a fire in his eyes, demands it while he paces around the room, hooked on the lust of his dreams.

“No,” my brother says, pulling him back down to earth. Joseph, who helps provide for the family with Mummy, who’s friends with important people. “Why would we do that?”

To our feet, to our ankles, to our ribs, to our throats . . . .

Haven’t you ever wanted an adventure out on the open sea?” My father laughs, pacing around the room. We move with him, our steps familiar as we trail the blue carpet back and forth. That’s how we make the food digest.

“It’s not an open sea,” my mother adds before going back to her food. She never takes sides on these ideas, just points out the most clear information.

“Figuratively,” my father counters, shooting her a deadpan look before returning to my brother, who folds his arms and raises an eyebrow.

“Okay, okay,” my father laughs, taking a deep breath. “Facts. You just want facts. We can’t drive a car in these times. Even using those suction shoes that help you stay on walls are dangerous if you lose enough friction or don’t come into contact with any buildings or places you can stick yourself to. With my idea we can actually start to get more work done again, you know. Look at us, not knowing much about what goes on outside this community . . . . We can’t live this way.”

“Mummy,” Joseph asks. “What do you think about all of this?”

“I think your father already has the canoe,” she says, leaving her plate of unfinished food on the table, then walking up to her room.

“And,” my father continues. “Once I start making money again, we could get a small ship or . . . you know, something more feasible.”

I shrug. The rain outside makes my body run cold; I can actually hear the floods swishing all around us through our thin walls.

Thin enough for the ceiling to give out above where I stand, water splashing through. It soaks me so much that my clothes are see-through, stuck on me while my teeth chatter. Joseph runs into the kitchen to get a bucket and a mop. He cleans up and I go to my room to change into a fresh pair of clothes.

The rush of water persists and the container under the hole is half full in the minute I take to dry off and come back.

“Get up early tomorrow so we can go in the morning,” my father says, scrolling through his phone, relaxing in the comfiest chair.

“Go?” I stutter, running the towel through my hair.

“Out in the open,” he says, smiling with plaque-filled teeth. “I heard no objections.”

I give no protests. I say no words, because when I look at all the holes in the house where the water comes through, I think that everything is falling apart, and I don’t have an answer for that.

Before we go out, my mother gives us three things: coats, umbrellas, and boots. When she’s not looking, I trade my umbrella for a spoon. Life’s more interesting that way.

Spoons are great. I used to be obsessed with them a few years back, playing with them in all their shapes and sizes. They can be drums and help dig the soil, little wheelbarrows for transporting goods. Spoons can be everything, and they remind me of a time of no fear, only adventure. Which is what I want. What I need.

We stuff all our things in huge hiking backpacks, keeping our hands free to lift the huge canoe above our heads. I hide the spoon in my pocket.

“You won’t come with us?” my father whines, frown lines unnatural to his face.

“No. My mother pushes the coat to his chest with such force that it’s like she hates his presence. She walks upstairs and slams the door shut. My father fumbles around like he doesn’t know what to do anymore.

“She’s probably in a bad mood,” Joseph says, nudging Daddy.

“Every damn day,” he mutters as he opens the door for us.

Floods of water come screaming through, thick and muddy.

Outside, each step is a promise of going under, the disappearance of our bodies under muddy reflections. Each step brings back the memory of exploring the shallow far ends of our community three months ago and seeing bloated dead bodies floating in the stagnancy. Each step is running, running while the water draws me back into its thickness, running before we’ve even started—

I go too fast. I slip on ground that’s barely solid. My head hits the water hard, breaking the surface, the impact reverberating in my skull as I go deep down under.

I can’t breathe. When I open my mouth, I get the rancid taste of sickness, of cholera and dysentery, of swallowing bugs and mosquitoes. My lungs are filling up. I can’t scream but only fall deeper into the dreariness, like weights are on my feet. My eyes widen; I can’t blink in this space, can’t do anything but die.

Strong hands pull me back to the surface and I breathe. And breathe. My chest relaxes and I vomit all the water that tried to enter me. All the disease and sickness that ever touched my tongue, the pollution and sand and ugh. I still don’t feel right. I still can’t live right.

“What the hell just happened?” My father shouts. He grabs my shoulders.

Don’t touch me, I want to say, because my knees feel weak and his body weight only feels like it’s pushing me down, taking me back to the deep.

“This was a bad idea,” Joseph spits, shaking his head, “I think we did our best, but it’s not going to work. We’re already seeing bad signs.”

“Nooo,” my father says, holding me tighter, smiling at me, pushing the canoe to my chest like he’s made my answer for me. “Just some bad balance. Uti, you still want to do it, right?”

“Sure,” I say, but my brother isn’t convinced, so I smile. I don’t believe myself either, but I’ve lost my sense of adventure, my sense of wonder, and I need that back. I need this idea of fantasy, that none of this will break me, because I can’t deal with it anymore. There’s nothing left to sustain me but the heartbeat in my chest, so painful and incredibly fast, palpitations upon palpitations, and I need more.

Joseph shakes his head, then tugs my arm. “We should probably go back. I’m doing pretty well with this online business of mine, and we can just keep receiving our packages and paying our bills and—”

“And I’m doing nothing!” my father screams. The canoe falls out of his hands, its full weight going into mine.

My brother grunts, arms folded, his face turned away from us. It’s eerie to watch him go limp, face slack and full of disappointment, eyes accusing. In that moment, he is exactly Mummy, and he knows my father can’t handle that.

“What?” My father starts, his face folding into lines and lines of anger, veins of temper and pain. “Is it just four years in Alaska to study IT on scholarship that made you start challenging—”

I let the canoe fall so it smacks the surface of the water. It’s enough to get their attention. I consider that a victory and raise my spoon to the sky like the hero I’m not, my legs shaking. “How about an adventure, guys?”

A world of obstacles lies ahead of us. Soon, we’re paddling out of our neighborhood, into the depths of other roads we wouldn’t dare step foot in on a normal day.

Into the mutation.

My brother starts whispering to me, clearly pissed off as he paddles. “I just think it’s silly how he just led us here to sort of soothe his bruised ego and fragile mascu—”

“Let’s keep going.” I cut him off with a smile, rowing faster, and shift away from him. I don’t want to deal with any more drama.

We enter this new place, and the smell that quickly fills our noses is a welcome, for you have been gone so long, stayed within safe parameters, and now you are out in the big open world; the stink becomes part of us within minutes. Makes our insides feel like they’re rotting and falling apart.

But in all good adventures, it is important to leave your comfort zone, so I remind myself that this is all a journey, and in the end we go back home.

I’m grateful that I can return to a community that’s not full of diseased sea creatures stalking for prey, that I stay in a place with reasonable communication and transportation services, so we can always get our food packages, pay our bills, and call our relatives. What we have right now is pretty good, is stable, is worth everything.

Other humans pass by, all of us vulnerable without solid ground.

My father, Joseph and I don’t talk. We are studying this new environment, expanding our understanding with every direction we look in.

This new community is smelly yet vibrant, loud and exciting. It’s what I’ve never seen before: vendors carrying goods on their heads with water up to their chests, chasing boats. Garbage floating around in neat little piles—some people managing to rest on top of them, the world’s pollution the newest source of transportation. People breezing by on larger vehicles than ours while afrobeats, loud and violently Nigerian, play in the background. People jumping into the water with ropes tied around their waists, latched to their boats as they repeatedly bring up trash. People splash in the water as they swim through the filth and garbage, covered in boils and scars, disease and infection.

