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Igms issue 20, p.9

IGMS Issue 20, page 9

 

IGMS Issue 20
 


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  I shielded my eyes with my hand, and perceived an animal standing belly-deep in the water. It was a the stag. Huge, imposing, and stately, he watched me with muscles tensed. I stood motionless. After a moment of observing me, he relaxed and waded deeper.

  The sounds of the forest -- the twittering birds, the buzzing insects -- seemed distant and unreal. The overpowering light intensified the mugginess of the day and I felt a dizzy, claustrophobic need to escape the oppressive heat. I slipped out of my clothing and approached the water slowly, carefully, so as not to spook the stag.

  Then, in the shimmering light on the far side of the water, I discerned an imposing mechanized construct, rigid and unmoving. The brilliant, shifting light obscured its details -- it seemed a piece of construction equipment, then a vehicle, then a mechanical creature. But I knew it to be the battle armor, standing open, ready to embrace and engulf its owner. The stag watched me as I made these observations, judging my reactions. He, too, shimmered and shifted in the dazzling light, giving me glimpses of his true nature.

  I hesitated a moment, but the urge to swim in that sea of light was overpowering. The light pulled me forward, and I stepped into the cool water.

  Tadeusz and Wojciech arrived early one evening about a week after their previous visit. They came alone, without the Politician, his entourage, or his shiny motorcade. They came before my father had returned from his work in the fields, and sat down with my grandfather at the kitchen table. From my exile upstairs, I could only hear the murmur of voices. I assumed this was their appeal on behalf of the community. They knew, of course, that it was not my grandfather's decision to make (he was my mother's father and therefore the land was not his.) But my father respected my grandfather, and so he would have a role to play, whether he wanted it or not.

  When my father arrived he did not wash up before joining them in the kitchen, and it was only moments before the shouting began. It started loudly and got worse, but was uncharacteristically impersonal. The theme of the accusations began and ended with the Americans. Everybody was working for the Americans, or in league with the Americans, or afraid of the Americans, but where were the Americans? This tirade grew in volume and vitriol until I heard my father's footsteps thundering out from the kitchen and across the living room.

  I thought that would be the end of it; he had made his statement and would retire to the machine shed to tinker with the tractor. But when his footsteps hit the stairs, I knew things were different. I reached my door in time to see my father cross the landing and enter his bedroom. There passed a few mystifying, terrifying moments during which I could hear him rummaging violently through his closet, and then he emerged carrying an ancient shotgun. The gun had been my great-great-grandfather's. I thought it no more than a curiosity, a relic from a bygone era, a thing that had never served as more than a conversation piece when my father brought it out to show close friends or the boys. The idea that my father was brandishing it as a weapon was so shocking that I could not even cry out to him at the madness of it.

  I followed him down the stairs in time to see Tadeusz's and Wojciech's eyes go wide at the sight of the weapon. Both men froze in terror, but my father turned toward the back of the house, not the front. He went out the back door and across the farmyard with a determined stride and a clear destination.

  It was insanity. To be outside, in the open, with a weapon was risky enough -- though I had heard of people still using guns for hunting or pest control -- but to do so when there was an American soldier nearby was suicide. I followed my father outside, hoping to reason with him once reason, and words, returned to me. My mother and brothers trailed behind, and Tadeusz and Wojciech followed at what was considerably more than a safe distance.

  When he crossed the fence into the orchard, I knew where he was going -- there could only be one place. I quickened my pace to catch up to him, and was only a few meters behind when he reached the oak tree where the American bird waited patiently for some development or instruction.

  My father shook his fist at the bird and addressed it directly. "Why don't you face me yourselves, you cowards?" The bird had no response. "You send your lackeys, your thugs, but you will not face me man-to-man. What kind of people are you that you will take a man's livelihood, but you will not face him?" The answer to his question, I knew, was that they were not people. Not really. Not like us. Not anymore. But I had no way to communicate that to my father, or to anyone else for that matter.

  The bird was unperturbed by the shouting and continued his vigil, his bright little eyes soaking up everything around him with unwavering diligence. My father raised the shotgun to his shoulder and took aim.

  "Father! No!" I screamed.

  But it was to no avail. He fired the gun.

  The little bird disintegrated into a glittering puff of dust and debris. I turned away and shielded my eyes, not wanting to see my own father vaporized by a bolt from one of the American's ubiquitous, all-seeing, all-reaching directed-energy weapons. Mother, too, turned away, covering the boys' eyes.

  But no bolt of energy came from the sky. After long moments of terrifying anticipation, I opened my eyes. If father was surprised by either his own impulsiveness or his inexplicable survival, he did not show it. He turned and stomped back to the farmyard, grumbling the whole way about the amount of time that was being wasted on foolishness and if we all starved this winter we would know why. When he reached the machine shed, he went inside, slamming the door behind him.

