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Igms issue 20, p.7

IGMS Issue 20, page 7


IGMS Issue 20

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  "We have to come out here," she had said, when she'd taken us away from my aunt's home. My cousins had been horrifed by the thought, as had I. They'd told me the story each time we'd visited them, or they'd visited us, my whole life.

  "We need to come out and live on the edge. Everyone is so inward looking, and each year we lose the fields that the nans began. If no one fights for the edges, the center will fall.

  "Life's easier in the center," she'd told me as we'd carved out the edges of our garden. "But if we work hard enough, we can make it easy out here, too."

  And sure enough, at the time, she'd been right. Oh, it'd taken a year or two, or five -- but somehow she'd brought the center with her. Things took root there, seeds sprouted, trees grew.

  But all that was gone now. After her death, I'd been alone. And the world around me had seemed to wither like my heart -- the work that I put in in frustration bore no fruit. Rocks that I took out of a field one day seemed to reappear the next. Slender stalks of corn grew only knee high, when under my mother's ministrations, they'd once risen up to the sun. Not even grass withstood the onslaught of my ineptitude -- I felt like the world itself had receded around me, first in my grief, and second, in my garden. I stood, viewing the desolate plain that had once contained my childhood, with the image of my mother hovering beside me, and I knelt down and cried.

  The Watcher waited. Of course it waited. What else did it have to do? I wanted to be angry at it, I wanted to shoo it away -- but it held her face, peaceful, determined. I knew meditation techniques I could use, to tamp down the emotions inside myself until it disappeared entirely, but --

  It began drifting away on its own.

  "Stop! Wait!" The thought of losing her again, even a simulacrum of her, here of all places -- I chased after it, jumping over a fence post that it merely pushed itself through, until I found myself on the far side of my childhood home.

  There, at the foot of her tombstone's lonely rock, a portion of our old garden still remained. A small square patch of green.

  I drew myself up from a run to a stop, and stared at the space of grass. Slowly, I sat myself down on its edge, touching it, to make sure it was real.

  If I were to cremate her properly, according to the tenets of my people, I'd have to dig her up -- bring her up again through this, the thing she loved most of all, most likely ruining it in the process. Even while I sat there, I imagined the grass getting a little grayer. The Watcher mimicking my mother sat beside me.

  "It's not fair," I told it. "I can't destroy this. This is more her than anything I'll find underneath the soil." I patted the thick green blades with the palm of my hand, felt them give under the pressure, watched them spring back up when it passed.

  Come back with her, or don't come back, my aunt had said. But what did I really have to return to? I could try, here, again. I looked at the Watcher's mute face. "What would you do?"

  But the Watcher wearing my mother's face was silent.

  "I know. You can't tell me the answers. I'm always having to find them myself." I stretched out atop the fresh grass, and watched the clouds chase one another overhead. I imagined her reaching up through the soil and hugging me. There for a moment, with the smiling image of the face of my mother looking down at me, breathing the clean scent of grass, I felt it.

  "You'd hope. That's what you'd do."

  The Watcher's face broke into a smile.

  "You're only reflecting her back at me, you know. The version of her I want to see."

  I propped myself up on one elbow. Desolation was visible all around me. And, in that moment, it came overwhelming. So much desolation. How was I supposed to --

  A blade of grass on the plot's edge dipped low and disintegrated, right before my eyes.

  "No. No!" I moved to a crouching position, staring at what I'd just seen. "Please no."

  Another blade trembled. The Watcher's hand reached for it, plucked it before it could wither too, and tried to hand it to me. It fell through the Watcher's grasp, and I caught it before it landed, hiding it from myself inside my palm.

  It could be one of two things there. Bright, green, living -- a piece of thread from the tapestry that this world was missing -- or a fresh small pile of ashen grey. I looked at the Watcher who viewed me with my mother's face, and I knew what I wanted it to be.

  Our colony was like the petals of a dying flower, and had been since we'd landed. All the promise that this world had once held for us had been defeated by our overarching fears, our inability to be inspired. We suffered from a lack of hope that was, perhaps, contagious. And if so, I should consider myself one of its most afflicted peers.

  "I want -- I'm tired of expecting the worst!" I stared at my closed hand, still not knowing what waited for me inside. "Please -- be alive. Please be green. Grow."

  I opened my hand wide. And the blade of grass waiting there was still fresh and intact. The Watcher that was not my mother, but that now -- thanks to my memory of her, reflected in itself -- took the piece from my hand and set it down, outside the boundary of the burial plot we sat upon. It blew away, but it blew away still green.

  "Was it really so easy all this time?" I stood and reached down a hand for the Watcher, out of polite habit. It took mine in its own, and I felt my mother's flesh against mine for a moment, before its hand washed on through. And I remembered the times we'd hid in our cabin against thunderstorms, and how even in the best of times, we'd still had to work -- but it was work with hope that had made change possible, so much more so than work done looking backwards with despair.

  There was a future here, if only we would take it.

  My mother had been right, after all.

