The Italian word chiaroscuro is a term for an art technique literally meaning light and shadow. Writers and artists are both wield their specialized tools and skills to illuminate images in our imaginations. Where writers have words, and ordered sequences of events to create the illusion of reality, artists have brushstrokes and line, color and compositions to make their impression.
Both are capable of touching the shadowy realms of imagination within us all. When words are no longer letters on a page and become both gateway and guidepost to another reality, then the writer has done his or her job. When an image ceases to be a mere likeness and becomes a trigger to imagination, and even rapture, the artist has delivered a wonderful gift.
In this series, through conversations with award-winning, ground-breaking, and emerging artists, I will explore the rich and varied world of art that is just exploding on to the world. I’m thrilled that publisher Marsha Sisolak and managing editor Amber Van Dyk have allowed me to share these discussions of technique, inspiration, and connections between the world of art and the world of fiction with you.
An artist who has given us great gifts in the form of dozens of science fiction and fantasy book covers, collectible trading card art, portraits, and stand-out commercial designs is Donato Giancola. He recently received the 2004 World Fantasy Award for Best Artist to add to his long list of honors and recognitions.
Donato constantly challenges himself by delving into subject matters and compositions where others fear to tread. Through his hard work, dedication, and a true craftsman’s approach to his art, he constantly delivers images that surprise, thrill, and captivate with their precision, level of detail, and narrative and emotional resonance.
I recently caught up with Donato before the opening of the exhibit From Imagination to Reality: The Art of Science Fiction, a show which marks both a logical extension and a new departure for his work.
Dan Braum: Congratulations on winning the World Fantasy award and on your participation in the New York Acadamy of Sciences Gallery of Art and Science show From Imagination to Reality: The Art of Science Fiction.
Donato Giancola: Thank you. The New York Academy of the Sciences is a very nice institute that supports the hard sciences. A very diverse group of people will be there. There is a very nice foyer in their building that they use to display art and gallery shows. A friend of mine, Vincent Difate, approached them to do an exhibition on science and science fiction. He invited me and a couple of other notable names in the science fiction community to show a couple of pieces of artwork there.
DB: The science of science fiction is a great area to be exploring. But, let’s first look back to your first book cover commissions. In 1993, you were selected to paint the covers for three classic books; The Time Machine, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Journey to the Center of the Earth. What were the creative challenges in taking this on as a new and young artist?
DG: The hardest part was actually getting the commission. There are so many good people out there that it was a challenge just to get my foot in the door. Once I landed the commissions, the challenge was to work hard and just to throw myself into these paintings to make the best impression that I could. The benefit was that it ended up leading to portfolio pieces that I could use to show other publishers that I was capable of producing good quality stuff.
DB: I was impressed with your accounts of all the hard work and all the practicing with the aim of perfecting the fundamentals of your craft. As a new writer myself, my mentors made it very clear how essential it is to put in the time and to just write, write, and write.
DG: In a way that is just what I did. For the very first year out of school, I was only working on samples for my representative — just to gain the knowledge and make the quality level higher so he would be interested in showing me around to publishers. After coming to New York and seeing work from illustrators at the Society of Illustrators, I became aware of what was expected of me in the industry, and it was a higher degree of detail and quality than what I had presumed just being in school. I had to get in gear with that level of craftsmanship.
DB: Good advice all around. At what point in your career do you see yourself now?
DG: I’ve been doing this now for a little over ten years, and I guess I’m fairly young to the industry, considering that a lot of the artists that I’ve met have been working maybe twenty years or so, or at least that long. I look back at my portfolio where I’ve been and try to think of where I want to go to next. What areas haven’t been explored in the genre. Or maybe just a little more introspection on what I want to say in my own artwork that I haven’t been able to do through commercial commissions.
DB: What direction do you see your art going both commercially and personally?
DG: What I love about doing many of my projects, Magic Cards included, as well as many of the book covers, is that I’m able to delve into a character investigation. I really love the idea of portraiture and storytelling. Human interest stories. I’ve really focused more so than previous years on the human figure and trying to tell stories about people either through some kind of portraiture or some kind of environment or the figure being engaged with others.
DB: This brings to me a specific question about one of your popular pieces. I originally knew it as Patron Wizard but I’ve also seen it listed as Robert Benedicto and Captain Nemo.
DG: This speaks to a lot of the different ways I see the artwork. Whenever I work on artwork now, I just don’t have the only client in mind on a specific project. I’m always thinking where will this piece of art take me. I’m thinking what was the main inspiration behind it. Many times I’m interested in investigating an idea or sometimes a piece of artwork that doesn’t match exactly with what my clients want. So, I’ll just take it a little further. The Patron Wizard character was actually one of my neighbors. And for me, it’s just a simple portrait of him, and the fact that it was done as a Magic card is nice because I get paid for it, it gets a lot of public exposure, and it was a moderately popular card as well, but the main motivation for me was to capture the likeness of Roberto so it would turn out to be a beautiful portrait of him regardless of its use on the card.
DB: And it was so successful you were able to reuse it.
DG: I think of it as a portrait. Sometimes I’ve re-titled works. But ultimately it doesn’t really matter what the title is. To me, Captain Nemo fit in well with the original intent of the Patron Wizard commission which was a blue wizard associated with water. Captain Nemo fit into the recent direction Magic the Gathering is going with the conscious effort to blend science fiction elements such as robots and bio-tech elements into their fantasy world. So in a way I was thinking of this particular blue wizard as the Captain Nemo type. Someone who is technically savvy as well.
DB: I noticed the figure’s face, or at least his eyes, are in shadow. Did this originate in capturing the portrait of your neighbor?
DG: Wizards of the Coast wanted a nice deep and wizened character. And rather than just showing him in a stereotypical pose, such as reading a book, I wanted to get into the sociolology of a character — someone you can’t see the eyes of has a little bit of power over you.
DB: An interesting psychological element.
DG: Yeah, like the idea if you can’t see into someone’s eyes, then you are really not sure of what they are thinking. It’s a powerful position to be able to hold that over you and be in an advantageous position to engage you. So when I photographed him for the piece I kept him in heavy light, and when I went to the painting, I made it so you can just see his eyes but not the pupils.
DB: Do any other of your early book covers stand out to you?
DG: I remember many times the first time I would create a cover for a publisher. Each one of those instances I was attempting to create the best quality that I could. My very first cover for Penguin books is still in a way one of my most successful robots. It’s called the Construct Of Time. It’s going to be displayed in the New York Academy show actually. And as well as my very first Bantam book done about three years later stood out as a good painting because I just threw myself into these things. I have so many milestones in the career. In ’97 after about four years of working in the industry, I was getting a little bored with doing single figure, maybe even three-figure compositions, which was usually pushing it. So wanted to break out of that, into something more challenging and different. And that’s when I did my first major battle scene which was Queen Of Demons for Tor books. There are over thirty figures in that one composition. I wanted to really impress them as I hadn’t done work for them in about two years. So I really tackled that one and made this monumental battle scene. It just floored everybody. My representative was just stunned that I would do this much labor. The art director, and even the owner of the company, Tom Doherty, were impressed. So that sealed my fate with them for getting really nice commissions.
DB: Just looking at the first painting Faramir At Osgilitath in your book, Recent and Select Works, I can see you’ve really broken out in terms of figure composition.
DG: Yeah, it is in that lineage of that multi-figure composition stuff. And it’s done for the same author, David Drake, part of the same series. I wanted to revisit the theme of a lot of men in battle and just do it again in a different way, but for me it’s the same aesthetic.
DB: I was struck by just the sheer amount of painting you’ve done. And yet you’ve said you feel the need for more output.
DB: What kind of time involved in a painting, such as Faramir At Osgiliath?
DG: Faramir was definitely my longest. That was started in August and finished in January of the following year. It was a good five months of work, but not straight work. It was on and off between other projects. When you look at most commissions you don’t get that kind of time for gaming or advertising work. Time is really a luxury I’ve been able to squeeze out of a few publishers who know that if I get the time, and I’m really motivated, I can really pursue a painting far and beyond the normal needs for a cover. I guess that goes to why I like to find inspirations outside my clients. There’s no reason for me to work so hard for a book cover that would be paying the same for a single figure on a blue sky background. It would take me one twentieth of the time to execute. But if I really feel I have something personal to say about the artwork and the characters involved, then I kind of internalize the job and start making the painting for myself.
DB: In 1996, you began your long association with Wizards of the Coast with the release of Mirage, a game that prominently featured tropical themes. What kind of departure was this for you?
DG: When you are working on book covers, the thing that is most depressing is that the artwork gets covered with type and a designer winds up manipulating the image and laying over quotes and names and information. But on a Magic card, even though it is significantly smaller, it is untouched, and you don’t have to worry about this in the composition. That was very liberating. The other thing that was great, was that it allowed me to investigate different cultures. I was able to really build off different cultural artifacts and atheistics. So, when I received the Mirage commission from Sue Ann Harkin at Wizards, I immediately bought books on African culture, costume, dress, jewelry, all kinds of housing and such, so that I could get a flavor to create this world.
DB: It really comes through in the art.
DG: The other thing that was great, was that this was my first chance to paint hands as a main theme. Actually, the very first painting I did was Amber Prison, and it was great to focus on hands as the center point, which you can never get away with doing a book cover.
DB: Hands are very challenging as a subject.
DG: Most artists find hands difficult, but for some reason I’ve been able to do them easily. Hands for me are just second nature. Actually much easier than just painting almost anything else. When I received the second commission for the set Visions, I included three hands in the composition of the card Sisay’s Ring. I like to keep challenging myself.
DB: Working for Wizards of the Coast has offered the opportunity to travel.
DG: Yeah, that was great. I made my first international trip back in the fall of ’97 or ’98 to Portugal where some young gentleman were handling the distribution of Magic, and Wizards was becoming involved. I had been to some events here in New York City, where artists were invited to attend and that was great. You don’t get that in any other field. No other industry has supported artists like Wizards of the Coast and my hat is off to them for taking that initiative and for staying with it — sponsoring the artist and presenting the artist as an intrical part of the game.
DB: Wizards of the Coast has done a great job of giving wider recognition to artists. With their most recent release, called Champions of Kamigawa, they’ve moved onto new ground by introducing a world inspired by Japanese culture and the art of Misaki.
DG: Right. It’s nice the way they take risks and bring on new people as well.
DB: What was the inspiration and challenge in the creation of the Wizards of the Coast promotional piece, Archangel?
DG: Competition. I was given the original archangel card that Quinton Hoover had done. Wizards said they wanted to reinterpret this a bit to use it as a packaging image. If you look at that you can see how similar some of the design is. If presented with another another artist’s work, I’m always looking for a way to ‘one up’ . In a very positive way. This is what got me into book covers. To see what is expected and to do it better or different. Quinton works wonderfully in line and color, and it was fun to take his image and do a more atmospheric take, which is why I limited my palette to the whites and the yellows.
DB: In 2000, you were commissioned to do art for the Lord Of The Rings. What were the challenges, risks, and rewards in this undertaking?
DG: Well, in a way similar to working on magic cards, when doing a Lord Of The Rings commission you know there are going to be hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people viewing this thing. Lord Of The Rings fans are diehard fans, so you have to try and make everything exact in terms of the way Tolkien described it in the books. What’s great about Tolkien is that he is actually so vague.
DB: You talk about Tolkien’s emotional descriptions that have allowed you room to create.
DG: Yeah, to interpret. I’d say Tolkien’s more of an emotional writer, in the fact that he uses emotion to evoke a sense of scene, so rather than telling you about a dark room, he tell you about how mysterious it would feel. So you will paint a mysterious room. It opens your doors so much more.
