Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Ben Godby. Ben writes mysteriously thrilling pseudo-scientific weird western adventure fantasy tales. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario with a girl, two dogs and a cat, and blogs at www.bengodby.com.
This is the story’s first publication.
The Princess and the Shadowspawn
Along the banks of Big Kruarnoth, factories compete to make the loudest din: the forges hiss, assemblies drum, meatpackers scream.
Black hills, gray skies, and fishes witness. It’s been ten thousand years now—unabated.
* * *
A shitty afternoon like all the rest, a rider—lone—emerges. He sits astride a thundercycle: big wheels, big boots, black shining leather ideals. His hair is loose and flies free in a windsphere, a paraphysical channel he has conjured up, a force he summons with his demon speed.
But otherwise, the air is dead round Big Kruarnoth.
The rider’s name is Scorn Defeat. His heart is hard, but wasn’t always: his mother and his father placed a spark, a flame, inside his infant chest, and now—like an oyster—a stone hides in the folds of living flesh. He grips the handlebars with molten knuckles and chivvies the accelerometer in his brain, for he’s brought only one bit of wisdom with him: that you must go very quickly to get nowhere, if from all worlds and landscapes you seek escape.
The thundercycle spits and screams, while the banks of Big Kruarnoth quake and shudder, and call his name.
* * *
Beneath Scorn’s wheels, the desert turns to glass.
Long behind him are Big Kruarnoth and her tributaries, the hills of moldering chlorophyll and those volcanic cliffs of scree, those bracken thickets, hedgerow deadpools, and the chasms of sparkle-deadened gneiss and blackened basalt bands. The earth has become an aqua-mendicant, and yet a river’s tongue still ebbs and flows, and eddies in the pockmarks of Scorn’s soul—not quite as forgettable as the rider once believed.
“Turn back, Scorn,” here spits the sun. “This world is always only wasteland; all ruined hearts and ruined dreams.”
The rider wonders, thinks, denies; his thundercycle laughs, then screams.
The sun, a disc; the sky, a wheel; a blade that’s blue and black as ice, strapped to the back of Scorn Defeat.
* * *
The earth metastasizes at the desert’s end: erratically, black life perfuses. The ochre dunes begin to slip, then stumble, rear, and march toward an ocean that, beyond the bleeding sun’s horizon, stinks of salted bones. Silted tendrils comb the limbus; trees lift their legs out from the muck—unsure, unsown.
The rider has been lulled by lengths of red and yellow sand, and on this border of the land the change is jarring, jolts him awake, though still too late. Scorn’s wheels spin; the heavy metal chassis starts to sizzle, splutter, spark and steam. The rider is immersed in green water that, when he stands, rises barely to his knees.
Scorn spits, and swears, and drags himself beyond the sopping marrow of the bog. Insects titter, and the daylight bats that hunt them pause, rest their eyes upon this interloper, and consider. He stands to let the water sluice free of his jacket, but he can’t stop the swamp-juice leaving stains.
Somewhat drier and halfway calmer, the rider climbs the shallow hill, where he parts the bracken and the boughs and gazes up at the enameled road he just blazed across the sands. His path forms an iridescent track, a highway betwixt the dunes that, soon—as those stolid hills begin to shift—will crack.
He wonders if, along it, someone might follow; if he, or if this swamp, holds something that maybe someone wants. He thrusts his hands below the waterline, sifts the muck, then sniffs it once.
Nothing but the putrid. If something’s here, it’s buried deep. He looks toward the sun, now wrapped in a corona of clouds and atmospheric gauze.
“Perhaps there’s something, down below, for you,” says Scorn. “You have, I think, the time to look.”
He pulls the vehicle from the swamp and drains it. Its pipes piddle on the sodden grasses; its gas tank, never filled, burps with approval. Then, unconcerned the sun was unresponsive, Scorn climbs aboard his cycle, lights the engine, tests the boiler, then through the mangroves and the deadfall passes.
* * *
Twilight descends just as Scorn finds the town. At first he thinks it must be an illusion. Wooden frames, thatched roofs and gables; water pumping, cattle braying; Scorn finds himself amidst a panoply of village sights and village sounds.
In the face of this domesticity, he kills the engine, slows his thundercycle down.
“BONEDUST,” reads a sign. And: “WARNING: THOSE THAT LEAVE SHALL NOT LEAVE ALIVE.”
Scorn wonders how the village ever got its name, when it’s so near those fens of groundwaters deep and soils moist. He’s seized by an instinct: he tests the blade that the sun made upon his back, and tastes its ice.
That, too, a riddle—though only such as life.
The sun is setting, yonder, among the rifts of distant hills: a yellow hulk, and midnight mounds.
* * *
Two steel rails run straight from nowhere and onwards through the village square. The railroad rests on ties of timber, stained with blood, and the ballast is of bones. They are the diplomats of industry, and Scorn hates the feeling he feels of home.
The village is now settled with a silence deadly (long gone, or never were, those phantasmagorical pastoral sounds). Shadows rule the alleys which are more numerous than the dwellings, from which windows lurch and shudder as though their casements were alive. The shopfronts yawn, awaiting produce, and the rails run too plumb and narrow—as though modeled on some equation straighter. Beyond the limits of the village they enter forests hot and deep, and, somewhere beyond them: a castle on a rotten hillside, very dark.
A cuckoo-clock goes off somewhere, chiming nine.
The forest’s lips grumble, smack, and lick—then open wide.
“Help!” a weak voice cries. “You must save me, interloper, or else surely I’ll die!”
Scorn cuts Bonedust’s welded air with his blade, sending azure tracers through the sky. He ponders this gutless reaction without conclusion before he looks; then, there, in that window of that tower, that slender claw of black and broken stones that stands from here not very far (a dozen steps from anyplace would get Scorn there), he sees her drift among the lintels, like a curtain: nocturnal wisp, a midnight willow, some unfortunately fallen star.
The rider wonders if he hasn’t been equipped just for this—if Providence is not an overarching plan, but rather like a guiding fist restricted to the heroes and the heroines of myth. The sword, his thundercycle, and Big Kruarnoth refute all other explanations, and, like a mollusc wrenched from water, Scorn’s flesh—for better or for worse—tastes air.
“I wouldn’t think, if I were you, of doing anything so daring.”
Scorn spins, his weapon once more fighting for him. A man in black—cowled, leering—stands just beyond the village clearing.
“Who are you?” snarls Scorn.
The cowled man pauses, smirks, considers. “Azdrobanus?” he says at length. “Mecrathanthum. Gillee-Talril, or maybe Est-Ton-Bal-Rol.”
The sun has set quite completely now, and a sudden cool sets Scorn’s blade to dripping. His fingers clench the frozen hilt. The creature laughs.
“More important: lord of Bonedust, and chief engineer.” He stamps the railway, which straightens. Then he again considers. “Necromancer. King of Darkness. Enemy of All That’s Living. And my daughter, Sweetly, is not for the taking.”
“Help me, Scorn!” the princess screams—his name written on his face like in all ages.
For that one moment—the duration of her sylvan voice—Scorn feels transported. The clatter, the hammering, the ignominious deafening, that din, that song, that wretched hurlyburly known as Big Kruarnoth that roils in his heart is then dead, and buried—its grave site lost.
“You cannot stop me,” says Scorn Defeat.
Azdrobanus moves too freely, his body melding angles easily; antiquity is painted on his face like some infernal scar. “If I can’t, well… they surely will.”
Scorn looks around. The moon passes over Bonedust luminously, and in the village alleys, shadows… scraping sounds. Yellow pupils in green setting; mouths breathe fire, begin to glow.
Scorn shivers. The sword has been reduced to snow-leather grips and hoarfrost crosspiece: the nexus of an implement not present. The princess leans out from her window, but he can’t bear to see her now.
“Leave and don’t come back,” says Azdrobanus, “or they’ll remove you.” He grins slyly: lupine teeth in goblin visage. “Please don’t make me tell you how.”
* * *
Beyond the edge of Bonedust village, Scorn Defeat lies tossing, turning, and in certain lucid moments dreaming. The starlight wheels; his cycle purrs while gently sleeping.
“Why did I come here?” wonders Scorn. He stands and looks east, south, west and north: so many variations on the path he might have taken.
And yet his destination, he wonders—thinks—denies—believes—could be no different.
In his chest, a spark—a flame—is licking at live flesh again. What was it that his parents said—so ordered, clipped, regurgitated? Spoken in the language of machines, a dialectic that some men and women esteemed godly lore. An explanation: how things ought to be.
“Louder, louder,” and, “always, forever;” until the day a thundercycle rode up the banks of Big Kruarnoth, bearing Scorn Defeat. Across moldering hills, volcanic cliffs, bracken thickets and deadpool hedgerows, chasms of sparkle-deadened gneiss and blackened basalt bands, unto these midnight porticoes that stand just beyond the sands.
Scorn leaps to his feet and kicks his vehicle alive. His hilt spits a blade of fire, now; the thundercycle roars, and, with a voice of pistons pounding, Scorn cries.
“The future will burn what’s come before!”
* * *
The town of Bonedust lies silent underneath the waning moon. Nocturnal vistas propped on alleys are predicated on blind ends, and stir in languor; the air that winds around in cul-de-sacs snaps and snarls its own heels, while Scorn’s thundercycle’s engines boom.
Rubber screeches on the pave-stones, leaving black tracks on the graying monoliths. “Princess!” Scorn Defeat goes crying. “Princess Sweetly, trapped in yonder tower tall!”
The girl appears, a ragged mist; her face is neither energized nor listless. She seems to brighten, shedding lumens, gathering a blood-fresh humor, coinciding with the vision of this black-clad hero at her prison door.
“Have you come to rescue me?”
“Of course. My heart is melting! Never have I ’til now been living. Now let a ladder down, or else open up this wooden door; and flee, we shall, from Bonedust and our fathers’ stolid worlds, together, on towards a future without ceilings, without floors.”
“Scorn!” the Princess cries, now pointing. Scorn turns to watch the dancing yellow dots and listen to the scraping sounds—picking from the outside, inward—that, moving quickly, thwart the village square, spelling doom.
“Come, night monsters!” calls Scorn Defeat. His hands hold nothing, though he wields his sword, and his hair flies freely in a windsphere—a channel conjured by his motions and his striding forth. “I do not fear you. This princess shall be freed, and we shall live in peace forevermore.”
“Kill him!” Azdrobanus shouts. His voice echoes and assaults the air as though spoken from a thousand mouths—even though, at this late hour, he’s no more visible than a mote of dust, some fungal spore.
Skeletons and zombies crawl, and stagger-shudder, invite each other in their myriad droning mutters to come along on this their midnight stroll. They’ve been frozen, preserved, re-animated, and now enact their master’s vicious commands.
But Scorn’s got the breath of life inside him—the kind of life that’s stronger for once being dead.
With battle cries he cuts them down, and bludgeons them and strips their bones. There’s a fire burning somewhere, and a rod of ice that gleams; but at this late hour his sword is no more solid than his sorrow, or his shame.
Bodies pile in night’s shadowed corners; the ballast of the railway is buttressed more. Scorn stumbles through the shamblers, creepers, revenants and all these ghosts of yore, and fights his way back, returns to the base of the tower and its door.
It is Azdrobanus, his body taking shape.
“I’ll kill you, too,” says Scorn, a rictus scowling. “I’ve cut through all your deathly lore.”
“I’ll kill the Princess,” says Azdrobanus, grinning black through midnight’s spoor. “You think I wouldn’t? I hold her breath, just as you are master of your sword. Bonedust is my realm, Scorn, and you are just a wanderer within it.”
“I don’t believe you could kill her,” stammers Scorn—not sure what it was that clenched and tightened in his chest. “No, not your daughter. That would be worse even than fratricide, or the killing of my parents. There’s limits even when it comes to hate.”
“Ah, Scorn, your words are fine, but you understand it all too well—the bond that links a parent and their children, and how those ties do ebb, regress, and flow. Now look!”
From the window, some feeble cry: the Princess dangles, her body limp, her eyes wide and harrowed.
“No!” cries Scorn. “What are you doing? Without her, life is not worth living.”
“Is it? I wouldn’t know. But I’ll trust to your judgment if you trust mine. See, you can help me. Scorn, please understand: through that forest yonder I must pass. And yet, there’s something, some diurnal aberration, an abyssal darkness too unlike and like me, that guards the way to that very castle’s door.”
Scorn slowly turns, now unbelieving, to regard the sloping, wooded maw. He sees, as dawn begins to pale, the bodies strewn across the forest floor. Twisted rails and shattered stumps tell the tale of their work so far.
“Find me some way up that hill… and the girl is yours.”
“You’ll keep your word?” Scorn says, desperate.
“I will, if you can keep your life.”
Scorn ponders this and thinks it’s fair: better, yes, by far, indeed, than to live alone or on the banks of Big Kruarnoth, making noise with breath and deed.
He leaves Azdrobanus and his kidnapped daughter in his wake, and walks upon that ill-conceived and dreadful road with his pace now unsteady, now unsure. The castle looms, beneficent in all benighted glory. Scorn looks back toward the village.
“What did you say it was?” he shouts back, brushing icicles from his whiskers and his face. “This thing, this monster lurking in the forest?”
“I do not know,” says Azdrobanus, his voice a whisper swept upon the wind. “You’ll tell me when you’ve killed it.”
Scorn considers, disappears.
“Oh, Father,” mourns the wispy child, her virgin bosom heaving now. She still is crooked, strange, and brutal, hanging from her window like a ragdoll, the spell still cast. “What if Scorn Defeat does not return?”
Azdrobanus doesn’t answer… shrugs.
“Then another, we must assume, will come along.”
* * *
The wood stinks of must and loneliness; of rusted iron, calcified verdigris. There’s rotting matter lying on the ground, that—with time—will seep into the earth, and revivify it.
The trees all dangle, hunchbacked and calloused; the ferns bunch in groups, except for the occasional stray that’s wandered off in a desperate bid for solitude, or in response to some socio-botanical ostracism. These loners are sometimes fuller, capturing the forest’s paucity of nutrients for themselves; but alone, still, they are less impressive than the groups.
The air is cloying, and the rails run, run on, and run out.
Shadows play in dawn’s faint light, but as yet they spawn no interlocutor for Scorn to face. Ahead, the forest rises, sweeping up the hill like a blanket covering a giant. The castle rears, stoic and hard, a block of masonry that from where it sits atop the hill will not be moved.
The broken ground is fixed again, nature having reclaimed the spaces that the workers fought for. Scorn goes further; then, losing himself in the forest dawn, slugs the air. It covets him with heat and sweat, though inside he cannot warm enough. He tears apart his jacket, casts the leather down; ties his hair up for a moment before unleashing it again, for now he’s cold. This particular stretch of wild has something in its makeup, as though the very atmosphere were unclear.
He climbs up the slope, unsteady still, until he’s reached the top. The castle looms, a morning shadow; a low keening flies from darkened windows, some kind of din, fantastic and quite overbearing, that seeks to crush his spirit, turn its vane against the wind.
Or only, perhaps, to invite him in.
Scorn scowls, grabs his chest, and pries it open. Meatpackers scream; the pistons deep inside it growl and grind his name.
* * *
With dawn breaking over broken hills, and sunlight chasing undead ills, the forest groans and spits forth a warrior clad in black.
He looks the same, all chains and leathers; and still the grime of riding long and hard—without purpose, goal, or tactics—stains the space along his inner thighs. His hair is windblown and his cheeks are frozen fast.
He comes along the path to Bonedust, ignores the wizard at the lintel, and goes inside to gather up his Princess, Sweetly, for all time.
* * *
“Is something wrong, Scorn?” the Princess asks. “Something eating at your mind?”
Scorn stares out the window, toward a castle dark in deep forest; but all he hears is pistons, clanging, hammering out his name.
The Princess sighs and slumps in her chair. The dark tower with its broken fingers, its ragged claws, she has remade. There is fresh white wash across the stones, wainscoting, countertops, and brand new devices imported from the banks of Big Kruarnoth—across the wild land and the desert’s inland sea.
“What’s wrong, Scorn? For God’s sake, tell me! Ever since you slew that thing, that spawn of shadow…”
“That was nothing,” Scorn rasps, half-dreaming. His eyes are drifting, gaze ranging out the window—toward the rumpled, broken land.
“Nothing? Not at all! It had trumped my father—bastard though he is—for far too long. And you, with your bravery and guile, your aptitudes heroic, did defeat it.”
Scorn laughs. Then he chokes, turns to gaze upon his wife. “Nothing there,” he whispers.
“Nothing there?” The Princess pales. “Whatever do you mean?”
“There was nothing there!” screams Scorn Defeat. The whole tower shudders, shivers, quakes—though not for Scorn nor for his anger, but rather on account of falling beneath the yonder castle’s gaze. The sun, falling through the window, casts its blade upon the hero, that icy rod of puissance mighty; but on the hill that fortress waxes under spells still darkly—each brick mortared with a sticky shame.
“There was nothing there,” he whispers again. “Just the forest… some clever ruse…” He looks at the princess with hooded eyes. “Some aspect incomplete.”
“Then what…” The girl is fearful; swallows. “What happened in those dappled maples, among the darkling shrubs and bushes?”
“Look in my eyes, girl, and tell me, please: does anything—anything, anything at all—still remain?”
The Princess is backed into a corner by her husband’s deep gunmetal eyes. In them—in all their swirling grayness, flecks of whiteness and their pupils’ utter blackness—is surging the waveform crucible of that song: the banging, slamming, ringing tones of maritime manufactory. The banks of Big Kruarnoth, dread and total, in his eyes even while he sleeps.
And in the shadows of those surging verges, fishes watch, and something spawns; though the Princess, bless her, will never—ever—quite know how to speak its name.
“Yes, Scorn, my very darling,” the Princess whispers (shrinking further), “I think that something—something—must still, forever… always… remain.”
* * *
Along the banks of Big Kruarnoth, the factories compete in many games. The spark of life and screams of death are, to them, just One, and Same.
The tower down in Bonedust will one day begin to crumble, its stone-cut tendril-fingers reaching for the village floor. A castle, mired amongst the forest, casts its shadows over lands now listless; and a princess, on the hilltop, has been buried there in vain.
And of Scorn Defeat, his princess, and the Shadowspawn that bound them, one wonders whether something, anything, or nothing, might be, or has been, or will one day still remain.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by H.H.Løyche. Hans Henrik Løyche was born on a summer’s night in Copenhagen, Denmark, 1964. After studying at the Academy of Art and working and travelling in Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Africa, he returned to CoMa City (Copenhagen-Malmö) and began writing and co-editing Nye Verdener and Cirkel Serien. Member of the Writer’s Association of Denmark and co-founder of the Danish Fantastic Association (Fantastik), he received a two-year writer’s grant from the Danish National Art Foundation in 1999. Nominated Best Author in the 2007 European Hall of Fame Awards, his novella The Manuduction won the prestigious 2009 Harbinger Relay Award.
Løyche’s debut novel Støj (Baffling Noise) appeared in 1996, although he has published articles and short stories since 1989, and still writes for major magazines and daily newspapers today. His recent works include a cyberpunk story for movie director Tómas Gislason, and an annotated and illustrated collection of H.C. Andersen’s science fiction. Even before finishing his trilogy of novels, critics placed Løyche in the top ranks of Danish authors. His Mission til Schamajim (Mission to Schamajim) is listed as one of the three great Danish science fiction novels.
The Good Things in Life
Burnished titanium glints as a group of racing cyclists shoot along the country road. Maintaining distance as uniform as train wagons, the blue pinpoint lights at the cyclists’ temples cut through the bright summer morning. The bodies move on for hours, ignorant of the passing landscapes and villages. Around noon they come to a stop. A bus waits for them on the bank of a dried-up river. For a while, the cyclists remain standing at their vehicles, each with the left hand on the saddle, the right hand on the handlebars, and their eyes fixed at the horizon; a soldier parade presents surreal weapons. One by one, the blue pinpoint lights go out, and the men squat down. Having trained to the limit of their physical capability, they are almost too exhausted to remove their helmets. Then, the manager comes out of the bus and hand out refreshments. They begin chatting and lifting the bicycles onto the rack in the rear end of the bus.
“You’ve had an accident, Joe?” the manager asks.
“Yes. Look… the nasty scratch at your elbow.”
“Must have knocked against something. Good thing it didn’t interrupt my ride.”
The manager leaves for a moment and comes back carrying a first-aid box. Joe has his elbow bandaged in silence, until he suddenly says:
“Where is Brian?”
The group scans the area for the missing champion, but neither he nor his bicycle is present.
“Not again!” the manager shouts. “Try to locate his transponder while I call the rescue team.”
About two hours later, Brian’s wife Camilla and their daughter Claire come home and learn about the disappearance. They are told that Brian was involved in a collision somewhere along the route, and a rescue team is on the way. Camilla was already feeling a bit depressed, and calls her psychiatrist. Not knowing that Camilla uses Auto Pilot far too much, he recommends her to take a break, whenever sad or tiresome experiences threaten to overwhelm her. “Don’t let emotions dictate your life,” the psychiatrist warns. “Emotions are nothing but waste products of the central nervous system.”
Camilla works at a public library. Being bored by the job, she turns on her AP from the moment she arrives at the building. Until lunch break, or until some problem arises which is not covered by the library’s Reflex Bank, her body goes through whatever motions are necessary to serve the borrowers. Meantime, the quasi-conscious part of Camilla’s brain watches some soap opera or is simply asleep.
Four days a week, Camilla takes exercise for a couple of hours, to maintain the right muscular tone. She’s usually on AP at the fitness centre too.
Blissfully ignorant of his own conduct, the missing racing cyclist still puts distance between himself and the pick-up point at the river. Although his speed has come down a bit.
Camilla picks up Claire at the kindergarten. The single nursery assistant on duty is watching tv and sipping coffee, while two hundred children play computer games or draw the same drawings over and over again. Not a single child’s voice is heard. All of the children’s AP lights are glowing, their minds kept offline during most of the day.
When home and finally released from the AP, Claire becomes talkative and demanding. The maid is still in the apartment, cleaning up, and Camilla asks her whether there is any news about Brian. As the maid tries to answer, the little one begins to yell. Camilla tries not to sound angry, but she just can’t take it today. It comes to a struggle as Camilla reattaches her daughter’s AP and switches her off. Afterwards, Camilla is about to order the maid to prepare dinner, but ends up giving her a talking-to. Although the maid has been a bit sloppy lately, Camilla feels a surge of guilt. She weeps and hurries out to the bathroom to hide her tears. There, she turns herself off.
The racing cyclist has begun to wobble. Sometime during the night, he is challenged by a great hill, and his legs finally give up pedaling.
Camilla drives through downtown, where millions of unconscious bodies are working, jogging, shopping, eating, whatever. The clouds above the town remind Claire of rotten brain tissue. She tries to visualize what it would be like to dress up in a rotten cloud, but her untrained mind cannot handle the image. Then her attention is caught by something else: a young man who forgot to shave is being paralyzed and dragged away by policemen on AP. Some months of community service, scraping chewing gum off the pavements, should correct this hooligan’s behavior.
The town beneath the sky has never been so tidy since the criminals and insane were put to work under AP control. Buildings, streets, and parks are cleaned up to the last bird dropping. Camilla and Claire are strolling in the AP shop of a department store. The blue temple lights and absent eyes of the shop assistants serve to guarantee the customers that they deal with machines, not human beings. Camilla buys a Trance Dance RB update for Claire and an erotic RB for herself.
Hundreds of motorists spot Brian in the verge 580 kilometers from his assumed whereabouts. Nobody reacts. Not until a freelance journalist sees a possible story. Recognizing the racing cyclist, the journalist immediately calls the police. Although dehydrated and overexerted, Brian is still alive when the police arrive. Noticing his dog tag, they call his manager. After briefly haggling over the reward, the policemen dump Brian into the boot of the police car, and take him to a private hospital for sports injuries. The manager and a couple of bodyguards are already present, busy trying to ward off the journalist. As they learn that the journalist called the police, he is granted a brief interview. He questions the doctor who examines the unconscious patient.
“I understand this wasn’t an isolated episode. What’s the problem? Epilepsy?”
“No. Brian is in perfect condition. Guess it was an AP parameter malfunction. Just bad luck, it got him twice… It happens now and then… Like the guy whose AP kept him hostage for a decade.”
“We’d better inform the wife now,” one of the policemen throws in. “Guess she is anxious to see him.”
“All Camilla Drexler cares about is Brian’s income,” the manager reflects. “Just tell her that we’ve found him, and he’s all right. If she wishes to see Brian, she can make an appointment through his agent.”
The journalist shrugs and leaves with the policemen. The bodyguards follow the rescuers out of the ward. Locking the door behind them, the manager carries on in a subdued voice:
“It’s the second time this season. We’ve got to find a solution before somebody discovers the brain hemorrhage.”
Camilla and her daughter are relaxing after several hours of conscious shopping. Claire is investigating the texture of a dust mouse, which she has found behind the sofa. She asks her mother what it is, but is interrupted by the hum of the telephone. Having already removed her make up, Camilla answers in voice-only:
“Yes…? Where…? Really…? Thank you… No, I haven’t talked with any journalist… Would I like to see him…? What’s the point if he is unconscious? Goodbye.”
Camilla puts down the phone, grabs her AP and inserts the new erotic RB. Realizing that her mother is unavailable, the little one turns on the television to see if her father is in the sports news. She finds herself surrounded by an advertisement for the Strategic Combat Communication and Remote Pilot System – a trademark of Budget Rent-a-Body. The soldiers keep fighting in spite of their wounds. As the Mongol enemy is finally gunned down and put into AP custody, the letters SCCRPS appear in the air. Then comes the jingle and the motto: “Cleans up anything, anywhere.”
Camilla comes in a silent orgasm.
At the monthly social network meeting for the library employees, Camilla is confronted with her habit of telling her colleagues when they can and can’t use AP.
“To tell the truth, Brenda, I’m scared. People scare me.”
“People? Nobody needs to be afraid of people. If they are dangerous, we just switch ’em off. If we are still afraid, we can switch ourselves off.”
“That’s what scares me. It’s like we’ve met the enemy, and they’re us…”
Noticing the looks of her friends – some uncomprehending, some uneasy, some plain unsympathetic – the chairwoman interrupts:
“Ladies, please… Could we end this paranoid discussion?”
“Sorry,” Camilla tries to smooth it over. “I didn’t mean to offend the group.”
“Yeah?” Brenda sneers. “Then try to remember that friends are for the good things in life, not the cranky.”
Brian is in the small group of four breakaways at the very last stage of the race, when a collision suddenly happens in front of him. There is no way he can avoid the bloody mess of bodies and bicycles. He drives straight over one body and into a bicycle frame, flips over, and hits the asphalt on his back. Still clinging on to his bicycle, he pushes himself on, rolls over, and gets back on the wheels. Without hesitation, he powers on to catch up with the single remaining competitor. Simultaneously, the competitor – having heard the rest of the breakaways crash – seems confident of victory, and relaxes a little. He does not notice Brian until it is too late. The yells rise to a roar, when Brian breasts the tape half a wheel before the competitor.
A bulldozer scrapes the road clear of bodies and bicycles to make room for the homecoming pack. Nobody cares for the cyclist who Brian ran down. Meanwhile, the bodyguards fight to make room for the pretty girls to assist the incoming racing cyclists, first removing their helmets and AP tags, then following them into a white auto camper, to deliver a blood sample.
After a short break during the medical evaluation, the results are ready. Only eleven participants are disqualified due to doping, and Brian has once again won the race. The winners shake hands and carry Brian onto the stage for the cup ceremony. Brian steps onto the winners’ platform. A garland is put around his neck and he is handed a giant, golden trophy, which he can barely carry. Claire feels so proud of her father that she can’t resist breaking free of Camilla, and rushes onto the stage. Brian almost topples over when the girl throws herself into his arms. Camilla stays in the background, listening to popping Champagne bottles and the never-ending applause, watching her daughter laugh, and her husband smile to the cameras.
The illusion is perfect. Nobody suspects that Brian’s skull hides another AP, a jumble of artificial nerves, and a brain wave communication device – or that his reflexes were updated by a team of specialists during the race, and his gestures are now remote-controlled by an actor. Camilla is sobbing without noticing, wishing that Brian could have shared these moments of glory in the years which followed his brain death.
Originally written in English.
“The Good Things in Life” was previously published in Christophe Duchet a.o. (ed.): Fiction (ant.), Les moutons électriques éditeur, France (2005); 9 no. 305, Ch.K. Tegopoulos Editions S.A., Greece (2006); Terra Fantastika no. 12, Bulgaria (2007). It received honorable mention at the Balticon short story contest, Finland 2003.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Tom Learmont. Tom was born in the Golden Age of Science Fiction – to grow up in Scotland and Rhodesia, filled with “sensawunda” from reading H.G. Wells, Theodore Sturgeon and James Blish. He scraped a degree and taught for a few years. Then he bought a typewriter, commenced living by his wits and moved to Joburg. Tom wrote the Swiftian afrofantasy “After the Eclipse” (Sanlam Literary Award 1998). “Light Across Time” (Kwela 2011) is the first part of his Stapledonian sequence, “Brief Music”. At the moment he’s a newspaperman, and serves as the fiction editor of DRUM magazine.
This is the story’s first publication.
Morrie and the Grand Potato
Morrie Kantorowitz flew into Vegas and was waiting for a cab at McCarran when his second stroke felled him. He could feel the hot gritty sidewalk against his left cheek; he couldn’t see straight. At 74 years of age Morrie knew he’d had it, and his first reaction was one of fury. Then a train of quick images flickered through his head.
Morrie saw the tires explode on an automobile that caught fire when he was four… his first day at school… being a barmitzvah boy… making out with Arlene in the back of the Ford… a rumble with a spic in the wee hours at City Island… an asshole drill sergeant… the splash that night when he pushed his sonovabitch unsaleable Buick into the East River just to get rid of it… the trifecta he re-invested at Yonkers Raceway… his first wedding… a firstborn son… the second divorce… the first slot machine…
Morrie knew what it means to have your whole life flash before you. His final thought before the black curtains came down was: Aw shit, I suppose –
Then he woke up in bed. A woman in a white robe was bending over him. She had long, wavy dark red hair, big golden-brown eyes, a porcelain complexion. And a nice pair of bazoombas under the robe. The girl smiled at him.
“I’m here to help,” she said, in a cute Limey accent.
“Why thanks, honey. I thought I was a goner at McCarran, but I seem to have made it, and I’m feeling just fine. So where am I?”
“Sub Prime, Mr Kantorowitz.”
“That’s a hospital already? With a name like that you should give home loans to the underprivileged!”
The redhead took Morrie by the hand and said, “This isn’t a hospital.”
He looked at his surroundings: sunlit window with a view of the Strip, flat screen TV, modern art oil painting on the wall, writing desk, couple of easy chairs, archway leading to the closet and bathroom. It looked like a regular upmarket Vegas hotel room, the kind he had slept in thousands of times since he went into the slots business.
“The Sub Prime Inn, huh? Listen – I’m kind of confused. I don’t remember getting here. And I had a stroke – sure as hell I had a stroke. I’ve had one before. But how come there’s no after effects? Am I sick?”
“You’re dead, Mr Kantorowitz.” She gave his hand a comforting squeeze.
Morrie was silent for a second, then he burst into laughter.
“Yeah, yeah! And now I’m in Heaven, and you’re an angel. What kind of a snow job are you trying to pull? You want to kid me there’s a Heaven? I don’t believe any of that baloney, young lady! If I was dead, I would be potting soil. There’s no ghosts, no soul, no Heaven. There’s no Hell, and when you die, you rot. Everything else is bullshit!”