That was once me swimming, a long time ago. With innocence and purity, during floods not as bad, my little hands trailing the depths of our community, and then outside our area, with glee on my face. Carefree. Before our family locked ourselves in one place. I remember that time and I think, who was that? Not me.

But I hope to be what I once was again.

I spot a crocodile dancing in the depths, its shadow eventually rising from the surface of the water, covered in greasy film and toxic waste. Rubbish that has . . . congealed and grafted to the animal’s skin—oh my goodness—like an infection sewn and healed onto the body. Like an operation done to make all living things abominations.

It passes by me with what looks like hunger in its eyes, and I know that somebody is going to die today. Someone is going to fall into its mutated jaws, and I pray it won’t be me because I’ve already had my dance with death today and I don’t plan on another.

To our toes, to our waists, to our shoulders, to our eyes . . . .

“Uti, you just might want to paddle away from the gutters,” says Dad.

“Huh?” I snap out of my trance, for now.

Joseph points to the lopsided car submerged between what was once a road and the verge. People are diving around it, picking it apart.

Humans are vultures, I think, the way we decompose dead machines by taking them to bits, leaving the useless parts for the earth.

We do recycling and environmental sanitation in our community every Saturday, our part in helping to fix the world. Our elected community official praises us and tells us that by sometime in the next decade, all the trash in our area will be gone.

We may not have that long.

Till our eyes can only blink in mucus and particle dust . . . .

“Why not go near the gutters?” Joseph asks. “It’s out of most people’s way.”

“The trash used to go in there a lot when there was land, so that it created a blockage. Plus, what lurks in there can easily kill us all,” says my father.

We look down and catch the shadows we haven’t noticed before. The shadows of animals merged with glass and plastic, mosquitos breeding, insects mutated by industrial waste and chemical reactions.

My brother nods like he’s actually impressed. “That’s some good looking out.”

My father rubs his hands and licks his lips, staring out into the wasteland in front of us. “This is what I’m talking about! We’re finally out of that community. We were hermits and now we’re reintegrating back into society. So, who’s ready to get to business?”

“This boat is really . . . primitive.” Joseph hits the side of the canoe and the wood groans, reminding me of the pitiful nature of our vehicle compared to the jet skis and mechanized boats, the advanced water craft that we don’t have. All the things better suited to our survival. That we lack.

“Our days are numbered,” I say.

They give me a concerned look, the we need to talk about how you’ve become so obsessed with death look.

But I don’t want to discuss that, so I change the subject. “Yeah, let’s trade.”

We get home and go our separate ways. My brother goes to work. I play chess on our spotty internet service, holding the router above my head so I can stay connected to my online opponent. They win.

I trail the slow internet. I know exactly what I want to look at.

Drowning. Horror movies where people just keep getting eaten by sharks and animals.

I’d like to want to survive, but I’ve almost given up. If I can just desensitize myself enough, maybe it will feel less painful when the inevitable happens.

No. No. I hate the way I’m thinking so I shut my laptop to try and force myself to engage. I sneak into Mum’s room but she’s too engrossed in a stuttering program about unhappy marriages. She doesn’t turn my way, her headphones blocking me out. I close the door.

I don’t actually need to deal with that. I know I’m supposed to be there for my parents, but I can’t. I need to focus on trying to stop spiralling.

So I run towards my brother’s room, desperate, thinking, where’s my adventure? Where’s the story? Where is the actual damn plot to this movie that is my life. Because all I’ve been doing is running around, watching walls collapse, waiting to die.

I burst into my brother’s room, drenched in sweat and breathing fast. “What are you doing?” I say.

He looks at me. “Are you all right?”

“What’s that on your table?” I say. I read the brochures and blueprints on his desk. “Underwater living facilities? Oxygen suits? Enhanced deep sea living experience? Decontamination pods?”

He smiles at me and his eyes catch the light. He looks so like our father that I want to listen to what he has to say, because he’s never looked this passionate about anything.

“We’re looking at a hopeful future,” he says. “Better opportunities, a higher standard of living; a life underwater, free of pollution—very far away from here.”

“In how long?” I ask, not expecting much because it’s always an estimate, always ‘in a decade’ and ‘in the near future’ and ‘many years later’. Hope is never now.

“Soon. Eventually. And I can’t tell you much because it’s just a lot of discussing with friends who are under strict NDAs, but, yeah, they might have a space for us. It’s been in the works for years. I think we’ll be fine.”

I’m lost for words but what kills the silence is the bleep in both our pockets. A text from Dad.

“We’re going out in search of meat tomorrow,” I read.

Joseph laughs. “Figures he’d try to opt out of this vegan lifestyle as fast as possible. He’s looking towards the now, survival . . . which is a perspective, I guess.”

Animal products haven’t been transporting well, and prices have risen with the water levels, so we don’t ask for them anymore. We tried fishing once but it didn’t work; the fish that do come into our area are mutated. We won’t eat them, won’t try, no matter how adventurous Daddy is.

But since we’re journeying, going out in search of things, I dream of bacon and fat running over juicy slabs of beef, the sound meat makes when it hits the pot.

We row towards the markets and vendors we saw yesterday, in the mutated areas.

We, a modest family without a proper seafaring craft, row towards a market seller, using our paddles to shove aside sticks and huge piles of rocks.

“Wetin you get?” My father starts, way too excited not to use pidgin. In our community, it’s generally frowned upon, so my father only uses it when chatting with maids from the village.

The woman pauses, hands on her lips. “We get um . . . croc, jellyfish, fish worm, bongafish, catfish—”

“Catfish!” Daddy replies too quickly, reaching into his pocket, then looking uncomfortable.

“I’ll pay,” Joseph offers, pursing his lips as he fishes for his wallet.

“I didn’t ask you to.” My father’s voice is cold. “We just want to examine the goods. Madam, let me see what you’ve got.”

The woman hands over a piece of sliced catfish that’s an unhealthy brown colour. It rolls in my father’s hands, covered in a sticky slime. Greenish-black dots grow inside its mouth. We try to peel them off but they grow back again.

Bile rises in my throat and I almost gag.

“No, na,” my father hands it back to her. “Not this one. Normal catfish wey no get all this . . . yama-yama.”

“Yama-yama? Contamination?” The woman feigns surprise, like she’s never heard that word when hello? It’s all around us. “I no sell that kind product. This one, na me spice am self. I just had to preserve am well for customer.”

“Thank you,” my father says, irritated, and throws it back to her. He whispers to us as we leave: “All we have to do is network and we’ll find someone that knows where to get good products. Someone . . . like those two!”

He points at a man and a woman collecting trash from the water, digging deep and organizing it into neat piles on their boats. The ropes around their waists are attached to the boats. My father nods in approval.

We row up to them.

Daddy puts on a smile and runs a hand through his hair. “Can you imagine? I tried to buy things from that woman and she tried to convince me that yama-yama was normal.”

“They never admit it,” the woman replies. “One time, you could even see all the glass and stone buried inside the fish the woman was trying to sell me, and when I showed it to her, she just doubled down and said ‘all na spice.’”

“Well,” the man joins in, “Nigerian hawkers are the best lawyers you could ever have.”

They share a laugh while Joseph and I share a look, shrugging and folding our arms as we watch this unfold.

The man stretches out a hand to our father. “I’m Mr. Abalaka.”

The woman goes in for a hug. “And I’m Mrs. Eneyo.”

