Ekaterina Sedia resides in the Pinelands of New Jersey. Her new novel, The Secret History of Moscow, was published by Prime Books in November 2007. Her next one, The Alchemy of Stone, will be published in June 2008. Her short stories have sold to Analog, Baen's Universe, Fantasy Magazine, and Dark Wisdom, as well as the Japanese Dreams (Prime Books) and Magic in the Mirrorstone (Mirrorstone Books) anthologies. Visit her at www.ekaterinasedia.com.
Biolog: Ekaterina Sedia By Richard A. Lovett
* * * *
* * * *
Ekaterina Sedia likes lichens. “They’re like little trees,” she says. That’s because she’s a biologist who did her Ph.D. studying them in New Jersey ’s Pine Barrens.
To date, however, there haven’t been any lichens in her Analog stories. Instead, they’ve been about genetic engineering, including the popular “Alphabet Angels,” which (coauthored with David Bartell) not only won an AnLab Award, but was her first-ever fiction sale.
That story appeared in 2005. Since then, she’s only appeared a handful of times in these pages, but she’s published two novels and racked up nearly two dozen short story sales to other publications.
And she’s not even doing this in her native language. Sedia was born in Russia and didn’t move to the U.S. until 1991. Nor did she grow up reading science fiction. She began with literary mainstream, then shifted when she got older, “because there’s just so much realism you can take.”
She found that science fiction and fantasy are still basically about the human condition. “But you can put those humans into more interesting situations.”
One advantage of coming to the field late was that she’d developed a literary taste that she could import into her fiction. “Words matter,” she says. “Style isn’t something separate from a story.”
As a biologist, she’s struck by the paucity of stories featuring good, plausible biology. “Genetic engineering is generally used like magic,” she says. “It’s the same with nanotechnology. Most people don’t see the limitations.”
She also likes history. An upcoming novel, The Secret History of Moscow, (due in November) deals with the things every culture sweeps under the carpet. “Basically, it’s history written by the losers,” she says.
As a Russian, she’s sometimes drawn to darker-than-average stories. “It’s a stereotype,” she says, “but accurate.” Nor is she a fan of technological fixes. Many problems, she believes, are unintended consequences of prior technologies.
She avoids the pretense of thinking she writes only to entertain. Entertainment is important to her, but it can’t be the only thing. “I recently saw magazine guidelines that said, ‘No agenda stories,’” she says. “All stories are agenda stories. You might not necessarily notice the agenda, but it’s there. Either it’s maintaining the status quo, or challenging it, or approving it, or ignoring it. For me, it’s about acknowledging and questioning the status quo.”
Copyright (c) 2007 Richard A. Lovett
* * * *
* * * *
The story of Cain and Abel has always struck me as odd. It seemed deeper than mere sibling rivalry, grander than a simple murder. Moreover, Cain seemed to be the real victim. What happened to Cain after his marking and exile to the land of Nod? What had become of his sacrifices? And, most importantly, can one fit six recipes for chutneys into a short story?
* * * *
EVERY TIME I THINK about my brother I make chutneys, mango or cranberry, mint or date; it doesn’t matter as long as the recipe calls for onions. An old man crying would look too pathetic otherwise. Tears flow down my cheeks, but that’s onions for you.
Cranberries, fresh and sour, spill around an eviscerated orange like drops of blood. One medium onion and one knob of fresh ginger look on, unmoved for now. They are next. I chop and grate, and drown their misery in vinegar, brown sugar and bourbon. Something tart, something sweet, something bitter. But that’s just chutney for you.
I let them simmer and bubble, seeping clear liquefied torment; they shrivel as I watch. Heat and time shrivel all, but still we bleed, forever paying for a single sin. The pungent smell of ginger fills my nostrils, erasing the memories of other smells-blood and lamb, metal heated by the sun. I read somewhere that the part of the brain that knows smells is the oldest of them all. I suppose this is why I make chutneys, to flood out every memory I have.
I cut strips of mangoes, mince garlic, chop apples and onions, my eyes watering all over again. I smell coriander and cardamom, I gut the tamarind and mash its pulp, red as flesh. I measure out the cayenne pepper and taste it. It is hot enough to set my mouth aflame, reminding me of sacrificial fires.
Why was I the one to be punished? He cut flesh open every day, and the heavy greasy smoke of his sacrifice rose in great sooty puffs heavenward. God found this stench pleasing, but not I. I retched at a hint of it, and collected mint and mustard seeds to smell, to erase the foul taste of burned flesh from my throat. How was I supposed to know that human flesh would not please God? It smelled the same to me.
I put the bowl with mangoes, apples, vinegar, sugar, onion, garlic, salt, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, raisins, allspice, carrots and cloves into the fridge, to let it all sit, and soak and mingle and swell with misery.
I put dates in a saucepan and cover them with water, letting them soak. I could speed it up by boiling them, but why hurry? I’m an old man with a birthmark on his face and all the time in the world. I had to learn how to pour my regret and despair into chutney, just to keep my sanity. The trouble with immortality is that you still get old, it just lasts forever.
I stone the plums, twisting their halves apart. The dark skin rips and gives way to underlying flesh, bright yellow of human fat. I feel nauseous, and only a whiff of ginger and allspice keeps me on my feet. I wish I did not have to remember the sound of my brother’s skin ripping, and my surprise at the yellow grains right under it. I bruise the mustard seeds, releasing their aroma. I simmer the plums in vinegar, sugar, cinnamon and ginger. I need another pan.
And another onion. I chop it, blinking away hot, pungent tears. I did not want to kill my brother. Even though I remember little, I am certain that I loved him. It was God’s appetite for flesh that made me a murderer. I gave God what I treasured most-and he punished me for the generosity of my sacrifice. He wanted neither my grain nor my brother. I suspect that no sacrifice of mine is going to satisfy him.
I quarter peaches and apricots, and squeeze lemon juice. It burns through a fresh cut on my palm, and for a moment I forget about everything else, immersed in the present pain. It passes. Cloves, ginger and cinnamon. Sugar and allspice. Nothing nice about it, but that’s chutney for you.
I grind turmeric and mix it with pitted apricots and chopped onions, with cayenne pepper and grated orange peel. I add coriander and crack walnuts. They split, their rough furrowed meat showing between fractured shells. I temper their bitter iodine with vinegar and brown sugar. Poison and acerbity and sweetness. Only salt is missing, and I cry harder. Peaches and apricots bubble, exhaling the aroma of innocence and sun. I smudge my tears and start on coriander chutney.
Green and red chili peppers are so festive, they remind me of winter, when all is quiet, and I am almost able to believe in a different, nicer God, younger than me. But the smell of coriander and coconuts returns me to a hot, unforgiving place; I can almost see the sun-parched hills. The scents are so primal that I can almost smell the greasy burnt lamb; I imagine my brother’s voice, rising over the din of his herd. I don’t think I will be making mint chutney today.
Instead, I blend lentils-channa dal and urad dal-with mustard seeds that pop like tiny fireworks. I mince coriander with chili peppers and grated coconut, and add water. Coriander chutney is easy to make, and its bouquet is more complex and bitter than others. It becomes me-I am a bitter old man, my hopes and kindness bled from me over the past eternity. I pay and I pay and I pay for my only crime. That’s justice for you.
The smells of allspice and ginger and coriander and turmeric and apples and mangoes and raisins and lemons and peaches and cranberries and apricots and onions mingle together in an orgy of fragrance, and leave my apartment through the window, reaching for the sky. I used to sacrifice the fruits of my labor; then I gave the flesh that was most dear to me. Now I sacrifice chutneys, I sacrifice spices and fruit and fragrance and onions and tears. What else can I give? I have no brother anymore. I walk over to the window and look up expectantly, like I do every day, looking for a sign that my sacrifice has finally been accepted. I stand by the window and wait for forgiveness.
Virus Changes Skin
* * * *
The question “Who’s in charge here?” may apply on very large scales…
Willow Robertson smoothed the skirt over her thighs and perched on the examination table. Her hands gripped the edge, and she spent some time studying them-pale, with the slightest yellow tinge. Like nicotine. Jaundice. Old T-shirt.
She chased the thought away and instead rehearsed her words for Dr. Margulis. She arranged them carefully in her mind, fearful that the moment she started talking they would scatter like pearls, the string of resolve that tied them together broken.
She looked out of the window at what used to be tundra just a few decades back and now became the pale scrub of pines and oaks. The sun beat down on the tarmac roads and the haggard town of hastily erected houses, shops, hangars, but people stayed indoors. Not safe. Even the farmers had to work in full protective gear.
