Orly had been admiring Ivy’s curves and felt she would make a superb subject. Mutt did not find this appropriate and answered no on her behalf.
“How about you?” Orly thought he would make a passable male specimen himself.
Mutt found this a more reasonable request and paused to reflect upon the merits of disrobing for art until Ivy slapped his arm. The painter saw the marital discord his proposal generated and offered a compromise.
“Let us paint all of you together, the mother, the father, and the child.”
Mutt was horrified.
Mutt had never heard the word fecundity before but figured it was worth celebrating. Ivy found a family portrait an excellent idea. She viewed them as an attractive couple and took pride in their daughter, imagining her as the solution to a peg-in-hole problem suggested by the shapes of their bodies. From the canteen they followed Orly to the painter’s studio in a cross-gabled field cottage by the southern terminus of the tram, Hope perched on Mutt’s shoulders sporting a bountiful stalk. Much to Ivy’s disappointment, the little girl’s hair had retained her father’s sandy tint with only mild darkening. She was not going to make it to charcoal. The parents agreed the child had her mothers’ facial features yet somehow combined them into her father’s ingenuous expression, half her mother, half her father, and all herself. She was three years and one day old, no longer a baby sprouting limbs but a perfectly proportioned little person. Her celebration the day before degenerated into an epic cookie-throwing contest with launchings from the den to the loft and extra points for catching a fan blade, but fortunately Mutt used a no-crumble recipe. Unfortunately the cookies tasted like modeling clay which was why none of them were eaten. He built a deluxe birdfeeder with perches for winged visitors from Skava and Arland and swapped it for a tricycle, a birthday gift much to Hope’s liking. Ivy worried she would find a way to pedal off the edge but Mutt assured her the railing was all intact, neglecting to mention a large gap on the Arland side where a delivery truck rolled over. The party was Mutt’s affair, Ivy being occupied by her new position as youth representative on the governing council. She was nominated by a current member whose children she was tending, stood unopposed, and now found herself assigned the thankless task of allocating a millage across the sculpture gardens of the Notches.
Mutt was conceived restless. If Paxa had lived she would have told him how vigorously he kicked in her belly, no doubt deeply resenting the confines of a womb. The Notches was a womb to Mutt, a place of nurture from which he sought release not because of any deficiency but because he always craved the other side. Crossing the edge was not an option in his adopted hometown so he sought out novel experience. Posing for a portrait, nude if only Ivy would let him, would be such an experience. The young family entered the open door of the fieldstone cottage and Mutt was immediately struck by a portrait of Glon and Glon kissing amorously. He tried hard to summon outrage at this depravity but could find none. Indeed, he was more alarmed by the fact that he was not alarmed, than he was alarmed. The variable lifestyles in the Notches had desensitized him to the norms of Shivaree and now he could only see Hope’s babysitters, not men offending an Oopsahnic injunction. Orly had a vision for the portrait. He would dress the family in classical attire, rainbow togas with wreaths of elderberry supporting hummingbirds dangling on wire mobiles. Mutt could not imagine a more ridiculous getup yet sat patiently while Orly worked his magic. Except that after ten minutes of fidgeting the painter politely asked him to mill around the studio out of sight while he daubed the wife and daughter. Hope was subdued for a three-year-old as if her father had sucked all the energy out of her. There was room for only one hyperactive child in the family and she would have to adjust. He walked around the studio noting Orly had arranged the paintings in a progression from mundane to sublime, moving from landscapes to portraiture to abstract depictions of the higher planes filled with jarring colors in chaotic swirls, labyrinths, polygons, tessellations, fractals, blobs, grids, and so on. He stopped in the nudes section – the sloplady was lovely out of uniform – and anticipated the joy that awaited him in four months and twenty-eight days. For on that date, the Fifteenth of Tarpin, he would again have license to impregnate his wife, assuming the world was still around. He hoped they could sit for a new portrait with each addition to the family.