  I always knew I could have gone back to live under the shadow of the Dragon if I wanted to. But I didn't. The Watchers visit me now, often, and I like to think I set them onto chores. I think about them crossing our new planet, seeding grass, forming streams. I don't wish for them to show me horrors from my imagination -- I wish for them to show me pictures of my children yet to be.

  And slowly, things have changed. My cousins came to visit, and one of them stayed. She brought her family, and then her brother-in-law's niece moved out, too. There's more of us out here, growing every year. I tell them stories, not of a world we left behind, but of a place that's yet to come, a place that we can make ourselves.

  And so my mother's tombstone stayed where it was, and she stayed beneath it.

  I don't see her face on the Watchers anymore, but sometimes I think I feel her in the wind.

  The American

  by Bruce Worden

  Artwork by Dean Spencer

  * * *

  As a young girl I was terrified of thunderstorms. I experienced them as living, malevolent creatures -- wild, unstoppable things that shook the house, wrought havoc on my family's farm, flooded the town, and generally behaved in the manner of demons. Even as recently as a few months ago, a thunderstorm still had the power to raise within me feelings of visceral dread. But now, in my twenty-first year, as I watch the storm clouds rolling in from the north, I do not feel the slightest pang of trepidation.

  "Petra!" I hear my mother calling from the house. "Petra, are you upstairs?"

  "I'm here," I reply. "In the garden." I expect she will come out to me, and we will have the talk I have been anticipating.

  A mathematics instructor once told me that to make a hard thing seem easy, you must move on to the next harder thing. I think the same applies to fear: facing your old demons becomes easier when you are exposed to something much more terrifying. The storm clouds are huge, black, and roiling, but they seem almost comforting now as I plunge unstoppably into a much deeper darkness. The storm only threatens to kill me; my fear now is what will happen if I continue to live.

  It started simply enough.

  "I saw an American today."

  It was Danijel who said it. We had gathered for the evening meal, and during a break in father's complaints about the local government, potato prices,
the national government, fuel prices, the European government, and the host of other issues that conspired to make the Polish farmer's life miserable, Danijel just blurted it out.

  Danijel was still at the age where fantasy and reality can blend together, so no one took the statement seriously. Mother -- seemingly more out of habit than actual curiosity -- said, "Did you? That must have been very exciting." She ladled stew into grandfather's bowl and handed him the bread.

  Danijel nodded. "It was scary. At first I thought it was a big deer, a stag, that wandered away from the park, but then I saw the markings, like in Michal's book."

  Our brother perked up at the mention of his book, "What markings?"

  "Painted on his shoulder. An arrowhead patch with a sword and lightning."

  Michal left the table and ran upstairs. A few moments later he returned, paging through one of his many books on military history. He showed a page to Danijel, "Like this?"

  "That's it! That's what I saw."

  Michal held up the book for the rest of us to see. It showed a picture of an insignia: a blue arrowhead-shaped patch with a vertical yellow sword and three yellow lightning bolts across it. Michal seemed a little stunned. "Army special forces," he said. "American."

  "Nonsense," my father said. "There hasn't been an American in these parts for thirty years."

  "I saw him!" Danijel said. "He was more than two meters tall, and as wide as a bull. His battle armor was black and shiny, like polished rock."

  Michal looked at us, clearly taking the story seriously. "I had heard they switched their exoskeletons from gray to reflective black a couple of years ago. It's supposed to deflect energy weapons better."

  That made no sense to me. "Energy weapons?" I said. "Who in the world has energy weapons except the Americans? And who would be stupid enough to shoot at an American soldier in the first place?"

  "It never has to happen, Petra. They will upgrade even if they just think it possibly could happen someday."

  He was probably right. The Americans had undoubtedly fought simulated wars with the rest of us that we could not even comprehend, let alone actually wage. But that had not stopped them from spending untold trillions on weapons to counter the threat we theoretically could pose were we somehow to find ourselves in a position to pose it, and suicidal enough to think it was a good idea.

  "I bet he left footprints," Danijel said. "We should go see them tomorrow."

  My mother reacted. "Do not even think it! You are not to go near that place again without permission."

  "Where was he?" Michal asked before Danijel could lodge a protest with my mother.

  "I was walking across the fields to Edward's farm. I saw him over by the river."

  "And you were close enough to see the patch?"

  "Yes, maybe fifty meters."

  "That's close," said Michal, shaking his head.

  "It was hazy, so I could only see him sometimes."

  "That close, it is a wonder you saw anything at all. You must have been at the edge of his ECF." He looked at the rest of us. "Electromagnetic camouflage field," he explained. "Some people say they can bend light, but it is more likely that they just bend your mind."

  "I don't think he saw me."

  "Oh, he saw you," said Michal, confident. "He saw you from before you ever came into range of his suit's sensors. Their airborne and space platforms have watched your entire life. Their systems tied you into their global tracking grid and he knew who you were, your great-grandmother's maiden name, and what you had for lunch before you came within two kilometers of him."

  "That's enough," my father said. "It makes no sense for him to be here, but it makes no difference, either. If a soldier passes through, he passes through."

  "Was that it?" Michal asked Danijel. "Was he just passing through?"

  "I don't think so. He seemed like he was looking for something. He walked along the far side of the river, then he left the river and went across to the forest, by the preserve."