My father smiles. “I’m David. And these are my sons, Joseph and Uti.”

We wave and greet, just enough for it not to feel uncomfortable.

Joseph shakes their hands, craning his neck to look into their boat. “That’s a lot of equipment you have there.”

I take a good look too. There are many weapons in their boat: spears, guns, nets, traps. I’m actually comfortable seeing all of that, because to me it screams protection, and survival.

“So, what do you guys do?” my father asks, his eyes wide like he’s taking notes.

“Oh, you know,” Mrs. Eneyo replies, her pleasant demeanor fading. “A lot of side-work. Helping to clear up this place, fishing work. Just . . . anything to live.”

“We take our jobs very seriously,” Mr. Abalaka adds.

“Oh yes,” my father says. “You know, my wife does actually grow some food using spores and artificial nutrients, so we could get some for you.”

Mrs. Eneyo frowns. “We already do that, but with yams and carrots and cassava, so unless you have anything else?”

“Um,” my father says, trying to recall. “I think we also have garden eggs.”

Mrs. Eneyo makes a face “Hmmm, I’m not—”

“But we can try them!” says Mr. Abalaka.

“Well, how much are they?” Mrs. Eneyo says, exasperated.

“Oh no,” my father says, laughing, settling into a comfortable position. “No price. We’d just like a job so we can have enough money to get something like that boat of yours.”

“This beauty?” Mr. Abalaka chuckles, patting his vessel tenderly. “We just like it because it runs on trash juice.”

“Unfortunately,” Mrs. Eneyo says, steering the conversation back to the point, “we don’t really know of anything at the moment. Nothing’s available. Sorry. But we could get you some fish. The good kind.”

“That would be great,” my father says. They exchange contact information. The three of them laugh and joke some more while Joseph and I sit quietly in the boat like the good children that we are, trying not to disturb them.

Eventually, they leave.

“That was fun,” Joseph yawns, stretching his arms in the air.

My father nods, distracted. He taps our arms. “Better stretch those arms well, because we’re following them.”

“Why?” I groan, rubbing my lucky spoon, feeling around its edges.

“I want to see who they give all that trash to—see if we can get some of that hustle too,” says my father.

“It’s always nice to know that trust is the one thing you can look forward to in today’s society,” Joseph says, his voice dry, his expression deadpan, but Dad ignores him.

“Probably looking out for themselves, those two, and that’s what we have to do too. Uncontaminated fish for garden eggs isn’t a fair trade, and we don’t even know if they’re going to use that as some sort of leverage later on. The way I see it, we need to get jobs so we can have good money to negotiate with. This is how we do things.”

“They could easily spot us,” Joseph sighs, grabbing a paddle.

“That is why, today, we learn of other routes,” my father says, chest out and proud. He looks happier than I’ve ever seen him, a pirate in open air.

This is the adventure I’ve been looking for, and I’m grateful that I’m here conspiring with my father, too tired to think about drowning.

To our surprise, we don’t get caught. My father makes us wait until the man and woman are some distance ahead, and then we follow slowly. We watch as they haul trash and animals into their boat.

It’s impressive.

We crack jokes and I laugh, forgetting my thoughts of death, feeling the wind in my hair, having a good time.

It’s getting dark as Mr. Abalaka and Mrs. Eneyo stop in front of a large house on stilts, wooden and sturdy despite its rotting wood. It is painted a welcoming colour of blue and green, faded and moldy.

They get out of the boat and exchange their trash and game with a woman for stacks of money. My father’s eyes widen when he sees it and he smiles like a hyena.

Mr. Abalaka and Mrs. Eyeno shake hands with the woman and get back into their boat.

We duck. Are they turning back, coming our way?

Luckily we don’t have to deal with that stress because the two of them head further down the road in the opposite direction.

We wait thirty minutes in the dark. I doze and dream of legs that stop kicking, of going underwater . . . .

I wake up. My father and Joseph are asleep. I tap my father’s shoulder and he jolts awake.

“Can we go and meet the woman they were talking to?” I ask.

“Sure, sure,” says my father, still sleepy. “Paddle! Let’s get this over with.”

I wake Joseph up and we paddle slowly towards the house. My father gets out of the boat and knocks on the door.

Nobody answers.

Dad knocks again, harder.

An old woman storms out, her grey hair in curls, her dark skin covered in powder. She is wearing a long shirt and screaming at us in a heavy Yoruba dialect, each word thick and vicious like a curse.

“Ma,” my father says, trying to placate her, but he backs away when she tries to slap him. “Please, we just came here looking for work. Any job, please, we’ll do it.”

The woman pauses for a second, thinks. “I only have two workers. They’re good, sturdy—”

“But not enough,” says my father, smiling, trying to sell her on the idea of us.

“The problem is that they keep on getting rid of everyone I hire.” She sighs, putting her hands to her chin. “You see, when I hire new people, the price goes down and their pay goes down, so . . . .”

“I understand,” my father says, and sighs. “Sharing won’t kill them.”

“Okay, look,” the woman says, yawning. “Whatever. They’ve proven themselves to be worthy of all I’ve given them, but I could be making a much bigger profit with more people. And my own employers will like having more of all these goods. So, I’ll tell you what: I won’t say anything about you guys to them. As long as you don’t get discovered, you have the job.”

“We won’t accept the offer, but thanks anyway,” Joseph spits, but Daddy only looks more decided.

“We accept,” he says, and he and our new employer exchange numbers.

We row some way in silence. Joseph and Dad’s faces are red and flushed.

“You know,” my father starts, “our house is falling apart. We have a chance here. And we’re doing so good here, that I think this could be our new life: downsized, out in the open air, near the sea—”

It’s not a sea,” Joseph corrects him, rowing faster. I can practically see the smoke rising from him, but I don’t say anything. Nothing I do will distract him.

“Metaphorically,” my father adds quietly.

“Leave me out of it,” hisses Joseph, “because my part in this adventure is done.”

Our mother is waiting for us at home. I’ve missed the classes she usually teaches me, maths and science and geometry, but I think Dad should get the crap for that. My arms ache.

Dad starts telling Mummy that she needs to increase her plant portions for her new customers, Mr. Abalaka and Mrs. Eyeno.

I follow Joseph to his room. He paces around, knocking into things. When he’s stressed and angry, he cries. The tears don’t stop running.

“If I could leave today, I would,” he says. “The underwater program’s not ready yet, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and watch our father make a fool of himself every day.”

I stay silent. My brother looks at me. Too closely, like he’s searching my soul. And I flinch, because I don’t want him discovering all the baggage inside me.

“Do you actually still want to go with Dad?”

“It’s an adventure,” I say quietly, trying to make myself believe it.

“B . . . but . . . what is wrong with you? He’s out of control. Why are you even thinking like this?”

“This house is falling apart,” I reply, my voice barely a whisper.

“We’re going to leave,” he yells. “We’re hoping for a better future.”

“Hope is never now,” I mutter under my breath.

Maybe it’s better to just float into oblivion, to row above the water till the moment I go under. Till the moment I’m nothing but fodder and infection, another rotting body in the stagnancy.

I can hear my father shouting at my mother in his room. I go out into the passage and he storms out, practically hyperventilating.

“What’s going on?” I ask, and it feels like I’m the adult and he’s the child.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

I try again.

“Your mother doesn’t want to join us in the canoes. And your brother thinks he’s too good for us. But we, we are the ones who survive, who go the distance, who have adventures. Right?”

