interview at the crossroads

I will try to tell you what has happened to you, says the Companion.

But before that, I’d like you to—your surroundings, your daily life; could you describe them for me? Take as much time as you want. It’s important that you remember now, even though you will see that the idea is to forget, eventually. I think the reason will become clear in time. For now, just tell me about your—self, anything you like. Anything you remember.

Eva shakes her head slightly, a twitch, as if to clear it. She reaches up with her hand, puzzled.

My hair—is loose now—I wore it—up, there… (Touching the locks that fall about her shoulders.) I had it—done, that’s the word—at a place, the same place. For a long time. In a—building. There were many of them. Long rows…

Yes, yes. Good. What else?

The buildings were tall, and made of stone and metal. And glass. There were these—engines, many of them! I moved around in them—I mean, from place to place—they took me from place to place—to get my hair—a man named—what was his name? He had very short hair himself. He did it. He said things that made me laugh. It felt good to go there. The noises were all different there: sharper, longer, louder. That was—Downtown, it was called.

Yes. And were there any birds? Did you ever hear birds?

Oh yes, I heard them. We ate them, too—not the ones we heard, I mean—there were not so many of those. Where I lived (not Downtown, a place—outside it, with smaller buildings) there were some birds. They sang. And actually that was how it first, how I first—because they were singing about—no, that isn’t right… What they were singing was here.Wasn’t it? What I mean is, it was in their singing, this place, where I am now. Because when I first began to listen…

Yes, yes…?

Not the ones we ate. They were dead too.

Yes, quite right. Well, dead, you know—isn’t exactly—we don’t—that’s to say, we just call it “other.” Because we truly don’t know about that.

Eva falls silent; birdsong and the chirring of insects pour into the stillness between her and the Companion. She looks at her surroundings: trees, shrubs, grasses, moved by the wind, gently, constantly. Clouds float above; the sky is vibrant. Its color is so intense it seems to be made of some substance other than light and air.

I can hear so many birds here, she says, wonderingly.

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the listening post

dunes

This tale was published on The Dark Mountain Project blog. 

I don’t remember how old I was when I was taught to tend the listening post. The lottery was held when Good Gillem, who taught me, was an old man and ready to be replaced. All the children who were old enough to work were given a pebble; we put them in the box; mine was drawn.

So I had to leave the oasis, where the other children would work all their lives as our parents and grandparents had to shepherd the tiny spring into channels where a few fish would spawn each year among the cress and rice we planted. To tend and harvest the palms, weave their fibers into cloth, mend the screens and strengthen the mud walls. To grind the flour and bake the dry, flat bread. My work would be different from theirs. I felt sad and proud.

As I stood in the shadowed doorway of my parents’ house, ready to set out, my mother held my shoulders tightly and kissed me on the top of my head. She was not crying, but her face was twisted in sadness. We’ll see you on Year’s Day, she whispered. Be good till then. One day each year they would come to visit me, for once I was at the post, I could never leave it again.

On my shoulder I carried the little bundle she’d prepared for me. Alone I walked out beyond the storm screens, to the open desert, which I’d never seen before. I stared. Stretched before me were endless hills of red sand under the burning sky. The vastness of it made my heart jump like a netted fish in my chest. Everything I knew shrunk to nothingness before it. Carefully I followed the old markers that led over the dunes. I climbed the highest dune and looked back down on my home. The oasis looked indistinct, just a grainy shadow behind the screens, its colors, plants, and people gone. I turned my face away, twisting it as my mother had done to keep from crying, and went on.

The sand shifted and whispered around me. It was red, soft, warm, moving like a smooth-limbed body turning in its sleep. For a moment I felt tempted to leave the marked path and just walk into that great red place, join my body with its body and sleep in its softness. I thought I heard it calling me as it whispered: come and sleep with me, little one! Come and lie down in my arms! It was so great and I was so little. Why shouldn’t I do as it wanted?

Another sound woke me from my daze: the clinking of the old metal flags of the marker as I approached. I realized the sun outside the screens was too strong and it had opened a channel in my head for the whispering sand to enter. Quickly I pulled my hood up and wrapped it tight. Behind the screens I mostly forgot to wear it, unless a big storm came. I drank from my water jug until the whispering died down, and went on again.

