the boy and the road talk youth
I’m sitting on the side of a dusty road, thinking of oranges. Thinking of my father and of death—his and mine. The Emperor’s assemblage of cars comes past, shining and identical, but today I do not care about him and the fighting for the city.
I am surprised—every hour today, this moment of not understanding—that I have reached this birthday.
the loud city dawn
I walk into Tolté, where the orange trees bloom. From every window-box and narrow strip of garden, every central reservation and pavement basket, grows a wax-leafed tree: a Tolté orange, capable of blossoming and fruiting at the same time. Early sunlight catches the petals, making bright white patches across the city. I blink glare-filled eyes but don’t look down.
The Emperor’s cars have left day-old indentations in the dusty road. The jumbled treads run towards parts of the city where buildings climb tall and the roads are paved. I follow them until I’m walking on stone slabs as broad as my shoulders.
A centimetres-high plant grows between two slabs: an orange, aphid-infested like so many this year. I sigh at it and lift my head, searching the shop names painted above doors and glass fronts for Duram. Between a shoe shop and a rotisserie I find it. Underneath is a peeling green door.
The hinges creak like my father’s bedroom door, in the house we had before he left.
Long before that, our doors slid open with a quiet whirr—but I don’t remember my first three years very well.
I climb a flight of silent stairs, lined on either side with bare, whitewashed walls, until I reach the second floor and knock. A brass ‘1B’ hangs near its top; further down is a mail slot. It looks like an apartment door. And inside, after Farné opens the doors, I see a sofa, a dining table, a glass screen that serves as both computer and television.
“Would you like a drink?” Farné asks, and I wonder if I’m standing in her home. Unlikely.
The other two members of our group wait on the furniture or green-carpeted floor, talking. I take an armrest and listen to them.
“Here.” Farné holds out a glass to me.
The juice is sweet and tart, with a hint of cloves like all good Tolté oranges.
Farné sits on the sofa and, after a few sips of juice, begins. “The Emperor’s third-oldest nephew, Andé, has been seen recently in the Museum of Glass. He is not our target,” she says before anyone can ask, “though I wish he could be. But like the rest of his family, Andé follows no discernable pattern in his movements. And he is always accompanied by four of his family’s Guard, with trusted plain-clothes police most likely nearby. None of the Guard usually assigned to him are sympathetic to our cause. If we are able to harm Andé, it will be out of luck. It is the museum we are targeting.”
“One of the grandest collections of Tolté’s art,” says Yva, the other woman in the room. Like me she is blond and fair-skinned; the other two are darker.
“Yes,” says Farné.
“That’s four centuries of art.” Mattu, whose hands make his glass look miniature, meets Farné’s gaze across the tessellating shades of the carpet.
All our aliases are taken from newspaper articles about the most common names, or from places or inanimate objects. Among the group I am Dis, for a canal-side street I like to walk along. My real name—Au Mairon—is a signpost to my origins. If I displayed it openly, I would fall to the ground with bullets between my ribs like grout—placed there by the group out of mistrust or by the elite for my betrayal.
“That’s going to hurt a man who reportedly finds his only peace of mind among the sculptures,” says Farné. “And we are not going to destroy the whole museum.”
Yva inclines her head towards Farné. “Only a small piece of our history, then.”
“The Garich Exhibit.”
I think of Dis Street torn to pieces by bombs—hunks of concrete and wire in the canal, bobbing among the shattered limbs of the orange trees, among the fallen fruits and shards of glass, singed scraps of curtain and waxy leaves. I think of the gutters and water pipes lying lifeless against the city’s new, concrete walls. I think of blue fabric moving only with the wind.
“Garich’s work is some of the most inventive in several decades,” Yva says. “You would have that destroyed, have the only pieces of his work remain in the private collections of those copied bastards. This is all we do: lash out, again and again. For what purpose?”
My fingers tighten around my glass.
“I would have Andé shown that he can’t run from his sleepless nights,” Farné says. “That he can’t forget the deaths in the Ichar District.”
Yva and Mattu say nothing.
“It will be reported as an attempt on Andé’s life. We had intelligence that he would visit on the evening of the explosion. Unfortunately, he was elsewhere.” When the silence continues, Farné says, “Do you want to know your roles?”