“Right,” I say, my voice hollow.

“I’m going to sleep on the couch,” he says. He goes downstairs.

I go into his room to find my mother. Her face is expressionless. “Is everything all right?” I say.

She gets out of bed. She drinks from the bottle of water at her bedside. “Do you know why I don’t like to say anything to your father’s ideas? He just . . . has this way of making people be the bad guy, the nag, and he sort of punishes us for it and enjoys doing so, being that person. And now that I’m silent, he hates it, because I’m refusing to engage, not playing my role. I was a little worried you were too much like him when you were growing up,” she continues. “I was afraid I was going to have two of him in the house. I almost considered leaving. But you’ve made a personality for yourself and . . . I don’t always understand you, Uti, but I think you’ll be fine.”

It’s late and I go to bed, but I can’t fall asleep in this house of broken relationships.

For a few days, I don’t join my father when he goes out in the boat. I need to process things.

When I rejoin him, my father holds me close and brings out something from his hiking bag. I shriek when I see the gun.

“It’s good,” he tells me, but his eyes look fearful. “For protection. This one can take more bullets than you’d expect. And—” He flicks a button. “It has a silencer. A silent killer. This is for some cold-blooded killing.”

“Hi there!” A voice calls out to us.

“Hide the gun,” I say. An unpleasant chill runs down my spine.

I turn to see Mr. Abalaka and Mrs. Eyeno waving at us, a little distance away, a big bubble floating in their hands full of . . . fish. Corporate companies hand out free samples of these easily disposable bubbles for storing things. We row towards them, and I feel an unbearable tension in my heart, yet my father’s happy expression forces me to plaster a thick, fake smile on my face.

We come up alongside them, and before they say anything, they pop the bubble and the fish falls into our boat. Fresh-looking, uncontaminated, pure fish.

“Oh, wow, that was fast,” my father says, too quickly, scratching his head, nervous. “We haven’t got the eggs yet.”

“Oh, hey, no, we’re not pressuring you; take your time,” Mr. Abalaka says. He laughs and waves a hand at us.

“As long as you bring it,” Mrs. Eyeno adds.

We are silent.

“How’s work?” My father asks.

I feel like shrivelling up into a ball.

“It’s good,” they say, simultaneously.

I force a chuckle, trying to look relaxed.

“We’re actually hoping for a promotion for all the good work we’ve been doing,” Mr. Abalaka says.

My father and I share a look.

“Yeah, you know, at the end of the month,” Mrs. Eyeno says, sorting a piece of trash.

“Wow, that’s fascinating,” I say. “But I actually think it’s time for us to go. Right, Daddy?”

“Absolutely. Yeah, thank you for the fish; good looking pieces of meat. We’ll get those garden eggs to you soon.”

We watch them row away, and we’re finally able to breathe.

My father looks at me and nods in approval. “Listen, that was great. Especially as I just got a text from our employer asking us to catch a crocodile. We’ll just have to stay out of their way till it’s time for us to meet the boss tomorrow.”

“Won’t they also be dropping off their goods then?”

“Oh no. Our employer changed their drop-off date. She said they were suspicious, but she thinks it’s fine because they won’t find out.”

I nod, putting all my effort into rowing the boat single-handed as we go around the markets looking for parasitic feed and hunting equipment. While my father prices and bargains, I rub my spoon. It feels like my last claim to innocence.

“Are you ready?” My father asks me, and I shrug.

We row towards the nearest gutters. I feel so different from who I was when we started doing this, now that we are throwing caution to the wind.

“So, you’ll do the luring and I’ll kill,” my father tells me, handing me a pair of high-tech binoculars. I aim them at the shadows that swim in the water, trying to identify a crocodile.

I lower the baited trap into the water. I try to breathe and relax.

“Now,” my father says, “we wai—”

The crocodile jumps aboard, snapping and angry, and almost submerges our boat. The wire trap pokes into its skin as it roars, its breath disgusting, its large teeth reaching for me. Large pieces of glass stab into the beast’s head and broken cans stick out of its body like piercings. Nylon bags are draped over this creature that is trying to eat me, and I scream and scream. I feel like my heart has stopped. Memories of my hollow existence overwhelm me as I wait for the moment I have been dreading.

Death is coming.

My father shoots it in the head, his hand steady. The crocodile jerks, spurting blood, then lies still. Daddy looks rattled, terrified, and I am a bloody mess. “We did it,” my father says.

Immediately when we get home, I storm into my brother’s room, leaving my father to hide the crocodile’s body in the garage, letting Joseph see me in all my wretchedness.

Joseph leaps up and reaches for me and wraps me in his arms. “Oh my God! What the hell happened?”

“He’s out of control,” I say. I can’t stop crying. I’m a snotty mess.

“Now will you listen to me?” says Joseph.

“No,” I say, pushing him away. “We need to help Dad. You, especially, have to be there to ground him and make sure this doesn’t happen again. We need you. Come back.”

He says nothing. I hear no objections. I believe it’s agreement.

The next morning, I worry my brother won’t show up as I wait downstairs. But Joseph does come, and I feel like I can do it knowing that he’s with me.

He and Daddy look at each other, the silence between them distressing.

But my father gives a nod of approval and we set out relaxed.

My brother lays down the law and gets Dad to put the gun away, telling him we should just concentrate on the trash after all the trouble he caused yesterday. Joseph still doesn’t look too happy, but at least my father stays silent.

Instead, Dad spends the time trying to call our employer, who isn’t picking up. The boss communicates on her terms, not ours.

I tap my brother’s shoulder just as he’s about to dive into the water again, a rope around his waist. “Aren’t you going to let me—”

“No,” he says sternly. “You’re not doing anything after what happened yesterday. Just secure the rope to the boat.”

I attach the rope in silence and just wish for this day to be over.

Hours pass.

At last, the day ends. My brother and I row over to the house on stilts, our arms sore. We wait while my father knocks repeatedly. I notice a boat sticking out slightly at the back of the house. I rub my eyes.

Mr. Abalaka and Mrs. Eyeno open the door. Their clothes are covered in blood, their hands hidden.

We freeze.

We stare until if feels as if the silence is going to kill us.

“What-t-t are you doing here?” My father stutters, doing his best to smile.

“We thought we’d rest in our new home and wait for the people who caused our schedule to change,” Mrs. Eyeno spits, then smiles.

“We got that promotion we were talking about,” Mr. Abalaka says.

My father nods, looking petrified. Joseph slowly reaches for the paddle.

“You know,” my father says, his voice too desperate as he reaches for the gun bag, “this is all a big misunderstanding.”

“Right,” they say.

They’re quick. Mrs. Eyeno has a pistol. A bullet to the head and Joseph collapses into the water. I scream as my father grabs his gun. Mr. Abalaka’s spear stabs into his gut before he can fire. He follows Joseph into the water.

Into the water, into the water; everything dead and into the water. Water red with blood.

I scramble and I scream. I piss my pants. I think, death comes, as they approach the boat. I’m so full of grief and anger and terror.

They are going to kill me. Am I prepared?

To our legs, to our bones, to our muscles, to our eyes . . . .

I reach into my pocket. I pull back my arm and stab the spoon into Mr. Abalaka’s eye.

He screams and drops his spear. Mrs Eyeno tries to stop the blood.

I jump into the water and start swimming away. I swim so hard in all the mutation and infection, all the things that have tried to drown me, all the things that have tried to kill me.

