Sunday, November 27, 2016

Dutch Colonial


A couple weeks after we moved from our apartment, the neighbor lady came to my house and sat on the porch with me. I set aside the book that I had been reading and looked at her. It was a nice Sunday afternoon with kids playing in the alleys and lawn mowers in the distance. The lady welcomed me to the neighborhood. Then, she told me the histories of the houses on the block. There had been several divorces and one foreclosure. She pointed to a couple homes and said that children had died in them. Although the neighbor lady was middle-aged, she wore her hair like a teenager, a long greying pony tail that fell to her hips.

One of the homes where a child had died was at the end of the block, five lots away, a big white Dutch Colonial. "It’s a sad place," the neighbor lady said. She didn’t say anything about my house and, so, I thought that, at least, no children had died there. But, later, I wondered if the woman was simply sparing me.

While the weather was still nice, my wife and I invited people to come to a house-warming party. Two days before the shindig, I hurt my back moving a couch and we had to cancel. We rescheduled for six weeks later, but, then, my wife miscarried and we canceled again. On this occasion, we couldn’t give any reasons for withdrawing our invitations and, I think, some people took offense. After another six weeks, we tried again to invite people over and, this time, there was no emergency. But only about a third of our friends invited actually came.


The Dutch Colonial house at the end of the block was vacant for more than a year. Every two weeks a crew of three swarthy men wearing baseball caps drove up to the place in an old pick-up truck full of rakes and shovels and lawnmowers. The men mowed the lawn and trimmed the trees and pulled thistles out of the flower beds. Once, I tried to talk to them while I was walking my dog. None of them could understand a word that I said.

The men came in the Winter as well and used snowblowers to keep the sidewalks and driveway clear. On thaw days, the snow piled up along the sidewalk melted a little and, in the evening, when I walked my dog, the water froze. Once I almost fell on the ice. The house’s big hipped roof reminded me a barn and its windows were always dark. The siding was fresh and new and I could see that the roof had also been recently re-shingled. I wondered if insurance money had been paid when the child died.

Night comes early in the winter in this part of the world and the house was a big, inert shadow, hulking over its lawn and the snow banks and the sidewalk that was sometimes treacherous. One evening, I thought I saw a light in one of the upstairs windows, but, when I looked more closely, it was just a reflection of a streetlamp down the block.

Houses need care. If you don’t take care of your house, it will topple down around you. I found out that there was no mixing valve in my plumbing. Sometimes, water flowed into my bath or shower that was scalding hot. My wife burned the sole of her foot and, so, I had a plumber install the valve. A few days later, I saw the neighbor lady. She had noticed the plumber’s van pulled up next to my home. I told her about the mixing valve. She seemed surprised and said: "You mean that was never fixed?" I replied: "It’s fixed now." She winked at me: "That’s good," she said.

When it was Spring, someone moved into the Dutch Colonial House. The first thing that happened was that a big truck marked with the name of an out-of-town landscaper arrived. The truck had a long flatbed used mostly, I think, for hauling sod. On the flatbed, a big boulder was sitting. I don’t know how the men moved the boulder from the truck onto the front lawn of the house, but, somehow, this was accomplished. The boulder was pinkish granite with a pale quartz ledge running around its mid-section like a belt. The boulder sat at the corner of the lawn, where the sidewalk made a right angle and it looked vaguely defensive, like a lion placed there to defend the home.

Next, the people in the house tore down its shabby little garage behind the hedges in the alleyway. A crew of workers came and erected a three-car garage and put electric lights in brass sconces between each of the garage-doors. The garage was the same color as the house with trim that also matched. It was a very nice garage and people speculated about what it had cost.

I never saw anyone at the house except for the lawn-crew or the men who built the garage. At night, the home’s windows were lit, but I couldn’t see into them. Earlier, I had noticed work-men installing new windows on the first floor. The windows were glazed with a white-finish on the glass so that you could not look into the house. This seemed odd and unneighborly. I had drapes – if I wanted to look out onto the street and sidewalk, I would open my drapes; if I wanted privacy, I would pull them shut. When I walked by the house with my dog at night, I could see into the upper rooms if the lights were turned on. But this was uninformative, a patch of white wall and a pale plaster ceiling.



Someone pointed out an article in the paper about an arrest for drug possession. The criminal suspect’s name and address appeared in the newspaper. I was surprised that the address was on my street and, so, I went down the block to verify that it was the Dutch Colonial house where the alleged drug dealer lived.

I don’t know how the criminal case was resolved. But, later, there was a "For Sale" sign posted next to the granite boulder on the lawn. I didn’t see any lights in the house after that.

The house was on the market for a long time. The owner must have been demanding an unreasonably high price. Then, the economy tanked. The crew of men who didn’t speak English continued to maintain the place and the property looked impeccable. A different realtor’s sign was posted and, then, another. After two years, the sign was taken down but we didn’t see anyone move into the house.

Three days after Thanksgiving, I walked my dog in the twilight. To my surprise, I saw that all of the downstairs windows on the Dutch Colonial house were brightly lit. Because the glass was opaque, I couldn’t see anything but the bright white squares casting light out upon the November-brown lawn and flower-beds. Very loud music came from the house. The bass was throbbing like a heart beat. It sounded like a dance party was underway. But, there were no cars parked anywhere near the house and, although a couple of upper windows were also lit, I couldn’t see anything but that patch of white wall and the plaster ceiling.

I stood for a while and listened to the house. When I walked away, I could hear the throbbing beat booming across the silent neighborhood, a sound almost loud enough to reach my own front porch.

My wife had left for the weekend and my home was dark and empty. I walked through the lonely rooms. Sometimes, I wonder what our life would have been like if my wife had not miscarried. When I turned on the faucet, the hot water steamed. Perhaps, the mixing valve at the center of the house had failed again. I had to be careful not to scald myself.

Sunday, September 11, 2016




For almost three months, our town endured a pestilence of clown sightings.

The first report was that a sinister clown stood at the street corner only a half-dozen yards from one of our elementary schools. The clown gestured at children when they were dismissed from their classes. The eight-year old girl who made this report said that the clown pointed to his clown-car and suggested that the child ride with her. Needless to say, the clown-car was crammed with other malignant and hideous clowns all of them grinning at the little girl. Fortunately, the school year began with a clown-awareness program and the child wisely declined the ride offered to her. Instead, she made a report to the authorities. The police searched high and low for the clowns but they had disappeared without a trace.

The next day, a couple of clowns were glimpsed at the outskirts of town, morosely roasting something on a spit over a low, greasy fire. Again, the proper authorities were notified and the police came to the scene. The clowns were gone, but there was evidence of a fire that had burned recently within a round circle of charred stones and some cans of pork and beans cut open with some kind of sharp instrument were found in the ditch.

After that episode, clown sightings proliferated. Children saw them in the distance near the fairgrounds, hustling away as if from the scene of a crime. One clown climbed a broadcast tower and was reported to have made obscene gestures from that height. Doorbells rang in the dead of night and, although no one was found on the doorstep, there was a faint odor of white zinc and grease-paint in the air. One boy, attending the funeral of his grandfather, said that he had seen a clown driving in the last car in the procession from the funeral home to the graveyard. The clown was said to have vanished into a mausoleum in the cemetery. Police officers duly pried open the iron gates to the tomb, but found only some ancient cast-iron caskets, graffiti on the walls, and a withered, filthy condom. At the homecoming game, a clown was seen peering into parked cars in the parking lot. One of our cheerleaders swore that she saw a clown hiding in full sight among the family members supporting the team playing against our school. Her accusation caused a fist-fight in the parking lot, a melee that required the services of the cops in more than three squad cars to break up.

Adults began to see clowns as well. Several clowns were sighted in the alleyway behind a disreputable downtown bar urinating against the wall. A clown with a hacksaw cut down a stop sign and caused a serious motor vehicle accident – at least, it was speculated that a clown was responsible. One clown entered a family restaurant and demanded to be served. The clown refused to leave the establishment and the police were supposedly called to oust him. (There are several accounts of this incident and none of them agree as to whether this happened at a Culvers, Perkins Cake and Steak, or Applebees.) A girl working in the drive-through at McDonald’s told authorities that she took cash from a clown who had ordered a Big Mac. The boy dispensing the food from the second window didn’t notice a clown but admitted that he hadn’t been paying attention. Three clowns apparently broke into the local TV station because thirty or forty people swore that they saw them for an instant late-night on their television between infomercials. The station denied that the clowns had hacked their system, exactly as one might expect: a cover-up most people thought. A clown with one-arm was said to be lurking in the copse of trees beside the wastewater treatment facility. Another clown brazenly appeared early in the morning at the place where a crossing guard customarily ushered children across a dangerous intersection. When the authentic crossing guard arrived at her station, the clown fled on a small red moped. However, neither moped nor clown could be found. Just before closing time, the town librarian found a clown in the stacks of her library masturbating. When she screamed, the clown vanished into thin air and there was suspicion that she had seen a ghost of some sort. But a couple of tables in the library were heaped high with books involving child psychology, education, and pet care – all subjects that clowns are reputed to study in order to lure children to their doom. The librarian found one table in the children’s section stacked with picture books under which there was hidden a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses. This was puzzling and the librarian suspected that a clown had been at that place, displaying the brightly colored pictures to children and, then, reading from the novel to amuse himself between attempted assaults. A security guard on the way to her job at the Plant saw a clown dive from the high board at the municipal swimming pool. When the police rushed to the scene, they found no clown but there was water splashed from the pool on its side and mysterious-looking footprints, broad and long as if made by huge, floppy shoes. At a local truckstop, a trucker said that he saw a clown taking a shower and, then, when he went to his vehicle, found that his trailer had been jimmied open and a half-dozen canned hams stolen.

These apparitions are particularly troubling in our town because of its peculiar physiognomy. At the center of the city, an outcropping of reddish rock rises over a dense forest. The forest is dark and deep, the trees embedded in the steep, stony soil at the base of the rock formation. Since no buildings could be constructed in this area, it was declared a park and enclosed by a high iron fence with ornate entrance gates on each of the four streets surrounding the woods. Originally, a sort of sentry tower and refuge was perched atop the rock outcropping and the forest was called the King’s Wood. Later, civil unrest and revolution toppled the fortress and it was replaced by spindly windmill where grain was ground. The mill was hard to access – grain had to be raised to the mill and the resulting flour lowered by an elaborate pulley system. In the end, the mill also fell into ruin and its pulleys and baskets were abandoned. Gravel paths explore the woods and there are springs on the face of the outcropping that ooze sweet water, dripping into decorative stone basins surrounded by dense ferns. The city park is beautiful and our pride and joy, but it is also a place to which villains might retreat and, according to rumor, curfew-breaking lovers embracing in the park glimpsed clowns cavorting there. The lovers, of course, refused to be identified because it is unlawful to be in the park after sundown, but, nonetheless, their accounts of weird clown parties at the foot of the bulbous stone pinnacle explain, perhaps, why it has proven so difficult to arrest any of this army of specters when they appear in our city.

Of course, the problem with an infestation of nocturnal clowns is that anyone (and everyone) can be a clown. If you are willing to adorn your nose with a perforated red ball and paint your face a ghastly white and, otherwise, don clown apparel, then, you can join that tribe of apparitions haunting our city. And, needless to say, this truth has led to great disquiet and suspicion. We all know the story of the woman who opened an suitcase hidden under her husband’s bed to find that it contained zinc-paint and floppy shoes and white pajamas, in other words a complete clown kit. (The name of this woman has not yet been discovered; everyone knows someone who knows someone who has met her.) When a local politician fell down the steps of the Elk’s Club and was badly hurt, most said that the man was simply drunk. But a few whispered that, perhaps, he was not fully accustomed to the floppy and voluminous clown shoes that he may have been wearing. An enormously tall clown was seen at Walmart amid the lawn and garden products; a day later, a very tall Mormon missionary was attacked and badly beaten merely because his height was thought to be the same as that of the mysterious clown. Someone mentioned at a party that a friend of a friend knew a dermatologist who commented on the recent epidemic of acne vulgaris in our city, said to be, according to the doctor, a result of people clogging their pores with white clown make-up. When a teacher committed suicide, some of the people attending the funeral hinted that this was, perhaps, due to guilt arising from frightening people as a clown. Although every effort was made to bring the culprits in this frenzy of clown sightings to justice, not a single clown has been apprehended – and this, of course, has led to speculation in itself. Is it really true that the Mayor was seen driving around town on a tiny red moped? And was the Chief of Police actually encountered leaving a public restroom with a telltale moustache of white paint under his nose?

At last, nothing could be done to insure public safety but to eliminate the trees and the shady groves in our central park. Bulldozers were dispatched to do the job and the forest was duly knocked down, its deer and singing birds displaced as refugees. A great ditch was dug from the spring at the foot of the bulbous red outcropping and water was conveyed by culvert to two impoundment lagoons – one to the right and one to the left of the stone formation, oval-shaped like eyes peering up into the sky. The area around the outcropping was paved with white concrete. The trees that once gladdened the steep slopes around the rock pillar were hewn to mere torsos by men with chainsaws and, then, hauled away on flatbed trucks. In the course of this operation, many strange things were found concealed in the woods that we decreed destroyed. But none of these things could be clearly related to the sinister clown cult.

Apparently, this extreme measure was successful. We can only assume that the clowns had, indeed, concealed themselves in the city park. The situation is quiet now. No one has seen a clown for almost a year.


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Beginnings to Two Best-Selling Novels



On a long drive, Christian’s right (passenger) rear window froze open. After a business meeting that concluded in late afternoon, Christian decided that he would drive for an hour and cross the state border, before stopping at a fast food place to get a sandwich for supper. It was very cold and a storm was harrying him. He saw dark clouds in his rear view mirror and, sometimes, specks of snow trembled in the air. At the drive-through, Christian fumbled with the power-window and, accidentally, rolled down the window on his side behind him. When he reached the counter where he was supposed to pay for his order, he couldn’t get the window next to him to roll down – it was frozen shut. Christian opened his door and had to hand his money to the girl shivering behind the window after putting his car in neutral and half-stepping out of the vehicle. At the next window, he had to repeat this procedure to receive his burger and fries. Pulling to the side of the queue of cars, Christian tried to roll up his back window but, now, it was frozen too and he couldn’t get the power window to close.

The storm was close behind and, on the radio (broadcasting with preternatural clarity and volume, it seemed) there were warnings about the intensity of the winds and the falling snow and the lethal cold accompanying the tempest. Christian drove swiftly to the ramp onto the freeway and continued his way home, but now it was very cold in his car and the wind boomed in his back seat and stray invoices and bits of food wrapper whirled around behind him, confounding his periodic gaze through his rear-view mirror. After driving 20 miles with this persistent and icy windstorm in his car, Christian’s ears felt numb and the tips of fingers were frozen. He decided that he would exit from the freeway again and find a discount store where he could buy mittens and a stocking cap.

It was dark and the cars pushed their headlights resentfully ahead of them and, at the intersections, the traffic lights swung like bells chiming in the wind as the storm gathered. Christian couldn’t tell whether the flakes of snow whirling around in the air were falling from the sky or simply lifted wind-borne from the drifts heaped alongside the road. The storm throbbed and howled in the groves of bare trees.

He saw an immense parking lot and the featureless side of a Walmart. The lights in the lot vibrated like tuning forks. Christian hurried from his car into the store. A fat woman greeted him from a mechanized wheel-chair and, as he entered through the automatic doors, the cold carried its lances inside and stabbed at the crippled lady so that she grimaced. The advancing storm seemed to have induced some kind of panic in the shoppers in the store – they shoveled merchandise into their carts and, then, pushed them in irregular zigzags along the aisles colliding with the carts of other shoppers so that, there were loud quarrels and children squealed and glass bottles shattered. Clerks with brooms and dust-pans wearily advanced toward the spills and there was chaos at the check-out stations, debit cards were being rejected and people brandished cash in greens fans as if it were a weapon and some kind of brawl had erupted in front of the customer service counter.

