He was wounded. He could not believe she loved him if she did not want him physically. If he could accept her for who she was after all the recent revelations, could not she receive him as his wife? He wanted to argue but felt that would be more humiliating. Begging for scraps was worse than lying silently in the cool Leland air fantasizing about the rhubarb girl who undoubtedly never would have rejected him. How many children would they have by now? Three at least. They would have their own house, maybe even a spread like his childhood home, and all the people he grew up with, the extended community from which he had been so precipitously torn by his commitment to Ivy, would be there to love and comfort him. The rhubarb girl was no Ivy, he had to admit that even in his jilted state, but Ivy was no Shivaree. She could not substitute for a whole people; she could not replace his home. All he had received from their marriage was a brief shining moment in the Notches followed by endless misery and knowledge no human was designed to bear. How could she not love him enough to be his wife after all they had been through?
Ivy sensed he was brooding and turned to face him.
“Mutt, you must not hate me. Please love me and respect the pain I am suffering. I will be your wife again. But for now I will find comfort only if you hold me tenderly. I am sorry if I am selfish. I will one day again think of you first. But today please think of me and allow me time to heal.” Mutt re-spooned with her, wanting to accept her words but in his heart feeling rejected. He wanted to release right here in her presence so she would understand how difficult it was for him to hold her and not mate. Ivy already knew this but could not bring herself to couple. She loved the man dearly but did not want to feel used, and being with him now would be subordinating her body to his animal need. He was quiet and trying to be tender through his bitter pain, the sweet man. The situation was untenable.
“Is there something we can do that will not get me pregnant?”
Mutt had plenty of ideas.
“You won’t get pregnant if you’re on top.”
“You must think I’m from Shivaree to fall for that one.”
“I can pull out.”
“Have you ever?”
“Ivy, have pity on me. If I cannot know you fully, then at least bring release. How can I share your misery when my mind is so focused on your body?”
That was a compelling argument to Ivy and she resolved to suckle him, finding his willingness to compromise and the hardness of his manhood arousing. But Hope awoke and Mutt immediately covered up, a look of anguish on his face like he had just eaten the tastiest cookie on the planet only to have it yanked from his throat by a string. Ivy snickered, the situation was so ridiculous. “I am glad you are not a true Hutman,” she teased, taking Hope into her arms, looking to Mutt like a sultry angel holding a cherub. Despite the interruption he felt bonded to her again. He intensely needed a physical connection to justify their love.
Ivy was consumed with thoughts of how to save the world, this world, rather than waiting for some uncertain future iteration. She could not go to Tobor. Not only would that devastate Mutt and spoil their remaining days, Tobor was a snake who could not be trusted. All she would get from succumbing to his extortion would be the bitterness of re-rape and betrayal of his promise to rewrite the Oopsah. She resolved to visit the Arland liaison in Irla in a last ditch effort to stop the planet’s demise now. She told Mutt to take care of Hope and she would return soon. Mutt was worried she was going to Tobor. That fear was always in the back of his mind when she was not in his field of vision. She said she had business to attend to and was not Tobor’s proposition business? He certainly hoped it was not pleasure. She sat before the liaison in an office converted from an unventilated supply closet in the governing directorate having little in the way of specific future predictions to prove her bona fides as a seer. The notes she kept in her satchel had been plundered in Skava and the decoding sheets of the gibberish in Zranga’s tent were incomplete with little useful information. She recalled the stories of the cooperation force, the laying of the metal cylinders across the Flume, and Muglair’s obliteration on the Skavian plains, none of which had yet happened, but would these predictions be enough to convince him? She told the liaison that she had been the wife of Tobor Zranga, he had special powers to divine the future, the Flume was going to destroy the planet, and Arland had to act immediately to stop it. The liaison had never heard such a story and was convinced she was insane like the zealots who regularly accosted him on the street, only far more convincing.
“What would you have me do?” he asked.
“Tell Rixjrig. They must know their current plans will fail. The cylinders are not going to work. Surely they have options.”
The liaison was not privy to Arland’s military plans.
“Muglair is going to eject the cooperation force. He must be killed by any means available. There must be new leadership in Skava for the world to have a chance.”
“Lady, do you not think the Marshal has already considered this?”
“Please, you must send a report. You must encourage the Marshal to meet with me. There may still be time.”
