(Author’s Note: Dear Everyone, this is the opening section of my novella TO THE WELL OF EARTH)
For all the beings genetically engineered
And for Missy
For the last two nights after I had left the Lab, the horses came over the sea and told me to crawl into the cavity between them as they lay back to back in the cool sand facing back out toward the glistening horizon, telling stories of before the fall of civilization. And we’d dream horse’s dreams. It was different than any of the information the scientists had downloaded into me.
The Woman In The Sand
“You’re free, but you don’t act like you’re free,” said the woman in the sand. “You’re one of those. There used to be a lot of you, way back, the first time what people thought was civilization ended. But human civilization has ended more times than you’d think. This time it’s a little different, no big old cataclysm, everybody is still alive, in some form or another, or in some place or another,” she laughed, looking at the shells, “but back then there were only a few survivors. But the ones who died didn’t really die, either. No one ever really dies even though it may look that way. They just went somewhere else. Somewhere that teaches…teaches thinking, I believe you could call it.”
I stood before her with antlers coming out of a human head, arms coming out of a human torso, but from the waist down I had a deer’s body. This is what the scientists had created in their laboratory. I thought, from a distance, charred driftwood from an old bonfire covered with beautiful yellow butterflies jutted out of the sand, but it was really a woman. A woman buried up to the waist. Or emerging. It looked as if somebody had laid shells of all kinds in a design radiating out from her, even into the water. In front of her was a tray of flowers, some very different from what I knew from the downloads. She was the oldest person I had ever met, even in my dreams.
“What do you mean, there were a lot of me?”
“There were many of you. There were all different kinds. They made you.”
I thought about it. There was something about her, the way she was submerged there in the design. Her blue dress was covered with yellow diamonds. “That was a long time ago. How do you know? That myth supposedly took place thousands of years ago.”
She laughed: “Even you could still see these things. They still exist. Maybe a little translated, but you can still see them. It’s like television. Mythological television. You just switch the channels.”
“So, what are you doing in the sand?”
“I, my fine, hoofed friend, am going through changes myself. It’s a whole new painting, you know? A whole new work of art. Just listen. Is that wind, or is that bells? Is that chanting, or is that your breathing? You can’t really stop to find out. And where’s all the humans? There’s all kinds of new people coming into being, but what about the humans?”
I looked up and down the shore. She was the first person I had met that you could call human since everyone had disappeared from the Lab. But in a way, she didn’t feel human at all. “You’re a funny woman.”
“I kinda am, aren’t I? I’m kinda famous for my sense of humor. Going through changes…everybody going through changes. Or maybe I’m just thinking. Maybe I just got back from that place where you’re taught to think,” looking up at the horizon. “Believe it or not, at one time there were a lot of people who wanted to be you. Especially one.” She raised one bushy eyebrow.
“Who was that?” I felt myself change to human form.
“Ah,” she said, peering at me suddenly, “But you can change back and forth. Now that’s something. That’s funny. I didn’t notice that. That’s probably why those mad scientists loved you so much.”
“I can’t really change myself. It just happens. But I don’t think they loved me. They couldn’t have loved me…everything they did.”
I changed again, but this time to half-deer, half-human.
She was looking at my dewclaws. “I think this one would look good right there,” she said, picking it off with no more effort than a ripe berry. It didn’t even hurt. She placed it into the design right where the waves reached their closest point. “You got a cigarette, Deer-human? It’s one of my things—I always ask humanish types for cigarettes. And you do seem somewhat humanish, believe it or not.”
“No, I’m sorry, I don’t.”
“No matter,” she said, rolling flowers from her tray into a leaf and igniting it, but knowing I was watching her. Like a magician, a flame sprouted from her first and second right fingers. Clouds furled up on the horizon. A whale surfaced in the distance and waved a fin. She exhaled and waved back. Then a group of birds all seemed to tip their wings toward us as they passed. She waved at them, too.
“People wave to you,” I said, watching her smoke. She didn’t say anything, just lowered her eyebrows, and slowly inhaled and exhaled the smoke. “What happened when those people destroyed themselves? Who were they?”