Christian found a cheap, but heavy woollen stocking cap and raw-looking yellow snowmobile mittens. He carried these items to an express check-out station where a sign said that transactions were limited to 12 items or less. But an African family was gathered in front of him, cart heaped with food and clothing. The clerk wore very thick glasses and was missing part of his nose and it seemed that he was almost blind – nothing would scan properly and the Africans were indignant challenging the man time and time again about the price of items shown on the screen. Christian was irritated and so he hummed a little tune to himself, something catchy that he had heard on the radio and, then, he whistled that tune as well and looked along the line of cash registers – each station was mobbed with lines of people, most of them immigrants it seemed, buying provisions not just for the week, but, possibly, for the month or the year.

As he waited, a man wearing a tie emerged from the Men’s restroom across from the express check-out. At first, Christian thought that the man seemed drunk – he reeled a little, spinning on his heel, and glaring, in turn, to each of the four directions in the store. His balance was affected and he stumbled, catching himself, and Christian could see that his eyes were wild. The man fished a walkie-talkie out of a utility belt that he wore like a corset and muttered something into the radio. After a moment, he turned and ventured into the rest room again, edging around the corner as if he didn’t want to be seen by someone inside the toilet. Then, he retreated to the front of the door, now propped open by his booted foot. This time, he shouted something into the walkie-talkie. A voice on a loudspeaker said: "All associates, come to customer service, come to customer service immediately." The clerk with the disfigured nose and thick glasses turned away from scanning items on his conveyor. He paused for a moment, shrugged, and, then, returned to what he was doing. A couple of women in store uniform ran toward the customer service desk and some managers, apparently taking a break at the Subway franchise in the store, stood up and walked quickly along the front of the check-out stations – the floorwalker with the radio by the Men’s restroom signaled to them. The managers pushed him aside, hurried into the toilet, and, then, staggered out a moment later, clapping their hands to their mouths and shaking their heads helplessly.

The clerk with the ruined nose and bad eyesight finished with the Africans and, after some misadventures with their debit card, they paid him. He gestured helplessly at Christian and, then, turning away from the check-out station, limped toward the Customer Service desk. Christian cursed the man and the store and the weather and, then, put gloves and hat in a plastic bag and, without paying, marched to the door opening onto the parking lot. Vortices of snow were now haloing the parking lot lamps. The greeter in the wheelchair was gone and no one challenged him as he left. Christian went to his car, tried again, unsuccessfully, to roll up his right rear window and, then, drove back through town to the ramp onto the freeway. Thin white fingers of snow were skittering across the concrete road, but the highway surface was still dry. Christian drove another hundred miles always only a few minutes ahead of the blizzard and, with his stolen hat and mittens, reached home. He pulled his car into his garage and there discovered that he had somehow inadvertently triggered the child-proof lock on the power windows – once, he slid the lock into its "off" position, he had no difficulty rolling up the back window in his car.

Two years later, on a summer day, Christian was returning from a meeting in the city just beyond the state line. He recalled his previous travel in that area – the advancing blizzard and the idiotic problem with his car’s windows. He exited at the town where he had taken the hat and mittens from the Walmart and thought that he should go to the customer service desk and, if possible, offer to pay for those items. In the bright sun, the streets had a different cast from the way they had looked on that winter night two years earlier. The lawns and trees were green and, in a park, he saw a swimming pool where wet children were standing beside the blue water and silver diving decks. The intersections looked lazy to him, traffic moving only fitfully, and some old men were sitting on benches in the shade of the trees. For some reason, he wasn’t able to find the Walmart from which he had taken the apparel. At the edge of town, there was a high cyclone fence wrapped around a big pit cut into the earth. The pit looked like a quarry, cut down into the bedrock and it had sheer, grooved sides of yellow limestone. A little pool of green water occupied the lowest part of the pit.

Christian stopped at a gas station. He asked the girl at the cash register about the local Walmart. "It had to close," she said. "Where was it?" Christian said. "Right over there," she said. "Where they had to dig down." She pointed to the quarry protected by the cyclone fence. Christian noticed that whorls of barbed wire adorned the top of the fence.

"What happened?" Christian asked.

"The place had to be closed and we never got a new one," the girl said. "If you want to shop at Walmart, you got to go to Sioux Falls."

"Why did they close it?"

"You’d have to ask someone else. I don’t know." she said.

"I know mister," someone said. Christian looked over his shoulder and saw a man with thick-coke-bottle lens glasses. The man was missing a part of his nose.

"What happened?"

"I can tell you," the man said. He was eating a glazed donut and sitting at a table with a cup of coffee.

Christian sat down next to him. "It was like this – " the man began.



Although the forecasts were for rain, Mr. Schmidt did not believe them and, so, left his apartment without his umbrella. Those fragments of the sky visible between the skyscrapers were blue and clear as he walked to the train station. High humidity cloaked the perspectives down the great, straight streets in grey mist. The traffic lights of distant intersections shone faintly like cloudy and remote stars.

Mr. Schmidt’s morning was busy. Customers called him by phone and he confirmed their calls by short emails. He scarcely had time to go to the toilet and worked through the lunch hour.

Around 1:30, Mr. Schmidt decided that it was time to take a break. He felt slightly light-headed. There was a Dunkin Donuts place a couple blocks away and Mr. Schmidt thought that he would go there for a cup of coffee and a sandwich. Two old Black man were regulars during the afternoon and, it was their habit, to sit in a booth discussing sports. Sometimes, Mr. Schmidt sat with them. The Black men called Mr. Schmidt, "Smitty." A grandmotherly old Black woman also frequented the place, sitting at the counter, usually with a big shopping bag in front of her – she knew all the Filipino workers and called them by their first names. Mr. Schmidt looked forward to seeing these people and so he walked swiftly along the sidewalk, notwithstanding the humidity. Grey had come between the skyscrapers now and intersections even a half-block away were shrouded in mist and the people around him were like phantoms. When the air was heavy, the drains in the gutters exuded a dense, clinging stench.

A police car and ambulance were double-parked in front of the Dunkin Donuts. Yellow tape twisted between a fire hydrant and a no parking sign blocked the sidewalk. Across the street, a group of people were standing on the curb waving their hands in the air and pointing. Mr. Schmidt couldn’t see into the Dunkin Donuts – the window was glazed with water droplets and reflections.

Mr. Schmidt decided that he would have some pad thai for his lunch. There was a little café called the Siam Kitchen down one of the side-streets. He set off in that direction.

After walking a couple blocks, Mr. Schmidt decided that he had gone the wrong way. The structures and businesses next to the sidewalk were unfamiliar to him. It was an old neighborhood where the buildings were made of black cast-iron. Dark and immensely heavy, the cast-iron facades menaced the street. It began to rain – at first, a few warm big drops like tears, then, a drizzle falling straight out of the sky between the iron store-fronts. Thunder boomed. Mr. Schmidt turned around and looked for a place to take refuge. Across the street, a sign in cursive neon told him that a place was "OPEN". The rain began to fall more forcefully, splashing up from the asphalt to make a pale mist that hovered about two or three feet in the air.

The "OPEN" sign marked a tavern and grill located a half-dozen steps below street level. A tattered placard in the window told him that "Restroom facilities are available only to paying customers." Mr. Schmidt pushed through the door, shaking the rain from his shoulders.

It was dark in the bar and the air smelled of rancid grease. Some people were sitting at tables with bottles of beer in front of them and four or five shadows hunched over the stools at the bar. Mr. Schmidt sat down at one the tables. Either the floor was uneven or the table was untrue – it wobbled when he put his hand on it. The customers at the tables looked at Mr. Schmidt quizzically.

A pale waitress with a crooked face appeared next to the table.

"Is there a menu?" Mr. Schmidt asked.

She paused: "I’m sorry, but we can’t serve humans."

Mr. Schmidt wasn’t sure that he had heard her right.


"No humans are allowed," the waitress said.

Mr. Schmidt looked around the tavern. The rain outside was now falling in volleys.

"I’m not hearing you right," Mr. Schmidt said.

"Just let me check for a moment," the waitress said. She went to the bar rail and said something to a man with an enormous face standing between the beer-pulls. The man waved her aside.

She came back to Mr. Schmidt. "It’s okay," she said. "I guess it’s okay."

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Storage Unit

Storage Unit


The heat held the city like doom. It was everywhere and nowhere, nourished by continents of growing corn that surrounded the town. In the country, the corn stalks rose like flames from the wet earth and their tasseled ears were torches and their breath stagnant humidity infested with mosquitos. Heavy mist that smelled of carnage blanketed the dawn, but by mid-day the sun was high and hot, pronouncing judgment on the landscape and it did not go underground until nine-o’clock at night and, then, the darkness was windless, warm and all-enveloping.

Scott’s rented rooms were without air-conditioning and the fans that he owned, devices that he had once used to evaporate water leaked into his basement, were all in storage. He lived up a flight of gloomy, sodden-looking stairs in an old white house near downtown. A family of Sudanese refugees lived in the lower half of the big house and all of their windows were plugged with air conditioners. Stretched naked on his cot, Scott heard the air conditioners in the windows below him rushing like cascades of water in the mountains and, beneath that sound, there was a faint trickling noise, condensing vapor draining out into the tattered, spider-web draped bushes gathered around the home’s foundation walls. Scott thought of the growing corn and the air conditioners sucking heat out of the quarters where the Sudanese family lived, displacing that warmth, now redolent of curry and African spices, under his windows where convection, he supposed, would convey those hot currents over his own window sills and into his rooms. It was intolerable. Something had to be done.

Scott turned on the TV and, listlessly, went to his kitchen. The last beer in his refrigerator was lukewarm – the appliance couldn’t keep up with the heat – and there was a smell of rot inside the white box. Perhaps, the odor came from the dirty dishes heaped in the sink – it was too hot to further warm the house by running hot water. He went to his computer and typed some emails, but the keys soon became slippery and unreliable with sweat. A fat fly, disabled by the heat, squatted on a screen window. Outside, the cicadas buzzed like chainsaws in the trees twitching slightly in a fitful breeze and, so, dragging the shadows of their leaves back and forth across the blazing shingles of his roof. The shadows were vaguely abrasive and made raw what they rubbed against.

The beer warmed rapidly in the bottle squeezed in his hand and Scott felt sluggish. He stretched out on his cot again and tried to watch TV, but the pictures were blurred by the sweat running down his forehead and into his eyes, and, in any event, the screen also seemed to radiate heat, a bright warmth as if emanating from a 100 watt light bulb. It was an old TV; Scott’s ex-wife had the new, more efficient, flat-screen. He tried to watch sports but the pictures were foggy and the warm beer made him drowsy and so, at last, he fell asleep. In the preceding 24 hours, the temperature had not dipped below 87 degrees with high dew-points and Scott had not been able to sleep. He knew that he was a bad man and felt guilty about his divorce and the ruin of his family and, so, Scott was able to interpret his insomnia and discomfort as penance for his selfish and destructive behavior. He deserved to be uncomfortable and the hot sheets of sweat glistening on his breast and belly, perpetuated by the high humidity, was part of his punishment.

He awoke without feeling rested and the beer taste in his mouth tormented him. Scott’s head was leaden and he was unsteady on his feet. The afternoon was ending in a milky haze and, somewhere among the cornfields, a thunderstorm was browsing the gravel roads and the little dangerous intersections and the grain elevators like lightning rods thrust into the green-blue sky. The surf-sound of the Sudanese air conditioners continued. Scott knew that he owned two fans, at least, both mounted on pole-like stanchions. Before the divorce, the fans were kept in the basement, unplugged but, like the dehumidifier, ready to be activated if there was a flood that dampened the concrete floor or made the masonry block walls sweat. After the divorce, the fans were among items that Scott had hauled away from the house that he no longer owned. Several U-Haul loads of surplus furniture, old CDs and records, toys, and exercise equipment had gone to the rented storage unit across town. Scott put on his underpants and an athletic jersey and, then, looked in the drawer in his kitchen where he kept his bills and check book. Among the paper clips and old pens, he found a cracked coffee cup half full of pennies and nickels with the stubby key to his storage unit. Scott thought that it would not be too much of a violation of the terms of his penance to retrieve the fans from the storage locker and, at least, push the scalding air around in his apartment.

Once he held the key in his hand, Scott knew that he would have to put on his hot jeans so that he would have a pocket in which to keep the key. He slipped on his tennis shoes, still tied, and went outside. Except for the surging air conditioners, it was silent and the streets were deserted. The low towers of downtown seemed to stand apart from one another, as if it were too warm and uncomfortable for the buildings to gather closely together and there was a faint, chemical odor of charcoal and lighter fluid in the air. The trees drizzled shadow over the white sidewalks and ants were carrying winged corpses across the pavement. Somewhere a motorcycle tried to accelerate but failed, choking itself off.  

The inside of Scott’s car was an inferno and the seat-belt buckle was a brand on his flesh. He turned up the air conditioning as high as possible and drove with open windows away from downtown toward the suburbs. Long lines of cars were queued up at the fast food places, people preferring not to leave their cars but to order from behind the wheel and, with his windows down, he could hear voices amplified by the drive-up speakers. A sad, little farmer’s market was set up on the boulevard near the shopping mall – people sat on fold-up lawn chairs under awnings improvised from blankets and tent stakes. Wilted flowers made a fringe around a fried chicken place. Potholes in the parking lot caught at his car’s underside and wrestled with his chassis and a feral cat with a small bird in its jaws stalked along the curb.

Scott went to a theater and bought a ticket to see a super-hero movie. It was almost too cold in the theater auditorium and the carpet and seats smelled of mildew. The movie was loud and long and Scott slept through most of it. A couple of other people sat isolated in the theater, but Scott ignored them. After the show, he went into the lobby, bought some popcorn and candy and a ticket to another movie showing in the multi-plex. The movie was a foul-mouthed romantic comedy in which several beautiful movie stars pretended that they were homely and cursed a lot. The leading man in the movie spoke with a British accent. There were more people watching this film, mostly middle-aged women, and, by the end of the picture, several of them were sobbing loudly. Scott wondered what had touched them so profoundly. The chill in the theater was sepulchral, a vacant, indifferent cold like something that might oppress you far underground in a cavern or a catacomb.

After the romantic comedy ended, Scott went to the toilet. He sat in a stall and wondered if it was worth driving all the way across town to get the two fans for his rooms. Some spirit in him opposed the trip through the night to retrieve the fans. The self-storage unit was in a remote suburb and he felt groggy, even a little confused – although he was confident, he could find the place, the sequence of roads that he would have to follow seemed unclear to him. For a moment, he thought that it was the kind of question on which he should consult with his wife, but, then, he remembered that he was divorced and that this was, in fact, the kind of decision that he had once wanted to make for himself, without consulting anyone, a decision touching upon his comfort and personal convenience. He shook his head and smelled the stink of disinfectant in the toilet and, then, there was a woman’s voice – "Is it empty?" "No, I’m here," Scott said. "Sorry, we’re just cleaning up," the woman replied. Scott told her he would be finished in a minute.

The parking lot was dark and the overhead lamps on the lights were all broken. A freeway throbbed in the distance. Immersing himself in the night was like falling into a warm bath. It was still, at least, 90 degrees.

He drove through a bad neighborhood. A man naked except for a stained underpants was standing in an intersection trying to remove his skin. A few blocks later, four police cars were drawn up beside a house and there was a conclave of people, grave and silent, standing on a lit porch. So many people were standing on the porch that the old wood seemed to be sagging. A fire truck hurrying somewhere lumbered heavily through an intersection.

He drove among taverns. The police had set up road blocks and were stopping cars and checking their drivers for intoxication. Even though Scott was completely sober, he felt a strong surge of panic.

At the freeway ramp, a wild-eyed beggar accosted him, pleading for money.

He drove around the edge of the city. He saw a car wreck and a corpse covered with a blanket lying in the ditch and ambulance workers leaning over a smashed vehicle as if it were an abyss dropping down to the center of the earth.

Heat lightning coursed through the sky.

