The Feather Wall

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

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

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

He dreamed of it sometimes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He dreamed of it sometimes.

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

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

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

That was their tragedy. Kakapo could never escape anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The kakapo that were left, they were the survivors.

A Diary from the End of the World

Worlds depart; their light endures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘How long is there left?’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Everybody seems fascinated with whales,’ I remarked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It’s over,’ Brood Mother said.

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

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

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

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

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

There was a hesitant touch on my arm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Is it still there?’ I asked.

He nodded.

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

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

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

But I was not sure what I was talking about.

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

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

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

I would never be able to go back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paddling in the Sound

Not long after the election, when the left had failed

to reassure the broken hearted,

and the broken hearted had elected a lunatic

out of spite, I kayaked out to where the light

had never been torn,

to watch the darkness gathering

in the mountains’ seams.

 

Cool rain on flat seas, ducks ahead of me,

white trails of their wings beating water

as they fled. Fresh scent of snow in the wind.

 

A loon in the distance

began to call again and again,

a soliloquy from the sea’s grey throat,

each note going deeper into

where a certainty had once lived in my heart.

 

The longing in the loon’s call—a knife

cutting through rain, leaving nothing behind it

but more longing, more rain.

The Invasion of Yonkers: People and Plants

The city of Yonkers is being invaded in many different ways at once.

Among the types of invasive plants that plague Westchester county are Kudzu, Mile-a-Minute, Oriental Bittersweet, Porcelain Berry, Multiflora Rose, Purple Loosestrife and Japanese Knotweed. Each has a distinct personality; they can be identified by leaf shape, size, color and the aggression and speed with which they spread. One learns to hate certain species more than others. I’ve spent countless hours removing Multiflora thorns from my fingertips. My muscles have become stiff from cutting vines that have grown thicker than a baby’s arm. My skin is raised and itchy from contact with poison ivy and oak. My back is sore from pulling weeds rooted so deeply that the earth puts up a fight releasing them.

A species is classified as invasive when it is not only foreign but has no local predators, meaning that it can spread prolifically without being eaten, siphoning resources like space, light, and water from native plant life. Many of these species were brought from Asia by European traders as decorative additions to gardens or church hats. Others came in the hulls of ships along with food and other supplies. Others came as seeds nestled in the hair of slaves. Whatever their origin, they now grow unperturbed along the Saw Mill River and its surrounding trails and forests.

I work with high school students in Yonkers on vine removal and ecology education. We must be careful; my supervisors remind me to stay away from words like “alien” or “invader” because they may be triggering to immigrant students and their families. Instead we are encouraged to use the terms “native” and “non-native”. My boss suggests going as far as referring to them within the framework of “colonizers” vs “natives”.

The Yonkers city government cannot afford to take on the removal of invasive plants, so it is up to volunteer groups to resist their spread. At volunteer events, I explain that a tree covered in vines may appear to be alive due to the green tendrils that wrap endlessly around its branches, while underneath the thing has been dead for quite some time. This is dangerous because it leaves the tree unstable. Dead branches can fall unexpectedly at any time.

There are very few green spaces left in Yonkers. The small community gardens that litter South West Yonkers are built on city property and are liable to be taken back for “development”. Half of these plots are in the process of being converted into luxury condos.

There is no point protesting the uprooting of the gardens in Yonkers. Their removal became inevitable when a new kind of invaders began growing downtown. They take the form of real estate developers and artists escaping the rising price of living in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Like a vine climbing a tree, they tear down affordable housing projects and uproot community gardens to make room for juice bars and upscale art galleries. We are reminded each day that this land does not belong to the community and never will. Every attempt at purchasing the land has been shot down, even when the asking value is met. We are forced to face the reality that money makes money and community gardens do not.

 

There is still trash in the river, protest over the removal of trees, miles of invasive plants that grow faster than we can cut them, and rising property taxes as a result of cleaning up the city that belongs to the community who can no longer afford to live there. We spend the day digging up the garden on Buena Vista Avenue that is older than any of us to make room for a parking lot; it can get discouraging. Buena Vista literally means “good view”, and we all recognize the irony when the new apartment complexes have been blocking the view of the Hudson for months.