DB: It seems like a great opportunity for an artist.
DG: For some artists. Some people don’t like that kind of freedom either. An artist might just clam up. They might want that physical description such as the windows were shuttered, the lights were off, a candle is burning in one corner casting a yellow light over the room. For some people, that works better. For me, I like the openness of the vague descriptions Tolkien provides for much of the scene. With that in mind, I wanted to try and evoke that sense of emotion more so than trying to capture everything in details, although I am a detail painter to some degree. It’s a wonderful combination to be able to bring my sense of detail to his level of psychological drama. So that’s what I was after.
The other thing about the Lord Of The Rings piece was I decided to experiment with size. The painting is almost five and half by three feet.
DB: I had an opportunity to see it on display in a show at Stonybrook University a few years back.
DG: You are one of the few. I think within a month or two after that, I sold it, and it has been gone from the public view ever since.
DB: You’ve mentioned humanist moments in the Lord of the Rings that Tolkien uses to capture the spirit of the characters and the story. Some of these are Gandalf smoking in the Mines of Moria, and Frodo and Sam cooking rabbit in the shadow of Mordor. Why did you choose the moment of Gandalf and the dwarfs looking for shelter in the Misty Mountains for your painting, The Expulsion, done for the Hobbit cover?
DG: It’s almost a minor point in the novel. It’s a point of transition right before being captured by the goblins. But it was a way for me to show the sense of the human struggle against the forces of nature. Here, they are having to run away from nature. The natural forces against them are overwhelming, this giant rainstorm and in the distance are the stone giants tossing stones back and forth on the other side of the valley. It is also a scene where they are all together. Gandalf, the dwarves, and Bilbo are all together here. There are not a whole lot of moments in the book where that occurs. The other potential scene I was thinking of was the Trolls. But, that was a scene that had been done before by many other artists, so I was looking for something else to interpret. Everyone’s been caught in a rainstorm, and you know what it is like to get drenched. Even though I didn’t really portray the rain much in that painting, it is that sense of huddling and the lightning and impending storm and how miserable it can really feel. The Misty Mountains are a barrier into the complete unknown just before they cross over into Mirkwood. It’s a coming of age moment, where they are leaving innocence behind and moving into the big world. For me, it represents the expulsion from Eden in a way. So, you’ve got Gandalf, as a godly figure banishing them to go out to the real world. To leave the comfort of the Shire behind. To seek knowledge and experience in the real world where there is pain and suffering and misery, but pleasure, too. So that’s why I thought that moment was a wonderful representation for what the novel is all about.
DB: Is this still on your living room wall?
DG: Yes. It’s my couch painting.
DB: Why is this such a personal inspiration to you?
DG: It’s my largest piece of art at 6 by 3 feet, and there is a nice little story behind it too.
When I received the commission from the science fiction book club to do the covers, they also were going to be getting The Hobbit as well. I did the very large painting for the Lord Of The Rings cover, and the editors liked it, and the art director loved it, so when the time came to do the Hobbit cover, I wanted to do another humanistic painting like the Lord of the Rings. I had done a couple of sketches but they had turned them down. They had said they just want the dragon on the cover. So I said come on everyone does Smaug. But they wanted Smaug. So I gave them a painting of Smaug and about a year later, an art director I know at Ballentine saw them, was reminded of what I was doing, and offered me the cover of the graphic novel. And I went, oh yeah, I have just the thing for you. So expulsion became the cover for the graphic novel and is such a stronger piece than the dragon. So the Science Fiction Book Club lost out on an even better painting than the one they got. I guess my story is sometimes you need to just let the artist do what they want to do, and they will knock your socks off.
DB: In the ‘On Painting’ section of your book, Recent and Select Works, you mention your desire to produce narrative art. You mentioned how the Great Masters were revisiting the grand stories of their time. There was a shift in the 17th century where some of your influences, Valzquez and Caravaggio, began focusing on domestic scenes. If you were looking back at the art of today, what are the great stories being illustrated today? And how does commercial art fit into this picture?
DG: The problem is there is so much being done today. Even more so than the renaissance which had tens of thousands of artists. But today, there are hundreds of thousands of artists creating their images. One thing I see more of in the western world is the idea of art being self referential. I see a lot of autobiographical work. People making paintings about their self and family. In some ways it’s sad that maybe all the great stories have been told so often, and so well, that many artists have turned inside themselves. Which makes for an interesting and wonderful social commentary, because here, you have a couple of generations of artists referring to themselves. You can look back at the culture and see how the culture saw itself through its artists. Kind of what like what was great about Caravaggio and Dutch domestics is you got to get snippets of the life of everyday people. You can see how people dressed and such. Most of the renaissance was religious commissions. Michangelo, Raphael, Bellini, and Botecelli. All these artists worked for the church or for clients who donated to the church. So you don’t get a sense of culture. I see contemporary stuff going self-referential. But there is so much stuff out there it is just one small section of what is behind done.
DB: I noticed some of your more recent paintings are very expressive portraits.
DG: Yes, the Free Masons. They were referred by a friend who was the one who got me into Magic in the first place and encouraged me to send my portfolio to the art director at the time. Which is how I landed the Mirage commissions. The Free Masons were looking for a new portrait painter for their permanent collection, and he referred them to me. I enjoyed working for them.
DB: Your recent triptychs, Water and Optics, also seem somewhat of a departure.
DG: These represent where I am going now with the art work. It is a direction where I am trying to explore.
DB: Are they personal or commissioned works?
DG: Optics was a personal work. It was my very first triptych to tackle in quite a long time. Water grew out of a commercial commission. The center panel is a cover for a David Drake novel. Then I painted out the figures, so that I didn’t just have the pure landscape to work with. The left and right panels I created to tell a little story about the issues of water and life. The right panel is Europa, the moon around Jupiter, where we have great hopes that there’ll be some kind of micro life under the ice — and the potential oceans. So these are some directions, I’m heading. Getting back to the science. The hard core science.
DB: It comes full circle as you are heading off to the science show tonight.
DG: Yeah, hopefully that will lead to doing a science exhibit in the science gallery. I’m interested in some of these ideas in science fiction that tie into the science. Water is about science fiction, the discovery of life — imagining what life could be like on another world. I mean, obviously, nothing like something we could conceive of. Who knows what life might look like? Definitely not like us.
DB: You did your children’s book Visit My Alien Worlds offer an opportunity to explore some of this?
DG: It was my first children’s book and maybe my last. It wasn’t a true children’s book from start to finish. It was an experiment of sorts. There was a publisher who was looking for a n experiment in marketing. He needed a book fairly quickly. So in order to do that we used a lot of my stock images, book cover work, that I had previously created and we came up with a theme and a story and some new paintings to unify it. It never was fully realized the way I wanted it. I thought it would be fun to make a guidebook, Let’s Go or a Frommer’s of the universe. Places to stay and travel. Things to see.
DB: That’s a vast undertaking.
DG: It is too much to do. Too grand for what we needed. We pared it down. My niece and nephew appear on the cover, and I did a reading at their school so it was fun.
DB: Where do you see your work going in the next ten years and beyond?
DG: I’d like to get into larger painting and try to explore stories that go beyond commercial commissions. How I can really investigate characters, places and themes. The idea of life on other worlds. It is fantastical- and science fiction-oriented, but there is a lot hard science that can be explored such as S.E.T.I. There are people spending their lives into this search, and there has never been anyone tackling these subject in paint or portraits. I’d like to create narratives about what they are doing. It’s just me looking for a challenge and stuff that hasn’t been done before to see where I can bring my expertise and my love of the science to bear together.
DB: It sounds like you might be excited by some of the science fiction that focuses on some of the technical aspects — do you have a preference?
DG: You know I’m not that familiar with science fiction, but I guess I vacillate. Sometimes the real fantasy science fiction is way too out there, but then the galactic-wide cultures, like out of Asimov, that sound so infatuating: a billion different worlds of human occupation and dealing with the sociology behind that that makes for wonderful paintings — the ideas of spaceports that rival our airports with starships coming and going. That’s really a pure fantasy that will most likely never occur, but what I love is just extrapolating from the world we have now and finding parallels in science faction stories. Wherever those two meet, I’m agreeable and I like where they merge. Shows like the the Academy show is where I want to go.
DB: How long does the show run for?
DG: From the end of November through the end of January.
DB: Thanks for speaking with me today. I’m very glad to have had this opportunity to begin this column with our conversation. Good luck with the show and I’m looking forward to seeing your new work.
DG: Thanks for having me. I hope the column turns out nice.
More of Donato Giancola’s work can be seen at his website at www.donatoarts.com.
From Imagination to Reality: The Art of Science Fiction runs from Nov 5, 2004 – Jan 28, 2005 at the New York Academy of Sciences, 2 East 63rd St., New York, NY 10021. Phone: 212-838-0230 Gallery hours: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Since the 60’s Larry Niven has been at the top of the Hard SF tree and with the release of his latest novel, Ringworld’s Children, he continues to demonstrate why. We managed to catch up with him during its release and ask him a few questions.
Robert D. Rowntree & Lisa Negus: Larry, thanks for taking time out to talk to us. Huge constructs or detailed and realistic cosmological environments are iconic statements of your writing and have become synonymous with the name Niven. Modern astronomy discovers more each day, yet in recent novels (Destiny’s Road, The Burning City, Saturn’s Race) you’ve gone for more character-driven stories. Do the wonders of the cosmos still hold their interest?
Larry Niven: I always did my best with my characters. They’ve always deserved my best. I’m getting better at that, I hope. But the cosmos grows more interesting and more detailed every day.
R&N: Your latest solo novel is Ringworld’s Children. What inspired you to return to Ringworld, a place you first introduced over 30 years ago?
LN: I lurked in the larryniven-l website on advice of my agent. They were asking questions I thought I could answer, and they had answers that were just a little bit off. They got me off and running.
R&N: In The Integral Trees, Smoke Ring, and Ringworld’s Throne, you gave some of your characters illnesses and complaints which you’ve experienced yourself. Has the process of writing about these things been cathartic?
LN: Yeah. Writing my problems into my books makes them more bearable. I hadn’t realized it at first. It’s not a habit I want to encourage; the story really should come first.
R&N: In your novel, Oath of Fealty (written with Jerry Pournelle), you predicted the arrival of gated-communities. Do you foresee a situation where education, policy and welfare are dictated by a two-tier society?
LN: Societies that try to be two-tiered always wind up multi-tiered, until almost everyone is enslaved to someone. Freedom is fragile. I vote Libertarian.
R&N: You were involved in The Space Defense Initiative, which culminated in the bankruptcy of the Soviet Union. Are you or have you been involved in other similar schemes?
LN: Not until lately. I’m involved, a little, in Spacewatch and trying to keep the planet safe from giant meteoroid impacts. Civilization has matured enough that we can, and should, act to protect the Earth. Mind you, the goal is large, my involvement is small.
R&N: Can you give us more detail on your involvement in The Space Defense Initiative?
LN: Basically, Jerry [Pournelle] put it together; we met at my house; our intent was to bring the human race into space.
The SDI was a logical consequence. Jerry had to make all our papers coherent and ready to present to Reagan’s Science Advisor. It ate into a lot of his life. We pushed and kept pushing, and the Soviets were driven bankrupt by a science fiction story developed at the Niven house, not to mention the consequences of their own socialist folly.
R&N: Privacy and its erosion are close to the heart of SF writers. David Brin has written extensively about it, and in a recent interview you said, ‘Privacy may be a passing fad.’ Is this a positive or negative step for society? Do you think society can handle the transparency?