He exited the freeway and came to a place where there were streets cut into the fields, complete with storm sewers and freshly poured curb-lines, even sidewalks in some places gliding along the boulevards, but no houses of any kind, no businesses, ghost neighborhoods of vacant lots between long, broad roads interrupted at intervals by round-abouts. A canal with pale concrete banks ran between groves of whispering trees. Then, he saw a hillside half cut-away and terraced and, on the terrace, there were rows of low metal buildings under tin roofs only very slightly sloped, numbered garage doors facing gravel lanes between the storage units. The complex was as long and broad as a football field and lit by mercury lamps between the buildings. It was a very different-looking place at night than it had been during the daylight, as silent as a tomb, the regimented buildings like barracks in a sinister military encampment.

Each lamp was thronged with halos of distraught, orbiting insects. He heard their chitinous wings tapping at the metal and glass. The lamps hummed and the anonymous storage units spread out around him on all sides, making a featureless maze.

He found the unit marked with the number on the key. The garage door slid up into the ceiling with a loud grating sound that startled him. The sound echoed and Scott stood back from the storage unit, a little appalled.

There was no light in the unit and the darkness gaped at him. After a while, his eyes adjusted and he could see into the space. The two fans were near the back, rotor-faces turned to him like pale, indifferent flowers. He had to navigate some boxes and slide between a Nordic Track machine and some exercise bikes to reach the fans. The fan on the left was leaning against a baby’s crib. Some small pastel-colored blankets were stacked on the mattress in the crib. There was a mobile screwed onto the crib’s rail, brightly colored circus animals dangling down over where his babies had once slept. The other fan’s electrical cord was tangled among the bicycles that Scott had bought for the family – the four bikes were jumbled together and half-fallen against the aluminum wall. Scott had to kneel to extricate the cord from the spokes and wheels of the bicycles. He stood up and rested his hand on the hard, leather seat of one of the bicycles. Scott stood in that place for a long time. It was hard for him to breathe.

He put the fans in the back of his car, pulled down the garage door – it bellowed in protest again – and, then, drove away from the Self-Storage units.

A thunderstorm lit up one quadrant of the sky. Airplanes were taking off and landing at the airport.

A couple blocks from his rented rooms, Scott saw that someone had affixed a poster to a street sign. The poster was handwritten and advertised a garage sale – clothing, furniture, baby items, the sign said above the address. Scott knew that it was illegal to use the metal pipe supporting a city street sign as place to post a notice. He looked across the intersection at the placard pinioned in his headlights. A heavy truck lumbered by. He drove up to the street sign, parked, and, then, walked up to the poster. He clawed it down and threw the cardboard in the gutter. Then, it occurred to him that he should not litter and so he put the ripped cardboard sign with the fans in the back of his car.

At his house, he pitched the garage sale sign in the garbage and, then, carried the fans up the stairs to his rooms. The Sudanese air conditioners howled in his ears. His rooms were hot as an oven.

Scott aimed the fans at his bed. One of them would not work when he plugged it in. The other fan slowly began to turn. But he had plugged the fan into the power-strip for his computer and the circuit was overloaded. The light in the room went off and the computer made a sizzling sound and, then, the fan rotor stopped turning. Scott unplugged the fan and went downstairs into the dank basement to reset the fuse.

It had begun to rain outside but the water falling from the sky was hot, like tears or blood.

Saturday, July 23, 2016




As he grew older, Lysne watched more cable news. Because he liked to hear different perspectives, he channel-surfed, using his remote to switch from liberal to conservative stations and back again. Lysne’s wife rose early in the morning and so she went to bed at nine o’clock. His twin grand daughters lived in the basement of the house and used a separate side-door entry and, so, Lysne rarely saw them. Sometimes, he heard them playing music, raw-sounding stuff growled by men with deep bass voices. To Lysne, the music was a cry for help to which he didn’t know how to respond.

Each week, Lysne recorded sporting events broadcast on ESPN – mostly basketball games or, in season, football. He watched the games while sorting through invoices or accounts payable from his business, selling, installing and servicing garage doors. He sat on his couch with his silver money box next to him and his laptop computer and worked on his books watching TV out of the corner of his eye. When he was done with this work, Lysne made popcorn in the microwave and watched the game underway more attentively. At 10:00 pm, he switched to the local news and checked on the headlines, usually a police chase out in the country or arrests for heroin or methamphetamine, sometimes a fundraiser for a local library or the animal humane society, a corpse fished from a green river, trucks overturned on the freeway and bad weather hurrying in his direction. After perusing the local news, he switched to cable to see what was happening in Washington and with the political parties, watching panels of commentators insulting one another. In other parts of the world, the Tv showed him that children fought wars and refugees drowned in storms or died crossing deserts and, on the grey steppes of the Middle East, cities were on fire, corkscrew clouds of oily smoke rising into colorless skies. Sometimes, planes crashed and there were volcanoes and earthquakes, forest fires and landslides. A little after 11:00, the misery in the world and the political debate seemed less pressing and interesting to him and he rested his eyes, thinking that he would just listen a little with his ears since the images were superfluous to the spoken commentary, and, then, it would be midnight, the twins returned from where ever they had been and their half-heard music rousing him from his slumber on the couch so that, dizzy with sleepiness, Lysne would stand up and stretch and, then, make his way up the steps to his bedroom.

One night, Lysne watched a debate about tax policy in which each speaker called the other a liar. There was nothing to see but handsome and indignant faces glistening in the light as they shouted at one another and, so, Lysne decided to rest his eyes. When he closed his eyelids, he could hear everything clearly enough and, even, perhaps, follow the argument with greater focus and, then, the timbre of the voices changed and became more urgent. He shook himself awake and saw the quiet room and silver money box on the coffee table in front of him, his bare feet on the hardwood floor next to the white socks that he had earlier removed, the yellow light of the lamp reflected on a black windowpane, his laptop computer closed but a green LED on its side blinking mysteriously, deep darkness outside beyond the curtains and the window where the headlights of a car sometimes flashed past.

The TV set showed a street flanked by apartment buildings with corroding iron balconies. In a haze of orangish light, some men in blue and white uniforms were crouched behind vehicles aiming rifles in the direction of a sidewalk café and a niche in a building where there was an ATM machine. A body rested on the sidewalk in front of the ATM machine. Then, the TV showed a crowd of people, mostly young, running like a herd of wildebeests startled by predator. The young people’s faces looked blank and they ran toward the cameraman, parting to pass around him. A siren wailed and some ambulances erupted from a side-street, turned and hurled down the boulevard – a palm tree stood near an intersection and, in the distance, ruins lit by spotlights rose above the city on a mesa-top protected by fluted cliffs. Voices spoke in an untranslated undercurrent while an announcer said in English that it was an active shooter situation and that, at least, 10 people were known to be dead. The number of terrorists was thought to be three or, possibly, four. Although the word "LIVE" was emblazoned across the images, the pictures looped, repeating themselves: the apartment buildings with rusted balconies, the armed men taking aim, the herd of young people running, ambulances, and the spot-lit ruins. The announcer said that the shooters had escaped, possibly into a subway. A map of the city punctuated the footage loop, an amoeba-shaped network of streets and mass transportation routes. From time to time, the newscaster turned to commentators who said that it was "a fluid situation" and that early information is most wrong and that no one really knew what was happening in this foreign capitol across the sea.

Lysne watched with interest. He channel-surfed. The other stations had the same images, but filmed, it seemed, from a slightly different angle. A couple seconds of cell-phone video showed a man wearing a black hooded sweatshirt waving a small weapon with a skeletal stock in the air – the muzzle flashed and, then, video looped back to the beginning. It was pretty apparent that no one had any reliable information as to what was happening in the over-seas capitol. A blonde woman with an impassive beautiful face said that no one had yet taken credit for the shootings. She pouted and tried to look worried and nibbled at little bit at her full, brightly lipsticked lips. A strange-shaped armored car rolled into a defensive position, crushing a bed of savagely red tulips in the median of the boulevard. Lysne decided that he would go to bed. In the morning, he would turn on the TV and find out how many people had been killed and if Americans were among them and whether the terrorists had been captured or shot down in a hail of bullets and politicians in Washington would debate the significance of the incident with respect to citizens like Mr. Lysne.

The TV was high-def, big as a picture window. The large flat-screen television had been an expensive investment for Lysne, but he was glad that he had the TV and enjoyed watching it – sports, football in particular, was fantastically clear and beautiful on the big high-def screen: the huge players in their bulging white armor stood under coruscating lights on emerald green fields and, when they moved in concert, it was like a ballet. Lysne gazed in admiration at the screen and the foreign capitol with its distant acropolis, columns and pediments enbalsamed in amber light, a procession of ambulances sliding sideways across the foreground and the running ticker below the image, a crawling compendium of today’s headlines like the yellow-tape guarding a crime scene, and, then, just as he reached for the remote, two of the gunmen came through the screen, wiggling down from the flat-screen as if they were climbing through a window.

One of the gunmen was wounded and his swarthy face was drenched in sweat. Lysne saw that he had a saucer-sized wound in his side and, as he fell down on the hardwood floor, blood splashed out of him. The other gunman wore a black bandana over his curly dark hair. He seemed strangely calm, even serene, pointing the muzzle of his long gun at Lysne. The gunman was wearing black hooded sweatshirt with khaki pants bulging with ammunition. His military-style boots looked heavy but he moved in them quickly. Lysne was afraid that his remote-control would be mistaken for a weapon and so he tossed it onto the couch next to him. The gunman barked something at Lysne, then, stooped and seized the wounded man by the front of his shirt, hauling him across the floor to the corner of the room. The wounded man grunted with pain and, then, lifted his revolver and waved it in Lysne’s direction. The other man had set the injured fighter against the wall so that he had a clear vantage on the steps leading upstairs, the front door, and the opening into the kitchen and dining room. The revolver seemed too heavy for the wounded gunman and it kept drooping to point down at the floor where a pool of blood was accumulating.

"I am dreaming," Lysne said. "This is all happening half-a-world away."

The gunman with the rifle moved forward and shouted at Lysne.

"I don’t understand you," Lysne said. "English... can you speak English?"

The gunman shrugged. He was small and wiry, bantam-sized with a weightlifter’s body. He had remarkably large dark eyes and a pencil-thin moustache and Lysne thought that the gunman was a very handsome man.

"Who’s here?" the gunman asked.

"Just me. I’m alone," Lysne said.

"Do you have a car?" Lysne couldn’t place the man’s accent.

"No, I don’t," Lysne said.

"Everyone here has a car," the gunman said. "I went to school at UW, in Madison. I know you."

"I don’t have a car," Lysne said again.

The terrorist stepped forward and put the muzzle of his gun into the pit of Lysne’s belly, leaning forward to push hard against him. Lysne yelped – it felt as if the gun barrel was going to penetrate his abdomen.

"Okay, okay," Lysne said.

The gunman stepped back and Lysne reached into his pocket, handing the terrorist his car keys.

On the television, a journalist with an open shirt was interviewing a young woman. The young woman was chattering in an excited voice. Several onlookers with gleaming eyes stood in the shadowy background. Another cell-phone video showed a shooter running around a corner and, then, there was a popping sound like a string of fireworks.

Lysne’s wife came to the top of the steps.

"What’s happening?" she cried. The wounded man lifted his pistol and fired a shot that ripped through the rail of the stairway banister, splintering wood. The gunman with the rifle turned in her direction and his gun flashed and jerked like a snake against his torso. Lysne’s wife toppled backward onto the landing. As she fell, her body twisted against the wall where there were several high-school graduation pictures, Lysne’s son and his two granddaughters, and the framed photographs dropped onto the carpet. Lysne stood up.

"You can’t do this," he cried.

The terrorist with the rifle shot Lysne in the head.

Then, he shouted something to the wounded man, running to the front door, and pushing through it. Across the street, the lights in several houses flashed on. The gunman smelled the lilacs and the breath of rain in the wind. Lysne’s car was in his garage, behind the house in an inconspicuous alley, hidden behind his steel and vinyl garage door. The terrorist looked up and down the sidewalk, scanning the cars parked along the curb. He darted to the first car and tried to open it, but the key wouldn’t work. The car alarm began to wail rhythmically and more lights flashed on in nearby houses.

The gunman saw a car approaching and heard sirens. Across the street, an alleyway led between houses. He ran down the alleyway, bumping against a garbage can, that spun around and, then, dropped, rolling loudly over the concrete. There were puddles in the alley and, as the lights in the houses were turned on, the water caught the glint from the windows.

In Lysne’s living room, the air smelled of cordite and a thin fuse-like ribbon of smoke hung in the air. The wounded man had dropped his pistol and his head was slumped down on his chest. On the wide-screen high-definition TV, a worried announcer said that the gunmen who had killed people in the foreign capitol were still at large.



Monday, July 11, 2016

Two Fables






The great Magus felt inconvenienced. When his aunt invited him to her Fourth of July brunch, she said that food would be served at noon. But it was almost 1:30 by his wristwatch, and the grill on which the hamburgers and bratwurst were to be cooked had just been lit. The charcoal flared merrily and everyone seemed cheerful except the Magus. He sat alone brooding.

The cause for the delay was an ice cream social at the Congregational Church down the street. The smaller children clamored to attend and, so, the meal was deferred until the kids with their mothers in tow returned from the church. The men and the women with nursing babies sat on the redwood deck at the Magus’ aunts house drinking beer. The Magus didn’t like beer. It gave him gas.

Mothers and children returned from the ice-cream social. It was unnatural, the great Magus thought, for dessert to be served before the meal and, now, the children had slimy faces and were hyper-active because of the sugar in the ice-cream and their voices had become particularly loud and shrill.

Big Ronnie stood by the grill, moving around the meat. Everything about Big Ronnie was large. One of his grandchildren, a seven-year old boy named Tristran Eliot Wilson, stood beside Big Ronnie tugging at his pant’s leg.

"I want a hot dog," the child said.

"I’m making you one, Hermes," Big Ronnie said in his big voice.

"I’m not Hermes," the little boy replied.

One of the mothers lit a cigarette and asked Big Ronnie why he called the child "Hermes."

"I don’t know," Big Ronnie said. "It’s a name I heard somewhere."

"I’m not Hermes," the boy said indignantly. "I’m Tristan Eliot Wilson."

"No, you’re Hermes," Big Ronnie said, meat juices flaring into flame beneath his belly.

"Tristan Eliot Wilson," the boy insisted, pouting.

The great Magus was sitting at a picnic table, nursing a lemonade.

"You should be proud to be Hermes," the great Magus said. "Either you are named after Fred Astaire’s choreographer, Hermes Pan, or —"

"I’m not Hermes," the boy said. "I’m Tristan Eliot Wilson."

The great Magus continued: "– or you are named after Hermes Trismegistus, the thrice-great Hermes, worshiped with Thoth, the scribe, on the banks of the Nile, the guide of souls, and the author of the secret wisdom that precedes Christianity and is a greater, and more truthful revelation."

"What are you saying?" Big Ronnie said. Fat sizzled in the grill and greasy smoke coiled skyward.

"I’m Tristan Eliot Wilson," the child repeated.

"Stop with this bullshit," Big Ronnie said, menacing the great Magus with his silver spatula. "Is this some kind of Islamic fundamentalist bullshit?"

The great Magus looked at Big Ronnie.

"If he wants to be called Tristan, than you ought to call him Tristan," Big Ronnie said.

"But you were teasing him," one of the women said.

Someone brought out the coleslaw and the potato salad. Butterflies flickered over the blossoms in the flower beds. In an alleyway, a string of firecrackers detonated and this made a dog howl.

"I’m just saying, we don’t need this Muslim bullshit," Big Ronnie said.

The great Magus considered whether he should open the lawn under Big Ronnie’s feet and hurl him though the flaming maw of the earth, beyond the ecliptic where maddened and ruinous planets swooned in fire, tormented goblins chanting as they whirled across the zodiac.

The great Magus decided to be magnanimous. A garter snake slithered across the lawn and he stood up to salute the beast. Big Ronnie shoveled cooked meat onto a platter and Tristan Eliot Wilson whimpered again, asking for a hot dog.





