Short story: North
Eleanor has searched for the anti-gravity device once glimpsed as a child, hidden somewhere in the maze below the house. By Thoraiya Dyer.
Eleanor is in the house when it lurches and falls a few metres. Farmers’ children scream, grab their parents’ legs and scrabble on the wooden floorboards; the plasma ball they’d been playing with slips and shatters; naked, antique, incandescent light bulbs swing on the ends of their yellowed, cotton-sheathed cords. Nobody is hurt.
The heritage-listed house has begun to decline in the days since Eleanor’s mother’s death, as have the scientific curiosities within it. If Harriet had not tinkered with the house it could not hover over the mirror-bright, tannin-dark surface of the artificial lake.
Nobody but Eleanor knows there are no stilts underneath the house. Nothing tethers it to the Earth. Only the wooden rail-bridge connects the house to the dock at the lake’s edge, and that won’t hold it up when the anti-gravity device fails completely.
“Everything down to half-price,” Eleanor announces brightly via vibe-to-voice as the house settles temporarily. She beams at the children, white-knuckled at the carved oak banister of the spiral stair. The light through the bay window makes patterns of red waratah petals and emerald leaves over her arms, which are made paler by the pathogen-excluding membrane that she swelters in, now, every time she visits home.
Let the curious country youngsters take away the holograms, the self-playing piano and the displays to explain static, gravity and magnetism. Some of them might be born geniuses, like Harriet was. Maybe one of them will return to a house half-sunken in the lake, snow-covered on its high plateau, whipped by wind, and excavate the device hidden in its depths.
Eleanor has looked for the silver, keel-shaped case once glimpsed as a child. Her engineers have looked for it; the ones that she brought in to disconnect the lower floor from mains power and to seal up the maze because she feared some child being lost in it.
But the device isn’t really important – it is only a toy for amusement, like these other toys. Harriet treated Eleanor like a toy when she was young and liked to laugh. Then, when Eleanor abandoned her mother for the rich cultural environment of the DensityCentre, Harriet shrugged and kept tinkering with her non-living toys.
“How much for this?” someone waist-high and hopeful asks, holding up a model of a homing pigeon’s brain.
A HERITAGE HOUSE IN THE MOUNTAINS. Extravagant original features. Three storeys, one level now inaccessible due to immersion/subsidence. Others are luxuriously appointed and certified to have stabilised. Solar panels imitate ironbark shingles. Wrought iron wrap-around verandas. Bridge connects house with original wooden dock at lake’s edge. With scenic, north-facing views over the valley, where lies the dome of the local DensityCentre, this is a rare chance to live or work outside the human-only sterile zone. Eminently suitable for animal-lovers and/or those seeking to reconnect with nature.
God speaks in maths.
When Eleanor dreams of Him, His lips fall open. Equations made of stone or water drip or crash from his open mouth, causing falls or avalanches.
She wakes, still feeling the cold spray and tremor-convulsions of these upheavals. And she doesn’t speak maths; never has. She sings soprano, all the notes available to a sterile throat. Harriet, Eleanor’s mother, always preferred birdsong to the human voice, and told her that the carolling magpies spoke maths, too; that she’d be a rubbish musician without instinctive measurement of oscillation and time.
Sitting up in bed, Eleanor taps her ear to receive the call. “It’s Stefano,” the real estate agent says unnecessarily; there’s no mistaking the throaty, goatee-stroking overconfidence. “I’ve got a professional couple interested, no kids. A pair of veterinarians. They can’t run their practice in the DensityCentre and figure they’ll make enough money from ferals and farmers to make the payments on the house. But they want to rent first, for six months. The stupid woman isn’t sure about the subsidence. The husband’s got a thing for birds. You want me to tell them to get lost?”
“No,” Eleanor says at once. A thing for birds. “Give it to them.”
“You sure you don’t want to wait for a real buyer? Way less hassle.”
“Put together a six-month lease. Give them the keys. Bring the papers here to me and I’ll sign them.”
“Can’t get paper into the DensityCentre after ferals have put their grubby hands on it. It’ll cost you extra in gas sterilisation fees.”
“Fine. I’ll go there. Next week.”