To be young and of color, a child of an immigrant, is to be a product of “outreach”, surrounded by community, on land you do not own, in a city full of abandoned spaces still teeming with life. Having been touched by white systems if not white people—until they leave their hometowns—the kids I work with are happy simply with opportunity, the opportunity to fail, even. Failure rarely has anything to do with their own shortcomings but centuries and tons and miles of circumstance. I know they will blame themselves anyway, and work hard like our parents and grandparents and great grandparents, all while praying that they never end up like them. When the parents ask, “Why are you doing this again?” we are reminded that our parents did not “come to this country to have you picking fruit”.

Humans are the deadliest of invasive species, our vines growing ever upward, blocking precious sunlight.

We must become environmentalists. It is our obligation.

I’m talking about a second definition of environmentalism as well as the first: not only concern about and action aimed at protecting the environment, but the theory that environment, as opposed to heredity, has the primary influence on the development of a person or group.1

 

I understand wanting to leave when it feels like there is less and less space for the community to occupy; when they tell you your music is too loud; no, you cannot skate here; your art is vandalism; it’s past curfew; this is city property; no loitering; this area is under surveillance by camera.

In a city of immigrants, some documented, some not, the issue of invasion is blurry. Who is the invader on land that belongs to the Lene Lenape tribe, whose presence can be felt if not seen? None of us are native to this land. Whether we immigrated from overseas and beyond borders or were brought here against our will, we are all here now.

 

A community deserves land for themselves that cannot be taken away, occupied or invaded. A place to grow for the sake of growing rather than the sake of profit. A place with enough space, sunlight and water to thrive. But right now, the city of Yonkers is being invaded, and it doesn’t look like we are going to be able to stop it.

 

Along any highway in Westchester county, the invasion is evident. If you take the time to look, nearly every surface is covered in the relentless vines. They elicit a visceral reaction from me now, a feeling of rage and anxiety that lives in my chest. Deep down I believe that the task of removing them is impossible, but I will never say this aloud. Invasive removal has become a kind of therapy to work out a whole list of anxieties I cannot speak aloud for fear that speaking them into existence will make them real, that my community and communities like it do not stand a chance of thriving under these conditions. Still, I go out each week and work, little by little, in the hopes that I am very wrong.

Fuck You Pay Me

In Indonesia the IAP was shelling Jakarta, in China the PLA Navy was scouring the Eastern seaboard for survivors, in the UK Londoners were lining up at WFP stations for groceries, and, just twenty miles from Felix and Anya, in Muscatine the combined forces of the Louisa, Muscatine, Scott, and Cedar County police departments were performing rescue missions and responding to bouts of looting throughout the flooded riverfront of the city—but in Greatland, Iowa, it was a quiet first day of winter break.

Felix and Anya sat on the bench swing at Washington Park, a treeless half-block of muddy grass with a small playground complex, not far from their high school. They were holding each other’s cold-numbed hands, Felix stamping against the ground occasionally to swing the bench.

“I found a personal accountancy AI calibrated for the Midwest,” Anya said, “if you want to check that out?”

“I thought you said personal accountancy was impossible to calculate.”

“I don’t think I said that,” Anya murmured.

“Yes you did, because I was asking you about these credit tallies people use when they go looting.” Felix turned F’s gaze on Anya.

“Oh. Um. I think I didn’t say that. But I might’ve said it’s . . . well, it would be nearly impossible to make one that was global, but regional ones are easier. There’s one for England, I know, people have used it to make credit tallies.”

“Sure, let’s do it then. I bet your credit’s a lot higher than mine. My parents and parents’ parents and parensparensparens are European as shit.”

Anya pulled her hand away to take out her cellphone, an old utilitarian thing that she had never gotten an upgrade for as long as Felix had known her. “Okay, here,” she said, handing F her phone. The website had just a few text fields on it—place of residence, ethnicity, and class—but as Felix answered them, they branched out into further questions of religion, great grandparents’ nationality, gender, assigned gender, time of immigration, and many fields where F had to write “IDK” and move on. When F tapped the “Submit” button, the phone looked like it was crashing, but then a results screen came up. “Nine hundred and forty-eight dollars!” Felix yelled. “Holy shit! If that’s what I’m owed, I can’t imagine what your credit is!”