The liaison was sympathetic to her entreaties as crazy as they were. These were the end times, he could plainly see, and the planet was headed toward destruction absent more aggressive intervention. He typed up a lengthy report encouraging the high command to meet with this lady, leaving out the parts about divination and stating only that she held top secret information that could prove vital to Arland’s cause, but the report disappeared into the bowels of the military bureaucracy and the liaison never heard back. Ivy wondered if she should have told him specifically about the Oopsah. She feared that if she did so, and if the Marshal took her words seriously, they would seize the Oopsah and rewrite it for their own purposes. It was doubtful she would even exist in the next iteration if this happened, much less meet Mutt and conceive Hope. She would rather take her chances with Tobor’s extortion than tell Arland everything.
She found Mutt cooking lumpen cakes for Hope on a skillet over a fire. It was a messy operation but he managed to satisfy the little girl’s hunger as well as his own, setting aside a generous portion for Ivy. She so loved watching him take care of their daughter. She wished she had known her father, that he could have done for her what Mutt did for Hope, that she could have been the apple of her daddy’s eye when she was four and not just future barter for a pervert. Ivy had run out of ideas for saving the world, this one or the next, and was content to live out her days in peace with her family. Perhaps she would regain her sense of urgency but she felt if their future would be stolen she could at least claim the present. People normally faced death with no hope of future iterations in which they might live again, such concepts being alien to common experience. Many held a religious belief in an afterlife but the majority of people, even the faithful, feared death as a complete annihilation of self, a snuffing of body and soul with nothing beyond the grave, no heaven, no angels, no recompense, no grand accounting, just the indignity of final expiry, and the traces left behind. Surely she could accept death with common grace as a natural part of life even if so unnatural in these times. Surely somewhere a young mother her age was dying of consumption. Why was her tragedy any less real than Ivy’s? It was not, and if that consumptive could face death with dignity, if she could eke out meaning in her final moments, so could Ivy.
The young family borrowed Varun and strolled around the parks of Irla letting the children play to their heart’s content. The tiny couple was already married, Ivy figured, so she had no cause to chaperone. Varun was a tender boy as comfortable in the presence of girls as boys. He shared his playmate’s passion for bugs, nature’s toys, and together they sought out nests and hives and colonies and webs somehow managing to avoid bites and stings, mostly. Jumping blocks in the playground were bug sanctuaries; just tip a block over and see what squirms beneath. A sandbox was a pillbug safari; along the inside edge of the wood frame they discovered twenty. Hope’s parents pushed the children on swings into the lateral sunlight, eagerly commanded to push higher and higher, remonstrating that with one more push the rope might swing over the bar. The park was near the edge and Mutt decided to peer into Skava for one last gaze. Ivy could not bear the sight of that toxic country and refused to join him. To Mutt it was still the home of his birth and the exotic land that produced his wife. He knew what happened in Dunder but did not associate the land with the evil. The Skavian vegetation along the Leland edge was not as lush as near Harmour, the sun not beating down as directly, but there were still abundant frond trees leaning sideways toward the light. Peering out among them he saw a scraggly dogwood sporting a single blossom, and he lay there imagining that blossom tucked behind Ivy’s ear.
She slapped him on the back.
“Up, dreamboy. We must return Varun.”
She found the two children on a seesaw and was reminded of the picture she showed Mutt at their first meeting. That was the happy childhood she was trying to recreate, the one stolen from her by the repression, and it was the childhood Hope was experiencing in this moment with her friend, her smile as bright as the little girl’s in the photo. It occurred to Ivy that evil would prevail again, an even more malignant force than the one that shattered her life, because these children had only days to live. Back in the tent she fumbled with a bracelet on her wrist and Mutt saw for the first time the scarring across her veins. He did not know the details of her suffering in the camp but saw how close he had come to losing her. He turned her palm face up, the same pink warmth he had admired during their first encounter, and studied the scar. She pulled her hand away and he tugged it back to kiss her fingers without asking questions.
He suddenly remembered something. In the rush of revelations and raw emotions he had forgotten his promise to Maple. He did not know how to broach the subject.
“What do you think our lives would be like if our parents had survived?”
She had thought about this subject many times but never developed a clear picture.
“I suppose my life would have been more normal, as normal as could be for a child of revolutionaries. I would have known parental love. Maybe I would not be so insecure.”
“Do you think we would have been a couple?”
“Heavens no,” she said emphatically. “We would have hated each other.”
“Because then I would have known you as a thirteen-year-old. I shudder at the thought.”
Mutt was offended.
“I was not so bad.” Fortunately there was no one in the tent to contradict him.