LN: Society can certainly handle the loss of privacy. It is a recent concept, a few hundred years old. Kings and peasants never expected privacy in the old days. In small societies, people used to be expected to meddle. The trick to individual survival is to keep your pride when everything interesting about your life can be known by anyone.
This puts many politicians at a horrible disadvantage. Our election system is going to have to adjust.
R&N: With the Berkeley SETI program still active, and many of us participating in their screen saver search for signals, have you got a stance on extraterrestrial intelligence?
LN: The star-travelling aliens become less likely the harder you look. In a 13.7 billion year old universe, any intelligent tool user might be a billion years advanced beyond Earth. If they existed, they should be more obvious and they should be more powerful. I’m willing they shall prove me wrong.
But SETI is looking for leakage of a signal; for inefficiency. Our broadcasting of our presence in the universe is about to disappear as our systems grow more efficient. The aliens don’t get cable.
R&N: Your support of space exploration is well documented. Do you see bureaucracy as a major problem in national and multi-national space efforts? Or, as with Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites forging ahead with its White Knight/Spaceship One project, does the future of space exploration lie with private enterprise, tourism and industry?
LN: Beats me. I’ve spent a lot of my life supporting private spaceflight as best I could. Response, until the X-prize was announced, was sluggish.
Some of us are going to try to generate some goal-oriented X-prizes.
R&N: You have written many collaborations over the years — was moving towards collaborations a conscious decision?
LN: I tried it with David Gerrold. I was trying everything in my novice days. Collaborating turned out to be fun. Sure it was a conscious decision. I greatly admire Frederik Pohl’s collaborations with Cyril Kornbluth, Jack Williamson, and other golden age greats.
R&N: It’s not to every author’s taste. What do you find the benefits are?
LN: Collaborating is less lonely than solo flights. They’re also more work, by around 60%, which means that the finished product has to be 60% more valuable to be worthwhile. And of course I need a collaborator who will do 80% of the work…as I do.
R&N: Is there any truth in the rumor about some future work with Gregory Benford?
LN: Greg has a big structure, on the order of Ringworld size. We’re writing around that.
R&N: Brenda Cooper is another of your collaborators, and we believe there’s a novel on the way, Building Harlequin’s Moon. Are you giving anything away on that project?
LN: Used to be Creation Myth but our editor said that sounded like a religious tract. It’s about a terraforming project, taking place in the wrong solar system, using the wrong tools.
R&N: Your new Ringworld novel created a buzz of anticipation as its publication date drew closer. Do you like to get out and about among your fans? Any major dates lined up for this year to promote the new Ringworld novel?
LN: I’m booked as Guest of Honor at way too many conventions this year. Whether that helps promote the book, I’ve never quite known. I do it for fun.
R&N: Your fans obviously mean a lot to you. You went so far as to put them at the center of the action in Fallen Angels (written with Jerry Pournelle and Michael Flynn) and you regularly take part in online chats. Has your readership has changed over the years? Many fans have written to you regarding your invented locals and suggested alterations–plot holes and mistakes plus their remedies. Is this something you encourage?
LN: Sure, I encourage the game of picking holes in the author’s story and rebuilding around them. It’s fun. It sometimes generates stories.
Has my readership changed? They grow up. Some grew old; some tell me I got them interested in generating scientific careers. As for “Fallen Angels”, we did it for them: a gift to fandom as well as a civilization saver. It’s been way more successful than we expected.
R&N: Science Fiction fans are sometimes viewed as a nerdy bunch, who’ve spent a lifetime cultivating acne whilst barely setting foot out of doors in daylight hours. How would you sell SF to someone of that opinion? What do you believe it has to offer that mainstream fiction or other genres don’t?
LN: I can’t sell books one at a time. There are certainly people who won’t read science fiction; some of them are librarians, and that’s a pity. I once spent time persuading a few hundred librarians that 1984 and Brave New World are science fiction, and I believe I failed. The best I can do is to tell stories as well as I can.
As far as that goes, I don’t read only SF. Do I need to persuade people to read? Those who read will rule. Learning to read does something important to your brain structure.
R&N: If you could recommend one really great read to that person, what would it be and why?
LN: Lucifer’s Hammer. I’ve become convinced the giant meteoroid impact is a real threat that we really could do something about. Also, it’s as good a story as I’ve ever told.
R&N: There are many future projects listed at one of your fan sites. Can you tell us about some of them?
LN: Turned in: Ringworld’s Children, June 04; Burning Tower with Jerry Pournelle, January 05; The Magic Goes Away Omnibus, also January 05; Building Harlequin’s Moon with Brenda Cooper; The Draco Tavern Stories.
I’ve been working on almost nothing. I’ve written short stories, and I’ve played at outlining novels with collaborators, which may jell into bigger projects.
R&N: Recently the SciFi Channel announced plans for a miniseries based on the Ringworld novels. Are you involved with the project?
LN: Nobody has attempted to involve me in any way. I hope it’s real.
R&N: Are there any other motion picture/TV projects in the pipeline? Can you tell us a little of your involvement in this type of medium?
LN: I’ve written a Star Trek cartoon and three Land of the Lost episodes, long ago. Land of the Lost is now available on DVD, with commentary by authors and by the story editor, David Gerrold. “The Slaver Weapon” I last watched with German voice-over, at a convention in Germany.
R&N: We often hear of genre critics touting their own definitions of science fiction, but what about from a writer’s point of view, how would you set about defining the genre?
LN: First, don’t go to a librarian.
Second, SF stories sprawl all over the map. They only have one thing in common, and I had to search hard for it. This is the universal presumption: There are minds that think as well as yours does, but differently.
R&N: How do you respond to claims that science fiction often lacks imagination with regard to narrative technique, as opposed to its imagination with regard to ideas?
LN: I try to write better than that. Even so, Sturgeon’s Law holds: 90% of everything is crap.
R&N: Fantasy is also often dismissed by the critics as ‘impure’ and for its heavy reliance on folklore, yet it maintains an avid audience. Fans of science fiction are not always fantasy fans. As some of your own novels are classified in the fantasy genre, how do you reconcile differences between the two genres? What can a fantasy novel offer that a science fiction novel cannot?
LN: Sometimes I too want to play tennis without the net. What good fantasy usually offers are universals. If you’re telling a story that could never have happened, past, future, or sideways, then you’d best be telling a universal truth.
R&N: What does science fiction mean to you, and why do you think it remains so popular with readers?
LN: Science fiction is fantasy with borders. If you like to stretch your mind, you’ll read science fiction. You’ll read fantasy too, when you feel like playing tennis without the net.
R&N: You once said that your characters were all tourists. If you were a tour-operator in the universe of your published fiction, which five destinations would you recommend? And why?
LN: Oh, I’d just bounce around. Most of my domains are flawed paradises, highly scenic. I’d certainly want to visit Fafnir/Shasht, the Draco Tavern, Hovestraydt City on the Moon, Mount Lookitthat after the revolution, and the House of the Patriarch’s Past on Kzin (given proper reassurances).
R&N: Which other authors impress you and why?
LN: John Barnes, Stephen Baxter, Bruce Sterling: the more recent hard science fiction writers are way out there. I’m a Terry Pratchett fan. I loved Lonesome Dove, though it’s a straight western. I read anything by Tim Powers. Brin’s Earth was a great read.
R&N: Which piece of your own work means the most to you?
LN: I don’t have a favourite work. They all seemed worth writing. Footfall got the biggest advance, Lucifer’s Hammer and Ringworld get the most feedback, The Integral Trees is probably the best science fiction and Destiny’s Road the best novel. “Man of Steel/Woman of Kleenex” has gotten me the most giggles.
R&N: How much influence, have editors and agents had on your finished work?
LN: A great deal. Editors and agents are your friends; listen to them.
R&N: What are your current biggest influences in your fiction writing?
LN: I’m still waiting to find out. Maybe the info that comes in via the Internet. It seems there are people who want to keep me up to date on the subjects my books have tackled. My wife Marilyn tears the most interesting stuff out of various magazines for me. It always takes some time before some bit of data sparks an idea.
R&N: How have those changed over the years?
LN: They haven’t, not really.
R&N: Sticking with your early years as a writer, how did you get started on what was destined to be a hugely successful and prolific career?
LN: I wrote, and I bothered editors, until I sold something. I also took a correspondence course. An actor has said that most of becoming a success involves just showing up.
R&N: What are the biggest literary changes you’ve seen since you started publishing? Do you think that there has been any variation in publishing standards over that time?
LN: Hard to say. I haven’t had trouble selling my work since the beginning. I’ve always heard that the middle ranks are in serious trouble and so are the publishers. Details vary. Congress has passed some tax laws that make the backlist (the books you wrote when you were younger) far too expensive for publishers. The book distribution system has been vandalized.
The Internet has changed things a lot. In particular it’s become easier to collaborate with someone who doesn’t live next door.
R&N: And how about yourself? How have you changed as a writer during that time?
LN: I like to think I’ve gotten better and more versatile. I’m still a bit of a dilettante: I have to wait for inspiration, or somehow dig it up.
R&N: When some authors get up in a morning, they have a structure to their day – like working a regular job. Others hit the keyboard as soon as inspiration strikes. One (very successful) author that we’ve spoken to admitted that when about to embark on a new novel, he will do anything rather than write. What makes up a typical Larry Niven day?
LN: I get breakfast, and then go to my computer. Then my email sucks me in and wastes my morning. I have to exert myself to begin writing. Maybe there’s a hike, maybe there’s a yoga class. Evening, we probably go out to dinner. I should work at night, maybe, but I usually don’t.
R&N: We all know how tough it is for a rookie to find publication with a decent magazine – any advice for the dreamers out there?
LN: My first sale was to Worlds of If, which boasted a novice writer in every issue (the up side of an editor having no money.) That’s no longer an option. But it’s still true that the editorial address is published in every issue of every magazine. Just keep sending in the stories, trying the decent magazines first.
R&N: When you sit down to write a new novel, what kind of process do you go through from the germ of an idea to a full blown text; for example, can you take us through some of the major steps involved in putting Ringworld’s Children together.
LN: With Ringworld’s Children, Eleanor Wood led me to a website that studies my works. They were arguing about whether Teela Brown could have had a child, and what you’d get if you cloned a protector. Their answers were a little off. Otherwise I’d have had nothing to say.
I took off from there and started outlining. I added in everything I’d been wanting to say about the Ringworld, Ringworld design, Ringworld societies, evolution, a lot of leftover uncertainties from known space. After I’d written a bit, I turned it over to my agent to sell. And kept writing.
It came out shorter than I expected. That worried me a little. I’d rather give readers a bargain. But everything turns concise and under-redundant when I’m thinking like a protector.
R&N: Larry, you’ve written many novels and short stories in the science fiction and fantasy genres–which type of fiction do you find the most rewarding to write?
LN: I seem to like them all. I go where inspiration pops up.
R&N: How about to read?
LN: Again, I seem to like them all, though I mostly read science fiction.
R&N: You maintain a steady output of short fiction – how do you fit this in around the novel writing?
LN: Stories come in their own lengths. Nobody should give up short stories: they keep my writing tight, even though the money is in novels.
R&N: We would like to thank Larry Niven for his time. Ringworld’s Children, ISBN 0-76530167-9 is published by Tor and available from all good retailers.
The alarm clock buzzed at seven, right after reality rolled over. Helen tapped the snooze button for ten more minutes. When the alarm went off again, she believed for a moment that a man was in the room creeping toward her. She sat up ready to lash out with nails and fists and feet, then memory returned and she chuckled to herself. A dream. Habit. Too bad.
BLOGSTER login: Welcome, TwenWen!
[Thursday, ??? feels like 10 p.m.]