The angel heaved a sigh. “There is no Heaven, yes. But there is a Sub Prime. You have just been cut and pasted from Sub Sub Prime.”
“I give you this, sweetheart, you’ve got a good act. I don’t know who’s behind this, but you seem like a cute kid, so I’ll play along, okay? So talk!”
“You’re right. I’m no angel. I’m a married woman with a checkered past –”
“So who’s your husband?” Morrie was beginning to enjoy himself.
Morrie’s barking laugh filled the room. “What’s his other name – ‘Archangel’ or something?”
“I am Mrs Gabriel Rossetti.”
“No relation to Tommy Rossetti in Atlantic City? Hey – there was a casino manager in Reno by the name of Rossetti, Frankie Rossetti. No connection?”
“My husband was never in your line of business, Mr Kantorowitz. But I very rarely see him these days.”
“It happens. Look at me – four marriages. Listen, what do I call you, Mrs Rossetti?”
“Lizzie will be fine for now. May I go on?”
Lizzie was walking back and forth like a sexy schoolmarm, with a fine swing of her hips in that silky robe, going on about Sub Prime. From what Morrie gathered, first there was Prime, like a universe. The people, or the UFO aliens – whoever, who gives a fuck – were smart enough to invent a second universe inside the first one. It runs on a different system. Lizzie said the wise men she knew had no idea how many sub-sub-sub primes there were. But she was happy to work with three.
“So you see, we can only be sure of Prime, Sub Prime where we are now – and Sub Sub Prime, where we all originated as flesh-and-blood organisms largely based on chemistry. Life in Sub Prime is numerical, not protoplasmic. Mr Kantorowitz, it might help if you were to think of us as living inside some gigantic computer –”
“Hey, I saw The Matrix on TV. Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that, I’m afraid. Have you ever read a book called Riverworld by Philip José Farmer?”
“Hell, you know – me and books… I don’t have much time for reading.”
“Very well, I shall try to explain. You and I, Mr Kantorowitz, and everything in this room, everything outside that window, everything out as far as the Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto, everything beneath our feet, right to the Earth’s core, even to the heart of the Sun – is made of numbers.”
“So I’m fake and you’re fake! Listen, girly, when I pinch myself hard – like this – I can feel it. And it don’t feel like no number pinching another one.”
“Mr Kantorowitz – would you take out your false teeth, please?”
Morrie stared at Lizzie blankly, then ran his tongue round the inside of his mouth.
“Open!” said Lizzie, striding across to the bed with a hand mirror.
Morrie seized the mirror and gaped at himself. He saw a much younger face, and raised a hand to feel natural teeth which were firmly rooted in healthy pink gums.
“Yes, Mr Kantorowitz – all that you feel, and see, and think is numbers bumping into each other. You are no longer flesh and blood. You are made of numerically-simulated atoms and molecules. Try to think of yourself as software that once ran on a computer made of living tissue. That program has been transferred into a different sort of engine – a computer too vast to imagine adequately, with an operating system of unfathomable complexity.”
“Okay, okay – but why am I so young, I mean, I must be about –”
“Thirty-eight. And I’m twenty-four, despite dying of a drug overdose at thirty-two. I was not a well woman at the time, and rather too fond of laudanum. Physical age in Sub Prime is determined by the individual’s preferred body image, you see – which is something that’s stored in the hippocampus –”
“It’s part of the brain. And the information from it means that you will keep that body image for the duration of your stay on Sub Prime.”
“How long is that?”
“We don’t know. My personal experience of Sub Prime only began on the 11th of February 1862. But I’ve encountered people who died half a million years ago.”
Morrie’s brain was racing. He was beginning to believe the girl. He thought of meeting up with his mom again, but maybe not so much the old man. Slow down, he told himself. He took a deep breath and asked: “You mean, kicking the bucket is like on Star Trek, when they say ‘Beam me up’? ”
Lizzie smiled. “Not quite. If the Star Trek transporter really worked, it would destroy Captain Kirk completely and create an identical-looking Kirk. But he wouldn’t be the original.”
She stroked his wrist. It didn’t look like she was wearing a bra. Morrie felt a stirring in his pajama pants that hadn’t happened so often over the last couple of years. He shifted slightly in bed and tried to concentrate as Lizzie went on.
“Our ‘souls’ were once electrical impulses; information on central nervous systems constructed of flesh and blood. When that protoplasm dies, the original personality and all its memories are transferred to a new housing along a link from Sub Sub Prime to Sub Prime.”
She stood up. Yep, definitely there was no bra.
“I was in a coma when I transferred,” said Lizzie. “So I never experienced what they call ‘review’. Did you? Did your whole life flash before your eyes?”
“Yeah! I heard about that, and it happened to me,” Morrie said.
“That’s all the conscious brain can register of the high-speed transfer to Sub Prime, just a few flickering memories. The immense riches of the personality and the entire life memory take only a couple of seconds to transmit,” she told him.
Morrie’s erection shrank a little as his mind stretched to take in what Lizzie was telling him. She went on about how a personality can program his or her immediate environment in Sub Prime. How he had already created familiar surroundings for himself, in the shape of the Vegas hotel room. How he could think up clothes at will; food, a car – yes, even that first Ford.
She described how the self-perpetuating programmer that ran Sub Prime accepted only entities possessed of what she called ‘imagination’. They seemed to be largely mammals, especially primates. Two notable exceptions were certain species of octopus and parrot. To populate the Earth of Sub Prime, species below the imagination threshold were recreated from the memory banks of individuals. People had been dreamed up from scratch, said Lizzie, but only by highly-talented artists.
He heard about how life goes on in Sub Prime, how the population tends to gather in cultural and temporal ghettos, occupying their time in ways that fulfill them. Scientists investigate the nature of things. People cure their own diseases and escape their chemical addictions; enjoy numerically tasty food and drink; maintain all simulated normal bodily functions. But there are no pregnancies; that sort of stuff can only happen in the protoplasmic Sub Sub Prime universe.
Lizzie sat down on the bed and took his hand again. That was some perfume she was wearing. She said: “And there is such a thing as love, believe it or not; just as fragile as it is in the place we came from. But it does exist.”
“Talking of love, how about this?” Morrie said, flipping back the bed linen and placing her cool hand on the best boner he’d had in a decade. “What do you think, huh?”
Lizzie gave it a cruel flick with a sharp fingernail that sent it creeping backwards into Morrie’s pajamas.
With a fierce look, she stood up and told him: “Frankly, Mr Kantorowitz, I’ve seen thicker – and felt harder. The quality of my compassion is definitely strained, so I’ll thank you not to be so tiresome. You’re behaving like an adolescent suicide bomber who has been promised a harem of indiarubber concubines. Behave! Or I shall go back to Number 14, and the much more congenial company of Guggums my bullfinch and Miss Dorothea Brooke.”
Morrie’s hands were up in a gesture of surrender throughout her brief tirade. His pecker felt as if it had taken a shot from a BB gun. “Sorry, sorry – my misunderstanding, Lizzie! It’s cool – I promise. I’ll behave. Just don’t get mad, okay?”
Morrie knew he needed her help, so he showed willing. “What about running the country,” he asked. “Is there a legislature?
She was still tight-lipped, like a schoolmarm. “Anarchy is the best word for the system.”
“But… law and order, the cops?
“Whatever runs Sub Prime has a sort of combined inertia effect that makes people behave. There’s no need for money, or jobs you don’t like, because everyone has infinite resources. You should take up reading, now that you’ve got the time. It might help you understand how we live here. Try reading Ubik – that’s by my friend Phil Dick, a most interesting fellow.”
Morrie had a bright idea. “Now just supposing I was hell-bent on suicide. Supposing I dream myself up a big car and drive head-on into other people on a freeway…”
Lizzie laughed. “The system would reset.”
“But what about really evil guys – yeah, what about Adolf Hitler?”
“Oh, him. Well, he bothers no one on Sub Prime. He came through as a nine-year-old, and lives with his mother. She doesn’t object – quite likes it, from what I hear. Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Elisabeth Bathory, Stalin, Vlad the Lad… They’re all rather banal here. So pathetic that revenge would seem superfluous. Napoleon’s hippocampus had him come through as a 14-year old; he paints watercolors and plays with tin soldiers on a green baize table.”
“Moses, Mohammed, Jesus?”
“Not much religion on this plane, I’m afraid. Moses looks after his sheep, Mohammed seems content with his wives. We do have a former Galilean carpenter who was crucified, but he disavows all knowledge.”
Morrie said: “But is there room for all these people? All the guys who’ve passed since the days of the cavemen. They must take up a lot of space.”
“And they do,” said the girl. “But the Sub Prime operating system has a trick – some sort of multi-tasking that makes the world quite elastic. You’ll have to ask someone else about that, I’m afraid. I have no aptitude for natural philosophy.”
Lizzie’s eyes were sparkling again as she went on. “That said, I find Science very stimulating. Some adventurous men want to build a starship to see if Sub Prime is infinite; Isabel Burton’s husband Richard for one. There are any number of theories about the purpose behind the universe and whether we can transfer to Prime.”
“But what about the people back on Earth?” said Morrie. “Why don’t we help them?”
Lizzie shook her head. “The traffic is strictly one-way. We don’t even know about new books and art and films and inventions in Sub Sub Prime until people bring them along as part of a transfer.”
She sat down at the foot of the bed and smiled at Morrie. “I know it’s very early days, Mr Kantorowitz, and it must be frightfully disorienting for you. It was for me. But with a little help, you will settle down.”
“If it’s not a rude question – what did you do for a crust back on Sub-Sub, Lizzie?”
“I was a model.”
“Honey, with your looks, I’m not surprised.”
Lizzie picked up a TV remote and pointed it. She appeared on the screen, wearing an old fashioned outfit, lying flat on her back, soaking wet, floating in some sort of swamp with a dopey expression on her face. Morrie didn’t get it.
“Ophelia. Done by a gentleman from the Brotherhood called Millais – my friend Effie’s husband. It was all the rage. What’s your opinion, Mr Kantorowitz?”
“Well, that’s some oil painting, all right,” said Morrie. “So, do you still model?”
“No. I help people who have just transferred. I find social work more fulfilling than posing, or dabbling in painting and poetry. There is such a plenitude of fulfilling ways to pass eternity. Enough for anyone, I should think. And I have no doubt that you will settle down and find an absorbing occupation for yourself.”
Morrie sat up in bed and pulled the blankets to his waist. It felt strange not to have a belly any more. “Hell, I don’t know anything else besides slots. I mean, like marketing them. Do they have casinos here? They must, if that’s Vegas there outside the window. I see the Strip, so that answers my question. Maybe I can get a job as a slots consultant. What do you think?”
“It’s possible that you’ve created several casinos just by virtue of your arrival, Mr Kantorowitz. But we have no addictive behavior in Sub Prime, so I’m not sure that they would be a commercial success. And gambling for money doesn’t mean much either. You see, we can have everything we wish for without having to earn money, or win it, or steal it. There must be something you would like to do instead.”
Morrie felt dubious. All he knew was slots. Floor layout; yellow brick roads, lighting; slots mix; signage; theming; belly glasses; stepper motors; pay tables; hoppers; candles; bonusing; jurisdiction compliance; player tracking systems.
He had taken a few early false career decisions: sales, retailing, the agency for those stupid BMX kiddie bikes his dumb ass second brother-in-law had got him into. But slots made a lot of sense – especially after the Telnaus patent in the eighties brought in eproms and virtual reels and wide area progressives. Yeah, and good crowd-pleasing shit like volatility. He was on a roll with slots – never looked back. Well-liked by a lot of big guys in the industry; on first-name terms with Mr Steve Wynn. Morrie was a respected figure in the universe he had just quit.
Lizzie was talking again. “Very few of us carry on with our former pursuits on Sub Prime, with the exception of certain historians.” She picked up the TV remote. “Let me show you what some of my friends are doing, it might suggest a pastime you could enjoy in your new life.”
A vast gathering appeared on the screen. Morrie saw potted palms and fiddlers in tuxedos.
“You could join a club,” said Lizzie. “This is the Titanic Passengers Association – 1600-odd members. Some of them are very agreeable people. But there are smaller clubs, like the so-called Birthday Gang. Geniuses, every one of them. Will and Miguel started it; they arrived simultaneously on 23 April 1616. François is also a member – such a naughty man! He used to call Sub Prime “le grand peut-être”.
Noticing Morrie’s expression, she said: “Oh, I do apologize, Mr Kantorowitz. How discourteous of me to assume. What I said was French for ‘the great perhaps’. In a jokey mood we English speakers refer to his saying as ‘the grand potato’. That’s what the French sounds like to our ears. It was actually a jest by another member of the club, Sirin. Let me see if I can find him…” She clicked the remote. “Yes! Look, that’s Sirin – the young chap in the passenger seat.”
Morrie shook his head. “What in the hell kind of cockamamie auto is that?”
“Superb, isn’t it? A 1932 Hispano-Suiza with tulipwood coachwork. That’s Sirin’s wife Véra at the wheel. He hates driving, so she chauffeurs him everywhere.”
“Good looking girl. Listen, should I know these people?”
“That’s a possibility, Mr Kantorowitz. He’s called Sirin now, but he was Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita.”
“I heard of that,” Morrie said. “Some dirty book about an underage hooker, right?”
“I should try to avoid that terminology,” said Lizzie. “Especially if you meet the lady in question. She’s my age; an absolute poppet, and very special, because she was created in Sub Prime. She’s known as Mrs Dolly Schiller, and she’s often with Sirin and Véra. By the way, he’s given up writing. These days he researches evolution – mainly mimicry – and he designs his own butterflies. Accelerates their breeding numerically to see what happens. Charles, Julian and Gregor come to help out occasionally.”
Morrie was feeling a lot better. The insult to his dick head had improved to a dull throb. He said, “I apologize, Lizzie. I sincerely apologize for being out of line. It’s all so new here. I didn’t mean to be such a jerk. No hard feelings?”
She gave him a dazzling smile and shook her head.
“And call me Morrie, won’t you?”
“As you wish, Morrie. Now, if you’re ready to move out of this hotel room, we can venture a little farther afield and introduce you to your new surroundings. Have lunch with some of my friends; go for a drive, perhaps.”
“Right, right,” said Morrie. “But let me take a shower first. Then I want to dream myself up an outfit, okay?” He sprang out of bed and bounced on the balls of his feet like a boxer, spun round and disappeared through the arch that led to the bathroom.
Lizzie sat in one of the easy chairs and pointed the remote again.
Outside the hotel she saw a pink 1957 Cadillac convertible with the top down. Its tailfins were almost as high as the wraparound windscreen. The big empty car was still quivering on its springs, and someone had left the driver’s door ajar.
She depressed another key on the remote, and tuned in to the hotel interior. Lizzie saw a woman come flouncing along the corridor on scarlet heels by Christian Louboutin. She had a matching clutch bag and a red, clinging bouclé mini-dress; the unbuttoned mink was flying open. Big solitaire, pout, botox brow, smudgy eyes. A bouncy platinum bob topped off the overall effect.
Lizzie heard Morrie imitating Sinatra in the shower, and snapped the screen image off.
He came through with wet hair, in a white toweling bathrobe, and bowed.
“Tah-dah!” said Morrie, and turned in a circle to show off the garment. “Get it? Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair, okay? What do you think?”
Then Morrie heard the knock on the door; and from outside, slightly muffled, a toxic whine he recognized instantly.
“Morrie, you’re in there. Coming to get you!” it said.
“Holy shit! That’s my third wife, the bitch. Where’s the fire escape, Lizzie? Jesus, is there no way out of this? Lizzie, what do I do, for chrissakes?
Lizzie just looked at him.
The voice outside said “You owe me, Morrie – you piece of shit!”
Morrie’s heart was pounding, and he said, “I get it! This is Heaven, okay. But it’s Hell as well, ain’t it, Lizzie?”
Lizzie said nothing. But her golden eyes were full of an infinite tenderness.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Fábio Fernandes, an SFF writer living in São Paulo, Brazil. Fábio has several stories published in online venues in the US, the UK, New Zealand, Portugal, Romania, and Brazil. He also contributed to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s “Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded”, and has a story coming up soon in Lavie Tidhar’s “The Apex Book of World SF Vol. 2″.
This is the story’s first publication.
Deadly Quiet on the Western Front
“What did you do before the war?” asked the soldier in the trench.
“Was?” the corporal mumbled, distracted and disgruntled.
“What did you do before coming here, man?” the soldier asked again.
The corporal pretended he hadn’t heard the question. First, because the intimacy his subordinate showed him was very bothersome. And also, because he had more to do besides listening to the man babbling: binoculars in hand, he tried to look across the wasteland separating the two large areas of trenches. He couldn’t see a thing, and it was still light. When night fell upon that no man’s land, the hell of the bombs would torment them again.
“I was a painter,” he finally deigned to answer, still without looking at his brother-in-arms. But the soldier was gone.
So much the better. He wasn’t in the mood for idle chatter. And he needed the rest of the light to sketch.
He had almost added he had been a painter in Vienna. But that wasn’t important.
Unlike the other brothers-in-arms, the corporal wasn’t German but Austrian. Not that it mattered in the least: both countries shared the same language and practically the same culture.
The problem was in the practically.
Vienna was considered an enlightened capital, one of the greatest cultural centers of Europe, comparable to Paris. Its cafés and cabarets reunited the cream of the crop of the Viennese intelligentsia: poets, actors, musicians, painters.
All degenerate people.
The fact was, he didn’t like to talk to his fellow soldiers because of his temper. He couldn’t disguise his accent, typical of the suburbs of Vienna. The Wiener Vorstadtdialekt had always been a hurdle in life. More than a hurdle; a veritable curse.
The corporal was ashamed to be Austrian.
For him, Austria was a minor country. Germany was what really mattered, with its thousand-year culture, its powerful, vigorous music, its Germanic history, the Rheingold. How had Vienna contributed to the history of music, for instance? Mozart?
You didn’t want to get him started on Mozart. Little degenerate man. Confusing tunes. Too many notes. To him, Wagner was good. Yes, Wagner. Parsifal. Now that was music all right!
What about painting, then? Klimt, with his ill-proportioned women over geometric backgrounds with no meaning whatsoever? The paintings with biblical themes were passable, he conceded, but the final result, oh, the final result!
And what about Schiele? Who the hell was Egon Schiele, mein Gott? Painting sick women, syphilitic dancers, corpse-like whores, showing unashamedly their pudenda? Outrageous! And to think the little fellow had been accepted by the Akademie der Bildenden Künste!
The corporal’s application had been refused by the Akademie almost at the same time.
Not long ago – around 1906 – he had been selling his paintings in the cold streets of Vienna. Or at least trying to.
Nobody ever bought a single painting of his.
If the corporal had liked Van Gogh, he could have compared himself to the Dutch master. Not in quality or even technique, but in the fact that in years and years he never managed to sell a single painting.
But the truth was that he hated Van Gogh.
And all the Impressionists. Monet, Gauguin, Seurat. Especially Seurat! What kind of nonsense was that pointillism?
When the war was over, the corporal would follow the advice of the Direktor of the Akademie. He would be an architect. No modern art for him, thank you very much.
Alas, the new age didn’t seem to acknowledge the great painters of the last generation, like Feuerbach, Waldmüller, and Rudolf von Alt. Those men, the corporal thought, oh, they knew how to paint! The beautiful watercolors of von Alt, the living colors of Waldmüller, so realistic!
The corporal was a most realistic man. It was impossible to fight in a war and not be realistic, or at least so he thought. (The corporal was a most opinionated man.) He was well aware that he didn’t have an ounce of the talent of von Alt or Waldmüller. It doesn’t matter, he thought: destiny had other things in store for him. If he couldn’t be a painter, he would be an architect. And he would be an architect of great things.
But first things first. The thin shroud of light over the moonscape of Ypres offered to the corporal a phantasmagoria, something worthy of Gustave Doré. He thought Doré’s engravings for Don Quixote impressive works of art.
Using a tiny piece of charcoal, the corporal sketched. And planned for the future.
The corporal was, above all, an optimist.
If you happened to watch him from a distance, always serious and withdrawn, you certainly wouldn’t say that. But only an optimist would think everything would turn out right in the middle of an all-out war; the War to End All Wars.
(An optimist or a madman. But you couldn’t get caught saying that to his face, or he would go absolutely crazy. A raving lunatic, indeed.)
The corporal fulfilled his duties with the utmost seriousness. Maybe even beyond the call of duty.
Two years before, in October 1916, he had been wounded in France. Grenade shrapnel in his left leg during the Battle of the Somme. Nothing serious, but he was given a medal. He thought of refusing it – after all, it was his duty, nothing more – but you simply can’t shrug off a decoration from your fatherland.
They also gave him a bonus. He got a transfer to Germany and was stationed there for five months.
The worst five months of his life.
He had no family, no home to return to; he didn’t know what to do: it was the first time he had stayed away from the front in two years of war. His recovery was quick enough, but they insisted on an extended leave anyway. The corporal’s protests were useless. He was compelled to obey.
He spent part of that time visiting historical and architectural monuments in Berlin. And dreaming of, one day, himself being counted among the creators of such magnificent stuff. Sketching the Doric columns of the Brandenburg Gate and glimpsing the occasional dirigible transporting materiel – probably guns, and the new mechanical golems made by those Viennese steel manufacturers, the Wittgensteins – as near to the front as it dared.
Scheissköpfe, all of those Imperial Army Generals! How could they think that Jewish automata could replace real Menschen, real men like him?
As soon as he had fully recovered from his injuries, he was sent to Munich. To work in a supply division.
He almost had a hysterical fit. He was a man of action, not of idling around.
He had petitioned the War Office to return to the front as soon as possible. Now he was back in his true home, the List Regiment. Doing what he did best: running. The corporal acted as a messenger between the regimental staff and the outposts. It best suited his surly, solitary temperament.
Anyhow, the regiment was his home because he liked the pure, Spartan environment of the battle front. There he could revel in the hardships of the field, and the few moments of meditation and contemplation of the landscape.
That was more than he could ever have wanted. A fine home? A family? That he didn’t care for. Deep down, the corporal knew very well what his so-called brothers-in-arms thought of him.
No matter how hard he tried (and he tried very hard), he couldn’t disguise the fact that he was and would always be an Austrian. At the end of the day, in spite of being united by the same goal (temporarily, it was good to remember) – defeating France – the Germans never forgot their class system, a division similar to the complex network of castes in India, in the corporal’s opinion.
For the corporal, however, the entire situation only existed because of the degeneration brought about by that mixture. And the Jews were to blame for that.
The Jews were an ugly, impure people. They were a riff-raff of criminals and communists. The problem was that the German government did not turn away the Jews who wanted to fight for Germany on the battlefield. But that didn’t mean the corporal had to like them.
And he was quite sure that his Jewish superiors had barred his promotion to Sergeant First Class.
It doesn’t matter, he thought at meal time, eating bread and jelly, wiping the spatters with his hand to avoid smearing them even more over his uniform, already stained with mud and soot. To be a corporal was better. He didn’t want to be a leader. Not for now, at least.
One day, the war would be over. And, when that happened, he wanted to be part of the new order. Any little thing would do, since he would be able to help restore Germany to its position of prominence on the world scene. Deutschland über alles, he thought while eating his bread and jelly and petting the dog that rested at his feet.
He smiled, savoring the sweet irony. He despised any kind of intermingling of blood, but the dog was just a mongrel that had come from nowhere one day and had stayed by his side.
He called her Fox. She was a smart bitch, and could run almost as fast as he. A fine companion, she was. Better than his degenerate regiment colleagues.
The year 1917 was a particularly troublesome one for the List Regiment. Its members fought in the trenches on the French side of Flanders, in the Battle of Arras in the spring and in the Chemin des Dames in the fall. The corporal was one of the most vigorous fighters, and showed such a lack of restraint on the battlefield that he won even more medals.
That, of course, was of no consequence to the corporal. What he really wanted, in his heart of hearts, was to win the war. Only Germany triumphant would make him really happy, and free to realize his dream.
From time to time he received letters; never from his sister, with whom he had lost contact years before. One of his few correspondents was a painter who was also fighting in the War, Ernst Schmidt. In their letters, Schmidt and the corporal talked a lot about politics and the future of Germany. In their exchange, the corporal mentioned to Schmidt his recent interest in politics. After all, there were too many architects already. Of course, maybe he wouldn’t be able to give up architecture just like that; he needed to survive, natürlich, to earn his daily pumpernickel (something he had not always managed during his time as a painter in Vienna, and the memory of hunger still haunted him). But he would enter politics anyway, no matter what.
The corporal never gave up. He had the utmost contempt for several of his regimental colleagues. Not brothers-in-arms, no – he could never use such an expression, particularly for those who had families. Because those were the first to come up with reasons to be discharged from service, on the slightest pretext.
Not he, no. He had no family. And, even if he had, he wouldn’t give up his chance to fight for his country. His Heimat! No excuses for him, no sir. He would follow the call of duty to the bitter end.
The year 1918 was even better for Germany. In March, the Reich imposed on Russia the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and by April had virtually annihilated the Romanian defenses. The mechanical golems had been particularly helpful with that, even the corporal admitted (though grudgingly).
Things were so good that the List Regiment easily beat the Frenchmen in Montdidier-Noyon and, soon after that, in Soisson and Reims.
That was why nobody expected the mortar strike.
When the bomb exploded in his regiment’s tent, the corporal was leaving to get his dog, which stubbornly ran off around the trenches just at lunch time.
He was by the entrance to the tent when all hell broke loose. The last thought that crossed his mind was: I must punish that bitch, Scheisse!
Then he blacked out.
Only the first half of 1918 had been good for Germany.
The bloody battles, to which the soldiers gave themselves body and soul, were utterly destructive for the Army of the Reich. In early August, with insufficient soldiers and no food, which was even worse, the Germans in desperation stopped attacking. This gave the allied powers the chance to make a counter-strike.
So successful a counter-strike that, by the end of September, the German Chief-of-Staff, General Ludendorff, proposed an armistice, offering the surrender of Germany.
But not even Ludendorff knew the Germans’ ultra-secret weapon.
Gustav Noske did.
A member of the Sozial-Demokrat Partei, the German Social-Democratic party at the beginning of the century, Noske was a hardline military officer. Just before the War, he had become a member of the Reichstag, supporting a pact between Left and Right so that the country could face the harshness of war.
All bullshit, of course.
What Noske really wanted was power, whatever the cost. And power he got, with a new medical technique which went beyond the boundaries not only of imagination, but also of ethics and convention. After some political and corporate string-pulling, Noske created as early as 1917 a special group of fighters, the first military – and secret – force of the Deutsches Reich: the “Freikorps” (“freedom fighters”, or, in a more literal and less ironic translation, the “free bodies”).
The first group was a band of de-cerebrated soldiers. Literally de-cerebrated: only those brain-damaged and thus considered officially dead could be part of the Freikorps.
It was the first application of the Faust Auferstehung Methode on a large scale, outside research and development laboratories. If the French horse-eaters and the American doughboys were still fighting and resisting the mustard gas and even the mechanical golems – which were huge and sturdy machines, but, truth be told, very clumsy and prone to defects more often than not – nothing less than resurrected (and therefore unkillable) German soldiers could stop these Allies now.
But then, it was a dirty war.
At the cold chrome operating table, the German surgeons don’t stop to think: thinking is not their job; they are not there to think. Let others do that, while drinking Schnapps and eating Sauerkraut in the old, gay bars of München and Berlin. Long may they continue, is all one of the surgeons can think as he is stricken by a sudden desire to drink a large Glas Bier and look into the beautiful blue eyes of his fiancée, who waits for him in the Bavaria of his youth.
Not now, however. Now the doctor must concentrate and perform the surgery. It’s an experimental procedure, but one already performed successfully on animals. The next logical step, of course, was bound to be with humans, sooner or later – and war is always a good operating theater, a test tube, a Petri dish for the souls of men. These, naturally, are just metaphors: for the surgeons, there is no such thing as a soul. What does exist, however, is the mind. Without the mind, there is no life.
Therefore, the corporal who is on the operating table before them – he and several others caught by the shrapnel from the bomb that destroyed almost the whole of the List Regiment – is dead. And, if a soldier never usually has a say in anything, obliged to do whatever he is ordered, what then of a dead soldier?
A mere technicality. The soldier on the bed is not quite dead. His veins pulse; his heart pumps blood; his muscles react when stimulated by electrical impulses.
Only the brain remains dead.
But the body, ah, the body – is alive!
How strange is fate: if the corporal now being operated on on the cold chrome table had stayed inside the tent with the others, he would have been blasted into oblivion. Instant, utter, irretrievable death. On the other hand, had he taken just a few steps more, and distanced himself, say, eight, nine feet away, he would have had no more than a few burns, nothing serious, and would have been back on the battlefield in no time at all – or, with luck, could have obtained medical leave and a much deserved rest at home, where most certainly his loved ones would be eagerly waiting for him.
But that was not to be.
A piece of shrapnel penetrated the corporal’s frontal lobe, rendering him completely unconscious. He probably never even felt it.
Now there he was, his mind totally erased. The metal fragment had lobotomized the corporal’s brain.
The surgeon doesn’t think of what awaits the soldier if the surgery is successful. After all, things could always be worse. For one who loves and cherishes life, there is no fate worse than death.
The corporal doesn’t think any more. Thinking is not his job; he’s not there to think.
If asked, he won’t be able to answer. He can’t remember anything. Not even how to speak. For the corporal, everything is nebulous, everything is mist.
He has no other memory than the present moment, and the present moment is this: a tall, square-jawed man, yelling at him something he can’t understand.
The man points to him, and to others who, just like him, are sitting in folding chairs inside a tent, boards with faces painted on them. After some more yelling, the man opens a flap in the tent and shouts to someone outside. Other men bring another man inside, similar but different. The color of the mist surrounding him is different.
The corporal notices that the color of the man’s clothes is different from the color of the clothing that he and all the others are wearing.
The yelling man is still yelling. He gestures with his hand. The corporal doesn’t understand what the man wants. Until the man grabs a long, heavy thing with another thing pointy and shiny at its end, and shoves it into the corporal’s hands. He points to the man with the different color mist, and then to the pointy shiny thing now in the corporal’s hands. He begins to spear the belly of the different man with his fingers.
Then the corporal gets it.
He lunges forward and pushes the pointy shiny thing he’s carrying into the belly of the different man. The different man screams a thing that the corporal doesn’t understand. The corporal smells a very smelly smell. The different man falls to the ground.
The yelling man opens the flap again. He pulls the corporal by the sleeve of his jacket. Outside, a line of other yelling men forms a corridor that hurriedly pushes the corporal and the soldiers, everyone now carrying the same heavy things with the pointy shiny thing at the end. At the end of the corridor, a ladder. The man at the foot of the ladder shouts and points to the top, to whatever there is beyond the ladder.
It’s a small ladder. The corporal climbs its rungs with some difficulty because of the heavy thing in his arms, but he does well. And he gets to see what’s at the top of the ladder: a field of dead, dark earth. No plants, no sign of life.
But, in the distance, the corporal sees something.
Mists of a different color.
Now he knows what he must do.
Grenades and mortars fall all around, showering the corporal with black earth and body parts. The ones who don’t lose too much – an arm here, a leg there, half a torso gone but their heart still beating fine, an eye, ach, what is an eye after all? – keep on going inexorably.
Then, when the undead soldiers are close to the enemy trenches, the machine guns start spitting fire.
The corporal feels impacts on his legs, arms, shoulders, belly, face. He feels his body wet. He smells the same smelly smell of the different man when he stabbed him.
But nothing matters now. In fact, as soon as the corporal is reminded of these things, he forgets them.
The only thing that matters is the different colored mist. And what he was just taught to do to it.
