1:12: “A Stone for Mr. Crowe”, by James Allison

1:12: “A Stone for Mr. Crowe”, by James Allison

The rain will always make me think of Mr. Crowe. One would think that it would clean things, purify them. Instead, it uncovers old wounds, bringing to the surface things best left buried.

Nature’s fouled design.

Our Procurator is gathering the last of his personal effects from his desk. He’s preparing to leave us, to depart this sorry, mud-slicked moon. The rain on our office window might be applause or it might be a funeral volley. Either way, there’s no charm to it.

He’ll be missed, no question. We all thought him a good man. Perhaps not ‘good’ — ‘politic’ is better. ‘Charitable’ would be better yet but he fell before that hurdle. Hindsight is a cruel harpy.

For myself, I’m simply a notary. A small man, you might say; a man raised above the primordial soil by grace of a neatly printed letterhead. There lies my absolution.

Our Procurator, unfortunately, has no such refuge. To see him now, one would think him beyond commune. He is as gray as stone, a golem official. He tidies his desk slowly, with boulder hands, his suit crumpling like disturbed subterranean strata. The small round eyeglasses are calcite blinds, obscuring the soul beneath. When he clears his throat, as he does now, with a small harrumph, it means ‘business is finished’.

Storm clouds billow outside. I see Mr. Crowe’s face in all of them.

I recall the first time we encountered him. The Procurator had just concluded a lengthy judgment on a divorce settlement and Mr. Crowe’s case was next. The Procurator was irritable; I could tell by the rapid flick of his jeweled wrists. Mr. Crowe sat in the outside corridor awaiting his call. I remember him as he entered; it was as if all hope had been sucked from within him and his skin had vacuumed inward to fill the loss. He walked unsteadily, his long fingers nervously maneuvering a frayed blue cap. He was tall, and I thought at first there might have been a slight stoop. But of course, he bore the weight of the world.

When he approached the Procurator’s desk he paused, unsure of his place, and I signaled for him to be seated, while the rain outside chattered like a legion of stenographers.

The Procurator held his silence for a moment, the desk monitor’s glow making neon of his skin. “My sincere condolences, Mr. Crowe. A terrible and tragic accident. If this office can assist in any way?”

“I’d like a place for my wife. A grave. A plaque with names. To remember her by.” Mr. Crowe’s voice sounded dry. Too much dust and crying, one supposed.

Our Procurator sighed, a weary exhumation of dead air. “Mr. Crowe, you’re aware of our statutes, I’m sure. I’ve no doubt your wife was a very dear lady but she was not an eminent citizen. Unfortunately, by the criteria I must bring to bear, she was not ‘of note’.”

I remember how steady Mr. Crowe’s voice was, how instant his reply. “She was my wife. She kept my house. She was of note to me.”

He had pride. It hummed about him like an energy.

We already knew the story. Everybody did. News of the event had been broadcast throughout the station. His spouse had been working in the reservoirs of the primary drill cores when the accident had happened. Every awful detail had been relayed; how the drills had unexpectedly spun in their mountings, churning the black oil that Ishael Crowe bobbed upon in her small craft. She’d been dredging strips of scored metal, drawing the scrap into her vessel with pneumatic clamps, and it had only taken a quick whirl of gears for the life to be threshed from her. We had all endured the same shameful thought on hearing of it: How glad I am that this terrible thing did not happen to one of my own.

Nobody could find her husband when it had happened. He’d been working inside the stamping mill doing maintenance work on one of the conveyor engines. Only later had he learned of his loss, whereupon he’d gone immediately to the dredge tanks, hunched down and waited. Over six hours he’d stayed there. Beyond hope. Beyond miracles.

Our Procurator is well versed in matters of diplomacy, and so he was able to clothe his denial with some garb of decency. “I understand your feelings. But you appreciate the reasons: we grant one memorial and we must grant them all. Space is at a premium here, Mr. Crowe. Practicality denies us the luxury of remembrance.”

A politic man.

Mr. Crowe remained implacable. “We’ve remembered others. Made spaces before.”

“My apologies. I can’t authorize it. Harrumph.”

