The real party would be in three days when they would host a gathering for all the children of the Notches including the two born after Hope. It had been a bumper year. The chopping block was a familiar chunk of wood that Mutt had been forced to recondition into a table. He had lost the debate over the inherent ickiness of eating food from the same block on which Ivy had given birth. In a last ditch effort at compromise he proposed flipping it over and using the other side but Ivy would have none of it. She took a certain earthy pleasure in connecting the processes of food preparation and childbirth. They both required effort; they both yielded delectable results. This was her domain and he would have to obey. Mutt could always figure out how long they had lived in the Notches by taking Hope’s age and adding nine months. So here it was a year and nine months later, the length of a normal courtship, and they were married with a one-year-old and Mutt plotting to sneak in another. He had the feeling he had known Ivy much longer, as if they had experienced a trial period before marriage and passed the compatibility test. She was an easy wife to live with. What she wanted, she got. He learned that lesson early and often. But she did not ask for much and took great pride in her role in the family.
If he had one complaint it was the reduction in lovemaking, as if there were a fixed amount of baby care and coupling in a relationship, and the increase in one led to a decrease in the other. Ivy was adamant she was not going to whelp on an assembly line and Mutt was content to accept her wisdom to a point. In his mind two years was a good spacing for children and he looked forward to giving Hope a sibling in the near future. Indeed that had been a clenching argument for keeping the birthing board. “What will we use next time?” Ivy settled on plotting her fertility according to her period, hardly a precise method, and strictly denied Mutt access during that window. She did not trust him to show restraint if she displayed weakness. She was living out the dream that filled her head in her last days in Harmour. She never had a particularly romanticized notion of sex or marriage. She enjoyed the bickering and bargaining as much as the sharing, the warts and calluses along with the smiles. She wanted to be his Hutwoman wife, and wives were creatures husbands fought with as well as, hopefully, loved. She viewed all love, even true love, as a process of mutual manipulation, the true part being genuine affection and consideration of the other’s feelings and an occasional willingness to confess error. What she liked most was feeling that she belonged to a family, that her person was important to other people, that they would face challenges big and small together, that her travails were shared.
Ivy wanted siblings for Hope as much as Mutt but had a good reason for waiting. She could not bring another child into the world knowing the end times were coming. She knew with certainty what destiny had ordained for the planet: total annihilation. She knew the mechanism of its destruction, when the clock would start ticking, when the planet would expire. But she had taken dramatic action to change this destiny and could not know the result until the Fifteenth of Tarpin, the one more than two years away, the date the end was slated to begin. The world was now off script and the future inherently unknowable. The fate of the planet hung on her actions and those of Tobor Zranga. He was under the direction of the Controller, the coming of God in the religion of the Church. She had seen in the Controller pure evil and decided to defy those instructions. She was torn about whether she should take more action. The only alternative was to enlist the government of Arland, the very act Tobor would kill her for, as well as Mutt and probably Hope. If she could stop what was coming she would gladly give her life but never those of her husband and child. She had little confidence Arland would act wisely given the power of the Oopsah. And if they received that power and acted unwisely, the effect on the cosmos would be more profound than the effect on the planet. There was a singular quality to the universe, hope, that could be destroyed if Arland did what she thought they might, disturb the Oopsah during the end times while not stopping the apocalypse. History had shown that great powers could not handle great decisions. They would take actions in times of struggle to maximize human suffering, and no greater calamity could be conceived than what she feared.
Standing at the chopping block with her daughter on her hip, Ivy could not handle the gravity of her situation. She had stumbled upon the secret order of the universe when all she wanted was to be the mother of Hope and the wife of Mutt. But these roles were intertwined because she could not save her family without saving the world. The weight upon her shoulders was imponderable. She felt she had done all that she could yet feared it was not enough. The sense of loss that had always defined her past was beginning to define her future. Ivy Morven was a cipher to Mutt Ogga. He knew she had secrets but could only imagine conventional horrors, which he repressed for fear they might affect his opinion of her. She was an angel who had fallen out of the sky into his arms and together they had found happiness. There was always a quality of tragedy about her, an inscrutable mystery, but the foreground was a loving and lovely wife, the mother of his child, a companion and co-homemaker. He chose to live in that world and ignore the more sinister one, which she was shielding him from anyway.