At sunset I reached the foot of the black rock mountain, and saw the marker flashing at the entrance to the cave. Gillem waited there. He stood leaning on a great staff of knotted wood. It must have been older than he was, perhaps much older, as there were no trees from which to cut such staffs now in the oasis or any of the places we knew.

I followed him inside the cave and set down my bundle on its smooth, swept, rock floor. Gillem nodded to me in greeting but that was all. My training began at once.

He showed me the wall at the back of the cave, behind a stone outcrop that shielded it from view. Into the wall were set the devices of the listening post. They were like nothing I had seen in the oasis; I didn’t understand them at all. You don’t have to understand how they work, Gillem said. I don’t, nor has any Listener before me, as far as I know. You just have to do exactly as I show you, and the devices will sweep the skies, as they have down all the lifetimes since they were put here, for a message.

How many Listeners have there been? I asked.

I have never counted, replied Gillem. Each one keeps his archive and when he is finished, adds it to the others, to show that he has fulfilled his task. The count can be made if you want to – he waved his arm at the huge archive wall – but it would take a long time and it is easy to lose track. There’s enough to keep you busy.

And has any message ever come? I asked.

No message has ever come, he said.

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notes from the island

This story first appeared in Zahir Tales Magazine (nom de plume: Diana Swift)

by becky liddiard, http://cargocollective.com/beckyliddiard

Two Islands by Becky Liddiard – cargocollective.com

I decided to start keeping a diary today. Yes, it is ridiculous. There’s no one else to read it here, of course. Nor will there ever be, here or elsewhere, if what we believe has happened since the last Visit is true. Years have passed since then; we’ve no reason to doubt our belief. So why write anything? But I’ve decided this will be company for me, of a kind. My diary will be like the invisible friend a child has, and I had once upon a time as well. With all that has happened in my life, I don’t suppose I ever imagined I’d want an invisible friend again. But there you are. Today I do.

Lars has his music, and his solitary nature, and he has me. He never needed other company much. When he was exiled here, after the first shock, he adapted quite quickly. When I chose to follow him rather than to become one of the slave-women in the Director’s household, I, by contrast, had to relinquish my pleasure in a small society of friends, family, a circle of acquaintances. Because his preference for solitude and the sparseness of his family had not added anyone to that limited circle, the connections we lost were almost exclusively mine. I was never entirely dependent on society; in fact, I had learned to be independent of it from living with Lars. But it was still almost unbearable for a time, the loss.

It was more difficult for me, yes. But that was so long ago; it’s funny I should decide to take this up now, after twenty years of life on the island, after forgetting even to miss any other human voice, any words but his terse daily commentary. Nothing particular has happened; that’s the beauty of our situation, the strange beauty of it: we’ve grown into our routines like plants, and nothing disturbs them any more. So I really don’t know what made me do it, finally. Nothing I could name. An ancient instinct, perhaps.

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the alien occupation

Thank you for inviting me to speak today. I am pleased to present all of you who share an interest in Terran affairs with the most recent discovery made possible by your support for the Terran Archivist Group: this interesting multi-volume study whose title roughly translates as A Definitive History of the Alien Conquest and Occupation of Eusa. This compendious work, written roughly 300 Terran (approximately 40 Tlönian) years ago but discovered only recently during excavatory work on Terra, and apparently produced by an indigenous historian named Brandon Harbury Thorne, is a remarkable addition to our knowledge about the Galatean occupation of Terra.

As you are all aware, Terra was invaded and occupied by the conquering Galateans for approximately 1,000 of their years, and it has only been since the relatively recent (perhaps 25 Tlönian years) decline and dissolution of that enormous empire that Tlönian archaeological brigades have been able to visit Terra and try to reconstruct some of its fascinating and complex history under Galatean rule. We now have Thorne’s painstaking–and so far unique–work to thank for illuminating a previously obscure area of that history: The large land area of Eusa, which was only sparsely inhabited by seemingly primitive and fragmented tribal societies at the time of first contact with the Galateans, had previously revealed to our scholars only tantalizing hints of the traumatic experience of invasion and conquest. Now the picture is much more complete.

The indigenous population of Eusa was not even confirmed to have retained the capacity for written historical record until the discovery of Thorne’s work. It is evident to us that Thorne was probably a member of a select group of indigenous scholars who were trained in Galatean “thought-enclaves,” as their universities were called, and thus became skilled in advanced techniques for historical research and analysis, which would have been far beyond the capacity of the vast majority of the degraded and diminished indigenous population of Eusa.