Mr. Crowe made no move to leave. Instead, he leaned closer to our Procurator, as if to give weight to his words. “I want a tribunal. I’ll challenge your judgment.”

“That is your right, of course. My notary will help you prepare the documents.”

Mr. Crowe placed his cap defiantly upon his head, as if the garment’s purpose had just occurred to him. Perhaps there was a slight tremor as he rose. He’d already turned to leave when the Procurator called his attention once more.

“A small matter, Mr. Crowe. You said ‘names’ on the plaque?”

“My wife was five months pregnant. She carried our son.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

Mr. Crowe closed the door quietly behind him.

I looked at our Procurator, examining the features of his face, the incline of his frame, for any regret.

“A sad business,” I said.

“Indeed. He’ll lose the judgment.” The Procurator tapped his keyboard for the next file, the screen shifting its cold hue to his jowls. Compassionless men are strongest. I’d always thought so.

Delivering the petition documents was my responsibility. Mr. Crowe was out on the surface at the time, working on one of the drill housings. He seemed no more significant than the rest of the workers that milled about the bases of the huge cylinders, scuttling and inspecting like drones born of the mud, their weather coat wings flapping in the rain.

I watched him as he operated with blackened fingers. He’d caressed his wife’s belly with those hands, touched the pulse of his child’s heart. How small, by comparison, the creation that he cared for now. It stretched upwards like a crooked monument, doomed to skewer into the mud.

As I offered him the papers, he looked up at me, his eyes red and watered. I was somewhat taken aback, that a man should wear his grief so publicly. “Your application,” I said. “You’ll need to sign it.”

He took the documents and nodded. I waited but he said nothing.

“You’ll need to return the papers after you’ve signed,” I told him. “That’s all there is.”

He had no questions for me so I left him to labor on amongst the cacophony of whining gears.

I thought of him the same evening, lay awake in my bed even. I have no wife, you see. I have no one beside me to ask, ‘Is something wrong?’ or ‘Are you troubled?’ I’d always believed my heart to be a good engine, red and sturdy; I’d never wished it a thing of glass like Mr. Crowe’s, to be easily looked into.

When I slept, I dreamed myself cresting a black tide of clerks and judges, Mr. Crowe standing firm as we crashed down upon him. Even as we eddied around his waist he remained solid, a noble impediment to the flow.

I wondered where he drew his strength.

The Tribunal was convened within two weeks of the application. I accompanied the Procurator to the hearing. We sat on the benches to the left while the Adjudicates took center stage on a raised plinth. Mr. Crowe was seated to the right, a tall man made small by the burden of expectation. I noticed the steadiness of his hands, in which he held a trivinium ingot. He watched keenly as each of the Adjudicates took their places.

The Primary Adjudicate commenced proceedings. “Ezeriah Crowe, we are gathered here to make a determination in respect of your claim to Eminent Status in the community, and consequently whether to officially recognize and record the deaths of your wife and child. Mr. Crowe, please state your case.”

Mr. Crowe stood and walked to the center of the room where a clear plastic lectern awaited. Perhaps it was the longest walk of his life.

He paused before speaking. “I hold here the smallest thing of value on this world. A bar of metal so important that we give up our lives for it. But this bar is no different from any other. They are all of the same dimensions, the same weight. They shine equally in the light as this one does. Yet we put a name upon each bar. Each ingot is stamped with two lines of script. Two lines, and the universe knows where this metal came from. For my wife, who labored to make my life better, and for the son I never knew, I ask for a plaque with two lines. Two lines, to mark their value.”

I felt the blood rushing to my cheeks. Mr. Crowe was no ordinary man. He was a poet. This beaten fellow with his toolbox hands had spoken so eloquently that the Adjudicates were thrown into a burble of confused whispers.

They quizzed, cross-examined and interrogated him. What did your father achieve here? they demanded. How did your wife influence the administration of the colony?

The outcome was never in doubt.

The Primary Adjudicate was assigned the duty of announcing judgment. “Ezeriah Crowe: in respect of your claim for Eminent Status on behalf of your deceased spouse, I regret to inform you that after careful consideration of the circumstances, we rule that there can be no memorial erected, nor any plaque mounted. While she was no doubt a worthy citizen, we find no reason to elevate her in rank. This is our judgment. Let it be noted.”