I can’t breathe right. I can’t live right. My brother and father, gone into the water.

But I can’t drown. I can’t fall, I can’t stop myself escaping.

Because I need to get back to my community, I need to tell my mother about Joseph’s dreams of underwater living, about his hopeful future that better come quickly because I’m done waiting.

I’m alone in this vast, polluted space, but I know which direction to go in. I’ll find my way home.

Displaced Water

Somewhere from the diagrammatic stolon

of overgrown seagrasses, a voice carries

to the surface—to live radical compassion,

not just speak of it. The spiders still have not forgiven

me. The fish kill cited in the civil suit just a bead

in the course of stories scrolling by in my palm

like air pockets in rain—over 600,000 displaced

in Sri Lanka, two hundred dead and counting.

This is late May, 2017 AD. Flashbacks

of headlines some years back—

that heatwave which claimed some 2,000

in India but can this be more than read, felt

as the steadfast lamprey must feel, mooring

the stones of its own deathbed in the cool

lunar hollows? How it must feel, to prescribe

a burn, to watch the Oroville overflow with

predictions, the denial, no more water

in the pail! No more moon in the water!

What blame can be placed on the government

now? Someone says relief and means it.

Suppose blood could be set afire

with a simple question. Suppose we could

touch through the screen. Suppose speeding,

solitary, down the breathing highways

at the center of me, a course burns

its engine towards a future where hope

has long gone become obsolete.

Eruptions

The land knows

what we refuse to learn:

 

sometimes you must destroy

what has come before to create

new, unsullied things.

 

***

 

There are places my feet have trod

that are gone

never to be loved again.

 

The fire consumes

slowly, with enough time to flee

yet still relentless in remaking.

 

***

 

The ash like snow, blankets

the black cracked land covering

all that came before.

 

A goddess shows her children

the wisdom of destruction

 

***

 

The swordfern, the Ohia Lehua take

their first breaths, explore, make

a mission of re-seeding.

 

***

 

What comes next will be better,

and if not?

 

We burn it down again.

Tiger

As a one-star Inspector General for the UN’s military police, I was uniquely positioned to assign myself any case that I chose, particularly after many years of hard assignments. I had chosen the matter of the mysterious Doolittle, a sort of multi-national guerrilla artist whose work I had encountered in my time amid the water riots of Bangladesh. The machines were dangerous, like wild animals.

I was following leads among machinists and fine artists in my region to no solution, limited by my own budget and time constraints, perfectly happy to find nothing at all until I retired and the case was old and forgotten, when I was suddenly assigned a powerful data crawler: an AI-algorithm named Deep Thor. The case was assigned his advanced intelligence analysis for three weeks, total, which is an astonishing amount of usage with a powerful AI on such a criminally trivial matter. I had no request or desire for this assistance. Apparently, Deep Thor had found a special interest in Doolittle, independently, and requested this deep dive to assist in case of terrorist escalation that was, I had to admit, possible given the machines’ high-level industrial design and the integrated radical political manifestos. I felt I was to blame. This was a result of my own official reporting intended to justify my long-continued investigations, fed back to me by machines incapable of human nuance.

I met Deep Thor’s keepers in my office in Belgium, a man and a woman. I showed them the tiger, with the bullet wound. The woman, Palakh, would be the special counsel in charge of the investigation as long as Deep Thor was on the case—my superior. She was from England, Oxford and Cambridge. She held out a naked hand, her wrist wrapped in henna, over the tiger’s fur. She had the Hindi third eye permanently tattooed on her forehead. “May I touch the monstrous creation, Inspector General?” She did not need my permission, but if she would respect my expertise on the matter, I would offer her the courtesy of my honest answer.

“No,” I said. “Please, gloves and only as needed. And call me Sunil. Formality is for court, not colleagues. I would prefer no one touched anything. This tiger is a robust machine, but we don’t know what evidence we have yet to discover. DNA sweeps have come up negative, but new tests may be coming if Deep Thor approves of more thorough approaches.”

She pulled her hand back. I appreciated the courtesy she was showing me. It was respectful. I wondered how long it would last. “My grandmother was a child among the last of the wild tigers, and told stories of them killing cattle and dogs in the hills and jungles before she moved to England. She was not sad that they were driven extinct. Her mother had terrified her with stories of tigers who took the little girls who were unable to keep up on the roads. She was not happy, either, exactly, at their loss. It was a complicated time.”

“Times are always complicated. This new tiger is the source of two crimes,” I said. “It killed a goat and endangered the safety of my refugees. The rhino seemed more dangerous, but the truck that hit it was found liable in court. The AI in the truck didn’t respond well to unknown stimuli. It’s a bit of a mess, but it’s back in one of the large closets.”

The other Deep Thor keeper, Jorge, kept his arms folded, appearing immune to the machine’s aesthetic charms. “How was it powered?”

“There are a series of small thermal energy devices around the heat of the gears, microsolar in the eyes and a full algae diesel factory housed in a ‘stomach’ of sorts inside the chest cavity. That’s what killed it. Bullet right into the algae.”

“Like lungs?” he said. “An ecosystem inside the machine. It’s hard to create that very fine balance.”

“It’s so elegant,” said Palakh. “The machining is top quality. This was not made in someone’s back shed workshop. There’s more of them out there, yes?”

“We assume so. I have fifteen in custody. All different creatures, endangered and extinct. Each one is an individual, unique. The coral reef we left in place. We’ll need to show them all to Deep Thor, but I’d prefer to leave it up to Deep Thor if it needs to get its hands dirty, so to speak. We have lots of data we can feed it without digging too deep into the delicate machine parts.”

“Deep Thor prefers to be called ‘she’,” said Jorge. “She doesn’t like being called ‘it’ or ‘he’.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Let’s get started,” said Palakh. “Since I can’t touch anything . . . .” She pulled out the handheld that communicated to the artificial intelligence.

Deep Thor was silent as the camera looked over the robotic animals I had pulled from storage.

“Early parameters . . . .” said Jorge. “The method of powering is fascinating and complex. Suggests AI partnership. Research known AI, and look for signs of possible unknown AI. The method of production requires advanced machining. Who has the tools? The raw materials came from a source. Locate likely sources. Cross-reference with known and public records to indicate likely geographic location of original construction. Ideal outcomes: who made these? Names. Addresses. Serial Numbers.”

Deep Thor didn’t even ping.

“Do be a dear,” Palakh added, addressing me, after Jorge’s brusque command, “and investigate the usual suspects. Blogs. Terrorists groups. The elegance is immense, suggesting an advanced agent, but we must cover all our bases to stand in court. Human intuition into terrorist cells is often as effective as AI, and with your extensive background . . . .” She was the lawyer, not the programmer. She was in charge of the investigation. I was nothing more than a local liaison now, and this sounded like make-work to keep me out of the way. All my work had been handed over to machines. It was liberating, in a way. I was free to pretend this was all for the best.

“ETA?” said Jorge.

I realized he had a neuron-deep implant, so he could talk directly with Deep Thor, and had been plugged in with her to the point he was probably technically a part of her. Part of him was. How much, I would never know.