  But that had been my father's final statement, his last stand before retreating in front of the remorseless tide. When the Politician returned a few nights later, he left Tadeusz and Wojciech behind, and brought instead the Lawyer and the Accountant. The conversation was free of the yelling that had until then kept me apprised of the negotiations' status. The Politician spoke only briefly. The Accountant did most of the talking, interrupted occasionally by my father. Following my father's interruptions, it was generally the Lawyer who spoke, and he did so in an unexpectedly reassuring tone. After a surprisingly brief time, no more than fifteen or twenty minutes, the government men left, never to return. My father left the house quietly, though not to spend time with his beloved tractor. Instead, he went into the fields.

  It took a bit of coaxing to get my mother and grandfather to reveal the details of the transaction, but I am not shy about coaxing. The deal my father had negotiated was spectacular. The government -- the Americans -- would get their land, of course. That was never in doubt. They would hold a ninety-nine-year lease, but at a rental fee so favorable that any question of the expense of my university studies was now immaterial. The land would be returned to our family at the end of the lease and the government would take out a bond to assure that the land -- all of the land, including that of the other farmers -- would be restored to its original condition. In addition, we were granted title to a significant undeveloped plot of land in a resort area near Warsaw. The land could be developed by us to produce income, or used as a holiday retreat.

  Given just how favorable the deal was for my family, one might be tempted to think that my father's blustering and outrage were merely tactics; that it was an act, cynically planned and carefully executed to extract the highest price possible, a price that was by any standard exorbitant. But that opinion would do my father a grave disservice. In the days following the settlement, he lapsed into a deep melancholy. There was little talk around the dinner table, except of the most perfunctory and mundane variety. Twice in the week that followed I saw him in deep conversation with my grandfather, once by the machine shed and once on the edge of the eastern field. His head hung low, my grandfather's hand on his shoulder, he nodded his unenthusiastic acceptance of my grandfather's reassurance.

  To my father, the negotiation had been an utter defeat. To him, the only constant, the only thing that made possible the survival our family and our community through many difficult years, was the land. When famine came, the land allowed our family and our neighbors to surv
ive; when invaders came or were repelled, our family was spared by the value of a working farm to whoever was in control; and when the Nazis came, my great-grandparents were able to protect and conceal helpless refugees. Even during the political and economic chaos of the Transition, our family had suffered less than many. Generations of our family had fought to keep this land, and no one, no invader, no communist or capitalist or fascist, had ever wrested a square meter of it from us. Until now.

  It did not matter that the outcome had never been in doubt; that the land would have been theirs no matter what my father had done or said. It did not matter that he was faced with a power greater than any that his ancestors fought, or any that the world had ever seen. For my father, it was a betrayal of the trust his forefathers had placed in him, and a desecration of the legacy he would leave his descendants. There was no escaping that simple truth, and I think he had hoped to die rather than accept that shame.

  But the Americans, by declining to murder him when he shot their bird, had denied him even the dignity of dying to preserve what he was.

  The construction of the wall began soon after the Politician's final visit. It is made of a dark polymer, seemingly grown in place in large sections each night. The wall will encircle the Americans' newly acquired land, and will be high enough to keep even the most curious from glimpsing their activities.

  Even knowing what I now know, it seems unlikely that such security is necessary -- given the unpredictable power of the Americans' machines, few will be willing to go near, and none will likely understand what they see if they did.

  The construction began just a month ago, and here, on this cool and damp morning, I sit on a bench at the edge of the garden. I can see the forest in the distance, out over the fields. And beyond it, dark storm clouds roll in from the north.

  My mother comes out of the house and sits next to me. We watch the brewing storm in silence for some time.

  After a while, she says, "If the child is to stay among us and your father not go insane, you will need to marry."

  That she knows is not surprising -- women in these parts can spot a pregnant girl before the girl herself knows. But, of course, I do know.

  I nod, accepting her conclusion. It is logical. It is sensible. It does not matter.

  We sit a moment longer, inhaling a warm rush of humid air that pushes away the cool morning mist. It is the storm's way of letting us know it is coming. Mother glances at me. Maybe I am supposed to say something. I can think of nothing.

  "The father?" she asks.

  I shake my head.

  She nods thoughtfully, not requiring an explanation. "Then there are other options," she says. "Adoption?"

  "No," I say. "She needs her mother."

  My mother is quiet for a moment as the storm clouds roil nearer. The distant flashes of lightning bring no thunder.

  "It's a girl, then?" she asks. I nod, and she asks, "How do you know so soon?"

  I look away, across the fields, knowing that to explain in detail is to admit that I am insane. "She sings to me," I eventually say.

  My mother accepts this with no apparent difficulty.

  There is so much more I want to say, much that I long to tell someone. About how my daughter shows me places I have never been, places I could not imagine: a world of concretized quantum effect, where all things are everywhere and everything exists both always and never. Another place where abstract intelligences communicate through photons spinning within a tornado of probability. She shows me immense engineered structures whose purpose I cannot begin to identify, but that I know are being built even as I deny their possibility.

  But I do not speak of such things. I know it would not be appreciated. Security is vital.