She knows why he’s annoyed. He anticipated a big slice of the deposit as his commission. He wants a new car for Christmas and the rental management fees won’t get him so much as a scooter. If Harriet hadn’t appointed him, the grandson of an old friend, to oversee the sale, Eleanor and Stefano would never have spoken; Eleanor has seen his humiliating office space, a rat-hole behind a structural column, a corner Stefano shares with a recycling chute.
“My mother wasn’t a feral,” Eleanor tells him.
“Right. I mean rural producers. Short-lifers.”
Outside the DensityCentres, life is short. Eleanor expects to live for at least 200 years. That is because all the DNA in her body is her own. With a few surgical adjustments to her digestive system and the month-long process of purging all microorganisms from her body’s rich ecosystem, she became a modern woman.
“That’s the sacrifice they make so we can eat. I’ll see you next week.”
Eleanor ends the call, distracted by memories of her transformation from DC outie to innie. Some of the bacteria in her gut, the doctor had told her teenage self, making chit-chat to distract her from the pain, were the end-points of families that had survived in human innards, and the innards of their evolutionary forebears, for millions of years.
I am the end-point of my family, Eleanor thinks. But traits will pop up, undoubtedly, in other people’s children, which mimic my traits. Certainly those unknown children, destined to pour their souls into their songs, have more in common with her than she did with her mother; she feels like they are more her children than any roulette-spin offspring she might have biologically. When Eleanor dies, her money will go to where the singers and songs are, just as her mother’s house should go to someone who speaks maths.
The husband’s got a thing for birds.
Michelle watches her husband handling the cages in the blue-bronze dusk.
Shaggy-haired. Stooped. Slim-waisted. He carries a box of bleeping finches balanced on top of the red-sand, desert-mimicking environment he’s had built for them; she doesn’t think the power supply will be up to the task of too many of those custom tanks, but he refuses to be without them.
A couple of local farmers wrangle the X-ray machine across the bridge that connects the half-sunken old house with the dock.
“You really should buy it outright,” Stefano says, holding the papers limply in his black-gloved hand. “Then you could renovate it straight away to suit your needs.” He’ll take them back to a deposit-box in the Mountain Bank, a “dirty” workplace where DensityCentre officialdom leaves “soiled” documents that both sides may need access to again. Michelle feels like leaning against the polished chrome of his car and farting.
“Husbands and wives,” Michelle says, staring at Michael’s silhouette, “stop each other from walking blindly off cliffs”.
He’s not capable of being sensible about his dream to start with a small wild bird ward and subsidise it with the money from large animal work. He wants to end up releasing wedge-tailed eagles from the shonky gables of the crooked old mansion into the valley’s wide expanse. But so much can go wrong, even without choosing this wreck as a base of operations.
Michelle’s mother is an architect. She’s always believed in building on solid foundations.
“The house is stable,” Stefano says again, as if saying it can make it true.
“So why the big pumps?”
“In case of emergency. Insurance company insisted. They did the maths. They have risk-reducing algorithms. But they’ve never even seen the house. What do they know?”
“You’ve never slept in it.”
“No-one has, since the old woman died. You’ll be the first, tonight.”
Michelle, slightly creeped out by Stefano imagining her sleeping, says: “I heard there was a secret device somewhere in the lower level. Before it got flooded, there was a maze. All magnets and coils of wire. The professor used to put animals in there. Sometimes people. They never reached the heart of it. The maze protected the device, which was a kind of anti-gravity machine. It kept the house hovering over the lake, but the professor was the only one who could keep it running.”
Stefano’s reaction is a curled lip. Confusion. Disdain. Or maybe his eyes are too close together and he’s trying to lick a bit of compacted, petri-dish grown protein out of his teeth. Maybe all the effort he puts into shaving patterns into his stubble causes his native intelligence to shave away, layer by layer.
“That’s like a movie, isn’t it?” he says. “Anti-gravity? Just for laughs. Like the other junk the old woman had in there, desperate to get the kids to come around. Like a witch in a gingerbread house, luring children inside. Maybe the birds used to be human and she put a spell on them.”