“Ah,” she said, looking down again at the shells, “They were just people. Humans. People who used crystals for everything, all their power. And they could travel through the air using crystals and harness all kinds of energies. But technology is one thing. Technology is a very small thing. Technology is like the steam you leave when you breathe on glass. And like people this last time, there were many who decided to change things just because they could, just to see what would happen. So they began genetically engineering new beings, new forms, partially to make their lives better, but mostly because they had lost the beauty, the natural flow, of creativity. So that’s why there were beings like you, beings who were half-this and half-that, that had no place in the world, that were disposable. They even put them in arenas and forced them to fight each other. Or gave them drugs to make them mate, and they would film it. Or had sex with them themselves. Always recording. Always recording everything. That’s when it all started coming to a nice little end. Yes. They loved the power. What is it about power? I guess power has to be constantly fed because it doesn’t exist. Do you know that, Deerperson? There is no power. It’s like a billboard that keeps falling down in the wind. Like a skyscraper that keeps falling into the ground. And they had no idea what those crystals really were. Just like they had no idea what people like you really were. They had just created the forms and thought that’s all there was to it. They forgot there was something inside those forms that was beyond anything they could ever think of. And who knows why, but they wanted more power, more energy, the energy of the earth itself, so they began using the crystals to bore deep into the earth just to see what new power they could unleash. Like the earth was a toy. Some of the people knew what was happening and escaped in boats and ships and survived that way. And some were taken away in other ways by people from space, but most of them died. But in a way, they were covered in beauty: lava, smoke, ocean. Those are living beings, too, living beings who know a little more about change. Covered in beauty…although they would never know it. But this time, it was a little different, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what really happened. All I know is something changed. All I know is when I woke up in the Lab all the technicians and doctors, all the humans were gone. Then I walked out. I never knew the Lab was on the sea. It’s funny because the music of the ocean, the waves, I think I could always hear it but I thought it was the machinery, the computers, the thoughts of the scientists. What did happen?”
“Well, I guess you could just say that this time people set themselves free. At least on this earth.”
“Are there other earths?”
“There are other earths. It all depends on which way you walk down the beach. Or maybe some day you’ll decide to go back to that laboratory you were in, just to remember. Humans like to relive things.”
My whole body tightened. The microchips they had implanted in my nose and the back of my head tingled. Even the ones hidden in the tips of my antlers resonated. I’d never go back, even though it was abandoned, even though the scientists and all the people who kept that building running had walked away or disappeared and left the doors open—under that roof, within those rooms, remembering, just remembering, I’d never be free. It made me sick. It was true, I didn’t know what really happened, not all of it, mostly that there was a massive shift. But I had taken part in it, although I didn’t know the whole picture. And also what the horses told me. But they were always vague about what really took place. They always seemed to be hiding something, or averting something, even in their stories.
I was about to ask what really took place without revealing what I knew. She looked at me closely, zoning in on some of the scars that never seemed to heal, that I could always feel stretching painfully below the surface.
“Sometimes taking a walk is the only way to figure it all out. The mystery of the mystery,” she said. “Walking is creating.”
I looked at her ensconced in sand and shells. She didn’t look like she knew too much about walking. Then I looked at the flowers.
“Some of these have been around a long time,” she said in reply. “This is a new one.” She lifted a flower whose blue petals expanded and waved as if beneath the ocean, swelling and shrinking, almost like it was creating its own dance. “But you see, a new flower means new insects, new birds, even a new type of music—and it’s the other way around, too.”
“Did you make those?”
“Oh no. I’m just a patron of the arts. I’m like a good audience. At least most of the time very important. Everybody needs a good audience. Even you.”
The tip of her flower-filled cigarette glowed as she breathed in, still eyeing me.
“Aren’t you killing them by burning them?” That was the thing about her, even though she was telling me things, things that I needed to know, it seemed like she knew a lot about death.
She exhaled and watched the plumes on the horizon. “Not really. They’re passing into other places. Watch the smoke. See. It’s shifting. Just like the earth. Slipping into another dimension.”
I thought about asking her if I could try, but I didn’t know about putting my lips on the same thing she did. I thought somehow I would change. Or age. Or just sink into the sand.
“But I see it’s time for you to go.” It was like she was listening to something in the air. “I see I’m busy.”
I stood there, watching her smoke, not wanting to leave. It was an automated voice, possibly in my head. A strange monotone voice, but each word spoken by someone else: “Where you step you are placing a seed, but you have to move for the seed to grow.” I guess that’s true—you couldn’t just stick a seed in the ground, pat it down with your foot and just stand there, expecting it to break through your body. And I had four feet, or hooves, each like a pair of ebony teardrops, like seeds hugged together. Is this what they were for? Seeds everywhere. Just by looking, just by reaching, just by walking. This shore seemed endless as I looked down it into the mist. It was all so new I had to force myself to breath, to move forward step by step, to trust in something, maybe just the beach itself. I think if I didn’t have those four legs, which seemed to disappear and re-appear just at the right moments, I wouldn’t have remembered the woman in the sand. That we spoke. When I looked back, there was only a pile of shells.