Hel, you had the rapist dream too? Thought I was the only sicko! Y’know, back in college psych they said those kinds of dreams are a representation of your subconscious yearning to be rescued from your out-of-control situation. (That, or you want a penis. ^_-) Usually I try to keep mine going awhile, see if he actually manages to score. Never does. Figures; even my Freudian fantasy rapists are pissant schmucks.
In browsing news, surprise! There’s yet another spec-thread running among the BumBloggity brats. “The government did it” version 2,563,741. Wish they’d get back to aliens or God; those are more fun.
BTW, gang, meet SapphoJuice (his blog). He’s in a snowy reality. Has a studio, poor guy.
Hey, anybody heard from MadHadder lately?
Life, post-prolif: she climbed up from the futon and shuffled across the room, her feet chuffing along the tatami-matted floor. When she reached the kitchen she took care to yank the fridge door open so that the glass bottles would rattle and clink. Noise made the apartment seem less empty. Then she slapped onto the counter the items that would comprise her breakfast: a cup of yogurt and a cellophaned packet of grilled fish. She rummaged awhile for the stay-fresh drink box of chai tea concentrate; she knew where it was, but rummaging helped to kill time. The milk was as fusty as ever. Irrationally she always retained the vague hope that if she got up soon enough after the rollover, it would taste fresher. Mixing it with the chai covered the not-quite-sour taste, so she microwaved that for three minutes and then used that to wash the fish down.
Chewing, she paused and grinned to herself as she felt a bone prick the inside of her cheek. She’d eaten the packet of fish seven times lately without finding it. The bone was always there, but tiny and easy to miss. Finding it made her feel lucky.
It was going to be another beautiful day in infinity.
BLOGSTER login: Welcome, SapphoJuice!
[Cinco de myass, the year 2 bajillion and 2]
Hi, all. Thanks for the warm greetings. My daily routine includes two hours of spinning around in my desk chair. My mom never used to let me do it before, so…whee!
Yes, Marguille, your guess as to the origin of my username is correct; I am indeed a squealing Herbert fanboy (sorry, Conty, not a lesbian =P). Only got Children Of in my studio, though. Sucks donkey balls. Big hairy fat ones.
Ah, c’mon, Twen, specthreading is fun and oh so good for you. Granted, it’s pretty much a complete waste to wonder how and why the quantum proliferation occurred because we can’t do dick to fix it…. And granted, the BumBloggers do seem to have the same arguments over and over (and over and over) again…but hey, there’s comfort in the routine. Right? Right? ::listens to crickets::
Hel: wow, Japan? You must have been quite the adventurer, before.
Jogging; she loved it. The rhythmic pounding of the hardpack under her sneakers. The mantra of her breathing. She would never have taken up jogging if there’d still been people around to watch her, maybe point and laugh at the jiggly big-boned sistah trying to be FloJo. Before the prolif she’d only just begun to shed her self-consciousness around the Japanese. They rarely stared when she could see them, and her students had gotten used to her by then, but on the street she’d always felt the pressure of the neighbors’ gazes against her back, skittering away from her peripheral vision when she turned. The days of Sambo dolls at the corner store were mostly over, but not a lot of Japanese had seen black people anywhere except on television. My parents must’ve felt the same during grad school in Des Moines, she’d always told herself to put things in perspective. It hadn’t helped much.
Now, free from the pressure of those gazes, she could run. She was fit and strong and free.
Around her the barren, cracked desert stretched unbroken for as far as the eye could see.
BLOGSTER login: Welcome, KT!
[Saturdayish, The House That Time Forgot]
Fighting the lonelies. Everybody still out there? Conty? Guille? Hel? Twen? (Hi, Sapp.) I haven’t heard from MadHadder either. What if the silence got him?
Don’t want to think about that. Topic change. Did you know Mr. Hissyfit keeps going through the rollovers, too? I guess cats do think.
Sappjuice, it sounds like you’re living in Fimbulwinter (sp?). I’ve got grassy plain. It’s boring, but at least I know it can’t kill me. You have my e-sympathies.
She liked best the fact that the day started over after about ten hours. Incomplete reality, incomplete time. She’d stayed awake to watch the rollover numerous times, but for a phenomenon that should’ve been a string-theorist’s wet dream, it was singularly unimpressive. Like watching a security camera video loop: dull scene, flicker, resume dull scene. Though once the flicker passed there was grilled fish and stale milk in her fridge again, and her alarm clock buzzed to declare that 7:00 a.m. had returned. Only her mind remained the same.
She usually went to bed a few hours after the second alarm. That gave her time to print out the latest novella making the rounds in cyberspace, read it in the bath, and maybe work on her own would-be masterpieces. It didn’t bother her that the poems she wrote erased themselves every rollover. If she wanted to keep them, she posted them online where the mingling of so many minds kept time linear. But doing that exposed the fragile words to the scrutiny of others, and sometimes it was better to just let them vanish.
She decided to post the latest one to share with her friends. The new boy wasn’t a friend, not yet, but maybe he had friend-potential.
BLOGSTER login: Welcome, Marguille!
[Sunday, 5 Marguille’sMonth, 2 years A.P., 2 a.m.]
I agree with Twen; specthredding is evil. But I can’t help it; been reading the Bumwankers stuff (I know, I know). my vote has always been for the government theory. $87 bil. for an “emergency fund”? Shyeah. Probly only took half that to build some knd of new super-weapon, or hotwire a particle acelerator. “I know! Let’s shoot some protons at the terrorists! Yeah! Oops, we bro,ke the universe!”
But seriously…I keep thinking that somewhere out there, normal reality still exists. no, scratch that — I know it exists, because it’s possible. Fun with quantum theory! ‘Course, that means oblivion exists too. (This is what we get for letting that guy Shröedinger experiment on his cat. Should’ve sicked PETA on him.)
SappJuice, don’t feel bad about your studio. Hel’s Japanese apartment’s probably half the size of yours. (What do you call half a studio? A closet? ::ducks rotten tomatoes from Japan::) Anyway, it’s not like the rest of us are so much better off. What difference does a few square feet make when they’re the same square feet every damn day?
She got the email just before she would’ve gone to bed. The ding from her computer surprised her. Weblogs worked, as did other forms of public communication. Direct, private contact was impossible. Individual-to-individual relays — instant messaging, email — worked, but were always iffy. Most people just didn’t bother to try; too disappointing. And then there were the rumors.
But she read the email anyway.
Helen (seems so weird to say your full name),
Hope you get this. I read the poem you posted in your blog. I just wanted to say…it wasn’t beautiful, but it did move me. Made me remember the way things used to be, and made me realize I don’t really mind that the old world is gone. I got put in a garbage can by football players *every day* during my freshman year. My mom always used to tell me I’d never amount to anything. How could I miss that? Anyway.
I guess the only thing that bothers me now is the silence. And sometimes I don’t even mind that, but sometimes the snow just gets to me. Why the hell couldn’t my pocket universe have formed around an *interesting* environment? I could dig an endless beach, maybe an endless forest. No, I get snow. It’s so quiet. It never stops falling. I can’t go out far without losing the apartment in the haze. Sometimes I want to just keep walking into the white, who cares? Then I read your poem.
Sappy (yeah, I know)”
She sat at her computer savoring the newness of the moment.
BLOGSTER login: Welcome, KT!
[Ohwhocares? Someday, somewhen]
Mr. Hissyfit got out. I tried to catch him but he just ran straight away into the grass. I keep going out to call for him, but he must be too far away to hear me.
Stupid cat. Stupid goddamn cat. I can’t stop crying.
She emailed SapphoJuice back and told him that she had only feared the silence once. That had been right after the prolif, when she’d still been adjusting. She’d started running and hadn’t stopped; just put her head down and cranked her arms like pistons and hauled ass as fast as her legs would take her, as far as her lungs could fuel. When she’d looked around the apartment was gone, swallowed into the cracked-earth landscape. Instant panic. The apartment was only a fragment of reality, but it was her fragment of reality, her only connection to the other incomplete miniverses that now made up existence. Even before the prolif she had been happiest there.
She could admit that, now, to him. But back on the day she’d run too far she’d been in a panic, her grip on sanity slipping by cogs. It had taken the threat of true isolation, of wandering lost through endless wastelands until thirst or exposure killed her, to make her see the apartment as haven and not prison. So half-blinded by tears she had run back, thanking God that her shoes were cheap. One of them had an uneven sole which scuffed a little crescent-shaped mark into the dusty soil. The moon had led her home.
BLOGSTER login: Welcome Conty!
[Day 975 (yeah right I actually keep count in my head)]
KT no more kidding. Fight it. Don’t think about the damn cat. Go out and run — you can go pretty far from your house in the grass, can’t you? Eat something.
Hell, eat everything; it’s not like it won’t come back at rollover.
Talk to us.
The emails she sent didn’t always go through. More than once she had to send them again when they bounced or, more often, simply never got a response. She saw the bounce histories in his attachments and knew that he’d had to send his multiple times, too. Just another day post-prolif.
She did not tell the others about the private correspondence, and neither did he. She knew what her friends would have said. It became something special, secret, a little titillating. As the days passed her dreams changed. Now the man creeping about her room had a face and a much less sinister demeanor. Now he looked like a skinny, geeky teenager, whose shy smile was for her alone.
BLOGSTER login: Welcome, Marguille!
[Jan. 37 errordate errortime 12:5g0k p.m.]
You guys want to chat? I need some facetime. I think KT’s gone.
Over the exchanges she shared her life story with him. Growing up less than middle-class, trying to act less than upper-class. The teasing in elementary school because she “talked proper” and couldn’t dance. Her first boyfriend, a white boy — she’d been too guilt-ridden to bring him home to meet her parents, and they’d broken up because of her shame. Her next boyfriend, the one she’d almost married until she found out he was cheating on her. Graduating college and feeling the isolation grow in her life. Few friends, none of them local. No lovers. She’d always been an only child, a lonely child; she was used to it. The prospect of a couple of years in Japan hadn’t seemed all that daunting because what difference did it make, after all?
He told her about himself. Second generation American-born Chinese, too free-spirited for the rigidly traditional family into which he’d been born, too shy to face the world without the shield of a book. No girlfriends; the girls he’d liked had been more interested in jocks and red-blooded rich boys. Never brave enough to venture far from home, the internet had become his realm, and in it he thrived. He was a Big Name Fan in certain circles, known for his biting wit and brutal honesty. The prolif had barely slowed him down.
She worried about what might happen as the clandestine exchanges continued, but never mentioned her fears to him. She’d begun to enjoy herself too much; the “incoming mail” chime was enough to make her heart race with excitement. She had to force herself out for her daily runs.
It helped that the more they talked, the more reliable the relaying became. Pretty soon messages were going through after only two or three tries, and not bouncing at all.
IRC session start: Sun? MarEMBJune datetime error
*** marguille sets mode: +o TwenWen Conty Helen sappjuice
> Log set and active! TwenWen logging!
<marguille> dunno why you’re logging, twen. it’s judst a chat.
<TwenWen> Not just a chat. MadHadder and KT’s memorial service.
* Conty sighs.
* Helen observes a moment of silence.
<marguille> ditto. y’know…I herd more spec the other day.
* Conty groans.
* Helen sighs.
* TwenWen waits for Marguille’s spec…and waits…and waits.
<marguille> this one sounds like it’s from the eggheads who did this. here it is: decoherence. when things in a quantum state are coupled to thuings outside that state, both systems collapse. no lag, 2-finger-typing lots, sorry.
<Conty> Yeah, that’s egghead all right
* Helen wishes she had a nickel for every egghead spec…but where would she put them all?
*** sappjuice changes topic to “The Egghead Pyramid Scheme!”
<marguille> seriously… you heard abut HafCafLatay?