“It’s not junk,” Michelle says angrily. Do the owners know how incompetent a salesman he is? “Anyone would pay billions for anti-gravity. Innies want it badly. Getting pretty hot inside your sterile bubbles, isn’t it? With anti-gravity, they could move the Earth a little further from the Sun. Cool it down. Undo some of the mess we’ve made.”
Stefano stares at her.
“Right,” he says with apparent incomprehension.
Michelle leaves him with his flashy vehicle, which she suspects is a rental, and crosses the creaking boards of the bridge. It has moss and lichen on the pilings, carries a cormorant with its head tucked under a wing. A chorus of frogs accompany her.
The final section is concrete slab, hastily positioned to reunite bridge and house. A hole’s been knocked in the wall to accommodate the ramp’s insertion into what must once have been an enormous fireplace in a grand upstairs bedroom.
She finds Michael setting his tank on a kitchen bench-top. There’s an antique wood stove on cast-iron hawk’s legs and a Christian prayer engraved in the bricks over the alcove.
“We’ll need some place to prepare food,” she points out.
“Temporary,” Michael says, his voice muffled, his head in the base where the tank’s filter resides. “Have you got
Michelle tells herself it doesn’t matter; she’ll hardly see the inside of the house. While Michael palpates chicken abdomens and stares at smears of their eye-juice on glass slides, Michelle will be roaming the mountains
by rover, the mobile bovine obstetrician, rearranging stuck calves and ensuring the breeders meet methane emission guidelines. She has a portable DNA sequencer for testing the cattle’s gut bacteria. Also, her capsules of wallaby poo, whose bacteria produce no methane, and which are a delight to load into a bolus gun and shove elbow-deep down saliva-swimming cow throats. Who wouldn’t have a government job?
In the pantry, she discovers nothing but tiny glass jars of anchovies in brine, a dozen deep.
“Looks like the professor lived on stinky little fish,” she calls out to Michael.
“Cormorants,” he shouts back. At least, that’s what she thinks he answers.
When she takes one of the tiny bottles out on to the north-facing kitchen balcony, three cormorants appear like magic on the crap-encrusted railing.
“So,” she says to the beady-eyed audience, smiling. “She used to feed you these?”
She moves the jar from her left hand to her right hand and all three turn their skinny heads on their skinny necks and look at her.
“Are you transformed children, then, or what?” she asks softly, and immediately feels stupid. She doesn’t actually want to feed them. Michael’s the one who gets so worked up about birds. Seeing them kept sterile as pets in the DensityCentre makes him furious. He raves about flight and migration being their genetic heritage, their right. Swinging through trees is Michelle’s genetic heritage but she doesn’t get worked up about that.
"The house is stable," Stefano says again, as if saying it can make it true.
“Go catch your own fish,” she murmurs, tucking the jar into her pocket with one hand. She sets the other on the railing, ready to watch the last light fade over the distant dome of the DensityCentre in the valley below, recoiling when she realises she’s put her palm into fresh cormorant poo.
“Don’t feed them,” Michael bellows, sounding clearer, as if he’s taken his head out of the tank. “They’re supposed to migrate in winter. If you feed them, they won’t go north.”
Heritage Veterinary Centre. All species welcome. Vaccination, health checks, sequencing, gut flora adjustments. After Hours Emergencies. Please do not bring large animals to the centre. We perform house calls. Payment in produce accepted.
Eleanor takes the package from the deliverybot.
Inside her channelled-sun-lit residential cubicle, she peels back the plastic film, exposing the rough-textured paper of two perfect bound journals she’s paid a great deal of money to have gas sterilised. It’s taken weeks for them to arrive.
The writing on their covers has flaked away, but Eleanor remembers them; remembers creeping down the spiral stair to examine the contents of the locked, forbidden drawer by torchlight. Breathlessly, she’d guessed password after password, until the lock clicked.
She holds one journal in her left hand, the other in her right.
“Gravity,” she had whispered to herself in the middle of the night in her mother’s study. “Magnetism. Aren’t they the same thing? Invisible magic that nobody really understands?”
“Absolutely not,” Harriet had said coldly. Eleanor had peed a little in her pants. “Gravity is attractive and acts between objects with mass. Magnetism arises from electron-electron repulsion and electron-positron attraction. Can’t you understand the difference in spin between the photon and the graviton?”