Mutt wormed his way into a paid position with the publishing authority by convincing Volp to devote more time to mead making, his true passion. Mutt assumed responsibility for official notices from the great powers and reader letters while Volp retained control over editorial content and advertisements, his favored subjects. They hired a teenager for the role of chief runner, this time with a small stipend so she could support her model bounder hobby. For several weeks The Edge, Volp’s weekly publication, had been running a fictional story from an Arland author about a colony of weasels living in a tree house in the mythical Forest of Yoop who had strange powers they could bestow upon children who brought them treats. The children could turn invisible or fly without upmatter or speak the secret language of beavers depending on how much the weasels liked the treats. It was an aimless story going nowhere and one day the latest installment did not arrive. Apparently the author had a falling out with the distributor over royalties and refused to release the next chapter. Volp now had a large blank space in the next edition and told Mutt to fill it however he would like because Volp had brewing to attend to. Mutt decided this was his big break and he would write his own story. He would just show up and dump it on his boss’s desk knowing the idea would otherwise be nixed in advance. Back in the hut he retired to the loft to begin writing and snapped at Ivy every time she asked what he was doing. He asked if she could take Hope outside how could he work with all that incessant whining and goo-gooing. Ivy was irritated but figured it must be important since he was normally patient or at least promptly apologetic after snapping. She brought Hope to the gourd garden she had started on the side of the hut where the little girl toddled about the dirt, having taken her first steps a few weeks earlier. Ivy was now selling squash and eggplant to the canteen with a small side operation in chickpeas. She loved to run her hands through the dirt and Hope loved to mimic her mother. They were fortunate to have a water pipe because there was no way the cistern could wash clean the messes they could make.
Mutt finally came down from the loft and took a seat at the food table. Ivy sat down across from him instinctively. He had something to share. She was nervous. He spread sheets of paper full of hand scrawls before her and announced, “Behold, you are looking at the Notches’ latest author. Get your autograph while it’s still cheap.” Ivy could make no sense of the scribbles so Mutt explained to her in laborious detail his story idea. Squirrels living in the mythical Forest of Jina store up nuts in the cavities of hollow trees during fruiting season so they will have food during the barren. But the squirrels get into a big fight over who gets to occupy the tallest tree and use their nuts as ammunition in the ensuing battle, throwing little nutty missiles from darkened hollows at their unsuspecting peers who are throwing nuts at other squirrels all in a big circle of artillery. When the nuts run out they all starve to death because the next fruiting season is months away. That was it. He would call it Nut Wars. He figured he could string it out for six or seven installments and that it would be received as a brilliant metaphor about the folly of war.
Ivy looked at him trying to be supportive.
“You don’t like it.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
He uttered a grunt for which there were no corresponding consonants in the language, wadded up the sheets of paper, and threw them in the trash. He disappeared into the loft. After several hours he emerged with a new idea for his masterpiece. Arland diverts the Looda River on a large sluice suspended over the Edge so it no longer flows directly onto its plane. The river falls through space until it hits another planet where homing fish swim up the stream of water until they reach the Cube. Mutt had not quite figured out what happened next but assumed he could come up with something. They would have to be intelligent fish, that much he knew. He looked at Ivy expectantly.
“I think I liked the nut one better.”