  Mother watches me for a long moment. "I think Bronislaw might be a good choice," she says at last, referring to the carpenter's journeyman. "He has a trade, and is quite good at it. He would be kind to you, and a good father. And he is a soft boy; I think he will not make too many demands of you."

  I have met Bronislaw. The thought of any "demand" by that hairy, sweaty simpleton nauseates me. But then I catch myself, knowing that it will never happen, not sure whether to be relieved or saddened.

  I nod my agreement to her proposition, knowing that inquiries will begin immediately.

  But it does not matter. It will never go that far. Mankind is being relentlessly drawn into a black hole. It is only a question of when, not if, we will all be plucked from the universe we knew and plunged into a place unimaginable.

  How long will it be before we and everything we know are consumed and altered forever? Years? Maybe only months.

  That short buffer of time will allow my neighbors and family to do something: whether it is to run away, or to convince themselves that they do not need to run, or to simply make their peace with what is to come, I do not know. But I have ventured closer than any. For me there is no buffer; no time. I can already feel the presence of an immense thing for which my experience provides no parallel.

  That thing is a part of me now, and I a part of it. All that remains is to learn what it means. But I know it will never let my daughter live here, among outsiders.

  My daughter must sense my apprehension. She coos comforting feelings to me: "Everything will be all right," she seems to say. "You will be with us. We will be together." I feel her love, and can only feel love for her in return.

  I smile at my mother. "Don't tell father. Not just yet. He has too much on his mind right now."

  She smiles back and chuckles softly. She says, "He always has too much on his mind," and we share a moment in a way we have never done before. I regret that such a moment will probably never come again. She adds, "I can wait, but it will have to be soon."

  I nod. "Soon." Soon and never. I have seen a place where they are the same thing.

  Across the fields, the storm continues its relentless march toward us. It reminds me of a time when I was a girl and I watched beautiful little eddy currents dance and whirl in a stream just before the stream went over a waterfall. I had always wondered what became of them.

  Miracle on Massachusetts Avenue

  by Maureen Power

  Artwork by Lance Card

  * * *

  They call me Patsy, but my real name is Patricia. They even put that stupid nickname on my birthday cake today. At least they got the candles right - six red ones. Mammie promised me they'd be red. I love her so much cuz she always tells the truth. Even when no one believes her but me.

  Like all the times she waves to those people that float by her chair in the parlor. Daddy tells me to ignore her when I ask him who they are, because it's all in her imagination. He says her head is confused because of how old she is, but I know he's wrong because I can see them too. There's kids and grown-ups and one time I even seen a dog. They kind of glow, like they're lit up from their insides. Mammie says it's because the light of heaven touches them. Maybe that's why they're always smiling at us.

  Mammie's strapped into the Morris chair with one of Daddy's old belts so she won't fall out, and they push it over to the table. She's real little so she don't weigh much. She looks pretty with all the tinsel on her chair. It's leftover tinsel from the Christmas tree. The tree was so tiny, it couldn't even take a whole box. So my big sister Eleanor decided to use the rest to decorate Mammie!

  That's another thing that stinks about my birthday. It's the day before Christmas, so I only get one birthday present. Ma says I'm lucky to get anything at all, but Daddy always comes through with something - even if it's just a couple of comic books like last year.

  Everybody sings "Happy Birthday To You" while I climb up on Mammie's lap so I can reach the candles better. I blow them all out in one big breath. I guess that means I get my wish, but I ain't telling what it is because then it won't come true.

  When I look up, everyone's smiling and clapping except for Ma. She used to be real nice to me when she first came, even giving me the extra blanket when it got too cold. But n
ow she's just an old sourpuss. My real mother is with the angels because she died bringing me into this world.

  Now for my present! It's wrapped up in the funny papers, Dagwood and Blondie right on top, all colorful and everything. It's pretty heavy and I'm hoping Daddy got his overtime money from the MTA just this once. He always says his overtime will do this or that but we never seem to have enough. The paper's easy to tear so in no time I can see the shoe box with my new roller skates inside. I can't wait to put them on and zoom up and down William Street and maybe even up the avenue, where I'm not supposed to go by myself.

  Ma says, "Don't forget the key." She's the practical one. That's what Mammie calls her. I don't know what that means except she yells an awful lot and always gets things done and has a good job at the Riverside Press as some sort of book reader. She pulls a big red piece of yarn out of the box with the shiniest silver key I've ever seen, hanging from the bottom.

  "What's that for?" I say, and she tells me it's to tighten the little silver tabs that go over the soles of my shoes.

  "Wear this around your neck so you don't lose it," says Ma. She puts it over myhead and knocks my paper party hat off. "You'd lose your head if it wasn't attached to your neck," she says and whacks me one on the side of the head to remind me not to lose it.

  Mammie holds her arms out to me and I go over for a pat and a kiss on the head.

  I can't wait to get out of here and try the skates out.

  We all have cake (Eleanor takes two pieces) and I ask for ice cream.

  "Things are too tight for such extravagance," I hear Ma say. That's all right. I can do without. I always do.

  "Can I go out now?" I say after licking my plate and getting scolded for having unladylike manners.

 
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