Eleanor couldn’t. Not then. Not now. She can’t explain her attraction to these treasured journals, either; she should hate them, or be jealous of them, but instead it seems to her that her mother, who never sang where Eleanor could hear her, sang in these journals in some other dimension.
She opens the volume titled Magnetism.
Inside, there’s a diagram of the internal structure of a capsule-shaped spacecraft. No, it’s a bacterium.
One. Single. Cell.
Inside, the book bears the physical traces of her mother’s restless intelligence. Metal components are labelled in silver. The bacterium is a permanent magnet; this fact has been underlined.
Also underlined are the words: FEED TO CORMORANTS?
Eleanor closes the book. She shivers with delight. Doesn’t want to experience all of the mystery at once. She will read a page every day.
She opens the second volume, the one dedicated to gravity. There’s a diagram there, too. This one shows the bulbous bow of an ocean-going cruise ship. Red arrows. Blue arrows. Black lines, here a grid, there a funnel. Waves cancelling waves.
Eleanor tries to resist turning to the next page, but she can’t help it. This journal seems even more pictorial. She finds another diagram.
This one shows a woman, dressed as Harriet usually dressed, in overalls and steel-capped boots, soaring above the DensityCentre in the valley. A pointed, silvery device, strapped to her chest, reflects gravitational waves and cancels them out, so the woman floats in a gravity-free parabola.
It isn’t perfect. Objects falling into the open cup-shape behind her fly apart dramatically. Eleanor’s mother seems stumped by the damage control measures she’ll need to put in place if she’s going to take to the skies, heading north, as the hand-drawn compass, included in the diagram, clearly indicates in scarlet ink.
Eleanor flips back to the magnetism journal. The same word is there, in the margin, written in silver, the colour
of the metal particles inside the bacterium.
How strange to find this connection, when Harriet so strenuously denied the two forces had anything in common. But perhaps Harriet’s brain, mulling them over, was the only thing they did have in common? Perhaps she entangled them.
Eleanor tucks them away. She goes to the cooler, takes out a little glass bottle and makes herself an anchovy sandwich.
Then she gets a message from Stefano. It’s apparently been weeks and she hasn’t signed the rental papers yet for her mother’s house. Can she meet him at the Mountain Bank tomorrow morning?
Eleanor munches slowly, tapping her silent assent.
The bed frame shakes Michelle out of a pleasant dream and into the pitch-blackness of the house.
It’s just contracting as it cools, she thinks blearily. But then the fear she’s felt from the first, the fear that the house will sink into the lake and turn two humans and their animal charges into fossilised bones for future generations to discover sends her out of bed, clumsily backwards, to crack her tail-bone on the floor.
She stifles a howl, rolls on to her belly and rubs her bum. Through the juddering boards she feels it; she can faintly hear it, too. The pumps, downstairs, are switched on. They’re supposed to be silent up to their medium setting, and so must be working at full capacity.
“Michael,” she moans, but he’s draped in that dead-to-the-world sprawl that tells her only ice water in his face will wake him. He’s already been out to two emergencies since the sun went down, taking her place with the cattle in the face of the dreadful diarrhoea she’s had in the past few days. Her belly still aches. And her head feels strange.
Not like dizziness, but like she can see something in the dark. No, it’s not her eyes. It’s her gut, trying to lead her
in a certain direction.
She doesn’t take a torch. Barefoot in her pyjamas, she takes the spiral staircase in the dark. When she gets to the place, the square in the floor where the lake-water bubbles up, her foot finds only damp wood.
The flooded lowest level of the house has been evacuated by the powerful pump. She feels the vibration, strongest here and knows she shouldn’t go down. If the pump fails, she could drown.
But her gut is telling her to go. It’s tracing an invisible path for her.
Ankle-deep in lake sludge, she follows the invisible path. Comes to an arched doorway where a gleaming, modern car battery has been connected to a switchboard which pre-dates it by at least a century. Lights on the battery cast the hallway, the entrance to the maze, in a green glow. Nail-studded particle board has been eased off with a crowbar to permit passage to someone wearing long, narrow shoes.