Back at the authority Mutt received a disturbing package from Arland, a heavily footnoted report detailing the excesses of Bogin, the Chief Information Officer of Muglair’s Interior Ministry. Muglair had a fondness, so the report claimed, for insanely cruel tortures that Bogin would implement as a form of entertainment. Information was extracted from victims by normal means such as stress positions, sleep deprivation, truth serum, simulated drowning, degloving, bone crushing, and, Bogin’s personal favorite, prying fingers off of loved ones. But once all secrets were revealed the fun could begin. Bogin took pleasure in prolonged forms of torture leading to certain death like clockwork once set in motion, and a death certificate would issue for the condemned at the outset to underscore his doom even if the torture were expected to last days. Commitment to a torture regime was as irreversible as the bodily death that followed. A victim might be harnessed in a tilted metal box with head protruding toward the floor through a side collar fit snugly around his neck, arms restrained within. A hydraulic line inserted by catheter into the victim’s urinary tract, backflow prevented by valve, would power a lift on the low side until the box tipped over, crushing the victim’s skull against the hardened floor. The tipping might not occur for days during which time the doomed would be plied with water by gullet tube to force voiding. An enemy might be bound to the corpse of his mutilated wife so he could die in her rot, perhaps gnawing her face in starvation if Bogin were lucky. A woman might stand on a small pedestal over a floor rigged with a weight sensor to detonate an explosive tied to the neck of her child once she succumbed to exhaustion and collapsed, her own death by binding to follow. A man could be secured in a coffin with a heavy lid that would pierce both eye sockets with needles to the back of his skull once the strain of holding it up proved unbearable. Bogin took copious photographs of the stages of torture, culminating always with gruesome death stills, and shared them with Muglair who loved nothing more than seeing traitors receive their just desserts. His confidence in the cause was invigorated by the cleansing ritual of eliminating enemies, and he liked to imagine their dying epiphany that his was a force they should never have resisted.
By far the Great Man’s favorite method of cleansing was the glass house, literally a glass house located in the underground depths of Interior’s headquarters in Leri Deri. Victims were thrown into the house with cutlery, cookware, a fire pit with flue, cooling chamber, bathroom, mattresses, tenderizer, spices, a game cookbook, and ample water but no food source besides other prisoners. Information officers occupied desks surrounding the house impervious to the death screams and entreaties for mercy, focusing instead on their daily routine and pausing only occasionally to appreciate Bogin’s handiwork through the transparent walls. New prisoners entered on one side of a glass partition shielded from the predations of others for a few days during which they could witness the cannibalism and plan a survival strategy before mixing with the full house. People handled confinement differently, some resolving to die quietly without resort to cannibalism, others opting to wait for natural death of a fellow prisoner before feasting, still others choosing to consume their own flesh. Alliances would form for the purpose of sentinel duty during sleep, protection through mutual aid, or hunting in packs for the only form of nourishment. Women often had little choice but to offer sex for protection from surviving males, a bargain that never bought much time. Prisoners would commonly turn full cannibal immediately upon entry and murder fellow confinees savagely for food and to eliminate rivals. Muglair liked to condemn entire families to the house for the pleasure of viewing the resulting butchery in Bogin’s photographs. There was always some fool sabotaging the cause who would die proudly for his beliefs, but there was no pride watching helplessly through a glass wall as his wife and children were slaughtered, dismembered, spitted, grilled, and eaten by cannibals. If Muglair were to have his moment of thrill imagining the condemned’s last thoughts, the consequences needed to be amplified for idealists. Was what you believed so righteous as to justify this result? Could not you have yielded to history’s greater force and avoided these futile deaths? No one ever left the house alive for they were officially dead upon entry but skilled players could endure for weeks. One farmer accused of hoarding grain survived over six months before losing a knife fight to an Inta nationalist when the partition was removed.