One after the other, like orange trees sprouting along a roadside, Yva and Mattu say, “Yes.” I—sitting on the edge of the meeting, only listening—look up at Farné. She knows my answer.
the dust and the fruit had maps for me
My father at the table, thirty-five years old, saying, “My father went at eighteen, my brother at nineteen, my uncle at twenty-one, my other uncle at nineteen. We are not a family well suited to life.” Later he told me how: jumping, a handful of stolen medicine, the pistol that my uncle almost swallowed before squeezing the trigger.
A week later, he didn’t return.
You could be happy, I thought, locking our door for the last time—as if I remembered what happiness felt like. I hope you are.
we stay in the place we have stood for so long
I’m standing in front of the walls and terraces that rise in the centre of Tolté like a yolk—that house the elite. The copied bastards. Each structure is one of six designs, repeated throughout the city-centre, made of a smoother concrete and painted in un-patterned bright colours.
They are still too frightened, so long after the disaster, to allow natural change. The steady decrease in premature deaths among the people of the city does not tear their anxiety down.
They give to the city, but they will not take from it.
Did they carry you in there, to the lower levels, and make you die slowly, I think, or did you die in the dust, alone?
Inside, the rooms are a different finite number of designs. I’d prefer the dust.
Will I follow you, eventually?
I almost laugh. Have I ever done anything but follow him?
can’t grow good
“I shouldn’t have created you,” he said raspy-voiced across the kitchen table that flickered in alarm lights. I watched the shadows of our soup tins shift rhythmically across a cluster of dark brown knots. “I’m…”
The emergency passed.
His ellipsis hung in the kitchen with the sachets of spice and the garlic bulbs on multicoloured strings.
all these senses are borrowed
I look so like him.
If I’d grown up in the city-centre, with a carefully ordered life and a corrective surgeon’s tool-kit, I would look nearly identical. Some little things, environmental things, always tell members of an elite family apart. I’m glad that my differences are greater: smaller from not eating well as a child in roadside villages, tangle-haired and bitten-nailed, scarred on one cheek, shoulder and arm from being too near an explosion.
The men with guns at the entrance to the Museum of Glass don’t look twice at me. I’m searched—every third person is—but they don’t look hard, they don’t find the explosives tucked in my boots like trouser hems.
Glass women rise from a pedestal in the centre of the entrance hall, green-hued from copper in the sand. They wear glass tortoiseshells on their backs. The whorl-engraved shells are as large as wardrobes. I linger in front of them, watching people pass on the other side of the women’s hollow bodies. I see Yva leaving. Her fingers toy at the metal in her left ear: the signal for safety.
I walk through the corridors that bend like drainpipes to the Garich Exhibit: a room of sculptures made from thin, long glass woven like cotton, from glass beads joined curve-to-curve while still glowing, from glass with wire shapes held inside like amber-caught insects.
I crouch to examine the translucent blue stilt-legs of a house that coils serpentine under its rigid roof and, when the two other people in the room are not looking, I attach the first strip of explosives to the metal cube supporting the stilts.
It is not uncommon to crouch at a Garich piece. He put some of the finest details on his sculptures’ feet.
I repeat my actions at six more sculptures, leaving explosives at two of them. The explosives are tiny, like viscous cooling glass, and connected by a hair-thin wire. I look at them and think of the world inside the city-centre, from which they were stolen. They are the closest I have come to touching it in over a decade and a half.
I’ve never thought seriously of returning. My father only spoke ill of it—and besides, I like dust on my skin and orange trees growing unregulated in the pavements.
As I examine a pair of lizards with no two scales alike crossing a shoe, I remember fire: orange and flickering against blue skies. I remember watching how my father packed explosives into his pockets and boots, and wondering if he would remember to remove them before pressing the button for detonation.
How he looked at every tin’s jagged lid, every rock-shattered piece of glass—as if they were comfort, answers, doors. How he told me on my sixteenth birthday that he was the first of our family in several generations to live for so long.
How I followed his path along the dusty roads, village to village, placing explosives for his group.
Ten minutes, I think.
I imagine fire: orange and flickering, tearing Dis Street apart.
