That morning the apparition retreated well before dawn. Giddens lay back and drifted for a while hoping for sleep. Furry luminescences clung to the venetian blinds like koalas, filled with (he imagined) hopeful awe over their drowsy human. Patiently Giddens took each one and returned it to the clock to which it belonged. The ghost goes its way, he thought half in dream, but the clocks we have with us always. Still, long into his foggy morning ruminations he remembered the face of the apparition, filled with intimations he wondered about but could never describe. In the dark as he waited sleep escaped him and when he heard Sally rattling pans in the kitchen he dressed and went down.
“You’re early,” Sally chirped as she ladled viscous liquid into the eggs.
“Yeah. Didn’t sleep much.”
Sally shoveled the pail under the sink and went back to the stove.
“Your ghost figure again?”
“Yeah,” Giddens admitted. “It faded into the wallpaper. It didn’t stay as long.” He sighed and sat at the empty table with Tatrime the mutant cat-like creature.
“Strange that it doesn’t speak,” said Tatrime as he watched the eggs.
“It only stares at me in the dark,” Giddens allowed. “I can see its eyes. And…and there’s more. I mean, the thing I see, there’s more, more than what I see. I’m not making sense. But what appears is all I can face, I think. The eyes look at me as if it’s waiting for me to say something. Me. But I’m struck dumb.”
This last came out like a moan though Giddens was not ashamed. Sally was silent, letting him go on.
“It’s as if it’s shy and doesn’t want to be seen very much. I think, maybe, well… maybe it’s afraid.”
“Of course,” Sally announced, her spatula cocked like a plumbing tool. “It’s becoming intimidated. It knows its demands won’t be met. So it’s decided to give up. It’s in that arduous process of giving up and dying off. Could last a while, thing like that.”
Giddens sat quietly at the table, knowing that was expected of him. Sally banged platters and set plates before him and the mutant cat.
“What demands?” Giddens asked as if in a dream. “It never says why it comes.”
“Of course not,” pronounced Sally. “It has no right to ask for anything. After all this time, it’s finally getting the idea.”
“He thinks it’s Kimmel’s ghost,” Tatrime said.
None of them said anything as Sally dished out the eggs and sausage. She sat down and broke some toast. Giddens grew more thoughtful.
“It first appeared a while after Kimmel died. I thought at first it might be his ghost, but I can’t tell. The image is too fuzzy. Kimmel would have known, anyway. He was always attuned to things. He never said anything stupid.”
“He died a natural death,” Tatrime said sympathetically. “Didn’t he, Sally?”
“Um… I think so.”
“Henry has his doubts,” said the cat.
“You have your chores,” said Sally, munching carefully. “That will get your mind off maudlin thoughts. Here. I’ll help you.”
She nuzzled a clock and pressed its panel. Out rolled a slip of paper which she held in front of her nose.
“That’s for me?”
“Mm-hmm,” Sally confided. “But I want to check it. I don’t want you getting confused.”
Finally she plunked it on the table and went back to her breakfast. Giddens read it upside down.
“Says do the angle brace in the barn.”
“Yeah, well, I told you last week it needs fixing.”
“Hm.” He stared thoughtfully and paused in his eating. “That’s high up.”
“You could get a couple of clocks to do it,” Giddens said. He could feel his face reddening and becoming moist. He blinked and pursed his lips. Clocks were the most intelligent automated forms Sally had on the farm. The list in fact had come from her favorite clock. Sally was silent and especially still for a moment. When she got that way, Giddens wished she would even rustle a skillet.
The cat creature gestured at the limp form that Sally kept hung on a peg like a raincoat beside her aprons and bonnets.
“You could get Fogarty to do it,” Tatrime vibrattoed into the silence. Sally ignored that and turned to Giddens.
“A clock,” she said with some depth, “might fall. We only have three. And anyway, Henry, I can’t get clocks to do everything. You have to do your share. Besides, you’re very good at that sort of thing. Have another sausage. You need your DNA.”
The fact was, with all the half-wished creatures (argot in the Plaines for engineered mutations like Tatrime), and all the clocks on the farm, and among the two humans, Giddens was the only one who did what he was told. Fogarty of course, didn’t count, since he was only a pretend human and underneath his fleshy shielding was not even alive. He was a jangle of soft body parts held together with carbonyl sinews. Out of the corner of his eye Giddens imaged the slunk form under its cowl of fake skin leering with a skeletal grin, chuckling at unlucky humans who had to do work. Fogarty couldn’t be asked to do the brace anyway; he served only Sally. She boasted how she had upped his cycles and shunted his fuses so his strength was undiminished. Every morning, Giddens knew, she convened with her favorite clock and muttered instructions for improving Fogarty’s moves and gestures. Then she would spin around with renewed exuberance to see what else in the kitchen, or the land, needed tending.