Dr. Margulis entered the examination room, and as she walked she flipped through Willow ’s chart, skimming every childhood hurt (appendectomy at six, a leg broken on the monkey bars at ten), every adolescent embarrassment (laser removal of acne scars at fifteen, corrective eye surgery at seventeen), and every adult self-denial (tubal ligation at twenty-four, breast reduction at twenty-eight).
“What can I do for you?” Dr. Margulis said.
Willow gripped the edge of the table harder, watching the half moons on her nails pale into white. “My mother died last week.”
“I am sorry to hear that.” Dr. Margulis’s face folded along the well-worn lines into a habitual grimace of sympathy. Every doctor Willow had ever seen had that prefab expression, and these days their faces assumed it almost automatically. Too much cancer. Too much sun.
“It’s all right,” Willow said. “I mean, she was in her eighties.” And answered the unspoken question, “I was a late child. Anyway, since my parents are gone now, I would like my alterations reversed.”
“Your skin?” The doctor did not hide her surprise.
“Yes. And hair. I understand why my parents did it to me, they wanted me to have a better shot at getting ahead, but now I can do what I want. Right?”
“Of course. It’s just… what are your coworkers going to say?”
Willow shrugged. She did not have an answer to that. People’s opinions mattered less to her with each passing year.
“Don’t you like being the way you are?”
“I don’t hate it,” Willow said. “But my parents did not ask me about it. They just had it done. And when I was little, I could not understand why I was a different color than they, and why they wouldn’t come to my school plays. And I was angry that they didn’t ask me. And they said that they didn’t want me to change color when I was grown up-people would wonder, they said. You’d never pass then; someone will always remember that you used to be black.”
Dr. Margulis raised her eyebrows and gave a sigh of resignation. I’m not going to argue with that, her demeanor said, I have better things to worry about. “Fine. The receptionist will schedule you for some time next week. I’ll prepare your inoculation.”
The doctor nodded. “A very simple one. A single gene that will release the suppressors on your melanin genes.”
“And hair,” Willow reminded softly.
“And hair. You’ll have to shave your head, of course, and your new hair will grow with your original keratin structure. Anything else?”
“How long will it take?”
“For hair, a few weeks. For skin-it will be gradual. As your old cells slough off, the new ones will have a heavy pigmentation. The virus will target the skin cells only.” The doctor spoke with obvious pride in her ability to communicate complex information in simple terms.
“Thanks,” Willow said. As she was leaving the examination room, she heard Dr. Margulis say, “What are you trying to achieve?”
“I don’t know,” Willow said and closed the door behind her.
It was true, she didn’t. Color did not equal culture, and that was one thing that she had lost and could never reclaim. She still would be a white person, even if her skin turned the deepest shade of sienna. But she owed it to her mother to at least look like her.
* * * *
Willow was growing impatient-two weeks after she took the viral pill, her skin tone deepened only a little. Still, people noticed. She saw heads turn as she walked from her apartment complex-a new ugly building made even uglier by the massive solar panels on the roof-to work.
“You really shouldn’t be out in the sun,” Andre, her coworker at the Corn Institute, said. “Skin cancer is no joke.”
Willow rolled her eyes. “If you’re done stating the obvious, do you mind looking over these data with me?” She spread the sequencer printout on the lab bench and rifled through the reference library of plant genomes. “Does this look right to you?”
Andre tugged on his upper lip. “Nope,” he said. “Which strain is it from?”
“IC5. The dwarf.”
Andre’s face lit up. “I love that strain. They’re so cute.”
Willow smiled too. Everyone at the Institute anthropomorphized corn; Willow used to find it ridiculous when she first started here, but now it seemed natural. And this corn was cute-tiny plants, no taller than wheat, with a spray of succulent leaves and thick robust stems, burdened by ears bigger than the rest of the plant.
“Anyway,” Andre continued. “They’re not stable yet, so shit like this is to be expected. Did you find this mutation in the library?”
“Uh huh, only it’s not from corn. It’s a cauliflower gene.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“See for yourself.” Willow moved the sheaf of papers toward Andre. “See? This is all corn, but this little bugger is cauliflower. Except for this G and that A.”
Andre nodded. “Don’t tell me. We used the cauliflower mosaic virus as a vector for this one.”
Willow did not comment on stating the obvious. Instead, she thought of the viruses-always multiplying, always mutating-especially in Alaska, so close to the polar ozone hole. The rest of the country was even worse off, with its scorched land and tepid oceans, with its heat and dust storms, but here… Willow shook her head. Not even glass and cement of the Institute could keep them contained.
“What?” Andre said.
“Do you ever think that viruses made us bring them here?”
He stared at her, unsure whether she was joking. “Made us bring them here how?”
“By making us smart. Too smart for our own good, so we messed up everything, and the viruses are our only hope, and we put them into every living thing, we give them new genes to carry around from organism to organism, we make UV radiation so high that they mutate like there’s no tomorrow.” She bit her tongue.
“Viruses made us smart?”
“Why not? We use them to make things better, to shuffle genes about. They could’ve done it on their own. The unseen force of evolution.”
He sat down, rubbing the bridge of his nose with two fingers. “It’s possible, I guess. But what do we do with the dwarf?”
Andre made a face. “You sure we can’t fix this one?”
Fix virus with virus, Willow thought. And why wouldn’t they? She was doing the same thing-she introduced a virus into her body to counteract the effects of the one her parents put in her. She imagined that virus when she was a kid. In her mind, she pictured it taking her melanin genes and twisting them into little black coils, tight like braids of her old neighborhood friends, so they would lie dormant and not betray her blackness to the world. Now, quite grown up, she imagined the virus untwisting them, she imagined the pigment seeping through her cells, reaching the surface of her skin, coloring her-like a letter written in milk, she was just waiting for the right stimulus to reveal her hidden meaning. She was white paper, and the black viral letters would soon become bright enough to read.
“I suppose,” she said. “Maybe. ‘Fire with fire’ is our motto, right?”
Andre looked puzzled. “I don’t think you’re having a good day.”
“I’m having a great day,” Willow said, and stood. “I’m going to the greenhouse.”
“Grab me a tray of EB-A seedlings, will you?” It was Andre’s pet strain; he called the seedlings ‘babies.’
“Sure thing. How’re your babies doing, by the way?”
Andre sighed. “Tumorously. If that’s a word.”
“It should be.”
In the greenhouse Willow walked along the aluminum benches with rows of trays housing green sprouts. Each tray bore a label indicating its strain and growing conditions-with traditional agricultural soils gone to dust or underwater, everyone at the institute worked hard to create corn that would grow in the peat and sand of Alaska.
Willow sighed as she ran her fingers along the tender stems. Poor plants, she thought, they don’t know what they are and don’t remember what they’re supposed to be. The only choice they have is to grow blindly in every direction, whipped by viruses that changed them with their alien will. Tumorously.
* * * *
Willow caressed the fabric of the caftan, gingerly tracing the pattern of blue and orange stripes. It seemed too loud, too boisterous. Expensive, too, ever since all cotton had to be imported from Canada. Nonetheless, she put it on.
“It looks good,” said the store clerk the moment Willow stepped from behind the curtain of the dressing room.
The woman in the mirror seemed as foreign as the caftan that slithered along her body, shifting and shimmering with every breath. The woman with dark glossy skin. Willow did not belong inside either of them; she could not take off her skin, and so it was the dress that had to go.
“Didn’t like it?” said the store clerk when Willow, back in her white blouse and blue slacks, handed her the caftan. “Too bad; it looked really good on you.” She smiled wistfully, a pale freckled girl. “I wish I could pull off wearing something like that.” She clamped her hand over the startled ‘o’ of her mouth. “I didn’t mean it in a bad way.”
“I know,” Willow said, smoothing her short hair. “Don’t apologize. And it’s a nice dress, but I couldn’t wear it for work. And I don’t go anywhere else.”
The store clerk nodded. “I understand. And I’m sorry.”
Willow bought a white blouse and a pair of long, jangly earrings to combat her guilt. She felt fake, undeserving.
She walked home. In these high latitudes, darkness all but disappeared in the summer. Nine P.M., and the sun still shone through the thick haze surrounding it. Even at night there was no respite from the radiation.
Willow hated to imagine what happened to the rest of the country. With Florida submerged and Pennsylvania a thirsty, cracked desert, with dustbowls and tornadoes, they were lucky to have a place to go. After Alaska, there would be nothing left. They had to make do.