Mutt did not know whether the report was authentic or just propaganda. He had read so many outlandish stories from the intelligence services that he naturally distrusted all their claims. But the Bogin report appended numerous photographs and internal memoranda from Interior allegedly obtained from disgruntled inside sources, and the horror of the depictions led him to believe it was real. Surely a propaganda effort would have toned down the gore to appear more credible. Still, there was nothing he could do about it, and he resolved to empty his head of the disturbing images. There was so much evil in the world he could not contemplate it all, and indeed the best antidote to evil was to love his family in the face of all obstacles. Perhaps it was selfish to focus on the people in his life and forget the horrors inflicted on others, but in some grand accounting it increased the proportion of love to evil and gave hope to the world.
On the date of their fourth anniversary, as calculated from the postcoital ceremony in the angle, Mutt plucked hyacinth from a window box on the way from the authority to the hut. Hope was playing with the sloplady’s son, rooting around in the gourd garden for insects and buried treasure. Mutt threaded a fishing line through the blooms and presented the garland to his wife who draped it around her neck and posed provocatively. He was pleased with the combination of woman and flower, natural complements in eyes, and suggested they visit the apiary for a celebratory picnic for their marriage. The sloplady was nowhere to be found so they took both children to the garden, which was empty of people and full of bees. The sun shone through the cobalt sky like the tip of welder’s torch, common weather for the Notches and fair recompense for the savage storms that denuded trees and blew thatch off huts. They laid out a spread of thaban cuts, persimmon, and cubes of maple cake while the children played tug of war with Kippers over a jute doll stuffed with dried ragweed. Ivy liked the apiary for the honey it produced, Mutt for the mead, and both enjoyed the purposeful buzzing of bees which never seemed to sting anyone. He reached into a pocket and produced a palladium necklace with a plated key pendant. He had prevailed upon a glazier – the Notches had no metalworkers – to melt a small block of the metal in a tray and dip the key one side at a time. Ivy did not know the meaning of the gift. Was it the key to his heart? That was corny even by his standards. He explained that this was the key to the tractor shed in Shivaree. He was to return there the day she fell into his arms but would no longer be needing it. If he ever did return, it would be with her by his side and she could open the door. He still harbored fantasies of returning to his childhood home with his new family and combining the two worlds. Ivy was touched. This was by far a better gift than the doorstop he gave her last year. By all rights she should be tired of the man after four years of wedded bliss, and admittedly she was frustrated often enough. But he was still her savior at the Edge, her lover in the angle, the Hutman in her hut, and the father of her child, and she found herself wanting to give him another. In a month and twenty-eight days the card would turn, and if heaven were revealed they could live the normal life she defied fate to achieve, have a second and third child, maybe even a fourth if Mutt plied her with mead. But if hell were revealed she would wish she had never left Harmour, because there she had nothing to lose.
She pulled from her satchel a copy of the Oopsah with his name engraved on the cover by her own hand in florid calligraphy. He was surprised at the gift for she had never cared much for scripture. She turned to the passage on cleaving, of a man and woman leaving home to start a new family, and told him on the day she waited for him forlornly at the Edge this passage raced through her head. She had not consciously believed the stranger from Shivaree would become her husband, yet he was her only hope that life would take a normal course. She turned to the final chapter, the book of gibberish, and asked him what it meant. He did not know and did not care being instinctively resistant to mystical imposition. She asked if it did contain a divine plan, and he disagreed with that plan, would he resist? It was a strange question and he replied that if God spoke to him he would do God’s bidding, for who was he to question the divine? She said that not all gods were divine and evil can occupy the higher planes, that conscience may dictate revolt where the Oopsah commands allegiance. He did not want to speak of these things and kissed her on the mouth to quiet her. She took the hint and returned the kiss for five seconds before the children commandeered their backs for a ride. Mutt was confused at the religious tilt suggested by Ivy’s gift. Would she join the ranks of the faithful, and would he be compelled to follow? He did not mind god talk, it harkened back to his youth in Shivaree, and he found faith in a woman arousing as it added an aura of holiness to coupling. What could be kinkier than carnal knowledge with God watching? On the other hand if he could not handle a cat perhaps he was not meant for divine observation.