“Yeah, neat huh?” Anya said, taking her phone back. “I’m thinking of pulling some old census data to a make a mod that can handle inputs about Iowa counties—get more specific on it, you know?”

As she started to tuck the phone into her pocket, Felix cut in, “Wait, you’re not going to see what you’re owed? Come on, you’ve got to—I bet it’s a shitload.”

“I mean, but. I know that. I kind of already know. N’COBRA developed an AI to calculate reparations, and you can just split that number by the number of people in the US descended from slaves.”

“But this is for you—you personally. Come on, for me, I want to know.”

“Okay,” she took out her phone again, and smirked.

“What? What’s funny?”

“It does kind of seem fun.”

“It is fun!” Felix gave them a good swing, and stared out at the slushy ground while Anya entered her info. A truck, a gas guzzler, rumbled past them, and Felix shouted, “Fuck you!”

“Felix,” Anya cautioned.

“Who the hell is still driving cars—and a gas car especially. Must be some POFA asshole, if they can afford to fuel that thing.”

“Okay, just . . . .” Anya started, but then stopped and pursed her lips.

“What, what is it?”

That smirk broke out again, and she turned the phone screen to Felix: $104,667.

“Holy shit! That’s enough for . . . that’s enough for . . . .”

“A full ride to Iowa State,” Anya said.

“What?” Felix asked. “But you’ve—”

“I’ve got the Future Scientists scholarships. Yeah, yeah. I just mean, if that money got frozen, or something, like they did with the scholarships for everyone who’s a junior now . . . just a possibility, you know?”

Of course F knew. They both knew. And they both knew that Felix’s legacy scholarship wasn’t state-funded, so no one was going to pull that money to deal with the recession, and they both knew that if Future Scientists got cancelled, Felix would still be at Iowa State next year, while Anya—

“Yeah.” Felix nodded and tried to not think about it, putting F’s arm around Anya. F gave them a push, and the chains of the swing squawked as they rocked gently.

“Hey, Felix—”

“What if we looted something,” Felix said.

“What?”

“Between the two of us we have more than enough credit to justify it.”

“Real funny.”

“I’ve been reading articles about it, it’s really pretty easy in places like this. Plenty of big empty mansions out in the country, rich owners gone away for winter break . . . .”

“You’re not being serious, um, right?”

“Well it’s a fun idea, isn’t—” Felix stopped when F heard a rumbling behind them and turned. It was that same fairly new, dark blue Ford that had gone by earlier. “The fuck are they doing? Just cruising around for the fun of it?” Felix bent down to scoop up some mud.

“F,” Anya said, “F, hey . . . .”

The car turned left, passing right in front of them, and Felix jumped up and hurled the mudball as hard as F could. It hit the back windshield with a whap like a thunder crack, reverberating in the empty block. Felix shouted, “You piece of—” but F’s breath caught when the back lights flared red and the truck shrieked to a halt. “Shit!” F pivoted back to Anya and shouted, “Run!” Anya dashed for her bike, and Felix for F’s, not looking behind. Without meaning to they both pushed off in opposite directions, but F couldn’t turn back now. The streets were deserted, grimy with salt, mud, and puddled potholes, so F blasted through four-way stops, turning left and right and right and left, trying to lose F’s self in the waffle-iron residential blocks of the town.

A thin drizzle was passing over Greatland just a few days before Christmas when Felix texted Anya, Hey you should come over. Parents are out trying to sell the car. Felix set F’s phone aside on the couch and turned back to the YT News special F was watching. It was about the origins of the accounting AIs, how they’d been an open source reference tool for the UN climate change program before becoming the core of a global political movement. After a while, Felix paused the video and picked up F’s phone again—no response. F started to text her, but as soon as F did, there was a little knock at the front door.

Felix answered the door to find Anya outside, her bike chained to the railing of the little staircase leading up to the prefab.

“Hey,” she said. She looked beautiful, flushed from the ride over, a warm little glow of light against the suburban wasteland and sky of shadows.