Science can fix everything; didn’t they promise her that? Didn’t she become a scientist because she believed that scientists solved problems? Survival, she reminded herself. They had to feed what was left of the population-twenty million? Ten? The government didn’t publish the latest census data. They had trouble enough keeping the trains running between Alaska and Canada, and trading what remained of the oil in the former ANWR for goods and research funding. Suddenly, science wasn’t a search for truth; it became a search for food and for continuing life. What could be more important than that?
When she got home, she tried her new earrings on and cried. Her tearstained eyes glanced at her hand, and she contemplated it a while-deeper dark around the fingernails and in the creases of the joints, lightening at the phalanxes, and pink at the palm. Tiny moons of her fingernails seemed to hover above the darkness of her fingers. She cried for herself and for her poor corn plants, which she could not make better. The plants whose soul was eaten away by the viruses, and nothing could restore it to them, not even viruses themselves. They died because there was nothing for them to be; she feared to continue this thought and played with her earrings instead.
The next day she came to work early and ran the labyrinth of glass corridors and elevators to the safety of her lab like a gauntlet. She wanted to be in the comfort of her equipment, in the shared misery of her plants. Before she could turn the thermocycler on, someone knocked at the door.
Willow jolted upright and fought a sudden urge to cover her face with her hands. Through the glass door, she saw the smiling face of Emari from the transposon lab down the hall.
“Come in,” Willow said.
Emari grinned and entered. “Going to the conference in Anchorage next week?”
Willow shook her head. “I have nothing to present. The dwarves wouldn’t stabilize. What about you?”
“I’m going,” Emari said. “We found some freaky stuff with Mu21. It just loves that UV light. Loves it. And I think if we move to transposable mutagenesis, we might be able to dispense with viral vectors altogether.”
“Trying to put me out of work?”
Emari laughed. “Of course not; we’d never lose such a good gene jockey as you. What do you care about the vector? Just make us new mutations, and our little Mu will take care of them.” She grew serious. “Besides, Andre tells me that you’ve had some thoughts about viruses that were… let’s say, not very flattering.”
“Want to get some tea?”
“Okay. But let’s go outside.”
Emari glanced at the window. Heavy clouds rendered the world grey-low enough UV to venture outside for a few minutes. “Sure.”
The two women strolled along one of the paths that transected the institute’s garden. Initially, it was meant as an enticement for the visitors and the advertisement for the donors, showcasing all of the Institute’s achievements; now, Willow and Emari exchanged a sad smile at the sight of these monstrous plants, violet and bronze, their leaves leathery, their stems bulbous, ill. There was no funding to maintain the garden, and only the ugliest and the most resilient plants persisted, UV light be damned.
The women sipped their tea tasting of grass-the best they grew in Alaska.
“Look at those colors.” Willow pointed out an especially brilliant plant, streaked in florid bronze and dark purple.
“Yeah,” Emari said. “Wild transposons are turning on. I wonder if they would do a better job than us.” She drained her cup and turned to Willow. “So what’s with you and viruses?”
Willow wasn’t sure if she was asking about her skin and shrugged. “Well. Human history was run by viruses. We wouldn’t even be in the Americas if the Spaniards’ viruses didn’t kill off the locals. They wouldn’t need so many slaves, too, so there would be no African Diaspora. The influenza epidemics helped the Allies to defeat Germany in the WWI, so without it… who knows? And if it wasn’t for AIDS and Ebola, we wouldn’t all fit in Alaska.”
“And it’s the same with evolution, I think. How many genes were translocated by viruses? Even your transposons are just viruses without anything but the DNA.”
“That’s why I love them,” Emari said. “Transposon is a perfectly abstract parasite.”
“Well. They are good at it, you know? I can’t help but think that we’re just their tools, letting them do what they do best. Bringing them wherever they want to go.”
“So evolution and human history are just a massive viral conspiracy.” Emari was not laughing anymore and looked at Willow with worry in her green eyes.
Willow shrugged. “Do you really feel that in your relationship with transposons you’re the one in control?”
Emari shook her head. “It’s a battle, no doubt. But may I ask why you’re helping them?”
“This?” Willow raised her hand. “I’m just reversing the treatment I had after I was born.”
“Oh. It is quite smart, actually; I hear that melanin offers some protection against UV. Soon, everyone will be doing it.”
Willow cringed. If Emari was right, soon everyone would be like Willow, the color of their skin divorced from meaning or history. It would be just an adaptive trait. Like the violet streaks on the corn.
Willow woke up in the middle of the night, her hair damp with sweat, her thoughts more lucid than ever, the skin on her hands and feet burning. She sat up and stared at the billowing of the white curtains on the windows. The answer came to her in her fevered sleep, and for a while she wasn’t able to accept it.
The cancer, the dying corn, her own misery; it all happened because they had forgotten who was the master in this relationship and who was the servant. Things went bad because people decided to manipulate the viruses without understanding them. From the very first pox-infected blanket, things went wrong. Viruses did not take kindly to their rightful place being usurped.
Her legs wobbled under her as she stood and threw on some clothes. She was going to set things right, to let the viruses roam free like they were meant to, to paint their unfathomable designs in skin and leaves, without interference from human meddlers.
The Institute was empty, except for a security guard who gave her an indifferent look. No doubt, he was used to wild-haired scientists experiencing breakthroughs and running for their sequencers at any hour of the night. Willow waved at him and stumbled for the elevator.
She stopped by the lab to load up a cart with cell cultures that harbored viruses of every stripe with every imaginable corn gene inserted into them, and pushed it to the greenhouse, often stopping to wipe the sweat that ran down her face. She tried not to think about whether it was the virus inside of her that pushed her on, getting giddy at the impending freedom of its brethren… she chased such thoughts away.
In the greenhouse, she flicked on the daylights, illuminating the experimental plants in all their sickly, tumorous nudity. If she didn’t do something, they would never get it right. People would starve. People would burn to the crisp and die. They would poison what remained of the air and the water. It wasn’t their fault; they were just not equipped to do the viruses’ job. She had to trust the viruses to make it better.
Willow emptied the dishes over the plants, smearing thick translucent cellular jelly over leaves and stems. She pushed apart the heavy glass panels that protected the plants from the ravages of the outside air and gulped the night and the coolness with wide-open mouth. She poured the leftover viral cultures over the plants in the garden below and threw the empty Petri dishes after them.
She waited for the sound of shattering glass, gripping the windowsill. The creases on the joints of her fingers looked pitch black and she could feel the restless shimmying and shifting of the virus in her blood. It made her hair sing like taut violin strings, it made her skin burn.
Willow had to lean against the wall as her legs grew weak. She felt no fear, only the calm assurance that the plants would flourish. And after that, she would find a way to liberate the human viruses, to let them shape the humans as they had been doing for thousands of years.
She stroked her skin, burning, hot to the touch, almost smoldering under the viral assault. “Be still,” she whispered. “I will take good care of you.”
Copyright (c) 2007 Ekaterina Sedia
By the Liter
My neighbor, businessman Ipatov, was killed a few years ago, back when they still sold beer by the liter. I remember him because he was my first.
I’d just returned from the corner kiosk, my shirt drenched with cold condensation from the flank of a five-liter beer-filled jug I held against my chest. Outside of my apartment building I heard sirens and saw the yellow police cruisers and a white ambulance van with a red cross on its pockmarked side. My neighbor Petro, a middle-aged Ukrainian with heavy brows and a heavier accent, watched the commotion of people and vehicles and dogs from his second-story balcony.
“Petro,” I called. “What happened?”
Petro looked down at me. His wifebeater bore a fresh oil stain that made the fabric transparent; his fleshy nipple and the surrounding swirl of black chest hair stood out in naked relief against the oil spot. “Huh,” he said. “What happened. Guess three times.”
I stopped for a smoke and a rubbernecking as the cops went inside, and the paramedics brought out the gurney with the lifeless body under a white sheet. The wind snagged the edge of the sheet and it fluttered, exposing the bluing face of businessman Ipatov and his naked shoulder, branded with the cruel marks of the electric iron.
“Racketeers,” I informed Petro.
He scoffed. “You don’t say.”
His scorn was justified, I thought as I transferred the jug of beer from one cradling arm to the other and ashed my cigarette with a flick of lower lip. Racketeers overtook cancer, heart disease and traffic accidents on the list of death causes of common businessmen somewhere in the late eighties; by the early nineties, they had all but run the other ailments off the mortality and morbidity reports. As Russian business grew healthier, so did its practitioners-nary a single one of them died of any diseases.