I think of the city’s old walls, the blue fabric that moved where it chose, changing the map of the city every day; the drainpipes that curled around and over the walls, echoing their patterns; the windows and doors that never opened onto the same view twice; the careful movements around the orange trees. Now the walls are concrete and immobile, except for a few tattered, dirty walls down narrow streets, but they can barely twitch with so many of their number torn down.
And now the orange trees are the only structures moving in the city, by seeds on the wind, underfoot, borne through sewage drains.
The elite changed the city when they opened their gates and let their technology out, and assumed the city’s families would smile neatly like theirs. Some saw the advantages, some accepted the reality of change. Others saw death in the concrete.
Eight minutes, I think. Leave.
As I look one last time at the feet of the statue in front of me—small orange trees are etched into delicate ankles—I suddenly imagine removing the explosives. Does the city need them? It won’t return the walls to life.
I don’t know what the city needs.
I stare at the oranges.
I don’t know what to decide, so I follow as I’ve always done. I leave the room and walk along the corridors of the museum towards the exit.
Two members of an elite family’s Guard step out from the shadows of pillars and seize my arms.
engaged in exchanges
Young men together: my father and the Emperor, who learnt the world in the same plain-walled classroom. The same glass screens showed them the way of the elite.
The way that my uncle and my father’s uncles could not follow in the city-centre, in its uniformed architectures and structured days. The way that my father fled.
He did what my uncle and his uncles could not: he fled alive. But he never left the shadows of their deaths, he never truly fled following them.
it’s sunless in these thick walls
“What was the explosion intended to achieve?”
In a small voice I say, “Andé’s death.”
Wires crawl and twist from my shoulders, my forehead, red and blue and hair-thin, across the air and the table where a control box rests. Electricity—rare still in the dusty villages, as old as clean water in the centre of Tolté—will run across those wires. On the other side of the table, a man sits with the Emperor’s tri-star sigil on his uniform and a finger near one of the switches.
The walls are bare and pale.
“Why did you choose that time for your attack?”
“We had intelligence,” I say, and immediately cringe.
His finger touches the switch. “Tell me who your accomplices were.”
“I d-don’t know their real names.”
I don’t want it—the pain, the windowless walls, the questions, the small cell—I don’t want it and I don’t know how I will escape it.
Even though the man only presses the switch for seconds, I scream.
“Where do they live?” he asks when I have quieted enough to hear his flatly spoken words.
I don’t answer. Do I tell him about Farné’s apartment—if it was hers, after all—or do I lie, do I pretend?
The man presses the switch again and it hurts, it hurts, and I tell him about the sign that says Duram, I tell him about the ‘1B’ on the door. I tell him about the cafés where we often meet. I tell him about the glass tables, the cups of hot coffee, the canal-side streets, the orange trees in the windows.
“Do you have regular meeting times?”
Surely I am not the first to be caught, the first to open my mouth at the pain and tell the truth.
“No. Our group coordinator tells us, by hand-written, hand-delivered notes. I only meet her, not the other coordinators. I don’t know how they meet each other.” My words taste of blood: I bit my tongue.
“Do you communicate with the other members of your group between meetings?”
I shake my head. Sweat-damp hair falls in my face and I want to reach up and brush it aside.
“Are you aware of the movements and intentions of other groups?”
“If another group intended to blow up a building, you wouldn’t know until you heard it, until you saw the smoke on the horizon?” He sounds disbelieving.
Until we’re scorched limbs for the investigative team to stack into boxes. I remember the man who coordinated our group before Farné. I remember the day Farné said that another coordinator had contacted her, had told her about his death and asked her to assume his position.
I think, when the man steps outside for a refreshment, about how the guards at the museum knew to take me aside from the corridors full of people. I think about Yva giving me the signal for safety.
Though the betrayal is a persistent sting, I cannot stop remembering Yva’s words: This is all we do: lash out, again and again.
Sitting once again at the table, orange juice by his elbow, the man says, “We don’t have the name Dis Lapous in the city’s census records, birth records, criminal records or medical records. I’m going to assume that it’s not your real name.”
“Village-born,” I say quickly. “And I move around a lot.”
He stares across the table at me but he doesn’t see the truth.
Strapped to a chair, sweat-wet and urine-wet, of course I do not look like one of the elite.