Again a non-transcribable grunt. He disappeared into the loft and did not re-emerge for hours, eating an occasional berel gourd tossed up by Ivy. Finally he came down and admitted defeat. All his ideas were stupid once he thought about them. Hope looked at him apprehensively having figured out the source of all that barking. He needed to make amends so he grabbed an inflatable rubber ball and rolled it to her in the baby spot where she was seated upright on the floor. She squealed and pushed it back with her little baby hands, not quite getting it to her daddy. He walked over and lightly tapped it with his foot and heard another squeal. He resolved to roll the ball back and forth as long as she wanted which turned out to be an interminably long time. She grew drowsy and toppled over onto the floor letting loose a piercing wail once her brain processed the pain. Ivy scooped her up and rocked her in an alluring swivel that Mutt found irresistibly sexy even if she was holding a baby. He wanted to switch places with Hope as it had been a long time since he danced with his wife. She calmed the traumatized child down and sat her in the nest where she promptly drifted off. Mutt held the ball in his hand imagining little creatures running around on its surface. He was so depressed that he had this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sneak his own story into the paper and all he had were crummy ideas. The little people in his imagination were busily constructing houses and windmills on the surface of the rubber ball looking up at him as though he were God. Mutt decided he would grab an official notice from the discard pile – perhaps the latest update on the carnivorous poppy invasion – to fill the blank space left by the weasel lady. The little people on the rubber ball were now constructing tanks and artillery and engaging in a major battle. He had really liked the squirrel story, a nice allegory for the constant violence besetting the planet and the inevitable result of using seed corn for war. A delegation of little people from the rubber ball began jumping on the surface as if on a trampoline trying to get Mutt’s attention. He finally noticed what he had been daydreaming about all along, the creation of an entire civilization of people on a spherical surface just like people on the Cube only different because it was a sphere. That’s it! He leapt off the floor and disappeared into the loft fending off all inquiries with further barks of inspiration.
He emerged hours later grinning smugly. Ivy knew she would have to sit politely and listen to a longwinded explication of something bizarre. And she was not disappointed. Mutt held the ball before her and asked her to contemplate how life would be different if they lived on a sphere. Well, for starters, said Ivy, they would all have to cram onto a small patch of land or risk falling off into the void. No, Mutt explained, in this world gravity is different. You see, matter is all attracted equally to other matter so it clumps in spheres, not cubes. This did not make sense to Ivy. She could understand people standing upright on a big ball but not why his new rule of gravity would create such a world. Why would people cling to the dirt beneath their feet but not to each other? Mutt was undeterred and said it would be like a soap bubble with equal tension in all directions only made of dirt and filled in. She was not convinced but was willing to suspend disbelief for the moment. So what? How would people be different on this sphere? Mutt was still working on that part. He thought briefly of giving them extra appendages, perhaps a long noodly snout, but worried that might compromise reader identification. Presumably these people would love and fight and pray and curse and build things and destroy things just like they did on the Cube. So why make all this happen on a sphere? Ivy reminded Mutt of why he liked Nut Wars despite it being an objectively atrocious idea. It was an allegory for the real world. The point was to describe the familiar in an unfamiliar setting so readers could reflect upon their own stupidity without being defensive. Sure it was dumb for those squirrels to throw all their nuts away but are we not draining the Silent Sea? Is that any different? Ivy was not optimistic any reader would actually follow this chain of reasoning but the literary purpose was noble. Mutt now had his muse in Ivy. She was right. The purpose of the Sphere would be to describe humanity just like people on the Cube only doing things so dumb that readers laugh until figuring out the joke is on them.
Ivy was not ready to concede the physical viability of such a world. If all matter was attracted to all other matter, would not the sun crash into the earth? Mutt decided the force of gravity had to wane over short distances. If water all settled on the planet’s surface with no side to spill over, how would they generate electricity? He decided wind power would be the dominant energy source on such a planet. But if the planet was round with no edges for the air to spill over, where would the wind come from? He decided there would be a cosmic wind blowing from some unknown source that could be used to turn windmills. Ivy remained skeptical. This seemed like an implausible world full of makeshift kludges to justify the sustainability of life. But she encouraged him so absorbed he was in the idea. He tried to win her over by pointing out the implausibilities of their own world, the things they took for granted but would seem like kludges to a person on the Sphere contemplating a cubic planet. Why did the Cube remain fixed in space? Everyone knew it was imbalanced with the lighter density of the Silent Sea on one side. The answer was fixity, the concept that clumps of matter tend toward inertia in the primal reference frame. But was not that an example of reverse science, an induction from observed fact with no foundation in first principles? What about the coherence of the sun? Should not a vast melted cube of glowing matter separate into its constituent gravities and disintegrate long before it achieves luminescence? The answer was solar forces but what exactly were these forces other than a kludge? How about the medium of light? It was well known through experiment that light traveled in the primal reference frame independent of the six directions but how was this possible? It just was, no further discussion was necessary so accepted was the fact. Why did the edges of the Cube not erode from the constant action of water spilling over the sides? Everyone knew of the tendency of matter to clump at such places but did this make any sense at all? It certainly did not. The Cube was every bit as kludgy as the Sphere and it was obvious to Mutt some deeper principle was at work, that his own planet existed and supported life because if it did not no one would be there to observe it. And so it would be with his own creation. However implausible the details of this new physical world might be, whatever was required for a globe to support life would of necessity exist, presumably unified by deeper principles impenetrable to the human mind but often appearing as the inelegant fixes of a careless creator trying to concoct something interesting.