Inside the tent, the sergeant in charge of the special attack group receives the report of the charge on the enemy trenches.
A total success. Every single Englishman killed.
On their side, no losses among the soldiers. That is, among the living ones of the second platoon.
Among the undead soldiers, as they are already beginning to be called by the superstitious and ignorant Army riff-raff, things are quite different.
Of the twenty-seven soldiers who served as guinea pigs for the experiment, nine got back to the German trenches unharmed. Twelve suffered considerable damage (loss of limbs, mostly), but the field doctors especially sent by the secret project guarantee that, after blood transfusions and replacement of the lost limbs with cheap prosthetic ones, they will be able to fight again in a couple of days with the same efficiency as they did today.
Six soldiers were deemed completely unrecoverable. Among them, the leader of the squad, the corporal wounded in the mortar bombing a few days earlier. The sergeant met him once: a bad-mouthed, bad-breathed fellow, who used to talk to himself. He had already seemed a lunatic even before the accident, Gott in Himmel!
But at least the son of a bitch had taken a lot of lives to hell with him. Judging by the report, Corporal Adolf Hitler was responsible for a veritable massacre in the enemy trenches before his body finally hit the ground.
Ach! the sergeant thinks to himself. War is war; one bastard more, one bastard less, what’s the fucking difference? A mediocre Scheisskopf like this Hitler would never have survived much longer anyway.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Crystal Koo. Crystal’s latest publications include short stories in First Stop Fiction, The Other Room, and Corvus Magazine, while forthcoming publications will be in Philippine Speculative Fiction 7 and Lauriat: An Anthology of Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction. Crystal was born and raised in Manila and has also lived in Beijing and Sydney. She is currently working in Hong Kong, where she has been involved in independent theater and film productions and a jazz band. She maintains a blog at http://swordskill.wordpress.com.
This is the story’s first publication.
Waiting with Mortals
The neon in Hong Kong is like the past, an image of blurred points of light and haste and shallow focus where the only certainty is a vivid experience eventually misremembered.
In the morning the neon tubing is a tired present, dirty and impotent. Like tracing paper laid over the woodcut that is the city, the ghosts sit on unoccupied café tables, jaywalk, and wait with mortals for the double-decker buses that sway in the wind like sunflower heads.
Squeezed next to a small arcade is a splinter of stairs leading underground. Businessmen and sales clerks mill outside, numbered stubs in their hands. The receptionist in front of the stairs is speaking into her headset, telling the manager there are so many people waiting that he might need to bring the extra tables out. I walk past everyone lining up and take the stairs down. No one stops me.
In the teahouse, a real estate agent slurps up sour-and-spicy noodles from a bowl next to a small plate of thick slices of radish cake. To me the smell of food is blunt but haunting, a lost luxury. Waiters walk through the ghosts lounging by the kitchen window. The ghosts and I don’t know each other and they glare at me: Don’t stare like you don’t watch mortals eat too, what else are you here for? I follow a middle-aged mortal waitress in uniform, Sin Yi printed on her name tag, as she carries dirty bowls into the kitchen.
No other ghosts here. Sin Yi dumps the bowls into the sink and tells a boy to clean it up. She plays coy with the tall, musky cook with the dirty apron, saying he wouldn’t leave his mainlander wife for her, would he? and goes to the toilet outside with a bag from one of the cupboards. When she returns, she’s out of her uniform and dressed in a patterned tunic two sizes too small, adjusting the strap of her bag. I slide my fingers into her ears and her nostrils and hike my foot onto her right hip. She quivers and I tear into her.
I slam her consciousness into a corner before it knows what’s going on and it goes immediately to sleep. The body is tired and heavy. I stretch my limbs to fit hers, careful not to rip her apart. Her skin covers me with the earthly warmth of wool, solidifying the ground beneath my feet, and it feels like I have surfaced from underwater to find myself in a different teahouse with brighter colors and ruder people. Everything is sharper. Cheap porcelain bowls crash, gossip ricochets against walls tacked with printouts of the day’s menu, and the dish boy reeks of onions.
Sin Yi is bigger inside than she looks. I sink my head into feathery dreams of being a news anchorwoman, and bump against hard little notes about this month’s alimony. In curiosity, I try to find a picture of the ex-husband, but a fraying bag of tears gets in the way and I avoid it.
The cook with the dirty apron asks the waitress if she’s all right – I get her to say she is. The cook tells her to go home and get some rest. A waiter carries a steaming plate of pork and chives dumplings in front of me and it aches not to reach out and scarf the dumplings down.
I steer my waitress to the metal door at the corner of the kitchen, and up the stairs that lead to a small lot above ground where the garbage bins are.
J.G. Ip is sprawled on the concrete floor on her side, wearing a loose v-neck sweater over her leggings. Her nose is bleeding. Her mouth is pursed, as though she’s sucking on an invisible cigar, and she’s slowly exhaling and licking her lips. Her eyes are closed and she rocks herself feverishly like a buoy in the harbor.
There’s no difference between her breath and the ghost. The ghost streams out of her nostrils and her mouth, reconstituting himself as J.G. steadies her breaths, keeping in time with her rocking motion. The blood drips on her lip. I wait until J.G. finishes exhaling and the ghost’s face is a little clearer. I don’t recognize him. He looks old enough to be my father and his face is mottled, as if he had died of liver disease. J.G.’s face has taken up the same splotches he has, down to the dark mark below his ear. He picks himself up and watches uncomfortably as the splotches on J.G. start to fade. It takes a while and for a moment even I think they’re going to stick on her face.
The old ghost leaves the other half of the money next to her hand. He hovers around her for a moment until he decides he doesn’t know what to do with her, and turns around to sidestep me, the blank-looking waitress too mortal to see him, and leaves by the metal door.
J.G. vomits. A yellow-orange geyser overflows onto her neck.
The waitress has a pack of wet tissues in her handbag. I take a few and start wiping J.G.’s neck.
Hold your hair for me, I tell her in the waitress’ voice and gather the vomit into the little dip of J.G.’s clavicle before scooping it up.
J.G. squints against the light in the same lazy way she did the last time I had seen her drunk and asleep. Her face looks more like herself now than the old ghost’s. She looks straight at Sin Yi and says, Hi, Ben.
They’re after you, I tell her gently.
She had fallen asleep in the pot of a large houseplant in a hotel five years ago. We had been in a small bar across the road earlier, obnoxious and not supposed to be there. J.G. had been seventeen, I had been sixteen. That night I had walked out of an argument with my father and joined her in a cheap chain bar.
She worked part-time selling cosmetics at the mall to help with her family’s bills. She had just finished her shift and still had little blooms of rouge on the back of her hand next to a whitish cigarette burn. She ordered a slew of drinks.
I’ll have the same, I said, trying to look like I understood what I was getting into.
An old American rock song played softly through the speakers, and J.G. was dressed in a tight blouse and a denim miniskirt. The mascara around her eyes was thick with adolescent drama.
The bartender had given us diluted swill but we were drunk in fifteen minutes. A responsible waitress dressed down the bartender and threw us back out into the summer night. I saw the gleam in J.G’s bloodshot eyes, a cold quick light, like a flash of the sun on someone’s glasses. She was intoxicating in the darkness, beautiful and free from any obligation to be anything but herself.
Then she had thrown up. After I helped her clean up, she stroked my face and said, There will never be another boy like you, Ben.
I wanted to know what she meant. I wanted to know if she recognized I had something the seniors at school who paid for her cab rides and the perfume men who stole samples for her from the ladies’ section would never have. I wanted to take her to a kebab place nearby, where it was clean and well-lit and I knew the owner and the Nepalese staff and the pungent, gamey meat, and I could impress her with my familiarity with all of them. Instead she dashed across the road between two shrieking cars. I was close to vomiting myself, and the alcohol had stuffed up my nose. I barely followed her into the slightly damp lobby of the small hotel, where I found her at the reception desk.
How weird would it be if we got a room, she asked me.
Should we, I said, the alcohol making me bold.
She rolled her eyes and smiled. Don’t be an idiot, she said, you’re drunk. I didn’t know what the smile meant, and I covered my humiliation by mirroring her smile back.
I sat on the sofa but she insisted on climbing into the potted plant next to it. She stuck her feet into the mulch and sat on the rim of the gigantic clay pot. I remember furiously summoning hopes, schemes, impossibilities, dreams of courage, before falling asleep. Two days later, the apartment where my family and I lived caught fire at three in the morning.
J.G. is twenty-two now and hosting ghosts.
* * *
People are stupid.
I don’t want to listen to this, I say to my father.
You’re turning into one of those people, he tells me. My father had always been a big man with a face people call pugnacious, though it could be just them projecting it onto him. I don’t think so. A cop’s postured violence is a stereotype, but that doesn’t make it any less true for my father. Even when he had worn pajamas he retained that aggression reserved wholly for people who had no intention of provoking him.
People are stupid, he continues. They’re not happy because they don’t let themselves be. Suck it up, like the rest of us, and keep up.
We’re in an empty parking lot close to the station. This is where my father and his friends used to smoke during breaks when he was alive. When he speaks, he addresses the news magazine in front of him instead of me. Property prices are up again, and there’s a new scandal of capitalistic heartlessness on the mainland. This is one of the days when he says something about the general spinelessness of people, so his intended audience can contradict him and start a fight. This habit has become worse since the fire. Sometimes I think it’s his way of trying to feel alive again, the closest he can get to the buzz that cigarettes used to give him.
Tuesday is his day off from the force’s ghost division. He sits on a big rubber tire, the glossy news magazine on top of a cardboard box, and turns the page only when the breeze comes because he’s afraid someone would notice, but he’s too proud to read it indoors with no mortal around. We pretend it’s just the pace of his reading. I wonder if he appreciates my never calling him out.
How’s the hosting case? I ask.
We’ve found out it’s a girl, he says. She’s crazy.
A lot of ghosts like it, I say. They get to eat, drink, have sex, smoke, talk to mortals. Fix some old business. Stuff I heard.
Perverts. Ghosts who can’t suck it up. Are you hanging around them?
It’s consensual. People have done worse for money.
If she doesn’t do it for money, she’s really perverted. Maybe she likes blanking out and having us play with her body like she’s a puppet. Some kind of bondage, domination, whatever trash they call it now. Disgusting.
The breeze flips a page for my father and he says, If that’s the kind of rough-housing she likes, we’re getting the old boys at the mortal division to cuff her soon, so we’ll find out how far she goes.
I tremble. How soon?
Ah Kit’s going in as a client. Lucky bastard. The things we’d like to do inside her. Are you interested? Is that why you’re asking all this?
He looks at me hopefully. He thinks he’s found some kind of frightful common ground with me. That he assumes I’d have anything to do with the plans he and his friends have for J.G. makes me recoil. I don’t say anything.
There’s always an open position for you in the force, he reminds me. Tell me when you’re ready to be an adult. Ready to get off the streets and make yourself useful.
He probably thinks he’s being tactful. I squash the old panic I feel at my father’s disappointment in me. My father has always tried to recruit me, dead or alive, and I’ve always managed to refuse. I’m not a child, I say, feeling like one.
It’s not the same rules here, I say, wanting to wrestle the laughter out of his mouth. You don’t need a job or an education. None of that can help you cross over. They don’t matter.
He says, I have a job making sure that sick people don’t harm other people who want to do right with their lives. Are you saying I don’t matter?
You like your job, that’s different. Maybe that would help you but it doesn’t work the same way for everyone.
Ma didn’t have much of an education and she barely had a job. She crossed over the same night.
If my father had been mortal he would have gone red. He doesn’t like being reminded she beat him to it. I was surprised she had crossed over in the first place, being married to my father till her death, until I found out later that earlier that day she had gone to legal aid to file for divorce. I don’t blame her. My father would arrest me on the spot just for knowing J.G.
You’re a criminal, J.G. tells me, nudging the crook of my arm with her toe. Do you know what forced entry can get you?
I’m in the body of a man only a little older than her, his face clean-shaven and sharp. He fits me like a glove and I want to keep him and his apartment, with J.G. and me stretched out on the L-shaped suede couch looking at a view of the racecourse.
We can live here, I had told J.G. I can take him to his small new office with its increasing share prices and Swedish furniture. This guy’s rich, you wouldn’t have to host anymore. It’s been okay so far but you shouldn’t push your body. Ghosts leave a lot of residue. You can stop now.
This was when she had called me a criminal, and I sensed the nervous retort behind her words. I was so close to her I could have traced the pink shell of her ear with my fingers and put my lips into it and asked if my death has made her miss me. Her eyes are duller now from having ghosts use them everyday, and her skin looks bloated and wan, like a drowned body. I grab her foot to massage her ankles and she lets me.
I don’t think Ah Wai would like it, she says.
Wai is her fixer. He hosts her clients for a few minutes when they negotiate. He gets fifteen percent. I don’t know if he will like her living with me or having my hands all over her foot or not. I’ve never met him but with a body like this I feel I can take on anybody.
Do you know his name? she asks.
His. She taps the hand I’m using to weave through her toes. Then she pulls her foot away and grabs the wallet sticking out of my back pocket. Brian Kwok, she reads from his ID, then shows me his symmetrical face, saying, He’s cute, even in pictures.
I draw J.G. closer to me, taking her by the waist, but she rolls away to the other side of the couch.
You’ve changed, she says, lip-smiling.
I’m Brian Kwok now.
What happened to the waitress?
I got out of her in the toilet and left her a paracetamol. She was sick all over the place.
Do you like it? Getting in people that way? Is that why you do it?
I don’t know if she’s mocking or provoking me. I answer, How else would I be able to talk to you and keep you from getting caught?
She angles her head with the lip-smile still on. Wouldn’t it be funny if I hosted you? she asks. Can you imagine that? When was the last time you tasted food, Ben?
I don’t answer. The question cunningly strafes between an invitation and an innocent new topic. I don’t know why she’s asking this. It’s the hotel five years ago all over again.
She says, It isn’t true that girl ghosts are more curious. They leave you alone and do what they came to do. But the guys come into you and they run through everything in you like a bulldozer. Frantic. Almost desperate.
J.G. makes an outward, splaying movement with her hands. It takes a few minutes with girls but with guys, I black out immediately, she says. Like they just can’t wait to look at you from the inside. I like that about them.
She carefully picks a spot on the couch where a little wine has spilled, not looking at me. Her movements are perfect, almost like a performance put on for my benefit.
I’m not doing it for the money, she says. I like it when they take you. You don’t have to decide, you don’t have to be in control. You take a break from the world and let someone else do your living. Your body becomes someone else’s and there’s no responsibility, no making mistakes, because it’s not you, it’s someone else with their own plans and you’re just there for the ride. A girl I had last month, she died on her fifteenth birthday. She had wanted to join her friends in the city but her parents wouldn’t let her out past midnight. She climbed out the apartment window and tied a bit of rope to her waist and tried to lower herself down. The rope around the window frame snapped and she fell from the fourth floor. She goes in me, and the next thing I know I’m waking up from a table in McDonalds with cheeseburger in my mouth and a milkshake in my hand. Tasted wonderful. Everything tastes better in a burger wrapper. Don’t you miss that?
J.G’s laugh is phlegmy, and she turns away to wipe the spittle with the side of her palm. I realize she looks different from a certain angle. When I don’t see the eagle-like cut of her eyes, her face looks vague and undefined, like a composite of dead people’s lives and faces. The contours of her nose and her cheekbones have blurred into each other.
You need me, I tell her, while thinking, I need you to need me.
You’re a sweet, special boy, Ben.
She faces me and looks like her roguish, pixie self again. She says, I’d miss you if you crossed over.
She gives me a little air kiss as her cellphone rings. When she sees who it is, she mouths to me, Ah Wai, and goes to the balcony to answer him.
In the shock of our first few days as ghosts, my father had lost his belligerence and had grown depressed. He became open and frank, which made me uncomfortable, and one time he sat me down and told me he’d heard that the difficulty of crossing over wasn’t in the resolution of whatever issue was keeping you in the living world, but in finding out what the issue was. Forced entry was the easiest way to get started finishing your business; it happened more frequently than the ghost police admitted, and most of them did it themselves. But pinning down the right issue was like trying to figure out what was causing you to keep dreaming that your teeth were falling out, and most people forced entry and ended up wasting their time resolving a minor problem because they didn’t know themselves well enough or, more frequently, didn’t want to admit they had made a huge mistake at some point in their lives.
I was a little overcome by the warmth in my father’s voice, and didn’t know what to make of it, so I just listened and nodded. But as months passed and he was reinstated to the police force in his new position as a constable in the ghost division and started coaxing me to join him, he forgot this, and returned to being the father I had grown up with.
J.G. doesn’t return to Brian Kwok’s apartment the next day. Hurt, I leave the young entrepreneur retching into his kitchen sink and decide not to have anything to do with J.G. while I try to find out what it is she wants from other people that I can’t give her.
I break into the body of a university senior with arms roped with muscles and take him for the ride I never got to have. We go to parties, sleep with sophomore girls, drink and share a few joints until he passes out and I’m stuck in his dead weight of a body, getting bored, so I enter another student with a matinee idol’s face and a higher tolerance for alcohol, and make him go to the claustrophobic bar area downtown. I put words in his mouth to chat up a forty-something Australian woman from an international insurance company, tell her jokes about the ghosts of Hong Kong, which she is too drunk to find in bad taste, and we do it in the toilet and later again in her apartment, where I leave them both.
Even at the height of his sexual gratification, I don’t cross over. I move into the apartment of an IT consultant to wash away the stale scent of overspent passion. I find a small space on the ledge of their bay windows and sit there with my legs up, watching his family with the protective silence of a cat. Every afternoon the eight-year-old comes back from school and plays video games. When the shadows grow longer the maid turns the stove on and sizzles the pan with sunflower oil and garlic, humming a pop song over a plate of marinating prawns. Then the father comes back home, flings his briefcase at the sofa, and goes to the master bedroom to undress. He plays a little with his son on the felt-balled rug before he turns on the news on the TV. His wife returns from the education bureau, they have dinner. I’ve been tempted to enter each of them but I never do. Sometimes there’s a small argument between the parents, a little more TV-watching with the son, then they trickle to bed until all the lights are turned off and I’m alone on the ledge of their bay windows, watching the glowing numbers on the microwave oven change, and like clockwork it’s always at this time of the night I miss J.G the most.
* * *
One time I saw J.G. while I walked past one of the betting shops of the jockey club. I stopped among the children who stood outside the door, tugging on the security guards’ uniforms while they waited for their parents.
J.G. looked like her half-sister might have, if she ever had one. There were traces of J.G. in the jaw, in the curve of her nose, but nearly everything else was washed away by the features of another woman. She must have been taking more clients than usual.
She was with a slightly stocky man and they were buying tickets from a booth. He paid for them both and created a little fake fight between them with her insisting to pay her share and him refusing.
If I had let the jealousy overcome me, I would have forced myself into Wai in the most painful way possible, and torn him apart from inside. He wears glasses and his hair is swept back with gel. Then they were laughing, looking for birthdays on the numbers on their lottery tickets, and he placed a palm on the nape of her neck, squeezing with his thumb and his index and middle fingers.
I restrained myself. But a week later, I return to my father on his day off.
If he’s surprised to see me, he doesn’t show it. He looks at me, registers my presence, and returns to his newspaper. I ask how the hosting case is doing.
The girl’s gone off the radar, he says.
I don’t know if my father’s being euphemistic. Does he mean the police have run her off?
Where is she, I ask, trying to keep my voice calm.
My father lets the breeze flip the page, and his lack of concern enrages me. Savage images of J.G. in the hands of my father’s friends fill my mind, and a bag of tears bursts in me. It’s Wai, isn’t it, I say.
My father snaps to attention. You know her fixer?
Where did you put her? I’m going to get her out.
My words are irrevocable. My father searches my face. A minute later he says evenly, We don’t have her.
His voice has dropped, and this is a sign he is testing new waters, but I’m too sick with worry to care.
I won’t let you hurt her, I say, relieved and horrified at my inability to stop myself. The fever in my brain tells me it’s better this way, all the cards on the table. The waiting is over. My father has forgotten about his newspaper, which the breeze has swept off his cardboard box. The only thing I can do now is take advantage of my father’s shock to get a head start.
Nobody has seen her, my father finally replies, his words three steps behind his thoughts. Realization is suffusing him like a ghost in J.G.’s body, filling each orifice, lifting her, taking control of her limbs.
She’s stopped seeing clients, my father continues. She’s taken a lot of money with her.
It’s Wai. He’s done something to her. I’ll kill him.
Come with me to the station, Ben. You can help us find her.
I can’t read his voice. So this is what my father is like when he is about to arrest someone: enigmatic, provoking, so easy to trust until you find your face against a wall and your arms twisted with his full weight behind you. He reaches for my shoulder and I scream at him to get off me.
I leave, half-expecting him to follow, but he doesn’t.
* * *
I spend the next week looking for Wai. I remember what J.G. said about him before, a man of opportunity. He likes dipping his hands into the rivers of money that flow past him. I look for him in the girly bars, the betting shops, all the teahouses. I cross the sea to Macau and look for him in the casinos, where money is dressed in colors – gold, jade, silver, the poppy red and lacquer black of roulette – and where people come to be bewildered by disguises, to take a mask themselves and plunge into heady pleasure. I rip their masks off, but I don’t find him there.
Exhausted and insane with helplessness, I return to Hong Kong, where money has no color and people compensate by lighting their nights with neon burning with the ambition of an entire population. I find Wai in a noodle house, hunched over a plate of stir-fried vermicelli.
I don’t wait for him to move to a private place. I explode into him and taste the beef slices in his noodles and run into a fragmented slideshow of images in his head of J.G., which infuriates me more. Wai’s nose starts to bleed and he groans, falling to the floor and losing his glasses. His consciousness gives up immediately, and a man on the next table tries to help him up, but I stretch out Wai’s arm and bat the intruder away, picking up the glasses myself. I haul Wai up to his feet so violently it looks like his knees are bending the wrong way. I drag him to the toilet, where I lock the door in a cubicle. I dip his finger into the blood pouring out of his nose and write on the door, Where is she?
I wrench myself out of him. He comes to and the vomiting begins.
He’s had enough ghosts in him before to know what’s going on. He sees the writing and says, I don’t know.
He’s losing liquid in floods. He turns around grabs the toilet seat to steady himself. He is shivering and his face has turned white.
I snake a hand into his nostrils and up in his nasal cavity and he doubles over.
She’s sick, he gasps. I told her to stop. She wouldn’t listen. She’s gone.
He starts to choke. I leave him, a sobbing mess of vomit, snot, blood and tears, his fashionable hair in disarray. For a moment I wish I could be him, and give myself physically and completely over to my grief. A group of men have started crowding around the cubicle, and I walk past them out of the toilet and into the dining area, and ignore the ghosts below the paper menus tacked on the wall giving me curious stares. A waiter near the toilet door is calling for an ambulance.
* * *
Even after the fire, I still imagined I’d take her to the kebab place. It’s irrelevant whose body I’m in because I never get to see what I look like. It’s not a movie. In the picture in my head I only see her smiling and talking to me and the only thing traceable to me is my voice, in the same way everyone’s never aware of what they look like until they catch their reflection somewhere.
My father used to go to the kebab place too. He was the one who took me there when I was young. He had the boy at the rotisserie put the spiciest curry sauce on our lamb kebabs, always lamb kebabs because apparently chicken wasn’t real meat. The only reason I could still return to that place afterward and want to take her there is because I had managed to withstand the sauce, and had surprised myself and my father.
He didn’t say anything as I munched half of my kebab triumphantly in front of him. He only smiled, but it looked so foreign on him I thought it would break his face. He started unwrapping his kebab and kept that strange, proud smile as I ate my way through the fire.
It’s my father who finds me now in the small hotel next to the big potted plant J.G. had fallen asleep in five years ago. I am lying on my back in the same sofa, wondering what would have happened if I had asked for the room myself, unafraid to hold J.G. to her ambiguous hints and mixed messages. I think I would have already crossed over if I had, but even the prospect of that feels insignificant now.
She’s with us, my father says. We found her.
I expect him to take me to the station, but instead we go to the parking lot next to the warehouse where he reads his papers. It’s past midnight. I can make out a few ghosts around the place where his big rubber tire usually is, and the way they acknowledge my father tells me they’re his colleagues. I vaguely realize I don’t know any of my father’s friends. A mortal constable stands on the side, the vermilion look of bribery on his face. A girl is slumped on the tire and leaning against the cardboard box, where a half-eaten fried rice takeaway and a foam cup of coffee rest.
It takes me a while to realize it’s J.G. because it’s not her anymore. When Wai said she was sick, I had imagined her cheeks gutted, her face aged, and her skin sagging like an old jacket from being slipped too many times. She looks fine here, tired, her mouth open, some dried vomit on her lip, but all right. What’s different is her entire face. Her cheeks are broader and her forehead has lengthened a little, and her eyes are a little closer together and more deep-set. Her nose has grown smaller and her lips a little wider and fuller. I don’t recognize her until with a rush of panic and guilt I see the cigarette burn on the back of her hand and realize I don’t know who she has finally turned into.
She looks asleep but when I come closer, I hear her murmuring. I see a slight bruise above her left eye.
You hit her, I say to the policemen, not with anger but as a quiet question. My father shakes his head though he doesn’t try to explain. He puts a hand on the shoulder of the mortal constable, who can’t see any of this, and the man gives a jump. It’s a sign. The constable comes over to J.G. and rouses her. When she groans, he waves a wad of notes in front of her and says, For Ben Siu.
It’s only when she hears my name and her eyes fly open, eyes I’ve never seen before, looking wildly around for me, her savior, her sweet, special boy who will always be there in spite of everything, that I finally understand. I make no move toward her. All she sees is a constable handing her money and nervously hooking this thumbs into his belt loops, waiting for something to happen.
I look at my father and he stares back at me with pleading expectation, and it occurs to me that this is a gift. I feel an ache somewhere.
I imagine sliding into J.G.’s mouth, wrapping her warmth around me, lodging inside her darkness, luxuriating in her every thought of me, but I find myself thinking of how much trouble my father must have gone to to ask favors from his friends and bribe a colleague to delay the arrest of J.G. Ip, whom I barely recognize; of the risk my father has taken that could strip him of his badge and his name. I don’t know what to do. I feel my father’s eyes on me.
The ache in me grows stronger, and it must be showing because hope drains from my father’s face. They’re all waiting for me. I look at the woman supposed to be J.G. counting the money and glancing up occasionally in bewilderment, and I try very hard. I think of her hair lifting and revealing her dangling earrings, I think of her passionate defiance of the limitations of her own life. I think of the furious, uncontrollable obsession with her that had consumed me until my heart had broken.
I remember how the obsession feels but I can’t recall what had started it. I can only think of how J.G. had pushed and pulled me into a position of limbo, how she had hurt me knowing I would never leave, this woman who my father is risking his reputation for.
My father asks what’s wrong. His face is twisted, and I know he can tell everything’s been for nothing. The pain on his face reminds me of the time when he had sat me down and talked to me about crossing over.
I try to tell my father it’s all right. I try to thank him and raise my arm to touch him, but my vision blurs. That can’t be right because ghosts have no tears, until I realize everything is melting into everything else, J.G.’s new face and the mortal constable’s discomfort, my father and his colleagues coalescing into a gas, the sky collapsing into the ground, and the glass of the buildings pooling like a liquid mirror; and I feel myself spreading thinner and lighter, like the neon when it fights against the dawning sun, until everything disappears.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Dinesh Rao. Dinesh, originally from India, trained as an ecologist and specializes in the behaviour of spiders. His earlier published works include a series of science and travel articles for a newspaper in Bangalore, India. He has also published a short story in the Indian Journal of Science Fiction Studies. His blog is at http://pointsofdeparture.wordpress.com. He now lives in a small coffee town in Mexico with his wife and daughter.
This is the story’s first publication.
The Portal Plague
Ganesh had chanced on the job advertisement in the back pages of a science magazine. The requirements read like the universe had sent him a personal message. Experience in mapping. Check. That time surveying stream boundaries in Southern India. Experience in navigation. Check. Two years studying the migratory habits of dragonflies in Spain. Experience in robotics. A one-year side project working on applying bee navigation techniques to develop autonomous flying machines in Australia. Fluency in English and knowledge of Spanish. Among others. He’d applied for the job and in a couple of months his life was about to change again.
Ganesh looked around the room, took a deep breath and allowed the familiar sensation of impending departure to wash over him. It had been a great time, but two years in the same job was already the longest he’d spent in any particular place, other than his childhood in India. He finished packing his bag in half an hour, felt its heft and waited for the taxi.
On the ride to the airport, he started reading a paperback novel but failed, his mind was too full of the future. A new project, a new country, and most of all, a new problem: the Portal Plague.
There was no one to receive him at the airport in Mexico City, and the hubbub prickled his ears. It had been a long time since he’d last used his Spanish, but the blur of words swirling around him were gradually coming into focus. A kindly stranger helped him get to the overnight bus to Xalapa. As the city receded, his previous life did as well, and he settled into the new one. The first days were the best, when everything was shiny and interesting, and the game was to find connections; similar and dissimilar things. Windows and mirrors.
The Portal Plague of Xalapa started a few years ago. No one knew exactly when or how. At first the portals were all over the news, tons of researchers studying them, daily newspaper accounts, dramatic stories. But the reports had tapered off. When the news of people dying started to spread, the government cut off access to the portals, all foreign visitors to Xalapa were screened, and prestigious projects and contracts were given only to Mexican researchers and Mexican institutions. The world protested, but there was little they could do. The bulk of the projects went to a team from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, but there were a few teams here and there around Xalapa. Everybody wanted in on the action, even though they had no idea what they were up against. A few research organizations found a loophole and advertised for seemingly innocuous research assistants and post-docs, in order to get at least some experts on the problem, but it was slow going. Meanwhile, while the politicians and the scientists squabbled, daily life in Xalapa turned into a nightmare.
The portals were invisible and borderless flattened orbs. They appeared and disappeared in highly unpredictable ways. Some were small, the size of coins, and others were large enough to swallow buses. The portals could be in the middle of roads, in cafes and on walls. So far the only way to detect a portal’s presence was a faint sulphurous smell in the air, but it was usually too late because by the time you noticed it you were already through. Normal city life had become impossible. One might be heading to an appointment at the bank and end up on the outskirts of the city in a coffee plantation. People stepping out of their houses ended up plastered in the middle of a traffic jam. There was no way to know when or where the next portal would turn up. The death rate started climbing. The government decided to tackle this by training an ad hoc army with sniffer dogs to detect the telltale portal stink. The army wandered the city looking for portals, and once one was detected they would stand in front of it waving a red rag. The portaleros, as they were called, were given red t-shirts, a convenient way for the government to advertise its party colours ahead of next year’s election. It was very much a local low tech way of dealing with the crisis, and the politicians knew that the mere appearance of doing something would be enough to keep the people from rebelling. When the portal appearances finally stabilized, the smaller ones became less frequent and, on any given day, there would be as few as twenty portals scattered all around Xalapa. Life went on, but Xalapa still felt like a city under siege.
Ganesh met his new boss at the cafeteria in front of the Institute. He was trying to get a cup of coffee before the meeting, but was unable to convey to the lady at the counter just how much milk he wanted in the coffee. Finally he gave up and asked for an express and milk on the side. He turned around and there she was. He recognized her from her photo on the Institute’s website. Not trusting his Spanish anymore, Ganesh introduced himself to Dr Araceli Mendoza in English. Dr Araceli was a slim, silver haired woman who spoke in rapid fire sentences. Her accent disconcerted Ganesh at first, but her manner put him at ease instantly. They may have been worlds apart, but he already knew that he would get along fine with his new boss. They small-talked their way through the coffee, and then Araceli led him to her office, perched high on the seventh floor of the building. The cloud forests surrounded the Institute, and from her window one could see all the way to the neighbouring volcano, its gleaming white tip shimmering in the clear morning air. Araceli saw him gawking and said,
-That’s the Pico de Orizaba.