  "Wait," said Michal. "There are hills along there, and a line of trees. How did you see . . .?" Michal's eyes went dark with the realization. "Are you crazy? You followed him."

  My mother slammed down her hand. "Danijel! You followed him? Do you know what happens . . .?" She took a breath to calm herself. "You have been told since you could first walk that if you see such a thing --"

  "I did! I did! I stayed right where I was for an hour after he was gone. Then I continued with what I was doing. Just like you are supposed to."

  "I thought you were going to Edward's," said Michal.

  Danijel hesitated, caught in the lie, then recovered. "I was, but sometimes when I go that way I go out to Grudki Hill to play in the ruins. I saw him at the forest, from the hill. But I go there sometimes. They know that, right Michal?"

  "They do," said Michal. "But they also knew you could see him from both places. If they thought you were following him . . . Pfft! You'd be gone. We would be looking for you and all we would ever find is a scorched spot on the ground."

  Danijel was crying now. "But they know I play there. And they know we're not bad people. We're not a threat to them."

  "They keep it that way by not taking chances."

  "So he is here," said father. "That is none of our business. You boys mind your chores and stay away. When he sees there is nothing here to interest him, he will move on."

  But he did not move on. And in the days following Danijel's experience, others reported sighting the soldier in the area north of town. There were no incidents, no confrontations, no mysterious disappearances. Still, the town was abuzz with rumor and speculation. And a great deal of worry.

  It was early summer then, and I had been home from the university for about two weeks. I had not made plans, or given a great deal of thought to how I would spend my summer break. There were chores, of course. I generally helped my mother with the house and the garden, but that still left me quite a bit of free time.

  A week or so after Danijel's sighting of the American, I was in my bedroom reading a book. Danijel came home shouting -- first for Michal, then for mother, then for anyone. But Michal had gone to town with mother, and my grandfather and father had gone to Zastawa to inspect a trenching machine a man there was selling.

  "I'm up here," I shouted to Danijel, "in my room." I immediately heard the sound of his little feet running up the stairs.

  Danijel came in breathlessly. "Petra, come quick. There is a bird." And then he was on his way back down the stairs.

  I had no idea why that was so important, but his manner demanded some response. I followed him out of the house, past the cluster of outbuildings, through the gate to our small orchard, across the orchard and along the edge of the pasture, then off the path into the line of brush and trees that separates the back fields -- all the while Danijel admonishing me to hurry. Finally, despite the obviousness and commotion of our approach, Danijel crouched behind a low bush and pointed. "Look there," he said in a pointless and excessively loud whisper.

  The bird-that-was-not-a-bird sat quietly on the branch of a large oak tree. The tree itself was quite beautiful, spreading its ample branches to shade the small grassy hillock from which it grew. I had, on occasion, spent an afternoon sitting under that tree, reading a book.

  Danijel tugged at my dress. "Do you see it?" he asked. "Michal says they are always in pairs. But I can't find the other one."

  I did not doubt the truth of Michal's information, but the Americans must have had millions of their little flying sensors deployed around the world, and it had to happen that such things would find themselves alone once in a while.

  Danijel continued breathlessly. "This means they are watching us, doesn't it? Do you think he will come here? The soldier. Is he angry with me? Will he kill me?"

  "He won't come here," I reassured him. "This is just an ordinary bird. It's probably just malfunctioning."

  "But why would he come here, to our farm?"

  "If his navigation system is broken,
he might have flown off course, losing his mate. He landed here until they can collect him for repair, that's all."

  But no one came to collect him, and the bird did not leave his perch. He sat there, unmoving, day after day, seemingly content to watch an empty field.

  When the men from the government came, they arrived in a small motorcade. The three shiny black sedans from the pre-Transition era rolled into town and, when inquiries had been made, found their way to our farm. Of the dozen men who arrived, six stayed with the cars and six went as far as the front gate; only four came to the door, and only three came inside. Their names, their positions, and their ministries were never revealed to me -- I was not invited to participate in the conversations -- but I took to calling them the Accountant, the Lawyer, and the Politician.

  Mother invited the government men in, and served them coffee while Danijel ran out to retrieve father. The Lawyer and the Accountant quietly sipped their coffee while mother chatted with the Politician about the year's expected harvest. When Danijel returned -- alone -- he reported that father was too busy to spend the day talking to anyone, and suggested that the men return when there was not "real work to be done." This seemed to provoke a sense of outrage from the Lawyer and the Accountant, who blustered for a few moments while looking to the Politician for guidance. The Politician suggested that they return to town to freshen up and take their evening meal, and asked my mother when would be a good time to return. Mother assured him that my father would be here and happy to talk with them that night following our dinner. The Politician thanked her, and he and his companions filed out of our home, collecting their entourage as they went, and drove back to town.

  When father returned late that afternoon, mother was making a cake to serve that evening, and she continued to do so even as father railed against the very idea of allowing the men into our home. According to him, mother's cake would be better utilized feeding the pigs, and rather than talk to these men, his time would be better spent sharpening a stick with which he could poke out his own eye.

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