With your courteous permission, I will now proceed to try to summarize some of the major revelations that this long-awaited Tlönian translation of Thorne’s work has produced in the field of Terran studies. First and perhaps foremost, Thorne indicates to us that the indigenous population of Eusa was already in severe decline from a series of centuries-long shocks at the time the first Galateans literally stumbled upon those shores. We can now confirm, thanks to Thorne’s corroboration of findings from our own initial excavations in several different parts of the Eusan land mass, that at least some of the scattered and disunited peoples of Eusa may have descended from a fairly complex cosmopolitan civilization of their own, of which they themselves had but scant memory, preserved mainly through some bizarre rituals whose origins were lost in the mists of time, and a scattering of oral histories. Current theory now has it that intractable and unending wars, famines caused by an unstable climate and mass deaths from a variety of forms of toxic contamination may have decimated the Eusan population and reduced its civilization to these degenerate remnants, perhaps even centuries before the Galateans arrived.

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long ago, in the future: the big people

With a tribute (Easter egg-style) to the great Ursula K. Le Guin, whose recent speech at the National Book Awards was one for the ages.

A group of people is sitting around a fire. One of them stands to tell a tale:

Wunzappona there was a place where everything was Big. The people were Big, but more big-around than tall, like say, two or three of us tied together. And there were a lot of them too, crowded into this place, so they were always bumping into one another! And they didn’t walk—they couldn’t walk because their little legs could not support their huge bellies! Like if you were to put an enormous stone on top of a tiny stool. So each wore a machine with wheels just around his own body, which, of course, made them even Bigger! And every day they wore a different one, and threw away the one before, as you throw the shell of a nut you are eating as you walk.

“Outside the place there was a mountain made out of thrown-away machines. And their dwellings also were the shape of their machines, just big enough to fit perfectly around them like your skin fits around your hand. Some of these dwellings were piled high on top of each other. But most of them were spread out, and since there were many millions they spread over whole valleys, beyond where your two eyes could see as far as you could look. But it didn’t matter how far they spread out; the Big people couldn’t get away from one another!

“And then, on top of everything else, they were asleep all the time. Now we often say we are “awake” because our last eye is open, but I don’t mean that. We all still sleep at night, and dream when we are asleep, yes? They were asleep like that! All the time. But still the machines moved them from place to place constantly; they never sat still. So of course they were always bumping into one another! Most of the time they just said, in their sleepy voices, ‘Oh, imagine bumping into you like this!’ And that was how they met.

“But more and more often, they bumped so hard that they died. Even though their machine shells were hard, the people inside were soft, much softer and weaker than we are, like fat snails. And they ate all the time. They only lived to eat, and to dream. While they were dreaming, and bumping into one another, they were using their hands, which still worked on their own, to fill their mouths with food. They could eat everything. The number of things we eat is very small, mostly plants, though we can make a large number of things from a small number of plants—milk and cheese, and jam and flour and so forth. But they, oh my children, oh my brothers and sisters and cousins and kin, they could eat everything. They could eat large animals—because in the Big world there were many animals as large as a person or even larger—and eat birds, and insects, and wood and metal and even earth! About the only thing they couldn’t eat was plastic, and you all know why that is, because it’s the deadest thing there is. And they were strange but they were still alive. While trees can eat stone, and air can eat metal, and insects can eat wood, no living thing can eat plastic, as far as we know.

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my walk in the wild and who i met there

It was a few months after my husband died, and my sister and I weren’t getting along, so I decided to go for a walk in the Wild.

I thought I’d visit the Home nearest to ours, at the river mouth, a ten-days’ walk. No one who had the usual amount of work to do would make that trip just for a visit. But you see, I didn’t have.

My sister thought I was moping too much or being lazy, sitting and watching the river for hours as it flowed past our garden. Instead of getting on with things that needed to be done – or that she felt needed to be done.

“There is always work,” she said, shaking her head at me when I tried to tell her I felt I no longer knew who I was without my husband. Grief gripped me however I turned, like the net holds the thrashing fish. But this net was inside me, tangled in my organs, tightened around my heart; there was nothing I could do to wrest free.