Ganesh started out of his involuntary reverie.
The next hour passed in a blur of introductions — the PhD students, Raul the lanky lad from a small neighbouring town called Coatepec, exotically attired Sophia from Tlaxcala — and finally ended at the desk assigned to him. No view of the volcano for him, but it was good to have a place to put his stuff. Araceli dropped in to hand him a bunch of scientific articles, and Ganesh was left with a curious sense of dislocation. The new life was beginning, but he felt like he was still travelling, rather than having arrived.
Life soon settled into a routine. A few minutes’ walk everyday from his room in the city centre, a morning coffee at an old fashioned cafe, the bus to the Institute, climbing up the hill to the building, and catching up on his reading. Xalapa quickly started to feel like home, from the familiar sense of crowdedness to the blending in; people kept assuming he was a local and asking him for directions and such. The occasional seminars, and lab discussions, and evening explorations of the city. He started noticing the portaleros, and recognizing the smell of the portals. Every morning, he checked the newspaper, skimming over the headlines, but focussing on the daily portal report. Previous studies, done in part by Araceli’s group, had established that now the Portals were persistent for an average of 13.5 hours, and this allowed the newspaper to collate information about the latest sighting. And since citizens were keen on informing the newspaper about new ones, it was getting easier to spot and track a portal. Ganesh knew that he could just as well use their specialized software for tracking portals, but there was a sense of shared endeavour in reading the reports in the newspaper. Some portal news was always present on the front pages, usually dramatic stories, like a maid who stepped out to buy maize flour and ended up on the balcony of the Governor’s Palace downtown, or the cyclist who almost drowned when he inadvertently emerged in the lakes around the University.
Ganesh’s first encounter with the portals was almost an anticlimax. One morning, on the way to the bus, he smelled the sulphurous stink, but failed to react in time to avoid the telltale orb of blurry air. A click, a snap and a whirr later he was standing on the road in front of the Institute. He took one step, caught his breath, stilled his crazily beating heart with a long deep breath, and looked behind him, and there it was. The telltale smell and the blurry air. He pulled out a page from his notebook and wrote in big letters, PORTAL AQUI! CUIDADO!, and affixed the warning on a tree next to the portal. The whole group later visited it to take some measurements, and this portal was assigned a code bearing his initials. Ganesh found this gesture gratifying. At the end of the day, he took a chance. He decided to save himself the bus ride back home by travelling via portal. Telling no one, because that would be crazy, he waited till there were no people around, and stepped into the blurry orb. The same suddenness enveloped him, and when he focussed his eyes again, he was standing on the side of the road in the tunnel under the Parque Juarez, about to be hit by a scooter. Indian instincts, long honed in the art of avoiding insane traffic, saved him. He leapt out of the way, reaching the side of the tunnel just in time, but not fast enough to avoid the scooter’s mirror, which dinged his elbow hard.
The next day, Ganesh excitedly recounted his experience to Araceli, and got an earful in return.
-What! Are you crazy? How could you do such a thing? You could have been killed! Maybe I didn’t warn you enough, but I never imagined you would take such a risk.
Ganesh stood dumbfounded.
-Read this article, maybe then you’ll understand what we’re facing here.
She rummaged through her desk and produced an article written by the UNAM team, collating the fates of the hundreds of people who had been through the portals. Thirty-five per cent ended in death or accident. Ganesh felt a flush spreading across his face, and a much delayed adrenaline rush.
-I won’t do it again. I don’t know what I was thinking.
-Yeah, it’s my fault, I didn’t warn you enough. I will assign one of my lab people to watch over you.
-No that won’t be necessary, I think I get it now.
Araceli looked unconvinced. An awkward pause followed, her angry words still ringing in his ear.
Suddenly she said,
-But you know, that’s really interesting. We had assumed that the portals connected one region of Xalapa to another, and that they were two-way. You’ve shown very dramatically that they are not. Which changes everything. In fact you just about managed to ruin an ongoing project, but in a good way. Now we have some tangible evidence that the portals function very differently. Let me… give me a minute…
She turned to her computer and launched the portal-modelling software, and started fiddling with the parameters. Ganesh stood there for a while, but Araceli paid him no attention. Ganesh watched her manipulate the program, she fluently swooped and soared between the panels and the sub-panels, clicking and clacking, flitting around the options so fast that it was almost impossible to follow. Finally she leaned back in her chair, took a short breath and pressed RUN. The computer wheezed.
She turned to him and said,
-This will take a while, but the problem now is much more complicated. The mapping will have to be reconsidered entirely. I think our next step is to finish the probes as soon as possible. How’s it coming along?
Ganesh had started reprogramming the probe software based on the insect flight work he’d done earlier.
-So far so good. I don’t know if the tracking will work when the probe is within the portal though.
-Only one way to know. Tell me when it’s done, we’ll organize a pilot study.
A few weeks passed, the incessant dripping rain – the famous chipi chipi – eased slightly, and it was time to test the probe. Araceli, Ganesh, and the rest of the lab went to a known stable portal and, with the help of the portalero, set up their equipment. The portal hovered just outside a famous local baker’s shop, whose owner was annoyed that he could smell the portal stink over the aroma of fresh bread. They knew where the probe would end up, just a couple of blocks away. Araceli and Ganesh stayed at the entry point, while Raul and Sophia headed off to the purported exit point. Araceli busied herself with the laptop, checking and rechecking the parameters, and finally seemed to be satisfied with the preparations.
-I hope it works.
-It should. I can’t think of what might go wrong, at least from our side. We need to get this project going very soon.
Ganesh knew that Araceli was under a lot of pressure to produce some results. The funding agency demanded monthly reports and, to add to the stress, the UNAM team kept firing out papers in rapid succession. He said,
-The UNAM team had another paper out yesterday.
-Yes, I saw the title, but haven’t read it yet. I’m sure it’s another cookie cutter article, rehashing the same stuff. They must have a paper writing machine stashed away somewhere.
-How come I never see them around here? They must be here somewhere.
-They do quick visits, mostly, and besides most of their work is theoretical stuff, so why leave the comfort of the lab?
* * *
The walkie-talkie crackled. They heard Sophia’s voice, over the sing-song cry of a tamale vendor,
-We’re at the exit portal, we got two portaleros to chase away people, and we’re ready.
-Alright then, keep in touch.
* * *
Ganesh turned on the probe. It hovered just in front of his face. He directed its movement with a hacked radio-controller, and Araceli confirmed with her laptop that the probe was indeed being tracked.
Ganesh slowly walked behind the hovering probe to the edge of the portal, and with a final glance backward pushed it into the blurry air. The portal made a tiny popping noise, and the probe disappeared. Immediately, even before Ganesh could turn to Araceli, Sophia buzzed them excitedly,
-GOT IT! IT WORKS!
Araceli looked up from the laptop, and said,
-OK, that’s really good. Let’s wrap up and meet at the cafe.
* * *
Sophia later recounted how the probe hadn’t flown through but rather crashed through. Falling down, as if it had run out of batteries. They would review the data later, but it seemed like the batteries were almost instantly drained when the probe passed through the portal. Araceli was very pleased; they had a tangible result, and now it was simply a matter of scaling up. They started downloading the probe’s data feed, and it was then they noticed the irregularities. The internal clock showed that the probe had been active for five hours. The GPS tracker showed hundreds of data points. The housing of the probe was showing wear and tear even though it was brand new.
The team discussed the pilot study all morning, and it was apparent that even the single probe had generated a wealth of hypotheses. They argued over the irregularities, but it was too soon to say anything. However, Araceli was now more convinced than ever that the portals were some sort of terrestrial wormhole.
-And the inside bigger than the outside?
-Yes, we really have to get a camera on the probe. And start the mapping. And fast. We really need to get some data out before the government decides that the UNAM team needs the money more.
Araceli and Raul stayed back in the lab, and Ganesh and Sophia headed back home. Sophia lived quite close to where Ganesh was staying, and she offered him a ride in her old VW Beetle. Sophia was a bit of an amateur linguist, she learnt languages with ease. She spoke some English, and jumped at the chance at practicing. They stopped at a cafe.
-How long have you been away from home?
-Oh, around ten, fifteen years or so… Ever since my parents passed away, I’ve found fewer and fewer reasons to go back.
-No family back home?
-Well, I have a brother, but we haven’t spoken in a while. I haven’t even been to India in years.
-That is very sad. You must be always leaving, never staying.
-I suppose it is. But I quite enjoy being a modern nomad, I don’t think I can put down roots anywhere.
-What about Xalapa?
-I really like it here, but then I’ve also really liked the other places I’ve been. But what about you? I know you’re from a different city, what was it…?
-Tlaxcala. It’s to the west, but very close. Maybe we can go there one day, it would be fun to show you around. We normally get tourists from rich countries here, and they always say the same things: the traffic is crazy, everything in disorganized. But you see things differently, no?
-This is very easy after India. It’s comfortable here: not so organized, not so chaotic.
They chatted into the night, sharing stories and histories, tracing their trajectories through time and space and probabilities. Ganesh relaxed and opened up, as if the recital of experiences made him more assured. All his life he’d felt that his varied history was leading up to something, and he wondered again if this was what he was meant to do.
While saying goodbye, Ganesh discovered that it was much later than he’d realized, and the time spent with Sophia had felt just like a few minutes. Always a good sign, he thought, as they parted reluctantly.
The weeks passed by in a blur. Those days of leaving the lab at 4pm to wander through the city and take in the sights were over. Ever since the pilot study, Ganesh and the others had been putting probes in portals, retrieving them, downloading the data and mapping the portals’ locations and the interior distance of the transits. While it sounded simple in theory, they had no idea where the portals would send the probes to, and so they mostly worked on the reported ones. They scanned the portal report in the local newspaper and assembled a list of portals that they could use. They chose the easiest ones, since they had no way of accessing the portals that were hovering above the lake or high up next to the seventh floor of a building. Meanwhile the death toll increased, despite an increase in the number of portaleros. Election fever was heating up, and the governor was getting very nervous that his management of the portals would affect his party’s chances in the elections. More and more money was suddenly poured into the problem. Some of it did trickle down to Araceli’s group, but not enough to change the scale of the investigation.
And then everything changed. The portals changed. And people started disappearing frequently. Probes started disappearing. The pressure on the government grew intense, and Xalapa’s governor started haemorrhaging money, but mostly to fund advertising campaigns to show that he was doing something about the problem. There was talk that the military would get involved, but nobody expected any good to come out of that. The disappearances were very worrying, and the situation took a sharp turn for the worse when a prominent politician disappeared. The politician’s family started raising hell, and suddenly the Portal Plague was back on the front pages of the newspapers. Many countries offered their support and aid, but were always refused, the government saying that this was an internal matter.
Araceli’s lab now looked like a military command post; maps were strewn all around, one entire side was scattered with cameras and probe parts. The walkie talkie crackled from time to time, and people were always walking in and out. Araceli called an emergency lab meeting and everybody assembled around a table.
-I have some news. One of the portals is stable. I mean really stable. It hasn’t changed since we started tracking them. It’s the only one that we know that hasn’t disappeared, so we’re going to focus our attention on it. I also have bad news. Well, bad for us. The rumours are that the UNAM team is very close to making a breakthrough, so it’s now a sprint. No more leisurely make-hypothesis-and-test-it kind of science.
-What kind of breakthrough?
-I’m not entirely sure. They’ve been very hush-hush from the beginning, but their last paper made me think that they are trying to predict where the next portal will appear.
They all laughed at that. Everybody had seen the giant portal map that was updated daily; trying to predict the portals was like trying to predict where raindrops would fall.
-I’ve decided to enter the stable portal. I’ve done all the analyses I can think of, and it seems that the probes entering the stable portal always end up in the corner of the street Callejon del Diamante. The time taken to traverse is negligible. It’s a very quick mission, we go in, measure all we can and come out. Raul and Sophia, you two can monitor me from the outside.
Ganesh was instantly alarmed,
-But what if the portal changes again?
-That’s why we have to do this now, as soon as possible. Of course there is a risk that the portal would send us elsewhere, but the probabilities are on our side. Ganesh, you must also help Raul and Sophia monitor us.
Both Raul and Sophia insisted on going in with Araceli, and finally they decided that only Ganesh would stay back. The meeting broke up in a flurry of activity. They started gathering all their equipment in preparation for the transit.
Ganesh helped them get ready and they decided to meet early next morning, at dawn, to minimize any interference from casual onlookers.
Early next morning, Ganesh got a sudden glimpse of the suntipped Pico de Orizaba as he rounded a corner on the way to the Plaza Xallitic. He hadn’t seen the volcano since his first day; the horizon had always been cloudy. Seeing it reminded him that he was here, in Xalapa, in Mexico. He felt a twinge at the thought of being in such a dramatic landscape, and it simultaneously reminded him that he was so far from India. It had been years since he had any normal connection with his hometown, but even his many years of scientific nomadism couldn’t take away the feeling that no matter how far or how comfortable he was in a foreign country, it would never be home. After so many years outside, even home was no longer home: his city had grown in the meantime, and every trip back felt like visiting an old friend who had had plastic surgery done.
Lost in thought, Ganesh arrived at the rendezvous spot in the small fog-encrusted plaza. Araceli was already there, tapping away at her laptop. Sophia and Raul arrived soon after. They exchanged pleasantries shivering with the morning chill. Or nervousness, thought Ganesh.
Araceli took a look around, checked her laptop one last time before handing it to Ganesh, picked up her bag, and said,
-Alright, everything ready? OK – let’s go. Ganesh, we’ll meet you at the Callejon del Diamante.
They stepped up to the portal and one by one entered the blurry orb. Ganesh watched them disappear, and the tracking program came to life. He watched the three dots on the screen, moving this way and that, and then settling down. He knew that they would have already arrived at the exit. He packed up the bag, and started walking towards the Callejon at a brisk pace.
Xalapa was coming alive with activity. Joggers brushed past him, the gas truck went by playing its distinctive jingle. The portaleros had already taken their positions, their red shirts dotting the roads. Ganesh arrived at the exit point, expecting to see a portalero, but there was nobody there. He looked around, thinking he had mistaken the location, and saw that the portalero in question was just arriving at his spot. But the team was not there. Ganesh looked around anxiously, his heart beating faster with every passing minute. He pulled out the laptop and checked the tracker, but it was of little use: the dots had disappeared.
Not knowing what to do, he waited the whole morning at the Callejon del Diamante, stared at by curious onlookers and the knickknack sellers who were setting up their stalls. And then, after a few hours, it was clear that something had gone wrong. Ganesh tried calling them on the cellphone, and the walkie-talkie, thinking maybe they’d ended up at a different exit point, but he got no answer. The team was trapped inside. Sophia was trapped inside.
Ganesh made his way back to the Institute. He greeted his acquaintances mechanically. The lab looked large and empty, still strewn with maps and equipment. He turned on the main computer, and waited for the portal-modelling program to load. To his relief, he saw that the stable portal was still stable, which meant there was a chance that Araceli and the others could be reached. He re-ran the analysis of the probes that had been introduced into the stable portal. All of them made it out through the expected exit. Something must have changed. Some new factor, some parameter. If only there was a pattern. Ganesh knew, even if he did not want to admit it yet, that he would have to go in himself, but he wanted to be sure that there was no other option. He printed out the locations of the latest portals, he ran an animation of all the portals, trying to see a pattern in their appearances; he tried locating the tracking device; and, finally, when the sun was already low and the famous Xalapa fog was enveloping everything in its gloom, he pushed back his chair and closed his eyes in exhaustion. This was getting nowhere.
In the next couple of days, Ganesh tried everything he could think of. He re-read all the papers he could find. He even contacted the UNAM team, only to be met with complete indifference. He ran and reran the data from the probes, and puzzled over the data points of the trackers. He had to tell the director of the Institute what had happened, and fielded anxious calls from the relatives and friends of Araceli, Raul and Sophia. He pushed a probe into the stable portal, and it ended up as expected in the Callejon del Diamante. Ganesh realized that the stable portal had a stable entry but not a stable exit point. So he reran all the analysis focussing on exit points, and printed out a huge map.
The days seemed to fly by, but Ganesh felt like he was running flat out on a treadmill. One night, on his way back, he stopped at a cafe, and scanned the local newspaper. He finished skimming the latest portal news, and by chance turned to the cultural section, where there was an article on rangoli, of all things. Seeing the familiar drawing flooded his mind with childhood memories of helping the maid draw the auspicious intricate chalk mandalas on the floor in front of his house. He stared at the illustration for a while, finished his coffee, and headed home. He was about to turn the key in his lock, when the answer flashed in his mind, almost without conscious effort. The portals were not discrete, they were all connected, like rangoli. And he had the data to prove it.
Ganesh adjusted his backpack, crammed with supplies. He’d done all he could to tell people what he’d found out, left enough detailed instructions that anyone could follow. He knew that once the pattern was found, it would only be a matter of time before the portals would be thoroughly studied and modified for human use. The human race was on the brink of a completely new transportation system.
The rangoli scheme he’d come up with had solved the problem. When Ganesh played all the portals’ appearances and disappearances as an animation over time and space, it was apparent that the portals swirled in time, and the connections were plain to the eye. It took a little more time to figure out a general scheme to predict where a person entering the portal would exit, and a little longer to plug in the special equations for the stable portal. In the end, Ganesh had a fairly good idea on how to catch up with the missing team. They must be stuck somewhere in between portals, or stuck in a loop of entering and exiting. But he knew now that he had to enter the stable portal, not early in the morning like last time, but at four in the afternoon, and there was a chance their trajectories could be synchronized.
He arrived at the portal, stood in the shelter of a doorway and readied himself for the entry. He had a probe in his backpack, a small computer, and a camera in his hand. This time it would be well documented. At 4pm exactly, he stepped into the stable portal. Everything blurred for a moment, and instead of popping out on the other side, he experienced a series of fast changing landscapes. Sunlight, daylight, night and cities and villages sped past him almost too fast to be seen. He flashed by towering black buildings that gleamed, and wide unbroken forests, a sandy beach and hills, and finally after a series of heart lurching moments popped out into a small square. He had made it through – to somewhere.
Ganesh looked around. Everything looked awfully familiar, but he couldn’t place the memory. It must be a part of Xalapa he had never been in before, but everything looked different, as if it was a different state or even country. There was a market in front of him, and he walked up to one of the corn sellers and asked her what the name of the place was. She looked up, a blank expression on her face and spoke something. He failed to understand her.
Ganesh’s Spanish was not great, but he knew he had made immense strides in the last few months. Bewildered, he asked again, but the lady spoke gibberish to him. Finally he realized,
Ah, she doesn’t speak Spanish.
Which was very weird.
He turned away, and approached a guy sitting behind towering piles of multi-coloured beans. Waiting a moment to get his attention, he spoke as clearly as he could.
-Excuse me, could you tell me how to get to Parque Juarez?
referring to the city centre, thinking that once he made it to downtown, he could find his bearings easier.
The man turned to him, and spoke a few words, and it was clear that he had no idea what Ganesh was saying. Again, the man spoke in a fast sing-song voice filled with TZs, TNs and TLs.
This was not working. Ganesh decided to wander around, camera in hand, recording everything. He turned a corner and lo, in the distance the Pico de Orizaba stood, all lit up by the evening sun. But something was wrong: the tip of the mountain was gone. The perfect peak of the volcano had been replaced by a flat top. He struggled to understand, he felt tired with the mental calculations. But even before he finished the thought he realized where he was. He was right in the centre, right where Parque Juarez should have been. Except, the city looked nothing like Xalapa. Instead of a paved leafy park dotted with Haya trees, he was in a plaza that ended in a small stepped pyramid. The square was packed with temporary stalls, hundreds of people thronged around. They were all dressed in bright colours, some wearing feathered headdresses. A loudspeaker filled the air with music, but it was a kind of pop music dominated by whistles and bells. He could not understand a single word. He wandered around the square, bumping against the people, attracting stares everywhere. His Indian skin no longer provided him with camouflage, he now stood out among the paler skinned people.
On top of the small pyramid, a ceremony seemed to be in progress, and people climbed up the steps snakelike, swaying side to side. A big cauldron of fire burned at the top, and the people went right up to it. He joined the line, fending off queries, miming his lack of knowledge of the language. Right at the top, just before the line of people went into the small temple, he was stopped by two burly men, clad only in loin cloths, their oiled muscles gleaming. He understood that he was barred from entry. Ganesh turned away in good grace. He’d often seen foreigners denied entry into temples, back in India; this was no different. But being at the top of the pyramid gave him a great vantage point to survey the city and video everything he could.
The familiar narrow lanes were still there, but the houses had changed. Xalapa’s trademark tiled roofs were gone, and the colours were curiously uniform. Most houses were painted in a few main colours, and the cityscape was oddly harmonious. The ceremony went on behind him, and loudspeakers carried the hymns out into the plaza, and people milled around, trying to get in, trying to get out. The thick fruity aroma of copal filled the air, and hawkers and knickknack sellers kept bumping into him. Ganesh decided to head down. He went around the temple, past the cages of Xoloitzcuintle dogs, and headed down the pyramid on the other side, taking care with each step, so as to not topple down into the line of people. A few of the people were dressed in a sort of western fashion, but the majority wore brightly coloured robes and shawls. Ganesh reached the bottom of the pyramid, and wandered slowly through the city.
The streets were narrow, and small alleys led off from time to time, with corners often etched with the name of the street and a representation of some god or other. Ganesh noticed shops in unexpected locations, and people sat on stools in front of snack sellers. He rounded a corner and there, in a cafe of sorts, spotted Araceli, Raul and Sophia, sipping some hot chocolate, their bags piled around them, trying not to attract attention. He went up to them, a big grin forming on his face. Sophia spotted him first, and rattled the table as she got up and hugged him. A flurry of greetings later, Ganesh heard their story. They’d shunted from portal to portal before ending up here.
-But is this Xalapa?
-Yes, it’s Xalapa, alright, but it feels like Xalapa in a Mexico where the Spaniards never arrived. They’re mostly speaking Nahuatl, and some Totonac, but it looks like Nahuatl is the dominant one. Look at the signs.
Ganesh looked at the names of the stores. They were written in Roman script, and below the big names, there was something else, written in the same script.
-They are using both languages.
-You can speak Nahuatl?
Araceli shook her head,
-Sophia does. Apparently it’s a very weird form of Nahuatl that she speaks, and everybody is very amused with her accent, but we have been managing to communicate. Somewhat.
Raul and Sophia were furiously arguing about something, but the Spanish was too fast to follow.
-They are debating how to get back to our Xalapa. Again. But tell me, Ganesh, how in the world did you find us?
Ganesh briefly recounted his investigations, and his findings. He pulled out the laptop, and showed them the portal patterns. Araceli looked impressed.
Raul suddenly exploded,
-We need to go back. Somehow. This is a crazy haunted place. I’m not even sure we’re alive.
An awkward silence, and the team retreated a bit from the stares of the people around them.
-OK, we must be going.
She pulled out her purse and looked closely at a few oval coins, consulted with Sophia, who haltingly asked a passing waiter how much to pay. She clinked the coins into a bowl made of a gourd. Ganesh picked up one of the coins; they were heavy, and decorated with Aztec motifs.
-We sold some stuff at a shop earlier. Mexican pesos are no good here.
They packed their bags and headed out to the plaza. They found a quiet spot under a fantastic sculpture of Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, and took stock of the situation. Raul said,
-We have GPS coordinates of the portals, maybe we can find the one corresponding to the exit point in Callejon del Diamante?
-But how can we be sure that the positions are valid? We could end up in a place even more bizarre.
-I’m not even sure there are portals here.
Sophia was busy scribbling in her journal.
They argued back and forth for many minutes, and Ganesh could sense the anxiety in their voices. The argument was starting to get heated when Sophia interrupted them.
-I think there’s somebody coming to talk to us.
A man wearing a ceremonial robe arrived at their group, looked at them intently, and spoke to Ganesh, evidently deciding that he was their leader.
-He says he is worried about us, or angry, I’m not sure, but he wants us to go meet someone. I think someone important, because he used the word for god.
The man made follow-me movements, and so they followed him.
They were asked to wait in a leafy covered courtyard of a large house, well hidden from the outside world. The bright yellow walls seemed to emanate sunlight. They sat on huge chunky wooden chairs, and looked around. Soon they heard voices, and Araceli looked at Sophia, but she just shook her head and said,
-No. Totonac. I think.
A slender bald man came in, did a curious gesture with his hands, and spoke fluid French to them.
The team looked around, but none of them knew any French. The bald man switched back to Nahuatl then, and Sophia provided a simultaneous translation.
-I know that you are not demons, I mean, foreigners… You are visitors from another world; we have had a few of you, but they all die or disappear, but you are the first who speak the language of the gods, so we are… I don’t know the word… You must return, the balance is being hidden, no, lost, and it is very dangerous, I cannot hold them back? I don’t know who he means… I will show you how to get out of here, but I cannot tell you how to get back to where you came from… It is very important that you must go… our world is getting polluted with your world’s problems… you must try to stop it before the summer? No, he said solstice, or it will be too late… I don’t understand that sentence at all.
-Keep going, said Araceli.
-Meet me here at midnight, I will tell the guards to expect you.
The man abruptly got up, did the hand gesture again, and left.
* * *
At midnight, they returned to the house. They were ushered inside. The bald man was waiting for them. He silently led them through the strange but familiar streets towards the central plaza. It was a cold gloomy night, the fog had descended, enveloping everything; the street lamps had a halo of blue. They walked along the narrow streets until they arrived at the base of the pyramid. The bald man pulled out an aerophone, a small clay bird-shaped flute, and blew it twice. When he heard an answering trill, they proceeded to climb the pyramid. Ganesh surreptitiously turned his video on. At the very top, they rested, breathing heavily, knees twinging. Another man came from within the temple, and the bald man spoke to him quickly. Sophia strained to hear the words, but she didn’t catch anything.
Then both of them turned to the team and the bald man spoke,
-This way, follow me.
They entered the temple at the top. The temple was dark, with only a few oil lamps casting strange shadows everywhere. The walls were covered with etchings, and even in the darkness Ganesh could make out vast vistas of colour. They proceeded to one room at the side of the temple, and lo, a familiar smell, the stink of the portal. The bald man lit a small lamp, and they could see the blurry orb. It was obvious what the bald man wanted them to do, return to wherever they came from. But Ganesh and the others knew that the portal might send them anywhere, and they couldn’t take the chance. Not without checking it first. They huddled around the laptop, took some co-ordinates and ran Ganesh’s program for calculating trajectories. If the portal locations matched, then they should emerge right on the bridge over Xallitic Plaza. If the portal took them back to their Xalapa and not some other destination. They decided to go through. One by one they flickered into the orb, and their last view of the other Xalapa was the bald man’s lamp-lit impassive face.
Sudden daylight, and they blinked to see that the calculations were exact. All four of them were standing on the bridge, the hubbub of Xalapa surrounding them.
-But is this Our Xalapa? asked Raul.
—I don’t know, said Araceli, but I have a quick way to find out. She pulled out her phone and made a call. A brief conversation later, she turned back to the team and smiled.
-Yes, it is! We’re back.
They hugged briefly and, almost without a further word or goodbye, they all scattered in different directions.
The next few days passed in a blur. There were relatives to contact, to reassure, and paperwork to tackle and data to analyse. The team spent long hours in the lab, lost in a haze of intense concentration. Sophia was in charge of transcribing all the conversations they’d recorded, and she was brushing up on her Nahuatl, while Raul assisted Ganesh with the maps and trajectories. They adapted Ganesh’s rangoli-inspired pattern seeker program to the new data, and Araceli collated the results into a rough manuscript form. She contacted anthropologists, archaeologists and ethnomusicologists: this was going to make her name.
Ganesh briefly thought of calling his estranged brother, punched in the numbers and then hung up. He thought,
-He’s probably closing some business deal in China or something…
Xalapa seemed to be getting worse. People were more and more afraid to leave their houses, the streets were deserted. Passing by downtown one day, Ganesh felt like the city was under curfew. Armed soldiers wandered the streets holding huge guns and chatting idly. The governor declared a state of emergency, and international pressure was starting to bend the government to allow in outside help. Helicopters flitted about and, since the portals were never detected at that height, it became the safest way for politicians to travel.
More portal investigation teams started arriving in Xalapa. Soon the only people on the streets were the scientists and the military. Unable to survive, there was a mass exodus of people to the neighbouring town of Coatepec, which became jammed, and quite unable to cope with the influx. Almost overnight, Coatepec lost its fame as a sleepy coffee town. The government had already transferred itself to the port of Veracruz, and it looked like Xalapa would soon go back to a sleepy mountain town as it was before it became the state capital.
In the Institute, more money was thrown at Araceli’s team, even though nobody outside of the team knew what they’d found. Araceli made everyone swear to secrecy; she knew that the slightest hint of an “Other Xalapa”, without a proper presentation, would doom their efforts. She was also anticipating the impact the paper would make, and decided to host a press conference once the analysis was ready.
And, finally, almost a month since the day they got out of the portal system, Araceli declared that she was ready to present the results to the public. She set up a date, booked a conference room in the Institute, and then contacted the major Xalapa newspaper, the Diario de Xalapa. The reporter who dealt with her advised her to change the date, there was another press conference that day, at almost the same time.
Araceli was about to agree, when something made her inquire what was going on.
The reporter said, almost offhandedly, that the UNAM team were holding a session, and no, he didn’t know about what; but apparently it was going to be a big one.
After the UNAM team’s press conference, Araceli and Ganesh stood outside the building, too shaken to speak, smoking furiously. For Ganesh, it meant that he could see the end of yet another project, but Araceli looked devastated.
The UNAM team had triumphantly demonstrated a technique for collapsing the portals. They’d set up their equipment in front of one of the portals and, with the flick of a switch, and a sudden sharp explosion, the stench of the portal faded and the blurry orb disappeared into a haze of bitter smoke. One of the technicians walked through the spot where the portal was, to show that Xalapa could now be made safe again. They had already assembled a team of portal defusers whose job was to go around Xalapa and get rid of the portals.
The governor was ecstatic, the press were fawning, and the people of Xalapa were relieved that their long nightmare year was finally coming to an end. There was talk of special honours for the UNAM team, and the next day every newspaper would scream HEROES! The governor declared a day of celebration. All day long the sound of blowing up portals filled Xalapa.
Ganesh asked Araceli,
-What will you do now?
-I don’t know. I think I can still get the paper published, but it will be difficult. I feel like an animal researcher whose subject has just become extinct. I think I will wrap up loose ends as best as I can, and move on to something else.
-Do you think they’ll leave a few, just to study them?
-No chance, Araceli said bitterly. The portals have always been viewed as a menace. Everybody will be happy to see the end of this plague.
Later, at the Institute, the lab was in mourning, all their maps and probes mocking them. Sophia was packing away her Nahuatl books. Raul turned up late; he had been out watching the portal collapses. He reported that the stable portal was gone; Ganesh felt a pang at hearing that. Araceli took one look around, and told everyone to start getting the lab back into shape, and they began clearing things away, silently, each lost in thought, and each object they moved triggered memories.
By the end of the day, the lab looked completely different and, as they stepped out, the setting sun filled the surprisingly clear sky with a pale orange light, and the faint silhouette of the volcano faded into the dusk.
Ganesh looked at the volcano, and told the others that he would stay and watch the sunset. Sophia looked up sharply and said she would stay as well, and the others left.