It is not an easy thing to camp on Martha’s Vineyard during the high season – campsites are scarce and must be reserved far in advance and, in any event, they are exorbitantly priced. After a couple days, Innes decided that he would have to sleep in his pickup truck. But this is not such an easy thing to accomplish either. The island is small and its roads and byways are heavily patrolled by police and Innes had difficulty finding a place appropriately remote and unvisited for his hermitage at night. A narrow gravel lane led into the State Forest in the center of the island and, after dark, Innes drove down that road to where there was a shack that had once been a meeting house for a congregation of praying Indians now long extinct. An old graveyard was hidden in the underbrush and there was a little driveway that led away from the gravel lane by the cemetery where Innes could spend the night.

Steven Spielberg was away in Morocco or, perhaps, Mallorca – Innes wasn’t sure which – directing a movie and so he had leased his summer home at West Chop to Kim Kardashian. Innes was the curator of an unofficial Kim Kardashian fan-site and he collected memorabilia about the celebrity and thought of himself as her most devoted admirer. He had come to Martha’s Vineyard in the hope of seeing Ms. Kardashian and, perhaps, acquiring her autograph. This was his most deeply held desire.

At home, in Decatur, Innes installed home security systems. On the door of his pick-up truck, there was a large eye without eyelashes and the words: FINEX SECURITY SYSTEMS: The Eye that never Sleeps! His cell-phone number was printed beside the logo. On his front seat, Innes kept a clipboard with contracts and product specifications attached to his daily appointment log. The yellow shell of a hard hat sat on his dashboard. These furnishings, and his neat white uniform, gave his truck a reassuring and professional aspect. He had no difficulty gaining access to the neighborhood of elite seaside mansions at the security gate at West Chop. The drowsy guard nodded at him as if he were an old friend and Innes drove along the tree-lined lane where big estates within walled compounds overlooked the bay. The air was glittering and the dew glistened in the ivy on the stone walls and between tangled masses of wood and shrubbery, Innes saw the gable of a house, a clapboard tower weathered grey by the wind and sea-salt, a wet ravine tilted toward a small scooped-out cove where he glimpsed a brick boathouse and a white-winged sailing ship at moor. The road looped and there were service drives that ended at barracks-like structures, old stables converted into staff dormitories or administrative offices where invariably a man in khakis and a navy-blue jacket emerged, blinking in the sun to ask Innes his business. Each time, Innes admitted that he was lost, provided an address without a name, and, then, waited for the man to point in one direction or another, gesturing toward back down the lane to the trees rising above the vast lawns where fountains spurted and sad-looking white statues stood in the green shadows.

After a few circuits of the road looping around the peninsula, Innes found the Spielberg house and approached the big structure on a narrow service road boring through the trees to make a green tunnel. There was a clearing, a meadow with flower beds and a few smaller trees wind-cropped and bent on the headland, and, beside a salt-water marsh, another long stables building decked-out with satellite dishes. A heliport painted like a yellow target stood next to the stables and the big hulk of the house, a barren range of brick ramparts and round towers, rose overhead, on the high point overlooking the bay. Innes saw a dumpster and a couple of garbage cans beside the stables building and, so, he climbed out of his pick-up, put on his hard hat, and, pretending to make some notes on his clipboard, approached the refuse bins. This was precisely what he was seeking, a treasure trove of personal items discarded in the rubbish. Eggshells and the remains of a shrimp dinner in clots of fettucine decorated a tangle of garden clippings in a compost bin. A half-dozen magazines and two unread editions of the New York Times were in another bin. A third compartment contained a wealth of invoices, unopened letters soliciting proceeds, and pages from what seemed to be a film script. Innes bent over these materials rapidly sorting them, before slipping the sheets into a evidence baggies.

As he worked, Kim Kardashian and Kanye came from stables building and walked briskly toward a garage. Innes didn’t see them. A moment later, a silver Range Rover emerged from the garage, glided down the driveway and, then, turned up the service lane that Innes had used to access the dumpsters. Because he was stooped over the garbage bins, Innes didn’t see any of this.

Monday, June 6, 2016






Eva Rosse staged three garbage avalanches at Fresh Kills on Staten Island. The first thundered down on a grove of trees that Ms. Rosse had planted in the garbage-slide’s path. The trees were crushed while cameras recorded the spectacle. The second garbage-slide, triggered by a dozen small dynamite charges, smashed a small, stick-built suburban home moved to the dump for the sole purpose of being destroyed. Video feed within the house documented the burial of the structure in the debris. These first two avalanches were named "Untitled 1" and "Untitled 2." The third garbage avalanche was called Lahar – it was more impressive: Ms. Rosse had permits to ignite the swiftly falling river of garbage and the flaming trash toppled spectacularly down the slope of the great funnel-shaped gorge that the artist had carved in the flat-topped ziggurat of waste. Flames spurted fitfully from the debris, sliding under the impetus of explosive charges. Two dozen witnesses enjoyed the spectacle from an observing platform floating like a raft on the sea of detritus. The fires were not readily extinguished. Some of the flames bored into the heart of the garbage plateau at Fresh Kills and they are said to be burning in hidden underground galleries unto this very day. Needless to say, the spectacle garnered Ms. Rosse a McArthur "Genius" grant.

Ms. Rosse’s next endeavor was called -1 / +1. This work involved waterfalls, specifically the destruction of one such land form (named -1) and, by recompense, the creation of a new, artificial waterfall – that is, +1. The net environmental burden, Ms. Rosse wrote in her grant proposal, was zero – that is, she wrote, "a number shaped like the globe, round and empty as drop of dew."

In order to implement - 1, Rosse traveled to Australia and inspected waterfalls in the coastal mountains in Queensland. Most of the falls were plunge variety, water sluiced down a high, narrow gorge to spray free of wrap-around cliffs comprising stony, fern-filled amphitheaters. The waterfalls were hidden in lush coastal mountains and, mostly, protected within national parks. Several smaller falls on private property owned by either timber concerns or railroad companies were unsuitable for Rosse’s project because relatively inaccessible – the falls were several kilometers away from roads in jagged country and, although, the artist could see the cascades above her, bright white horsetail plumes above the rainforest canopy, she couldn’t find any viable trail to access their brinks. A small block waterfall purling over a ledge in relatively flat country seemed a reasonable candidate for destruction – there was an old logging trail that crossed the stream a dozen meters from the precipice – but the property was entailed to dozen or more heirs and Rosse knew that it would impossible to solicit their approval to blast the waterfall out of its stream-bed: of course, one or more of the owners would protest. She turned her attention to a small fairy-cascade on the right-of-way of a railroad company. The waterfall was three kilometers from a village, accessible on an overgrown trail that could easily broadened for pickup trucks and heavy equipment. When she hiked to the brink, Rosse was uneasy – someone was watching her and she wondered if the local people had guessed her purpose in trekking to the cascade. Twigs snapped and unseen bodies moved rapidly through the brush and Ms. Rosse felt as if eyes were on her. As it happened, three dingos were tracking her, although she didn’t see them until she emerged from the forest on the side of the highway where her rental car was parked. The dingos were scrawny and had tattered fur and their eyes were a malevolent yellow. As she started her car, Ms. Rosse wondered whether the wild dogs had planned to attack and eat her. As it happened, the plunge pool beneath the waterfall was protected – in the wet cavity of stone, giant spear lilies were growing and those plants were so rare that their habitats were rigorously conserved.

Rosse flew from Australia to Iceland. The country along the Icelandic coast was very green and innumerable streams poured down from fields of ice and snow in the highlands. Impermeable lava dikes walled-off the narrow rift valleys from the glaciers and waterfalls throbbed and churned in basalt canyons. Rosse guessed that most of the falls were too powerful for her purposes and carried too great a volume of ice-cold water down to the slate-grey sea. Inspecting the brink of several falls, she nearly slipped and walking down a slope covered with flat frost-fractured slate tablets, her foot skidded out from under her and she rolled a dozen yards down the trail, twisting her ankle in the clatter of tumbling stones. The people in the pubs said that the waterfalls were protected by trolls and that these were sinister creatures capable of inflicting great harm on their adversaries. After four or five days inspecting Icelandic waterfalls, Rosse had come to fear and hate them – the terrain was too stony and the volume of water too great: the streams barreled down from the heights as if shot from a cannon. On her last day in the country, hurrying back to Rekyavik, Rosse drove her Landrover into a broad, shallow-looking stream pouring across the gravel road – she had forded a number of other streams in the vehicle and this one didn’t look any more treacherous than the others. But the current was more swift than she expected and, at one point, the water was deep enough to briefly float the Landrover and turn it sideways against a ridge of submerged gravel. The vehicle was trapped and Rosse with it, and, embarrassed, she had to call for assistance. Some men came from a nearby fishing village and, paddling up to her stranded vehicle in a orange rubbery dinghy, extracted her from the Landrover. The cost of towing her rented Landrover off the reef of gravel mid-stream cost a twentieth of her entire budget for - 1.

Leech Falls was the name of a small plunge cascade on Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior. Eva Rosse had lived in Minneapolis when she was little and she recalled vividly visiting the waterfalls along the fall line where rivers flowing down to the great cold lake cast them themselves over brown and black cliffs. She studied topographic maps, making lists of unnamed waterfalls not located on State Park or, other, public land. The unnamed falls were mostly locked in miniature gorges, flowing in stone slits so tight that the plunging water never saw the light of day – the cascades were hermetic, inaccessible, concealed in sheaths of wet stone so that you could hear the falling water, but not exactly see it. At first, Rosse didn’t inspect the waterfalls on private land that had names – she assumed that these were features of the landscape would be non-negotiable, off-limits with respect to her project which was, after all, the destruction of the falls – surely, it would be easier to procure permission to destroy an unnamed falls than one that had been christened. Accordingly, at first, she didn’t hike up to see Leech Falls, although the cascade was only a quarter of a mile from the cabin in the woods that Ms. Rosse occupied. One night, at a bar in the resort town down the road, a fishing guide told her that Leech Falls had been on the property of an eccentric hermit but that the man had recently died in a fire, apparently without heirs. The guide told Ms. Rosse that the hermit was very deaf because he had spent forty years living right beside the waterfall. This intrigued Rosse and she followed a rough four-wheel drive trail up the hillside to the cascade. A stream reddish with tannic acid tilted down from a wide-marsh cupped between two dark and shaggy hills. On a knoll overlooking the stream, Rosse found a burnt-out building and, then, a ravine filled with garbage, zigzagging down to parapet of low basalt cliffs. The stream slipped sideways along the brink of the cliffs, found a breach in the stone wall, and, then, dived down 18 feet to a round plunge pool that, in turn, boiled over into a three separate creeks segmented by boulder fields and running down through the forest to the big lake. The guide told her that there were many different kinds of leeches that lived in the marsh above the falls and that some of them carried infectious diseases. The flow of water over the edge of the cliff was impressive but not overwhelming and Ms. Rosse was interested to learn that the acreage, including the ruins of the hermit’s cabin and the falls, was administered by a bank’s trust department in Duluth.

As it happened, the Duluth bank had delegated management of the premises to an affiliated financial institution in Minneapolis. The hermit had died in a house-fire, apparently arising from a cooking error of some kind combined with high levels of alcohol intoxication. The only relatives were collateral and remote, people who lived somewhere in southern California. The trustee at the Bank was a friend of the arts and, indeed, had served on the Board of Directors of the Walker Art Center. He was sympathetic to Ms. Rosse’s project and said that he probably could procure the consent of the owners by default to the destruction of the waterfall. Surprisingly, the stream that cascaded over the cliff near the burnt ruins of the hermit’s cabin had never been registered as a fishing resource – the Department of Natural Resources had not stocked the stream with fish of any kind and, because the mouth of the river was inaccessible under a tumble-down heap of hematite-colored boulders, the watercourse was not significant with respect to the seasonal smelt-run. Accordingly, there was no regulatory impediment to modifying the river and its appurtenant gorges. Ms. Rosse ordered a survey of the elevations on the land, had the title brought up to date, and, then, negotiated some easements allowing her to improve the road to the head of the falls. The heirs in California, who had never seen the property, authorized her to destroy the waterfall on the basis of her payment to them of $15,000 split four ways. Curiously, the greatest concern of the California heirs was that Ms. Rosse issue to them enforceable indemnity and hold-harmless agreements – they were afraid that someone would be injured in the attempt to destroy the cascade and that they might be held liable for that misadventure.

After securing the site, Rosse scouted locations for the + 1 aspect of the project. In the autumn, she prepared designs for the waterfall that she intended to engineer in Pittsburgh. Rosse worked with a community liaison in the South Side Slopes neighborhood, an area of steep hillsides descending toward the Monongahela River. With the assistance of the Warhol Museum, Rosse negotiated a ten year lease of the abandoned baseball field located off Top of the Yard Way. The old field was built on a hilltop terrace overlooking the river valley and surrounded by 15 foot high cyclone fences with a splintered, storm-weathered backstop perched on the edge of the precipice. No one had used the baseball field for many years and city crews no longer maintained the place. Accordingly, it was not difficult to contract with the city for access to the old diamond and fields together with the cliff-like slope dropping down from the heights into the valley. The slope was tangled with small trees and exposed faces of crumbling sedimentary rock covered with a thick drizzle of green and red ivy. At the base of the four-hundred foot hill, an abandoned brewery with a ruinous red-brick tower huddled over a shadowy, fern-filled gorge – an artesian well had been cut into the hillside to exploit the natural springs beneath the bluff and the little canyon arched over with pedestrian bridges carried water down to a sandy bar shaped like an elbow in the Monongahela River. The ravine was derelict and, as the bricks and mortar of the hundred-year old brewery crumbled into the gorge, the debris was borne downstream toward the river in the wet hollow beneath arched masses of brush and trees.

Winter begins in October on the North Shore of Lake Superior. By December, the creek draining downhill to Leech Falls had frozen solid. Rosse’s contractors moved heavy equipment up to the brink of the frozen waterfall, a kind of chandelier suspended from the cliff with its innumerable pendants embedded in the dark ice of the plunge-pool. Explosive charges were used to excavate a pit upstream from the waterfall and, then, a ogee-shaped ditch was jack-hammered into the hard volcanic rock, running parallel to the cliff face. The new channel was lined with impermeable gravel and the diversionary canal was routed down and around the drop-off, cut into several steps to lead the water from above Leech Falls into the plunge-pool at its base. A thaw in mid-January tested the concept – the stream cracked and water rippled from the clog of ice blocking the river, trickling into the new basin upstream to the waterfall and, then, sliding sideways along the top of the cliff in a kind of aqueduct down to switchback into the plunge-pool. The river’s flow, although merely a few inches of water, followed the path as engineered, and, later, when the Spring thaw filled the creek bed with water, at full spate only a few inches overflowed the cascade’s brink – the rest of the water sped down the diversionary canal, rounded the curve and, then, toppled into the plunge pool. Leech Falls was gone, replaced by a sluice hacked into the cliff, a canal dropping down to the brimming round bowl of the plunge pool. The old brow of the waterfall was smooth, a deep groove eroded into the parapet of basalt where the cascade had once been.

While this work was underway in Minnesota, north of Duluth, Rosse’s crew knocked down the fences and backboard at the old ball field atop the overlooking south Pittsburgh. A series of gravel and packed earth ramps were built around a shallow basin excavated over the baseball diamond. All snow collected by city crews in South Side Slopes and its surrounding neighborhoods was hauled to basin and dumped there by the truckload. It was a snowy winter and the mound of compacted snow and ice soon grew higher than the ramps spiraling around the big white pyramid. On clear days, contractors brought gravel and dirt fill and raised the access ramps so that more snow could be heaped in the basin. At the same time, six men suspended in harnesses on the steep face of the hill below the basin cut into rock face, using dynamite to blast a shallow vertical groove in the incline. The groove re-contoured the hill side into a vertical, stone-lined shaft about eight feet wide and dropping 254 feet from the basin down into a bentonite-sealed impoundment reservoir on the slope above the ruins of the brewery. Several culvert-sized pipes were sunk in the fallen boulders and stony debris at the base of the hill and these conduits were angled down to bypass the brewery and disgorge into the ravine a little above the artesian well.

