Last month, Matt Cheney emailed me to let me know that he was putting together a celebration of Jeff VanderMeer’s new collection, Third Bear. He asked a number of writers and critics if we would each write about two stories from Jeff’s collection sometime in July. You can visit this site to see the rest of the carnival.
“Sure,” I said, “but my July is busy. It might be late in July.” Matt assured me that was okay, and here I am, as promised, at the very last minute.
Matt told us we could write however we wished about Jeff’s stories. In this case, I felt fan fiction would be the sincerest form of flattery.*
A Meta-Fictional Diptych Relating to the Stories “Appoggiatura” and “Fixing Hanover”
by Rachel Swirsky
Rebecca Salt, age fourteen, daughter of divorced middle class Jews from Long Island, was tired of being a Speller. She could still remember how things had felt before she got competitive, when Spelling was still a pleasure, when she had a sort of palpable sense of the l-u-x-u-r-i-a-n-c-e** of words and letters. She’d heard the symmetry between alphabet and language as a kind of ringing d-u-l-c-i-m-e-r, intricate and melodious. Sometimes the joy she took in words felt a-u-t-o-c-h-t-h-o-n-o-u-s, seeming to rise up in her from some ineffable, otherworldly source.
Six years into the rote of shuffling flash cards in every free moment, gasping out words as she ran out the door to school, eschewing the playground to snatch more time at recess and lunch, her evenings collapsing into a formless mass of homework seeping into study… well, six years into it she found herself waxing e-l-e-g-i-a-c about the days when words had seemed to sing and spin. It seemed almost s-a-c-r-i-l-e-g-i-o-u-s to admit it, but she regretted the k-n-a-c-k for words that had bound her to this labor.
Until she discovered s-m-a-r-a-g-d-i-n-e.
The word shattered the mundane expectations of her suburban m-i-l-i-e-u, rising in a flash of verdant foliage and lime feathers and sensuous snakeskin scales. It was fir trees and cat’s eyes and peridots and long silk gowns and malachite and moss. Wondrous shrapnel inundated her imagination. She could almost touch it: a land where everything shone like emeralds.
There was no reasonable explanation for why she had not run into the word before. It was a well-known spelling challenge, having decided the National Spelling Bee championship in 1961. She should have been spelling it in her sleep for years, as she spelled s-y-l-l-e-p-s-i-s and r-a-t-o-o-n and h-a-r-u-s-p-e-x. There was no reason for her persistent ignorance, none, unless—and here the a-u-t-o-c-h-t-h-o-n-o-u-s theory began to raise its head with whispers of mysticism and d-e-i-f-i-c-a-t-i-o-n—unless something had been waiting to show her the word until she was ready to receive it.
Day and night, no matter how laborious her studies, she was never again thinking about the words, not really, never again wondering if she had transposed the “i” and the “e” in a-n-t-e-d-i-l-u-v-i-a-n or used the right double letters in a-p-p-o-g-g-i-a-t-u-r-a. She was too busy contemplating her imaginary, emerald realm. Would it have green coins, she wondered? What would they eat there? Probably only things that were m-a-c-e-r-a-t-e-d; that would make her turn green. What were the people like? She imagined them with exotic, untenable names, like E-c-z-e-m-a and P-s-o-r-i-a-s-i-s.
Rebecca became so intent upon her fantasies that soon she forgot to rifle through her flash cards at all. Her parents became concerned. Her father tried to engage her with the kinds of intriguing words that had always lured her before—h-y-d-r-o-p-h-y-t-e and s-o-u-b-r-e-t-t-e and o-d-o-n-t-a-l-g-i-a—but these words did not fit into Rebecca’s imagined kingdom, and so she paid no heed. Rebecca’s mother became hysterical with worry, and brought the child into the s-a-n-i-t-a-r-i-u-m for a healing dose of Freudian t-h-e-r-a-p-y. A diagnosis of depression was applied, complete with prescription, but it made no difference.