“Hey,” Felix said, and hugged her. “Come in!” F stepped back, then closed the door behind her. “So, I was—”

“Actually, Felix . . . I kind of, need to—I should’ve told you right away the other day, but it’s hard, and I just . . . .” Anya paused for a while, and bit at her lip. “The state legislature voted last week to—they’re pulling funds for Future Scientists. All funds. And my parents—well we don’t know what’s—”

“So you, you can’t go to Iowa?” Felix asked.

Anya shifted her feet around. “The law could be reversed, but . . . but . . . .”

Felix felt tears boiling up around F’s eyes. “That’s bullshit! For years, people like that have been fucking over people like you, and now that the consequences of greed have caught up with them, they’re still just taking care of their own first!”

Anya hesitantly held out her arms, “Um,” then she stepped forward and hugged F. She was a little taller than Felix, and F pushed F’s face into the crumply synthetic material of her winter coat. Going off to college without Anya. Freshman sophomore junior senior year without Anya. And Anya, brilliant Anya, smarter than anyone F knew Anya, consigned to some community college. “It’s so unfucking fucking fucking fair!” Felix slurred into her shoulder.

“I know,” she murmured. “I’m. I’m really grateful for everything I have, but—I really wanted to go to a university.” She shivered against Felix and hugged F tighter. F hugged her tighter back. “I—” she started, then choked and fell silent.

The world was stupid and mean and—

“Oh!” Felix pushed back from her. “I forgot, what I wanted to talk to you about!” F sniffed, and grinned. “I found a place we can loot!”

“What? Felix . . . .” Anya rubbed at her eyes.

“All the more reason to loot it now, right?” Sniff.

“But . . . no, there’s no way . . . looting that much money, that would be traced, or, or, if we stole stuff and pawned it, it’d be really suspicious, and—”

“There are safe ways to do it though—online, you—”

“I don’t think so.”

“Really, you just use proxies and bots to—”

“But I don’t think I’m comfortable with—”

“Then fine, don’t pawn anything. We can just go, and steal stuff you like—get you a new laptop, so you can finally start designing your own AI instead of just making mods, yeah?” And maybe you’ll change your mind when you see what riches these people are hoarding, and decide to go all the way, so you can go to ISU . . . .”

Anya looked almost as distressed as she had right before telling F her scholarship was gone.

“Look at me and tell me you don’t deserve a better computer—to have the tools you actually need to do your work,” Felix said, the tears spilling out again. “Look at me and honestly tell me that, and if you can, then . . . .”

Anya stared into F’s eyes for a while, and her face slowly relaxed. Then, “Can we do it safely?”

Felix had found the house on Red Door, a bnb-like website with stricter membership requirements, aimed at wealthier travelers and homeowners—definitely people with debt, not credit. The place was un-booked (surprise, no one wanted to go to Greatland Iowa for their holiday break), and had been available since the fifteenth. It was out in the countryside, a twenty-minute bike ride from Felix’s house.

By the time they turned off the highway, it’d stopped raining and the sun had set. The drive led them through a thicket of trees into a postage-stamp clearing surrounded by forestry. At the center stood a two-story house with an excessively furnished front porch and a stretch of chain link fence visible toward the back.

“What if that’s for a dog?” Anya pointed at the fence.

“If there was a dog it would’ve been mentioned on Red Door,” F murmured. “Your mask is slipping some.” F pinched the fabric and stretched it up over the bridge of her nose. They both wore scarves wound tight around their faces just below their eyes and skull caps above, in case of security cams.

“Alright,” Felix said, taking out F’s phone, “I’m gonna call you now.”

F walked their bikes over to the side of a long shed catty-corner to the house, then propped F’s phone on the handlebars so the camera pointed out to the road.

Anya took out her phone. “So if I see someone drive through here on this call, what do we do?”

“We hide in the trees and wait them out,” Felix said. “Private security is not going to want to find us, you know? They’ll get here, look around the house, and assume we ran away. They’re not in the business of catching people, just chasing them off.”

“What about police?”

“Police are all in Muscatine helping with the flood, they don’t have time for anything happening in pissant little Greatland.” F made for the house. “Now come on, let’s do this.”

They’d cased the place on Google Maps and seen, in a summer picture, little plants set out on the shallow incline of the porch roof. If someone could move plants in and out through the windows, a person could probably make it through too. They’d also discovered that one wall of the porch consisted of a lattice choked with vines, which made for an easy climb up to the awning.