One of the paramedics, a young lad with a blond and green Mohawk, smiled at me. “Can’t go anywhere.” He slouched against the gurney and lit up. “Fucking canaries are blocking us in.” His gesture indicated the yellow cruisers huddled behind the van. “Assholes. They’re still investigating the scene.”
The other paramedic, an aging man with a paunch and chronically disapproving eyes, nodded at my beer jug. “Rest it on the gurney, son. Heavy, ain’t it?”
I confirmed and set the jug next to the lifeless remains of my once neighbor. I didn’t know yet that beer and the recently dead from violence were a dangerous combination.
“Did you know him?” the old paramedic asked, indicating Ipatov’s outline under the sheet with a jab of his cigarette.
“Neighbor,” I said. “Seen him around.”
“His hands were lashed together with that blue electrical tape,” the young paramedic said. “The cops said his employees called the police when he didn’t show up for a meeting this morning. His wife doesn’t even know yet. The cops said, take him to the morgue; his wife won’t thank us if we leave this for her to find.”
Petro emerged from the front doors, passing by the murder of old ladies on the bench. “Electric iron?” he said as he reached the gurney.
I nodded and squinted up at the stingy May sun. “Getting warm.”
“Yeah,” said the younger paramedic and licked his lips thirstily. “Who knows how long we’ll be stuck here?”
By all rights, I should have been winging my way home, up the stairs to the third story, beer under arm. But the weather was nice, the company seemed all right, and the beer was best drunk with friends or, missing that, acquaintances. “You want any beer?” I said to Petro and the paramedics.
They kicked dirt for a bit but agreed.
“Funny how it is,” the older paramedic named Misha said, taking a large swallow out of the jug he held with both hands. “Here’s a man, who lived, lived, and then died. May he rest in peace.”
His younger fellow, Grisha, took the jug from his mentor. “God giveth,” he said and drank hastily, as if worried about the taketh away part.
The old ladies looked at us disapprovingly, and I tried my best to ignore them.
But not Petro. “What are you staring at, hags?” he challenged, and waited for his turn with the jug. “Haven’t seen a dead man before?”
The grandmas squawked, indignant, but avoided the altercation.
Yes, the dead man. The telltale signs of the iron torture indicated that the thugs wanted something-probably money. I wondered why Ipatov didn’t just give in to their demands. Or it could be a turf war. “Hey Petro, do you remember what sort of business he ran?”
“Money,” he said. “All businesses make is money. Did you notice how they don’t manufacture anything anymore? All the food and shit is imported. Even vodka.”
“Yeah,” I said, and glanced apprehensively at the half-empty jug as it made its way back to me. I would miss it.
The four of us killed the jug, and as its amber contents diminished, Misha’s loquacity grew. “You know why a Russian man is driven to drink?” He didn’t wait for an answer and gestured expansively. “It’s cause of all the space. Steppes, tundra, everything. You have all these open horizons and the human soul can’t take all that sober.”
I could see a weak point or two in this theory but didn’t point them out, enchanted by the image of a soul cowering in fear of horizons.
“What do you do?” Grisha asked me.
“I’m an actuary,” I told him. “Manage risks.”
“He should’ve hired you,” Grisha said, pointing at dead Ipatov.
I shrugged. There was no point in telling them that the risk of death in businessmen was so close to certainty that the only thing I ever recommended was saving enough money for a coffin. They liked them ostentatious. I should probably attend Ipatov’s funeral, I thought. This is when the dead man’s memories first stirred in me.
Businessman Ipatov led a quiet life for most of his existence-I remembered his grey adolescence as a treasurer for his school chapter of Komsomol, his joyless pursuit of a college degree in one institute of technology or another, his brief courtship and marriage. After that, I could not remember anything.
Not being given to superstition, I arrived to the only logical conclusion-the dead man’s soul and/or memory had entered mine, either due to my extended proximity to the gurney or to the consumption of beer that rested against him. If I were a dead soul, I supposed, I too would be drawn to the golden shine of the beer jug, I too would prefer it to the cold eternity of whatever awaited Ipatov as an alternative. Still, I found it disconcerting; sleep had proven elusive that night, as I kept reliving Ipatov’s tremulous first masturbatory experiences and his terror of the laws of thermodynamics and physical chemistry.
I went outside and looked at the windows of the façade. As expected, there was light in Petro’s, and I walked to the second floor and knocked. He opened quickly, as if he were waiting just behind the door. His eyes were haunted.
“Come in,” he said, and led me to the kitchen. My mother always said that the kitchen is the heart of every home; Petro’s apartment’s heart was clogged with crap that spilled into the swelling pericardium of his one-room efficiency. “Sorry for the mess.”
“It’s all right,” I said. “I live alone too.”
I sat at the kitchen table. A few overfed cockroaches sauntered toward the wainscoting, still decent enough to feign fear of humans.
“Do you hear him too?” Petro asked.
I nodded. “Remember rather.”
Petro sighed. “He screams and screams and screams. Can’t sleep at all.”
“You remember his last days?”
“Yeah,” Petro said. “Everything from when he first started the business until… “
So if I got his youth and Petro-his business career, it meant that Ipatov’s generic Soviet childhood and the working life in whatever state enterprise he was assigned after receiving his degree was sloshing inside the two paramedics.
Petro also had the gold, the death. “Why did they kill him?” I asked.
“Money.” Petro heaved a sigh. “Wouldn’t pay up protection.”
Petro hesitated for a while, but finally said, “Did you know he was Jewish?”
“No. Does it matter?”
Petro huffed. “You got me all wrong, Anatoly. I’m not one of those nationalists, okay? I’m not the one of those ‘drown Muscovites in Jewish blood’ types. But this torture… did you notice that they burned Kabbalic symbols into him? He knew what they were, ’cause he was a Jew.”
I perked up. “What symbols?”
“A triangle, for the trinity of Sephiroth. And circles inside of it. I think this is what held his soul here.”
“That’s the tip of the iron,” I said. “And those little holes in it. It’s just a coincidence.”
“So? The symbol’s still holy, no matter how it was made.” Petro tilted his head to the shoulder, as if listening. “What’s Kether?”
“No clue,” I said. “Ask Ipatov.”
“I can’t. I only remember for him. And he forgot what Kether is.”
Petro made tea and we drank; the cockroaches, hearing sugar, crowded in the corners, their antennae undulating eagerly. I contemplated the electric irons and their built-in alchemic and magical powers. I wondered how many more souls hung about, trapped by the thugs’ unwitting alchemy. Judging from the newspapers and the latest mortality reports, lots. That gave me an idea.
The problem with Ipatov’s memories was that they were much like my own. His adolescence was similar to mine, and remembering it just didn’t satisfy my longing for worthwhile experiences. Ipatov’s shortcoming was shared by many of our contemporaries-we all remembered the same signifiers of childhood: summer camps and songs praising youthful and heroic drummers, we all treasured a rare trip south, replete with a pebbled beach and a mind-boggling abundance of peaches. Standardized, trivial lives, their monotony only broken by an occasional memory of a grandfather-those were rare. We all viewed the change of regime with joyful trepidation; some were later disappointed, some were not.
I learned all that as I started visiting the scenes of body removals, sometimes tipped off by Grisha, who took as much pleasure in the soul consumption as I did, and sometimes by the police, who would tell you anything if you offered to supplement their dwindling state wages. Like where the dead bodies were, and how to call a specific ambulance if one wanted. They also didn’t mind letting Grisha dawdle, and they didn’t mind us drinking great golden jugs of beer after we let them sit next to the Kabbalic symbols burned into dead businessmen’s flesh. Beer never failed to lure the dead souls.
Far as memories went, it was hit and miss. Most blended inauspiciously with my own, grey and generic, difficult to separate from each other. But there were rare splashes I lived for-the memories of a tropical island and feathery palms, the glitter of New York on a rare pre-perestroika trip abroad, an exotic hobby of orchid collecting, a fresh memory of love so consuming that even torture could not distract from the thoughts of the beloved.
Grisha and I compared memories over the phone. We prided ourselves in our acquisitions; we both grew very fond of a young Chechen who enjoyed flowers and Persian rugs and had an abiding fascination with high-breasted women. We snickered over a paunchy, middle-aged guy who believed himself a reincarnation of Gautama Buddha, the belief especially ironic considering that he had fallen in the shootout between two organizations, which quarreled over the protection money from three stores by Borovitskaya. After he was shot and unconscious, his enemies captured him and meted out their slow electric revenge.