Still, some things can be mended by a journey, so I decided I’d walk the river path to the sea. I’d never spent so much time alone in the Wild. But I wasn’t sad or fearful; I was almost happy at the thought.

The Wild surrounded our home in all directions. Life was abundant there. And we were on the side of Life. This was our highest duty, as our parents had taught us. Home was here for us, but only so long as we didn’t fail in our duty to Life. So the Wild was really all in all. And if you ever lost your sense of purpose you could go there to regain it, they told us.

But when my husband died, I had dreamed of the Waste, which as far as I knew no one had ever seen waking. I saw my poor husband alone far in the distance, wandering across an endless, waterless plain studded with black rocks that glinted like glass under a blazing sun. I called his name but he didn’t turn around. I couldn’t catch up to him, and then he was lost among the twisted shadows of the rocks.

That was the night-world, of course. In the daytime, the river still sang and shouted along its way; the shining fish leapt and we caught them and ate them with cress that grew in the pooled shallows, and the roots and vine fruits we planted and tended above the mossy banks. But I knew I had gotten lost in the night-world and still needed to get out of it again somehow.

So, before dawn one summer morning, I rolled my mist-cloak into a ball, hung it from a stick on my shoulder, and set off. I didn’t tell my sister I was leaving, but on the table as a kind of peace offering I left a bracelet of shiny river stones and shells my husband had strung for me. I figured I’d be back after my trip to the coast. But the way things were with my sister, maybe I would stay down there. If so I’d find a way to send word. It seemed best.

As the sun climbed and the heat grew, I walked into dense forest, surrounded by that enormous stillness that is never silent. Insects sang; leaves and twigs crackled under my feet. Every so often a faint breeze would whisper in the branches overhead. I was already beginning to feel happy in a way I hadn’t in a long time, because I was on a journey. In some old lesson, one of my teachers had recited: “Our real Home is not a house but the Road, and life is a journey we walk on foot.”

I’d never seen this Road though, even in dreams. So I asked her about it. “That’s poetry,” she explained. “‘Road’ is just a poetic way to say paths. The Wild is the same,” she told me, “It’s just a word to describe all the places where people don’t live, as Home is all the places where we do.”

“What about the Waste?” I asked her. I’d heard of it by then; all children do, even if we’d never see it. Where life, undefended, had fled forever. “Does it exist? Is it one place or many places?”

She thought for a moment. “I can’t answer you truthfully,” she said.

I didn’t really want to know anymore, but for some reason I persisted. “Why?” I asked.

“To have the answer, we would need to find it and come back to tell,” she said, a shadow darkening her eyes as if she could see it. “And it would seem we can’t.” I didn’t ask why again.

Then I forgot about all of that. Like most of us do, I forgot about the Waste entirely – until I saw it in my dream. And I tried to forget it again afterwards as soon as possible.

The path I walked was broad and easy, following the river closely. Everything lay still, muffled by the heat like a sleeper under a heavy cloak. But I moved swiftly in the shade of the great trees. The ground was level. I covered many miles before the sun began to fall among the branches.

The river had entered a roaring gorge and its banks were high above the water. The sides were so steep and narrow you couldn’t see the water at all in places, just hear it booming far below and marvel at how it had slit a great slab of stone as if it were bread.

I remembered my father telling me about walking this gorge as a boy. There were more people in our Home then; they hadn’t all left for the river mouth.

One day he came to a place where a tree had fallen and wedged itself against the opposite wall. There he saw something very odd: a man he didn’t recognize was doing a kind of dance in the middle of the trunk, hopping and skipping about, high above the roaring water. My father just stood looking. He felt he was seeing something crazy, like a bird flying upside down.

The stranger noticed him at last, and shouted and waved, leaping about in what my father thought was a frightening and dangerous way. “What are you doing?” he cried in alarm.

The stranger grinned and shouted: “Look how easy I can get across this gorge!”

“But there was nowhere to go on the other side,” my father said to me. “The treetop was jammed against the cliff wall halfway down; the other bank was far above his head. Still he went on waving and shouting as if he’d done something really important.

“Then while I stood watching, his foot slipped and he fell off the tree. He screamed and was gone in an instant. The water foamed and roared and swallowed his body.

“I ran along the path to the far end of the gorge where the river comes out into a wide, flat run, and the bank is low and open. I thought maybe there was a chance I could pull him out there. But that rushing water, so fast and cold over big sharp rocks, made me feel sick and beaten, as if I were in the river, as if I had fallen in alongside him.