Giddens perused further down.
“And strain the crows,” he read.
“They need it,” she said. “They have gnats and attendant parasites. “They can hardly fly, Henry. Some of them just flap. Soon there will be no one to mediate between us and all avian life around here.”
Giddens nodded to himself.
“Yes, I’ve seen them.”
“But they don’t die,” said Tatrime.
“Don’t be helpful,” said Sally. Giddens turned back to the list. Straining the crows was tedious, but that could be a good thing, since long hours could be blamed for it.
“And… what? Move the tarp to the roof. Okay, ….um, well, I dunno. That tarp is the lean-to where the pig sleeps for shade.”
“So? The pig can move. We’ll never get parts for the turbine out here in the Waste and the tarp makes current, which Fogarty needs to maintain his strength.”
Giddens felt mournful. He feared he was going to say something emotional and irrelevant, but it burst out of him anyway.
“The pig… the pig… has human eyes.”
The half-wished cat laughed. Sally stared at them both, which led to another long silence.
“He misses Kimmel the way I do,” said Giddens. “I just… since he died and… Oh, he was out there blind, in the cold. If I’d been here I would have…”
“Don’t blubber,” Sally said, slicing a sausage, “I think you’re growing too close to the pig. Maybe that isn’t good for you.”
She sank her teeth into a slice of toast. Tatrime growled as he ate. Sally, in a meditative pause, scratched the basilisk tattoo on her breast.
“In fact, I’m glad you looked at the list.” She tapped it with her fingernail. “There’s plenty for you to do.”
Giddens ate slowly. The list was filled with trivia for the most part. It even detailed the sorting of screws. He hoped she wouldn’t iterate all that was on it.
“I wonder if he got relegated,” Giddens muttered.
“Kimmel. What did you do when I was off at Tanner’s? You told me to go and I went and then…. You, didn’t you, left him in the cold shed where he didn’t know.”
“He went there himself.”
“Didn’t know any of what was happening to him.”
“If he was so intelligent, like you say, Henry, he should have known.”
“I… I mean, I didn’t know. Or I would have saved him.”
Sally leveled her eyes across the table.
“Henry, eat your eggs. That was a long time ago. At least a month. I don’t need you to do my thinking for me. I have clocks for that.”
They all ate quietly until Sally, uncharacteristically, grew pensive.
“I can’t decide, Henry, if you have the same idea over and over, or if it just seems like the same idea because you don’t have that many.”
“I don’t need ideas,” said Giddens. “I can strain the crows without ideas.”
“Yes. Ideas would only keep you from your chores.”
There had been no funeral for Kimmel. Not a real one. No one even knew where he was buried. When Tanner and the relatives arrived, led by Giddens, Sally arranged a service over the grave. But later, when the apparition first appeared, Giddens stole out one night and spaded beneath the crude stone. The ground was piled with loam, but underneath was untouched. No one was buried there. Of course Giddens might bring that up, but it wouldn’t go anywhere. Sally would only have some excuse, it being her right and duty to officiate obsequies for her uncle however she saw fit. The guests came expecting a feast and got a funeral after which there was only a quiet dinner with Sally imperious in her black gown, mourning more heavily than the others. The visitors sat nervously on the sofa, powerful hulks of men, alert ferretlike women whose very glance excluded Giddens. They were unconsoling and not revelrous; they had far to go and they left in the dawning light. The settlement of her inheritance had been taken care of by one who stayed behind, a bony attorney who joked that even here in the desert the law still meant something. Giddens didn’t see any of them again.
“You’ll still have a job,” Sally told Giddens when it was over. “You won’t notice the change.”
Giddens had assented and backed away. Nothing more was said.
The next morning the apparition persisted longer and Giddens stared trembling at the lines of the face, brown and golden in rich furrows, and the bluish swipe beneath its eyes. It had to be Kimmel; he was sure of it. The face stared back as if it was as lost and needful as Giddens, but it said nothing.
At breakfast Giddens only mentioned that it had appeared again and stayed. The others were silent, embarrassed at this devout confession which they neither of them believed.
“He was so extraordinary,” Giddens went on. “Could being blind make a man wise?”