For many minutes, they watched the sunlight dissipate, and the first stars emerge. Sophia said,
-Are you going to leave?
-Probably. I will find another project somewhere and start all over again. It’s like I cannot possibly stay in one place for more than a year.
-Have you any ideas?
-Not right now, but there is an opening in Sweden that I might apply for, even though the thought of going to a cold place scares me. But the thing is to keep moving…
-Don’t go, Sophia blurted.
Ganesh turned to face her; Sophia was looking at him intently, eyes unwavering, voice trembling.
-Don’t go? But what will I do here now?
-You can always find something. Or someone.
Don’t go. The very thought was alien to him. With no ties anywhere, no family to go back to, the idea of staying, of resting, suddenly grew alluring, like a virus infecting his mind, spreading with breakneck speed.
Don’t go. Stay.
He held out his hand experimentally, and Sophia took it unhesitatingly. It had taken him a decade, but he was finally finding a reason to stay.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Theodora Goss. Theodora was born in Hungary and spent her childhood in various European countries before her family moved to the United States. Although she grew up on the classics of English literature, her writing has been influenced by an Eastern European literary tradition in which the boundaries between realism and the fantastic are often ambiguous. Her publications include the short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting (2006); Interfictions (2007), a short story anthology coedited with Delia Sherman; and Voices from Fairyland (2008), a poetry anthology with critical essays and a selection of her own poems. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Locus, Crawford, and Mythopoeic Awards, as well as on the Tiptree Award Honor List, and has won the World Fantasy and Rhysling Awards.
Professor Berkowitz Stands on the Threshold
I. the sun rises in an ecstasy of brightness
When the sun rose, Alistair Berkowitz realized that he was standing on a beach. His slippers were covered with sand, and cold water was seeping up the bottoms of his pajamas. He could smell the sea, and as the mist began to dissipate he could see it, a line of gray motion closer than he had imagined. He stood beside a tidal pool, which was probably responsible for the uncomfortable feeling of wet fabric around his ankles. In it, iridescent snails crawled over a rock. In the distance, he heard the scream of a gull. He shivered. The wind off the water was cold.
Then the sun shone on the water, creating a gold pathway, and he said without thinking,
the sun rises in an ecstasy of brightness,
like a lion shaking its mane, like a chrysanthemum
“Ah, you speak English.”
Berkowitz turned so quickly that he lost a slipper and had to find it again in the sand. The man behind him was dressed in a suit of purple velvet. Dark hair hung over his eyes. It looked as though he had combed it with his fingers.
“Myself, I speak English also. My mother, when she was sober, told me my father was an English duke. When she was drunk, she told me he was a Russian sailor. Unfortunately I speak no Russian.”
Berkowitz stared at him, then looked down at his slippers and shifted his feet. Why was he wearing pajamas? He rubbed his hands in an effort to warm them. “I’m assuming,” he said, “that this is a dream. Sorry to imply that you’re a figment of my imagination.”
“Pas du tout,” said the man in the purple suit, smiling. His teeth were crooked, which gave his smile the charm of imperfection. “Although as for that, perhaps you are a—how you say?—figment of my imagination. Perhaps I am lying with my head on the table of a café in Montmartre, and Céline is drawing a mustache over my mouth with charcoal, while that scoundrel Baudelaire is laughing into his absinthe. Perhaps all of this,” he extended his arms in a gesture that took in the rocks behind them, and the sand stretching down to the water, and the sun that was rising and covering the gray sky with a wash of gold, “is all in my head. Including you, mon ami. Although why I should dream of an Englishman…”
“American,” said Berkowitz. “I’m American. From Vermont.” Then, putting his hands in his pajama pockets, he said, “I’m a professor. At a university.”
“Ah,” said the man in the purple suit. “If my father were an English duke, I might have travelled to the land of Edgar Poe. It is a difficult question. Did my mother lie when she was drunk, or when she was sober?”
“I mean,” Berkowitz continued, annoyed at the interruption. It was what he habitually said when students interrupted his lectures with ringing cell phones. “I mean, I’m not an art historian. But Baudelaire. ‘Le Visage Vert,’ about the death of the painter Eugène Valentin, poisoned by his mistress Céline la Creole. At a café in Montmartre. It makes sense for a professor of comparative literature to dream of Eugène Valentin. Not the other way around.”
Valentin looked up at the sky. “Citron, with blanc de chine and strips of gris payne. Ah, Céline. Did you love me enough to poison me?”
Berkowitz shifted his feet again, trying to knock sand off his slippers. A gull flew over them, its wings flashing black and silver in the sunlight. How much longer would he remain a professor of comparative literature? Next week was his tenure evaluation. The department chairman had never believed in his research, never recognized the importance of Marie de la Roche. No wonder he was talking to a man in a purple suit, on a beach, in pajamas.
“And is she a figment of your imagination as well?” asked Valentin.
A woman was walking toward them, along the edge of the water. Her skin had the sheen of metal, and she was entirely hairless, from her bald head to her bare genitals. She had no breasts. Berkowitz would have assumed she was a boy, except that she lacked the usual masculine accoutrements.
Berkowitz stared at her and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“If I imagined a female form,” Valentin added, “it would look like Venus, not Ganymede.”
The woman stopped a few feet away from them and, without speaking, turned and looked at the water. The two men turned as well. Between the sky and the sea, both of which were rapidly beginning to turn blue, a black speck was moving toward them.
“What is it?” he asked Valentin. He really should get glasses.
Valentin brushed his hair back from his eyes. “A ship. At last, I believe something is beginning to happen.”
* * *
II. seashells, whose curves are as intricate as madness
The harbor was built of stone blocks, so large that Berkowitz wondered how they had been moved. Like those statues on Easter Island. He looked over the side of the ship, at the waves below. If he were in someone else’s dream, he would disappear when the dreamer woke up. What did that remind him of? Humpty Dumpty, he thought, and realized that he had answered in Helen’s voice. Once, they had gone to Nantucket together. He remembered her sitting on the beach under a straw hat, taking notes for her article on the feminist implications of the Oz books. He wondered how she liked Princeton, and tenure.
He stumbled as the ship pitched and rolled.
Valentin opened his eyes. “You have kicked my elbow.” He had been asleep for the last hour, with his head on a coil of rope.
“Sorry,” said Berkowitz. The metallic woman was sitting on the other side of the deck, legs crossed and eyes closed. She seemed to be meditating. About noon, Berkowitz had decided to call her Metallica.
Valentin sat up and combed his fingers through his hair. “Have you considered that perhaps we are dead? If, as you say, I am poisoned…”
Berkowitz looked around the deck and up at the sails. “This isn’t exactly my idea of death.”
“Ah,” said Valentin. “Are they still dancing, les petits grotesques?”
They were not dancing, exactly. But they moved over the deck and among the rigging, women with the calves of soccer players below gossamer tunics, like the workings of an intricate machine.
Berkowitz said, “At first I thought they were wearing masks.”
One had the head of a cat as blue as a robin’s egg, with fins for ears. Another, the head of a parrot covered with scales, the green and yellow and orange of an angelfish. Another, a pig’s head with the beak of a toucan. This one had taken Berkowitz’s hand and said in a hoarse voice, as though just getting over the flu, “The Luminous Vessel. The Endless Sea.” Then he had realized they were not wearing masks after all. Now, they seemed to be taking down the sails.
“You know,” he said to Valentin, “I think we’ve arrived.”
Metallica rose and walked to their part of the ship. She looked over the side, at the harbor and the water below.
Berkowitz whispered, “I wonder if she’s a robot?”
“Look at their legs,” said Valentin, rising. “So firm. I wonder…”
The path from the harbor was covered with stone chips. Berkowitz felt them through his slippers, edged and uncomfortable. They walked through a thicket of bushes with small white flowers.
Ahead of him, Valentin was trying to put his arm around Catwoman’s waist. Berkowitz touched him on the shoulder. “Feathers,” he said. “Not flowers. See, on the bushes. They’re growing feathers.”
“Yes?” said Valentin. “I have made a discovery also, mon ami.” Catwoman took the opportunity to walk ahead. “She is a flirt, that one. But look, you see our silver-plated friend?” Ahead of them, Metallica and Pigwoman walked together. They were gesturing rapidly to one another.
“Are they playing a game?” asked Berkowitz.
“I think,” said Valentin, “it is a conversation.”
They emerged from the bushes. Ahead of them was a castle. At least, thought Berkowitz, it looks more like a castle than anything else. It was built of the same stone blocks as the harbor, but on one side it seemed to have grown spines. On the other, metal beams extended like a spider’s legs. Towers rose, narrowing as they spiraled upward. What did they remind him of? Something from under the sea—probably seashells. He suddenly understood why Marie de la Roche had compared seashells to madness. The castle glittered in the sunlight, as though carved from sugar.
They passed through a courtyard carpeted with moss and randomly studded with rocks, like a Zen landscape. They passed under a doorway shaped, thought Berkowitz, like the jawbone of a whale. He felt as though he were being swallowed.
The room they entered seemed to confirm that impression. It was large, with a ceiling ribbed like a whale’s skeleton. Pale light filled the room, from windows with panes like layers of milk glass. Valentin’s footsteps echoed. Berkowitz could even hear the shuffle of his slippers reverberating.
At the other end of the room, he saw robed figures, huddled together. They looked like professors in academic robes. In the moment it took for his eyes to adjust to the light, he imagined they were discussing his tenure evaluation. But when they turned, he clutched Valentin’s arm. They were not wearing masks either. One had the head of a stag, its horns tipped with inquisitive eyes. Another was a boar, with bristles like butterfly wings. Another seemed to be a serpent with spotted fur. Their robes were a random patchwork of satin, burlap, and what looked like plastic bags, held together with gold thread and bits of straw.
They moved apart to reveal an ordinary kitchen chair, painted a chipped and fading green. On it was sitting a girl in a white dress, sewn at the sleeves and hem with bleached twigs, coral beads, pieces of bone. Her hair was held back by a gold net. She looked like she had been dressed for a school play.
Pigwoman curtsied. “The Endless Sea,” she said. “The August Visitors.”
The girl rose from her chair. “Bienvenu, Monsieur Valentin. Welcome, Professor Berkowitz.” She turned toward Metallica and bowed. Metallica answered with a movement of her fingers.
“I understand you have been communicating in English,” she continued. “I shall do the same. Aeiou, of course, requires no verbal interpretation.”
The collection of vowels, Berkowitz assumed, was Metallica’s name. He stared at the girl. What had Helen told him? “Look at Alice, and Ozma. Literature, at least imaginative literature, is ruled by adolescent girls.” Then she had leaned across the library table, with her elbows on a biography of Verlaine, and asked him on their first date.
“Of course you have already learned one another’s qualifications?” She looked at them, as though expecting confirmation. “No? Well then. Eugène Valentin, perhaps most celebrated for your Narcisse à l’Enfer. Although L’Orchidée Noire, your painting of the dancer Céline la Creole, is equally magnificent, Monsieur. Professor Alistair Berkowitz, translator of the fragmentary poems of Marie de la Roche. I am, of course, addressing you chronologically. Aeiou, follower of Vasarana, the goddess of wisdom, once temple singer for the goddess.” She turned to Valentin and Berkowitz. “Her name, as you may have guessed, is a chanted prayer. I have not pronounced it correctly. Her vocal chords were surgically removed during incarceration, to prevent her from spreading the teachings of her sect. Professor, I believe you have heard of American Sign Language? She has asked me to tell you that she wishes you the blessings of wisdom.”
She looked at them, as though waiting for a response.
They looked at each other. Valentin shrugged. Then, simultaneously, Valentin said, “We are pleased to make her acquaintance,” and Berkowitz blurted, “I don’t understand. Who are you? Where are we? What kind of dream is this, anyway?”
She raised her eyebrows. “I am the Questioner. Haven’t you discussed this at all among yourselves? Surely you must have realized that you have come to the Threshold.”
* * *
III. the sea is as deep as death, and as filled with whispers
Valentin and Berkowitz stared at the mossy courtyard.
“This garden was planted to represent the known world,” said the Questioner. “The mosses, of course, represent the Endless Sea, with darker varieties for the depths, lighter for the relative shallows. And there,” she pointed to a central area where rocks were clustered, “are the Inner Islands. That gray one is your island.”
“I still don’t understand,” Berkowitz whispered to Valentin.
Valentin looked back at the doorway, where Pigwoman stood as though on guard. “I wonder if she is so firm everywhere, mon ami?” he whispered.
Berkowitz edged away from him. Did he have to share his dream with a lecherous Frenchman?
“Around the Inner Islands lies the Endless Sea,” said the Questioner, “unnavigable except in the Luminous Vessel. Anyone sailing to the Outer Islands must stop here, at the Threshold.”
She turned to them and smiled as though she had explained everything.
“I still don’t understand,” he said.
The Questioner frowned. She looked, thought Berkowitz, as though she were trying to solve an algebra problem. “Professor Berkowitz, I have tried to suit my explanation to your understanding. But you are a man of the space age. Perhaps if I call those central rocks the Inner Planets, and the mosses an Endless Space, and tell you that you can only reach the Outer Planets in the Luminous Rocketship. To a tribesmen I might speak of the Inner Huts. Aeiou, who needs no explanation, understands them as representations of Inner Consciousness. The result is the same. Tomorrow I will ask you the Question, and based on your answer you will either return to the Inner Islands, or proceed onward.”
“But I still don’t…” said Berkowitz.
“Excellent,” said Valentin. “Look, mon ami. We are from there.” He pointed to the central cluster of rocks. “But we have qualifications, as she said. You have your book, I have my paintings, and our companion of the vowels has evidently been singing. If we answer her question correctly, we will be allowed to go on.”
“But to where?” asked Berkowitz, with exasperation. He was coming to the uncomfortable conviction that, rather than dreaming, he was probably going mad. Perhaps he was at that moment being strapped into a straitjacket.
“Out, out!” said Valentin. “Have you never wanted to go out and away?”
He suddenly remembered a story he had told Helen, when they had been together for almost a year. One morning in high school, the captain of the wrestling team had locked him into the boy’s bathroom, shouting, “Man, if my name were Alistair, I would have drowned myself at birth!” He had wanted, more than anything, to go out and away. Away from the small town in New Jersey, away from his father, a small town lawyer who could not understand why he had wanted to study something as useless as literature. Helen had smiled at him across the scrambled eggs and said, “Lucky for me you had a lousy childhood.”
Perhaps that was why he had become interested in Marie de la Roche. She had wanted to go out and away. Away from her parents’ olive trees, away from the convent. He imagined her, on her cliff beside the sea, in a hut made of driftwood lashed together with rope. Each morning she climbed down its nearly perpendicular face to gather seaweed and whatever the sea had left in tidal pools: crabs, mussels, snails. Fishermen claimed her broth could revive drowned men. Each afternoon she sat on her cliff and wrote, on driftwood with sharp rocks, on scraps of her habit with cuttlefish ink, and sent the fragments flying. Fishermen believed they brought a good catch. He thought of the year he had spent studying her fragments, now in a case at the Musée National. How many had been lost, buried by sand or floating out to sea? She had found her way out, through madness and suicide. Fishermen had built a church in her honor, and in certain parts of Brittany she was still considered a saint. Was that what had fascinated him, her willingness to toss everything—her poems, herself—over a cliff?
Valentin and the Questioner were staring at him. How long had he been standing there, lost in thought?
“Perhaps,” said the Questioner, “if I showed you the Repository?”
It looked like a museum. Where the walls were not covered with shelves, they were covered with tapestries, paintings, photographs. Metal staircases twisted upward to balconies, containing more shelves. They were filled with books and scrolls, disappearing upward into the shadows of the ceiling. Toward the center of the room were glass cases filled with manuscripts, small statues, things he did not recognize. One looked like a collection of sea sponges. They passed a sculpture that looked suspiciously like the Nike of Samothrace, and the skeleton of a rhinoceros painted blue. “Not bad, that,” said Valentin, examining it with admiration.
“By those who have come to the Threshold,” said the Questioner. “I believe my collection is fairly complete.” At the end of the room was a fireplace. Over it hung Van Gogh’s Irises. She walked to a long table that looked like it belonged in a public school library. “Ah,” she said, “the collected works of Keats. I wondered where I had left it.” She opened a box on the table, which began to play music, low and melancholy, that Berkowitz faintly recognized. “Lady Day,” she said. “And of course Elihu’s Lamia.” She tapped her index finger on one of the glass cases. A green glow levitated and stretched elegant tendrils toward her, like an art nouveau octopus. “So simple, yet so satisfying.”
“My Narcisse, is it here?” asked Valentin.
“I will show it to you,” said the Questioner. “But I believe Professor Berkowitz would like to see this.” She opened a glass case and took out a scrap of fabric. “When Marie de a Roche leaped into the sea, she held this in her hand. It was the last piece of her habit. She gave it to me, when she passed through the Threshold.”
Berkowitz took the linen, which looked fresh although worn, as though it had never touched sea water. He recognized her angled writing. Mentally, he translated into rough iambs and anapests:
the sea is as deep as death, and as filled with whispers
of the past
She had been here. She had walked through the Threshold. He wondered what sort of question he would be asked, and whether he would pass the test.
* * *
IV. my mind crawls, like a snail, around one thought
Berkowitz drank through a course of tangerine fish and fish-shaped tangerines, through a course of translucent jellies. The liquid in his glass was the color of amber, and shards of gold leaf floated in it. It tasted like peaches and burned his throat going down. Every once in a while he had to peel gold leaf from his teeth.
He looked down the table and felt a throbbing start in his left temple. A woman with what looked like a flamingo on her head winked at him. The flamingo winked as well. Too much fur, too many wings, and not a single nose was the correct shape or size. The Abominable Snowman jogged his elbow.
He stared at his soup, which tasted like celery.
The Questioner leaned over to him and said, “Aeiou is a neighbor of yours. She comes from Connecticut.”
“Oh,” said Berkowitz. She smiled encouragingly, as though waiting for him to respond with something clever. He said, “Connecticut isn’t really that close to Vermont.” He tried to laugh and knocked over his bowl, which looked like a sea urchin. Soup spilled over the table.
She turned to Stagman, who was sitting on her other side.
Damn, thought Berkowitz. I’ve already failed. Who made up the rules of this game anyway?
The Questioner rose. “I believe it’s time for a quadrille. Are the musicians ready?”
They evidently were, because the music began.
The Questioner led with Stagman. Valentin, who was learning the steps as he went along, capered behind Pigwoman.
Berkowitz drank, and despised them all. He despised the musicians, playing citoles, lyres, pipes that curled like the necks of swans, and what looked like the lid of a trash can. He despised the dancers, gliding or shuffling or hopping in complicated figures he could not understand. He despised Aeiou, weaving through them in a dance of her own, and Valentin, who kept treading on Pigwoman’s toes. He despised himself, which had never been difficult for him. The department would never give him tenure. The chairman had told him that Marie de la Roche was marginal. Hell, how much more marginal could you get than an insane nun living on a cliff? He should have written a book on Baudelaire. He should have stayed in New Jersey and become a lawyer. By the time he began to despise Marie de la Roche, on her damn rock, with her damn poetry, the room was beginning to look distinctly lopsided.
“Enough,” said the Questioner. The music, which had been drifting from a waltz to cacophony, ceased. Valentin stopped abruptly and would have fallen, except that his arm was wrapped around Pigwoman’s waist. “It is time for your questions.”
Already? thought Berkowitz. I didn’t even have a chance to study.
“Tomorrow morning, as you know, I will ask each of you the Question that will determine whether you step through the Threshold.” There she went again with her “as you know.” As though they knew anything. “Tonight, however, you may each ask me a question of your own.”
Stagman brought her green chair, and she sat in the middle of the room. Light flickered from candles and oil lamps and fluorescent bulbs. That explained why the room was beginning to blur. Berkowitz pinched the bridge of his nose. Helen had been right—he should get glasses.
Valentin, who had been trying to kiss Pigwoman’s neck, stumbled and kissed the air. He must be drunk, thought Berkowitz.
“Aeiou will begin,” said the Questioner. Aeiou gestured. The pain spread to Berkowitz’s right temple. God, he needed an aspirin.
She smiled and nodded. “Your songs will be sung for a thousand years, until the factories and prisons of the Imperium return to dust, and pomegranates grow on Manhattan Island.”
Aeiou bowed her head, and metallic tears ran down her cheeks. The audience clapped.
Damn, thought Berkowitz. This must be part of the test. The Questioner looked at him. Not me, he thought. Not yet. I need time to think.
“Monsieur Valentin,” she said. “What would you like to ask me?”
Valentin looked down at the floor, then said, “Did she poison me? Céline.”
The Questioner looked amused. “Yes, in the absinthe. If you choose not to return, she will wear black orchids in your memory.” The audience clapped. The Abominable Snowman giggled, and Catwoman nudged whoever was standing beside her.
What a stupid question, thought Berkowitz. That won’t get him any brownie points. He tried to think of something profound.
The Questioner said, “And finally, Professor Berkowitz.”
Profound. What was the most profound question he could think of? He needed a hundred aspirins. She was leaning toward him, waiting for his question. Berkowitz said, “Is there a God?”
She leaned back in her chair. She seemed disappointed, or perhaps just tired. “Yes,” she said. “Once, she would visit our island. We would work in the garden together, tying back the roses. But she has grown old, and sleeps a great deal now. I do not know what will happen when—but that wasn’t your question.”
There was a moment of silence. Then the audience clapped, without enthusiasm. A thousand aspirins, that’s what he needed. Berkowitz took another drink and despised the universe.
Later, lying in bed and trying to keep the room from spinning, he thought about the test. Clearly, he had already failed. All the failures of his life gathered around him. Failing to make the soccer team because he couldn’t kick worth a damn. Failing calculus. Failing to get into Yale. Failing with Helen, who had waited for him in the kitchen, under a lightbulb he had forgotten to replace, with the letter from Princeton in her hand. “Tell me,” she had said. “How am I supposed to compete with a dead nun?” Failing his tenure evaluation, because he already knew he would fail.
Marie de la Roche had not failed. She had succeeded at going mad, at committing suicide, at becoming a saint. She had stepped through the Threshold.
The question. His mind crawled around it like a snail.
Valentin would get through, because the Questioner liked him. Look at the way she had answered him tonight. She didn’t like Berkowitz. The question. His mind crawled around and around it, in the darkness.
* * *
V. faith, like a seagull hanging in mid-air
Berkowitz woke with the sun shining on his face and a headache that made him long for swift decapitation. Seeing no sign of breakfast, he walked to the moss garden. Valentin was standing with his hands in his pockets, staring at the central rocks.
“Sleep well?” asked Berkowitz. His voice sounded unnaturally loud, and his tongue was a piece of lead covered with felt.
“No,” said Valentin. “That is, I did not sleep. She was very firm, the petit cochon.” He smiled to himself.
“What do you think the question will be?” asked Berkowitz. He had no desire to learn the details of Pigwoman’s anatomy.
Valentin shrugged and touched a rock with the tip of his shoe. “A little gray stone. Just what one would expect, no?”
Stagman walked into the courtyard. He looked at Valentin and said, “The Ambiguous Threshold.”
“My turn,” said Valentin. “The one of the vowels has already gone.”
“Good luck,” said Berkowitz.
“Mon ami,” said Valentin, “I suspect luck has nothing to do with it.”
When Valentin had gone, Berkowitz walked around the garden, looking at the Outer Islands. Rocks, no different than the ones in the central cluster. Rocks scattered across a carpet of moss.
He looked down at his pajamas. They were badly wrinkled, and one sleeve was spotted with soup. Didn’t that prove this was a dream? Showing up for an exam in pajamas. One of the classic scenarios. Lucky he wasn’t naked. He wondered if Marie de la Roche had been.
“The Ambiguous Threshold.” Stagman was waiting for him. Berkowitz felt a sudden impulse to shake him by the shoulders and beg him to say something, anything, else—to get one real answer in this place. His stomach gave a queasy rumble. They could at least have fed him breakfast.
Instead, he followed Stagman into the garden. They passed between rosebushes that seemed to whisper as he walked by. Berkowitz looked closely and realized, with distaste, that the petals on the roses were pink tongues. They passed a fountain, in which waterlilies croaked like frogs. In alcoves on either side of the path, ornamental cherries were weeping on the heads of stone nymphs that were evidently turning into foxes, owls, rabbits—or all of them at once. He brushed against a poppy, which fluttered sepals that looked like lashes.
Beyond the fountain was a hedge of Featherbushes, with an opening cut into it, like an arch. Berkowitz followed Stagman through the archway.
The hedge grew in a circle, its only opening the one they had passed through. Grass grew over the ground, so soft under his slippers that Berkowitz wanted to take them off and walk barefoot. He had often gone barefoot as a child, but he could not remember what it felt like, walking on grass. The grass was spotted with daisies that were, for once, actually daisies.
At the center of the circle was a stone arch, shaped like the arch in the hedge, but built of the same blocks as the harbor and the castle. Its top and sides were irregular, and broken blocks lay scattered on the grass beside it, as though it were the final remnant of some monumental architecture. Sitting on one of those blocks was the Questioner.
“Good morning, Professor,” she said. Today she was wearing a blue dress decorated with bits of glass. Her hair hung in two braids tied with blue ribbons.
“Good morning,” said Berkowitz, trying to put as much irony into his voice as he could with a felted tongue. The silence in the circle made him uncomfortable. Even the sound of the fountain was muted.
The Questioner rose and said, “Are you ready for the Question?”
“I guess,” he said. He looked at Stagman, waiting with his hands folded together, like the Dalai Lama. This had to be a dream.
“Would you like to step through the Threshold?”
“What,” said Berkowitz, “you mean now?”
“That is the Question, Professor. The only Question there is. Would you like to step through the Threshold?”
Berkowitz stared at her, and then at the arch. “You mean that thing?” Through it he could see the hedge, and grass spotted with daisies.
The Questioner sighed. “That thing is the Threshold. Everything you see around you, including myself, is what you might call an emanation of it. If you step through it, you will proceed to the Outer Islands.”
“So that’s the whole test?”
“There is no test,” said the Questioner. “There is only the Question. Would you like to step through the Threshold?”
“What if I don’t?” asked Berkowitz.
“You will, of course, return to the Inner Islands.”
“You mean I’ll be back at the university?”
“Yes,” said the Questioner. “You will return to your life, as though you had never left it. You will forget that you once stood on the Threshold, or you will think of it as a dream whose details you can never quite remember.”
“And if I do?”
The Questioner tugged at one of her braids. For the first time, she looked like an impatient child. “You will, of course, proceed to the Outer Islands.” She added, slowly and with emphasis, “As I have previously explained.”
“What about the university?”
“You will appear to have died. Probably of a heart attack. Your diet, Professor, is particularly conducive.” She gave him a lopsided smile, which looked almost sympathetic. “Unless you would prefer suicide?”
“Died?” said Berkowitz. “No one said anything about dying. If I go back to the Inner Islands, whatever they are, will I ever come here again?”
“No one gets more than one chance to stand on the Threshold.”
“Why?” asked Berkowitz. “Look, here are the things I want to know. What exactly are the Outer Islands? What will I be if I go there? Will I be me or something else, like a chicken man with daisies growing out of my head?”
“Enough,” said the Questioner. She was no longer smiling. “I am a questioner, not an answerer. When Marie de la Roche stepped through the Threshold, she said,
la foi, une mouette suspendue
au milieu de l’air
Professor Berkowitz, will you step through the Threshold?”
Berkowitz looked at her, standing beside the archway. He looked at the arch itself, and through it at the hedge. A breeze ruffled the feathers on the bushes.
He thought of returning to the house they had rented, without Helen. Without the smell of her vegetarian lasagna, without her voice, which would suddenly, even while reading the newspaper, begin reciting “Jabberwocky.” To his bookshelves, now relatively bare. He thought of gray rocks scattered across a moss courtyard. Of the collected works of Keats, a woman with a flamingo on her head, roses whispering as he walked by. Of the university, and his students with their ringing cell phones. Perhaps Helen would call. He did not think so.
Then he looked at Stagman, who was rubbing the side of one furred cheek. This was a dream, and next week was his tenure evaluation.
“No,” he said. The Questioner nodded with finality. He looked at her for an excruciating moment, then put his hands over his eyes. He waited to wake up.
“Professor Berkowitz Stands at the Threshold” was originally published in Polyphony 2 (April 2003). It was reprinted in Year’s Best Fantasy 4 (2004), and in the short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss (2006).
Fadz can be found occasionally updating his blog (http://www.fadzjohanabas.com), sharing random thoughts on Twitter (Fadz_Johanabas), and lurking around on Google+ (still getting acquainted with it).
Flight of the Ibis
“Master, I am afraid.”
Issa kept his eyes trained on the curved ceremonial dagger resting on a bed of rare white silk. Even in the dim slivers of light whispering through the stone grills on the ceiling, the ebony dagger made from star metal gleamed, as if glowing with an inner light of its own. Clear, crystalline veins ran along its length, glittering like the Red Sea at midday.
“Only the bravest of men could say what you have said.” The High Priest of Amun kept a respectful distance behind Issa, but his soft voice carried clear and pure in the high-ceilinged Hypostyle Hall. “What you have been committed to is a rare and great honor, child.”
Issa sighed, his shoulders slumped. “The honor, the burden, is too great for me to bear. This was supposed to be my brother’s destiny, not mine.”
“And who are you to question the wisdom of the Gods?”
Issa turned to face the High Priest. The tall, austere man’s forehead was creased with stern lines. Standing this close, he looked more imposing in his leopard skin cloak, his shaved and oiled head gleaming.
“Forgive me, Master. I did not mean to be impudent.”
Issa expected to be chastised, but he did not expect to hear the chuckle escaping the High Priest’s lips.
“There is nothing to forgive, child. The Gods’ works are beyond our understanding. Have faith that they have chosen you for a reason.”
“I am just a scribe.”
“Just a scribe? You sound ashamed when you should be proud. I have seen you in the Hall of Records late at night, translating ancient scripts for others to print. Your work is exemplary. You are not just a scribe.”
For a brief moment, Issa’s chest rose with pride. To his knowledge, the High Priest never praised anyone. Then he looked at his right arm, dangling shriveled and useless like a dry branch. When he looked up, he knew the High Priest noticed where his eyes had lingered.
“You have survived, you have prospered all your life without the use of your right arm. Do not think yourself unworthy in the eyes of the Gods. They have chosen you, child.”
Issa nodded and kept his eyes on the floor between them, humbled by the High Priest’s words. He still had doubts, but he did not wish to shame himself further in front of his revered Master.
“Come, child. There is something you need to see.”
The High Priest walked past Issa to the back of the great hall. Issa followed quietly, and stopped to face the wall that was filled from ceiling to floor with hieroglyphic murals recording the history of Mother Kemet and the city of Waset from its founding. He watched as the High Priest disappeared into the darkness and reappeared in another pool of light near the eastern end of the wall.
“Here,” he said. “Read this.”
Having spent years as a temple scribe, Issa knew the murals decorating the back wall by heart. The High Priest was standing before the section that depicted the arrival of the Aether, encompassing the Heavens over a thousand years ago during the construction of the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Along with the Aether, the Gods had returned and raised their children out of darkness and ignorance. The High Priest pointed at a picture of an ibis, the representation of the great vessel lying dormant just outside the walls of Ipet-Sut. Beside it was an empty space the length of two hands.
“Your place, child, is here on this wall. This empty space will be adorned with the record of your sacrifice. Not even I am worthy of that honor.”
Issa felt his breath catch. Never in his life had he dreamed of being remembered by people other than his parents. He felt his shoulders weighted down by an oppressive weight. This was not what he wanted.