Ivy’s satchel had traveled all over the planet accumulating and discarding its secrets at various intervals. She had stuffed it with transcriptions of the gibberish before fleeing Harmour, periodically reviewing the papers to memorize important facts. She read from her satchel in the loft on the Second of Skitton to seek guidance in her fateful choice. Mutt stuffed their drafts of the Sphere into its innards on the Fifteenth of Tarpin as they fled the Skavian assault, believing those the most important writings in their lives. Agents rifled through its contents before embracing the young author as a friend of the Party in the administrative tent, taking as souvenirs the racier drafts. In the guest room in headquarters Mutt found mysterious pages of predictions that he used to flummox the Great Man and obtain the leverage he needed to save his family. Upon their reunion he had solemnly informed his wife of the confiscation of papers by agents and returned to her the few important documents that survived, mostly written predictions which were no longer useful. Now he borrowed the satchel and retrieved a mysterious document from the hidden compartment. Ivy saw her husband holding a weathered envelope, an envelope she had somehow missed among the surviving contents of the satchel, and sensed it was a time capsule. For perhaps the first time in their relationship she knew he was about to reveal something important to her, not the other way around. He looked at her tentatively, bathed in Leland’s horizontal light pouring through the open tent flap, appearing as dignified and handsome as she had ever seen him. If she must brace for a shock, she thanked fate he would deliver it.
“I have something for you.”
“What is it?” Her heart was racing.
“I received this from your grandmother in Gulet. It is a letter.” He hesitated, not knowing how to say the words. “From your mother.”
Ivy was struck mute, these words piercing her heart. Something deep within her stirred, a vague memory of a terrible loss, a tragic feeling she had carried her entire life. She took the letter, which was sealed with wax, her hand trembling. In breaking the seal she felt she had opened a portal to a different time, when everything was right in the world, and when everything was destroyed. She unfolded a yellowing sheet and for the first time in her life saw her mother’s handwriting:
My Dearest Cerise,
You are sleeping on a pillow next to me, your head turned upward and mouth wide open. I can think of nothing more precious than the gift God gave me when you entered this world. You are the most adorable girl to ever wear a stalk, so full of energy, so talkative, always the center of attention. You are only three and I cannot share with you my thoughts now. But I pray you will one day receive this letter and know how strong your mother’s love was. I fear I will not be here for you much longer. The Inta have resolved to hunt us down and kill us all. I will gladly die for our cause but I cannot bear the thought of your growing up without a mother. It was my sacred duty to share with you the joys of your life and to shelter you from all harm. That I may fail in this duty is the greatest heartbreak a mother could know. Today we dressed you in a tiny sundress and a bright golden bow and pretended to marry you to the son of Outin and Paxa. His name is Tom, Outin’s first alias in the cause. The entire cell was there, laughing as only the condemned can. It had been my dream to one day cry at your wedding, and today I did cry. He is the most beautiful little boy you will ever see, with the kindest and gentlest eyes. But he is a real cut-up. The funniest thing happened when we announced your union. He leaned over and kissed you right on the mouth. Nobody expected this, least of all you. You rubbed your mouth and spit with all your vigor while he stood there beaming at what he had done. You will one day enjoy that kiss. My dearest daughter, if I cannot be here for you in this world, I hope you will know that I am in a better place, watching over you, forever protecting you with a mother’s love. I cannot bear to write these words but I must. Good-bye.
Your loving mother,
Ivy sat down quietly on a chair. She had never known such ineffable sadness. She realized that her entire life had been a struggle to reclaim her mother’s love. She had once been cared for, she had once belonged, and she had been violently ripped from that embrace. She wondered if what her mother said was true, that she was watching over her, that she had steered her to Tom, who would give to her the love she lost in her mother.
She looked at Mutt, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“You are every bit as beautiful as my mother said you are.”
It was true. They had found one another. And oh how she had enjoyed that kiss! She was so torn by this lost world, so grateful for the new love she had found, and so desperate to connect the two, but it would never be, and she would forever have to live with that inconsolable loss. She had lost her childhood to evil and could only fight with all her vigor to save Hope’s, to give to her daughter what was so mercilessly taken from her. Surely there was a Creator, and surely he was cruel, to have imbued her life with such tragedy.
“You remembered our names,” Mutt said softly, referring to their first day in the Notches when she christened them Tom and Cerise. “That was a miracle.”