“Wise soothsayers, of course,” said Sally. “Old kings had them.”
“Sometimes, I don’t know, I just wish Kimmel’s ideas and wisdom had been written down somewhere, in some way preserved or available when I need it. Like now.” His voice was pleading.
“You need to do the crows,” she said.
“We don’t have his like anymore.”
“Well, actually, we do,” said Sally. “I preserved his protein.”
“Yes. Well, the mimetic centrifuge still works. And his DNA. In fact it’s in the eggs. I put in a little every day.”
Giddens backed away from the table, stared wide-eyed at his plate. Sally nodded slowly and batted her eyelids at this, for him, heavy moment.
“Well,” she said, “You’ll have to hear the music sooner or later, Henry. May as well be now. I can’t protect you from everything. Certain facts you have to grow up to.”
With patient resignation she raised her eyes before this nasty emotional complexity.
“You of course attach too much meaning to things,” she said. “I know you admired him, so you need some time to collect yourself. But after some reflection you might be willing to get over your traditional sentimentality, and answer to your real needs. Out here in the Plaines we can’t waste protein and DNA when it’s available.”
Giddens couldn’t look up to face Sally. He only stared at his plate. He got up and went to the door.
“I’ll do the crows,” he said.
Giddens gathered his equipment and found a place down the slope behind the barn. Sally liked to stay close to the house and rarely went that far, so with luck he could strain the crows and not be bothered. Under the stretching grey sky the birds seemed especially pathetic. They pecked and limped and scraped their heavy wings on the ground as if that might get rid of the parasites. It never would.
Giddens went to work on the first bird. Some could hardly walk, let alone fly. The slurry would dissolve the larger parasites, but the smaller ones, too tiny to see, were resistant. Only the laser comb would take them out. As Giddens worked, the cat-creature tried to sleep, but stayed awake as if even sleep was too boring to be endured. After a while the cat stood up and stretched, looked curiously at Gidden’s work on the crow’s wing spread out over the pail. The comb sparkled little crystal dew as it worked through the feathers, feeling with tiny branching fingers along every vane and barbule and leaving a dark sheen in its wake.
“Hm,” said the cat with abstract curiosity. “You do good work, Henry. You’re obviously the one for that. You strain out a gnat and swallow a Kimmel.”
Giddens was tired. The sun came out. He looked over the valley of scrub and foggy desert and sighed with the dripping crow in his hand. He dared not think of futility. What was called for now? Staring into the grey and yellow stretch of the land he felt a sense of longing and oppression was waiting, paused to come closer but hesitant like some reluctant beast. With resolution he went back to his work. He finished the crow and fluffed it so it could test its new freedom. Sure enough, it spread out shiny wings and flew a gliding path over to the others, who all in a gaggle stood as if sodden down by rain. Giddens looked up through the sweat and haze of the noonday sun. On the nearest rise a figure in white descended the slope, moving as if in the flame of its own mirage, the figure of a girl.
They rarely had visitors. There were other farms, but they weren’t near and people stayed away, ostensibly out of fear, whether of weapons or disease, but as if out of some deeper dread of strangeness. A trader would come through now and then, but never stayed. They had their ways of guarding themselves in the wild and trusted no one who stayed in the same place. So this what he was seeing was odd. Giddens watched the white shape without much interest, thinking it might be a spectre of some kind, not a real person. But as the girl’s image neared he could tell she was real. She walked with quiet resolution through the aura of her own space, which shifted as if drifting pieces might come off in the wind.
“That’s Cici,” said the cat. His eyes narrowed. “She’s a wanderer. No one knows where she will go. Some say she doesn’t know herself.”
Slowly the girl-woman came nearer. She paused when they met. Her open-eyed self-assurance disarmed the man and the half-wished cat.Giddens greeted her, asked if she needed food. She did not. She only sat before them and watched as Giddens went back to his task. After a moment she saw the technique and got a pail to help with another bird. Together they quietly worked. She strained first with the slurry, then she passed the wet crow to Giddens and his comb.
After a while they spoke more and Giddens edged into conversation, hoping that would not frighten her away. Eventually he related the story of the apparition, if it was Kimmel’s.
“It is,” said Cici. She spread the feathers of an infected wing.
“Um…. how can you know that?”
“I can. But the real heart of the matter rests with you.”
“You value yourself too little, Henry. It matters a great deal where Kimmel is buried.”
“Yes? Well, I’m sure Sally won’t say.”
The girl’s open face addressed him cold and soft at once.