He asks for my real name—and I manage, barely, to keep that hidden behind my tongue. I lapse into dreams of orange trees. I am woken and asked again. It almost spills out like cinnamon from an overturned jar. “Au M-Morinne,” I stammer.
He decides, eventually, to stop.
“That’s all for today,” he says. “You will be escorted back to your cell.”
As two guards enter the room and take the wires off me, I ask if I will be released.
They do not reply.
In my cell, I dream of orange trees again.
an orange tree framed your body
Orange trees lined our kitchen like wainscoting. I stared at them in meal-time silences, warm afternoon silences; I watched their leaves wave in the wind and I counted their fruits, thinking of sweet, tart juice on my tongue.
I watched my father stare at the knives in their block of dark-ringed wood.
“We are all the same,” he said, so many times in our dusty house. “You, me, your grandfather, your uncle, your great-uncles. We are all copies.”
oh father, I know your lying lines
I’m dreaming of oranges and in my dream I’m thinking, But you never stared at the oranges. You put them in pots beside our bare brick wall because you said they reminded you of Tolté, but you never stared at them and I did, I did.
biting down on the great grown world
I miss the oranges.
I miss walking into Tolté, seeing them green and bright in every part of the city.
My cell is barely wider than my father was tall and there is nothing, nothing at all on the white walls. A bed, thin-mattressed and with blue sheets, takes up almost half of the floor. A square toilet rests near the door.
I lie on the bed and try to recall the taste of oranges—Tolté oranges or village oranges, I don’t care. Sweet and tart and eaten under a clear sky with dust on the wind.
My tongue knows only the bland food I’m given, the metallic taste of blood.
My body hurts from yesterday’s questioning.
Orange trees grow everywhere in Tolté. Why haven’t they pushed waxy-leafed branches and thin brown stems through the dirty white floor? I want to touch their fruits, just once, and maybe it will make the fear go away. I want to walk on dusty roads with the sun on my arms, I want to sip cool water in a café, I want to sit on Dis Street and watch leaves bob on the canal like miniature green boats. I want to never see white walls again, to never see wires curling between me and a table, to never scream until my throat hurts and my cheeks are salt-sticky and I can’t think anything except how much I want the man to never return.
I manage to think, You never quite fled the shadows of their deaths, but you did not follow their copied paths. I curl into my thin blanket and I do not want to follow him.
It makes me shake, knowing that. I am adrift, I am lost. For the first time I don’t know what awaits me.
A slight whirr: the door opens. “Lapous.”
I sit up, trembling, unable to bear the thought of even a second day in that other room. I risk what I’ve hidden for so long.
I am not following his path.
“I’m not Dis Lapous.”
“Oh?” the man laughs. “You’ve another name for us today?”
“I’m Au Mairon.”
His laughter tapers at my utter lack of humour, at my still-perfect pose: the one all elite children are drilled in from such a small age.
it’s like eating air and there’s nothing else in
I am kept inside a room as large as the house I lived in for only a day after my father left.
As I sit on chairs that mould to my shape, as I stand on a balcony that invisibly shields me from dust and insects and pollen caught on a high breeze, as I wash in water that is always clear, I remember that house.
Most of all, I remember the kitchen.
The less-used spice jars gathering dust on a shelf with splinters along one side like the hairs on my legs. The terrible painting that he bought from a scrawny child and hung above the fridge. The pale yellow paint that covered the walls, except for above the table where the pot ran empty just before we finished.
The orange trees growing disorderly on shelves, on the fridge, on the end of the table.
I wish I had stayed there after he left.
For the first two days I am left alone. I spend a lot of that time on the balcony, watching the city, eating food from the fridge.
On the third day, I am woken by Tre Hervé: one of my father’s contemporaries. She is tall and lean, almost as fair-skinned as me, and on the shoulder of her green shirt is a crescent symbol that marks her as one of the Emperor’s most trusted. The sound of her boots on the floor tugs me from another dream, and I sit up before she reaches the partitioned sleeping part of the room.
“Why did you choose to keep fighting us after Nov Mairon’s last mission?” she asks from the foot of my bed.
The tone of her question makes me clench the bed sheets, remembering the cell and the wires at the bottom of the city. But she only stands, waiting. I relax enough, eventually, to say, “I didn’t really choose. I followed my father.”