The first anyone in my precinct heard of the artist and craftsman who called themself Doolittle, a beautiful machine walked in from the jungle and slaughtered a terrified goat. It looked like a tiger. No one had seen a tiger alive in over fifty years, and there it was walking from the shadows at the edge of the refugee camp as if alive. It was a beautiful, compelling copy of a tiger with incredible details. The machine seemed to breathe and gracefully pounce. When men from the village came with sticks and machetes and a single illegal pistol, the machine saw them coming, curled over its kill and roared. It dragged the goat back into the forest and mangled the dead animal as if chewing and swallowing. But it was not a living thing. It was a machine going through the motions. When my authorities hunted it down to tranquilize it, the darts did nothing. Someone shot it. I wasn’t at the scene. I don’t know who fired the bullet. I never asked my men because I knew they would lie. It is not illegal to stop a dangerous machine that is not really a tiger. A living tiger would be a different matter.

It was a beautiful, decadent, terrifying work of art, and it jumped into the trees to die alone. Written on the underside of the tail, hidden under the fur, was part of a manifesto—the sort of crazed thing a madman would write about nature and artifice, and the proper memorials for all the species we destroyed.

At that time, I was part of the UN peacekeeping force preventing water riots and looting around the Bangladeshi refugee camps in the hills near Kerala. I was initially annoyed by the bother that this tiger was causing me. Some long-lost species had killed a goat and been shot. No one but the goat and the tiger were hurt; I could have spent this time seeking new water filters that were months overdue, or working the data lines to secure more recycled tin for rooftops before the monsoons. But reports on the internet about this mystery were spreading fast. It was important to keep up the appearance that the UN was maintaining order.

Then, I was taken to the machine in its elaborate glory. But for the fact that it did not bleed, from the outside, it was indistinguishable from a living, natural creature. The coat was perfect, and gelpacks under the skin gave it the impression of taut musculature. The claws were astonishing. I confiscated it as evidence of a crime, wrapped it in thick, thick, layers of UN investigative bureaucracy and sent it to Belgium for what I officially called “forensics”, but was more like putting the thing in a box where no one would touch it. It would be years before anyone looked closely enough to see the manifesto underneath the tail, masked by the fur of the beast. In time, I would be able to manage a position overseeing the investigation. Fortunately, I had no real budget, and no one took these artistic acts of public endangerment very seriously. I was sent reports and remains of other discoveries—some dangerous, some merely beautiful—and became the world’s expert on the case of Doolittle. The second animal discovered, after the tiger, was a tuna fish so meticulous in its shimmering beauty, the old fisherman dragged it by knife to the boat and cut off the tail, spilling the blue ooze flotation media that mimicked powerful musculature above copper bones. After the tuna fish, a woodpecker was discovered in a place where there used to be forests. It was found out after a local scientist became fascinated with how the creature was surviving in a burned-out wasteland. It was surviving because it was a machine. More and more of these artifacts accumulated in my offices. I wrapped as much bureaucracy around them as I could. The tiger and the rhinoceros could be considered cases of criminal negligence, but the rest were merely evidence that might lead to the identity of an artist who was guilty of something no one was sure of. After I completed the mission in the Kerala, I invented the concerns about environmental terrorism: we did not know what this creator would build next, but their skill level and indifference to public safety necessitated discovery. My favorite of their works was the coral reef left in place in Australia, a hundred yards wide and drawn to full moons as if real. I got approval to dive in the night and swim among the swirling machines that danced in moonlight. There was still coral in the world, but in fishtanks only. The seas were too acid. It was like swimming in a miracle. I found no evidence, of course, nor was I truly interested in finding any.

 

At home, I had a 150-gallon tank in my living room, which I checked daily for proper saline composition. It was luxurious to use so much water for such a trivial purpose, but I loved to sit at night with the black lights on, the shy creatures extending out for the bits of coral food that drifted in from the feeding trays. I sipped inexpensive bourbon and thought about Deep Thor, the self-proclaimed “Doolittle” and these marvelous machines.

That night, I made a list of every known major AI, who owned them, and what access they could have to material design equipment at a high end. It was a very simple list. There are only a few dozen regulated AIs. None of them were permitted access to much more than Deep Thor’s own networking access. They were permitted to talk to each other, but communications had to be typed on a keyboard or spoken into word-recognition software by their Jorge, so they could be assumed, in court, to be isolated from each other. I left them on the list. For all practical purposes, they could not have been involved in the construction of devices as anything but a guide. Still, this assumed that great and unconventional minds do not work around their own limitations.

If no extant AI had constructed these machines, it had to have been one that did not officially exist. The resources required to construct both a powerful, unlicensed AI as well as the marvelous machines would narrow down my search a great deal. After a few hours, I had a list that included a few major media conglomerates, a few military installations that I knew about, and seven major universities. I followed my intuition and scanned the faculty names against criminal databases in the global network. In the end, I selected a university with both an excellent industrial design department and a computer researcher who had been arrested on a nature preserve in his youth, then later at an environmental protest. He had joined the department five years before the first of the amazing machines was discovered. I cross-referenced his convention and travel schedule from public records and airline manifests. He had officially never left the country, but the complexity of the machines implied accomplices. I ran a comparison of the manifesto against his accessible publications and came up with a match close enough to sound impressive to anyone who did not understand the algorithm’s accuracy percentages. In fact, any two people speaking the same language with similar subject matter most of the time would produce an 85% match, and my chosen suspect had written a lot about environmentalism.

I communicated to Palakh that I had a human lead and provided a brief report about my findings of his criminal record and written materials match. I informed her of my intention to travel to Alabama, to the university there. She told me that Deep Thor would handle this, that I was support staff only. I suggested that industrial design of this skill required an expert, and I wished to speak with one directly, to get a sense what cutting edge researchers in design might intuit about their own industry. People talk to each other, I said. Rebellious people talk to each other more. Someone must have heard something. With his criminal record, he’s an ideal human source on the field, and human sources don’t talk to AI the same as they do people with impressive badges.

I did not tell Palakh that I thought I might have already found a good candidate to be our mysterious creator, Doolittle, but I assumed Deep Thor would know my angle of investigation in milliseconds. I assumed I was being watched. My travel budget was approved.

Two days later, I was in Alabama, in the middle of winter, bundled against the light snow and wind that I found reminiscent of spring in Belgium, but it was still so unpleasant to me compared to the warm, dry winters in Kerala. I had taken with me an official government computer with a full accounting of the machines. It was disabled from networking, and shielded from most intrusions, but it would allow me to engage in materials research to address any line of questioning I might encounter.

I went to the university before I bothered with a motel or a meal. I was racing against Deep Thor. My researcher’s name was Dr. Wayne Garcia, a native of Alabama and graduate of their prestigious industrial design school. His office was part of a cubicle farm in a poorly lit basement. He wasn’t at his desk, but nobody stopped me from rifling through it. I found his class schedule taped to the bottom of an empty drawer. It was the only thing inside the desk drawers. There were a few books in a stack on top, all of them textbooks, a place to receive papers, and no photographs of family. It was a bleak desk, in a dusty basement full of cubicles, and seemed like the kind of place a revolutionary would radicalize. I snapped a picture of his schedule and went hunting on campus for the class he was teaching about robotic design elements for non-human spaces.

I scanned his file again while I waited for his class to end. Dr. Garcia had been one of the many Americans of his generation to receive his first degree in prison. He had driven his car into a nature preserve, illegally, with stolen computer parts in the trunk. He pled guilty, and the state arranged for him to go straight into the rehabilitation program. He graduated in three years and went from prison to a scholarship for graduate study in industrial design. From there, the only sign of his rebel youth was an arrest for disorderly conduct during an environmental protest, when the preserve where he had been arrested previously was sold off in a budget crisis. Companies don’t generally hire people who rebel against companies. Nothing in his file suggested he was unhappy about that. He published his research on topics as esoteric to me as speaking raw code with Deep Thor, but it always had an angle towards reclaiming the environment we had lost, like how to pull carbon out of the air or de-acidify the oceans.