She announced she wanted to visit the church so they packed up their picnic and strolled circuitously across the plane, each with legs of a child resting on hooked arms with little hands clasping their shoulders. The children descended and ranged about on an invisible tether, plucking dandelions and poking sticks in anthills. Hope talked non-stop inserting every new word she learned from her parents into a question, so much that the little boy, a full year older, fell contemplatively silent. She asked if the seeds blown from a dandelion ball fly to Skava, why the ants built hills instead of houses, if the sun was made of fire, could she have a maple cube, why were daddy’s pants falling. Mutt quickly corrected the latter condition. They mounted arched bridges over the half-pipe, kicked dust across the shadowed slats of the split garden, watched the pounding of the perpetual hammer. Ivy owed a report to the council on the relative merits of re-brazing the tarnished hammerhead versus refurbishing various sidematter mobiles dotting the parks. She had been leaning toward the mobiles, which spun wildly in the wind with pendants oriented in the six directions, dogs chasing cats chasing dogs in the plane of Arland, a ring of Skavian marmosets connected hand to tail, the regular solids dangling freely on chains alloyed to splay outwards as if magnetically repelled. But she wondered if the tensions brewing again between the great nations militated in favor of the hammer’s grand symbolism. They peered through the fogged windows of a conversion spa, an opulent way station for travelers across the fold, and saw patrons of mixed gravity promenading naked in a curved sauna. The Notches was a natural stop for people changing gravities. They could avoid prolonged confinement or cumbersome weight suits if they could tolerate a quarter slope, twenty-two and a half degrees, by reorienting to that angle in their home country, moving to the Notches where the same angle would prevail with the ground tilting in the opposite sense, converting an additional half slope in the Notches enjoying perfect normality midway, then proceeding to the destination country to complete the final quarter slope. For this process the spa served as a convenient boarding house with curved surfaces to permit upright mobility for daily living at any orientation, but at each stage the person converting could be mobile on open terrain if able to navigate up to a quarter slope. The spa was for people with money and fine tastes and Mutt was thankful poverty forced them into the angle.
At the church the son ran joyously to his father who stood before the pulpit practicing his next sermon. The church had no regular service, the flock not being very observant, and instead held social functions punctuated by the father’s flights into spirit possession. But occasionally the father would announce a dedicated lecture on the bulletin boards and his next topic was the end times. His brief encounter with Ivy in the study steered him with renewed fervor into exegetics of the Oopsah. His journey with the Church had begun as a young man with a profound transformation inspired by the sacred text, an intense belief that it held the key to fulfillment on earth and salvation in the higher planes, and that his devotion to God would reveal that key. But over the years his focus shifted to tangible good works, charity for the needy, guidance for those struggling, fostering a social environment among the faithful conducive to love and nurture. He knew from his studies what happened to Ivy. Somehow she read the divine plan hidden in the gibberish, for there was no other way to obtain the knowledge she revealed. How had this happened, and what did it signify? She would talk to him no more of the revelations and he deemed it sacrilege to ask. But knowledge could be obtained only with the advent of the Controller in the end times. She herself said the prophecies would be fulfilled, and the Controller was the most sacred prophecy of all.
Ivy said she needed spiritual guidance and asked him to rehearse the sermon in her presence. Gladly, he announced, puffing up and gripping the podium in the polka dot individuating robe he wore on casual occasions. The tomato dots with chartreuse stems clashed violently with the teal fabric and magenta collar, the discord generating receptivity to divinely inspired messages, so he hoped. The father’s lectures were always amply attended as even people in the Notches occasionally needed spiritual rejuvenation, and the father was well regarded as a confidante and source of wisdom. He stepped away from the pulpit and sat on the edge of the dais, his legs dangling. He saw no need of assuming airs with this couple. He was only guessing at Ivy’s secrets and would do better to talk to her plainly, one person to another, not as a possessor of higher knowledge. He spoke at length of the end times described in scripture, whether they were a mythical construct perpetually around the corner designed to instill fear in the faithful and deference to hierarchy, whether they were a true eschatology that would pit good led by the Controller against forces of evil bent on destruction with all creation at stake, whether they would come in their lifetimes or had already arrived. With a flourish he declared he had never believed the present was more special than the past yet the signs were here, with the incineration of Mount Orah, the ancient waste pile outside Rixjrig famous for its noxious gases, the resurgence of the Great Man’s belligerence after the humiliation of Bivens Mill, the nesting of cockaded birds of paradise in the belfry of the church, a sight not seen in the Notches since ancient times. But verily he did not view these portents as signs of the apocalypse. What he believed, and what he preached, was to live each day as if it were the last, for all experience was written on a higher plane unseparated by gradations of time, and the creation and the apocalypse were as immediate as his words, as tactile as the bench on which they sat, as pungent as the incense in the sconces, the arrow of time being an earthbound illusion. What will happen had already happened, and one should live as a person worthy of inscription on that colorful plane.