The hearing was dissolved, the Adjudicates dismounting the plinth in silence. Mr. Crowe returned to his seat, the ingot still in his hand. I looked at the Procurator’s face, but saw nothing that betokened sympathy or charity. As we left the room together, I looked back. Mr. Crowe was sitting alone, perfectly still, a fallen monument.

From the tubecar that carried us back to the office, I watched the men laboring out on the mud flats. Does that man have a wife? I asked myself. And that one too? I wondered how many were content to slide with the soil.

This is no world for a poet to make his mark.

Our last encounter with Mr. Crowe came scarcely a week later. It happened in the middle of a violent thunderstorm, the rain frenziedly scourging the complex.

“He’s out of his mind!” announced the Procurator. “Completely insane!” He came tumbling into the office with a slick of sweat on his forehead, shirt collar yanked free of his neck. “Look what he’s doing — he must have re-synchronized them all!”

He swung his desk-mounted monitor around for me to see, and switched it to broadcast. The pictures I saw caused me to rise in astonishment.

The camera was fixed upon a phalanx of drills near the stamping mill. Normally, the huge cylinders would only fire in alternate sequence for fear of breaking the crust. Now, all of the colossal units were surging in unison, firing back and forth like creation’s troopers, relentlessly pummeling the deep strata. I’d never imagined all of the drills firing as one. The sight filled me with a strange elation.

The camera zoomed in, bringing a small, wind-blasted figure into focus.

Mr. Crowe.

He stood with his arms raised as if in tribute to some fearful deity, while the elements tossed him like an unwanted doll.

The Procurator mopped at his forehead. “He’ll break the crust! Everything will sink!”

I hardly heard what he said. My attention was fixed upon the wild gesturing of that tormented man and his gargantuan allies as they punished the ground beneath. Flares rocketed overhead, flashing vivid maroon snapshots. It was as if Mr. Crowe had managed to harness nature itself in the cause of his grief.

“He’s done it! He’s really done it!”

I’d never before seen our Procurator in such an agitated state. For myself, I saw a poetry in it. Even as the ground broke into mammoth shards of rock, spraying geysers of mud into the air, I knew that Mr. Crowe had exercised his will.

The drills groaned and toppled in a slow skittling collapse, the housing nearest to our failed petitioner falling sideways, blotting him out in a thunder of rock and shrapnel.

I want a grave, he had demanded.

The entire stamping mill folded neatly into sharp corners and slipped from view, blowing only a few scant bubbles of protest in its wake.

The Procurator and I watched as the livelihood of the colony slipped away. We sat in silence; the Procurator had nothing to confess, and I had no accusations. We’d done wrong and Mr. Crowe had judged us.

As a colony, we endure. The warehouses were stockpiled high with ingots prior to the disaster, and we depend upon those stocks now.

One of the bars sits upon the Procurator’s desk. He takes it into his big hand and turns it over, reading the inscription once more. I wondered if he secretly admired Mr. Crowe, as I did, for having covertly reprogrammed the mill’s laser stamp. The final batches had never been inspected; no one had noticed the new scripting until a consignee had queried it.

I imagined how our bereaved petitioner might have leaned over the console like an expectant father. How he’d picked the words as eternal gifts.

My wife. My son.
My compass and my map.
My beautiful journey.
Ishael Crowe 2206-2240 Tomas Crowe 2240

The Procurator places the ingot back upon the desk. He has no need to take it as reminder. The bars have already been circulated throughout the Company Network, to every station and colony, to the farthest outposts. There will no place the Procurator can travel where the elegy of Mr. Crowe will not be known.

He collects his briefcase and pushes his chair under his desk. When he reaches the door, he pauses to speak to me. “I wish you well,” he says.

“And you also,” I tell him.

He looks at me for a moment then turns to leave.

I want to stop him. I have questions for him: I want to know if he has children, if he has known great grief or happiness. I want to know what his greatest hopes are, his dearest dreams, this man I’ve known so long.

But instead, the rain fills the silence.

The Procurator closes the door after him.

He’d have been shocked, I think. Such sentiments are not expected of me. After all, I’m simply a notary.

Nature’s fouled design.

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