On the hilltop, the pyramid of compacted ice and snow, all removed from city streets and parking lots and sidewalks and piled in the basin dug into the old ballfield, was blanketed with a thick layer of saw-dust – this to insulate the glacier of ice and reduce its meltwater from a torrent to a brook slanting downward on a white apron of freshly poured concrete. The concrete apron ended above the groove incised in this hillside so that the water poured in a white, frothy free-fall 254 feet to splash into the teardrop-shaped impoundment reservoir. The City engineered a cul-de-sac near the base of the waterfall into a small parking lot and installed an 120 foot long asphalt trail up the slope to a viewing platform at the base of the cascade. The waterfall was named the Iron City Falls after a famous brand of beer once brewed in Pittsburgh. The snowpile feeding the waterfall was large enough to keep the cascade flowing until the end of August when the last of the ice-pack had melted.

So -1 +1 was completed. Films documenting the work required to destroy Leech Falls and create Iron City Falls were shown at the Guggenheim, both in New York City and Bilbao, as well as at the new Whitney and MOMA. The project, although criticized in some environmental circles, was generally hailed as a great triumph.

When the U.S. Geological Survey issued its next 7.5 minute (1:24,000 scale) topographic map of the North Shore terrain where Leech Falls had been located, the feature was no longer marked. Satellite images show the creek descending toward the great lake through a blurry flowage, then, making a dog-leg along a line of cliffs to ramp down into a wet forest on the edge of the coast. The river shows caramel-colored like whiskey or coca-cola flowing between black trees to the shuddering, foaming edge of the lake.

The City of Pittsburgh trucked snow and ice to the top of the artificial waterfall for six years. Calculations showed extra mileage and fuel expenses incurred in snow removal could be avoided if lowland (riverflats) depots were used to dump the snow and, so, the headwaters of the waterfall was no longer maintained. The first year that the snow was not packed above the falls, there were protests and, ultimately, the City plumbed the hilltop so that Iron City Falls could be turned on in May and operated at a steady flow through the end of October.




The Waterfall Bar, a successful franchise on the West Coast, has established an outpost in our city. The tavern graces the revitalized near north side, part of the vibrant neighborhood that has grown up around the Ballet eatery and the old Heights movie-house now converted to a stage by the Comet and Meteorite Theater company. Indeed, the bar occupies what appears to have once been a hardware emporium, a narrow commercial space tucked in between the Ballet and the Comet and Meteorite playhouse.

Featuring iced water from more than 80 waterfalls world-wide, the Bar is a cascade-water enthusiast’s dream. The wait-staff is knowledgeable about the waters both on-tap and available in flights on the tasting menu. Patrons are seated in hospitable mahogany booths at tables inset with flat-screen interactive computer display pads. The screens provide spectacular views of the sources of the water on sale – images of towering cataracts and roaring cascades, often filmed by drone cameras hovering so close to the spray that the lenses are dewy with water-droplets. Customers place drink-menu orders by tapping on the interactive screens. At the bar, Waterfall offers five waters on tap – Iguassu, Niagara, Victoria, Dettifoss, and Reichenbach. Behind the bar, the five waterfalls featured on tap are shown in a panorama of plunging, surging water. Menu waters are served in iced shot-glasses. Water collected from the falls featured in the menu is stored above the tavern’s tap room in second-floor flasks at exactly 33 degrees and poured torrent-style – this means that the water is sluiced from a fifteen-foot height through vertical channels chilled to 15 below zero. These sluice-ways provide aeration to the falling water and are arrayed in a luminous display within a walk-in cooler – the channel taps look like light-sabers from the Star Wars movies and, when they are engaged to drizzle drink-water into shots, the hollow water columns make an audible whooshing noise. The bar is the place on the near North side to see and be seen and the dark common room lit only by images of plunging white water has an uniquely romantic atmosphere. The only thing detracting from the experience is that the bar is loud with the sound of plunging and rushing waters – conversation may be difficult for some people.

Of course, more important than atmosphere is the quality of the water on offer to the bar’s patrons. Specimens of cascade water are gathered from both brink and base of the falls, mixed together to provide a liquid representative of the cascade, and, then, subjected purification by ionization processes – the purification is designed to remove potentially harmful contaminants from the fall water while not affecting the drink’s flavor. The water carried over the brink of a cascade or waterfall has a distinctive taste due to dissolved organic materials, sediments borne by the fast-moving stream, and minerals acquired in the rapids, gorges, and plunge-pools – this flavor is accentuated by the lightning-strike ozone characteristic of fall-water, a factor that intensifies the natural scent and taste of the water. The tap waters were uniformly excellent – Dettifoss is hard, metallic, with a slight flavor of salmon; Niagara is industrial, cold and precise, with hints of rubber and plastic-factory pollutants; Iguassu has a heavy, muddy flavor while Victoria seems almost herbal like a rich tea. Needless to say, Reichenbach is mint-flavored with an element of chocolate and has an enigmatic Alpine finish. Eight ounce servings on tap are priced at between five and seven dollars.

Flights of water curated from less well-known waterfalls are more expensive – eight to 15 dollars a shot depending on the remoteness and relative inaccessibility of the waterfall sampled. We ordered a flight of Queensland, Australia fall-waters, six specimens from Stoney Creek, Purlingbrook, Barron, Wallaman, Millaa Millaa, and Zilly. All of the Queensland fall waters had a distinctly fruity flavor with a fresh floral finish. Millaa Millaa, in particular, was strongly flavored with a slight vein of chili pepper coloring the mango-citrus infusion. We finished our taste-tour with shots of the famous Nachi Falls from the Kii peninsula in Honshu. As expected that fall-water had a crystalline taste, purely water and nothing else, that is, no taste at all, cleansing the palette and bringing an end to a perfect evening of waterfall tasting.

The Waterfall Bar is open every night from 5 to 11 except Monday. All major credit cards are accepted.

Colony Devastation




His mother was 34 when Irkson was born. But she was narrowing the gap between their ages. First, 32 years separated his birth from her claimed age. She had gained on him during Irkson’s ninth and tenth years – a desertion for which he had never forgiven him. Then, later, she reduced the gap again – this time to 28 years. Emilia was about to elect Vacay again – how long this time? Ten years away from the world? Twenty?

Her Adieux party was scheduled for 1500. If he arrived late, Emilia would fret, or, at least, pretend to fret, and accuse him of being a bad son for having made her worry. So Irkson decided it was best to arrive on time, be on display for an hour or so, and, then, depart before things became too maudlin. He was scheduled for departure himself later in that month – of course, several weeks after Emilia was safely in hibernation. Although, Irkson would also be cryogenically prepared and entombed for the duration of the probe’s travel time, Emilia, of course, had spared herself those concerns. That was her way – she seized the weapon from him, brandished it so that it would be devalued, and, then, cast herself aside. If she was escaping, now, for the third time – all in accord with regulation and statue requiring each taxpayer to spend no less than 30 years on Vacay so as to ease population pressure – he was also making himself unavailable, depriving his son of his presence and, otherwise, absconding, although, of course, in name of duty. Both mother and son making themselves scarce – so: like mother, like son.

In the tubes, Irkson set his peripheral on the destination, stroking the station icon for the end of the line. The PM was crowded but his peripheral guided him unerringly so that he stepped from plank to plank according to the instinct that the system implanted in him – now the fast lane, with the adverts streaking by too quick to read, the vocoder whispers a babble as he skimmed forward, then, the deceleration lanes, the slipstream between moving pathways, each step to right or left managed by his peripheral in handshake with the PM’s guidance coordinates. Sometimes, the tubes lifted him above the ground and he saw that the day was sunny, bright, pillars of towers shredding the light and scattering down into the green, sleek canyons of the streets – then, the planks dived and streamed through the underground, people robotically shifting lanes by side-step or side-skip as their peripherals required – stations to his left, some of them crammed with life and color and music, others vacant, except, perhaps, for a busker or a beggar come in out of the day to shelter in the tubes, and, at last, the Vacay decks, last stop in more ways than one, plank ramping up to the balconies over the sea where the Adieux parties were underway, the PM conveyor under his feet now surprisingly slow after all the speed before, moving at a speed slower than a run, than slower than a trot, and, with a sinking feeling in his heart and belly, now slower, Mr. Irkson, than a walk and, at last, full stop at the elevator banks to the Vacay pods, several screens scrolling digits to welcome vacationers to their final destination for a few years or a few decades, as the case might me, the list of Adieux ceremonies underway running snakelike as a feed beneath the numerical display, an amenity that was unnecessary to Irkson since he was percipient through his peripheral as to the facility’s public data stream, a perception that blinked on just as he disconnected from the PM’s guidance system.

The building leaned over the sea and its facade was broken into five-thousand enclosed balconies, some larger, some smaller, like a cabinet with a vast number of sliding drawers many of them fully extended, others not so much – indeed, the Vacay center’s bon voyage elevation featured glass-sheathed rooms that advanced and withdrew mechanically, some extending, some motionless, some retracting, a spectacle that could not be seen except from a vantage on one of those balconies, the place where Emilia was celebrating her adieux. To Irkson, the sporadic protrusion and withdrawal of the balconies had a loathsome aspect: it was as if the building were suffused with a creeping, irregular motion. But this went ignored by most of the guests, a dozen or so people, arranged as if in floral display around the guest of honor, the woman of the hour, Emilia. His mother wore a pink party dress and earrings projecting a faint scintillation that, if closely observed, consisted of important moments in her life including some of Irkson’s birthdays and, of course, the Caesarean that had first exposed him to the day. People spoke in hushed voices as if at a religious ceremony or a funeral. Through the great windows tilted over the sea, Irkson saw the floating casinos and the brothel barges and, then, beyond those vessels the vast white scoops of the desalinization plants. The city swept away from their vantage on both sides of the balcony and its towers seemed to lean over the sea and the sunlit breakers writhing below. People liked the prospect of edges, of looking across a threshold from one place into another, and that was what the adieux chambers offered – the glimpse of a far horizon not all mangled with human habitation.

Irkson’s mother’s hand was surprisingly cool and soft. She gazed into his eyes and told him how much she would miss him. The aura of regret bathing her words unsettled Irkson because he knew that his mother’s acting was so accomplished that she believed it herself. She embraced him, contracting herself into some small and waif-like. The air smelled of perfume: frangipani and mangoes. The government agent in the corner of the balcony seemed locked into a peripheral that distracted him away from this symposium where the people lounged on their sides in the air-bed recliners and music whispered in the fragrant air and trays of hors-d’ouevres and liqueurs circulated self-propelled to hover between the groups of visitors. Irkson saw several of his mother’s lovers – two of them, at least, trying not to seem to enthused about Emilia’s imminent hibernation. The men were both well-appointed and vapid-looking, their features so well-regulated and their expressions so bland that they seemed to be almost nonexistent, mere ciphers standing among the others adorning the room.

After he admitted that he loved her, Irkson murmured to his mother: "How long will it be?" The other guests bowed slightly and withdrew into other conversations. A balcony nearby, next to their window withdrew into the glass curtain wall.

"So how long?" he asked again.

"I don’t know this time," she said.

"What are you escaping?" He asked.

"Aren’t you underway yourself in a month?"

"That’s population expansion exploration," Irkson told her.

"But it’s cryogenic hibernation for the duration of the transit, then, who knows?" Her smile was suspiciously soft.

"It’s a mission," Irkson said.

"And this isn’t?"

"I don’t want to be drawn into an argument with you," Irkson said.

"You have never forgiven me for the Vacay when you were a little boy?"

"There’s nothing to say about that."

"I was overwhelmed. You know that. I was just overwhelmed."

"It was overwhelming to me too," Irkson said. "For you to go away like that."

"This time, I’m not going to set the term," she said. "You can set the term. Or turn me into a Sleeping Beauty, not to be awakened except with a kiss."

"It’s your life," Irkson said.

"Well, how long should I slumber?" she asked.

Irkson shrugged. He turned and nodded to Emilia’s two lovers who were watching him nervously from the opposite side of the balcony.

"Let them decide," he said to Emilia.

"Oh, them," she said. "I’m taking Vacay to get away from them. They’re not going to set my schedule."

But, as she spoke, the two men approached, silently stepping between the hovering hors d’ouevre and drink caterers. Each of them took her by the hand, one man holding each of her fragile-seeming white wrists. An IV port was already incised into her left arm, a little mechanical gateway that blinked with its LED monitor light. She opened to them, inflating herself, it seemed, as if in defiance of the retreat that she was about to accomplish.

The idea was that the sun would set over the sea, the big red thing dropping behind the desalinization scoops and, then, the city would be ignited as a thing of immense, pale blue and green phosphorescence and, in that spectacle of light, the vacationer would be extracted from consciousness and deposited in her biophagus. Irkson looked at the sun and measured its angle above the sea and determined that he could stay for another thirty minutes, no more, before things became dire on that deck and tears would be shed and fond farewells exchanged in that dying of the light.

Both men were bent toward Emilia and each whispering in an opposite ear. Was one central and one peripheral? Or were they both peripheral? Did they change places. Emilia’s eyes fogged with moisture. She called to her best friend and that woman came to her side and, then, the two lovers backed away from her, moving like courtiers who were afraid to turn their shoulders to their queen. The best friend called other friends and they formed a circle so tightly enclosing the enthroned woman that she could not be seen. The light was already dimming. Or was that just an atmospheric, something managed by changing the crystal structure in the glass enclosure to reverse polarize the light?

Irkson circulated among friends and family. At last, he stood on the edges of the gathering, next to the bored government official monitoring Emilia’s departure.

"How many of these do you see a day?" Irkson asked the man.

The man looked irritated and, then, remote. From the vacancy in his gaze, Irkson presumed that the official was searching in his peripherals for a voice- or face-recognition file. Whether he made the identification was uncertain.

"Between eight and twelve," the man said.

"It must be depressing," Irkson said.

"No, not really," the official said, "we need everyone to do their duty. Otherwise, none of this is sustainable."

Irkson knew that it was the official’s task to verify genomically the identity of the person taking Vacay, manage the suspension of civil and legal rights, and confirm the depth of the hibernation, sealing the biophagus and, further, making sure that appropriate revival alarms were set. He had earlier managed the fingerprint genome and the rights suspension forms were on the digital tablet that he carried.

"Actually," the official said, "it makes you tired yourself. You want to sleep."

"I suppose," Irkson said.

Irkson braced himself, stiffening his spine, and, then, brushed through the people around his mother, murmuring apologies in a low voice.

"I can’t tolerate goodbyes," Irkson said to her. She looked up at him from the recliner. Her peripherals were already disconnected and, so, her eyes were wide and clear and she gazed at him with a singularity of focus that made him uneasy. Why did people always seem so vibrant just on the frontier of being extinguished? Someone should rescue her, drag her away from the dark cavern to which she was inclining, bring her forth into the light . The emotion was an artifact of his childhood, but, powerful enough to make him gasp a little nonetheless.

The outside corridors were cooler, not irradiated with the setting sun, and he moved through the structure to the terraces on the building’s other side, the rehab and PT wing that faced inland away from the sea. People who had just emerged from Vacay were suspended in the center of mechanical carapaces that simulated the motion of their limbs and provide transcutaneous electro-activation of dormant muscles and nerves. A couple of women sat in wheel chairs on the terrace, looking away to the villages and shanty-cities of the non-tax payers ascending the mountains overlooking the metropolis. People who had just emerged from their Vacay looked stunned, as if they had been clubbed over the head, and their eyes were dull and indifferent with concussion. Robo-therapists slipped between the people implementing doctor’s orders – tapping an IV or bathing a face or joint in a cortico-steroid mist and the air, although heavily scented, smelled, nonetheless, from the remnants of their hibernation – urinary tract infections and abscesses where pressure sores had formed in spite of the body-shifting mechanisms in the biophagus pods, a stench faintly perceptible to him like the dry-mouth smell of someone just awakened after a long night’s sleep.

A robo-therapist visaged as a Labrador retriever led the people retrieved from their sleep in song. High voices, granular from disused vocal chords, hymned together. The sun was setting and the Tesla devices made the mountain slopes swarm with arcs of artificial lightning, beaming energy to heights that seemed almost inaccessible, the summits of the highest mountain crowned with tenements of the very poor, poured concrete and tin gleaming in the last light like snowfields. These glaciers were mobs of men and women and children, the unregulated masses stacked atop one another in hordes that slipped and slid down the slopes when it rained, avalanches of people and debris in a perpetual slow-motion collapse, smoke rising from obscure battlefields where the warlords were contesting dominion over the squatter encampments, the border systems with their chill emerald-laser extermination zones zigzagging across the lower escarpment and, even, driving the frontier up the hill in corridors stabbing into belly of the favellas like a pitchfork.