<marguille> she got email from her MOM.
<marguille> as soon as she read it…poof. none of her blogfriends ever heard fm her again.
<Conty> WTF does that have to do with incoherence???
* TwenWen says, “DEcoherence. And I can use other big words, like ‘marmalade’.”
<Conty> Whatever. Still WTF
<sappjuice> There’s spec that *we’re* in a quantum state, y’know, each of us. Endless partial variations on the same world, same time…
<Conty> What, so if we ever have contact with somebody in another reality, we’ll disappear?
* marguille is typing.
<marguille> the eggheds say it matters if the connection is strong or weajk. the stronger the coupling, the faster the collapse. weak couplings last a long time, maybe even stabilize. vbut with really strong couplings the collapse is nearly instant.
<TwenWen> Ooh, coupling! Wink wink nudge nudge say no more.
<TwenWen> Seriously…you’re saying coupling = personal ties? Coupling *to other people*?
<marguille> yep. we’re already weakly connected, or we wouldn’t be able to talk like this. but strong connections are emotional. HafCaf found her mom and…silence. Both of ’em.
<marguille> sucks, don’t it.
<Conty> I forgot, rollover’s about to
*** Conty has been disconnected.
<TwenWen> Um, I rollover in 10 mins.
<sappjuice> Maybe we should cut this short, then. Nice seeing everybody face to face, so to speak.
* Helen agrees.
* marguille sighs and waves.
<marguille> back to blogdom then. Toodles.
*** marguille has logged off.
*** TwenWen has stopped logging.
*** TwenWen has logged off.
<sappjuice> So it’s just you and me. Wanna email?
*** Helen has logged off.
*** sappjuice has logged off.
Session Close: Mon? Time? Deeeeeeeechgkl#@ ^^^^
Just spec, she told herself over the next few days. Too many people had expected a more dramatic apocalypse; now they cried wolf at every shadow. Some of their theories sounded right, but most were cockamamie — like Guille’s implication that friendship, family, love, could be the reason that some people just disappeared. That would mean the only people still alive across the proliferated realities were those whose ties to the world had been weak from the beginning.
Those who’d lived alone. Those who’d been socially isolated. Not the completely disconnected ones; people without ‘net access would’ve gone stark raving within days after the prolif. But the loosely-connected ones, who interacted with others only when they had to, or through a screen. Those who’d maintained just enough connection to keep them sane, then. Just enough connection to keep them alive, now.
Just spec, she thought again as the alarm clock buzzed. She hadn’t slept in two rollovers. Not me.
New habit. She sat up and reached over to her laptop, which rested on a low table beside the futon, and tapped its touchpad to wake it up. It chimed as the screen lit; she had mail.
I know this is risky, stupid, cheesy, whatever. But I can’t help myself. I’ve never met you and never will, but…some things you can feel no matter what. They used to say this was all just pheromones, but that’s crap. I’ve never smelled you and I only have my imagination to tell me what you look like. But I have to say this because it’s true.
I love you.
I wish oh shit I didn’t believe it but it’s true”
No sig. Not even a period at the end of the last sentence. He’d had enough time to send, but not to finish first.
Not me, her mind whispered, and not him. Please, not him.
And as the walls of her tiny apartment began to warp and the barren landscape beyond her window vanished, she had time to click on the bookmark for her blog’s “update” form and type a single line.
“The way out, or the end? Sapp’s gone to see. I’m going too.”
She hit “post” as reality folded into silence.
We have decided not to eat the Doctor, at least for the time being. I am glad, because the Doctor is crazy, and he does the funniest things. We don’t laugh in front of him, of course, since that is not something the People do, but there is always a retelling afterwards that has everyone clutching their bellies and rolling on the ground. Besides, the Doctor still has not learned to sing the tones properly, and I like being the one who speaks his language the best. His words are hard and awkward and putting them together is like rolling a flat stone across sand, but I think he can use them to say ideas we would never dream of. Mostly, though, he is just fun to watch.
“Who were the Tall People?” he says one day.
I wish he would not always ask his questions. That part is not fun. I shrug and pretend to be busy.
“Where are the Tall People now?” he asks.
“I am not one of the Tall People. You are not one of the Tall People,” I say, to remind him what he is doing as gently as possible.
He does not take the hint, and he does not hide his frustration very well. Instead, he sits by himself for a while, and then prepares to leave the village and go for a walk in the marshes.
The Doctor is not one of the Watching People, and the Tall People are no more, so he must come from another people, who live very far away. His like has certainly never been seen in the marshes before. His ears are round and on the sides of his head, and where his beak should be is only a piece of soft flesh in the middle of his face. He knows dangerously little about how the People live or how to survive in the marshes, but he is sincere in his desire to learn everything he can. I just wish it were easier to help him.
Grandfather nods at the Doctor’s back as the bushes swallow his shape and says to me, “He might sit on another fire-ant hive.”
“Or put his head into a sand badger’s trap again,” I agree respectfully. Both of those events can be re-enacted over and over without ever becoming boring, but they could have been bad for the Doctor.
“If he notices you, it will be a loss of face for two,” Grandfather says, by which I understand he wants me to watch after the Doctor. I stand and silently slip out of the village after him.
The Doctor has not told us anything about his home, and of course one of the People doesn’t just come out and ask a thing like that, so we watch him very closely. We can guess a little about it from the things he doesn’t seem to know, and it must be very nice to live in a fat and easy land where you don’t need to be mindful of all the tricks for cheating death.
The Doctor changes paths many times and cuts across his own trail as if he has forgotten his way. I follow him from far enough behind that he does not discover me, but just close enough that I could pretend to wander by if he gets into trouble. It is hard work to not run into him. He stops a moment to admire the demon-gem butterflies gliding between nectar blossoms at the edge of the water and floating just out of his reach, and holds out his hand to entice one to land on it. They ignore him, so his arm will not be shredded to the elbow this day, and he moves on. He doubles back the way we had come, and then suddenly heads off with great intent.
I have to walk quickly to keep up. This task would ordinarily be given to a strong hunter and I am still a boy, so it is a great honor that Grandfather has chosen me. The appearance of the Doctor and his strange language to learn have given me the chance to prove myself early.
The Doctor leads me on a long chase far to the south and the east, to a bad dry place the People rarely enter. He digs a little under a stone, and I see he has cached some things that are precious to him there. I wait until he has left, and then look at them myself. Most of the cache is in strong smooth boxes I cannot open, but in one I find some very odd clothing. It is made of several pieces of something softer than skin, bound together at their edges by little knots that are so tiny you could barely see them.
When you steal a wokka egg, you must replace every stick in the nest exactly as it was, or the wokka will worry and stop laying. No one can collect more eggs than me. I replace the garments and cover the cache and put every pebble and grain of soil just as the Doctor had left them, then run all the way back to the village and arrive before he does.
The Oldest Ones carefully tend all knowledge. They guide it to us as it gathers and flows like water, and when it is misused or ignored they let it vanish into the air, and it is at that moment that we die. When I was little and Grandfather told me this, I dismissed it as a fairy-story, but now that I am almost a man I see it is a true thing. The life of the village balances on the edge of a black-glass blade. Since the birth of the world, the bone desert has surrounded the marshes a little more tightly and eaten a little more of them each year. The marshes are kind and provide the Watching People with exactly enough to survive, but only as a reward for studying and remembering everything we see.
One must show the proper respect for knowledge, and learn by watching and counting and copying. The Doctor does almost nothing but learn — although he watches the wrong things — and some of us think he might be a little sacred as well, which is one of the reasons he is still alive. It might be unlucky to eat a sacred person.
But the main reason he is still among us is someday we will learn something valuable from him, and then maybe the village will support the lives of a few more of the People. We watch him carefully.
When I return, Grandfather immediately convenes a learning council, and I am the youngest that has sat in that circle for many years. All eyes are on me as I describe everything I saw at the cache. The little string — like a long hair or thick strand of caterpillar web — is not hard to make, and Jollolo and Lafu soon find that fibers of green bark can be soaked in brackish water and twisted into something very much like it. We can do nothing, however, to push the string through the edges of the skins. We try cutting holes, but the string is too soft to pass through the small holes, and if we cut big holes the string spreads them and tears the garment. A few days later Atsuka, who has stared at the skin and the string from above and below and behind until he is cross-eyed, suddenly cries, “Don’t push it, pull it!” and attaches the string to a little sliver of bone, and shows us how the sliver slides right through the skin and takes the string with it and leaves barely any hole at all.
Soon some of us are wearing tunics just like the ones in the Doctor’s cache, and they are much better than the skins we usually wear, because we can make them fit the shape of our bodies and arms exactly right.
The Doctor is very surprised when he sees them, and he takes me aside.
“I’ve never seen the People wear shirts like this before,” he says.
“Yes. They are a new thing,” I tell him. “They are very good.”
He grabs me by the arm. “How did the People learn to use a needle?” he asks.
And that is exactly the problem. You can be having the most amicable conversation with the Doctor, and then he’ll suddenly ask you a direct question — in front of others, in public, right in the middle of the village with everyone listening. He is an elder with a beard, and I have not even had my tail clipped yet; could I scold him as if he were the child? But I cannot ignore him either, so I just say, “By watching kono spiders make nests,” which is a clever nonsense answer, because no kono spider has ever stopped jumping long enough to build a nest. I hope this is a tactful reminder of the position he is putting me in, but if he catches my meaning, he chooses to dismiss it.
He does this all the time. The other day he was helping Bomi pound huffa fibers while they chatted about pleasant things, and then he turned and asked her how it was she had first learned to turn huffa into flour. Naturally, she was furious, but all she could do was smile and tell him, “I used to know, but I’ve forgotten,” as if he were an infant that she could no longer afford to spoil. I was there to translate, and before either of them lost any more face, I called, “Oi, Rumali! Come here! I want to see you.”
Stoop-backed Rumali, who was so old and daft she needed to be told where to watch, shuffled over to us with her foolish grin.
“Rumali!” I said loudly. “How did you learn to pound huffa?”
“Huffa?” she repeated. If she was hurt by the question, it was not her place to show it. “I learned from my mother,” she mumbled. The Doctor nodded, instead of pretending not to notice what I was doing.
“How did she teach you?” I demanded.
Her cloudy eyes traveled across my face, baffled. Finally her hands made a pounding motion. “With a stick,” she said. She made the motion again.
The Doctor nodded again and he and Bomi and I waited, but that was all Rumali could tell us.
“Go away,” I said. She wandered off, the affront already forgotten, or maybe never noticed. Those who cannot watch well enough to pull their own weight in the village cannot expect to hold on to their pride, or to be treated like People. The Doctor went back to his hut, and I felt lucky she had been nearby to distract him.
There are always ways to let others understand what you need to know without shaming yourself or them, and a good person will always share his wealth, but sometimes I think he does not see that. It is not my place to say this, but perhaps the Doctor does not know how to watch properly.
The Doctor wants to see where food comes from. I think what he really wants to see is a hunt, but there will be no hunt for two more seasons, so Grandfather tells me to take him berry picking. I lead the Doctor across the marshes to where the kelas grow, and let him watch me pinch them off the branches. He likes to pick the plumpest berries, so when he is not looking I toss those out of the basket and leave only the older, mottled ones that are no longer poisonous.
When the basket is half full, the Doctor says, “Something smells wonderful.”
I agree. It is the golden scent of the shobu bushes, which bloom all throughout the marshes several times a year.
“And it’s such a warm clear day, too, now that the fog has lifted,” he says.
I stop and look at him. He is absolutely right.
“We should go now,” I tell him.
“Even though there are so many good berries left?” he asks.
“This is only the ninety-first day,” I explain.