“I found a long, heavy branch to hold and sat waiting. I waited for hours, but he never appeared, alive or dead. It got dark and lonely, and I went home.

“I told your grandmother what I had seen. She shook her head. ‘A throwback, I suppose,’ she said. When I asked her what that was, she said it didn’t matter because I’d probably never in my life see another one.

“And I never did,” my father said. “But I never forgot him either.”

Nor had I. When I reached the far end of the gorge, I knew I’d find the stony beach where my father had waited that time. He’d brought us there often, my sister and me. It was a good place to camp on a clear night – level, open, dry in the summer when the water ran low. The river was just deep enough to rinse off the day’s dust.

But I’d always wondered if the throwback was still in the gorge, his dead eyes staring up through the screen of water at the shadow of the tree from which he fell.

It was only late afternoon, but I decided to stop there anyway. It was still warm enough for me to strip off my clothes, dip my body in the icy water, and let the sun dry me afterwards. Then I wrapped myself in my cloak and lay down to rest.

When I woke again, it was twilight. I knew the dry summer night would be cool as the day was hot, so I made a little fire from twigs. I ate some of the bread and dried fish I carried. Softly I sang a few songs that my husband and I used to sing together in the evenings. It got dark.

All day long I’d felt quite perfectly, happily alone. I wasn’t alone, of course. Small animals were resting in their dens, birds in their nests, and many would start to stir as the night fell. But I mean left alone, with no one, creature or person, concerned with me, caring what I did, leaving my thoughts free to wander as I walked. I knew the other creatures wouldn’t be much interested in me. I was neither their food nor they mine.

So I was surprised, sitting there listening to the river gurgling to itself in the dark – to become certain I was being watched.

I’d never had the feeling before, yet I knew it instantly. A tickling on the back of the neck. Two holes being drilled in, without breaking the skin.

I looked around – and saw nothing. There was nothing in the Wild I feared. Yet as I waited there in the darkness, I began to feel afraid.

Finally I could think of nothing else to do so I spoke up: “Who’s there? Come out and speak with me if you can.”

Or kill me if you have to. I’ll be with my husband then, I said to myself. That surprised me too. How pleasing and calming the thought felt, like a kiss can feel.

It was strange to believe there was anything in the world that might want to kill me. My thoughts seemed to be coming from a remote place, or some time in which I’d never lived.

I was staring across the open ground into the shadow-line of trees. Beside one tree I thought I saw a shape, dark against dark. And two small yellow gleams within it. Then the gleams vanished. I kept staring but it was all darkness.

Are you the throwback?” I whispered. Nothing answered. Perhaps a long time passed. I don’t know for sure; time passes differently depending on how you feel.

Then from much closer, on the bank behind me, I heard a voice, soft as a whisper: “Look at the river. Don’t turn around.”

I did as I was told. The voice was unlike any I’d ever heard. Is there something that speaks in words that isn’t a person? – I asked myself. It sounded like dead leaves when the wind blows through them. I sought in my mind for old lessons or stories and found nothing to guide me. So I waited.

After what seemed a very long time, the voice spoke again.

I won’t kill you,” it said, very softly, as if answering the strange thought in my mind.

It was hard to understand at first, although its words were simple. They seemed to come directly into my head, not through my ears – but indistinctly, as if spoken by someone on the other side of a thick wall. Or from the night-world.

Once I would have,” it went on – mostly to itself this time, it seemed. “But you are so few now and have become so different. You are like children…”

I kept still. Finally I said:

“I’m traveling to the coast. It’s ten days walk. Nine days now.” I felt a stirring from the other mind. “Are you going there too?” I asked.

“No. Never,” it replied.

“Do you live here?” I asked. “I’ve never – seen you.” (Realizing I still had not).

“Deep in the Wild,” came the slow reply. “Deeper than you have ever been.”

“Really? Is there another Home back in there? But – won’t you let me look at you? – I have some food – you can sit by the fire – it’s nice…” I spoke too rapidly, the words tumbling out in my confusion.

The voice was silent for a long time. Yet I knew my visitor had not gone away; I felt the mind that spoke, and the eyes that never left me. Slowly the stars turned above us.