Irkson always wondered whether it would be different when he returned from an exploration expedition. Would the slums of non-tax-payers rise up in revenge on the City? Would the sheer crush of the unregulated population beyond the border system overwhelm the frontier and flood the City with non-taxpayers, people not compelled into Vacay, idle and feral breeders who might have two or three or even more children? Everything wavered at the tipping point. It was said the closer that you lived to the border system with its noon-time glare and its blizzards of animate razor-wire, steel-grey vortices of fence that rolled back and forth in the ceaseless pursuit of bio-markers, the closer you came to this edge, the more the air smelled of something that could only described as death.




According to the adverts, the bold explorers on the Dulcolax traveled "beyond the stars" in search of fresh worlds suitable for human habitation. It is not clear what it means to travel "beyond the stars" since the region where the probe was orbiting BluGre37 was inordinately brilliant with stellar objects, including a nearby red-orange and acetylene blue binary rotating like the light atop on an old police vehicle or the beam of an ancient lighthouse on rock-girt coast. Big Pharma had naming rights to all of the probe vessels and Dulcolax was a proprietary title given a hallucinogenic laxative that showed great potential in a number of upscale markets.

Irkson, as director of HR and part of the management team, was one of the first aroused when the Dulcolax split the wormhole and spurted out of hyperspace into a orbit around BluGre37, an apsidral precession averaging about 80,000 km from the planet. It was a pretty thing, the globe shimmering with weather, seas and bone-colored continents turning beneath an awning of striated rings. The rings tilted upward in the planet’s magnetosphere, alternately catching flares of light from the binary or tinted by the silvery radiance of the system’s sun, a wan small star that shepherded a flock of tiny rocky planetoids whirling around its circumference. The spectacle was charming and strangely intimate – the relationship between BluGre37 and its rings seemed vaguely familiar, even, maternal and, during the first week of his recuperation from confinement in his Biophagus, Irkson hung sedated in a traction web, therapy-machines stretching his limbs and working his joints while transcutaneous solvents ate away the ligatures and contractures, his eyes fixed on the planet and the storms parading there like armies with banners, lightning strikes crawling across the face of the world, and those strange rings jauntily tipped upward like a hat raised in a greeting.

Since explorers must be prepared for vigorous activity, the other crew members had been flayed around their crucial joints to prevent contractures, moving parts affixed to Range-of-Motion flexors and extensors by way of skeletal traction. After Irkson had regained his ability to walk on his own, he toured the wards of the probe where his employees were still soporific, eyes closed as the ROM machines tugged and twisted and contorted their limbs, exposed muscle tissue glistening like fresh-cut meat in a slaughterhouse – it was an alarming sight, something not displayed in any the adverts touting the adventures of the Dulcolax to earth-consumers. Irkson had no medical training and, so, he was always startled to see the crew-members rotated onto their bellies so that the vast, gory expanses of their gluteus maximus muscles were exposed, tendon and sinew shining and infused with blood as well as the great red wings of the paraspinal muscles supporting the neck and architecture of the upper-spine and shoulders. Hyperspace attrition was generally 15%, and a half-dozen crew members were found mummified in their pods or, due to postural misalignment, shredded by the attendant machines charged with daily rotating and repositioning them. The corpses were ejected, silver cocoons making ever-elongating sling-shot orbits around the Dulcolax until they escaped the vessel’s gravitational field to spin forever around BluGre37. Inside the space-ship, revived crew-members were wheeled to debridement tanks where leeches removed necrotic tissue so that auto-grafting could be implemented. All personnel were to be fully ambulatory within three sol-weeks of their restoration to consciousness. The air was infused was antibiotics in a perfumed and sickly-smelling mist. It made Irkson nauseous, but was something that had to be endured pending surface expeditions to the planet.

Preliminary data scans of BluGre37 showed that the world was morphologically similar to Earth. It’s climate and eco-systems were homologous. Although scouting sensors detected copious flora and fauna, there was no active intelligent or self-aware sentient life. Ruinous structures on a vast scale were imaged, but those sites were abandoned and, in most cases, buried under biosphere deposits, encrypted beneath soil and vegetation. Signals from the largest island in an archipelago near the planet’s equator ambiguously suggested some kind of settlement, possibly inhabited, but the data-signatures of organized intelligent life were otherwise absent.

"This begs the question," Irkson said to Donut, his adjutant. "It’s an Eden, a green paradise. So why aren’t there any indigenous inhabitants?"

"No Indians of any kind?"

"So far it doesn’t look like it," Irkson said.

"A new Earth," Donut said. "We’ll be as famous as Columbus."

"There’s room for a billion, maybe more," Irkson said. "And without any cleansing."

"Too bad that Pharma has the naming rights," Donut said.

"Well, before anyone starts gloating," Irkson replied, "we had better survey the place. Maybe, there’s more than meets the eye. You have to wonder why there are no Indians."

"But there were once."

"It seems so."

"War. That’s the answer," Donut said. "They wiped themselves out or wrecked the climate or destroyed their ecosystems."

"Maybe," Irkson said.

A scout-probe was dropped down to assay the planetary rings. From the Dulcolax, the rings

looked like a ramped race-track, tilted upward over the cloud-swarmed surface of BluGre37, a pathway through space that looked sufficiently solid to support the boots of an interplanetary hiker. At the extremities of the curve, the rings faded into colors cast by the rotating binary or the wan, yellow sun glowing like a lantern in a cavern at the center of the system. A black gap separated the glowing outer ring from a somewhat dimmer, but more intensely colored inner annulus. Various parts of the arc seemed more or less dense, although the concentric gap between the rings appeared as a constant shadow, possibly an opening in the ring-disk plowed by a shadowy, and, therefore, invisible moonlet.

Monitors showed the rings seeming to flatten into a laminar surface as the probe approached. The outer ring atomized into a field of debris, glinting sullenly in the light and spraying in a stream from the right of the image to the left. Molecular oxygen mingled with carbon dioxide and ice particles hazed the space between the jagged shards flowing across the screen.

The outer ring was made of metallic substances similar to tin, steel, lead, zinc, and bauxite.

"It’s as if a billion cans were crushed and shot into space," Donut said.

The scout probe skirted the edge of the whirling debris field, dropping beneath the ring so that it hung overhead like a pale, shimmering ceiling. The inner ring was the same as the outer annulus, a cloud of shattered metal shards, three to six cm. in dimension, shooting across the monitor in a thin brothlike plasma of oxygen, water and carbon-dioxide.

The black ribbon between the two rings was not a space or empty gap. Instead, the ribbon was another ring, this comprised of tiny soot-like black particles, a 5 meter-wide annular cloud of ash separating the halos of metal debris. The probe gingerly approached the black ash-ring and assayed the cinders jetting past,

Donut said: "It’s organic."

"Organic?" Irkson asked.

Donut rubbed his eyes to simulate disbelief and, then, massaged his forehead and brows as if his head hurt.

"Genetic material," Donut said.


"Not anymore," Donut replied.

The spectral assay displayed various carbon compounds with replicant DNA strands.

"What the hell?" Irkson exclaimed.

"Corpse-particles. It’s a burial ground."

The scout withdrew from the sepulchral black ring of corpse material. The rings rotated in the perspective of the scout’s ocular sensors and the arch of the ring billowed up toward the probe’s belly, appearing as two sleek metallic fins supporting a central crepe of rippling black ash.

Irkson said: "The metal must be from the corpse containers, shot up here where they collide or fall apart under the impact of micro-meteorites. This exposes the organic material which degrades in the solar wind and the vacuum to this cloud of organic dust."

The probe was climbing toward the lower hatch of Dulcolax. Donut shut off the visual display.

"Do we have the density of the corpse-ash cloud?" Irkson asked.

"It’s here," Donut said, pointing to a figure on the assay screen.

Irkson slid his mind sideways into this peripheral, fished for the computations, and, then, flashed them forebrain.

"I don’t know that it’s a mortuary practice," Irkson said. "We have to consider another alternative."

"What is that?"

"There’s too much organic matter in the death ring," Irkson said. "And it’s all, more or less, equally degraded. If we were looking at a course of space-burials, the organic matter would show a variety of levels of decomposition and degradation. I think we can calculate how long this stuff has been in orbit."

Donut said the he would try to access those algorithms peripherally.

"We’ll find that the deposit is all about the same age," Irkson said. "I’m convinced of that. It has to be to have coalesced into a single ring."

"Then what?"

"The rings were formed during a single catastrophic attempt to evacuate the planet," Irkson said. "The entire population tried to flee for some reason. There was a threat."

"What kind of a threat?" Donut asked.

"I don’t know," Irkson said. "But something horrific enough to cause the whole population to cram themselves into tin cans and, then, be shot into space."

"Where were they going?"

"Nowhere. They must have known that the capsules or space-barges or whatever they were riding would break up as soon as they reached the magnetosphere. This must have been obvious to them. The alloys of the metal are inadequate for interplanetary travel."

"So why would they do this?" Donut asked.

"Because the alternative was too terrible for them to imagine. Apparently, the entire population felt that they would be better off dying in outer space than staying on BluGre37."

Donut looked down at pale metallic rainbow of the rings stretching out voluptuously over the gem-like planet.

"So, maybe, it’s not as nice down there as it looks," Donut said.

"This was an evacuation," Irkson said. He gestured at the soot ring cradled in the arch of shredded metal. "Something turned everyone on the planet into a refugee. Apparently, the population preferred outer space to their own planet even though they must have known that their tin cans were just low-tech death traps."

Donut gestured at the rings: "It’s a broken Ark."


"Noah’s ark," Donut said.



Donut and Irkson were skull to skull, identical spider transducers squatting on their craniums. The transducers were opening their ESP portals and establishing resonant frequencies. Both men sat in a bay bumped-out from the belly of the Dulcolax. Their vessel’s orbit cast the rings of BluGre37 in differing perspectives, an elegant shifting geometry that delighted the eye.

"Are you focusing on the spiral-shaped sea-storm midway in the gulf?" Irkson asked.

"Which gulf?"

Irkson said: "Southern hemisphere near the planet’s horizon on the left."

"Correct," Donut said.

He twisted his head a little.

"Try not to turn your head perceptibly," Irkson said. "I don’t want to read cues from your posture or the inclination of your head."

"Okay," Donut said.

"I’m picking up focus on the binary as it rises over the horizon on the right."

"That’s right," Donut said.

"Now, the pattern of stars, above the sphere, shaped like a pitchfork with...maybe...a couple of remote binaries also," Irkson said.

"So you’ve got me loud and clear?" Donut asked.

"I think so." Irkson said. He paused: "Now, you’re watching my reflection in the glass, down below the planet."

"Inadvertently," Donut said.

"Do I really look that old and haggard to you?"

"Nah," Donut said. "Fresh as a daisy in the dew."

The ombudsman appeared, first as a reflection in the concave bulb of crystal through which they were looking, then, between them. He was shirtless and the auto-grafts on his shoulders and at his wrist and elbow joints looked pink and smooth as the skin on a baby. He carried a pad with display screen.

"I have the neural-legal consents," the ombudsman said.

"I’ll sign," Donut said.

"You have to read first," the ombudsman said.

Donut looked at the document displayed on the screen, signed, then, verified his signature with a thumbprint assay.

"You’re consenting to first and second order percipient intrusion?" the ombudsman asked.

"I am," Donut replied.

"First order is direct sensory impressions. Second order perceptions are interpretations of the impressions as to speed, direction, acceleration, distance, change..." the man with display pad said.

"Do I get emotional reactions?" Irkson asked. "Not that I want them but –"

"What emotions?" Donut asked.

"No, that would be unduly intrusive," the ombudsman said. "People are afraid of different things, they have different desires, different reactions to perceptions. It’s too intimate. Donut isn’t consenting to transmit that kind of data into your peripheral."

"That’s what I expected," Irkson said. "I’ll sign the consent."

The legal ombudsman handed him the tablet so that he could execute his agreement to receive transmission of first and second order perceptions from Donut.

The ombudsman said: "Signed, sealed, and delivered. You may kiss the bride."

"What bride?" Irkson said.

The Skull Surgeon appeared, his torso also bare and pleated with auto-grafts. He pried the spiders off the two men’s heads, asking them whether the portals had been properly opened.

"I’ve got him in my peripheral," Irkson said.

"I’m his percipient-surrogate," Donut added.

The Skull Surgeon and the ombudsman waddled away, moving gingerly on limbs a little untried and wobbly.

"For a moment," Donut said. "I had a little backwash. Something with leathery wings, a brown face crumpled like a fallen leaf, tiny teeth.

"A bat," Irkson said. "I was thinking about a bat."

"What’s the association?"

Irkson paused. The motion of the Dulcolax spread out the rings beneath them like swaths of pale, intricate lace.

"We’re working on limited brain-power up here. The ship’s not as intelligent as the systems earth-side and, sometimes, you get weird input in your peripheral. I was running a search and encountered something called ‘Colony Collapse Syndrome: Pseudogymnoasacus Destructans and Little Brown Bats’ – that’s what sloshed-over."


"It was old stuff. There once was a fungus that caused something called ‘White Nose Disease’ in bats. The fungus spread by contact, a dangerous vector when you consider that bats live together in colonies, thousands of them pressed together in their roosts to make a kind of living tapestry. Apparently, the fungus created lesions, attacking the bats’ mucous membranes and, ultimately, infecting their lungs. In some cases, the fungus triggered arousal in hibernating bat colonies, waking them up when they were supposed to be sleeping."

Donut looked through the corpse-rings to the planet. Where the sun was rising, golden fog clung to the ragged sea coasts. Some wrinkled mountains cupped green lakes and snowfields at higher elevations.

"A couple thousand bats were roosting in an abandoned mine-shaft somewhere in Canada. The disease infected the colony and aroused the bats and people in the village near the mine saw them one morning, a black cloud rising out of the earth like smoke. At first, they thought that something had exploded in the old mine – there had been underground blasts that killed miners before the shafts were shut-down. But it was silent and there was no rumbling in the earth, just a plume of black smoke rising from the mine-shaft, fraying apart in the icy wind, and vanishing. It was the bats. Some sort of panic had driven them en masse from the shaft, an impulse that drove the colony out into sub-zero weather – it was cold, very cold, and the bats had been living on their body fat during their disrupted hibernation and, when propelled out into the winter, they flew upward rising to the level of the tallest trees and, then, plummeted to the earth, fluttering down like falling leaves, all of them frozen to death. The villagers found them blanketing the drifts of snow a quarter-mile from the mine-shaft. It was a sunny day, cloudless and, therefore, terribly cold since there was nothing to trap the heat near the earth and the reflection of the sun on the ice-fields radiated upward into outer space and, the author of the article supposed, that the bats were delusional, afflicted by some kind of panic that drove them to rise from their roosting beds and ascend the mine-shaft toward the deadly light and cold and, then, emerge, into the radiance where the chill killed them immediately. The author speculated that the dying bats had crashed into the snow in a great cloud of high-pitched shrieks pitched ahead of them as echolocation, a high-frequency scream that no human ears could hear."

Donut shrugged. "I’m not looking forward to going down there."

"There’s room for a billion, more than billion, maybe five billion comfortably down there," Irkson said.

"That’s how it looks from up here," Donut said.



BluGre37's upper atmosphere was turbulent. Fast-flowing wind-rivers beset the manned probe and it wobbled, then, rolled end-over-end. The jet streams were hidden in clear air at various altitudes, unpredictably changing direction. Irkson saw the horizon spin and, then, tilt away to the side, as the air currents battered the probe. It made him a little nauseated and so he switched-off. The audio feed to his peripheral was unpleasant – the sound of the explorers retching and vomiting. Donut cursed and, then, the bottom fell out, a jack-hammer of heavy, cold air smashing the probe down through the clouds to a hard landing that jangled the men’s spinal cords and left them breathless.