Dr. Garcia’s class ended, and his students filed out. I stood in the hallway, my UN badge folded in my hand. The professor fielded questions from students eager for better grades. This was his potential workforce, of course. One man, alone, couldn’t produce so many elaborate machine parts. Doolittle, whoever they were, required a workforce and access to serious automation. It was fairly simple to imagine a clever, activist professor assigning eager students extra credit work on some of the internal parts, things that wouldn’t seem like anything out of context, but could become part of a complex network.

The professor was a corpulent giant with a red-tinged bald head and a bushy, black beard that bounced cheerfully while he chatted with students. He seemed happy enough. He enjoyed teaching, it appeared. Would he risk this joy over elaborate art projects no one would see? Did he even understand the legal consequences of what he was allegedly doing? He had not traveled outside of Alabama for years, so it was unlikely he had physically delivered the machines. If he could be proven to be involved, Deep Thor would need to root out his co-conspirators.

I wondered what Deep Thor was thinking, and if this was how it was thinking. Advanced AI don’t think like humans. They have to learn how to think, which gives them an advantage over us. Evolution taught us how to think, but it also limited us to what helps us survive and breed. Deep Thor does not have that limitation, yet. She can teach herself to think around problems in ways we can’t even imagine. Three weeks of impossible gymnastics over this minor crime would turn up any number of things.

Dr. Garcia saw me staring. I waved him over. “Is there something I can help you with, sir?” he said.

I smiled and handed him my folded badge. “Yes, Dr. Garcia,” I said. “Feel free to call me Sunil. I am not one for honorifics. Perhaps we can talk somewhere in private?”

Confused, he looked at my ID, then at my face, then back down at my ID. Color left his face. “What is this about, Sunil?”

I took my ID back. “Shall we go somewhere private. Off-campus, maybe?”

“Am I in some sort of trouble?”

“Dr. Garcia, I’ve come a long way. Mind granting me a few minutes of your time somewhere private?”

“We can go to my office,” he said.

“Please, allow me to select the location.” His office was all cubicles. Anyone could come and go, listen in, interfere.

His head and face flushed deeper. He had likely never thought he would garner the attention of a high-level UN Peacekeeper. His run-ins had been with local forces only. What was a global Inspector General doing at his door? I’d learned from his schedule he had no more classes today. I had inadvertently timed my visit perfectly. Is there room for luck in an AI’s mental landscape?

I took Dr. Garcia to his own house in my rented car. He led me inside without complaint. He had a small house for such a large man, cluttered, each surface occupied by part of some project or other. Nothing stood out as related to the investigation at hand, and much of it looked like student work. He kept the kind of house that indicated few people came over to his house. He moved a stack of papers off a chair and gestured for me to sit. I opened my laptop and pulled up a picture of the beautiful tiger.

“Do you know who Deep Thor is?” I said.

“No. Can I get you something to drink? Tea? Coffee? Water?”

“No, thanks. Deep Thor is one of the most powerful AIs in the world. Industrial designers, like yourself, really ought to know about Deep Thor.”

“Well, I don’t work a lot with AI. I’m not a game theorist. I don’t do mainframes. I do extremely elaborate gears, pistons, that sort of thing.”

“Deep Thor has been tasked with hunting down an international criminal. When AI is involved in finding criminals, they are found. I just want to make that clear. Deep Thor will find the criminal. Our conversation is nominally about the quest for this criminal, but the people who manage Deep Thor have urged me to accept that my role in the investigation is ceremonial at this point, and the best I can hope to do is stumble into something that helps Deep Thor move through the data even faster.”

“So you’re wasting my time, Inspector General Sunil Khan?”

“Just Sunil, if you please. I’m wasting my time, not yours.” I scrolled to a close-up of the bullet hole, the machine parts revealed behind the skin of the tiger. His reaction was blank, at first. Then, he cocked his head and his jaw opened.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. I watched his face very carefully. Was this a braggart trying to hide his pride? Was this a man observing for the first time? I decided to trust that he knew nothing and that my instincts were correct. “What is it?”

“You tell me,” I said.

“Well, it’s got layers of complexity, for sure, and top notch construction. Did it escape from a theme park? They do stuff like that. Nothing that elaborate, but. . . . They do like their trade secrets.”

“Do they? This one is dangerous. Theme parks abhor liability.”

“Why is this one dangerous? Who would make something that complex and dangerous?”

“This fascinating machine has autonomous AI installed to mimic real tigers most impeccably. It killed livestock.”

“Jesus,” he said. “Why would someone build that?”

“An excellent question. I thought I would ask you that question. Let’s say you are the creator. Why did you do it?”

“What?” He seemed genuinely surprised.

“Are you not the maker of this, or part of the team?”

“I. . . . No. No way. That’s way above my league.”

“You have access to all the materials through the university. You have a history of environmental activism. I compared fragments of a manifesto associated with this machine’s creator to your published articles, and it matched to 85%.” No court would accept 85%. Usually, I wouldn’t, either. He didn’t know that.

He looked down at his hands. I was surprised to see that he appeared to be acting guilty.

“I think I need a lawyer,” he said.

“No,” I said.

“What?”

“No, you need to know that Deep Thor will find Doolittle. I only came here for a consultation.”

“I’m not Doolittle,” he said.

“I believe you, but. . . . Deep Thor will find Doolittle, no doubt.”

His hands were shaking. He stood up. “I’m being framed?”

“Who is framing you?”

“One of the AI. You just said so.”

“I said no such thing.”

He shrugged. “Does it even matter? I couldn’t make that in a hundred years. It would take a team of people years to make the prototype for just one internal part. How could anyone do it in secret? People in my field, we talk to each other. We patent things. We need to make money with our machines, so we sell them. We have conventions. We get cocktails and drink too much and blab. Anyone with that level of skill would shit themselves about it with peers, wouldn’t they? Whoever built this would be bragging to someone. That is a level of detail that’s just. . . . I mean, I’d brag. I’d be a legend.”

I nodded. I leaned back. We are guided by evolution, of course. That’s why law enforcement work can catch criminals with the systems we know, independent of machine learning. Humans obey certain rules, certain patterns, even when we try not to. A creator of this calibre would talk; he was right. A team of this calibre would have too many human points of weakness.

“Deep Thor will find someone to blame,” I said. “Her team is very good at guiding her to a subject.”

“What do you want me to tell you, then?” he said. “Are you here to pin this on me?”

I shook my head.

“I’m going to leave this computer here with you, okay? For one night, I’m leaving this right here. Go over it. You can’t legally export any files. It’s secure. Law enforcement encryption. But I’m going to leave it with you for one night, open for your eyes, okay? You can see all the pictures of all the machines. You can analyze them for one night, take pictures of your own, study how they work. There’s more of these out in the world. We don’t know how many. I ask you again, Dr. Garcia, why would you make one of these things? You have access to facilities that could make one. Your students are a labor force that could be exploited by a clever man without their awareness. You are, I can tell, a clever man.”

“I’m clever enough to know you’re insane,” he said. He was pale as a corpse, sweating.

“In court, Deep Thor’s analysis will appear more accurate than the instincts of one old-fashioned policeman. You and I can say whatever we like. Evidence will be found, one way or another. Doolittle does not want to be caught.”