“Look, this is the one,” Felix whispered, motioning Anya over to one of the second story windows. Behind the glass, they could see the plants set out on the windowsill. Although it was a pain to remove the screen with their gloves on, the window wasn’t actually locked or bolted into place, and it slid up easily.

“Careful with the plants, Felix,” Anya said, as Felix squirmed past them.

“No names, Bug,” Felix hissed back at her, and as she came in behind F, F went and looked for the light. “You in?” Felix asked.

“Yeah,” Anya said, and hearing the window sliding shut, Felix hit the switch.

The room was a bathroom, with two sinks and a closet twice the size of Felix’s own, but just for towels. The shower/bathtub overflowed with products—conditioner, dry scalp conditioner, scented shampoo, bodywash, a chunky bar of soap, washcloths, a luffa, a glass jar of bath salts—and the counter of the bathroom held even more—shaving cream, razors, more bars of soap, combs, hairbrushes, nail scissors, deodorants, perfume, eyeliner, lip gloss, foundation and setting powder (none the right shade for Anya or Felix), mouthwash, toothpaste, an army of orange prescription bottles. Just as stunning as the quantity and variety of the stuff, all of them were name brand. These people were debtors for sure.

As they progressed through an upstairs hallway, then down a flight of stairs to the living room, they followed the same routine. Turn on the lights, survey the area, check in with each other to see if either of them wanted something, then turn off the lights and move on. Felix didn’t take much, but Anya wasn’t taking anything. “Are you sure?” Felix asked. “Something small?” They both wore backpacks that they could stuff a lot of things into. “No,” she said, “I don’t want their stuff. I’m just looking for a laptop.” And on they went.

The house was overstuffed, top to bottom. Even the fridge and pantry were well-stocked, with more animal products in one place than Felix had ever seen outside a supermarket. F used Anya’s phone to check the price of a block of cheddar cheese, $31.50. F marked it down on F’s tally and took it, instantly tearing open the packaging and taking a big bite. Felix hadn’t had dairy cheese since F was six, before the carbon taxes made it too expensive, and it was creamy beyond anything Felix could remember. Rich and dense like a potato, sweet, and salty and fatty like peanut butter. F offered the block to Anya. “Want some?”

“No, I’m vegan. Aren’t you vegan?”

“Everyone’s vegan,” Felix said, taking another bite, really chewing on it.

“So why are you eating that?”

“It’s not like I’m buying it,” F said. “And it’s delicious. Why not enjoy the fruits of their greed?” Felix wrapped up the cheese and stuck it into F’s backpack, quickly following it with a box of cookies that ran about $29, a loaf of sourdough ($19), a jar of blackberry jam ($15), a half-used bag of Sumatra coffee (half of $44—$22), and a small travel mug ($31).

When they reached the home office Anya finally stopped checking her phone every two minutes to pore over the enormous desk at the end of the room, which held two monitors and an enormous computer tower.

F smiled under F’s scarf, then turned to the wall opposite the desk where three floor-to-ceiling bookshelves stood. After Felix had raided them, F powered on the computer to calculate how much credit F had left. F didn’t want to bother Anya asking her for her phone, as she was now sitting cross-legged on the floor, bent over a Tupperware box full of electronic paraphernalia with that I-am-now-just-in-my-own-world-and-I-don’t-care-how-I-look-to-anyone-else concentration that Felix had always found so adorable in her. $563.32—that was how much F was still owed. F was about to shut down the computer when a folder on the desktop caught F’s eye.

“Oh my god,” Anya whispered, as Felix opened the folder, titled “spreadsheets.”

“What?” F looked over, and saw her holding a small, slender laptop.

“This is so new . . . this is just a year old . . . it’s a Ryder Mini, it’s . . . .” And now, even though her mouth was completely obscured, Felix knew that Anya was smiling.

“How much is it?”

“About five thousand dollars,” she said.

“Take it, Bug!”

Anya slung her backpack around the front of her and slipped the laptop inside. “What are you doing?”