Earlier assays had shown the air on BluGre37 to be breathable, but the crew detached their respirators cautiously – even, air perfectly fine for respiration can contain organic contaminants, dangerously bad odors, or sinister hallucinogenic pollutants. Standing outside the probe, Donut unlatched his helmet, knocked it back onto his shoulders, and, let out a kind of barking yawp.

"It’s oooooo-kaaaaay," he cried.

Rough ride and rough landing, Irkson thought.

A kind of astigmatism, an uncertainty of focus, afflicted Irkson’s reception of Donut’s perceptions. Maybe, it was residual dizziness from chaotic descent. Donut looked up and observed the pale tilted ladders of the planet’s rings extended across the meridian. It was beautiful and he gasped.

There was no landscape, merely wet-looking leaves and thorns pressed all around. Irkson could see drops of dew speared by the thorns. Mist blocked open avenues between the matted trees.

Donut tilted his head down. Irkson saw that the terrain underfoot was soggy. Donut’s boots plunged knee-deep in the algal green stew. When he lifted his legs, gaping holes appeared in the ground, dark pits that swarmed with finger-length worms oozing into the footprints. The sight repelled Irkson and he wished that Donut would look in a different direction.

To distract him, Irkson signaled: "How is the air?"

"You can breathe it," Donut responded. "Just barely."

The crush of vegetation spilling over low mounds compressed space. Irkson could not see a horizon. In some areas, the sky was shrouded in cream-colored mists that seemed to be leaking upward from the earth. There were no flying creatures and the coil of thorns and leaves didn’t conceal anything creeping or crawling in the plants. When Donut pressed his gloved hand against the spongy curtains of grey-green growth, the plant-mass yielded only a little and none of the leaves were dislodged – indeed, the green, petal-shaped leaves seemed soldered in place, immobile, without any coil of heliotropism.

Donut looked over his shoulder: the footprints behind him were swarming with subterranean life brought for an instant into the light. Many-legged things wriggled downward, seeking the darkness, creatures that seemed to be built backward and upside down, larval-looking soil-crabs and heart-shaped fist-sized grubs the color of cheese.

"There’s no bottom underfoot," Donut signaled. "It doesn’t really have a surface so there’s no real above-ground or below-ground – it just gets denser the deeper you probe, the web gets tighter."

"Is it dangerous to walk," Irkson signaled.

"I don’t know. It defends if there are cavities below, abscesses."

Donut stood on the edge of a shallow trench between two mounds shrouded under enormous masses of baroque, unfurled vegetation. At its center, the trench pulsated with the pressure of living creatures buried under the dense, soggy green carpet.

"The zoa is all underground," Donut said. "See how the living things are burrowing and coming apart and coming together."

One of the other men stood hip-deep in the throbbing green, a look of horror and revulsion on his face. Where his legs were sunk in the growth covering the ground, blind worms boiled out of his footprints impressed in the green.

"Some kind of putrid marsh," Donut said.

"You must be quoting," Irkson responded.

"I don’t know," Donut replied.

"I ran a word-search," Irkson said. "Percy Shelley in ‘Alastor’..."

"Very fancy," Donut said. "But I never read it."

"What do you see that would drive people into a death orbit?"

"Nothing," Donut said. "But this is all secondary to whatever devastated this place."

They retraced their steps, plunging uncertainly deep into the soggy swamp underfoot. At the probe, a couple of men in haz-mat suits were girdling the silver projectile with hover-belts. The probe rested in a caldera blasted out of the vegetation, tilted down toward cellar-like voids in the swamp where hydra-shaped creatures extended slimy tentacles downward writhing away from the light.

"You see, everything lives underground," Donut signaled.

He tipped his head so that Irkson could see with his eyes into the gloomy recesses below, dark cells with their walls tapestried with colonies of blind shrimp-like creatures and scuttling earth crabs.

"Carceri," Donut said. "The Carceri."

"Now, who’s being fancy?" Irkson signaled.

"You can’t get the full sense of this," Donut said. "Everything is tilted down to go under the surface. There’s nothing in the sky."

He flipped his head upward. The greater light blazed against the mist and the lesser lifted the green gloom from the ground and cast it skyward and, in the fragmentary blue, Irkson saw through Donut’s eyes the pale scaffolding of the death rings. Donut’s lenses polarized things differently than Irkson’s eyes and, so, for a moment, things cast a faint halo or stood aside from themselves in a faint astigmatic glory.

The men clambered into the probe, now sky-hooked and hanging chest-high over the foam of vegetation.

"It’s exhausting," Donut said. He said that he was going to nap and that he hoped not to dream.

"Some privacy?" Donut asked.

Irkson went elsewhere in his peripheral. He was tired also, all of Donut’s phantom muscles ached around him.




The womb of the sleep-pod amplified Irkson’s heartbeat and refreshed him with cool vapors. The moisture in the air was like a glimpse of the moon hanging like night’s distillate in a blue sky.

Brick by brick and panel by panel, Irkson built his imaginary wall. The wall was tall and topped by turrets and as impermeable as the parapets protecting the city from the favelas on the mountains. He imagined a moat and put crocodile-like reptiles in its turbid waters and, then, with the edges of his mind secured (so he thought) against his peripheral, Irkson fell asleep.

He dreamed that he was on a planet where the gravitational field was reversed or where the intra-nuclear weak forces had been amplified. Everything had to secured to the surface of the planet or it would fly into outer space: a huge salvage yard stacked with damaged vehicles, crushed modular housing, and planetary probes that yearned to rise into the sky. Someone had cut Irkson’s harness and he rose upward. Above him, his mother’s torso and face floated skyward like a balloon. She was ahead him as they both fell upward into the abyss of the sky. Then, the light snapped back and forth like an epileptiform seizure and the darkness of outer space writhed with unpleasant many-headed worms.

Irkson woke, gasping a little at the dream’s vividness. He sat upright and saw his face, a bit haggard and remote, reflected in the plastic shell of over his sleep-pod. The Dulcolax hummed like a nursemaid performing her chores.

He accessed his peripheral and patched into Donut.

"I’m here," he signaled.

"A little crusty," Donut said. "Bad night?"

"Bad night," Irkson confirmed. "I had one of those zero-G dreams. It’s odd because the centrifugal field on the ship is operating."

Donut said that he was lucky that he wasn’t down below, on the surface of BluGre37.

"The place doesn’t ever really grow dark," Donut said. "It goes into twilight and the rings light up the place. From down here, it’s like looking at the stars through the bars of a cage."

Donut paused.

He said: "Then, you get cloud activity but it’s all backward. There’s an updraft and the moisture in the swamps spills upward – the rain falls in the wrong direction and, since it’s all lit with bioluminescence, you get columns of light, bluish light falling with the rain upward. Then, there are clouds whirling around overhead, all of them lit from within by the blue slime, and ionization, lots of earth to sky and sky to earth ionization, then, it rains downward for an hour or so, however long the downdraft continues, then, up again – the water and blue mist ascending on elevators of updrafts. Back and forth, like a ping pong game."

"That explains my dream," Irkson said. "You were leaking a little through my peripheral."

"Not my fault," Donut said. "You were the one who was leaking. Must have had a breach in your wall."

"I suppose," Irkson said.

"We don’t want to go out today," Donut said.

"Why not?"

"Everything seems wrong here," Donut replied. "It’s unbelievably oppressive."

"I’d like to see that rain show," Irskson said.

"No, you wouldn’t," Donut said. "It’s loathsome, repellent."

"You have to go out," Irkson said.

"Easy for you to say," Donut replied. "It’s a green hell. You’re wading hip-deep in the muck and the muck is all squirming and alive."

"It’s a devastated ecosystem," Irkson said. "Everything driven either into orbit or down into the slime."

"I don’t know what happened here," Donut said.

"That’s what you need to discover."

"There’s not one stone, not one brick set atop another brick – it’s all gone radically lateral," Donut said.

Irkson saw that Donut was strapping himself into a Haz-Mat suit. Other crew-members registered faintly, a face or an arm or elbow flickering into his consciousness now and then.

"I’m shutting down the overt," Irkson said. The mental equivalent of a shrug coursed through the signal.

They went outside. The swamp was belching methane and morning ionization retained by the earth and low-slung clouds ignited some of the gas and caused orange fireballs to roll in a leisurely way through the wet, congested hummocks of the marshland. There was too much liquid for anything to burn and so the globes of fire moved from place to place without making much of a mark, a herd of fiery cows munching on the heaps of vegetal matter. The burning methane clouds bellowed like elephants, a thick, phlegm-congested roar, and, as they approached, the explorers simply stepped aside so that burn-monsters could continue on their course, singeing the matted grey-green thorn brush.

In places, the subsurface zoetic pressure caused living things to spurt from vulvar-shaped fissures in the soil. Apparently, buried structures impeded the migrations of the worms and the many-legged arachniform ground-mites, the gristly larval grubs and the colonies of tardigrade-like creatures, mole-shaped animals the color of chicken-fat that secreted a bluish phosphorene. Where the plasma of sub-grade living creatures sloshed against the underground dikes, the earth split and slimy geysers erupted from crescent furrows in the marsh – flocks of earth-crabs stood around the openings mechanically shearing apart the various living things that rose from the deep.

"There must be an apex predator somewhere underground," Irkson signaled.

"That’s what we’re afraid of," Donut replied.

Boils sometimes rose on the surface of the marsh, places where the vegetation was heaved upward and apart.

"Maybe that is the predator," Donut said, tilting his head so that Irkson could use his eyes to focus on the three-foot pimple thrust up through the green muck. The boil-like lesion pulsed slightly.

"Stay away from it," Irkson said.

"You don’t need to tell me that."

By the third day, Donut’s nightmares were so persistent and cyclonic that they began to smash down the psych-wall that Irkson erected each evening before falling asleep. There was nothing for Irkson to stand behind – he felt as if he were alone at the center of a great barren prairie with the storm from Donut’s mind pouring over him like a wind.

"This isn’t tenable," Irkson said.

"How do you think I feel?" Donuts said.

"You’re scalding the inside of my head," Irkson told him.

A couple of Donut’s men were either dead or incapacitated. Irkson couldn’t get Donut to think about them and, so, he didn’t know had occurred.

"I’ll make a full report if I return," Donut said.

An unmanned bio-assay recorded a signal suggesting more complex life, possibly sentient, on an archipelago antipodal from the continental swamp where Donut had landed.

"Check that out and, then, go orbital to link up with us," Irkson told him. He gave Donut the coordinates and, then, tried to imagine-out his peripheral. But the spiritual exercise didn’t work and the wall collapsed inward under the pressure of rotting vegetation and white larval grubs.

"You’ve infested my mind," Irkson told Donut.




The shallow sea near the coast was muddy with silt. Stilt-trees stood on root-scaffolding in groves extending far out into the bays and coves. As the water deepened, the trees became smaller and more forlorn and, at last, only a few of them remained below the probe as fragile-looking as mosquitos injecting their proboscides into the flesh of the ocean. The filth draining from the endless, undulating forests diluted, at last, and the sea reflected the pale, tormented sky, its greater and lesser lights and unexpected sunsets. The waters were turbulent with all manner of life. As the probe skimmed the waters, sea monsters rose up to brandish their fangs at the vessel and so Donut ordered that the capsule cruise at a higher elevation. From 2500 meters above the water, the men could see the surface waters teeming with schools of iridescent creatures, vast behemoths moving among the brightly colored currents of living things. Unlike the continents, the sea seemed alert with vertebral life, although nothing broke the surface of the water except the monsters rising to challenge their progress over the waves and, then, vanish again in an instant – fantastical, livid apparitions that seemed too improbable to exist once they had descended again beneath the placid, rippling waves. There were no birds or their equivalents.

BluGre37 was more water than land and its oceans were serene. The life dimly shadowed beneath the waves faded into the blue and green and purplish water as the capsule rose to hover in the silent heights over the archipelago – from a couple miles above the ocean, the surface of the sea was criss-crossed with pale lanes refracting the light from the greater and lesser suns in a way different from the inert-looking adjacent waters: currents were inscribing pathways in the ocean scuffed among the ceaselessly crawling waves, streaks that intersected at a pentagram-shaped atoll. Low, sandy knolls protruded from the water, rimmed with emerald vegetation. Linear brown causeways, apparently knit together from twigs and branches, extended across the upland moors on the islands. Where the causeways intersected, there were circular nodes, round structures enclosing plazas strewn with pale sand.

Donut kept the probe hovering high enough above the atoll that any eyes turned skyward would have seen the vessel only as an indefinite speck above the faint, striated clouds of the upper air.

"We don’t want to scare the natives," Donut signaled to Irkson.

"See what’s happening before you intervene," Irkson replied.

A dozen nano-probes were sent pelting downward, echo-locating places to land where they could bury themselves like crabs in the sand, extending fragile antennae-like sensors above the surface of their hiding places.

Initial data showed a landscape empty except for rickety, collapsing funnels made from branches and boughs woven together. The funnels extended from the dense vegetation gathered at the atoll shores uphill, over the sand and wind-scoured moors. The tunnel-like paths opened into round amphitheaters also knit from twigs and thatched with grass. Everything was in a state of decay, the funnel-paths breached in places by storms and the thatch shingling the amphitheaters collapsing. In the walls of the twig and thicket amphitheaters, there were cells, habitations apparently but long deserted. At the center of the island, someone had made a beehive-shaped hut corbeled from flat, slab-like stones. The hut was surrounded by a complex, concentric maze of slender trails, all hidden from the sky under ramadas of thatched twigs. One of the narrow pathways burrowed through the artificial hedge of woven branches and sticks down to the sea. A shelf of wave-gouged and slippery rock, complex with tidal pools all fringed with anemone-like creatures and round, fruit-like water plants, extended down to the sea. The terrace was covered with low monuments: cairns supported drift-wood poles that formed a grid among the tidal pools. A fence-like row of poles were embedded in the shallow lagoon stretching four-hundred meters to the next island – between the poles were hung rotting nets. The poles and ruinous nets led onto the adjacent island where its tidal pools reflected the sky between a grid of knee-high cairns propping up poles similar to that on the other island.

The second island was also deserted. Its narrow trails enclosed in rickety walls of woven branches and boughs also led to a concentric maze and another dome-shaped hut made from stone-slabs. Another pathway across the pale green and blue lagoon, more driftwood stanchions supporting decaying nets, led to the third island. The people, if you could call them that, were on the third island.

The sensors counted a population of about 1500 sexually trimorphic beings. About a quarter of the population was comprised of tall, almost black creatures. These individuals were complemented by squat, barrel-chested specimens showing features possibly adaptive to deep dives in the waters around the islands – this group comprised another quarter of those inhabiting the pentagram-shaped atoll. Their cohort were delicate, wraith-like creatures with long and immensely expressive fingers and toes. All of the anthropoids on the island walked upright and communicated among themselves by pressing their breasts together and stroking one another’s shoulders and upper arms. Each individual, even the most immature among them, wore across forehead and brow a sort of leathery belt, decorated with encrusted sea-shells and so tightly girdling the entire head that the skull seemed to be deformed around that ligature. The belt covered the place where the beings ought to have had eyes and, also, flattened their vestigial ears concealing any penetrations into the skull that might otherwise have existed. Some of the people wore shrouds and cloaks of sand. Others girded their loins with caked mud. But most of them were naked, shiny and moist as if newly arisen from the surf.

"They are all blind and deaf and mute," Donut reported. The tiny sensors embedded in the sand, showed the creatures squatting in their wicker cells in the amphitheaters where their funnel-like trails intersected. They sat and slept with their long fingers interlocked with one another. Sometimes, they moved in processions, each touching the next, proceeding rapidly through the tunnel trails to other places on the island, rhythmic wriggling synchronized walk that made the group of people look like a centipede. They formed conclaves of six or eight or ten individuals, all embracing – it was impossible to determine if they were engaged in some kind of sex or communicating in a sort of elevated bodily rhetoric, gesturing forth their epic poems and philosophies and scriptures – perhaps, sex and rhetoric were somehow combined in them.

After several days observation, hovering two miles above the atoll, Donut said that he would descend to them and see what he could learn.

"Be careful," Irkson told him.