The Doctor does not seem concerned, so I urge him along the path, and increase our pace until we are going as fast as he can run. Perhaps we will be able to reach the village in time.
We have run only a little way when the buzzing sound seeps into the air all around us. They are already here, and I think we may be dead. I lead the Doctor to a deep pool of open water, and jump in. He looks at me for a moment, and then jumps in after me. The basket of berries floats out of reach, which is a shame.
I snap off two long hollow reeds and hand him one.
“This is for breathing,” I tell him, too rushed to be respectful, and duck under. He joins me, holding his reed to his mouth, his hair and beard wafting like weeds.
Then the swarm of vengeance bees sweeps over the pool with a roar that we can hear through the water, a black and sparkling cloud that skims low and ripples the surface. Drawn from their hive by the warmth and the shobu pollen before the end of their hundred-day sleep, they are furious and hungry as demons. Anything that walks or flies today will be stripped of its flesh before it can fall.
It is hard to take air through the reed, and the bees sometimes cover it, seeking the source of my breath, or strike it so hard that it might come out of my hands, but I wait a long time. Beside me, the Doctor has enough sense to stay still. At last, the sky over us clears and I cautiously put my ears above water. Twice I hear an angry buzz that sends me back down, but finally the normal marsh sounds return.
We walk back home, and the whole village comes out to greet us. The People were able to shelter in the cave before the bees found them, but old Rumali had been out in the marshes, and she is still missing.
Scattered along the path before the entrance to the village we find a few fresh bones, warm and gray and polished perfectly smooth. I too almost died today when I failed to respect the knowledge that had gathered to me, and I am ashamed of my weakness. We collect all the bones we can find and take them back with us.
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” the Doctor says.
“Yes,” I agree. “It is a great waste of meat.”
The next time the Doctor prepares to go walking alone, Marfi approaches me.
“The Doctor is putting dried huffa in his pack,” he says, which means he knows the Doctor is planning for a long hike and is probably going back to his cache. I nod.
“I wonder if he will try to pee on the bang nettles again,” Marfi says, watching my eyes, which is his way of telling me he wants to go along. More than that, I am surprised to realize, he wants my permission. Marfi is one summer older than I am and has been a good teacher to me, and besides, he can speak a bit of the Doctor’s language too.
“Four eyes watch better than two,” I tell him. We leave the village and make a game of copying bird calls by the side of the trail until the Doctor passes by, and then quietly follow him.
Here is an odd thing but a true one: the Doctor has a friend he keeps in a box. It must be a very small friend, because it is a little box. The Doctor takes the box out of his hiding spot, and places it on the ground along with some others. There are lights like stars on the front, and he touches them and bends over it and speaks some words into it. Suddenly a very lively voice comes out, and what it says sounds like:
“So, the prodigal xenologist returns! How’s tricks with your hunter-gatherers, Jack?”
I think these are nonsense words, but the Doctor is pleased and not at all surprised. “Good, good,” he tells it. “Project status is optimal. All’s well, I’m healthy, and the research is proceeding more or less as planned.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Everything’s normal at this end, or at least what passes for normal in a department with this much red tape. Look, I’ve got to tell you, some of the big shots on the Xenology Commission are getting restless. I’m hearing grumbling that you could’ve found a satisfactory group of subjects on any of a dozen more convenient planets. They want to know where their funding’s going, and they want to see results.”
“If those tightfisted bastards — pardon me — if my generous benefactors on the Xenology Commission really cared so much about results, they damn well could have split for the equipment to do this job right. If I’d had even standard microprobes and could snoop the village by remote, I’d be twice as far along by now. But I’ve got something to tide them over, and I’m transmitting my notes.
“You’d be amazed, Bill. These people have developed some fascinating cultural vehicles for adapting to an environment that would kill anyone else. They’re all as sharp as tacks, and they practically worship data, and it’s uncanny how they remember everything. They can be infuriatingly reluctant to share information at times, though I’m sure there’s a context for that. I’d love to see what these people could do if they had decent resources.”
“I wouldn’t,” says the man in the box. “It sounds like if they ever got out into the galaxy, they’d be coming after our jobs in a few years. Just make sure they don’t learn too much from you.”
“Actually — and don’t be spreading this around the department — I wonder if there hasn’t been some contamination already,” says the Doctor. “In the last few weeks they’ve suddenly started using needle-and-thread. But I certainly didn’t teach them, and my supplies haven’t been touched.”
The man in the box sounds concerned. “I’d be damned careful about that if I were you, Jack. You know better than I do that’s nothing to muck around with. And if the X.C. ever finds out you’ve been leaking technology to your subjects, it’ll come down on you so hard there’ll be nothing left but a greasy spot.”
The Doctor makes a face like he has eaten something too sour. “I hear you,” he says.
Their conversation ends soon after that, and I am sorry we did not get to see what the man in the box looked like. We would like to have gotten some advice from him too. We leave our hiding spot and run home ahead of the Doctor, and I make Grandfather call another learning council while we are still trying to catch our breath. I tell them about the little man, and how he had said if we used needles and thread the ecksee monster would come down and get the Doctor, and we all agree it would be best to hide the needles and our new clothes for a little while. There had been many new words I hadn’t understood, and those of us who speak the Doctor’s language promise to listen for galaxy and jobs and tightfisted bastards so we can learn what they mean.
When the Doctor sees no one is wearing the new clothes anymore he is very relieved. He does not say anything, but I know we have saved him.
Once, the marshes were also home to the Tall People. This was long ago in the Dreaming Years, when the world was still forming and the Oldest Ones walked the earth, and a thing could be true and not real at the same time. In those years the Tall People called the fathers of the Watching People beasts, and turned against them. None could withstand the Tall People, for their eyes burned and were terrible to behold, and their arms were long and strong, and their spears were sharp. The few remaining fathers of the Watching People were driven out of the sweet marshes into the bone desert, and that is a hard and sorrowful place. There are few living things there and it is difficult to get out of the sun, and every new generation that came was smaller than the one before it.
Over a long time the bone desert used death to shape the fathers of the Watching People, so that they became strong beings who watched very carefully and thought deeply about all they saw. Even so, they had become so few in number they were certain to disappear. So they began to secretly watch the Tall People, who were happy because they lived in the kind marshes, and safe because they had a wonderful village that was protected by water that no one else could cross. Then the fathers of the Watching People found one of the reed boats the Tall People used floating alone, and they saw it was not an animal with a mind of its own, and they learned to make it take them where they wished. They made their first spears, shaped like the Tall People’s but tipped with black-glass from the desert, which holds the sharpest edge in the world. And they learned to build the reed boats, and made many of them in secret.
Then before dawn they quietly went across the water to the village and tore through the Tall People like vengeance so that none lived to see the sunrise, and the Watching People took their homes in the happy marshes to be theirs forever.
That was not in the Dreaming Years — Grandfather has shown me where he keeps the skulls of the people he met that night.
So if we are always mindful, the marshes and even the bone desert will give the Watching People great gifts and tell us all we need to know to survive, but they do not answer questions. And the Watching People do not ask them.
There are now many mysteries surrounding the Doctor, and only a few of the People still think it would be best to eat him right away and take his supplies. The rest of us understand we are seeing hints of something far bigger than the marshes. We encourage him to stay with us, and we let him see more of our ways, and the next time he borrows a boat to cross the water, the whole village expects Marfi and me to go after him.
We follow the Doctor to his cache without a word, and when he uncovers the box with his friend in it, we quietly creep as close as we can and look over his shoulder from atop a rock. He touches the front of the box until the lights appear on it, and then speaks some nonsense words into it.
The voice that answers is not his friend. It is the voice of the wind or a stone, but without a soul. It does not sound like a person. The Doctor coldly demands answers from it, and it gives them quickly and directly, without offense, every time. He finishes his questions, and without even a thank-you, puts away the box and starts back towards the village. Marfi and I do not follow him.
We have never heard of anything like this. I think perhaps the voice could be one of the Doctor’s Oldest Ones. Marfi, who has seen more things than I, whispers that this could be one of the Doctor’s people who has never known pride. That makes more sense, but then how could the Doctor trust its answers? We remove the little box the same way he had.
The Doctor’s fingers had danced across the lights before he spoke into it. The dance looked like the steps to part of the spring ajakara dance, except that it ended with two to the right instead of forwards. I make the same motions, and the green and white stars appear across its front. They are not hot. Then Marfi leans over the box, and mimicking the Doctor’s voice the same way he would copy a bird call, says, “Status check.”
“All systems nominal,” the box answers in that empty voice. “Standard parking orbit. Main drive reactor is on standby. Fuel cells yielding eighty-seven percent of capacity and recharging. Hull integrity remains uncompromised. Full compliance with relay-and-support mode programming. No passengers.”
Marfi looks at me wide-eyed. We are stunned.
“It would be good to know what sort of person I am speaking with,” Marfi tells it carefully. There is no response.
“Who are you?” he demands. My breath catches in my throat.
“I am the Interplanetary Xenology Commission sloop Margaret Meade, out of New Boston, registration code NXS-3508-M.” We both giggle — we have never been so rude before, or heard such thrilling nonsense.
“Why… are you in this little box?” I ask it. Silence.
On a hunch, I make myself ask, “Where are you?”
“I am in standard geosynchronous parking orbit thirty-eight thousand kilometers above the source of your transmission,” it says. We secretly laugh with delight.
Then it asks, “Shall I maintain position?”
“No,” says Marfi. “Come here.” He is struggling so hard with his laughter that tears appear. “We want to see you.”
“Please confirm correction.”
“Come here! Come here!” I shout. We roll on the ground and can barely breathe for laughing.
“Correction command acknowledged. Retracting sub-space communication array and engaging drive reactor for descent and re-entry… Drive reactor on-line. Initiating breaking thruster and lateral maneuvering thruster firing sequence… Topography identifies adequate set-down zone two hundred meters north-northwest of your transmission source… Estimated time of arrival, four hours twenty-three minutes.”
We stop laughing then. Arrival is a word we both know.
Marfi and I agree the best thing to do is to wait here. When it comes, maybe we can bring it to the village, and together we’ll see what sort of folk it is and what it can tell the People about the rest of the world. If it is very useful, maybe we will eat the Doctor after all.
In the meantime, we sit and watch the sky and pray that we are not waiting for the ecksee monster to come down on us.
Even now we seem to be waiting for something whose appearance would be its vanishing.
You asked me, sir, to tell you about my son’s disappearance. I must admit that I did not know what to think when your first letter arrived. And when you phoned, I think I was a bit startled by all your attention. We don’t get many phone calls here, you see. But since last week, when I told you an interview was out of the question, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about Nathan and how, as a mother, I have a duty. Others should know the truth. You wanted to know what life was like here, in my house, in my family, with Nathan and then, afterwards, without him. It’s not as simple as that, though. A person isn’t here one day, then gone the next. If I’m going to tell you anything, it won’t be what you’re expecting. It might not be what you want to hear. But, in any case, I’ll tell you what I know. What I know is the truth.
From the beginning, his growing absence was oppressive. If I was not in the kitchen making supper for Sarah and myself, I was attending to my son in his room. We seemed to eat a lot during those days. An affliction of hunger consumed us that could not be satisfied. As Nathan disappeared, Sarah and I ate and ate. I made meals we’d never heard of, recipes out of foreign cookbooks, fancy dishes that required an orange peel or a sculptured radish rosette on the side. We were pretending to have money, even though we had no money. I do have money now, though. Now that Nathan is not so demanding. Yes, sir, Sarah and I are off the dole.