Ivy could not speak. How had she remembered? She had carried that memory within her heart as the last happy day of her life until she met Tom again so many years later. But she had not understood where the names came from until she read her mother’s letter, for that was how she learned her birth name, and that Tom was her intended from the earliest age. She was certain her mother guided them together, that her spirit was not extinguished, that she was watching over her child. There must be a realm beyond the cold mechanics of the Oopsah where her mother’s spirit lived on, where a higher destiny could prevail. Her intended had always been the son of Outin and Paxa, and somehow that destiny had become. Ivy wanted so deeply to believe her mother’s death was not in vain, that the secret order of the universe she discovered in the Oopsah was not the final word, that her mother was a more powerful force than the Controller. She wanted to believe this despite the rational conclusions of her mind, despite the evidence laid before her of a pitiless world, despite the unforgiving tragedies of her life. She wanted, she needed, she longed to believe these things as surely as she needed air to breathe. She yearned to believe in a Creator who was not cruel, who had saved her mother’s spirit, who would protect her from evil, under whose grace Hope could thrive to adulthood. She was struggling to discover something she could never find in the coldness of Harmour. She was struggling to discover faith.
Ivy fell into a deep funk. She could not accept that her mother’s death was meaningless, but it would be in vain if her family perished and Tobor Zranga had his way in the next life. Her mother’s death was the cause of her barter to the monster. Prudence could not protect her as a child but could her guiding spirit protect Hope now? Ivy was coming to believe that saving Hope’s future was a test of the divine, not merely a contest of wills for control of the Oopsah but a chance for demigods to intervene in human affairs. She did not know how she could rewrite the future but surely with her fervent desire and her mother’s love she would find a way; she could give to Hope what Prudence could not give to her, a mother’s protection, and in so doing she could give Prudence redemption. Ivy had always considered herself a rational person. Her apparent insanity upon reading the Oopsah was not irrational but rather a logical response to a radical revelation. But her belief in her mother’s spirit was not rational. Ivy of all people should have rejected God for she had learned first hand the evil that inheres in the universe. She had no evidence that her mother’s life was not completely extinguished on that spike in the sandstone plaza. She simply felt in her heart that it could not be so, that a mother’s love, Prudence’s love for her, her love for Hope, was a force impervious to death. Surely a world designed by a loving Creator would be animated by this most primal of forces.
One day a large chunk of sidematter tumbled across the Leland plain within a mile of the encampment. A body of water followed the matter dissolving into fine mist, sluicing through the Parvian edge and channeling the Silent Sea across the face of Leland. The broken edge repaired itself with those mysterious agglomerative forces that tended to clump matter at the folds. But it was a reminder of the clock that was ticking down to the planet’s disintegration if the Flume were not controlled. Scientists believed that the planet should already be in motion so imbalanced was the gravity along the Skava-Parva axis but it remained in fixture for the moment, the next day always in doubt. Political developments were mildly encouraging as Arland promised a ceasefire if Muglair would allow a cooperation force from Arland to join with Skava to contain the surging water in Shamba. This meant nothing to Mutt and Ivy – they had read the Oopsah and knew the planet’s fate – yet Mutt felt a bounce from the news as if maybe this time things would turn out differently. He was a natural optimist who could read an obituary holding out hope for a happy ending. The young couple tried to maintain a social life for Hope’s sake and to observe form even in grim circumstance. No good would come of obsessive focus on the draining Sea. It hovered in the periphery like a tightly strung arrow aimed at their temples, but with no control over the archer they were best served to go about daily living.
Ivy wanted to experience Mutt’s love again. The desire was creeping up slowly but she channeled it to satisfaction of his wants through indirect means. He had adjusted to the new equilibrium. It had its benefits and he shared Ivy’s desire not to create new life in the end times. He decided to recover this somber time for joy and invited her to the dance hall where performances were still common. If the world were ending, what better way to spend the final days than in celebration? He did not care that she had planned to marry his nemesis here. Reclaiming the moment meant staring down taboos. They brought Hope who was content to circle around her parents and trip them up, occasionally lifted in their arms to share in a jig. A local refugee cell had formed for the purpose of petitioning Arland and Skava to redress political conflict through peaceful mediation. This made no sense to Mutt as the more effective remedy was for Arland to keep dumping ordnance until Muglair relented. Ivy crafted a diptych filled with poems for her daughter and presented it to the cell, which doubled as a poetry circle. They regularly visited the Ooson tent and joined their family on treks through the streets and gardens of Irla, talking about current events as if they mattered. Ivy’s mind was fixated on her mother and the eternal drama of the Oopsah but she found comfort in the Oosons’ more prosaic outlook. Mutt found the outings surreal on a planet counting down to apocalypse but preferred the light company to brooding. Ivy found two photos from the Notches hidden in the satchel, their only remaining images from that time. She laid them on the floor of the tent and studied them with Mutt. Here was Hope as a newborn and at her second birthday party. Funnily they had no pictures of themselves, only memories. Ivy gazed at the photos as though she had found an old album from a long deceased relative, not pictures of a still thriving child. They were not meant to be a eulogy but the sensation they evoked was of impending tragedy. Mutt held Ivy in his arms, her only solace in this cruel world, as she released into dreamless sleep, still protected by him from her terrors. He was not happy with the defeatism creeping into their final days. Surely they had options. Surely they had not fought so hard to get to this point, defying the most powerful men on the planet, only to fail now. Ivy had run out of ideas and he needed to take drastic action.