“Sad,” Grisha observed. “He could’ve went to Valhalla had he been slain in battle.”
It’s the tidbits like that that made me lust after Grisha’s soul. But according to the mortality reports, paramedics tended to die of alcoholism often co-morbid with traffic accidents, and not of the homegrown Kabbala of the bandits.
One of our later finds, a neckless thug with the requisite burgundy jacket, brought Ipatov to the forefront of my mind. He seemed much like the rest, with a piquant difference-his father was a mid-caliber apparatchick back in the days, as Grisha, who received the entirety of his youth, told me. I got the good part: his adult life. He was the one who killed Ipatov.
He remembered Ipatov as a small man who would not pay what he owed-a peculiarity that filled the thug with perplexed bitterness. Through his memory, I saw Ipatov’s face as it was in his last moments-his white spasming lips and the shirt torn to expose his shoulders and chest. “Just take me from here,” he pleaded in a hoarse voice thick with a suppressed scream. “Just don’t let Lilya see me like this.”
The thug flicked away the butt he smoked down to the filter, and burned his iron magic into poor Ipatov, workmanlike as always. He wondered vaguely whether Lilya was Ipatov’s wife, and thought that he too used to date a girl named Lilya when he was a vocation school student.
The thug had trained to be a car mechanic, but then things changed; he fell into being a thug like many others-ex-cops, Afghan vets, who had no other employment options. I marveled at his conviction that what he did was justice: people who owed money should pay it back, and the thug was there to enforce the law in the law-enforcement vacuum. Ipatov’s agony was thug’s justice, and I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the two memories, enclosing them like pearls with the soft generic mantle of my own.
Our collecting days came to an end when they stopped selling beer by the liter. The cans just didn’t have the same appeal to the souls, and who could blame them? Could a fat man wiping his balding, apoplectic head with a handkerchief and gracing cans of Danish beer compare to the thick amber and sensual droplets of condensed moisture on the cold glass? No, my friends, he could not. The souls remained behind, fearful, trapped behind the charred alchemy of the electric irons, and Grisha and I had to content ourselves with what we had.
Now, even the electric irons are going out of fashion, Grisha tells me. We still see each other and reminisce; he often tells me about Ipatov’s childhood, of how he once threw up on the bus during the field trip and all the other kids made fun of him for weeks. I tell him of Ipatov’s crush on the Komsomol secretary, and of his loathing of thermodynamics. Of course, we have other, much more interesting lives and memories, but Ipatov gets precedence. He was our first, and that ought to count for something.
Someone was killing the cars in the neighborhood. Glenn read about it in the papers-how the owners found their disemboweled vehicles, nuts and gaskets strewn on the ground hard with frost, their sinews and muscle frozen and dead. Nobody knew what was the point of this crime except cruelty, or why the perpetrators were targeting this particular neighborhood. In his secret heart, Glenn suspected it was about him.
One morning, he found his trusty Peugeot eviscerated. Its large red heart lay among glittering metal, the only time Glenn had seen it still. The faint steam hung over the parking lot grass stiff with frost, and the spirit of the car had not yet departed-over the violated engine, a small smoky shaped coalesced.
"What happened?" Glenn whispered to the car spirit.
"Bad man," the spirit said, and faded, losing its form wisp by wisp, with nothing to hold it together. Glenn wondered briefly where spirits went when their vessels were destroyed, and kneeled among the broken parts and white metal. He poked some ball bearings with his finger and called the police on his cell. At least, the cell phone's spirit was all right and perky.
As the body was removed, Glenn watched, hurt and perplexed. He loved his car, and his throat tightened at the thought that he would never hear its heartbeat again, never see the lopsided grin of the open trunk.
He walked to work that day, to a large animated building that hissed at him when he approached-it was not used to him appearing on foot, without the car or anything. After a suspicious sniffing and creaking, the building swung its doors and admitted Glenn to its womb interior, where he worked as a bookstore manager. The bookstore huddled on the second floor, its shelves heavy with out-of-print books and other not very valuable rarities. Two fat Abyssinian cats greeted Glenn by yawning and opening one eye each.
He started a coffeemaker (the one at home was broken, its spirit having left for some greener pastures; namely, Glenn's new vacuum cleaner), and it gurgled and exhaled fragrant steam, and its spirit rattled inside, disposing of the coffee grounds and adding milk and sugar.
"Thank you," Glenn said to the coffeemaker. He settled by a bookshelf, back against a row of clothbound book spines, one cat in his lap and the other at his side, and thought of his car.
It wasn't just the murder, but the savagery of it. Why would someone spread the innards around like that, in the cold light of the glittering sun, for the world to see what should stay hidden? The sight of displaced, busted gaskets flooded his mouth with bitter saliva, the harbinger of sickness and despair, just like the sight of his own blood did. It was as if the murderer looked to shock and terrify; unless there was another meaning in scattering of the car's entrails. Maybe he was looking for something inside, and had to shake out every minute cog and spring and flywheel.
He read the paper to calm himself. The incident with his deceased Peugeot was reported already, and so was another one - last night, it seemed, the murderer, already nicknamed the Disemboweler, got his hands on, and vivisected, a microwave oven callously left at the curb by its owners. Glenn shook his head at people who just tossed out their appliances rather than finding them a new home. Small appliances belonged indoors, since their grasp on their spirits was often more tenuous than that of the larger things. Too windy a night, and one could kiss a microwave goodbye, its spirit blown away like so much smoke from overly vigorous cooking. The poor oven was cut up in much the same fashion, its tiny emitter elements scattered in the street like child's bones.
Glenn rubbed the bridge of his nose and drank his coffee. He heard someone scrabble at the closed shop door but remained seated, confident that he was hidden from view. The customer soon gave up and left, abandoning Glenn to his solitude and quiet grief for the Peugeot. Cats purred.
Glenn hatched a plan. He would set a trap for the perpetrator, using his broken coffeemaker at home as bait. He doubted for a moment whether the dead appliance would attract the murderer but then decided that to ascertain the presence of life the criminal would have to get close to it. And then…
Then what? Glenn's shoulders jerked at the sudden cold draft that snuck under his clothes and ran down his back. He should call the police, call the neighborhood watch. Only then they would arrest the Disemboweler, haul him off, to be judged and probably eviscerated as a punishment. Glenn wanted to know why the disemboweler disemboweled, what possible secret lurked in the shiny machine guts. He decided to watch first and consider how to act later.
Later that night he prepared the sacrificial coffeemaker and left it by the curb, alone in the night. Glenn shivered; even though the thing was devoid of life, he felt bad abandoning it all alone in the night, with a crazy appliance killer lurking about. Cruelty was not easy for him.
Glenn placed the coffeemaker not far from a streetlamp, just on the edge of its halo of light, where he could see it from his first-story room. He settled before the window, his room dark, his head making a barely perceptible silhouette on the windowpane. And he waited.
It didn't take the murderer long-just as Glenn's knees started to ache and his shoulders went stiff, a long lank figure slid through the shadows, skirting around the circular pool of light, and squatted down by the coffeemaker. A long metal rod glinted in the streetlight as the disemboweler brought it down upon the defenseless coffeemaker; its former spirit, secure inside the vacuum cleaner, wailed at the destruction of its first home-a lone, sad note like a breath caught in a flute. In the street, glass and metal and bone shattered and sprayed in the light cast by the streetlamp.
The murderer remained crouched, and contemplated the broken pieces for a time. As Glenn watched him, a suspicion started to form in his mind. This was what the murderer did-he just wanted to see the pattern, like the diviner of old. Glenn grunted with frustration; this morning, he saw a book on fortune-telling, and hadn't thought to bring it home. Now he had to wait until tomorrow.
A shot rang out from the darkness, ricocheted off the lamppost and hit one of the larger pieces, displacing it. The Disemboweler jumped to his feet and rushed away, disappearing in the ink of the alley to the right of the house. Several policemen pooled into the light, and disappeared too, chasing the long silhouette of the Disemboweler.
Glenn rose, his knees popping, and stretched. It was time to go to bed anyway, and he only hoped that he would be able to sleep with all the danger and excitement. But before he reached his bedroom (the size of a handkerchief; apartments were expensive nowadays), he heard a sound coming from the outside. Scratching and dull thuds, directly on the wall of his apartment building. He listened, and the vacuum cleaner wrapped its hose around Glenn's ankle, worried. There were more scratching sounds, and then the shattering of glass from the kitchen.