The rapid decline began at P-u-r-i-m that year, when Rebecca looked down at the traditional celebratory meal and declared she would not eat anything that had not been m-a-c-e-r-a-t-e-d and was preferably green as well. Her parents, fearing anorexia, served their finicky offspring frog-in-chicken and chicken-in-duck, but Rebecca ate little, growing thinner and thinner. P-s-y-c-h-i-a-t-r-y had nothing more to offer, even when Rebecca tried to explain away her sudden onset of n-a-r-c-o-l-e-p-s-y by saying that her episodes coincided with the times that the ambassador of S-m-a-r-a-g-d-i-n-e was calling her for diplomatic duty. By the end of spring, the emaciated Rebecca slept more often than she was awake, until even that preciarious condition d-e-t-e-r-i-o-r-a-t-e-d and she slipped into a coma.
The sad tale might end there but for the fact that Rebecca’s skin turned green while she was in the hospital. A resident physician, running tests for his own inscrutable reaosns, realized that the girl’s body had somehow begun producing c-h-l-o-r-o-p-h-y-l-l, leading to photosynthesis. At her parents’ insistence, Rebecca was taken off the machines to see if she could survive on her own—and not only did she survive, but she flourished. She even regained consciousness on one brief occasion, muttering incoherent v-i-g-n-e-t-t-e-s about her dream life where she studied at a l-y-c-e-u-m in S-m-a-r-a-g-d-i-n-e.
At least she seems happy in her dreams, her parents concluded when Rebecca’s brief wakefulness lapsed. The young doctor, shaking their hands on their way out, added as a minor observation that he had been dreaming himself of green people of late, and wouldn’t it be funny if there were a whole country full of photosynthetic, green individuals? “Smaragdine!” Rebecca’s parents exclaimed simultaneously, looking to their i-n-t-e-r-l-o-c-u-t-o-r with amazement.
“Do you think—do you think it could be true?” Rebecca’s mother asked the doctor.
The doctor shrugged. “I really have no idea,” he said–but in his pocket, he held a single emerald coin.
II. Lady Salt
“Someday I will kill you and escape to the sea,” Lady Salt whispers to her former lover.
They sit together on the airship that destroyed Lady Salt’s village and everything she’d ever known.
Lady Salt’s former lover designed the airship—he designed all airships. He claims he didn’t know that they would be used as weapons. He claims that he fled the Empire once it began using them to rain destruction on neighboring peoples. He claims that he is innocent of their blood.
He listens calmly to her threat. He does not tense or clench his fists. Only his eyes change, stony resignation drifting beneath the blue.
She refuses to call her former lover by the name he used when they lived together in her island village during those years when she knew his skin almost as well as she knows her own. He’d come as a refugee, washed up like the salvage her people used for trade. She had salvaged him and made him her own. Then the airships came and destroyed everything, all because they wanted to recover one man.
She shouldn’t have survived the destruction, but he had been there when the soldiers found her, and he’d told them he’d come back willingly if they took her as well. She could never forgive him for anything, but especially not for denying her a clean death.
Instead of his village name, she uses the same title the soldiers do: Engineer.
The soldiers are deferent. They need the Engineer to invent more weapons. They are in danger of running out of new ways to kill people.
But even their deference does not change the fact that the Engineer and Lady Salt are prisoners. At night, they are placed in the same room. Lady Salt refuses to share the Engineer’s bed. She sleeps on the floor instead, one ear pressed to the door, listening to the click of the guards’ heels as they pace the hardwood.
During the day, the soldiers take the Engineer away to consult with the Captain. While he’s gone, Lady Salt is allowed to explore a small suite of rooms adjoining their bedroom, the guards at her heels.
On the island, there was the asymmetrical, organic beauty of cliffs and beaches, the white dive of ocean birds and the glint of fish scales sliding through water, the whip of agitated waves and the stillness of calm seas. On the ship, there are fine polished woods and objects chipped from shiny stones that Lady Salt doesn’t recognize. Everywhere, the gleam of metal—more metal than Lady Salt saw in a lifetime of salvage. Everything is laid out in regimented designs, almost mechanical in their precision.