Felix’s eyes roamed across the screen. “These are quarterly reports, for this family’s farm—we could feed this into that personal AI and figure out how much these people owe—we’d know exactly how much you can take from them—it’s probably enough to pay for college.”

“Well, probably,” Anya murmured. “But . . . .”

“I’m doing it.” Felix opened the web browser and rattled off a search query.

“Fe—I mean, just, those, the AI don’t handle businesses very well. They’re not optimized for them.”

“Really? Because the site has an option for ‘business’ in this dropdown.” Felix selected this option, and then rather than filling out any forms, clicked “Upload Data.”

“Huh,” Anya said. “Must be a more recent build . . . .”

Felix selected all the folders F’d looked at, plus several more that F hadn’t, but which seemed relevant. The AI was smart, it could sort out what was and wasn’t important for itself. They both watched as a progress bar appeared on the screen and crawled from 5% to 23% to 29% to 44%, much faster than it would’ve done on Anya’s computer or Felix’s. In less than a minute, the bar was up to 99%, and then the page reloaded and the number appeared: $4,344,505.

“What the fuck?” Felix said. “Whoa, what?”

“See, that’s what I’m saying, I don’t know how accurate—”

“Would it be this inaccurate? Really? There’s something in that data, this family’s done some shit, Anya.”

“That’s . . . this number is . . . .”

“Slaveholding, or maybe they’re descended from some old shitty European dynasty, or—”

“That’s not in the data!” Anya snapped. “There’s no tab that records the number of slaves this family’s ancestors had—and we’re in Iowa, these people are probably descended from protestant Germans, not slaveholders or monarchs.”

“Then they’re paying people below minimum wage, or using some massively pollutant farming process,” Felix said. “Either way, their shit is ours for the taking. This room is a great place to start, you tell me, what’s valuable in here?”

“F, if that’s their debt, I, I don’t know how much we can trust my credit.”

“What? Of course we can, it’s consistent with other reparations AI.”

“Well, you know, that’s an average, it’s not like every black person is, has some legacy of deprivations, or—”

“Of course not, but you—your dad’s dad’s dad’s dad was a slave, right? We can say that with certainty.”

“But my mom’s white, and I’ve—I can’t deny the benefits of that, or—”

“That is ridiculous, and you know it.” Felix picked up an external drive, and unzipped Anya’s pack to put it in.

“Stop!” she yelled, spinning away. “I’m saying, I don’t feel like I’ve had some horrible life of being withheld from opportunities, I, I feel incredibly grateful for everything I’ve got, especially considering what my dad went through, and I don’t feel like a hundred thousand dollars has been robbed from me.”

“You don’t have to feel it.” Felix shoved the drive into F’s own pack and started grabbing other electronics. “The computer is telling you.” F picked up a phone, then realized it was Anya’s, which she had left on the desk—but in the moment F picked it up, F saw a shape moving out of frame, toward the house. “Shit! Come on, grab everything as quickly as possible!”

“What, F, is there—” Her voice choked up.

“Yeah, let’s go!” F flipped off the lights. “Listen, do these rich assholes deserve these electronics more than you deserve college?”

“I—No,” she hissed, and she pushed past F and plunged her hands into the box of electronics, fishing out sleek black and gray apparatuses and placing them on the desk by the light of the monitor. Felix helped her, filling up F’s own pack as well as hers.

“Wait, F,” Anya whispered, staring at the computer monitor.

“What, you want to take that?”

“This isn’t the Midwest AI, this is global.” Anya looked at F. “This isn’t what they owe to the creditors of the Midwest, or America, it’s what they owe to the world.”

“But that’s—”

“Why it’s so high—someone must’ve cracked it in the past few days, figured out how to—”

An enormous crashing sound as the front door exploded open, and something came skittering down the hall, knocking off the walls and into the office. The doorknob.

“Whoever is in there,” a voice boomed from the doorway, “get the fuck out, and leave your shit!” Not private security. A looter.

There were two exits to the office—one to the front hallway, one to the dining room. If Felix remembered correctly, from the dining room they could get to the backyard—but they’d have to move quick.

“F, look,” Anya pointed to the monitor, which displayed the homepage for the site that Felix had breezed past when F was uploading the data. Anya’s finger was pressed to a text box which read,

$36,433

Average debt of a lower-class US citizen

“I’ll give you till ten to come over here and surrender whatever you’ve taken!” The voice yelled.