The footprints are easy to see in the glow, but Michelle doesn’t need to follow them. She enters the maze without hesitation. When the glow fades, her gut-sense leads her on. Left turns and right turns. Her fingertips brush brick walls and the air is heavy.
‘I’m going to die. Turn back’, she tells herself, ‘I’m going to die!’
But she doesn’t die. She finds a compass discarded in the muck. It, too, casts a green glow with its row of LEDs, and by this light she sees the cavity under the floorboards where somebody, quite recently, has removed a wooden cube and pried open its lid.
The cube is empty. Whatever was inside is gone.
Over the shudders of the pump, the squelch of her toes and the thudding of her heart, Michelle hears the rumble of the rover’s engine turning over. Someone, not Michael, has started it up. The thief who has taken the contents
of the cube is using her rover to make a quick getaway.
Michelle turns around, outraged at the audacity of the break-and-enter. The mountains are full of stories and she never took this one seriously.
The maze protected the device.
The anti-gravity device.
Anyone would pay billions.
She pulls against that string tied to her gut, using it to retrace her steps. She struggles out of the maze, up on to the spiral stair, just as the car battery dies.
The string that led her through the maze fades along with the greenish light.
A lump comes to Michelle’s throat as she stands, stock-still, in darkness. Gradually, powerfully, another feeling comes over her. This, too, arises in her gut. Its pull is magnitudes stronger than the light string tied to her before.
It urges her to go north.
Lines spring into existence all around her. Silvery lines of force that Michelle senses but cannot see. She gasps and reaches out for them, a child reaching for fireworks or fairy lights.
The whole planet. She sees it. It sees her.
North, it says.
Michelle pulls on her running shoes by the door that leads to the bridge. North suits her. From the retreating sounds of the rover, her quarry is heading north, too. She sprints across the ironbark slabs, arms outstretched, momentarily possessed by the thought that she can fly after the thief.
Thorny bushes snag her legs and rotting scum has no doubt wrecked her socks, but she can’t stop.
Not until Michael catches her at the rocky cliff edge. He jerks her back, sounding like he’s having an asthma attack in her ear. Michelle returns to her right mind at the smell of him; aniseed, ammonia and chook feed.
“What on earth are you doing?” he demands hoarsely.
“I was chasing someone,” she says. There’s no sign of the rover she was pursuing, but she still feels the earth singing. Her gaze falls on the dazzling gem of the night-lit DensityCentre, so far below, and it hits her how close she came to dying.
Husbands and wives, she thinks, stop each other from walking blindly off cliffs.
She laughs and cries at the same time and the strangled peals echo over the valley.
Eleanor can’t find Stefano at the Mountain Bank in the morning.
She goes to the house. Cordially greets her new tenants. Asks if they have had any visitors since sunrise. The wife tells her an odd, disjointed story about a thief in the night.
When Eleanor taps her earpiece, she finds the young real estate agent has left a MeetUp application running, one which shows his position on a map via GPS tracking.
It looks like he’s gone for a rather strenuous hike down into the valley, which seems at odds with his sharp manner of dressing and scorn for the countryside, but Eleanor shrugs, changes her pathogen-excluding membrane in a cubicle in town – the one she was wearing was starting to get quite sweaty and disgusting on the inside – and sets off after him.
She finds his body, crushed in a rock crevice, and doesn’t know how to feel.
When she looked at her mother’s body, peaceful, as if sleeping, she had felt sadder for the children who came to the house than she had for herself. They had been apart for so long and Eleanor had already said her goodbyes. Besides, Harriet accepted that her burden of gut flora would seriously limit her life.
This young man could have gone on for centuries.
What was he thinking when he flew over the edge? What was he feeling? The exhilaration of flight? The thrill of speed that his fancy car would have given him? Perhaps simple freedom from the columns trapping him, bent practically double, in his prison cell of an office.
She hopes it was enough to outweigh his fear in the final moments when the valley floor began to rush at his designer stubble and outstretched, manicured hands.
Eleanor bends over to uncurl his right thumb. The silver, keel-shaped device is there in his palm. When she looks back over her shoulder, she can’t see any damage to the landscape.
“Oh, mother,” she whispers. “How you sang.”