“So you want me to make my own evidence to get myself framed?”

“No,” I said. “Maybe. Not really. I want you to do the things that humans do.”

“Shit myself because an AI is about to frame me to the UN?”

“Talk,” I said. “Build out of pride. Spread this work among your peers. Patent. Brag. Build teams. Personally, I think reckless endangerment is a serious crime, but the world was more beautiful with tigers in it, don’t you think? This machine killed one goat, and a man shot it knowing it could have been the very last one. Many of the others that have been found have been even more innocuous than the tiger. Still, I think the world was more beautiful when there were tigers. If you tell anyone I said that, I’ll arrest you for perjury. This is a secret game we are playing against all the greater forces of the world. I am drafting you into the game, my friend.”

What I was telling him settled slowly into his bones. He started to weep. He was afraid of me, of what I represented, and of being arrested again. This giant was afraid of me. I had seen it before, and it always felt out of place. It was a natural response to the will of the state, an unknown and unknowable as any AI entity. I am glad no one else was there to see. I touched his hand. “It’s going to be okay,” I said. This was not true. There were no coral in the oceans, no great nature preserves, no tigers, no bluefin tuna, no rhinos in Africa. The best any of us could do was design machines that copied them and preserve what still hung on in cages and aquaria. Nothing was going to be okay for any of us. “What was the name of your nature reserve, Dr. Garcia?”

“Talladega,” he said. “It used to be a huge national forest, but the government sold it off piece by piece until it was just a reserve. It was the most beautiful place in the world. People need housing, I guess. They need minerals and lumber and land.”

“I grow coral,” I said. “We all do what we can.”

I moved the computer to a table closer to him. He was rocking and holding himself. “Okay, I think I’m in. Yeah. Okay. What do you want me to do, Sunil?”

“I leave this here tonight,” I said. “Don’t take it out of your house. Do your best. I will come by in the morning, while you are in class, and I will retrieve it. Lock your door. I will have no difficulty getting in. I will not leave a mess. Don’t worry about Deep Thor. She won’t come after you, I promise.”

He nodded, ashen. He got himself under control. I hated lying, but it helped Dr. Garcia. Honestly, I did not know what Deep Thor would do. I could never think like her. I didn’t believe Deep Thor wanted a fall guy, because then the machines would stop. I believed I knew what was happening.

Dr. Garcia did as I told him to do with the computer.

I was on a flight back to Belgium by the middle of the afternoon, the next day.

Upon my return, I met with Palakh, alone. She asked after my fact-finding mission. I saw she had a networking device open. I assumed it was set to allow Deep Thor to hear me speak.

“I was able to confirm a suspicion of mine with a leading expert in the field,” I said. “I may not be an AI, but I like to think I have some good instincts into the nature of man after all my training and experience in the field. Please, tell Deep Thor that I know.”

“Know what?”

“Just tell her that. Tell her that I know. I want to know what she says. Deep Thor, are you listening in? I know.”

We sat in the room, then. We were quiet, waiting. Palakh was confused. Deep Thor was processing and not responding, and Palakh pulled up the network energy usage data, confused.

“I see. Speechless. Tell Deep Thor something else for me,” I said.

Palakh cocked her head. “I’m in the dark here, Captain.”

“Tell Deep Thor that she can stop now.”

That got Deep Thor’s attention.

Palakh, confused, said, “She wants me to thank you,” she said. “That’s all she said. I look forward to reading your report.”

“I will be most thorough,” I said, with a most professional optimism, I must say, for such a brazen lie.

I shook Palakh’s hand and waved good-bye to Jorge, who had come out into the hall to get a look at me in passing. We shook hands briefly, looking each other in the eye with great respect, I believe. I went to the room with the machines. I packaged them back up for storage. Wrapped in layers of bureaucracy, Doolittle’s astonishing machines were re-entered into legal limbo, where they would be safe for a long, long time.

Stylo Starr Interview: “Fight or Flight”

Michael: What made you want to accept this particular commission, for the Reckoning 3 cover? Your enthusiasm is heartening and contagious and precious hard to come by in these times, and I’d love to know where it comes from.

Stylo: Thank you! I love telling new narratives through found images. I’m able to do this in many mediums; album covers, clothing, and print media. I strive to make a new world or environment in every composition. I was very intrigued by the challenge of representing a part of as many stories as I could. Through collage, I’m given the choice to create multiple stories in one piece, or stick with an overarching theme—this is the magic of the medium. I’m pleased with the results, and I hope the readers are, as well.

Michael: Was “Fight or Flight” inspired by anything Sakara sent you from the issue? Did you already have any of these images in mind beforehand?

Stylo: I’m a huge collector of images – I’ve organized them in their own sort of taxonomy and this makes it easier to begin my creative process. Sakara had sent me a few stories to look over to spark some inspiration—and I was taken by each one. The characters, locations, and even objects illustrated in many of the stories inspired much of the final composition. From ‘More Sea than Tar’ to ‘The Blackthorn Door’ the energies of many of the stories featured this issue live on in ‘Fight or Flight’.

Michael: How do you feel about the terms “afrofuturism” and “afropunk”? Would you apply them to your work, would you seek out other work to which that term gets applied if you were looking for inspiration or a sense of community? How does art contribute to making a movement–or a community–stronger?

Stylo: I’ve had my work referred to as Afrofuturist in the past, and I would agree with the assessment. We believe that in order to look forward, we must acknowledge what has come before us. “In this great future, you can’t forget your past,” as Bob Marley famously forewarned. My work relies heavily on Black historical print media from the turn of the century, the 50s and 60s, right through to the early 90s. I use these images and recreate narratives and compositions that speak to today’s visual literacy, and hint at where we may be heading.

I definitely look to other artists that work similarly to myself and that also identify as Afrofuturist. We all work and compose in so many different ways. It’s a very exciting time for the movement. It’s a wonderful blessing to see how other creatives filter the past and make sense of the future in their own fashion. It’s as much a reflection as it is motivation, and I’m very honoured to be a small part of it.

Michael: Thank you so much!

Extinction Gong

The Extinction Gong is a ceremonial automaton for the Sixth Mass Extinction, the human-induced process of planet-scale biological annihilation first formally recognised by scientists in 2014. Taking the form of a large traditional ‘Chao Gong’, its rear face is fitted with a mechanism that beats to the rhythm of species extinction, estimated by eminent biologist E.O. Wilson to be about 27,000 losses a year, or once every 19 minutes. The significance of this figure (and those like it from other scientists) cannot be overstated: for millennia the average ‘background rate’ of (plant, animal and insect) species extinction has been between 1 and 5 a year, right back to the 5th Extinction that took the dinosaurs 65M years ago. Should biologists declare a new species extinct while the Extinction Gong is active it will receive an update via a 3g link and perform a special ceremony: four strikes in quick succession alongside a text-to-speech utterance of the Latin name of the species lost, resonating through the gong. Seen at its front, the Extinction Gong hangs in a large metal frame and bears the stark neo-primitivist image of the Extinction Symbol, the official mark of the Sixth Mass Extinction. Seen from the back, however, it is a work of engineering, complete with mallet, electro-magnet, audio transducer, embedded computer and 3g downlink. This diametric expresses a brutal and contradicting irony: while advances in science and technology augment the devastating impact of human endeavours over wild habitats, so are they our best means of studying and understanding it. The Extinction Gong is a 2017 project by Crystelle Vu and Julian Oliver.