She looks faintly amused—probably at my use of the word father. Among the rest of the elite, no one pretends to be descendants of anyone but the original man or woman, the progenitor, who was copied into a family. My father explained this, just as he explained that we must use words differently to blend in.
“Well,” she says, “you are here now.” Then she pauses. “Your family is flawed.”
I think she expects me to be upset. The way she handled the phrase, balancing it delicately on her tongue like a single peppercorn, indicated her distaste.
“I’ve noticed,” I say.
“Your family might be fixed.” Again that balancing. “It has not been decided yet. The Emperor has briefly returned to the countryside. In a week he will be here and decide.”
“I think it’s probably a bad idea to make more of us.”
She doesn’t know what to say, then.
I do not want to stay.
I do not want to break through the barrier around the balcony, hurl myself to the ground—like my two great-uncles, like my father in some of his dreams.
For most of my life I have thought of dying. Expected it—but not wanted it, I realize.
In the evening after Tre Hervé’s second visit, I stand on the balcony and watch the city, and I want to live in it.
who scaled the walls by the light of the sun
“Getting out is easy if you’re not underground,” he said. “If they trust you enough, still, to let you wander the city-centre, they don’t expect you to leave. They don’t understand why any of us would want to live beyond our walls.”
who exited a gate into orange bloom
It is not quite that easy.
Several Guards chase me, through the corridors of the city-centre and through one of its gates. But in the city I lose them. They fear it too much, I think, to follow me into narrow, winding passages between peeling pale walls, the ground strewn with blossom and discarded orange peel, household litter and loose roof tiles.
I keep walking long after they’ve stopped following. I count orange trees and inhale the dusty, fruity, dirty smell of the city.
who walked a life into wreck and ruin
“The first thing I did when I got out was buy bread and salted meat from a vendor, and eat it by the side of a dusty, uneven road. Or was it bread and olive oil? I can’t remember.”
The rarity of his smiles made them look strange.
a life which will callous and last
I’m crouching by a canal-side orange tree on Dis Street, cleaning aphids from waxy green leaves. Grey water laps at the stones. Two oranges bob in the small waves, like discarded bells. I follow their westerly direction, although they go ahead and slip out of sight while I’m still halfway along the street.
The orange leaves behind me are green and bright.
I am not smiling.
My father was nearly right: we are not a family well suited to joy.
I’m not sitting in a kitchen, looking at knives and jagged tin-lids.
Wipe, wipe: aphids flicked into the canal.
I’m looking at the city. I’m seeing the oranges grow everywhere their roots can eke nourishment, I’m seeing the infestation on their leaves that needs cleaning. I’m crouched between concrete walls and motionless drainpipes, and I mourn for the city that moved—but I’m looking at the city now. I’m cleaning it.
The city is not perfect, in so many ways. Its edges are far poorer than its centre. Its canals are dirty. Only a fixed number of non-elite men and women, chosen by a lottery every five years, can vote for the ministers. Its past is filled with deaths, human and other.
I think: maybe the new city can grow into something good, piece by piece.
I run my fingers over an orange and my smile is a small, delicate thing. I hope it grows.
this strange-wrought road
In the hazy afternoons I lie on my bed and I’m surprised—but it’s fading, slowly, like a mirage as the sun sets.
This story first appeared in Sybil’s Garage No.7, through Five Senses Press, in 2010. Many thanks for their kind permission to reproduce it here. —RR
Story copyright © 2010 by Alex Dally MacFarlane
Artwork copyright © 2014 by Teresa Tunaley
Alex Dally MacFarlane is a writer, editor, and historian. When not researching narrative maps in the legendary traditions of Alexander III of Macedon, she writes stories, found in Clarkesworld Magazine, Strange Horizons, Heiresses of Russ 2013: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction, and other anthologies. Poetry can be read in Stone Telling, The Moment of Change, and Here, We Cross. She is the editor of Aliens: Recent Encounters (Prime Books, 2013) and the forthcoming The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (Constable & Robinson, 2014).
Originally from the UK but now residing in the Canary Islands, freelance artist Teresa Tunaley (artwork) finds more time to devote to her love of art and painting. For more than thirty years she has been doodling traditionally with pencils and dabbling with watercolours. She currently uses her tablet and pen to produce her creations, a more modern technique.