“The eclipse will not take place for another three days,” the High Priest added, not taking his eyes off the wall. “Go home. Make peace with your family, with yourself.”
“What if I do not come back?”
“I have faith in you even though you lack faith in yourself.”
* * *
The ship Issa boarded docked just before the branching of the Nile at the Delta, where the wide waters churned yellow with mud. Issa could see barges of varying sizes transporting trade goods and foodstuffs down- and upriver. After his father had sent him to Ipet-Sut at the heart of Waset at the age of six, Issa managed to visit his home in Lower Kemet three, at most five times a year. Even so, not much had changed in the past fifteen years. The smell of dried fish hung heavy in the humid air, burying deep into his nostrils. Flies abounded, flying between people and wares. Issa took off his white linen headdress and swatted the insects that buzzed too close.
The sandals he wore did not help much in preventing mud from soaking his feet. Issa sloshed and shouldered his way through the throng of folks congregating around the dock. Men and women alike haggled for wares at the top of their lungs, from wheat and other grains, to clothing and jewelry, and to the finer barley beers of Upper Kemet. The fineries here were crude compared to those made by master craftsmen of Waset; people of the Delta would never be able to afford such jewelry. The market scene was both familiar and alien to Issa at the same time.
More than once he had to nudge and force his way through the crowd. More than once he had to avert his gaze from people who openly stared and pointed at his shriveled right arm. Likely they were jeering at him, calling him a living mummy, a name he had earned among the scribes and temple workers. Had he slung his palette over his shoulder as tradition dictated, common folk would show him more respect. But soon enough Issa would be the center of the whole of Kemet’s attention. He needed this anonymity. Nevertheless, some of them noticed the fine quality of his linen tunic, for they lowered their eyes and made way for him to pass by.
Just before he left the market, Issa saw a poster made of papyrus paper nailed onto a board. The black ink print showed an illustration of the great vessel back in Waset, and below it was news of the ritual that would take place during the eclipse. Not many people of the Delta knew how to read, but Issa was thankful his name had not been mentioned. He stared at the illustration for a while before continuing his walk home.
By the time Issa’s house was within his sight, the sun was well into its descent toward the western horizon. His mud-caked legs ached, and his mouth and throat were parched from the sweltering heat. The square single storey mud-brick hut was just as he remembered. His father’s fishing net was splayed on a rope tied between two stunted mangrove trees, signaling that he was home. The old net was well-maintained, obvious even from afar. Salted fish lay on the ground near the net. Issa could not help but wonder if his parents’ life would go on as usual like this when he was no longer around. Issa pushed the thought away and strode home.
He hesitated in front of the crude door made of planks. He heard his parents conversing with each other, but the words were too muffled for him to make out. He settled with just listening to the tone and sound of their voices.
“Mother,” Issa finally called out when he could no longer bear standing in silence. “Father?”
His mother pulled opened the door and rushed out to wrap him in a tight embrace. She stood on tiptoes for she was almost a full head shorter than him, but that did not make her grip any less strong. Issa breathed in her comforting scent of earth and salted fish.
“I had hoped you would come back to see us. The Gods have answered my prayers.” She held his arms and studied him. “You haven’t been eating well. What do they feed you there? You’re all bones!”
He in turn studied her. The fine linen tunic he had brought home for her was stained and yellowed with use. He should have stopped by the marketplace in Waset to buy more for her. She wore no finery, and her shoulder-length hair had more white than he remembered. Her olive skin was tanned brown where his was much fairer from spending all those years indoors. Her fingers were rough and calloused, and Issa felt a pang of guilt; his left hand, though permanently stained with layers of ink, was soft as a babe’s skin.
“You look no better off yourself,” Issa replied with a smile.
“Come, make yourself comfortable. I am preparing dinner.”
Issa followed his mother into the small hut and saw his father sitting by the window, repairing his second net. Age was catching up to him, but he was still the strong, broad-shouldered man Issa remembered. His father stopped mending the net and bored straight into Issa’s eyes.
“What are you doing here? You are supposed to be at the temple for the ritual.”
“The High Priest sent me home. I have time.”
His father grunted and continued mending his net. Issa settled down on his own rickety bed and burned into his memory the familiarity of his home: the scents of fish and stew being cooked, his mother humming an old lullaby in the kitchen, the swishing sound of shuffling net, the soft heat emanating from the ochre walls, warmed by the sun, and the cool floor at his feet. Outside, the riverbank was teeming with life. The calls of ibises and geese lulled Issa into closing his heavy lids.
When his mother woke him up, the sun was setting, bathing the land with an orange glow. Dinner was served on the uneven surface of the wooden table, illuminated by the single oil lamp in the hut. Issa stretched and yawned as his mother retreated to put food into clay bowls. The three of them ate in silence until midway, when his father spoke up.
“You are going back to Waset in the morning?”
Issa played with his food, weighing his answer. He looked at each of his parents’ faces in turn. “I do not want to go back there.”
The initial silence was deafening. When his father spoke again, his voice was soft and even, the growl of a leopard ready to pounce. “Are you out of your mind? Do you wish to shame our family?”
“I do not wish for anything, Father. This fate is not mine. Akil was supposed to be the one.”
“Your brother is dead!” His father’s fist slammed onto the table, toppling his bowl with a loud clang, spilling stew and bread on the floor.
“And I wish to live.”
Issa heard his mother catch her breath and felt her holding his knee. This was breaking her heart, he knew, but surely they understood his predicament?
“What do you plan to do then?” He pointed at Issa’s right arm. “You’re useless as a fisherman.”
Issa registered the disgusted look in his father’s face before he stormed out of the hut. They had never been close. Akil was the one who had been close to his father’s heart. Akil was learning to be a fisherman just like his father, as was tradition with firstborn sons, before he was enlisted into the army. Akil looked handsome and majestic driving a chariot. He was deadly with a bow. The Vizier himself had taken personal interest in Akil’s meteoric rise in ranks, and approached him not long ago with an offer of a lifetime. Akil had agreed, committing his family with this great honor.
That was before they carried him back home from a skirmish with an arrow shaft protruding from his chest.
Issa was never close with his father, but he had never looked at Issa with open disgust and hostility either. He turned to his mother for support, but he could only see the tears welling in her eyes.
* * *
Issa sat on a stump by the riverbank. He watched the ibises scattered across the marshy shallows, their pristine white feathers making them look like a layer of cloud had settled on the surface of the river. Their stilt-like legs made tiny ripples on the otherwise calm waters, and their discordant warbles broke the stillness of the air. Issa ignored the mosquitoes, only once in a while scratching his neck or legs. At night, the riverbank looked even more beautiful, and the Nile gave off an ethereal bluish-green glow, reflecting the Aether that spread across the Heavens.
It was never truly dark, not even in the deepest of night. Issa craned his neck and studied the sky. The moon hung low in the heavens, a pale round eye that watched over the world in silence. Beyond and around it were the majestic clouds of Aether, nebulous masses of blue and green and orange, and every shades in between. The Aether had always been a mystery to the brightest of scholars, appearing one night and bringing gradual enlightenment. Showers of rock and metal that fell from the Aether teemed with beautiful, unfamiliar plant life. Scholars knew there was more to the Aether than they currently knew, possibly more complex life as well, perhaps the dwelling of the Gods themselves, but it was always beyond the reach of humans.
Issa tried not to think about what he should be facing instead of cowering here at home. In some of the ancient papyrus scrolls he transcribed, the heavens at night had been said to be black velvet, littered with cold, distant points of light called stars and constellations. Issa tried to imagine a dark, empty sky, but couldn’t. The ever-shifting clouds of Aether were so beautiful, so divine. A small part of him was curious about the Aether and what lay beyond it. But a bigger, dominant part of him was deeply rooted in the harsh lands of Mother Kemet, and among the scrolls in the sacred Hall of Records.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
Issa’s mother stood beside him with a woolen shawl slung across her shoulders. Issa leaned against her and felt her trace the contours of his face.
“I miss Akil.” Issa held an unspoken jealousy toward his elder brother for his charm and strength, but most of all for his wholeness, for his ability to use both arms. He still did, even though his elder brother had passed away. But he loved Akil, and missed him dearly.
“As do I,” his mother replied. “A mother is not meant to outlive her children.”
“Is he still angry?”
“Your father is grieving over one son, and now he has to start grieving for the only one he has left.”
“He hates me, doesn’t he?”
Issa’s mother let out a long sigh and sat next to him. “Angry, yes. But your father can never hate you.”
“You saw his face. There was nothing but contempt.”
Issa’s mother took his atrophied right hand in hers. “When you were born, the midwives found your birthing cord wrapped around your arm. They knew it was dead, and they thought you were better off left in the wilds, as it would be kinder for you and for us.”
Issa felt himself stiffen. He had never heard this tale before. “Why didn’t you?” he whispered.
“I was weak and only half awake. It was your father who stayed their hands. He said you were a blessing from the gods.”
Issa choked back his tears. His father had said those words.
“And he is right. You are a blessing. Your father sent you to the Temple of Light to learn to read and write, not because of your arm, but because you were quick to learn everything. He knew you were meant for great heights.”
“I do not wish to die.”
“None of us do. It pains me to think you will no longer come and visit. I am happy you came back.”
“You made my favorite dishes.”
“It is the least I can do for you.”
Issa turned to see silent tears flowing freely from his mother’s eyes, glittering like precious diamonds from the southern lands. She was looking at the heavens, and her shoulders were straight and unmoving, but she did not try to hide her tears.
“I don’t know what to decide, Mother.”
She turned to face him then, and cupped his face in her warm hands. “Whatever it is you decide, know that you will not cause us shame. We are proud of you.” She kissed his forehead and stood up, squeezing his shoulders one last time before walking back into their hut.
Issa stayed seated on the stump long after the calls of the ibises had subsided, and the only sounds he heard were the lapping of the river on the shore, and the songs of the crickets. When he entered his home, both his parents were already asleep. He committed their peaceful forms into memory before drifting off to slumber.
When Issa woke up late in the morning, his father was nowhere to be seen, along with both his nets. His mother had prepared a simple breakfast of bread and fruits, and she sat looking at him as he ate. Issa knew he had to return to Waset no matter what he would decide. He owed the High Priest of Amun that much. Issa and his mother wept their goodbyes, and when there were no tears left to shed, she packed food for his trip upriver. She gave him another long hug before he left, and he felt his feet heavier with every step away from home.
As he reached the last hillock before the dock, Issa saw his father waiting there. Issa hesitated at first, but approached him nonetheless. They stood looking at each other for long moments, his much taller and broader father looking as imposing as the High Priest. He suddenly broke the tense stillness by embracing Issa in a fierce hug.
“I love you, son. I’m proud of you.”
Issa’s breath caught in his throat. His father had never said those words before, not to him, not to Akil. He returned his father’s embrace.
“I love you, Father.”
“The Gods watch over you.”
Throughout the trip upriver, Issa kept replaying the conversations he had with his parents. It was all that kept him from running away. When he finally reached Ipet-Sut, the whole temple grounds were abuzz with talks of a substitute. He rushed to meet the High Priest of Amun with both dread and hope warring in his head.
“Issa, I knew you’d come back.” The High Priest was smiling.
“Is it true? There is a substitute?”
“The other High Priests did not share my faith in you. They feared you would not come back, and this opportunity comes only once.”
“If I choose not to proceed? What happens then?”
The lines on the High Priest’s face deepened with his frown. He studied Issa’s face before replying. “You will continue to work as temple scribe. Your flair for the written word is much too precious to waste. But is that what you want?”
“I need time to think.”
Issa wanted to say more, but the High Priest had already turned his back. Issa felt hurt by the curt dismissal, but more than that, for the first time in months he felt a glimmer of hope.
* * *
Before he left, Issa’s mother had told him that his life was in the Gods’ hands, and that there was nothing finer a mother could ask for her son. When he stepped into the sacred lake just outside the Temple of Amun with the first rays of sunlight, Issa knew the Gods had given him a choice, that he was no longer forced to sacrifice his life because of circumstance.
Priests from each of the temples within the grounds of Ipet-Sut attended him in this ritual cleansing. They had shaven off every strand of hair from his body so that he could immerse himself into the still, pristine waters of the sacred lake and emerge anew, reborn with no sins, no wrongs. They lathered him with scented oils until his body gleamed as much as the vessel waiting between the Avenues of Ram and Sphinx. Finally they clothed him with a simple robe of finest white silk and clamped a thick belt of pure gold around his waist. Its weight made his steps heavy, but his spirit was light. He knew he had made the right choice.
The procession line was long and grand. Issa sat on a palanquin carried by ten temple guards, behind the statue of Amun carried by four guards. The priests behind him chanted an ancient prayer praising all the major Gods watching over Mother Kemet, their voices beautiful and resounding throughout Ipet-Sut.
Issa had seen the vessel since its construction, but it still took his breath away. Shaped like an arrowhead, the vessel had been forged from rocks and metals that fell from the Aether. Hieroglyphic reliefs were carved into its white outer surface. It was said that Thoth Himself had appeared in the young Pharaoh’s dream one night and inspired the god-king to gather sky rocks and metals and craft them into such a vessel that would unlock the mysteries of the Aether. Pharaoh himself had designed and overseen the completion of the vessel. He had named it Ibis, after the sacred bird of the Gods.
As he stepped off the palanquin to stand on a platform in front of the vessel, Issa noticed a detail he had never seen before. Near the narrow, pointed bow, a relief of a masculine face with closed eyes and mouth had been carved, beautiful and perfectly symmetrical. The vessel itself was large, the length of six great elephants from bow to stern, and three from wingtip to wingtip. The face was only slightly larger than a man’s, but it stood out in its fine detail.
Two young priests helped Issa shrug off his belt and robe, and he stood naked on the platform in front of the whole of Waset. Priests in their finest white linen tunics stood around the platform and vessel in a horseshoe pattern, readying themselves for the ritual. Common folk crammed against one another farther off, and Issa did not know if his parents were among them. He hoped they were safe at home. Then he saw another smaller procession making its way toward a higher-raised platform not far from where he was standing. Pharaoh Ramses himself was at the head of the procession, followed closely by his Great Wife and the Vizier. High Priests of each temple walked behind them at a respectful distance, their leopard skin cloaks billowing in the desert wind. As Pharaoh, his Vizier and his Great Wife stepped onto the pavilion, one of the High Priests broke off from the procession and walked toward Issa’s platform. It was none other than the High Priest of Amun, Issa’s master and mentor.
“I told you I have faith in you, did I not?” The High Priest awarded Issa with a warm smile.
Issa nodded at the High Priest and turned his head toward the pavilion. “He is beautiful.” He had never seen Pharaoh up close before. The god-king was a child, his bare chest oiled, golden headdress and beard rings glinting sunlight, bathing him in a halo. The boy, the god-king, was all Issa could concentrate on.
The High Priest chuckled. “He has that effect on people.” Then he cleared his throat to gain Issa’s full attention. “I will ask you this again, child. Are you ready to face your destiny?”
This time, there was no hesitation. “I am, Master.”
“May the Gods welcome you into their arms. It is time.”
Both of them looked up, and saw a small dark shadow creeping at the right edge of the great fiery orb. The eclipse had begun. The High Priest took out the ebony ceremonial dagger and laid it flat on his palms.
“Ptah, Hathor, Osiris, Maat, Horus, Thoth. Amun-Ra!” The invocation of the Gods were soft at first, spoken by the male priests that surrounded Issa’s platform. Issa felt the skin at the back of his neck prickle with each name.
“Ptah, Hathor, Osiris, Maat, Horus, Thoth. Amun-Ra!” This time, melodic female voices joined in, and the chant became a song, rising in volume and intensity.
“Ptah, Hathor, Osiris, Maat, Horus, Thoth. Amun-Ra!”
The chant continued as the shadow crept further to engulf the sun. Before long, Issa could only concentrate on the resounding “Amun-Ra!” His heart was beating faster; he still felt fear deep inside. He looked up at the progressing eclipse.
As the shadow completed a full circle, the last rays of the sun flared brilliantly, as if unwilling to give up its dominance. Then, true darkness. In those brief moments, Issa finally saw the black velvet sky he had read in the ancient scrolls. A fat tear rolled down his cheek. After that brief darkness, the Aether gradually reappeared, visible as it always was during the night.
Issa knelt down before the High Priest and tried his best to calm his shaking body. He knew the only part not shaking was his dead right arm. Issa chose to face his fears and searched for the calm within his soul.
“Osiris, take my soul and guide me. Amun, take me home.” His voice was barely a whisper, but he saw the High Priest smiling his approval.
Just as the High Priest repositioned the dagger and held its hilt in his right hand, a flock of ibises flew overhead, warbling their discordant song above the voices of the chanting priests. After they had passed, a single white feather floated earthward, and landed at the tip of Issa’s head.
“The Gods have spoken, child,” the High Priest said with an awed edge in his voice. “Your sacrifice has been accepted. May your journey be blessed.”
Issa heard another resounding “Amun-Ra!” His heart beat so hard his chest felt like bursting. He closed his eyes and faced heavenward.
The blade plunged deep into his chest, and his heart stopped beating altogether.
* * *
The whole congregation, including Pharaoh, held their breath as Issa’s form slumped onto the platform. With another brilliant flare, the sun returned in all its glory. The only sound heard throughout the hallowed grounds of Ipet-Sut was that of the billowing winds that carried sand and desert heat.
For long moments, nothing happened. Then, a silver glow came to life on the hieroglyphic depressions on the vessel, Ibis. The High Priest, who was the closest to the vessel, kept his eyes on the carved face on the vessel.
The eyes became slits of golden light at first, but gradually both lids opened fully and blinked like a human’s would. The mouth opened and closed, as if testing the function of the lips.
“I remember that body.” The voice that came from the mouth was raspy and metallic, but rang clear throughout temple grounds. “I remember you.”
The High Priest knew the face was talking to him. He bowed low.
“I have a name. I cannot remember.”
“You were once Issa. You are now Ibis.”
“It is a good name.”
“Your parents will be well taken care of. They will not want for anything their whole lives.”
“Thank you, Master.”
With that, Ibis gazed heavenward. A deep rumble growled at its stern, and intense white flames spewed forth. Heat emanated from the vessel as it angled upward until the arrowhead pointed straight at the heavens.
With a mighty blast, Ibis shot upward, flying toward the Aether.
Ibis surged ever forward, drawn toward a purpose delayed, but not forgotten.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Zen Cho from Malaysia. Zen Cho is a Malaysian writer living in London. Her short stories have appeared in various publications including Strange Horizons, GigaNotoSaurus, Steam-Powered II and Heiresses of Russ. Her work has been nominated for the Selangor Young Talent Awards and the Pushcart Prize. She blogs at http://qian.dreamwidth.org/.
Prudence and the Dragon
There was a dragon in town.
Statues all over the city climbed off their pedestals and went walking about. The Winston Churchill from Parliament Square gave an interview to the BBC, still squinting as if the wind were blowing into its eyes. The statue was appropriately witty, but did not seem to remember anything about World War II. It did, however, have a lot to say about pigeons.
Silver griffins bowled down the streets of the City, tripping up lawyers and outraging bankers, and Winged Victory on the Arch finished her yawn and dropped her arms.
The pigeons grew human bodies, all of which wore suits from Austin Reed. They marched in their thousands into architects’ firms, university admissions offices, food consultancy businesses, struggling non-profits; they stole colleagues’ lunches and strewed cubicles with green-grey feathers. Despite these minor eccentricities they made excellent workers: they had a firm grasp of commercial realities, and never went on Facebook.
For several days every Tesco in the country stocked only pomegranates, nothing else. If you ate the seeds from one of these you vanished and your soul was dispatched to Hades. There was a rash of deaths before anyone realised.
The buses of London turned into giant cats–tigers and leopards and jaguars with hollow bodies in which passengers sat. You could still use your Oyster card on them, but bus usage dropped: the seats were soft and pink and sucked at you in a disturbingly organic way when you sat down, and the buses were given to stopping in the middle of the road to quarrel with one another.
Meanwhile the dragon coiled itself around the tip of the Gherkin and brooded over the city.
Where Prudence came from, spirits were an everyday thing. You knew they were there and you acknowledged them when necessary. You set out the bunga melur for Dato Gong when you were going to build a house, asked permission of the grandfathers and grandmothers before you took a shit in the jungle. You apologised to tree stumps if you kicked them accidentally, and made sure the dead were fed well in the seventh month of the year.
In Britain, people were far too sophisticated to pray to their spirits. Instead, they wrote articles about them. The broadsheets did serious-minded comment pieces about how the dragon was a metaphor for the Labour party in exile from Whitehall. Thaumatologists were quoted explaining that the mere presence of the dragon increased atmospheric magic levels and that was why clothes in Primark were now labelled things like, “Made by enslaved goblins in Fairyland.”
The tabloids wanted to know whether the dragon was receiving benefits. The gossip magazines claimed to have found a woman who was carrying the dragon’s baby. The fashion magazines did spreads on draconic style. This apparently consisted of gaunt models with sunken eyes, swathed in clouds of chiffon and arranged in awkwardly erotic positions on piles of gold coins.
Because Prudence Ong never read newspapers or watched British TV, she maintained a spotlessly pure ignorance of the dragon throughout. She encountered the dragon in a rather more traditional setting. She met him down the pub.
Historically, it was the Sorceror Royal who performed the role of human-dragon liaison, but nobody had been appointed to that office for the past couple of centuries. So it was the mayor who had to take the dragon to the pub, even though he would have preferred to stay in his office and worry about public transport.
He took the dragon to a pub on Lamb’s Conduit Street, where the dragon would not meet anyone the mayor knew. Everyone knew what the dragon’s visit was for, and while the mayor could think of several people he would like to have removed to another dimension, a dragon seemed too blunt and indiscriminate a tool to do it with.
In his human form the dragon was a man–imperially slim, as it says in the poem, with glowing blue-black skin and startlingly pale eyes. He was wearing a heather-grey suit and shining leather shoes. He was exquisite, so much so that when he paused at the entrance to the pub, he drew a gasp from the people inside. Men gazed hungrily at him; women touched their hair.
He didn’t seem to notice the sensation he’d caused.
“It’s considered terribly gauche now to obtain a maiden without first asking her if she wants to be obtained,” he was saying to the mayor. “I assure you, the maiden’s consent is paramount.”
“That’s good to hear,” said the mayor. He was thinking about bicycle lanes.
But he roused himself as they waited at the bar for their drinks. “Of course one would never wish to discard the noble old traditions for no good reason. But it does seem likely that there would be some outcry if there was any incident of—any sort of—anything that might possibly be construed as, er, snatching, if you understand me.”
“Oh no,” said the dragon. He was gazing around the pub with interest, like an alien at the Grand Prix. It wasn’t clear whether he meant that there would be no such incident, or whether he was saying that he didn’t understand the mayor. The mayor did not get the opportunity to clarify, because just then the dragon froze like a dog that had smelt a squirrel. He was staring over the mayor’s shoulder.
The mayor followed the dragon’s gaze to a group sitting at the other end of the room. The attraction was obvious: at the table sat a young woman of dazzling beauty. She was so beautiful even the mayor felt his heart wobble in his chest. But he was a married man and still recovering from his most recent extramarital scandal. He said to the dragon:
“Shall we find a seat?”
They sat next to the girl, of course. The dragon lost no time. He leaned over to the next table. The flowerlike face turned to him.
“Excuse me,” said the dragon. “What is the name of your charming friend?”
“Who?” said the beautiful girl. “You mean Prudence?”
It was only at this point that the mayor noticed the beautiful girl’s friend. She was a small, round-faced woman. Usually, she would have been brown, but just then she was almost fluorescent pink. An empty pint glass sat in front of her.
“Yes?” said Prudence.
She was feeling cross. Alcohol did not suit her and she did not like pubs. She was only there because Pik Mun had asked. Prudence had ordered cider because she did not think it was worth paying £2 for orange juice transferred from a carton to a pint glass, but she was beginning to regret it. Twin tentacles of a headache were slithering along her temples and would soon meet in the middle of her forehead.
She looked at the men who had spoken to Pik Mun. One of them was an intimidatingly beautiful model type in a suit, and the other was a podgy white man with a sort of nose.
The nose-possessing white man blurted, “What, her?”
“Prudence,” murmured the model, as if he were tasting the word and finding it delicious. “It’s so nice to meet you. My name is Zheng Yi.”
“Oh,” said Prudence. She was puzzled. “Why are you named like that?”
“Prudence!” hissed Pik Mun. She smiled at the dragon. “Sorry, my friend’s had a little too much to drink.”
“I told you already I don’t need a whole pint,” grumbled Prudence.
“Could I have your number?” said Zheng Yi.
Prudence knew the answer to this one.
“No,” she said. “I don’t even know you.”
She turned her back on him.
On the bus on the way home, Pik Mun expostulated with her. “I can’t believe you just turn him down like that! And you were so rude to him!”
“It’s not like he’s my friend what,” said Prudence. “I don’t like strangers who think it’s OK to talk to you. If I wanted to talk to them we would be friends already.”
“He was just being friendly,” said Pik Mun. She sighed. “And he was so cute!”
The unfair thing about Pik Mun was that she was intelligent as well as stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks beautiful. She was creative and generous and lively. She danced and painted and wrote poetry and sold her knitted creations to raise funds for asylum seekers, and she had a fanclub of boys who followed her around and made her bad birthday cakes by committee.
These days she went by the name Angela, but when Prudence had first met her in Standard One, at the age of seven, her name had been Pik Mun. Most of the people who knew them found it inexplicable that Angela chose to keep Prudence around, considering that the only book Prudence read was Cheese & Onion and she thought the flamenco was a kind of bird.
But Prudence was the only one among Angela’s friends who still called her Pik Mun. Angela valued history.
She also loved Prudence and wanted her to be happy. She said, “He seem so interesting. He had a Chinese name eh, even though he was so dark skin. Aren’t you curious to find out why?”
“You know I am not really curious one,” said Prudence. She reached up and knocked one of the jaguar’s vertebrae. The jaguar coughed and started inching towards the pavement.
“You asked him if he was mixed in the pub what,” Angela pointed out.
“Hah?” said Prudence.
“You know, when you asked about his name,” said Angela.
“Oh, that,” said Prudence, but it was her stop.
“You better not regret ah,” said Angela as Prudence stepped out of the bus. “If you change your mind, remember we can always try to Google him, okay!”
So the chance to mention it to Angela passed. But Prudence wondered about it as she walked home. The reason why she had asked the model type about his name was because when she was small, she used to daydream about marrying the pirate Zheng Yi and sailing the waves as an indomitable pirate queen. Zheng Yi had remained her ideal boyfriend until she turned twelve, when she put away childish things. In Prudence’s world, childish things included boyfriends.
Angela would have found that bit of history interesting, but Prudence would probably forget to tell her the next time they saw each other. Prudence shrugged the shoulders of her mind. It was just a coincidence anyway.
On Monday morning, Prudence opened her eyes knowing something was different. Zheng Yi smiled at her.
“Good morning, Prudence,” said Zheng Yi.
Prudence screamed and leapt out of bed.
“Aaaaah!” She picked up the nearest thing to hand and threw the bottle of moisturiser at him. “Aaaaah!” She threw the alarm clock.
Zheng Yi put his hands behind his head and leaned back against the pillows. He was in a black suit with a plum-coloured shirt and silver cufflinks, but at least he’d had the manners to take his shoes off.
“Come live with me and be my love,” he said.
“Aaaah!” A hardcover cookery book winged its way through the air. “Get out or I’ll call the police!”
“You can’t,” said Zheng Yi. Sure enough, Prudence’s mobile phone was nowhere to be found, though she was certain she’d left it on the bedside table before going to sleep the night before. She looked around for the telephone but that had vanished as well. It had turned into a ferret and escaped out of the window during the night, but Prudence didn’t learn about this until much later.
Nothing magical had happened to the mobile phone. It was sitting in Zheng Yi’s left pocket.
“You have no reason to fear me,” said Zheng Yi. “I won’t do anything to you against your will. I’m just making you an offer.”
Prudence stopped throwing things. She glared at him suspiciously.
“What?” said Zheng Yi.
“What’s wrong with your teeth?”
Had his teeth really looked like opals? The next time Zheng Yi smiled they were normal teeth, very white against his dark skin.
“Come away with me,” said Zheng Yi. “I will show you sorcerous wonders the likes of which you have never imagined. You will learn how to put your hand into fire and grasp its beating heart. You will speak to fairies, and they will speak back if they know what’s good for them. I will teach you the secrets of the moon and the language of the stars.”
Prudence threw the hairdryer at him.
“I’m not interested in astronomy!” she snapped.
The alarm clock had dropped behind the bed, but now it started ringing.
“Oh crap,” said Prudence. She rushed out of the room.
When she came back in she was brushing her teeth. She tugged at Zheng Yi’s shoulder with one hand.
“Get up,” she said. “You can go to the living room, whatever, I don’t care. I need to change. Late for school already!”
The living room and kitchen were open plan because there was not enough space for them to be separate rooms. There were four pieces of toast in the toaster. Prudence was conscious of her duties as a host even when her guest was an importunate model with the name of a pirate.
When Prudence came back in, Zheng Yi was inspecting the stethoscope on the dining table.
“What is this?” he said.
“Don’t play with my stethoscope!” said Prudence. She picked up a sheaf of notes on the colon. “You can have toast and kaya. After that must go already. I got to go for lecture, and you can’t get out of the building without the keys. How’d you get in anyway?”
Zheng Yi gave her a long look.
“I’m a dragon,” he said. His eyes contained galaxies.
Unfortunately the comets and nebulae were wasted on Prudence. She was taking the kaya and butter out of the fridge.
“Such thing,” she scoffed. “In my country this we call stalker.”
“You are amusing,” said Zheng Yi. “Has it not occurred to you to be frightened of me at all?”
“You said I don’t need to be scared of you what,” said Prudence. “No?”
“Usually people don’t believe me when I say that,” said Zheng Yi pensively. “Humans are so narrow-minded. A little fire breathing, a few maidens here and there, and suddenly you’re not to be trusted.”
Prudence was only listening to about forty percent of what Zheng Yi was saying, which was good because Zheng Yi only meant forty percent of anything he said. She lobbed the jar of kaya at him and he caught it.
“No need to talk so much,” she said. “Spread your own kaya.”
Angela had saved a seat in the lecture theatre for Prudence. It was next to the aisle, but by the time Prudence had opened her folder and uncapped her pen, this was no longer the case. She looked up to find Zheng Yi sitting next to her.
“Oh my gosh,” whispered Angela. “He’s a medic too? He’s a bit old to be a student, right?”
Prudence had parted from Zheng Yi on her doorstep. She narrowed her eyes at him. If Zheng Yi had not been far too elegant to grin, she would have sworn that that was what he was doing.
“No,” said Zheng Yi. “We came from her flat.”
Angela’s eyes went round.
“We had a business breakfast,” said Prudence, glaring at him. “Zheng Yi is going to be my…my—”
“Everything,” said Zheng Yi.
Angela laid a hand on Prudence’s arm. She looked a little faint. “Don’t you think this is moving too fast? You only met day before yesterday!”
“Pik Mun, he’s right there. Whisper also he can hear you,” said Prudence. “Zheng Yi is just saying that he is going to be doing everything for me. He is my personal assistant.”
“Huh?” said Angela.
“Is that a yes?” said Zheng Yi.
“He’s a management consultant,” said Prudence, inventing wildly. “But he’s thinking of changing career to become doctor. We bump into each other on the street yesterday and he ask me if he can shadow me, so I said OK lor, provided he help me with stuff.”
“Like what kind of stuff?” said Angela.