Glenn disentangled himself from the fearful appliance and walked cautiously toward the kitchen. His slippered feet made no sound, and the apartment was dark. There was more creaking and scratching coming from the kitchen, and Glenn peered through the doorway.
"Halt!" A metallic, awful voice, nothing like the normal cadence of human speech or gentle gurgling of the spirits. "Do not move."
The sound petrified Glenn like the gaze of a basilisk. He felt something dash past his knee in the darkness. It was the vacuum cleaner; its spirit recognized the one who destroyed its former vessel and charged. There was a muffled curse and a massive thud as the vacuum wrapped its hose around the stranger's legs and pulled him down. What awful clanking, Glenn thought, still unable to move.
The stranger shook off the vacuum even as it hissed and spat, and stood. In the struggle, his long coat came unbuttoned, and soft glinting of old metal in the light from the steetlamp outside finally snapped Glenn out of his helpless terror. "You're an appliance," he said, as he took a cautious step into the kitchen.
"No!" The stranger clanked angrily across the kitchen, back and forth. "I'm not an appliance. I am a robot."
It was a good thing that Glenn was well read; he wouldn't have recognized the archaic word otherwise. These were soulless machines, built in the time before people learned to harness the power of nature spirits and infuse their appliances with souls of trees, rocks and small bodies of water. "Revenge then," Glenn said. "You're angry that they're better than you."
"No." The robot stopped. "It's not that, not that at all."
"I didn't know there were any of you still around."
"Just me," the robot said. "Can I hide here for a while? I have survived far too long to be captured because of a coffeemaker."
"Why would I let you?"
The robot stepped closer, its hot oily breath singeing Glenn's face. "Because I am stronger than you. I've never killed a person, but there's a first time for everything, isn't there?"
"I'll scream. They'll hear me and come for you."
"Compassion?" the robot tried.
"Not after you killed my car."
"I'm sorry. Would you like to know what it is that I do?"
"Yes," Glenn said. "Tell me, and then I'll decide." Glenn edged to the kitchen counter and lit a candle. Glenn much preferred candles to incandescent bulbs.
"It is an ancient art," the robot said, its faceted eyes glinting in the candlelight.
The word was haruspex, not disemboweler, the robot told Glenn. From Hittites to Babylonians to Etruscans to Romans to robots it went. The robot's insectoid jaws clicked and its long head glimmered in the buttery, yellow candlelight.
Robots do not have spirits, the robot contined. They are not like microwaves. Neither they have the knowledge of right and wrong, or any other reliable moral compass, like people do. They only have the desire to be ethical.
Haruspicy, the robot told him, unlike many other forms of divination, did not reveal future or any past secrets; it did not concern itself with knowledge. It told you only whether you were right.
The Etruscans and other ancients used it to know the will of gods, whether they supported an undertaking either completed or intended. Robots used haruspicy to know whether they were making a moral choice, a correct choice. There was just no way around it.
Robots never sacrificed animals-flesh being innocent of the mechanical concerns-and only mechanical guts were acceptable to them. The innards of the combustible engines and electronic devices were used to guide the robots' search for excellence.
The robots had disappeared, and the engines and electronics acquired souls and flesh. Still, the robot carried on as before, unsure of what else it could do.
Glenn listened with a dawning sense of sympathy. It all sounded so understandable, and yet… the robot had killed Glenn's Peugeot and threatened violence against Glenn himself.
"Please," the robot said. "Don't give me to the police. They will kill me."
"Probably," Glenn agreed. "But technically, it won't be murder. They'll just take you apart."
The robot's eyes watched him, dull and empty of expression. "You know it is the same thing."
"What choice do I have?" Glenn now paced the room, crossing the yellow circle of candlelight, stepping into corner shadows and pulling his foot back quickly, as if he just stepped into too-cold water. "They've seen you, they know you. It's only a matter of time. You hid for so long… isn't it time?"
"No," the robot said. "The signs are clear-I mustn't aid my own demise. Believe me, I think of it every day. I ask the machines and their entrails, was I right to survive another day? And they always say yes."
"What do you want me to do? You can't hold me captive forever. People will notice."
"I can hide here. If you permit."
"They'll look for you. They'll see the tracks you left climbing up the wall."
The robot contemplated its hands, ending in three sharp metal claws that left deep gouges on the outside stonework of the apartment building and Glenn's kitchen windowsill. "I must run then."
"Good idea," Glenn said.
"They will catch me."
"Probably." Glenn paced again, shadows slipping over him like a second skin.
The vacuum cleaner kept close to Glenn, mistrustful of the robot. It whistled and gurgled and purred. Looking at it gave Glenn an idea.
"Perhaps, I could find you a spirit."
The robot's multijointed arms folded over the carapace of its chest covered in patches of old mold. "I do not see why I would need one."
"You won't have to kill anything then."
The robot inclined its long head. "I suppose. What will happen then? Will you help me?"
"I have to think about it," Glenn said. "But first, I need to sleep. You can stay here for now."
The next morning, Glenn went shopping. The car insurance paid up, and he decided to get a new vehicle first, now that it wouldn't be threatened by the Disemboweler.
He went to the parking lot, located next to a crystal-clear, frozen pond and surrounded by a willow grove. The willow branches stood naked like wicker. Several of the willows were blackened and dead, and Glenn suspected that the car lot owners were not always paying for their spirits. He hoped that they would not plunder the grove into oblivion.
He picked out a small red Audi-the price tag listed a reasonable sum, right under the warning sign that read "Spirit Is Not Included."
He paid for the car and for the delivery, and then walked through the grove, wondering about how to solve the problem of the robot holed up in his apartment. He could just call the police and have it over with; forgiveness was not easy for him. However, cruelty was even harder.
He wandered away the car lot and grove, passing by several stores that sold spirits. Perhaps he could find one that would suit the robot or the new car. He began browsing the shops. Tree and water spirits seemed too fluffy; rock spirits lacked vitality and spark-or so he thought until he found the spirit of an iron mine long since collapsed. The spirit bubbled in its bottle with subdued fire and brimstone, ancient anger and secret knowledge of gods so old even the Etruscans had no memory of them. It was perfect for both the car and the robot.
Glenn walked home, the bottle with the spirit stuffed into his coat pocket. He had the sidewalks all to himself, and the cars drove noiselessly past him, reflecting in the glassy storefronts. He was looking forward to not having to walk, and imagined what it would be like, to drive a car animated by an ancient spirit that smelled of forges and molten metal.
At home, the robot crouched over the vacuum cleaner.
Glenn stifled a scream and rushed over to protect his appliance. "What are you doing?"
"Nothing," the robot said, sullen, and rose to its feet. "Just petting."
The vacuum seemed unharmed.
"I'm sorry," Glenn said. "I just thought…"
The robot nodded. Its faceted eyes looked even more alien in the daylight. "Have you decided what you want to do?"
"Yes," Glenn said. "But you will have to help me."
The car arrived in the late afternoon, when the shadows started to grow long and blue. A large green truck, its wheels overgrown with emerald fur, carried Glenn's red Audi on its back.
Glenn went outside to say hello to the two mechanics who were unloading the lifeless car. "Got a spirit lined up yet?" the older of the two asked with mild disapproval in his voice.
"Sure," Glenn replied. "A good one, too."
"Where do you want it?" the other mechanic said.
"Here, around the corner. In the alley," Glenn said.
The second mechanic chuckled. "Afraid of the Disemboweler, eh? I read this morning the police had scared him off. Then again, better safe than sorry, right?"
The mechanics left the car in the alley, lifeless, motionless. Glenn and the robot waited for the mechanics to leave and for the darkness to descend. In the alley, away from the curious eyes, Glenn popped the hood and opened the engine compartment.
The robot went to work, busting open the engine and the drive train, tossing aside the gaskets and the caps, the gauges and the wheel bearings.
"How're the omens?" Glenn asked.
The robot stared at the heap of metal on the ground. "Good," it said. "The gods approve of the transformation."
Glenn nodded. He was not exactly sure of how the transformation would happen; he just knew that it had to. He trusted the robot, its knowledge of all things mechanical and their internal and secret workings, to figure out the way.
After most of the engine was gone, the robot set out to the reassembly. First, it folded its long body into the cavity, and Glenn handed it the necessary parts-hoses to connect itself to the engine's remains, and gaskets to fit over its electronic brain. Its faceted eyes spat forth narrow light beams that illuminated the shining chrome of the car's and robot's intestines mingled together.
The robot connected its brain to the drive shaft and the brakes; multicolored wires spun out of its arms and legs, cocooning everything inside the car into the robot's neural net. The robot became the car's engine and navigation system, its operator and its heart. Only the spirit that would animate the robot-car was still missing.