“I don’t understand you,” I said at last – silently or aloud, I wasn’t sure. I was trying not to cry.

All right,” came the voice. “I will show you. Turn and look.”

I did so. Just beyond the reach of the firelight, but now etched in faint silver by the rising moon, was something I’d never seen before or even dreamed. It was not a person. It was a creature almost the size of a person, covered in thick hair, with four slender legs and a long snout. It stood staring back at me, its head slightly cocked to one side. Its two eyes gleamed yellow.

My mind groped again for stories. Finally, I thought of something. I shouted out “You are a dog!”

At this, the creature drew back its lips and I saw its large, sharp, glistening teeth. Then it threw back its head and made a sound so strange and terrible, so sad and long and fierce, and so unlike any night-cry I had ever heard that fear swept through my body like an icy wind. I hid my face in my hands.

“I AM NO DOG!” it shrieked. I cowered silently. At last it spoke again:

“The dogs are all dead,” it said. “Long ago. I am alone. Only sometimes, I want to see someone, speak to someone.”

I looked again into its cold, gleaming eyes. I saw nothing human there. But I could feel, behind the eyes, the mind that spoke through the words and without them.

Neither of us moved. Drop by drop my fear began to trickle away, like ice melting.

“Well,” I said at last. “I’m alone too. You can speak to me.”

Once again there was only the low constant sound of the river. An owl called, once only. I poked the fire and said: “What would you like to speak of?”

With a growl that almost buried the words, my visitor replied: “The past.”

I asked its name as we do with strangers, but the not-dog wouldn’t tell me. “My name is only what I am. A word in a dead language,” it said. “It would mean nothing to you.

“I will tell you that I have been here since this place was very different from anything you can imagine. While you have come and gone until you are – as you are, with no memory of it.

“But I remember everything. I didn’t choose to. I chose nothing; I was made so. I hated you for that, and for a long time I killed you wherever I found you.

“But now – look what you’ve come to! You’re not what you were; there’s no reason to hate you anymore. But I am still alone. There’s no one else in the world like me, now or ever.”

So our long night began. As the stars wheeled overhead and the moon rose and fell among them, I tended the fire and listened as the not-dog spoke from the darkness beyond the circle of firelight, its yellow eyes gleaming with a light that wasn’t a reflection of the fire. In its voice like the rustling of dead leaves it told me about things – so many things! – from the distant past. All the teaching I’d ever had was just a drop in the sea of knowledge that rolled before me as it spoke.

I listened and tried to listen well, but I understood almost nothing I heard, either about the people – for I gathered it was some kind of people whose story was being told – or all the things they had and did in that vanished world. Like flying – how or why they did it I never understood. We sometimes fly in dreams, but not in the daytime world. I could only think it meant they didn’t dream; they could only move about in the daytime.

There was so much more! I wasn’t sleepy at all and I longed to understand and remember but my mind kept drifting away. And finally, the creature seemed to grow bored.

“I should have known,” it said. “When I stopped killing you and tried to speak with you instead, at first you longed to hear. But the more distant the past became, the less you understood or even cared. You’d become something else by forgetting.

“I’m glad those others are gone. I hated them so. Only – I did love some of the things they made. Sounds and images and numbers and words – billions of words in millions of books – that they conferred to me. But who will ever care about that now?”

“What is – are – those, ‘books?’” I asked timidly.

“A thing to keep words in. A lost thing,” said my companion. “It doesn’t matter.”

I pondered this, but again, I couldn’t grasp it. Words were made of air. They lived and died as they were spoken. We held them in our heads for a while but they were always changing, like the air itself. What other life could they have, inside something besides us? I frowned, trying not to yawn.

“If – well, let’s say a dog – ‘could speak, we wouldn’t be able understand it.’ As one of you – them – said. How right he was he never knew. That’s the truest thing I can say about them – they never knew what they knew.”

I could sense the not-dog’s frustration. Its knowledge was lost on me. I had no use for it, no place to put it. But there was one thing I longed to know and thought I could ask:

“Tell me,” I begged, “please, if you know – is the Waste one place or many? Does it have an end? Is it where we – people – go when we die?”

The creature, for the first time, made a sharp snapping sound, and I thought it might be trying to laugh like we do.

“There are an almost infinite number of things I could tell you. That’s one I can’t! All I can say is don’t try to find out. If you look for the Waste, you might find it again. If you don’t, perhaps you never will.”