The people are equally mechanical, marching in matched-length steps, repeating the same salutations whenever someone enters or leaves a room. The only other woman is the cook who brings their meals while wearing enormous skirts and a cinched bodice that seems to contribute to her pink face and shallow breaths. Lady Salt shouted at the soldiers who tried to bring her similar garb, but in the end it was only the Engineer’s intervention that left her in trousers.
There is one thing she likes onboard: a globe of the world. Despite her refusal to acknowledge him, the Engineer insisted on explaining what it was once he saw that it fascinated her. When he’s gone, she slides her hands over the strangely smooth surface, and lets her fingertips bump up and down as they skim over the raised island chains.
She leaps back in surprise when she feels other hands seizing the globe to stop its spinning. It’s the Engineer. She glances up in disgust, but she’s equally disgusted at herself for becoming so immersed that she failed to hear him enter the room.
The Engineer points to a misshapen green island. “We’re here,” he says.
Lady Salt moves to a porthole which overlooks a barren field. “We’re here,” she says, “but where are the farmers?”
There are scorch marks on the ground. This territory has been burned by the air ships.
“I never meant for this to happen,” says the Engineer. “I wanted to build airships. I was stupid. But what child hasn’t looked at the birds and wanted to fly?”
Lady Salt curls her lip. “Don’t court my pity.”
The Engineer ducks his head. “I wanted to explain,” he says softly, spreading his hands in a gesture of vulnerability.
When they were lovers, Lady Salt had liked his openness. Now she loathes that, too.
Sometimes at night, her dreaming mind conjures scenes best forgotten. The smell of his sweat mingling with ocean salt. The smooth of his teeth. The rough of his thighs.
Can she kill him? She’s killed before, but never someone she once loved. As soon as she considers it, she realizes she can.
Now that she refuses to look at the globe anymore, she spends her time staring out the porthole. They pass over vast tracts of scorched lands. In some places, the Empire’s citizens are building new farms and new cities, all in the same, regimented style. Beyond the wastelands, they reach disputed territories. Now instead of scorch marks, there are corpses rotting into the soil. Everywhere is blood and guns and screaming. Everyone on the airships is responsible—from the soldiers who fire the guns to the cook who fills their stomachs. But the original fault is the Engineer’s.
Lady Salt gets her opportunity one night when the breathless cook tips into a faint, their dinners clattering to the ground. The cutlery is blunt, but a paring knife falls from the cook’s voluminous garments. Lady Salt contrives to take it before the soldiers can notice. The Engineer sees, but he says nothing.
She waits until the soldiers retreat outside their bedroom. The Engineer doesn’t look surprised until she hesitates with the knife against his throat. He squirms. His eyes bug out like a frog’s. “You still… love me?” he asks.
Lady Salt scoffs. “I want more blood than you can give me. I want the blood of all these men.”
The Engineer’s ragged breaths almost cause the knife to cut him without moving. “I can make them trust me.”
“Your problem is that you’re too weak,” says Lady Salt. “You never asked questions. Why do you want missiles on airships? Then when things got violent, you fled. Even in our village, you fixed Hanover, knowing this could happen.”
“You’re not weak,” says the Engineer.
“I’ll still kill you,” says Lady Salt. “When it’s over.”
The Engineer contrives to indicate his agreement without slitting his own throat. “When it’s over, I’ll kill myself.”
Lady Salt withdraws the knife. The Engineer’s breathing eases. He watches her as she crosses the room, tossing the paring knife into a shadow where one of the soldiers will find it in the morning and believe it to have been unused. Together, they will infiltrate the regiments until they find other weapons, better weapons. And when they have them, the airships will burn.
*Particularly because I suspect “Fixing Hanover” is itself a form of fan fiction, written in response to a Bradbury story.
**Note: Words spelled out with hyphens are drawn from the list of words that have won the national spelling bee. The idea is lifted from Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories, an anthology edited by John Klima based around the same list of words, in which “Appoggiatura” originally appeared.