“I’ve got a plan,” Felix hissed. “Out the back.”

“One! Two!”

Anya stuck close as they crept through the dining room.

“Three! Four!”

“I hate this,” she moaned.

“Five! Six!”

Felix used every shouted number as a chance to open the creaking door further.

“Seven! Eight!”

Across the threshold now . . . .

“Nine! Ten!”

And it was closed. They heard stomping inside and quickly scurried off the back porch to crouch beside some hedges. The rain had come back—no, it was snow this time.

“Okay,” Anya said, “what now?”

“Now we sneak around to our bikes and GTFO.”

“Wait, that was your plan? Are you serious? No, no, then we should just give the stuff back—”

“Keep your voice down,” Felix snapped, and F headed toward the edge of the house.

From inside they heard the looter shout something, and they froze at the corner of the house for a while before continuing on to the chain link fence, which enclosed the backyard. “Let’s go over the fence one at a time,” F said, “so we don’t make too much noise.” Felix fit one foot into a hole and, pushing off of it, for the first time that night felt the enormous weight of F’s pack. The chains jangled, and F climbed as quickly as possible, easing F’s body down to the other side. F could see the bikes from here just yards away, Felix could see F and Anya riding away on them, Felix could see huge sums rolling into Anya’s bank account and Felix could see her graduating with F.

“Jesus this is heavy,” Anya said, reaching the top of the fence. She sat there, straddling the metal pole running across the top. “I won’t be able to bike up and down hills with all this on my back.”

There was more shouting in the house. “You can and will,” Felix said, “now get down from there!”

Anya pulled down her scarf, one hand still clasping the fence for balance. “I can’t, Felix . . . I, you saw what that site said—none of this is ours. I mean, if we really want to be accountableist, we should donate our own things to, to displaced Indonesians—or to Puerto Ricans, or—”

“We’re just kids!” Felix said. “We can do all that later, once we’ve gotten an education and have jobs that—”

“I know you want us to go the same university, but—”

“That’s not what this is about!” Felix shouted, then instantly clapped a hand over F’s mouth. In the silence, Anya began slipping off her pack with her free hand.

Felix reached up to snatch it, but Anya twisted away. “If you let go of that,” Felix said, “you’re letting go of everything that’s been stripped away from your ancestors for generations—you’re letting go of—” F swiped at it again.

“You don’t get to steal on behalf of my ancestors!” Anya hissed. The pack now hung by just one strap, which she reached for.

I’m not stealing it, it’s not mine, it’s for you, when you come to your senses!” Just as Anya took hold of the strap Felix jumped up to grab it. F caught onto her scarf instead and without a thought yanked as hard as possible, sending scarf, Anya, and backpack tumbling over the fence and slamming into the hard cold ground.

Felix stared in horror. “Oh my—Anya, Bug, I didn’t—I’m sorry, I—”

Anya pushed herself up. “Fucking take it, asshole,” she said, shoving the pack into F’s hands. “I don’t want it.”

“But the laptop—”

“Fuck the laptop. Slave labor pollutant bullshit anyway.” She walked past F, then froze.

“Hand it over!”

F turned and saw the looter heading toward them. As they got closer, Felix could see a handgun tucked into the waistband of their jeans. “My buddy in the car heard you idiots. What’d you think, I came alone?” Though their face was covered by a ski mask, they sounded young, maybe early twenties.

“What’s, what’s your credit tally?” Felix asked, voice shaking. “Why do you deserve this more than her?” The looter stopped a few yards away from them, and Anya backed up to stand in front of Felix. “She needs this money for college.”

“College? Fuck off,” the looter said. “Give me the bags.”

Felix chucked over F’s own bag, still holding onto Anya’s pack. “You’d just take a girl’s education from her? She deserves a—”

“Kid, unless she’s a Rohingya or some shit, she doesn’t deserve dick. Looting isn’t about deserving, it’s about wanting. If you prefer to use a credit tally, whatever. But my credit tally’s only twenty-k. Fuck that. I want a car, I want a treadmill, I want some weed and I want a flat screen and a VR system and I want a big motherfuckin’ hamburger, and I want that goddamn backpack, now.” The looter’s hand had come to rest on their handgun. Felix held out Anya’s bag, and the looter took it. “Community college is cheap enough anyway, she’ll be fine.” They then grabbed Felix’s bag off the ground.