“It matters a lot and you need to find out.”
She was speaking with familiarity, as if they had known each other from before. It at once astonished Giddens and deeply gratified him.
“You sound as if you might know,” said Tatrime.
She didn’t answer but only looked around at the pig who sat watching them from only a little distance away.
“The pig knows,” she said. “So I don’t have to.”
The half-wished pig rarely spoke. But now it focused its human eyes and looked back and forth between Giddens and the girl.
“I don’t know,” said the pig.
Cici peacefully nodded, fingering wet feathers.
“He knows,” she said. The pig hesitated, as if some longed for intimation was passing between the four of them.
“There will be rep… repercussions,” stammered the pig. The half-wished creature backed away into the sheltering sand under the tarp.
“He knows,” said Cici. She raised her eye directly to Giddens. “There will be blue flame when you find it and he has to tell you. And you have to know.”
Sally was unusually quiet the next day. She deferentially fixed waffles, uncontaminated with nutrients. But the day went on as always. In the evening things grew a little tense.
“Who is that girl?”
“Cici,” said Tatrime. “A vagabond. She’s traveling through. She won’t stay. She never stays any place for long.”
“Is that her name? I saw her sleeping in the barn. Do we let just anyone sleep in our barn?”
“She won’t hurt anything,” Giddens muttered.
“But why let her stay at all?”
A wave of indifference came to Giddens, a sense of cool whimsicality as if a door had opened of its own accord.
“It’s kind of funny,” he said as if talking to no one in particular, “you wouldn’t believe it, but she knows something about the pig. Can you countenance that? She even knew that you didn’t like that particular half-wished animal. In fact from what she says the pig is knowledgeable beyond what we had all thought before.”
“Is that a fact.”
“Well, all I can say is she seems very prescient.”
“That’s nice. You seem to be getting ideas, Henry. What does she want?”
“Ask her yourself,” Giddens said.
But Sally was plainly indifferent and never went farther than the front of the barn. That afternoon it grew hot. When the sun came out Giddens and the girl rested under the silver leaves of the poplar. There was no lunch meal. Cici fell asleep but Giddens sat back, quietly pondering. Finally he confided to the mutant cat.
“You should get me that protein,” he said.
“Get it. For me.”
The cat creature looked around as if staring at flies.
“Why me? You can get it yourself.”
“Sally would see me. At night it’s too near. She wouldn’t see you.”
The half-wished cat looked around to check if anyone was listening.
“Suppose you steal it, Henry. Think. She’s gonna know come breakfast. To make it work you’d have to replace the pail with something else that looks the same.”
Giddens sank in silence. When he raised his eyes, the pig was looking at him.
“What looks the same?” he asked the pig. Giddens stared at the half-wished creature till it impatiently bowed its head and then spoke.
“Other DNA. Other protein. There’s concentrate left from the enzymatic ferment,” said the pig. “You have to stir up the sediment. It’s in the second vat in the cellar, behind the big batteries.”
Sally kept mindless clutter in the cellar. Giddens pretended to look for tools and found a bucket he could use. He dipped into the fluid and found that it was milky and organic and certainly looked like what she had under the sink. By the time he got back the sun was still high.
“Now will you do it?” he said to Tatrime, placing the bucket before the cat.
“Well,” Giddens mused hopefully, “I imagine you could distract her.”
“That I could,” said the cat.
In fact the cat-creature took great delight in intrigue and farce. He and Giddens entered the barn and peeked through a crack in the front wall. Sally up the way was in her gardening apparel, with spiky fork and bonnet. She bent over the rows of macrobiotic herbs promised to make chemicals she distilled from their leaves. Each one had special requirements and rules of husbandry only Sally knew.
“You need two pails, you know,” said the cat. “One for her stuff, one for your own.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Wash out all you want and put back the pail she knows.”
Giddens waited, wondering of this would work.
“What will you do?” he asked.
“Just watch,” said the other.
True to his word, the half-wished cat leaped to the high rafters of the barn. There a complex of wires and optical ribbons spread out like a giant’s cobweb connection to machines that fed the house. The cat grabbed one of the wads that fed out over the yard. He instantly had Sally’s attention. She plodded near to where pieces of the apparatus wafted in wind high above her. She yelled at Tatrime to leave the apparatus alone.
“It’ll get away.”
“Rodents. Don’t you see?”
“Forget them. We’ll lay out poison. Get down.”