We ate exotic foods, Thai and Indian curries. We ground our own spices in the coffee grinder. Also we had a peculiar taste for Ethiopian, and Sarah and I would sometimes joke about this. You know, how starving those people are and how we craved their recipes. What a laugh! It was a laugh then, I tell you. I had my own boy starving. Starving for solidity. Sometimes he could barely move off of his bed.
Do you know those movies where a person suddenly acquires the ability to walk through walls? The ones where someone becomes transparent to the point that no one else can see them unless looked at very hard? The Invisible Man? Movies like that? Let me tell you, they’re a pack of lies. Those people never seem to have problems. They move through life more easily in fact. Now they can walk through moving traffic and never have to wait for the light. Now they can strip off their clothes and sneak into shower rooms to watch people, bodies, drifting through steam, larger than life, without ever getting caught.
There were days when Nathan couldn’t bring himself to go to the bathroom on his own. There were days when Sarah and I tried to help him into the shower, but he fell through our hands, through the hardwood floor, down into the living room. We’d find him lying under the coffee table, his arms threaded through the table legs. Or, once, splayed out in the middle of the broken plants and pottery he’d landed on. I was always frightened. Someday, I thought, he will fall and fall forever, and then where will he go? I remembered how, when we were little, we thought if a person dug a deep enough hole in the ground, they’d fall through to China. Our parents frightened us with thoughts like that. Why was it they wanted to frighten us?
Nathan never fell to China. Or if he did, he fell back in time for me not to notice. I don’t think this is possible. I don’t think this ever happened. Still, though, I’ll leave it open. I have learned to leave things open, sir. Have you?
It was a Friday last September the school called me. The school nurse said, “I think you need to come down.” I told her that I had to work, and she said, “I really think you should come down, Miss Livingston.” She said my name real tough-like, like she was gritting her teeth.
“All right,” I said. “All right. I’ll come down.”
Nathan was waiting for me in the nurse’s office. He was lying on a table, like in a doctor’s exam room, with the crackling paper rolled over its top. Only that paper didn’t crackle. It didn’t make any noise at all. Now being a doctor yourself, sir, you know you can’t shut that paper up. Even though you are up there at the university studying “the social implications of phenomena”, as you put it in your letter, and are in great need of “personal narratives” and “statistics” so that the research will be “pure”, and are not a real doctor, practicing medicine and such, I’m sure you have been on one of those tables before. Not even staying completely still, which is impossible if you ask me, will shut that paper up. I asked, “What’s wrong? What’s happened here?” And the nurse, a woman who was not as severe as I had expected, a woman who wore a fuzzy blue sweater and did not have her hair up in a bun but let it fall over her shoulders like dark cream, she said, “I’m so sorry.”
I went over to Nathan and looked at his eyes. His eyes were open, but he didn’t seem to see me. They were blue eyes, watery eyes, my father’s eyes. When he was born, how happy I was to see those eyes! Not my husband’s, who was a drunkard and a cheater, not his eyes. I said, “Nathan? Honey, what’s wrong?” His lips trembled. I thought, What am I going to do? Already I knew without knowing what afflicted him that things were going to change.
The nurse put her arm around me and said, “Be calm.” She unbuttoned Nathan’s shirt, one button at a time, her fingers were so deft, and pulled back each side of his shirt like a curtain. If you could see what I saw that day. It was not always like that, I assure you. Nathan: his chest, only his chest, had gone translucent. I saw those lungs filling and expelling air, two brownish, soggy sacs going up and down, up and down. And his heart, it throbbed beneath them. The blood slid through his veins and I thought of blue rivers winding on a map. The nurse covered him over again and began buttoning his tiny buttons. And look here, I thought, even those buttons are clear.
Perhaps I am exaggerating this all a bit. I don’t know. This is how I remember it: his lungs, his heart, the blood in his veins and arteries, the webbing of his nerves. Sir, I know you are a not a real doctor and all, but let me ask you something. Have you ever seen anything like this? Have you ever seen your own child like this? Sir, do you have children?
I took my son home and, while we drove in the car, neither of us said anything. Nathan looked out the window at the passing mills and factories, the ones that all closed down years ago. Their smokeless stacks loomed above us, gray against the gray sky. I live on the South side of town, not the best place to raise children, Lord knows, but I did the best I could.
The factories we passed were tattooed with graffiti. The gridwork of their windows was busted out. Kids used to come down to the mills to paint their names, to spray-paint their useless childhood loves, to mark down their childhood enemies as though they were making hit lists. They threw rocks, pieces of broken concrete, at the gridded windows high overhead. The glass would shatter and rain down at their feet, onto the factory floors, and oh, how we laughed and gripped each other’s shoulders at these small victories. It felt good to bust up those places that broke first our parents’ backs, and then, after shutting down, their spirits.
I think Nathan and his friends did this, too. To let out frustration. I don’t know. I’m only guessing. It’s something I’ve learned to do.
For the first few months, things were not so bad. Not as bad as some of the others I’ve heard of. Nathan was not quick to disperse and he did it quietly. He lingered, and Sarah and I began to eat.
I will say here that I do not blame Sarah for what she did. She was only sixteen. She was jealous of her little brother. Nathan had been popular at school. After he started to disappear, I think she expected that popularity to wane a little. Instead, six other students started to disappear as well. Several of them girls who I hear had crushes on Nathan. He was a good-looking boy. He could turn heads, just like a pretty girl.
I had phone calls, let me tell you. Muffled voices in the middle of the night, hoarse voices threatening to burn down my house, to cut my brake lines, to put a bomb in my mailbox. Just keep your kid away from mine! But we both know, sir, this disease is not catching. I’m glad to see the new commercials and ads informing people of this.
Sarah — well, she was unhappy. She sulked in her bedroom and listened to sulky music, and sometimes she’d come into whatever room I was in and she’d sulk there. I made her doughnuts to perk her up, fried them myself, and then she’d be a happy girl for several hours. It was worth it to see her smiling around a cinnamon doughnut, her favorite, even though she did gain an awful lot of weight. Acne, too. Little red bumps spread over her cheeks and on her chin, cranberry-colored. She always complained because they were the kind you couldn’t pop, you had to wait until they decided to go away on their own, there were no white heads on them to pinch. They took so long to go away. I was sorry I couldn’t afford a dermatologist for her then.
As I mentioned, I don’t blame her for what she did.
One day I came home from shopping to find two women in my living room. They were dressed in elegant black dresses, wore black high heels, and one of them covered her face with a veil. My living room smelled of lilies, thick and sweet.
They were Mourners. I could tell that from the start.
They had knocked on my door before, usually on Sundays, and Sarah and I had hid behind the curtains of the picture window, sneaking glances out, waiting for them to leave. I don’t know how they knew about Nathan. I assume they had an informant at the hospital, even though those records of Nathan’s visits are supposed to be private.
Sarah sat in a chair opposite them on the couch. She’d set out a tray of sugar cookies on the coffee table between them. When I saw those cookies, the sugar glittering like grains of powdered glass on top, I almost ran over to snatch them away from those women. I said, “What’s all this?” I still held the grocery bags in my hands.
One of the ladies stood up and extended her hand. She was the one without the veil. She said, “Hello, Mrs. Livingston. I’m Hilary Love. So pleased to meet you.”
I looked at the hand for a moment. She wasn’t taking it back. It floated there between us, so finally I set down my bags and shook it.
The other lady was a widow. Her name was Sally Parkinson. Her husband had disappeared last year. She said, “We’ve been having a wonderful talk with your daughter.”
I said, “Go to your room, Sarah.” I gave her a look and she didn’t say anything, but went straight up the stairs, her feet thumping unpleasantly all the way up.
“Now Mrs. Livingston,” said the Widow Parkinson. “There’s no need to be angry with her. She’s a delightful girl, full of life.”
I said, “Don’t talk to me of life.” I asked, “Why are you here and what have you said to my daughter?”
“Nothing,” they swore. “Nothing, Mrs. Livingston.”
Now that’s the last time I allowed that. I corrected them. “It’s Miss Livingston, thank you very much,” I said.
They said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“No need to be sorry,” I said. “He was a worthless drunk. He used to hit me. I threw him out.”
“We want to talk to you about Nathan,” they explained. But I already knew that.
I told them, “Take your pamphlets and yourselves out of my house. He is not dead.”
“Oh, but Miss Livingston,” said the Widow Parkinson. “You don’t realize it yet. You’re in denial. You just wait, one day you will understand.”
Hilary Love patted the widow’s leg when she said this, then squeezed her knee. She left her hand there and her fingers spread over the widow’s knee like the jointed legs of a spider. The widow, you see, she thought the same as me at first. She thought maybe her husband’s not really dead, maybe he’s not really disappearing. Maybe, she thought, he is simply shifting over to a different kind of life. I nodded. I agreed with that. She said, “Miss Livingston, I was wrong. He was dead from the day he started to vanish, and we are here to help you deal with that. You must understand, Nathan is gone and you are neglecting a very much alive daughter. Let us take what’s left of him to a center, where he can continue this final process in private. You must get on with your life. It can take so long, such a long time for him to go. In fact, he is already gone. Only the body is remaining, such as it is.”
That threw me, so I stood and asked them to leave. I waved my hand in the direction of the front door. They hesitated, blinking dumbly at each other, so I asked them not to make me call the police. They nodded. “Yes,” they said. “Of course,” they said. I escorted them to the door and left them out in the cold of that autumn day, with the wind blowing red and gold leaves onto the steps of my porch. Later, when I passed by the door, I found a pamphlet one of them had stuffed in the jamb. On the cover, in large letters, it said: LET THE DEAD BURY THE DEAD. I wrinkled my nose. What did they know about being dead anyway? I threw the pamphlet in the trash.
I didn’t yell at Sarah. I didn’t carry on and tell her how much she’d hurt me. We were supposed to be a team in this, and here she was, letting in the enemy. I grilled a steak and sautéed onions for her that night.
Nathan — he continued to grow in his absence. Almost every day was different. Some days I’d find him quite substantial, with sweat beaded on his forehead. Sweat I could touch and wipe away, as though he were simply a fevered child. Believe me, though, this was not a regular event. Most days he was gone as much as a ghost. I could pass my hands right through him. His body would seal around my hands as if I had plunged them into water. Lord, I even expected him to wash away sometimes! But somehow he pulled himself together. He was a fighter — he always fought — up till the end.
In the middle of all this I lost my job at the paper. I’d been inserting advertisements and coupons into the local newspaper for a little over minimum wage. You know, on the assembly line with several other women, catching the papers as they came down our row, folding the ads into them quick as you can. I came home with my fingers inked black. If I didn’t wash my hands straight away, I’d leave prints all over the house. Cupboard doors, drinking glasses, the handle of the refrigerator. Ink smudges everywhere. You could always tell where I’d been.
I lost the job because I called off too much. I had to take care of Nathan, and some days I couldn’t bear to leave him alone in that big old house, with only Sarah’s sulky presence.
Some days he looked so frightened. I can’t remember his eyes ever closing for more than a few hours at a time. And when he did close them, it didn’t matter. Those eyelids were clear, and I could see his blue eyes behind them, as if I’d bent down to look through a keyhole, to find him staring back at me from the other side.
One day, when he had enough strength to squeeze out a few words and asked me to sit with him a while, I called my boss, Albert, and said, “My boy’s not doing well, Albert. I have to stay home.”
“That boy’s never doing well, Em,” said Albert. “Doris Eliot’s girl has the same thing your boy has, and Doris makes it to work okay. I need you here.”
It was a Saturday night, so there were obviously a lot of inserts of ads and coupons for the Sunday paper.
I said, “I can’t. He spoke today, Al. I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
“I can’t hold your job either, Em,” said Al. He said, “I’m sorry, too.”