“Like taking notes,” said Prudence. “You know I find it hard to concentrate on what the lecturer’s speaking when I’m writing.” She shoved a notebook and pen at Zheng Yi. “Nah. You take notes.”
She waited till the lecture had started and Angela had turned her attention elsewhere. Then she hissed, “And no, that is not a yes!”
Zheng Yi was taking notes of the lecture with surprising diligence. He paused in the middle of a sentence to turn limpid sad eyes on her.
“I ask for your sake as much as mine,” he said. “To refuse would be to miss the opportunity of a lifetime. Any magician would give his left eye for what I’m offering you. Really, you’ll regret it tremendously if you say no.”
“I don’t even know what’s the question you’re asking!”
“Perhaps over time you will figure it out,” said Zheng Yi. He turned back to his notes.
“What’s that mean?” said Prudence, but Zheng Yi raised his finger to his lips.
“Shh, she’s listing the various drugs for treatment,” he said. “This is important stuff.”
He was right, which was a pity, as Prudence was not going to have any record of it. This became apparent when Zheng Yi handed her his notes.
“What’s this?” said Prudence.
“It’s the notes of the lecture you asked me to take,” said Zheng Yi.
“I can’t read this,” said Prudence. She could not even look at the symbols for long without feeling uncomfortable. The symbols seemed to writhe on the page.
“It’s written in Draconic Runes,” said Zheng Yi. “Much more interesting than any human language. Each ideogram is itself a poem on the qualities of each drug your teacher discussed, echoing the structure of each sentence, which discusses the same subject but reveals new layers of meaning and context underpinning your teacher’s every utterance, and every sentence joins together into a giant ideogram, an uber-ideogram if you will, the significance of which is, ‘I love Pru—’”
“Can’t you write in English?” said Prudence.
“No,” said Zheng Yi.
Another thing Zheng Yi could not do was take hints. He stopped sleeping on the bed after Prudence explained that this could only lead to grievous bodily harm, but he did not go away.
Fortunately, he was good at cooking. And he would have watered the tomato plants every day, except that this had two results: first, the tomatoes thrived; second, they grew faces and began to talk. Prudence asked him to stop because she didn’t like the way their eyes followed her around the flat, but after that the tomatoes stopped meeting her eyes and started weeping and begging for mercy whenever Zheng Yi came by their pot.
He was a difficult person to manage.
Also Prudence suspected that Angela was beginning to see through her ruse.
“Does he live here?” said Angela. She had come over for a cookout on Friday night, as was their tradition.
“No,” said Prudence. “Why you ask?”
Angela looked at the sofa she was sitting on. “Then why got blanket and pillow here one?”
“I like to lie down when I watch TV,” said Prudence.
“He’s not actually doing work experience, right?”
“Yes,” said Prudence. “I mean, no. I mean, he is! Why are you asking?”
Angela cast a glance towards the kitchen area, where Zheng Yi was bending over a bubbling pot of something or other. She leaned closer. “Your tomato got face! And I found this on your bathroom floor!”
She held up what looked like a chip of black marble, cut marvellously thin and translucent, with veins of gold running through it. Colours shifted on its smooth surface, as they do on an opal when you turn it this way and that in the light. Prudence was reminded of teeth.
She took it from Angela. It was less brittle than she thought it would be, bending like a thin sheet of plastic when she folded it.
“I think it’s a scale,” said Angela. “Like fish scale. I think your personal assistant is the dragon.”
Prudence gave her a blank look.
“Hah, don’t tell me you don’t even know about the dragon,” said Angela.
Prudence tried to look intelligent. It didn’t work.
“Prudence!” said Angela. “Don’t you even read the Evening Standard? Ah, don’t answer. This is what happens when you only read textbook. The dragon came to London, what, a few weeks ago? Something like that. It comes to London every one hundred, two hundred years like that. The British say it comes to choose a maiden and then it takes the maiden away to live in this other dimension where the dragons live. Forever!”
Prudence thought about this.
“What for?” she said.
“How I know?” said Angela. “Got a lot of theory but nobody knows for sure. The dragons don’t explain. People say maybe having a human helps the dragon to do its magic spells. But you don’t know, Prudence. Maybe they eat the humans.”
“Zheng Yi can’t be a dragon lah,” said Prudence. “Number one, he looks like human. Number two, he likes kaya toast. If you eat kaya toast, what for you want to eat human?”
“Then the tomatoes leh?”
“Hm,” said Prudence.
“What explanation do you have for a random guy who just shows up one day and follows you around, then?” said Angela.
“I thought maybe he’s homeless,” said Prudence.
“Prudence—” Angela dropped her hands in her lap. “OK. All that never mind. But tell me honestly, OK. Do you like him? Like, like him like him?”
“No,” said Prudence. “I don’t even like him with one like.”
“I heard that,” said Zheng Yi from the kitchen.
“Then are you just going to let him hang around?”
“How to make him go away? When I try to call police I only get the Worshipful Company of Glaziers receptionist,” said Prudence. “But never mind. I sleep with baseball bat one side, kitchen knife on the other side. And you know I do taekwondo.”
“I also heard that,” said Zheng Yi.
“Good!” said Prudence.
Angela still looked worried.
“At least you’ll tell me if you are going to another dimension, right?” she said. “You know we booked the bed-and-breakfast in Lake District already.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” said Prudence.
“I live in hope,” said Zheng Yi, coming to the table. He laid a crockpot of stew on the table.
With a supernatural effort at politeness, Angela said, “Oh, that smells delicious. What is it?”
“Potatoes, carrots, swede, some grated apple for sweetness, fairies for protein. But only non-sentient ones,” said Zheng Yi reassuringly. “Fairies are terribly good for you.”
They were also quite crunchy, and froze well.
Prudence was by nature an incurious person, but she did find herself wondering about Zheng Yi. Dragon or no dragon, having him around did not change Prudence’s life appreciably. She taught the tomatoes to sing songs so they would not get bored when she was away. She went to the hospital and for her lectures. Zheng Yi followed her around when she did not object and went about his own mysterious affairs the rest of the time.
They were grocery shopping at Sainsbury’s one day when Prudence said abruptly, “How come dragons need maidens?”
Zheng Yi paused in the act of picking up a Basics bag of Onions of Forgetting.
“So you agree that I’m a dragon?” he said.
“I didn’t say that,” said Prudence quickly.
“One keeps explaining to humans, but they never believe one,” said Zheng Yi. “It’s a very simple reason. It just gets lonely. After thousands of years alone in a cave, one longs for companionship.”
“Why don’t you hang out with the other dragons?”
“Other dragons are bastards,” said Zheng Yi. “I moved out of my mother’s cave after my mother tried to rip my guts out.”
“Granted, I had tried to steal her Tiara of Clairvoyance,” said Zheng Yi. “Bad idea. Never try to steal anything shiny from a dragon.”
“Not to say I believe you,” said Prudence. “But say you are a dragon. Why choose me for what?”
Zheng Yi stopped in the middle of the aisle to take her hand. They were standing between the pasta and the coffee. His eyes were the deepest bluey-green. Prudence had seen that colour only once before, out of a train window in Japan, speeding past mountain rivers that had taken on the colour of the dark-green pine forests around them.
Zheng Yi spoke in a low, velvety voice:
“You,” he said, “are tremendously funny.”
Prudence jerked her hand away.
“Must get some rice,” she said. “We’re running out.”
It was all fine and good when Zheng Yi was just making himself useful, but then he became a problem. The problem was, Angela fell in love with him.
Prudence was not very good at this sort of thing. She did not really understand feelings, so it puzzled her when Angela began to act funny.
Angela started having other things to do on Friday night. Friday night cookouts were not a sacred tradition; they were allowed to miss Fridays if they had stuff on. But three Fridays passed by and Angela was busy every week.
Of course they still saw each other, at lectures and lunch and so on, but she was different then as well. They would be talking naturally, laughing away as they had always done, and then Prudence would say something about the food in her freezer and Angela’s face would just change. Prudence did not need to be sensitive to notice change in a face she had known for so long, though she did not understand what it meant.
It was worst when Zheng Yi was around. Then Angela was outrageously rude to Zheng Yi, but at the same time he was the only one she had any attention for. She had no time to speak to Prudence.
Perhaps the fight was inevitable. Yet Prudence felt she might somehow have avoided it, if only she were not such a tactless person. She had not even meant what she was saying. They were in a park eating sandwiches after lectures and before clinics, and talking about babies. Angela was a great one for baby-watching.
“That’s a pretty one,” she said, waving her ciabatta at a little curly-haired brown baby. “I think I would like my baby to have curly hair.”
“Where got Chinese got curly hair?” said Prudence.
“I’ll just have to marry somebody non-Chinese lor,” said Angela. Prudence hmed.
“I don’t mind,” said Angela. “My parents are quite chilling about this kind of thing. My auntie got marry a Mat Salleh. Blue eyes, blond hair, everything.”
“Mat Salleh are OK,” said Prudence. “It’s when they’re not-Chinese not-Mat Salleh. Then you see whether your parents are chilling or not. Especially if darker skin.”
Angela made a face. “True.”
They lapsed into silence, Angela considering the merits of each passing baby, and Prudence struggling with her baguette. Despite four years in a sandwich-eating country, she had yet to master this tricky form of food. Her chicken mayonnaise was starting to drip out the other end.
“I think I will name my baby Tristram,” said Angela.
“Very posh,” said Prudence. Perhaps if she started eating from the other end? But then the chicken mayo started coming out of both ends. It was difficult to know what to do.
“Don’t you like Tristram?”
“It’s a bit hard to pronounce,” said Prudence. She caught a piece of chicken before it could make a break for it, and put it in her mouth. “And maybe the other kids will make fun.”
“What you want to name your kids?”
“I don’t want children,” said Prudence. “OK, OK, but if I have to, I wouldn’t name something like Tristram. If I have children already they will probably be bullied.”
“Because they’ll be mixed mah,” said Prudence. “Not so many people are half-reptile.” She was too much entangled in mayo-smeared disaster to observe Angela’s expression, or to notice the way she said, “Oh.”
Prudence managed to get the remainder of the baguette in her mouth and chewed, feeling relieved. Next time she would get sushi to go.
“Are you and Zheng Yi together?” said Angela in a low voice.
“Ngah? Ngro.” Prudence swallowed.
“No,” she repeated. The past five minutes replayed themselves in her head. She had not really been listening to what she had been saying. For some unaccountable reason her cheeks felt hot.
“No lah,” said Prudence. What a ridiculous thing to have said! What could have possessed her to say it? Such things did happen. You said something meaningless, for no reason, to fill the air with noise. It was just embarrassing when other people noticed it. The only thing to do was to pile more noise on top of it until it was forgotten.
“Why so curious? You’re interested, is it?” she said jokingly. “You can have him if you want. I don’t want him.”
Angela’s face closed up, like a gate clanging shut. The voice that came out of that taut pale face was like a stranger’s.
“Well, that’s a remarkably stupid thing to say,” said Angela. “Even for you. And not like you’re known for saying clever things like that.”
Prudence had never seen Angela’s face so mean. She managed to get out, “What?”
“You know I like him!” shouted Angela. “You pretend like you’re so blur but actually you just pretend because it makes things easier for you! If you’re blur then easy lah, you don’t have to see anything you don’t want to see, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. People will accommodate you because you are so naive konon. You think it’s cute, is it? Maybe you think you’ve fooled everybody. Maybe you’ve even fooled yourself. But you don’t think you’ve fooled me.”
She stood up. In the way of Angela, she did not even have any crumbs on her lap to brush off. She looked Prudence up and down and for the first time Prudence was acutely conscious of the bits of bread and mayo stains on her jeans, of the width of her thighs, of the depressing lankness of her hair. Her hoodie did not look good on her; her face was too big. The whole world could see this.
“Just remember this,” said Angela. “I don’t need anybody’s leftovers. And I especially don’t need yours.”
She stormed off.
Prudence put her hand on her chest. To her surprise, it was still whole.
Mostly Prudence felt bewildered. She was confused enough that when Angela didn’t meet her at the station, she simply got on the train to Oxenholme by herself. It didn’t occur to her to call the B&B and cancel the room they had booked for a week.
She had made it clear to Zheng Yi that he was not to come along. She hadn’t said so in so many words, because Zheng Yi had an inconvenient way of ignoring direct orders, but he had instructions to look after the tomato plant and use up the food in the fridge.
When she looked around and saw him in the seat next to her, she was not surprised, or even annoyed. It seemed quite natural for him to be there.
Zheng Yi did not say anything. He took her hand. Prudence nodded, and turned to look out of the window at the countryside flowing past. The green fields, the little red houses in the distance, the gentle grey sky above. Angela loved this kind of scenery: “The English countryside is so romantic,” she liked to say. Prudence’s face felt numb.
Angela was not at Oxenholme station either. Perhaps she would be at the B&B. There was no harm in going. They had booked it already.
When Angela was not at the B&B, and Prudence came to the awful realisation that she was not going to come, that this was serious, that they were fighting and perhaps they would never be friends again, she turned to Zheng Yi.
“Might as well go for a walk,” she said. “Get to know the area a bit.”
She only started crying when they were safely away from the village.
If Prudence was confused, Zheng Yi was in an even worse state. He had been looking at Prudence the whole time with the expression of a dog who does not understand why you won’t play fetch with it. This expression intensified with Prudence’s tears, with an added dimension of panic. Now he looked like a dog who is worried that you might be thinking of throwing the stick away altogether.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“Seventeen years!” said Prudence. “We were friends for seventeen years. That’s how old some people are! Some people have only lived seventeen years!”
“I don’t understand,” said Zheng Yi.
“I’m never not friends with Pik Mun before,” wailed Prudence. “Why…why…why she doesn’t like me any more?”
“What is that coming out of your eyes?” said Zheng Yi. He looked closer. “And your nose?”
“What?” said Prudence. She touched her face and her hands came away wet, but they were not any alarming colour. “It’s water. I’m crying, you doink! You’ve never seen tears before?”
She had not meant it seriously, but for the first time since Prudence had met him, Zheng Yi looked shy.
“Never,” he said. “I’ve never actually had a human. You’re my first.”
“This dragon bullshit again!” Prudence rounded on him. “Can you stop talking nonsense? Pik Mun doesn’t want to friend me any more and you can still talk cock like this!”
“I am a dragon,” said Zheng Yi. “You know that.”
“I don’t know anything!” snapped Prudence. She turned and made to stomp away. However, she had not been looking where she was going for quite some time. She found herself stomping right into a river.
It was too late to stop by the time she realised. The ground was muddy and treacherous—it had just rained. She slid down the bank and the water came up and hugged her close. It was freezing cold, and the force of it swept her along with the course of the river with dizzying speed. She pushed both her arms straight out and kicked.
Don’t panic, she thought. Must stay calm. Swimming couldn’t be that hard, you just kept moving and somehow that made it so you didn’t sink—but she was sinking. And she couldn’t breathe. Everything was a white swirl, and the roaring in her ears made it difficult to think. She was drowning—she had to stop drowning—
Stay still, said Zheng Yi’s voice. She heard it as if he was speaking directly into her ear. Stop fighting me. You’re safe.
The water trembled with the words.
Everything came together, the disparate elements of air and water and sound reconfiguring themselves into a logical pattern. The river turned from chaos into one long smooth curve, and Prudence was locked safely in its heart. She was not being battered any more, not being flung about by the untamed force of the river. She was inside the river. The river was the dragon. She was sitting on a fixed place and she was moving, but in the way that you are moving when you sit in a plane—there is the forward motion of something larger than you that you scarcely feel.
She put out her hand and touched river water, cold as winter. She put out her hand and touched warm pulsing flesh. She was sitting in the dragon’s mouth. She could see daylight through the gaps between his teeth. Magic clogged her nose and tingled on her skin.
The river and the dragon spat her out on the bank, and when the river receded it left the dragon. Prudence saw through bleary eyes a long, gleaming black creature like an overgrown gecko. When she blinked Zheng Yi was human-shaped again.
“You see?” said Zheng Yi, looking smugger than anything that isn’t a cat should be able to look.
“Can’t see anything,” Prudence managed to croak, before a fit of coughing overtook her.
“I am a dragon,” said Zheng Yi superfluously. “Now will you come away with me?”
Zheng Yi helped Prudence sit up, but there was still a pressure in her chest. She pressed her hand against her chest to relieve it. The wail burst out of her startled throat.
“Shut up! I say no means no already! You don’t know how to listen meh? Go away!”
“What?” said Zheng Yi, but Prudence was sobbing.
“You shouldn’t make fun of people,” she hiccupped. “You shouldn’t invite people when you don’t want them to come.”
“What’s this?” said Zheng Yi. His voice had gone all soft. Prudence felt embarrassed and hid her face, but she was soaking wet and it wasn’t all that pleasant. She looked for somewhere else to hide her face and found a convenient expanse of warm fabric right next to her. Unfortunately, this turned out to be Zheng Yi’s shoulder, and dragon or not, he understood enough about human norms to take this as an indication that he should put his arms around her.
“I want you to come,” said Zheng Yi. “Why would I ask you if not? Why would I go to all this trouble?”
“Don’t simply hug people,” grumbled Prudence, but only half-heartedly. It was difficult to tell someone not to hug you when you were busy wiping your nose on their sleeve.
“Why wouldn’t I want you?” said Zheng Yi.
“You always laugh at me,” said Prudence.
“When do I ever laugh at you?”
“You said I’m amusing!” said Prudence.
“Oh, that. You are,” said Zheng Yi. “Terribly.”
This was the most he would ever say. As dragons go Zheng Yi was actually quite good at feelings that weren’t goldlust, but he would never understand that he had to explain that when you are a dragon, and thousands of years old, most things become boring. The most wonderful thing anything can be is amusing. It was his way of telling her that he was madly in love with her.
“I bet you don’t think I’m pretty,” said Prudence, who was in a mood for self-pity.
“Oh no,” Zheng Yi agreed.
“I don’t even know why you want me to go with you then,” said Prudence.
Zheng Yi seemed puzzled. “But I’ve told you so many times.”
“Anyway,” said Prudence. “We can’t go anywhere. I haven’t finish med school yet. And after that I still want to get a job and work a few years in UK first.”
“I don’t mind staying in your dimension for a few years,” Zheng Yi conceded. “Not more than a thousand or so, mind. I’d want to get back to the cave after a couple of millennia.”
“Hah!” said Prudence. “I’ll be dead by then lah. Don’t you know anything about humans?” She stretched within the confines of Zheng Yi’s arms, and noticed something.
“I’m not wet,” she remarked. Even her canvas trainers were dry. Even her socks. The tips of her fingers were warm.
“Don’t you know anything about dragons?” said Zheng Yi.
Well, it was like having any other kind of roommate. Zheng Yi looked human most of the time anyway.
“What about the time the dragon was seen drinking up half the Serpentine and the Daily Mail said he should be deported back to where he came from?” said Angela.
“He was hungover! I made beef stew and you know I don’t drink. So he had to drink up the rest of the red wine,” said Prudence. “Anyway, the Daily Mail says that about everybody.”
“True,” said Angela.
It was a relief to have made up with Angela. It turned out that the falling out, like everything else, was really Zheng Yi’s fault. A few days after they had come back from the Lake District, Angela had come to visit. She brought pandan-flavoured cupcakes with gula melaka icing that she’d made, and they talked as if nothing had happened, until Angela said suddenly,
“I don’t even like him. He’s not even my type. I don’t know what happened.”
“Oh,” said Prudence, in a voice full of cupcake.
“No, that’s a lie,” said Angela. “I think I know what happened. It’s not a good excuse, though.”
“It’s OK, we don’t have to talk about it,” she said quickly. She did not want to talk about feelings. To have Angela back and pretend that nothing had happened was her idea of an ideal happy ending.
“I think,” said Angela, “it’s because he was glamouring super hard. I really never felt like that before. It was like when he was around I couldn’t think. And then when you all went away, it was like a cloud went away. Suddenly I could see clearly again.”
“You think it was magic?” said Prudence.
“Oh, I wouldn’t accuse your boyfriend just based on what I think,” said Angela. “I went to a thaumaturge and she confirmed my magic levels were super high. I don’t have any talent myself so she say probably I kena secondary glamour.”
“But why would Zheng Yi want to glamour you?” said Prudence. Angela thwapped her on the back of the head.
“You never listen. I got secondary glamour. It was a side-effect of hanging out with you. He was glamouring to impress you lah. Did it work?”
Prudence tilted her head from side to side. Her thoughts shot around and bumped into each other inside her skull, as lively as ever.
“I think I can think. Don’t feel like there’s any cloud,” said Prudence. “But Pik Mun, sorry. What did you call Zheng Yi?”
“What?” said Angela. “‘Your boyfriend,’ is it?”
“Oh,” said Prudence. So that’s what it was.
First published in Crossed Genres Quarterly #1 (February 2011)
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Dave Hutchinson from the United Kingdom. Dave Hutchinson is the author of five collections of short stories and one novel, the co-editor of one anthology and the editor of two more. His novella ‘The Push’ was shortlisted for the BSFA Award for short fiction. A former journalist, he was born in Sheffield in 1960, but now lives in North London with his wife and several cats.
I was living in Gdansk back then, in a newish block of flats overlooking the Warta just outside the Old Town. In the mornings I could sit on my balcony and eat breakfast while the fake pirate boats took tourists downriver to take photographs of the old fortifications at Westerplatte. Evenings, I could wander through Hanseatic splendour, take my pick of hundreds of remarkably fine restaurants, cross the river to the concert hall to attend a performance by the Baltic Philharmonic, visit art galleries, catch a film. Good times, and I took it all for granted.
These days, I don’t really live anywhere. Or rather, I seem to live everywhere. In every town I visit, every city, every one-horse hamlet, a welcome is waiting for me. Hotels throw their doors open to me, private citizens unroll the red carpet. I haven’t had to pay for a meal or a night’s lodging in almost eight years. The clothes I wear, the car I drive, the cigarettes I smoke and the beer I drink are all gifts, pressed on me by a populace either eager to curry favour or to express its gratitude. You’d think it would become wearying, but you’d be wrong; there is nothing in this world better than never having to pay for anything ever again. And trust me, having people hanging on your every word, your every opinion, never ever gets old.
On the other hand, I’m on the road all the time. I have no choice. If I didn’t go to them, they would come to me, and that would become wearying.
Back then, I had a little architects’ practice. The first wave of post-Communist rebuilding in Poland had crested and a lot of ambitious, hungry little firms were following it up. There were a lot of neo-Hadid public buildings going up, and down in Kraków it seemed as if every other office block had been presided over by the spirit of Norman Foster.
In Gdansk we were, I thought, a little more original, although there was a fashion for Baltic Baroque, bits of architecture looted from up and down the coast. I’d designed some of those buildings myself, and been paid handsomely for them. And when I drove past them I knew those hungry, ambitious little firms were already planning for the next wave, because that was what I was doing, too.
I don’t design buildings any more. The world is full of architects these days, most of them completely talentless but all of them supremely enthusiastic. And that…that does become wearying.
Ten years ago, on the morning that Marcin walked into my office and invited me to the party, I was working fourteen-hour and sometimes eighteen-hour days in order to get ahead and stay ahead. I was still young. I reasoned I could maintain this for a few years, build myself a healthy bank balance and a healthy reputation, then take my foot off the accelerator a little and enjoy my life.
It was ten to eight in the morning and I had already been in the office for more than an hour when I looked up from whatever it was that I was doing—I’ve forgotten what it was—and saw a familiar bulky figure with tousled sandy hair talking to Agnieszka, our receptionist.
I got up from my desk and walked across the office, and as I approached the figure looked up from speaking to Agnieszka and grinned at me. “Hey, Jarek,” he called when I was still only halfway across the office. “Want to go to a party tonight?”
At school, Marcin had been one of those big soft boys who seem designed by Nature for the express purpose of attracting bullies. The first time I ever saw him, he was eleven years old and two thirteen-year-olds were beating him up in the playground for no other reason than it was fun. I was on my way to a History lesson and I was two days short of my fourteenth birthday and this unknown fat boy’s plight was nothing to do with me and I kept on walking.
And then I stopped. I stood listening for a few moments as the two boys slapped the fat boy and I have no idea why I did what I did next.
I turned and said, “Leave him alone.”
One of the bullies, a nascent football hooligan named Franek, looked me up and down and said, “Fuck off, Jarek.”
I turned to face them properly. Franek’s companion was a near-imbecile named Piotr who had only just been allowed back to school after being excluded for beating up another boy. I said, “Leave him alone,” again, and Piotr gave me a ghastly expectant grin.
I wish this little tale had a happy ending, but I spent the next three nights in hospital with broken ribs and a suspected concussion. On the other hand, Franek and Piotr were never seen at school again and the day I left hospital Marcin was waiting for me outside with a shopping bag for me full of CDs and DVDs he’d pirated from the internet.
“You work too hard,” Marcin told me.
“What?” I said.
“I said you work too hard!” he said in a loud voice that I could barely hear over the party’s sound system.
I shook my head. “It’s only for a little while.”
“What?” he said.
“Oh, for—” I grabbed him by the elbow and steered him through the people crammed into the flat. The flat wasn’t very large, but a surprising number of people seemed to be here. The sound system was pumping out death metal and someone had filled the bath with vodka and ice and the party was full of people like…well, like me, actually. Young professionals, comfortably-off, letting off steam. Parties like this were called ‘hit-and-runs’; many of Gdansk’s elderly Soviet-era blocks were almost empty, the residents moved to other developments and the buildings awaiting demolition. A shell company took out a short-term lease on a flat, enormous amounts of alcohol and recreational drugs were moved in, and for one night only it was party, party, party. If anyone bothered to complain about the noise and the police bothered to turn up it would transpire that no one at the party actually lived at the flat, and further investigation would reveal that the shell company which that had rented it had already been dissolved and its principals had never existed anyway.
I dragged Marcin through the mass of heaving bodies towards the front door, which was not easy to do for two reasons. Firstly, there were a lot of heaving bodies. And secondly, he was a big man. He wasn’t fat any more, but he was tall and bulky, like an amiable bear. He was wearing designer jeans and a white shirt and a jerkin of butter-soft leather. After university, he’d gone to work for a little biotechnology company in Belgium, and from his clothes it looked as if they were doing well.
Finally, we reached the door and stepped out onto the landing, where we could finally hear each other.
“Do you know whose party this is?” I asked.
“It was your idea to come here,” I said.
“You know how these things work,” he said. “Anonymized emails, posts on bulletin boards. Nobody ever knows whose parties they are.”
There was shrieking behind us. We looked round and two topless girls were standing side by side in the doorway. “Hey, Marcin!” shouted one. “Great party!”
Marcin grinned and waved hello and the girls turned and plunged back into the flat.
“Okay,” he said. “It’s my party. But don’t tell anybody.”
I was staring at the naked backs of the two girls as they half-walked, half-swam through the press of bodies. I was fairly certain that I had last seen one of them in the newspapers, receiving an award as Young Polish Entrepreneur Of The Year.
“I’ve got something for you,” Marcin said.
I smiled. Marcin’s company developed what used to be called ‘`designer drugs,’ and down the years he had been a fairly reliable source of pre-release medications. Most of them had been of limited use to me, but he had been responsible for several evenings of chemically-induced happiness. He didn’t come home all that often these days, but when he did he usually had a present for me, a successor to those CDs and DVDs he’d given me when I left the hospital.
He reached into a pocket of his jerkin and took out a little plastic envelope and handed it to me. “There you go,” he said. “A taste of the future.”
“What does it do?” I asked, turning the little envelope over in my fingers.
The sound system emitted a single huge chord that reverberated through the building as he said, “It’s paint medication.,” he said.
“I’m not in pain,” I told him.
“No,” he said a little louder. “Not pain, paint. Paint medication.”
“I beg your pardon?”
He sighed. “Do you want it or not?”
I thought about it. He had never brought me anything harmful. I tore the edge off the envelope and tipped its contents into my palm. It was an odd-looking tablet. Round and thin, a couple of centimetres across, and made of some gelatine substance. It was floppy, which in my experience was an unusual attribute for a medication.
I put the floppy tablet in my mouth and it melted on my tongue. It tasted very faintly of kiwi fruit. I looked at Marcin and raised my eyebrows.
He grinned. “There you go,” he said and he put his arm around my shoulders and started to steer me back into the party. “Now, let’s see if there’s anything left in the bath….”
I regained consciousness the next morning and my phone was ringing. I lay where I was, eyes closed, for quite a while, waiting for the ringing to stop, but it didn’t. Finally, without opening my eyes, I reached out to the bedside table, picked up the phone, and after some fumbling located the little button that turned it off. Then I lost consciousness again.
Some time later, I became aware that the entryphone by the front door was buzzing. I didn’t know how long I’d been awake; it seemed, at the that moment, that I had been listening to that the buzzing noise all my life.
I waited for the buzzing noise to stop. I waited a long time. It stopped. Some time passed. The buzzing started again. I opened my eyes as far as they would go, which wasn’t very far at all. Down on the river, a speedboat went by and it felt as if the noise was scalping me. I became aware that something awful had happened in my mouth over the past few hours, and now all my taste-buds were misfiring. Meanwhile, the buzzing went on and on and on.
I closed one eye again, which made things a little more bearable, although not by much, and rolled off the futon onto the floor, where I briefly fell asleep again until the buzzing brought me round.
Slowly, I rolled over onto my stomach, and from there managed to lever myself up onto my hands and knees, and in that position it was a crawl of only a couple of light-years to the front door, where I slapped at the button to open the downstairs door.
A minute or so later, there was a knock on my door. From where I was sitting, I pawed at the lock until it clicked. “Open,” I managed to say, and then I was sick in my lap.
The door opened and Marcin stepped into the hallway. He saw me sitting slumped against the wall and he shook his head. “And you call yourself a Pole,” he said. He looked almost painfully bright and clean. He knelt down beside me. “Here,” he said, holding something out between his thumb and forefinger and pressing it to my lips. “Take this.”
Whatever he was holding made it between my lips and I swallowed reflexively.
I’m not sure I can describe what happened next without it sounding like an hallucination, but a sensation began at the soles of my feet and travelled like a wavefront up my body. It was as if all the crap and pain and poison and illness and fatigue was carried ahead of the wave, and when it reached the crown of my head it fountained up into the air and I was crystal-clear sober again. As far as I could judge, the whole thing took less than five minutes.
“What the fuck was that?” I asked.
“Can’t say, I’m afraid,” Marcin said, reaching a hand down to me. “There are copyrights issues. You need a shower.”
I looked down at my lap. “Hm,” I said.
It was, as it turned out, the most extraordinary shower I had ever taken. It was as if my skin was a drumhead; I felt every individual drop of water hitting my body. I could smell each ingredient of the shower gel I used. I became fascinated by the grout between the tiles of the shower because I could see the way its surface had crystallised as it set. Everything was pin-sharp, as if a gale had howled through my head and blown away a fog.
Stepping out of the shower, I smelled coffee. Marcin had obviously decided to make himself at home.
“Coffee,” I said, walking into the kitchen towelling my hair.
Marcin was sitting at the table, a steaming mug in front of him. “You don’t want to drink coffee after what I just gave you,” he said. “Your heart couldn’t take it.”
“I just want to taste it,” I said, and I picked up his mug and took a sip and it was the most extraordinary thing I had ever tasted. I didn’t have the language to describe the experience.
I put the mug down and sat across the table from him, draping the towel around my neck. “How long is this going to last?”
He shrugged. “Different subjects metabolise it differently. If you’re in the median, you’ve got another hour and a half or so, then you’ll be back to normal, but without the hangover. In about twelve hours you’ll crash and sleep like a baby.”
“Have you got any more?”