Ivy listened amused at his heartfelt peroration. He could not conceive the true meaning of the end times. Really no one could without reading the revelations of the gibberish. But his attempts to comprehend the incomprehensible were earnest and brought forth much common sense laden with gravitas by the mystical talk. The father then surprised her and said all experience in their world past and future was inscribed on a higher plane, but they could not conceive of other planes except to say they defined other worlds. It was through connection of higher planes that change could occur, that one plane could rewrite another with the fruit of good living brought forth. Mutt found the father’s conception of the higher planes incoherent. If time was an illusion and the future as immutable as the past, why worry about right and wrong? Nothing you could do would change anything. But if there were other planes that could change the world based on good deeds, why not stack them and call the result a single dynamic plane in which the future was not determined? Ivy knew what the father was channeling. She herself had made a momentous decision not to tell Arland about the Oopsah out of concern for what the father called other planes. Intuitively she felt she had doomed their world. Yet to tell Arland these secrets risked dooming the other planes and that would be worse.
She needed to move beyond this topic and handed the couple’s anniversary gifts to the father.
“Father, this key is a gift from my husband. It is a sign of his commitment to our union. I have read the Oopsah, all of it, and it contains no higher love. That key is all we have.”
The father intensely wanted to know her secrets. Mutt concealed a yawn so accustomed he had become to Ivy’s weirdness. The children ran loose in the upper chapel and startled their parents with the rap of a mop handle accidentally knocked to the floor. Ivy needed to complete her thought even though she was saying more than she should. She took back the key and the Oopsah, held one in each hand, then lowered the key and raised the sacred book as if her hands were a balance and the sacred book found wanting.
“The Oopsah must be rewritten.”
Back in the hut, Mutt sat across the table from Ivy as she cut a silhouette of Hope for framing. Her conversation with the father stirred a memory he had repressed. The question had been percolating in the nether regions of his brain for months.
“I need to know something.”
Ivy winced. There were many questions she did not want to answer.
“Who is Celeste?”
This was the one she feared most. She sat perfectly still, paralyzed. Celeste was the difference between Harmour and the Notches, and her surest ticket back to hell. She was the reason the Oopsah needed to be rewritten in honor of Mutt’s key. How did he know the name? Did Zranga tell him? Did he overhear? She composed herself.
“When I was in Harmour,” she chose her words carefully, “Tobor Zranga decoded the gibberish of the Oopsah.”
Mutt squinted his eyes in skepticism. He had never heard anything so outlandish.
“I read it,” she continued. “It is not what you might think. It told me things about the future, prophecies I cannot share with you. But most of all I learned the story of Celeste.”
“Who is she?” he repeated his question.
“I can only tell you this. She is not an ordinary being. She is a ghost that haunts me. She is the organizing principle of the universe, and she must be destroyed for our love to survive.”
Mutt often wondered if his wife was insane. What she was saying made no sense. It sounded religious but not like any religion he knew. Had she fallen prey to the spell of a madman in Harmour? Was she living out the warped fantasies of an end times cult? This was the mother of his child and he was deeply concerned about her mental state. He was not satisfied with her answer but did not know how to pursue it. She was not going to tell him everything and perhaps he did not want to know. The more he heard the crazier she sounded, and the harder it was to live a normal life. He would simply have to take her answer and file it away beyond the realm of daily conscious.
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