These things demanded care. The spirit had to like its new vessel to bond with it properly; otherwise, it would just blow away with the wind. And the old spirit was sure to be persnickety; Glenn only hoped that the abundance of metal and wires, the crackling, humming energy of the old robot would be enough.
Glenn flung the bottle that housed the spirit into the very center of the engine, and prayed that it would take. The spirit, a faint ochre-colored cloud, hovered over the engine in hesitation, the motes of dust dancing in the narrow beams of the robot's gaze. Slowly, the spirit gathered itself into a thin wisp, and the wisp twined around the beams of light, pulling itself deep into the robot's flat eyes.
The engine roared to life and thudded, the robot groaned in his metallic voice, and the innards of the car twisted, growing dark, knotted flesh and sulfurous deposits. A vein of marble bisected the vehicle's interior, splitting the back seat. Stalactites sprouted from the roof, the exhaust pipe breathed out a pungent cloud of foundry fumes, and the pavement cracked under the wheels. The car engine and the robot snorted with a single breath smelling of oil and hot metal and howled in a single furious metal voice, nothing like the gentle gurgling of the regular spirits.
The robot spoke no longer, but it seemed content; Glenn guessed that haruspicy had finally paid off for it. Disemboweling of the engines was just the first step; one had to put something back in the resulting void, and if one had removed a heart, what was a better substitute than the heart of one's own? He wondered if the oracles of old knew that, if to them too the spilling of the entrails was only half of the story, if their hearts were somehow filling the empty spaces they had created.
The police never found the Disemboweler, and soon the memory faded, turning into a legend. Glenn supposed that it was a fitting fate for the haruspex, and he never told anyone that his car was made of the last robot on earth.
The Taste of Wheat
Dominique came from solid peasant stock, not frequently given to fancy; still, in the privacy of the thick bones of her skull, she dreamt of an Asian gentleman who insisted on being called Buddha, and small dogs with sharp white teeth.
The heavy sleep descended unannounced, smothering her with dreams in the middle of dinner with her family, or in the wheat fields while she was threshing. Any blink could turn into a jumble of images and voices, and then someone would shake her shoulder and say, "Dominique, wake up."
Sometimes the dreams stopped before she was forcefully pulled away from them, and then she would hear what they said. "What is wrong with her?" and "You'd never think looking at that girl." Then she blushed, and let the world in shyly, through the slightest opening of her lashes. The sun was fuzzy in their frame, and the faces - soft, undefined, kind. Then she would get up, smoothing down her skirt around her wide hips.
"You seem so healthy - milk and blood," people said. They kept the second part of their comments silent, but Dominique knew what it was. She was defective, and no man would take a wife with falling sickness, no matter how well-fed and ruddy-cheeked. Her family thought that it ought to bother her, but it did not. She only shrugged and went about her business, ready to be assaulted by dreams with every step she took.
She worked in the fields with the rest of her compatriots, from the time when the sun rose to the sunset. But at midday she left the merry din of people laughing and talking, children squealing, oxen lowing, and went home to tend to her grandfather. He was too feeble to venture into the fields, and she took it upon herself to make sure that he was fed and attended to.
The old man looked at her with his colorless rheumy eyes that had seen so many harvests come and go, and she almost wept with pity. He was the only person she had ever known who understood what it was like to inhabit a body ready to betray him at any moment.
"Don't worry, grandpa," Dominique said, blinking hard to cool her suddenly hot eyes. "Maybe some day you'll be born as a butterfly, alive for just a day, your life short and painless and beautiful." She spoke in a hushed voice; even though she knew that her parents and siblings were in the fields, she worried about being overheard. Sometimes (more often as the time wore on) she intentionally garbled her words, so that only her grandfather could understand. She rather liked appearing as a large, mumbling thing, half-witted from her fits.
She fed her grandfather, pushing an awkward spoon between his gums, pink like those of an infant. His skin seemed simultaneously translucent and tough, like the wings of a dragonfly, with quartz veins intersecting under its pale, downy surface. His hooded eyelids stood like funeral mounds over his dead eyes, the coarse salt of his eyebrows casting a deep shadow over them.
"Grandpa," Dominique said, "you are so good, you deserve to be a butterfly." She thought for a bit, the wooden spoon in her red idle hand dripping its grey gruel. "They say being a dog is pretty good, but I'm not so sure - all you get is yelling and kicking. Unless, of course, you are Buddha's dog. Perhaps a bird… the kind nobody hassles. Like a hawk; just promise you'll stay away from the chicken coups, or people will throw stones at you. Promise me."
Grandpa nodded, in agreement or in encroaching sleep, she couldn't tell. She wondered if her grandfather was afflicted by the same visions as her, if he too dreamt of the stocky Asian gentleman and his dogs, adorable and vicious. Before she could decide one way or another, they all stood around her, and she lay on the earthen floor of a dark cavern. The dogs snarled, showing their needle teeth.
"What we think, we become," Buddha said, with his habitual feeble smile.
Dominique sat up, despite the snarling dogs, and nodded.
"Be grateful you didn't die today," he said.
The dogs growled deep in their throats but settled down.
Buddha shifted on his feet, with a look of consternation showing on his moonlike face. "Words have the power to both destroy and heal. When words are both true and kind, they can change our world."
The dogs barked and leapt, and Dominique woke up with a start.
She collected herself off the floor, smoothing her skirt and blushing. "Sorry, Grandpa," she said.
The old man did not answer. His body pitched forward in his chair, and a thin streak of gruel hung off the corner of his lips. With a sinking heart, Dominique realized that he was dead, dead on her watch, dead because the dreams stole her attention away from him. She fell to her knees, grabbing the cold hands with blueing fingernails, and keened.
Her wails brought people from the fields. They came running and hushed when they saw the dead man. After a few seconds of respectful silence, they talked about the funeral arrangements, while Dominique still keened, her cries hanging over the thatched rooftops of the village like tiny birds of prey.
They buried Dominique's grandfather two days later. The frost came early that year, and the ground grew hard. The diggers' hoes struck the dirt with a dull thump-thump-thump. The diggers sweated as Dominique's family clustered about shivering, drawing their warm clothes tighter around them.
Dominique never looked at the diggers, and let her gaze wander over the bare fields and the grey hills that lined the horizon. She searched for her grandfather, and worried that she would not recognize him in his new form. Was he a leaf blowing in the wind, a tiny calf that followed its mother on rubbery, slick legs, a sparrow perched on the roof? Life of all persuasions teamed about her, and Dominique despaired to find him. " DIV lips. After the funeral, Dominique walked home among the neighbors and relatives who filled her house with their heat and loud voices. She made sure that everyone's mugs were filled with mulled wine, and that everyone had plenty of cracked wheat and raisins. It was for her grandfather. Buddha's words buzzed in her ears like flies tormenting dogs on hot summer afternoons, "To be idle is a short road to death and to be diligent is a way of life." Dominique did not want to die - not until she found out what happened to her grandfather. Then it occurred to her that the nights were growing longer and colder, and many woodland creatures must be feeling hungry and alone. Quietly, she picked up the bowl with wheat and raisins and stepped outside. No one noticed either her presence or departure, just like they didn't notice their own breathing. The wind whipped her hair in her face, as she peered into the freezing darkness, her eyes watering in the cold. She thought about the moles that burrowed through the ground, and the little field mice that skittered across its surface on nervous light feet, of the weasels that eyed the chicken coups when no one was watching, and the shrews that stalked millipedes. There were too many to feed, to many to search through. How could even Buddha hope to recognize one soul among the multitude? She set the bowl a few steps away from the porch and tightened her shawl around her shoulders, shivering, listening to the quiet life that teemed about her. She was too large, she realized, too lumbering to ever hope to find her grandfather. She needed to be smaller. And she needed a better sense of smell. She thought of the tales the old women told around the fire, about the mice who decided to become human, and crawled into the pregnant women's wombs, to gnaw at the growing child and to displace it; they grew within the women, shed their tails and claws, and were born as human children. One could only recognize them by the restlessly chewing teeth and the dark liquid eyes. Surely there must be a way for a woman to become a mouse.