Mutt disappeared up the ladder and re-emerged hours later with the first installment of his Spherical Manifesto. Ivy told him to shorten the title to The Sphere and Mutt had to agree that was punchier. He was so pleased with himself she could not find the heart to tell him his draft was insufferably dry, a newspaper sheet filled with minutely written descriptions of the physical laws of this new universe – okay, matter clumps into spheres, she got it – and the two great nations who presumably will come into conflict, their political systems, culture, history, and so on. It read with all the excitement of an encyclopedia entry on thabans. Indeed he even had a passage about how the little helix-horned goats were just as useful on round worlds as on cubic ones. What was lacking was human interest. Surely there must be a person living on this strange new planet who was in love or angry or hopeful or despondent or celebrating or grieving. But it was too late to rewrite the story as the deadline was an hour away. Mutt refused to turn the draft in on time, however, saying the whole point of the deadline was to give Volp time to spike it. He figured he would wait a couple hours past deadline in the hope Volp might be forced to publish it unread. He walked leisurely to the office then ran the last hundred yards so he would be out of breath.
“Here it is!” he shouted sweaty and disheveled, tossing it on Volp’s desk.
“The replacement story.”
Volp picked it up.
“What is this?”
“I wrote a story to replace the weasel one. I thought that’s what you wanted.”
“I was not asking you to become an author. Get me a notice, anything to fill the space.”
Mutt was crestfallen.
“Well, sir, since I wrote it can you read it?”
Volp read through the sheet and was not impressed. It was way too long and technical. He held it up before Mutt’s anxious eyes, turned it sideways, and slowly ripped it in two.
Mutt was demoralized and angry. He was about to protest when Volp tossed the top half of the sheet at him.
“Here, run with this. The whole thing is too long.”
Mutt was ecstatic and carefully set the story into the next edition, filling some blank space at the end with a lost cat notice. When the paper came out, a broadsheet folded to create four pages with his story on the bottom of the last page, he bribed the runner to tack the paper backwards on the boards and proudly brought a copy to the hut where he taped it over a painting of an exploding steamboat. Now all he had to do was come up with a second installment. He was again thinking of long noodly appendages. The next day Volp announced the weasel author had resolved her conflict with the distributor, they now had a new installment of Fables of Yoop, and Mutt would not have to worry about writing any more. Mutt was devastated his big break had come to naught and buried himself in a pile of reader letters for comfort. The pile was larger than usual and he soon saw most of the submissions were about The Sphere. The content was not flattering but he brought the pile to Volp figuring he should know of the reaction. This was a humbling moment for the budding author since nearly everyone hated his work. Oh well, he consoled himself, he could still be an artist playing drunken mandolin. Volp had a different reaction. He had long ago learned that what mattered was the number of letters, not what was in them. Sure the letters were running three to one against the Sphere as even dumber than magic weasels, if that were possible. But Mutt’s story had stirred up passions the weasel story – which had never generated a single letter – did not. The proper way to address reader disgust, in Volp’s professional opinion, was to issue a pompous editorial explaining why your decision was precisely the right one and promising defiantly to continue but with small changes to smooth ruffled feathers. He immediately set to work on an impassioned piece explaining how The Sphere was a brilliant metaphor for the planet’s current problems allowing readers to view their own inanities through impartial eyes. He would proudly continue the series and was confident readers would be edified as a result. The weasel story was spiked and Mutt now had an assignment. Sure the readership hated him but he agreed with Volp. The important thing was they had to read the story before they could hate it. Now if only he could sustain that intense negative reaction long enough to hook them on a story line.
Volp took him aside.
“A word of advice, son. Spice it up.”
Mutt looked at him uncomprehendingly.
“You know. Make it steamy.”
He still did not get it.