Something interfered with the signal and, when Irkson accessed his peripheral downlink, invasive presences darkened his reception. The atoll landscape was horizontal, a fringe of vegetation nodding sleepily over a shallow lagoon. Most of the image was a blurred impression. The pointillist flicker made Irkson’s head ache. The stakes in the lagoon, however, and the ditch-like path entrapped in the woven thorn hedges had a sculptural, tactile quality – the tangle of branches bulged against his perceptual apparatus and the squat, blister-shaped hive was so hard and dense that Irkson gasped when the hut hove into view: it was as if the structure were heaped on his chest and crushing the breath out of him and his fingers and the palms of his hands burned as if they had been dipped in boiling water. One of the colonists hove into Irkson’s peripheral, a figure that seemed giant because it appeared within an unscrolling dimension that showed back and front as well as inside and outside simultaneously, a cubist display warping itself into the edge of Irkson’s consciousness, a finger, as it were stuck, into the eye of the mind.

"I’m getting interference," Irkson communicated electromagnetically.

"There’s a psi-effect," Donuts said. "They’re getting into my peripheral. I don’t know how to exclude it."

Irkson told him to take care. He busied himself with ship-routine, exercised in the gymnasium, and, then, entered the zero-g core to swim. Clotted-together by surface tension several pool-lengths of water hung overhead like cloud of glistening quicksilver. Irkson inserted half his body into the hovering mass of water. He rotated so that only his head extruded from huge ovoid droplet and, then, worked his muscles against the resistance, dog-paddling back and forth. After fifteen minutes, he emerged from the water, sheaths of it clinging to him like lead-colored armor.

The part of his peripheral permeable to Donut’s perceptions was inaccessible. Probably, Donut was asleep. Irkson went into the galley and sat alone to eat. The ventilators hummed and other crew members were laughing together, some of them flirting, others teasing. BluGre37 bulged as if pregnant, a vast spherical globe waddling through the darkness. Irkson again aimed at his peripheral but it remained empty – a data link with tendrils extended into an abyss. Everything in the forepart of his mind seemed shallow now, two-dimensional, figures and concepts lacking in any kind of depth.

In his cabin, Irkson adjusted his chair so that he could recline while keeping his eye on the planet hanging like a huge convex tapestry beyond the porthole. The planet’s presence below their orbit troubled him. He felt a vague sense of menace – it was as if he had to keep the planet within his field of vision or it might mount an ambush against him. Was this a place to colonize? A new blue and green homeland for the billions crowded together on the home planet?

A few impressions reached him. Perhaps, Donut was dreaming and his filters had collapsed. A humanoid baby – no two humanoid infants – were being eaten by fiddler crabs. The sky had no color – it was an abstract notional sky. Naked figures were swimming in a shallow lagoon, dark heads raised above the planes of smooth fluid. Then, waves like moving walls extended outward, a ceaseless agitation in the medium. Swimmers were going that way, breasting waves that battered them Some went under, another paddled in a circle that slowly collapsed in on itself. He thought of himself wearing the blob of water like a great amoeba-shaped appendage to his body – he was swimming in zero-g with neither ascent nor descent, no force tugging in any direction – constellations of water swarmed near him like pale, silvery balloons. An oblong effigy with immense staring eyes was drawn across a wind-swept headland by a straining, many-legged mob. The effigy’s eyes widened into toothless mouths crying that it was time to hide, time to go underground or beneath the squalls of the sea. The disturbance was coming.

Donut signaled that it was enough. – I am returning, he said. Irkson was half-asleep and the melancholy of the void filled him marrow-deep with loneliness.

The planet underneath him wore a blue veil and its continents oozing into the sea through poisoned swamps had the soft profile of a woman. The planet was a Madonna, a Virgin like those that Irkson had seen in ancient images – patterns impinging on his eyes suddenly coalesced into nose and ears and eyes, a woman staring up at him through the atmosphere of the planet, her lips slightly parted in an enigmatic smile. She was huge, yet delicate, the mother of all things and the rings surrounding her were like a great crown, a diadem with clusters of gems spinning around the Madonna’s head and cheeks and cream-colored glaciers comprising her hair. The rings of shattered space-junk, the black ellipses of corpse dust, the great circular pathways glittered around the Queen of Heaven like an immense golden halo.

A part of the halo scaled away from the brim of pale greenish-yellow light reflecting from the rings and rose lazily toward him. It was the manned probe returning like a prodigal son to the Dulcolax.




The surface probe had dilapidated Donut. His cheeks were hollow and starvation had enlarged his eyes and made them unpleasantly protuberant. His arms and legs were scuffed and skinned and the deeper lacerations in his flesh were haloed by reddish purple infection. His skin smelled of seaweed and mildew. The other survivors from the probe had suffered injuries to their eyes and middle ears and their mental health was reported to be questionable. Irkson had a phobia about injury to the eyes and, so, he declined an opportunity to interview the other two men, delegating one of the nurses to take their report.

The Skull Surgeon disentangled Donut from Irkson.

"Now that’s fixed," Irkson said. Donut’s body hung limply from his skeleton. For a moment, he seemed weightless, although the g-field was operating, about to blow away.

Irkson’s perception brightened. Access to Donut’s sensorium had been like an evil spirit haunting him, a form of predestined doom. The big blue planet with its girdle of corpses and smashed metal seemed to recede below him even though the Dulcolax had not altered its orbit. The corridors of the ship were better lit for him and the shadows withdrew a little and the stars began to twinkle again.

Donut’s voice fought its way through his immobile face. His haggard features were like a mask and his lips didn’t move as he spoke.

An island population, Donut explained, must limit its growth. One of three infants born on the island were placed among the tidal pools to attract the crabs. The discarded babies were eaten by the crabs. Then, the blind and mute tribe on the island devoured the crabs, bluish soft-shelled creatures that they ate raw. Everything that sustained the tribe came from the sea and was delivered to the islanders by the slick shelf of sea-gouged rock cupping the many tidal pools.

Only one island of the five comprising the atoll was occupied at a time. Every three generations, the people migrated through the lagoons, clinging to the nets strung between the driftwood monuments marking the passage between the islands. Different family groups occupied the various circular shelters where the entrenched trails in their brown fog of woven sticks and twigs intersected. In the center of each island, corbeled stone was built-up to make a dark hive-shaped hut. The hut contained the tribe’s seer – that is, literally one with eyes and ears that could see the island and the endless prairie of ocean and the curiously shaped, animate clouds thronging the sky. The seer was abraded into a limbless oval to keep him from fleeing in hopeless panic into the blood-warm waters of the lagoons or to prevent him from drowning himself in the chill green and grey waves of the sea. The people consulted the seer daily and dragged him around the island in a crude wheelbarrrow with wheels untrue so that the armless and legless figure, an elongated torso amputated to be smooth as an egg, bobbed up and down. The seer was a prophet and, of course, entirely insane – his pronouncements, uttered in a form of sign language, were memorized so that they could be recited to each new generation.

The creatures living on the island practiced swimming in the lagoons. They paddled back and forth in the warm azure water. Sometimes, they engaged in swimming competitions. Mothers swam in the water with their eyeless, deaf children clinging to their shoulders. No one was old or sick in the archipelago – when people reached a certain age, they bid farewell to their friends and families and, then, swam away from the atoll. "I suppose it is another form of population control," Donut said. When the swimmers set forth, monsters came from the deep to drag them down. Others were spared but because they were blind, Donut said, that he saw them swim in circles beyond the spray and the roar of the surf, ever-tightening loops until, at last, they were exhausted and sank beneath the waves.

"The worst thing, for me," Donut said, "is that the children are born with eyes and ears. Their parents bind taut ribbons of braided cord-like rope around their skulls – the babies’ eyes are pinned open so that the skull-ligature will rub away their corneas and pupils and, in fact, scratch out the retinal tissue from their eye-sockets. The midwives use thorns to pierce the children’s inner ears to deprive them of hearing and the ligature is tightened like a garrot around the skull so that it cuts into the bone at both eye-sockets and ear-holes. As the child grows, the ligature is decorated with sea-shells and smooth pebbles to create an orbital ring running so tightly around the head that it is, in effect, part of the person’s features – in fact, a way by which the islanders distinguish among themselves, a part of each islander’s identity."

"Why do they mutilate the themselves in that way?" Irkson asked.

"The same reason everyone else left the planet in a hand-made aluminum and tin cans," Donut said.

"What is that?"

"I can’t say."

Donut said that on the last day, the Seer began to shriek and the people went into their thorn cells and prostrated themselves mouth down on the ground and, then, a foul-smelling wind came up and cut lanes through the ocean, a weary howling kind of wind that smelled of the continents and the rot of the endless jungles and, then ...

Donut said: "the sea was strange. The sea was strange and the sky was strange also."

"What do you mean?"

"I can’t say," Donut turned his head to look Irkson. He made a mournful motion with his mouth – it was as if the universe did not contain enough sleep to rest him. Irkson saw a corona of insect bites on Donut’s forehead and his legs were bare.

"I feel as if something is living under my knee-caps," Donut said.

Perhaps, this was true. When the Dulcolax ripped its way back to Earth and, then, emerged into planetary orbit, lunging through space-time like a porpoise playfully leaping from the sea, Irkson arose from his pod, initiated an IV of amphetamine and adrenaline, donned an armature to force his paralyzed limbs to flex and stretch, and, then, hurried to the biophagus where Donut was resting. When the pod was opened, there was no sign of Donut – instead, the casket was full of fungal growths, foul-smelling with the stagnant swamp water of a remote planet, segmented worms with many legs, and hydra-headed tendrils that whistled and shrieked when Irkson had the pod incinerated.




She had changed her name: Emilia was now Xkatrina – "more festive," she told Irkson. But, in his absence, she had come down in the world. Her status had lessened and this Adieux party was smaller, "intimate" as she described it, without catered hors d’oeuvres or drinks, a bring-your-own bottle affair. The balconies extruded over the ocean according to the number of guests expected and Xkratina’s farewell-chamber barely made a ledge in the undulating glass curtain wall. The time of day was less propitious as well – not sunset, the time for bidding adieux most favored, but mid-morning, with the light bright and clinical and not in the least romantic, brightness streaming down uniformly to reduce the sea to a slate-grey field without scintillation and writhing at its edges with white and green breakers. The favelas on the coastal mountains were burning this morning and plumes of smokes striped the sky – the non-tax-payers had risen in one of their doomed, periodic revolts and there was war in the hills above the city. A fleet of carbon-retrieval drones scoured the sky, vacuuming at the edge of the more dense banners of smoke. Terrorists had attacked several of the desalinization scoops and another column of smoke was rising from one of those white half-shells now half-capsized and burning in the water.

In society, everything is hierarchy, comparison, distinctions observed, made, and followed as an iron law. Irkson looked around him and drew those distinctions and, then, thought that he preferred the emptiness of outer space to this place and this city. The Adieux gathering in the salon next to the space allotted for Xkatrina’s farewell was lavish – the balcony extended as a long steel and glass peninsula far out over the sea and a string quartet was playing something that was alternately vehement and soothing while over-served guests staggered around the corridors, rendered sentimental by mood-inducers, tears streaming down their cheeks. The air in the neighboring salon was perfumed hyacinth, strawberry, and frangipani. Some of those fragrances leaked into Xkatrina’s balcony – her budget allowed only jasmine-flavored air and the odor was strong and medicinal as if designed to disguise some other unpleasant odor. From time to time, the government demographics rep providing surveillance on Xkatrina’s proposed Vacay (a slender, weasel-faced man charged with the responsibility of verifying the vacationer’s genome for identity and, then, sealing her biophagus for the requisite period of time) was missing from his post. Because the hors d’oeuvres and mood-enhancers were better at the party next door, Irkson noticed that the man slipped away from time to time, after each absence returning a little more giddy and unstable on his feet. The demographics rep supervising the leave-taking in the palatial salon nearby was a slender woman with attractive features and Irkson noticed that the rep from his mother’s Adieux seemed to be flirting with that woman, although he thought the female government official showed overt disdain for the man. He winced a little when, searching for the rest rooms, he saw the two of them together. Someone told him that that next-door Adieux involved an important advertising executive, or, perhaps, that woman’s husband, and that the party had been underway for more than two days, entertaining a steady stream of the wealthy and the famous, and that the actual leave-taking was not scheduled for another seven hours – of course, a sunset departure scheduled for that well-to-do vacationer not bon voyage in the hard and indifferent light of midday.

Irkson’s mother was now about eight years junior to him in biological age. As he grew older and she younger, Xkatrina previously known as Emilia seemed to wither and shrink. She sat on the edge of her life-support casket, among bouquets of hydroponically grown chrysanthemums and marigolds, and she was pale, fragile, wounded by life with great sad eyes drooping under the scarred white wrists that she slid across her forehead with a graceful, neurasthenic gesture. A few female friends adorned the edges of the room, women with sharp faces and sharp eyes that seemed to be searching for something. Irkson noticed that his mother’s forearm was decorated with several tattoos that were new to him. She smiled at him sweetly and extended her arms and said that he should hold her before she entered into her long darkness. There were no lovers present, no ex-lovers either. The women stationed around the room had an air of grievance and, when they looked in Irkson’s direction, he felt their hostility.

During his absence, Xkatrina had fallen in love with a guest-worker from beyond the fence, a non-tax-payer. Predictably, chaos had resulted. People whispered that Xkatrina had spent a few months on the other side of the wall. The man had absconded or died accidentally or been entrapped by the government, arrested, and exiled into hibernation – it depended upon the story that you believed – and poor Xkatrina, whose only offense was that she had loved not wisely but too well was now alone once more, seduced and abandoned, no recourse remaining but to take

Vacay for another decade and hope that, when she revived, the scandal had been forgotten. When words about this were spoken, usually in a low undertone, one of the sentinel women objected, hissing that silence on that subject was the better course.

Someone arrived with a cake in a flat tray. A few helium balloons listlessly bumped together near the ceiling. The bombed desalinization scoop leaked smoke skyward to where the drones were carbon-harvesting, vacuuming the heavens. Irkson’s peripheral was edgy with reports of suicide bombings, security breaches, strange hacks into cloud-nets that inserted ideas of angels and vast mathematical gods into people’s imaginations – large faceless idols loomed over the teeming lowlands of data that made a halo around him. Public Service Announcements warned that elements of the peripheral on this specific day were corrupt and that much of the news stream, all livid with apocalyptic events, was fraudulent, an effort at Psi-Terrorism that all right-minded people should reject. The Tesla devices had been rotated into offensive war-fighting mode and bursts of lightning had turned the ramshackle eyries of the mountaintop favelas into torches and some of the smoke spiraling upward took uncanny forms – four horsemen, it seemed, churning across the sky and casting their shadows upon the face of the deep.

Irkson focused inward, muting the prophetic fury raging in his peripheral. He put his arms around his mother’s frail shoulders.

"You’re my father now," Xkatrina told him. "You’re the parent and I’m the child."

She whispered in his ear: "Now, I’m your little girl. Next time, I see you, you’ll be my grandpa."

Irkson shrugged. The women at the edges of the room glared at him as if to protect Xkatrina from the arms that he had wrapped around her. Someone said that she was very brave, that she was very brave indeed and that she had ventured things not dared by most tax-payers.

"Mother and son," a woman raised a toast. "To both of them -- brave explorers!"

From the next salon, an agitation of strings announced the scherzo of Haydn quartet.

His mother whispered to him again. Her voice was soft and girlish: "I know I’ve been toxic to all those that loved me," she said. "No one ever profited by my presence. So that’s why I’m going away now."

Irkson thought he should reply but thought better of it. This was his mother’s moment. The spotlight was on her.

"When I return," she said, "I’ll still be young but my son will be an old man."

"I suppose," Irkson said.

"He’s searched all over the galaxy," Xkatrina said. "But there’s no place like home."

Irkson embraced her again, careful not to displace the IV-ports and LED monitors starring her Chih intersections. There was polite applause.

"There is no place like home," Irkson said, raising a toast.

It was cheap champagne, too sugary and frothy like soda-pop.

Xkatrina stroked her brow and asked for forgiveness and, then, she reclined gracefully in her casket of plexi-glass and steel.