She awoke to find him trembling in a corner of the tent facing the canvas. She approached him nervously.
“Darling, what’s wrong?”
He did not speak. His teeth were chattering and his lips bluish. He had rubbed boysenberry on his mouth to achieve the effect.
“My goodness, you are ill. You need something warm.”
“No, Ivy,” he spoke in a detached voice she had never heard. “This is not an illness of the body.”
Ivy was spooked. She had never seen him possessed. He turned to her with the most tortured eyes she had ever seen in a human being.
“I have a message for you Ivy.” He spoke in monotone. He was not himself. Suddenly he keeled over grabbing his face bursting into tears.
“I saw her,” he mumbled, over and over.
“Who? Who did you see?”
Mutt would not speak so dire were his emotions. He finally sat up and grabbed her shoulders for support. Hope sat in the distance eyeing the bizarre scene silently. He smiled beatifically, his face transformed as if he had seen angels.
“I saw her.”
“Mutt, you must speak to me, you must share with me, I am your wife!”
“I have never known such joy.” He halted, his chest heaving, his eyes glassy and focusing on an invisible distant object.
“The Oopsah is not the final word. My love, there is a higher realm. When the future is not written,” he paused to heighten tension, “the departed can intervene.”
Ivy was so unnerved she wanted to collapse. What was he talking about? Could it be ...?
He lifted himself up by her shoulders, stared into her eyes with an expression of anointment, and said words that would sear her heart.
“It was Prudence. She came to me.”
Ivy was trembling.
“Ivy, it was a dream but I have never had an experience more real. I saw her, her hair, as charcoal as yours, flowing in a curtain enveloping me, protecting me, she wore a daisy chain, she wanted me to tell you of her eternal love, that she would guide you, that you could not despair in the final hour.”
She embraced Mutt wanting to believe it was true. She needed her mother. That gaping hole in her heart would never be filled by another.
“She said the way would come to you, that you will know it when you see it, and when you see it you must seize it. The future is not written. There is still hope. I do not know what she meant.”
On her pillow Ivy found a lock of charcoal hair and a daisy petal.
“Did you put this here?”
“I’ve never seen that.”
She leapt up clutching the lock and petal and raced from the tent into the elongated shadows.
In bootball, the favored game of the civil patrol, players passed a ball by foot and scored points by throwing it through a vertical ten-foot hoop on either end of the field. Once picked up the ball had to be launched toward the target or rolled on the grass backwards toward a teammate, no further travel permitted by that player. A team scored points for a successful throw and lost points for a miss. It was a source of great shame to end a game with negative points. The farther away from the target the more points a successful throw would score, as determined by brightly painted concentric circles radiating from the hoop. A miss always resulted in a single point subtraction regardless of launch radius. At the end of a game it was common to make a last desperate heave, called a death throw, from as far back in the field as necessary to make up the deficit. Death throws usually ended with an embarrassing thud well short of the hoop and the insult of a final point deduction, but during the moment of loft everyone held their breath because a ball thrown heedlessly as a last furious attempt at victory always had a chance of scoring, and the outcome could never be known for certain while it hung in the air. Mutt had just heaved the longest death throw in history, aimed all the way across the universe and back to the Cube, so far they were down in the game. He knew how much Ivy wanted to believe in her mother’s guiding spirit, and if she did believe there was no telling what she might do. The thought frightened him but also gave him a spark of hope. If there was any human being on this planet who could stop Tobor Zranga, if anyone could rewrite the future, it was Ivy Morven. Mutt was just adding to her motivation and would now cheer from the sideline. As he basked in his cleverness he wondered if maybe Prudence really had come to him in his sleep. He had awaken with the idea fully formed in his head and put it into action without a second thought. The world of the living was too complicated a place for his meager brain to fathom, he concluded, much less the higher planes.
Hope announced she was hungry. Time to make some lumpen cakes!
Check out chapters of The Cube right here.