He looked levelly at me. “What I just gave you is at least five years away from human trials. I could go to prison for the rest of my life just for giving you that one tab. And you ask me if I’ve got any more.”
“Excuse me?” I said. “‘Human trials’?”
“We’ve just started testing it on lab animals,” he said.
“You’re giving it to monkeys.”
“Primates next year. So far we’ve been giving it to rats.” He shook his head at the expression on my face. “Did it work?”
“Hell, yes,” I said.
“Well then,” he said, and took a drink of coffee. He put the mug back down on the table. “I’ve been taking it for the past six months, on and off. I know it’s not dangerous.”
I was appalled, which with my current clarity of mind was even worse than it might normally have been. “You had no right to do that,” I said. “But thank you.”
He inclined his head.
“And thanks for cleaning up.” I could smell the individual ingredients of the soap and disinfectant he’d used to clean the mess I’d made.
“Don’t mention it,” he said.
I said, “If you’ve been taking it for six months, you must have a steady supply.”
“Jarek,” he said, “stop it. That was your last dose until it goes into production. I only brought a couple of tabs out of the lab, and that was my last one. You’ll have to be patient.”
I looked around the flat. It seemed as if I had never looked at it properly before. “This is genuine doors of perception stuff, isn’t it,” I said wonderingly.
“Jarek,” he said. “Jarek. Look at me, Jarek.”
I looked at him.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“I feel marvellous,” I told him. “I thought we’d established that.”
He shook his head irritably. “No, no. Do you have any urges? Do you feel as if you have to capture how you feel in verse or prose? Do you need to draw something? Is there a tune going through your head?”
I shrugged. “No.”
“No urge to jot down some brilliant ideas for new houses?”
I shook my head.
Marcin scowled and drank some more coffee.
“What?” I said. “I’ve never felt so well in my entire life, you tell me it’s only going to last another—” I looked at the clock on the microwave “—hour and a quarter, and I’m wasting it answering stupid questions. I should be….” I stood up. “Fuck you, Marcin. I’m going to enjoy this while it lasts.”
Down the years, I have blamed Marcin for many things, with justification. But I will always thank him for that hour and a quartermorning, because the city of my birth had never looked as beautiful as it did on that Autumn morning.
We walked along the river for a while, then turned through the gateway into the Long Market. It was a miracle we made it that far; I couldn’t stop smelling the air and looking at things and touching things, rejoicing in the pure sensory signals. Imagine suffering a minor eye problem all your life, something you could easily overcome in your everyday life, and then one day you have surgery to correct it and for the first time you see the world properly. That’s what it was like, for all my senses. I was torn between standing very still and looking very carefully at everything I could see, and rampaging along ulice Mariacka and looking at everything.
In the end, I compromised. We went up Mariacka towards the Cathedral and I couldn’t stop smiling. The designs of the old Hanseatic buildings made sense to me in a way they never had before, and they sparked off a cascade of ideas for new designs. It was the loveliest day.
All the time, Marcin was talking, but I was barely listening.
I checked my watch. “Restaurant,” I said.
“What?” he said.
“Restaurant. I’ve only got forty minutes left.” I looked around me. Crowds of tourists from all over northern Europe, tall old buildings, stall after stall selling amber jewellery and knickknacks, coffee bars.
Marcin sighed. “Have you been listening to me?” he said.
He shook his head and grabbed me by the sleeve. “Here,” he said, and he dragged me down a side-street.
“No,” I said, realising where we were going. “That’s a terrible place. No, I’ve got a better idea.”
As it turned out, my better idea was closed for renovations, so we wound up in a little Ukrainian restaurant on a square just beside the Cathedral. The place was dark and quiet and down two flights of stairs and to me it felt like descending into a warm, velvety bath of sensory impression, intense cooking smells, buttery lamplight shining off porcelain and silverware, the weave of the tablecloth under my fingertips. I could have sat there all day, but instead I ordered quickly for both of us and then I sat drumming my fingers on the tabletop and checking my watch waiting for the food to arrive.
Marcin sat watching me with a sour look on his face. “You know,” he said, “I wish I’d never given you that stuff.”
“I don’t,” I told him. “This is the best thing that’s happened to me in…oh, ever such a long time. When are you going to put it on the market?”
“It probably won’t be all that widely available,” he said.
I raised an eyebrow.
“Have you any idea how much it cost to develop that tab?” he asked. “No, you don’t, and you’d never be able to guess. It’s not meant to be a hangover tablet. It’s a cognitive enhancer; it’s meant for fighter pilots, battlefield troops, astronauts. The hangover thing’s a side-effect, that’s all.”
“I think your employers need some tips on marketing,” I told him.
He shrugged. Then he leaned forward slightly and said, “Have you ever wondered where creativity comes from?”
I was looking at my watch again. “Sorry?”
He sat back. “Am I going to have to come over to that side of the table and shake you by the ears, Jarek?”
I put on an attentive expression.
Marcin started to say something, thought again, started to say something else, closed his mouth. Then he said. “You remember Mirosław Sierpinski?”
“Mirek? Sure.” Mirek Sierpinski had been in the same class as me at school. “Hey, did you hear he’s up for a Pulitzer Prize?”
Marcin rubbed his eyes. “He won the Pulitzer Prize, Jarek. Last year. Don’t you read the papers?”
“Last year was really busy for us,” I said.
“Admit it. You didn’t even know he’d gone to New York until you heard he’d been nominated for the Pulitzer.” He shook his head. “I despair of you, Jarek. I know where every one of my classmates is right now, and what they’re doing. I have done ever since I left school. How many of yours have you seen in the past fifteen years?”
I put my hands up in surrender. “Point taken. Okay.”
He shook his head again. “Mirek’s dad was a fitter at the shipyard. His mum cleans offices. Both of them barely finished school; I don’t think either of them ever wrote anything more complicated than a shopping list.”
“Mirek’s dad wasn’t stupid,” I told him. “Big Union man, very smart. I went to his funeral,” I added, to make a point. “Lots of old Solidarity guys were there.”
Marcin was nodding. “Fine, fine. He was well-respected. But not a literary giant, I think we can agree.”
It was impossible to argue with that. “Okay,” I said.
“And nobody else in the family ever showed the slightest inclination to write, or paint, or play the piano.”
“How do you know?”
“Because this is what I’ve been doing, Jarek,” he said in an exasperated voice. “I’ve been researching the nature of creativity— – and if you’ve just opened your mouth to tell me you thought I was working on a hangover cure, I swear to God I’ll come round there and put my fist down your throat.”
I closed my mouth.
Marcin put a hand to his forehead and muttered, “Jesus Maria.” He took a breath. “Okay. So we have Mirek’s family, who are not creative at all. And we have Mirek, who is being talked about, quite seriously, as a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature. How does that happen?”
“And then there’s Kasia Gadomska and Andrzej Chlebowski, what does their daughter call herself?”
“Tutu,” I said.
“Tutu,” he repeated sourly. “Whose only talent seems to be attending parties and getting falling-over drunk.”
“There was the chat-show,” I said.
“Tutu Talks, yes. Possibly the worst chat-show ever seen on European television— – and there’s an awful lot of competition. How can it happen that two people with no apparent creative talent at all can produce a son who writes novels of exquisite beauty, while two of the greatest actors this country has ever seen—from families with an acting tradition that goes back generations—have a daughter with no artistic talent at all?”
I shrugged. “Beats me.”
He said, “It’s genetic,” and all of a sudden, without any warning at all, a veil fell upon the world. Marcin must have seen it in my face, because he sighed and said, “What?”
I looked at my watch. “I’m supposed to have another half an hour,” I told him in a pathetic little voice.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” he said. “It’s neurochemistry, Jarek. It isn’t rocket science, okay?”
I looked round the restaurant. Everything was dull. Sight, sound, taste, smell, touch. Everything. Like listening to a concert while wearing earplugs. I sighed.
Marcin got up and tossed his napkin on the table. “Fine,” he said. “We’re not hungry,” he told the waiter, who was approaching with our starters, and he headed for the exit.
“Something came up,” I said to the waiter. I dropped some euros on the table and followed Marcin up the stairs.
Outside, everything was disappointing. Ordinary. I caught up with Marcin at the Cathedral and said, “Genetics.”
He shook his head irritably. “It doesn’t matter, Jarek. You’re not interested, and you seem to be immune anyway. So no big thing, yes? Forget it.”
“The hangover pill.”
“A hangover pill, I know, I know. But you know when you give it to rats?”
He sighed. “Yes?”
“How do you know it’s working?”
Marcin thought about it for a while. “The rats smile.” He looked up at the great brick edifice of the Cathedral. “Have you ever seen a rat smile?”
“Not so far as I’m aware, no.”
He grinned, and there was something otherworldly about that grin. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “The most beautiful thing you ever saw.”
I moped around the flat for the rest of the weekend, watched television, sat on the balcony and looked at the river and the boats and the tourists heading for the Old Town. Everything was dull, flat, uninspired. Uninspiring. Marcin phoned a couple of times to ask how I was feeling, and by Sunday night I was able to report that I had a banging headache and a sore throat.
“If your fucking pill has given me the flu, I’ll kill you,” I told him.
“Hm,” he said. “It’s probably nothing. Take some paracetamol and drink plenty of fluids.” And he hung up.
Monday morning, I felt vaguely achy and feverish, but we were in the middle of a big commission for an American bank so I went to the office and sat feeling miserable.
Tuesday was more of the same, with added shivering and a blocked nose. I tried to call Marcin at the hotel where he’d been staying on his visit, but they said he’d checked out.
I barely made it in to the office on Wednesday. I had a phone conference with a man in Chicago and a man in New Jersey and when it was over I had no idea what we had been talking about. I was sweating and my eyes felt as though they’d been lightly sandpapered. Tomek, one of the partners, helped me home in the afternoon, told me he really enjoyed working with me but no way was he going to get me undressed and help me into bed, and left me on the sofa.
And then the rest of the week just…went away.
It was the following Tuesday before I felt well enough to go back to work, but I still didn’t feel up to doing much apart from contemplating firing Tomek for his failure to come to his boss’s aid in his hour of need. Nobody else seemed to be in the mood for work, either. Tomek and his wife Hania were sitting at one of our big draughting tables, sketching. Agnieszka was doing some embroidery. All the momentum had gone out of the office.
At one point, Agnieszka brought me a coffee and then held up the piece of cloth she’d been working on. I looked at it. Then I looked at her.
“What?” I said.
“What do you think of it?” she asked.
It was an embroidered image of some species of rustic scene. Not very well embroidered. “Very nice,” I told her. I raised my voice. “Everybody?”
The rest of the office raised their heads from whatever they’d been doing. Bartek Kowalski appeared to have been sculpting something from a chunk of styrofoamStyrofoam packing block.
“Go home,” I told them. “We’re not getting anything useful done. Go and get this out of your system and let’s come back tomorrow with our minds on the job, please. Okay? Now go.”
Everyone started to get up and gather their things together and get their coats. Agnieszka stayed where she was. “Did you mean it?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Go home. Get some sleep. Whatever.”
“No,” she said, holding up the piece of embroidery. “Do you really like it?”
“It’s lovely,” I assured her. “Now go. Get out of here. I’ll lock up.”
After everyone had gone I sat in the office for a while, feet up on my desk, head tilted against the back of my chair. The German ergonomicistsergonomists, who I had been assured by the salesman had developed this model of chair, had not countenanced anyone treating their furniture in quite this way, so it was more than a little uncomfortable and after a while I took my feet down off the desk and got up and wandered through the office. I had not, I realised, yet shaken off the sense of loss I’d felt when Marcin’s hangover tablet—cognitive enhancer, whatever—wore off. Which was rather alarming. My history of recreational drug use had never been very illustrious or—Marcin’s occasional little gifts apart—adventurous. It had never affected me like this before. I felt vaguely heartbroken.
I locked up the office and went to the cinema and watched Wajda’s Katyn again. It suited my mood. After the film, I bumped into a couple of designers I knew in the foyer and we went to a restaurant, where I tried to work up some enthusiasm for the food, and afterward we went on to a party. Not a hit-and-run but a civilised drinks party, responsible professionals, canapés, darkwave playing quietly on the Bang & Oluffson so as not to disturb the neighbours. The host and hostess, who I knew slightly, were showing their guests some quite spectacularly-bad watercolours they’d done, and when they asked me what I thought of the paintings I smiled and nodded and said, “Very nice.”
The hostess looked critically at me. “You don’t look very happy, Jarek,” she said.
“I’m fine, Iwona,” I told her. “I’ve had flu.”
“Ah,” she said. “You should try one of these.” And she took from her pocket a familiar-looking little plastic envelope and handed it to me.
“Where did you get this?” I asked.
“At the University,” she said. “One of the Sociology Faculty was handing them out. He said it was some kind of experiment. You know, something about whether you’d take drugs from a stranger.” She laughed. “Of course, he’s not a stranger so I didn’t count, but he gave me a few anyway. Try it. He said it was just vitamins.”
I opened the envelope and tipped its contents into the palm of my hand. It was a round, floppy tablet just like the one Marcin had given me, but someone had printed a clockface on this one. The hands of the clock stood at five to midnight.
I smiled at Iwona and put the pill back in the envelope. “I already tried one, thanks,” I said.
When I arrived at the office the next morning, there was a styrofoamStyrofoam sculpture of a cat sitting on my desk.
The weeks went by and we rolled into October and then November. It rained. Gales blew in off the Baltic. Then it snowed. In the office, the staff and partners managed to curb their collective artistic urges and we got our heads down and did some serious work on our outstanding projects. I managed to become so engrossed in my work that I hardly ever thought about Marcin’s hangover pill.
It was somewhat harder to forget about the floppy pill, though, because it was on the news. People were calling them, reasonably enough considering what was printed on them, ‘clocks,’ and they seemed to be everywhere. Nobody seemed to have the slightest idea where they were coming from, but they were turning up all over Poland and Germany and the Low Countries and even in London. The authorities—who still hadn’t managed to get hold of one forreleased an analysis—were warning people not to take them. There were stories of people holding clock parties. One op-ed piece in a magazine ventured the utterly charming theory that the clocks were in fact completely harmless and part of a huge sociological experiment into the way new drugs spread through a society. There was said to be a mild euphoric effect after taking them, but this could be ascribed to the latent suggestibility of the human mind. It was actually charming enough to be plausible.
I seemed, meanwhile, to have gained a minor reputation as some kind of critic, because Tomek’s sister and Hania’s father and half- a- dozen other family members and friends of the staff and partners had taken to visiting the office and leaving me paintings and poems and CDs of music and strange pottery shapes for my opinion, which was baffling but ever so slightly gratifying. As the weeks went on more and more of this stuff arrived, along with its penitential amateur artists, until one morning around the beginning of December I quipped to Tomek something along the lines that I hadn’t realised my colleagues had so many relatives and he answered that it had been some weeks since he or anyone else in the office had recognised any of the artists.
“We all thought you knew them,” he said.
That was when I phoned Marcin’s employers to try and find out where he was. They told me he was on a sabbatical, but a few days later I was visited by a very polite young man who said he worked for the Ministry of Public Health and was interested in speaking with anyone Marcin had been in contact with while he was in Poland. We talked for a very long time about generalities—did Marcin seem ill, at all? Was anyone with him? Did Marcin, perhaps, use any medication while he was with me?
I answered the polite young man’s questions as truthfully as I could, short of mentioning the hangover pill and the clock. Did Marcin, perhaps, discuss his work at all? He certainly did. Did Marcin, perhaps, express any strong anti-social opinions? He did not. Did Marcin, perhaps, express any strong religious views?
At this point I stood up and told the polite young man that I didn’t see what Marcin’s religious views had to do with the Ministry of Public Health, and the polite young man agreed that they didn’t hadn’t anything and proceeded to arrest me.
I’m very well -connected these days. I can open my phone and speed-dial the chiefs-of-staff of half a dozen European Prime Ministers and Presidents (including the President of the European Union and his wife) and be put through immediately. Except the President of Albania, who took personally my description of his latest novel as ‘infantile.’ But he’ll be back. They always come back.
A few years ago, I was not nearly as well -connected. But I knew someone who knew someone who knew someone, and there was a cascade of favours owed and favours paid and I have no idea how it all worked out for the individuals involved, but at the end of it all I was sitting in a white room in a prison just outside Antwerp, where Marcin was just beginning a forty-year sentence on terrorism charges, with a side-order of industrial espionage.
“My lawyer’s going to drive a fucking truck through this,” he told me. “They’ve totally misused the anti-terror legislation.”
“Who’d have thought the Belgians would have been so vindictive about you stealing their patents and handing out their drugs on the street?” I deadpanned.
Marcin glowered at me. He was sitting across the table from me, wearing a bright- orange jumpsuit of the kind made infamous by Guantanamo inmates. He was also wearing a complicated chain-and-handcuffs arrangement which meant that he had to walk in a kind of hunched-over shuffle and couldn’t raise his hands above his waist. I thought the chains were overkill, but maybe the Belgians still hadn’t finished making their point.
“Genetics,” I said.
“Oh, you want to talk about it now, do you?” he said. He looked at the large guard who had accompanied him into the room and then taken up impassive station in the corner. “And you can fuck off,” he told the guard. The guard ignored him. Marcin tried to rub his eyes, but the chains pulled his hands up short. “Fuck,” he said.
“Genetics,” I said again. “I’m serious, Marcin. What have you done?”
He looked at me. His hair was longer than I remembered, and it was crumpled up on one side as if he’d been asleep when they came to bring him to the white room and they hadn’t given him any time to comb it. His eyes were red-rimmed and his nose was running.
“Mirek Sierpinski,” I said. “Tutu.”
He sighed and seemed to crumple a little in his jumpsuit. “Where does creativity come from?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Well,” he said. He sighed again. “The science is complicated.”
“Don’t you dare patronise me,” I warnedsaid.
He shrugged. “There’s a genetic mutation which, basically, codes for creativity. A few years ago it was thought that about fifty percent of people carried it, but it turns out the figure’s a lot higher than that. Somewhere in the ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent. Everyone’s carrying the mutation. Pretty much.”
He paused, and I leaned forward slightly. “Marcin,” I said again, “what have you done?”
“Okay.” He tried to rub his eyes again, got pulled up short by the chains again, shook his head. He looked at me. “So everyone has the creative mutation—which also causes schizophrenia and psychosis in some cases, by the way—but the world isn’t flooded with artists. Why is that? Why didn’t Tutu’s parents pass the mutation on to her? Well, god help them, they did. But Tutu has another genetic mutation which….” He looked at me. “This next bit’s a little vague.”
“It’s better than nothing,” I told him.
He thought about it for a few moments. “There’s a mutation of another gene which makes people want to be creative.” He watched the look on my face. “I know, it doesn’t seem a like a distinction at all, does it? But it’s an important one. Tutu, if we’re taking her as our model, has the mutation which makes her creative, like almost everybody, but she lacks the mutation which makes her want to do anything about it.”
“She’s been writing poetry,” I said. “It’s been in the papers.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Any good?”
“It’s some of the worst poetry I ever read.”
He looked at me strangely and, I thought, rather slyly. “Well, there you go,” he said. “Talent remains an unquantifiable thing, a complete mystery. Nobody’s found the mutation for that yet. But the impulse is there. I’ll bet you…oh, a lot of money that she doesn’t go to quite so many parties from now on. Have you got any paper?”
“Paper. Oh, never mind.” He looked at the guard. “Could I have some paper, please?”
The guard went over to a cupboard in the corner of the room, unlocked the door, and took out a pad of scrap paper, with which he returned to the table. Marcin’s chains just about allowed him to reach the tabletop and tear a sheet off the pad.
“What did you give me?” I asked.
He was folding the sheet of paper corner-to-corner and smoothing the crease down with his thumbnail. “Eh? Oh, the active ingredient was MDMA.”
“You gave me Ecstasy?”
“A mild dose. But very pure.” He unfolded the paper, folded the opposite corners across, and creased them down. “A really mild dose. Nobody would want to take it if it didn’t make them feel good. But the payload, the thing that gives the clocks their gong fu, is a virus.”
I was not even remotely unprepared for this. After the polite young man arrested me I had been taken to a rather grim building on the outskirts of town, not far from the airport, where I was told to sit in a room not unlike this one and I was questioned for almost fifty hours, singly and in groups of anything up to five, by a large number of people who were not polite at all. None of them actually came out and said it, but by putting all their individual questions and accusations together it seemed to me that they believed Marcin was guilty of releasing some kind of biological weapon and was now on the run.
Finally—I suspect they had found Marcin and arrested him, because we had not even begun to scratch the surface of places I might think he was hiding—I was led out of the room, down a corridor, out of the building and into a waiting taxi, which took me home. No one said goodbye or thank you or ‘Ddon’t even think of going to the media about this,’ from which I gathered they were either very excited or very nervous now they had Marcin.
When the taxi delivered me at my building, there was a small crowd of artists and writers waiting around the front entrance.
“The virus rewrites your genome,” he went on. “It inserts the mutation which predisposes people to want to be creative.”
“You absolute bastard,” I said. “How dare you do that.”
He looked up from the sheet of paper, which had ceased to be rectangular and was now a frantically-complicated landscape of pleats and folds. “I thought it was worth a try,” he said.
“You thought it was ‘worth a try’?” I yelled with enough violence to make the guard shuffle his feet.
Marcin went back to the sheet of paper. “Do you know what the problem is with modern society?”
“Too many fucking scientists?” I said in a very loud voice.
He sniffled and shook his head. “Too much time on our hands. The human race is, on the whole, all right.” He looked at me. “We’re fine, Jarek. Nice people. Wouldn’t hurt a fly, most of us. But there’s a tiny percentage of people who are not fine. The world is not full of assholes, but the assholes run the world. They need something else to do.” He folded a corner of the thing he was working on into a pocket formed by two other folds and smoothed it down. “I’ve given them something else to do.”
“Hitler was a painter,” I said.
“Hitler was a maniac. He didn’t have the second mutation. He didn’t want to paint enough to stop him being a maniac.”
I glared at him. I kept glaring at him until he noticed and looked up from whatever he was doing with the sheet of paper.
“I had flu,” I said.
“That wasn’t really flu. That was your immune system trying to reach an accommodation with the virus,” he said. “You’ll have been fanatically infectious for the four or five days before your symptoms presented.”
“Bastard,” I said.
He smiled sunnily. “Relax,” he told me. “You were never in any danger. You’re quite unusual, having that reaction. Most people won’t even realise they’ve been infected until they start being creative.”
“I don’t feel creative,” I said.
His fingers paused in their manipulation of what I had long since ceased to regard as a simple sheet of paper. “That, Jarek, is because you’re immune,” he said. “You’re among a vanishingly-small percentage of the population who don’t have the original creative mutation.” He smiled at me. “I know, I know. You’ve done good work, good creative work. But you’ve done it despite being entirely undisposed to creativity. You’ve done it, effectively, by being a very good manager. Now, you think back and try and remember how much of that work actually originated with you, and how much originated with other people.”
I thought of none of those things. I just stared at him and thought of murder.
“I’ll bet,” he said, making another fold, “that if you think back far enough, you’ll remember that people were always coming to you with poems and paintings and photographs and asking what you thought of them. Because people with the mutations subconsciously recognise the people without them and realise they can give an objective valuation. I don’t know why that happens. Pheromones, maybe. Or body language. Hard to see how it could have evolved, but there you go, the wonderful world of Nature, eh?”
“Is there a cure?”
He shook his head, then stopped himself. “Well, yes, theoretically. Gene therapy to repair the mutation introduced by the virus, but it’s tricky and you don’t want to release it into the population until you’re sure how it’ll work in the wild.”
“Like you did.”
“I was as sure as I could be.” He finished whatever he had been doing to the sheet of paper and held it up between his finger and thumb, a ridged little pill of paper the size of a pea and the shape of a grain of rice. “It could take years to develop the right gene therapy, and in six months nobody will care any more. The world’s going to be full of artists, Jarek.” He grinned at me and relaxed his thumb and forefinger, and the pill of paper sprang gently open as its fibres were released and it bloomed into the figure of an armoured knight on horseback, all rendered in fabulously-complex folds. Brave new world. “What do you think?”
“What’s going to happen to the people who aren’t affected by the virus?” I said.
He looked a little cross. “You could always become critics,” he said, gesturing with the origami knight. “What do you think?”
Marcin’s trial was held in camera and the details were never made public. What else I know comes from patient work down the years, from favours called in and contacts made, from hundreds of manuscripts read and plays watched and arias listened to in return for snippets of information.
The original purpose of the virus had been for occupational therapy—it was meant to be used on accident victims and the survivors of serious trauma, making them want to take part in creative activities as part of their recovery. Paint medication. Medication that makes you want to paint.
But viruses are fiddly things to work with and you can’t always get them to do quite what you want, and by the time Marcin and his colleagues stepped back and looked at what they had created they realised it was incredibly virulentcommunicable. A doctor infecting a trauma patient with it would wind up infected himself, as would nurses and other nurses and other doctors and other patients and their families and people on public transport…and so on.
Marcin’s team decided it was just too contagious to release and they put it away and went off to think about what to do next. But Marcin—and I can’t know this for sure but in my imagination it’s the only way it could have happened—Marcin didn’t go away. He stood and looked at the jar or the vial or the box or whatever the hell they locked the virus up in, and he tipped his head to one side and he saw possibilities.
The lab Marcin worked in was very well -designed. It was, actually, impossible for someone to infect themselves, by accident or deliberately, without setting off alarms, but you can have the best security system in the world and it’s still only built by people, and nothing built by people is ever perfect.
He got the virus out of the lab by infecting himself, then he took a holiday. In a lock-up garage in Ghent, which he’d kitted out with equipment bought from various medical and scientific supply houses around Europe, he isolated the virus from his blood. Then, while he was still contagious, he set off on a five-day tour of Europe’s major airports.
He shook a lot of hands and bought a lot of airport coffee with coins and banknotes liberally smeared with his sweat. He sneezed on a lot of duty-free bottles of perfume and alcohol and squeezed a lot of those fluffy toys you get in airport gift shops and checked a lot of souvenir tee-shirts to see if they were his size. I’ve seen some of the security video of him at Heathrow and Schipol and Orly, and when you look at it all together it’s rather comical, until you remember what he was doing.
He was very sly; he knew a small percentage of infected people would present with flu symptoms, so he timed his five-day excursion so that the symptoms would be lost in the general seasonal flu. In the Southern Hemisphere, outside flu season, they caused brief alarm but nothing more.
Finally, not infectious any more, he returned to Ghent, where he started to manufacture clocks as another way to spread the virus. A member of the Belgian Secret Service said they had no idea how many clocks he’d finally been able to make, but checking back with the suppliers who sold him his raw materials, the number could have been in the tens of thousands. By the time they finally caught up with him in Biarritz, it was already too late.
And one thing Marcin said was absolutely right. By the time I had assembled the full story, nobody cared any more. Virtually everyone on Earth had been exposed to the virus.
And by then I was on the road. The trickle of people wanting my opinion of their work, by word of mouth or pheromones or body language or god only knows what else, —had become a torrent. I was besieged at home. I was getting letters and emails and phone calls from all over Europe, promising me unholy riches if I’d only come and see their play or read their book or sit through their operetta.
The only way to stay sane, I thought, was to go to them.
Sometimes, we bump into each other. In Eindhoven or Alençon or Cologne or Madrid or one of the little towns inbetweenin-between. You’ll be sitting in the restaurant of another free hotel, eating another free meal, and you’ll raise your head and there across the dining room you’ll see someone else with weary, haunted eyes from too many hours watching the roads unwind, too many hours spent giving their honest opinion of oil paintings and watercolours and sculptures and happenings and films in too many genres to list properly. And they’ll raise their head too and your eyes will meet, and you’ll nod to each other.
Surprisingly often, that’s as far as it gets. You’ll nod to each other, then go back to your meals, there in the dining room with walls covered with execrable oil paintings done by the manager or the waitress, and you’ll go back to your rooms afterward, and in the morning you’ll tell the manager or the waitress what you think of their paintings. And then you’ll leave, separately, without ever having exchanged a word.
Sometimes, though, we do speak. In Basle I met an English girl named Caroline, who had been a bond trader in London, back in the days before her friends started bringing their drawings into the office and asking her what she thought of them.
Caroline and I travelled together for a while. We drove down into Italy, visited Florence, where she told me about Stendahl Syndrome, a condition which apparently affects visitors to the city, the sheer beauty of the place simply overwhelming them, making them giddy. Neither of us experienced any symptoms, which I thought pretty much said it all.
In Turin, we had an argument over the relative merits of an enormous landscaped garden in the grounds of a villa belonging to a man who was rumoured to be a Capo di tutti capi. He had apparently abandoned his other activities in order to concentrate on his garden. I thought the result was utterly laughable, a fatal collision of styles from ancient Rome to Capability Brown. Caroline was entranced. Later, at our hotel, we argued violently, and the next morning Caroline drove off in a brand-new Mercedes provided by the alleged Capo. I found a Peugeot dealer who was composing enormous, bombastic rock operas. I told him his latest magnum opus was marvellous, and left in a new car. I sometimes check out Caroline’s blog, where she delights in spreading poison and lies about me.
How many are we, those of us with the fatally-absent mutation? More than Marcin thought, but less than you might expect. In Europe there are probably a couple of thousand. Enough to fill a village, say. Around the world, maybe a couple of million. A lot of us blog, although I do not.
It’s not such a bad world, this world of clocks. There is, in truth, much art that is astonishing. Some of it is breathtakingbreath-taking. Generals are writing novels that, before the clocks, would have gone down in literary history. Shopgirls are producing art that challenges Leonardo and Titian and Hirst. In Caen I sat through an oratorio by a ten-year-old schoolboy which that had tears running down my cheeks.
As Marcin said, all these works were already there, in a sense, in the minds of their creators. Clocks don’t make someone a great artist; what they do is unlock the impulse, conquer the writer’s block, provide the enthusiasm. They’ve rewritten our genome so that we want to be artists.
We—I should say they—don’t want to be artists to the exclusion of all else. That would be a world out of a nightmare. Everyone carries on with their normal lives and jobs; they just want to spend their free time creating art.
This has had some interesting side-effects. On the whole, people have better things to do with their free time than hating each other or worrying about geopolitics, and warfare around the globe has dwindled away to almost nothing. I say ‘on the whole’ and ‘almost nothing,’ because there is a small civil war going on in the Czech Republic between two groups of Dadaists over an invisibly-fine splitting of hairs about the direction of the movement, and an entirely incomprehensible insurgency in Britain which that seems to revolve around the definition of Sscience Ffiction. That one may be running down; a number of us posted an announcement online to the effect that we would boycott Britain until things calmed down, and calm of a kind appears to be returning. At any rate, it’s been several weeks since there have been fatalities.
In odd moments, on autobahns and motorways and autostrada and in the first-class lounges of airliners, I think about Marcin and his brave new world. He said he thought that Humanity as a whole was not so bad, that it was only the occasional asshole who gave us a bad name, and now and then, when I’m not listening to someone’s symphony or reviewing a novel or trying to work out whether an hallucinogenically-Turneresque watercolour has actually been hung the right way up, I do wonder whether he hasn’t been largely successful. And if he has, it occurs to me that we, the critics, are the most dangerous people on Earth, because we are not distracted by the imperative to create. If we wanted, we could rule the world. And then it usually occurs to me that we do rule the world, in a way. And yes, it’s very very nice, thanks.
It is still not a perfect world. But it is, by any stretch of the imagination, a beautiful one. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get some sleep. Tomorrow I have to drive to Barcelona and tell a surrealist sculptor what I think about his new work, which in photographs appears to be made entirely from human toenail clippings.
First published on Daybreak, January 23rd, 2010.