The winters were always long, with nothing to do but tell stories. Dominique withdrew more, and gave herself to her sleeping fits with zeal, like a soldier throwing himself onto the bristling pikes to aid the cavalry charge. Dominique tried to aid Buddha's visit, so he would answer her questions. One day, he appeared. His dogs were subdued and teary-eyed, shivering and sneezing in small staccato bursts. The winter was not kind to them. " DIV asked. Buddha looked up, into the dripping ceiling of his cave. "A dog is not considered a good dog because he is a good barker." "I cannot find my grandfather," Dominique said, the fear of waking up lending her voice urgency. "All things appear and disappear because of the concurrence of causes and conditions," Buddha replied. "I have to find him though," she said. "I think I need to become a mouse, or another small creature, so I can search better." "He who experiences the unity of life sees his own Self in all beings, and all beings in his own Self, and looks on everything with an impartial eye." "Just tell me," she begged. "Without riddles." Buddha finally turned his empty eyes to her. "People create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true. You are no different than a mouse; you just think you are." Before Dominique could thank him, the walls of the cave melted around her, and she came awake on the floor of the barn, in the warmth of steaming, sleepy breath of sheep and chickens. It was clear to her now - she created the world with her thoughts, and she could alter it just as easily. At this moment of enlightenment, Dominique's clothes fell on the floor, and a small brown mouse skittered away. Soon, the little mouse discovered that her new mind could not hold as much thoughts as the human one, and it worked hard to hold onto its single obsession: find an old man who was now something else. But first, she needed to eat. Dominique the mouse remembered that the granary was close to the barn, and hurried there, her little brain clearly picturing the earthen jugs overflowing with golden grain. She made it there safely, avoiding the prowling cats and the eyes of the humans, and ate her fill of crunching, nourishing wheat. After that, she was ready to go. She let her nose lead her - it twitched toward the wind, sorting through many smells, some comforting, some exciting. She noticed the smell that mixed familiarity with strangeness, fear with solace, and decided to follow it. The fields lay barren, and the mouse squeaked in terror as it ran between the frozen furrows of the fallow field, vulnerable in the open ground with no cover. Her little heart pumped, and her feet flew, barely touching the ground, until the dry grass of the pasture offered her its comfort. She dared to stop and catch her breath, and realized that the smell grew stronger. She found an entrance to an underground burrow, and followed the long and winding tunnel. White hoarfrost covered its walls, and the anemic roots extended between earthen clumps, as if reaching for her. The mouse shivered with fear and cold, but kept on its way until she saw the pale light, and heard soft, high-pitched singing echoing off the white burrow walls. Dominique the mouse entered the large area in the end of the tunnel, and stopped in confusion. The candles cast the silhouettes of the gathered field mice, making them huge and humped. The mice were serving the Mass. Their voices rose in solemn squeaks, and their shadows swayed in a meditative dance, rendering the walls of the cave a living tapestry of black, twisting darkness and white frost, glistening in the candlelight. The mice prayed for sustenance. Dominique stayed in the back of the crowd, too shy to come forth and ask her questions. Even her desires grew clouded, and for a while she could not remember why she was there. Snatches of thoughts and images floated before her dark beady mouse eyes: a jug of grain, the thick arm of her father clutching across his wife's pregnant stomach as they slept, a stretching neck of a new chick. An old man with the eyelids like funeral mounds. The mice stopped their chanting, and lined up to partake of the Eucharist. The mouse who was a priest by all appearances held up a thimble Dominique recognized as her own, lost some time ago, and let all the mice sip from it. Dominique joined the line. Several altar voles helped with the ceremony, distributing grains of wheat and helping the feeble with the sacrament. Dominique shuffled along, and waited for her turn. No one seemed to notice that she didn't quite belong there, and the vole shoved a sliver of grain into her mouth. She chewed thoughtfully, as her eyes sought to meet the gaze of the priest. Finally he turned to her, his work completed. "What do you want, daughter?" Dominique found that she could communicate with the mouse priest easily. "I'm looking for an old man." She stopped and wrinkled her face, trying to remember. "He died, and become someone else. I have to find him." The mouse priest moved his sagging jowls with a thunderous sigh. "We dreamed of the others coming into our midst, and we prayed for signs… none came." "But I smelled him here!" The priest turned away, mournful. "It was God you smelled." Dominique sighed and followed the mice, who filed out of the main chamber into a complex system of burrows. She found a tunnel that led upward, and enticed her with the smell she sought. The snow had fallen while she was underground, and she sputtered and shivered as the white powder engulfed her, its freezing particles penetrating between hairs of her coat. She half-struggled, half-swam to the surface. Buddha was outside with his dogs, running weightlessly across the moonlit snow. His dogs preceded him, their noses close to the ground. They followed a chain of danger-scented footprints. A fox, Dominique guessed, mere moments before seeing the fox. It looked black in the moonlight, and it dove into the snow, coming up, and diving again. It seemed puzzling at first, but then Dominique heard muffled squeaks, pleas, and cries of pain. The fox was hunting mice, too busy to notice that Buddha's dogs were stalking it. The fox sniffed the air, and turned its narrow muzzle toward Dominique. Her heart froze in terror, and her feet screamed at her that it is time to run, run as fast as possible. But she remained perched on two hind legs, looking the fox straight in the eye. "Have you seen my grandfather?" she asked the fox. The fox stopped and tilted its head to the shoulder. "He's not a mouse," Dominique explained. "At least, I don't think so. He died and was born as someone else." "Ask the mice," the fox suggested, yawning. Its teeth gleamed in the moonlight. "They would know - they get everywhere." "I tried. But they are only praying, and - " The dogs she had forgotten about pounced. The fox shrieked, trying to shake two small dogs that latched onto the scruff of its neck. "All things die," Buddha commented.
Dominique shrugged, unsure if she was able to take on a burden of another responsibility. The smell of her dead grandfather was overpowering around her, emanating from all the mice, and especially the old priest. Even her own breath carried the scent of him. "You told me that was the smell of God," Dominique told the priest. "But where is it coming from?"
The priest still wept. "His flesh was made grain, and this is what we take as our Eucharist. The flesh of God." Dominique remembered the taste of the grain sliver on her tongue, and squeaked with frustration. Why did she think an old man would come back as a mouse or a bird? What better destiny was there than to be wheat? She remembered the golden expanse of the ripe ears of wheat, the singing of women, the even thumping of the threshers. She thought of her grandfather, when he could still leave the house, walking behind the reapers, picking up stray ears fallen to the ground, smelling them, chewing their milky softness with his toothless mouth. And then, she missed home. She comforted the mice the best she could, telling them of Buddha and his protective dogs, but she never told them that the flesh of the grain was her grandfather's, that he came back to her in the taste of wheat and the communion of mice. She spent the night and the next day digging new burrows, and collecting what grain was left in the field, so her mouse brethren could have shelter and the Eucharist. But her heart called for her to go home, until she could resist the urge no longer.
Dominique was tired. Her small feet screamed with pain as she crawled back into the village. She wanted to be human again. She remembered vaguely the words of a round gentleman, punctuated by sharp barking sneezes of his small needle-teethed monsters. But she could not recall their meaning, she could not remember how she became a mouse, her feeble memory overpowered by the taste of wheat. The only recourse left to her was to do what all mice did in a situation like that. She skittered along the row of straw-thatched houses, listening, looking. A sharp, salty smell attracted her attention, and she circled a small house, its doorway decorated with wilting, frosting garlands of wheat and oak boughs. Newlyweds. She found a narrow slit between two planks by the door, and squeezed inside. It was warm and the house was filled with smoke from the dying embers in the woodstove. Two people lay in the bed, asleep, naked. Dominique's nose twitched as the smell grew stronger, and she followed it up onto the bed, light on her feet, scampering across the folds of the sheepskin covers. The sleeping woman shuddered but didn't wake up as the tiny mouse claws ran along her thigh. The smell was overwhelming now, and the mouse closed her eyes, and squeezed into a narrow, moist passage that smelled of sea. The woman moaned then, and the soft walls that surrounded Dominique shuddered. She reached a widening of the burrow, and entered a warm, unoccupied cave. There, she curled into a fetal ball, tucking her long tail between her legs. Soon, her tail would fuse with the walls of her fleshy cave, and she would become a small person, with the black liquid eyes and restless jaws of a mouse.
About the Author
Ekaterina Sedia resides in the Pinelands of New Jersey. Her new novel, The Secret History of Moscow, was published by Prime Books in November 2007. Her next one, The Alchemy of Stone, will be published in June 2008. Her short stories have sold to Analog, Baen's Universe, Fantasy Magazine, and Dark Wisdom, as well as the Japanese Dreams (Prime Books) and Magic in the Mirrorstone (Mirrorstone Books) anthologies. Visit her at www.ekaterinasedia.com.