“You have a wife. You have a baby. Surely you did something to make that happen.”
“Yes sir,” Mutt replied, his eyes lighting up. This was to be a war allegory, not a romance. But he figured he needed to please the boss so he set to work concocting a love story to weave into the military theme. Let’s see, he thought, there will have to be a boy, and a girl. So far, so good. He settled on the name Huston for the boy. This was a handsome and dashing name. The first name that came to mind for the girl was Grace. Huston and Grace, he liked it. But this sounded too familiar so he changed the girl to Posy. This would be a love story about Huston and Posy and their tribulations in a great war between their great nations. What would people fight over on a sphere? He hit upon an ingenious idea. There would be one spot on this sphere that received direct sunlight. And in that spot alone would grow a narcotic fruit tree coveted by all humanity. He needed a good fanciful name for the fruit, something faintly fruity sounding but also exotic. Navanas, he decided, they will fight over navana trees. As he worked through the details of the love story – Huston is a ditch digger, Posy the daughter of the local mayor in the bright zone – he tried to channel a better name for his fruit and came up with nabanas. Yes, they will fight over the bright zone because it’s the only place on the Sphere you can get a nabana, a sweet addictive sickle-shaped mushy fruit that grows in cluster pods amidst the sprawling fronds of the nabana tree. Now he needed a mechanism for how these warring nations would destroy the planet. For he had decided at the outset that a war allegory had to end in total destruction, much like the starving squirrels in the Forest of Jina only in this case they take the planet with them. This was going to be a challenge because there was no obvious mechanism for blowing up a spherical planet. Probably some sort of scientific discovery would have to reverse gravity so that matter repelled instead of attracted. That would certainly accomplish the goal of spectacular destruction but he did not find it satisfying. He needed a mechanism based on mass stupidity, the sort of thing everybody knows will result in devastation but do anyway, like melting giant mountains of ice on the dark side until everyone drowns or burning the ring forests around the bright zone until everyone suffocates from smoke. None of these ideas seemed motivated though. Why melt ice or burn forests? Even stupid people need a reason to be stupid. And these ideas would not give him the dramatic explosion he craved for the conclusion. He would have to come up with a better mechanism.
Mutt returned to the hut ready to dart up the loft ladder into his fantasy world.
“Where are you going?” Ivy asked.
He thought the answer was obvious. He was going to the loft.
“Have you forgotten?”
He racked his brain. He had learned long ago never to say yes to this question.
“No, of course not,” he said, buying time. What had he forgotten?
“Good, because the party starts in five minutes.”
Oh, Hope’s birthday party.
Ivy could sense his reluctance.
“This is your daughter’s birthday,” she said earnestly. “You are a father first.”
Mutt hesitated. Ivy was right. She was always right. He found that irritating. He pressed his hands to his temples trying to drain out thoughts of Huston and Posy and took up residence by the door greeting guests, Ivy holding Hope as she worked busily on a pudding muffin. Ivy had calculated the maximum amount of filling one could bake into a muffin without it collapsing under its own weight. Unfortunately the structural integrity could not withstand an actual bite resulting in an epic mess throughout the hut. Children everywhere were nursing muffins, squirting their innards in the press of the crowd. Ivy loved the liquid disaster. As far as she was concerned it was not a party until every child was covered in a gooey mess. Ivy had invited not only the children of the Notches along with parents but their entire social circle. And every single invitee came, a first birthday being a rare event on the angled plane. This was no problem for the small hut because guests could always mingle in the garden. But Mother Nature decided Hope’s birthday would be a good occasion to see what happens when storms blow in from both Arland and Skava and converge on top of an old forester’s hut. As it turns out, what happens is a maelstrom of whirligigs ripping thatch off a roof in driving transverse rain with criss-crossing bolts of lightning while frightened partygoers cram so tightly into limited floor space parents have to hold children aloft to make room for the adults. Ivy found this delightful, reasoning the worse it got the more memorable it would be. Mutt managed to stand on the table to celebrate the little girl’s special day in song while thatch tumbled past the window behind him. He loved working a crowd and Ivy loved watching him bond with their daughter. She figured the more public the displays of affection the more entangled he would remain in their daughter’s life.
Check out chapters of The Cube right here.