“Don’t take that,” Anya spoke up. “There’s a few electronics on top, you can take those, but the rest is just books and some food.”

The looter, putting on Anya’s backpack, unzipped Felix’s and upended it, shaking it out vigorously. After a moment’s consideration of the pile of takings, they cast the empty bag aside and stood back up. “I don’t want any of that shit.” They turned and headed back to the house.

“Do you treat most looters like this?” Felix asked. “Why can’t we work together? We’re on the same side!”

“Yeah kid,” the looter called back. “We’re the debtors.” They disappeared from sight then, but F heard a car door slam, and after a while the front door of the house opening and closing.

Felix picked up F’s backpack as Anya walked away toward the bikes, and F looked at all the items scattered in the snow and dead leaves. Books and electronics that weren’t F’s. What the fuck was F doing with someone else’s food?

F arranged the petty plunder in a neat stack by the side of the house, using the heavier items to weigh down the flimsier ones. F put on the empty backpack and walked to the bikes, spying someone inside the looter’s car who watched F back. When Felix had biked out to the edge of the property, F was surprised to almost come crashing into Anya, who was standing on the edge of the highway beside her bike.

Felix pulled down F’s scarf. “You deserve the world,” F said to her. “You deserve everything, nothing could be enough.”

Anya didn’t respond.

“You’ll still do great, even without going to a big university. I’m the one who’s going to be struggling, without, without . . . .” A cold wind whipped through F. “I’m so sorry. I know an apology isn’t enough, I owe you so much more—”

“Can I have my phone?” Anya said.

“Your . . . .”

“When you saw the car come in, you took my phone,” Anya said.

“I . . . .” Felix felt F’s stomach roll. “I put it in your bag. I can, I’ll go back and—”

“No,” Anya said, “don’t be reckless.”

“Then—then you can have my phone, please, let me—”

No. Just text my phone, letting the looters know I’d like it back. And give them your number so they can work it out with you. It’s a cheap phone. They won’t mind not keeping it, and if they do it won’t be expensive to replace.”

“Oh—okay.” Felix nodded, and Anya got on her bike and kicked back the stand.

“Hey, what’s the credit tally needed for snow?” she said, then pushed off down the road.

For the first time, Felix realized, truly took account of the fact, that it was snowing. It was snowing, in Iowa, in December no less. F couldn’t remember the last time that’d happened—maybe before F was born.

The credit tally needed for snow. More than Greatland deserved. More than Middle America, agricultural heart of a miserly old debtor empire, deserved. More than Felix deserved, too, idiot. But it was falling on F, anyway.

Kestrel in an Apocalyptic Landscape

Kestrel: (from French crécerelle, derivative from crécelle, i.e. ratchet)

 

Also known as windhover because he can hover, even in still air, but when he

hovers he usually faces toward a breeze, no matter how slight.

 

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote

 

Dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding / of the rolling level underneath him steady air . . . .

 

Say that aloud: in his riding / of the rolling level underneath him steady air . . . .

 

rolling level underneath him steady             five troches that roll along

like a wave, cresting and falling, cresting and falling   and land         lightly             on air

 

In some future time and place a kestrel perches on a leafless branch on a leafless tree, waits

for something to stir. The landscape is open, naked, brown as his dominant plumage (but oh

the blue-gray of his wings, the black streak descending from his eye like a tear).

 

With a push he sends himself into the rolling level underneath him steady air. All is silent

except for the clack of his feathers as he holds himself upright facing into a breeze,

tailfeathers spread, wingfeathers spread, head bent like a penitent to scan the ground.

 

Scorpion.

 

He tilts and sleekens and spills himself down, talons thrusting, strikes.

 

Dead insect in claw he lifts and flaps back to his tree, to the hollow space in its trunk, where

she waits for him with the new one, first to emerge from the clutch, and only.

 

He drops his gift and she shares it with the hatchling.

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.