With adroit awkwardness the cat scrambled on a line and then almost tumbled free. He whirled in a high arc, flailing in air. Desperately he grabbed at a strand, tearing apart connectors and strips and screeching for all he was worth that he might soon lose his life. That would fit well with her plans, Sally let him know. Angrily she gesticulated at him and implored him to fall quickly, if not on her garden fork, then perhaps on her blossoming bed of pharmaceutical cactus. Wild-eyed, the cat only became more furious, lunging darkly to grasp now one festooned strand, then another if any more could be torn in shreds. Giddens watched in awe. Now for sure the cat proved a fine aerialist, drawing with every wild swing a separate wire in each claw till it was hard to tell if he was caught in the tangle or making it happen. But for Giddens there was no time to waste. He slipped by the lower garden to the front of the house and into the kitchen. In a minute he had changed the fluids and raced back to the side of the barn.
Now Sally was throwing engine parts at the cat. Frantic with fear the half-wished creature made a pitiable sight, at each instant apparently saved by only a single prehensile claw. But when he saw Giddens pass, one muscular fling was enough to set him walking upright on the remaining stringers, while all below the others hung down, the image of dead squid. Sedately Tatrime paused, licked his shoulder, and looked down with quiet curiosity to see if another bolide might rise up with Sally’s words.
Giddens scrambled down the slope and the cat, when he’d had enough, returned to the darkness of the barn.
By the poplar tree Giddens couched the pail as if it were a pot of gold.
“That won’t be enough,” said the mutant cat smoothing his fur.
“What do you mean?”
“I know what you’re going to do with it if you and find his grave. But it won’t be enough to quiet his ghost.”
Giddens sat back.
“Not everything’s in DNA, Henry. Not by a long shot. There’s quantum perturbations and associated contour waves. They fluctuate around the old chemistry even when he’s sleeping. They only stop when he dies. There’s nothing in the man’s chemistry for that.”
Giddens looked down at the pail.
“So… this whole thing… it’s hopeless?”
“No, now you’ve got his DNA. You just need the other thing.”
The mutant cat thought a while. He didn’t like technical discussions.
“It’s called a Tagalong, Henry. It tags along with you when you die. Like a tag at the moment of death.”
“If the pig knows where Kimmel is buried, then he probably has it. It’s not something you throw away. You have to get it away from the pig.”
Cici turned on her side, glanced at Giddens’ fist clutched on the pail, then drowsily she went back to sleep.
Sally didn’t blame Tatrime for the broken circuits. Everything in the house worked wrong now, and the web of connectors over the yard had to be redone. Sally pretended that the cat creature, for all her vituperations, was, given his not quite human status, the victim in the matter, and it fell on Giddens to get the wires straight. He, she warned, had better do it right or the house would blow down and nobody would have a job.
He had to build a scaffold to get to the tangled mass, but all in all, Giddens reflected, it was only part of the job of getting the liquid out from under the sink, his stealthy goal to begin with. Plus the scaffold took a while to build and no other chores could be expected of him all that day. Sally sent two clocks to assist, “because we don’t want any mistakes,” she said.
While he worked, the clocks, humming and conciliatory at first, sat on each shoulder like tarsiers. They extended claw-like pointers and whispered where to put the ribbons and fold the sheets of thinking fabric. But the clocks didn’t just know things, they actually had ideas. After a while Giddens sensed that one of the clocks had an apophatic leaning, something he had never noticed before. As soon as that showed up, then the other, after a hint, admitted in the tone of a tired secretary that its approach was not that, was in fact cataphatic. Inevitably, in the darker questions of method, they had differing views on how the plugs and wires should go. It was all right most of the time, since once Giddens had made a connection and nothing exploded, they both shut up about it. But as the more difficult ribbons unwound and had to be wound again with connections that might go anywhere, the clocks began to disagree. Presently the apophatic shoulder grew vehement and strained, offering Nietzschean pronouncements meant to convince by their sonority. The other only rested with Kantian observations on the emotionality of its colleague’s approach. Finally, when the squabbling got shrill Giddens threw the pieces together however looked right. It would be days before Sally knew for sure. Between times he distracted the two counselors with questions of osmotic complexity and switching theory, things he knew they loved. Long years of trial had taught Giddens never to talk back to a clock; far better to confide his most subliminal suspicions, which with luck would flatter by suggested intimacy. When he could he would ask in turgid language something like: how ever could magnetic monopoles orbit in the happy quantum spheres of gnostic dualism and never get stuck? Only a clock would know.