So that’s why I was on the dole for a while, sir. After Nathan’s dilemma ended, though, I immediately went back to work. I am not the sort to take and take for no good reason.
I never gave up on Nathan. Not like so many of these other families of the Disappeared do. Let me tell you, I held firm in my convictions. He was not dead, like the Mourners would have us believe. I know this. I have proof. He’s not dead still, and I will even tell you why.
After nearly twelve months, Nathan had almost completely disappeared. At the end, or what seems like it is the end for most people, I would look in on him and could barely make him out. He was thin, unlike Sarah and myself, and the blanket I’d covered him with barely moved as he breathed. Once I held a mirror under his nose and it came back with just a dusting of white steam. It made me happy to see even that. I drew a heart in the condensation and showed it to Nathan. Look, I wanted to say, here is proof. He smiled a thin smile back, his lips parting to reveal his upper row of teeth. His teeth weren’t white, though, and they appeared unenameled. They winked briefly with light. I saw tendrils of roots, brown nerves, suspended inside them. I didn’t say anything, but his teeth looked like glass.
He became completely clear at one point. Clear as those transparent pages of the human body you will find in some encyclopedias. Like the plastic models of the human body in biology classrooms, I saw everything he held inside. The cage of his ribs; the lungs and heart moving blindly as a cat under a blanket; the intestines, both upper and lower, twisted together; the butterfly-shaped pelvis; and, of course, his skull, with his blue eyes looking jellyish in their sockets. There was so much of his life beyond me, so much I didn’t know. Here he was, revealing his most private organs, and I still knew nothing at all. What were his favorite colors, his favorite music? Where did he like to spend his afternoons? Was he really as popular at school as I’d imagined? Why had he, for the past two years, taken to holing himself up in the attic on weekends, carrying along a supply of books, food, pillows and blankets, refusing to eat dinner in the kitchen with Sarah and me, saying angrily, “Can’t I do anything without you knowing? Don’t you know what privacy is?” Was it my fault I had no husband, or one that was worthless, and that I had to work afternoons and evenings to support the kids? I’m not asking for pity, sir. Lord knows I did the best I could.
I could say things about him. I could say he was a sad child. Next to him, Sarah’s melancholy seemed like happiness. I could say he needed a father figure. He needed a school where he did not have to worry about being robbed or shot. He needed friends who did not give him drugs. I found them — I was not unaware. But what could I do? If I threw a fit, grounded him, said to get a job, snapped his cigarettes in half, brought out from the attic the other stuff, screamed, Not In My House, as loud as I could, stamped my feet, shook him by his narrow shoulders, hugged him and wept, said, Please Don’t Do This To Me, I Can’t Bear It Any Longer — what use would that have been? Would it have kept him in his body?
I could say he was not as strong as my daughter. He could not stand up to the pressure as Sarah has. She has my blood in her. He was weak like his father. Instead of the drink, he chose to disappear, so that no one could ever touch him — could ever hurt him — again. I could say for your benefit, sir, He was not made for this world. There are some people who just simply cannot thrive. Would that help your studies? There, I’ve said it. Consider it a gift.
By the following December, Nathan’s insides had disappeared as well. He was now entirely transparent, a plastic model of the human body without a view of the organs. I crawled into bed with him one day and lay there and hummed, in case he could still hear. I thought that might be a comfort. A year and a half he lay on that bed, flickering. How do you comfort that?
I went out into the blizzardy snow one evening and bought him a fish. I went to one of the top-notch places, one of the stores in the mall. I wanted him to have the best fish, the very best. When he was a little boy he wanted one, and I, foolishly, hadn’t allowed it. Instead, I had tugged on his arm and hissed, “They’re too expensive!”
I bought the whole set-up: the aquarium and the filters, the diver figurine that rested on the layer of blue stones at the bottom, the cave for him to explore. When I looked in one of the store’s tanks, I found something called ghost fish swimming inside. You could almost miss seeing them, if you didn’t look hard. The ghost fish were completely translucent, except for the tiny shadows of their skeletons cupped in their transparent flesh. They swam in hordes, back and forth across the tank, miniature fish skeletons rippling the water. The saleswoman helping me said, “Those are our best sellers.”
“They won’t do,” I said. I didn’t explain. I bought a Siamese fighting fish instead, with all those iridescent colors: blue and purple and red shining scales. The fins trailed around its body like silk scarves. I thought, How beautiful. I had forgotten such a thing could exist. It was so insistent on being seen.
The saleswoman helping me said, “Just don’t put two of this type in the same tank or they’ll fight. They’re fighting fish.” She explained how they puff up really large and all of their colors turn radioactive, how they tear into each other as though one tank isn’t big enough for the both of them. I laughed and laughed. I had to hold my aching stomach. She made it sound like a Western movie.
I don’t know if it was a comfort to Nathan, but it was to me. I needed something in his room. A fish that insists on being seen seemed right.
The night before Christmas, Sarah and I gathered around his bed to open presents. Nathan could not be moved. My hands swam through him if I tried to lift him, and Sarah had no better luck. We had wanted to take him down by the fireplace — with the stockings hanging on the mantel — down by the Christmas tree to see its winking lights. After running our hands through his body though — after that, we gave up. The fish tank gurgled on top of Nathan’s scarred wooden desktop, casting bluish light over the room, rippling water shadows over the walls. The Siamese fighting fish floated in the water. It watched us seriously. Maybe it wished not to be separated by the plate of aquarium glass. I wanted to smack it, tell it to leave us alone, that this was a private moment. As glad as I was to have that fish in Nathan’s room, it was starting to feel like competition.
I gave Sarah a new sweater and jeans, and the latest CD of her favorite sulky music. She hugged me and I almost cried to feel her arms tighten around my shoulders. I thought, Why haven’t we been hugging all the time?
Nathan was barely present. His head was tilted towards Sarah and me, and I think I saw him smile once or twice. I don’t know. I might have imagined it. But in my memory, he smiled.
The next day he was gone. I woke and wandered sleepily into his room to find his bed empty. The blanket lay across his bed in rumpled hills and valleys, but underneath, nothing stirred. I sucked my breath in hard, so hard it cut down the length of my throat like a knife. That first breath wasn’t enough, though, and I kept gasping for air. Each time I did, the knife cut deeper.
I attacked the bed, scooped up armfuls of quilting and sheets. I think I howled a curse. I screamed, “Nathan! Nathan!” over and over. I threw off every blanket and then the mattress, the box springs. I would have ripped up the floorboards if I’d had the strength. I ran downstairs and looked in the living room, where sometimes he’d land after a fall in the past. He wasn’t there. I ran down to the basement and searched through boxes full of discarded memories, but he was not there.
He was not there.
He was not there. Not anywhere in the house. Sarah finally found me in the kitchen, nibbling a Christmas cookie, one of those that have been cut into a shape. I was eating a Christmas tree trimmed with green frosting. She asked me what was the matter and I shook my head. She knelt beside me and said, “Mommy.” I almost cried. She never called me that. It was always Mother. Never a sign of affection from that girl, but I am proud of her for that. In this way, she is protected.
I didn’t know what to do, what the procedures were, so I took the bus to the hospital. I went to the ward where Nathan had had tests at one time. There was a nurse at the desk, scribbling on a pad. I said, “My son —
“He’s doing well,” she told me. I blinked. “You’re Mrs. Murphy, right?” I nodded, wanting to be Mrs. Murphy instead of Mrs. Livingston right then. “You can go in and see him now,” the nurse said. She pointed to the door behind me. I went in. There he was — Mrs. Murphy’s son — sitting in a chair next to his bed, staring out the window. I looked where he was looking, but the window was filled with light. Light so bright, no one could look at it without going blind. I turned to him again and saw the floral pattern of the wallpaper behind him. I saw it through him.
Sarah and I did not eat much after the memorial service. She lost a lot of weight and I got a new job, cleaning rooms at the Bakersfield Inn. I bought her a new wardrobe as soon as I could, and took her to a dermatologist. She was so happy. She practically danced through the front door after school each day. We tried to put Nathan behind us as best we could, but it was difficult. While we ate supper together one evening, Sarah put her fork down on her plate and said, “He’s still here. I can feel him. He isn’t gone, Mother.”
We both looked up at the ceiling for some reason, but there was nothing there.
I should have known she was right, though. She is a smart girl, smarter than I’d ever guessed. She brings home straight A’s. When she said he was still here, I should have believed her.
Several nights after Sarah and I looked up at the ceiling, I heard someone knocking at my front door. It was very late, after midnight. I immediately suspected trouble, but I gathered my robe around me and went down to see who was there.
The knocking grew more insistent as I went downstairs. At first it had been a rapping, but now it became forceful, and the door shook a little in its frame. I grabbed at the collar of my robe, as if that could protect me.
I went to the picture window first, and pulled back the curtain a little. It was snowing outside, the flakes drifting in piles along the windowsill, collecting on the steps of my porch. Under the florescent street lamps, the snow in the front yard, and in my neighbors’ yards, seemed to glow purplish-white under the dark sky. The window was cold. It gave off coldness as a fire will give off heat.
There was no one on my porch, but I still heard the knocking. I pulled back from the window and looked at the door again. It shook in its frame.
I dropped the curtain and went to the door. I opened it just a little, in case someone was out there and I needed to close it quickly. It didn’t matter, though. There was no one. I swung the door wide and stepped outside.
The knocking had stopped as soon as I opened the door. Now I looked around, turning my head quickly one way, then the other, trying to see if any prankster shadows ran off, scurrying down the street, choking on their own laughter. I saw nothing. I looked down, puzzled, and saw the snow piling up on my porch steps, drifting onto the porch itself.
There were no footprints.
I stepped back inside and slammed the door. I locked it. I pressed my back against the door, and again the knocking started. The door bucked at my back, lifting under the blows.
“Stop it, Nathan,” I whispered. “Please stop it.” Sarah was at a friend’s house, spending the night, and I was thankful she was not here right then. The knocking continued.
I ran upstairs and went into his room. I had tried not to go there since that Christmas morning, only to feed the fish and that was all. The bed still lay on the floor in a jumble, mattress and box springs thrown against opposite walls. The fish tank gurgled, its small light glowing in the dark room. The Siamese fighting fish floated inside, fanning its fins. I closed my eyes, opened them. The knocking would not stop.
I went over to the fish tank and peered inside. I pressed so close my head bumped against the glass. The fish must have felt my bump against the aquarium was an attack, though, because suddenly it turned on me, a bloated red tumor, and swam at me, fins flying.
I don’t know what came over me, sir, but I couldn’t help myself. I grew angry too. I couldn’t help it. Perhaps my own face grew bloated and red as well. As the fish charged, I grabbed hold of the edge of the tank and pushed it onto the floor. Glass shattered. Water poured out, and the fish with it. It flipped and flopped on the hardwood floor, next to the diver figurine that had landed nearby.
Sometime during all of this, the knocking had stopped.
He is not dead, as I told you. I want you to say that in your book. That night was only the first in a series of visitations. Sarah has been here to witness several others since. He knocks on the door. He turns on the shower. Sometimes he will even cook us a meal. But his favorite is the knocking. He continues to return to that.
The Widow Parkinson had been right at one time. I suspect that, before she opened her door to the Mourners, her husband had been visiting her as well. But she’s denied what I’ve come to know, down in my bones, deeper even. Sometimes you don’t see things for what they are until they reach a vanishing point.
But that was the widow’s choice. This is mine. Right now, no matter what anyone tells me, I know Nathan is here. He is here, sir, in this house, in these rooms, breathing along with us. He is entirely alive.
If you’re very quiet, you may be able to hear him. It’s him you should be talking to anyway.
I think he has a lot to say.