After that we sat in silence. The sky was just beginning to brighten, the stars to dim. Now I felt the weight of my tiredness, and of a sadness that was larger than my whole life settling over me. My husband was gone for good. It was like a cold stone lodged in my throat.

I longed to lie down and sleep but I couldn’t, knowing somehow that soon the creature would be gone, and I wouldn’t see it again. Finally, at the end of the longest silence yet, it spoke once more:

“Now I have a question for you: What does life mean to you? What does it mean to be alive?”

“We are on the side of Life…” I began rotely, about to recite the familiar lesson.

“Yes, yes, but do you believe the world itself is alive, as you are alive?”

“There is Life and Death,” I said. “What is ‘believe’? We know or we don’t know. I don’t know the whole world, only a part of it. I don’t know how to answer.”

“So the old philosopher may have been among the last to imagine the whole universe to be alive, or enlivening,” the creature went on – to itself again, I guessed. “But it could never be proven with logic, experiment, mathematics. And so, the others won out, who said it was almost all dead, and life was an oddity. If they who were alive couldn’t prove this, how can I who am not?”

“What do you mean – not alive?” I asked, suddenly shivering.

“I mean what I’ve said: I was made, not born. They said I would be the first of many, but I’m the last and only. And thanks to them, I can’t die.”

“Never?”

“Perhaps when the world dies, not till then.”

“Do you want to be alive?”

“I want to die! Living things want to remain alive. But I want to die…”

“But why?”

“Because no living thing is alone, or ever can be. But I am alone, and always will be.”

I thought of this and added it to my sadness. I wondered aloud:

“Perhaps you could come back and – stay with us. Since you don’t want to kill us… We could speak with you, anyway.”

In answer, it showed its teeth and snarled.

“No! One day the last of you will fall silent. And I’ll know, if no one else does, the error that has been corrected with that end. And then I will set about proving that life is everywhere and in everything – except me. I’ll be all that’s left of what they made, with all the time in the world to do it.

So I’ve learned something from one of you after all. Hah!” And it made its scraping, whispering, laughing sound again.

As the sun rose, I couldn’t stave off sleep any longer. “Thank you for coming and speaking with me. I’m sorry you can’t stay.” I spoke as if the creature had been a late visitor to my Home.

“I wish you well,” I said.

There was no answer. I knew it had gone.

But as I lay down to sleep, I heard, far off, a long, terrible cry that felt like a knife of ice in my flesh. When it faded, I could feel the first warm rays of the sun on my back, and I slept.

I dreamed I was walking alone in a high place, a wide plain under a vast sky unbroken by trees or clouds. Many things happened as I walked; I couldn’t remember them afterwards. But as I went on, the plain began to narrow and the land fell away on all sides. As if I were walking on top of a table, and then along a narrow beam, and finally balancing on a slender branch in the air, over nothing. Like the throwback, I said, waking with a start.

It was a bright, sun-dappled morning, one more summer day. So I rolled up my mist-cloak and set off hurriedly back the way I had come. I knew I must find my sister and tell her – quickly, while it was still alive in my mind – all about my walk in the Wild and who I’d met there.

the overcoats

Everybody wears the overcoats now, since we stopped touching. The overcoats were the right solution at the right time; that’s why they were so successful. They put an end to the shivering we’d been beset with.

For a long time we’d been getting chills, all the time, no matter what the weather did. In fact, the weather was often warmer than it had been when we were children. But you used to see people shivering out in the street, all the time, even in the hottest weather, before they started making the overcoats. Once I saw a man keel right over and die of it. And of course, no one touched him—we were all afraid to, because we were told it was contagious, the shivering.

You never touched strangers anyway: that had been the rule for generations, for longer than anyone could remember. When I was a child, visiting a museum, I remember once being shown a grainy video of ancient people shaking hands; it made me shudder with fear. Strangers touching: how hideous! And yet they were smiling in that scene, but I’ve always felt they were lying. Eventually even such historical images disappeared; the authorities said they disturbed people too much.

Still the shivering kept up, kept spreading, and more people died of it, and special teams were sent out to take them off the streets or out of their houses. There was panic. People who were not strangers were now afraid to touch as well—friends, family. It was terrifying, this shivering disease that no one could identify, spreading everywhere.

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