After that, Giddens reflected later that night, important appliances did their job. The choral progressions of the fridge were more romantic than before. But all in all, things worked as they had before. Fogarty for sure was ready for his nightly chore. On occasion, as that night, Sally left her door open, as if her delight was meant to be on show. Giddens made himself scarce those times, though he could hear. The cat loved to tell about it.
“Her arms flew out like pinwheels,” the half-wished creature recounted. “A flock of geese in a fanjet might faintly approximate the multicolored sight. It’s Walpurgis Night on a mattress, Henry. Hair and fingers flying. Oh, she has a great deal of fun.”
“I’m glad you watched,” said Giddens, “and I didn’t have to.”
It was obvious the next morning, when Sally’s cheeks were flushed with chipmunk energy, the freshness of a good night’s sleep after Fogarty’s ministrations.
“Well of course,” said the cat, “Half-wished beings are more durable than humans. I read a study about it. We have less junk DNA, of course, and fewer parasitic genes.”
“Fogarty isn’t half-wished,” said Giddens. “He’s only a bunch of electronics that move.”
“Whatever,” said the cat. “Not human means better, generally speaking.”
“Yes, I suppose.” Giddens spoke with resigned sadness. “I imagine you’re more efficient.”
“Why Sally likes you, ever since you came. She likes efficiency. And gets me to do the work.”
“Don’t be resentful, Henry,” said the cat. “Don’t let those suicidal feelings get you down. You’re safe here. And you have plenty of food. You wouldn’t want to go wandering in the Plaines, among fast predators and wintry winds, furless as you are.”
“This is the Plaines.”
Indeed these thoughts had troubled Giddens for years. His parents had died in these lawless wastes, where engineered disease and half-wished tribes held little promise for humans who lost their way. He didn’t want to leave the farm.
But the pig, when Giddens made an overture later that night, turned away sadly and professed to know nothing of Kimmel’s grave.
“Well, but Cici said…”
“And you think she knows?” said the pig.
“Oh. Well, she’s asleep now, but I’ll ask again.”
Then in the grey of morning Giddens went to look for her. But Cici was gone.
Giddens wouldn’t eat the eggs after that. The next morning the apparition did not appear. All day Giddens felt relieved and wondered if the whole matter might be forgotten. Then the next night the thing arose at the foot of his bed and seemed like a dark flame intent on finding some form. It trembled and became so bright Giddens looked away. He closed his eyes and gripped his knees and quietly waited. When he finally looked up there was nothing there.
He tried to put the whole business out of mind. For hours he lay awake, laden with strange regret, the gnawing residue of something left undone, guilt for something he never promised, and he wished there was someone to confess to besides Tatrime. With Sally of course, he could only discuss facts. Then at breakfast there was a strange turn.
“Did your apparition come again?” asked Sally.
“I don’t know why you bring that up. You usually want to deny the fact.”
“Well now, after all this, after all these stories, tell me Henry: we don’t really believe in ghosts, do we?”
“I don’t have to believe,” he said. “I have experience. All I need is memory.”
“You’re probably confused. I don’t think you can tell a ghost from your own fevered fantasies.”
“I can too,” Giddens said defensively. He felt ashamed immediately. “It just doesn’t tell me what it wants.”
“Well, sometimes dreams are like that,” Sally went on, humming to herself. “Confused. You’re still reminiscing about my uncle.”
“You didn’t like him,” Giddens said. “You led him to the cold shed and sent me away. Or I would have…”
“Oh! He was going to die anyway,” Sally said directly, then hummed to herself. “In fact, if you want to know, that’s exactly the reason why I sent you away. I could see he was fading. You’d have gotten confused and might have done something crazy. You’re very clever, Henry. You figure things out if you’re given time.”
She punched her favorite clock and examined the list that spewed out.
“You didn’t move the tarp.”
“I sorted screws.”
“Hm. How did you do with the crows?”
“I strained two yesterday, three the day before.”
“It takes hours to do one.”
“And the angle brace?”
“I took care of it,” said Giddens, though this was a lie.
“It’s still here,” said Sally, her finger suspended on the list. That was the authority.
Giddens shrugged and smiled, as if you could never trust a clock.
“You know we have to have the place cleaned up,” said Sally. “My mother’s family might come. A trader might wander through. We don’t want the place to look like we don’t care. You can’t wait for tomorrow.”
“It’s already tomorrow,” Giddens said. He liked irrelevancies, but Sally didn’t seem to notice. If Giddens didn’t make sense, it only meant she was all the more in control. He grew philosophical.
“This morning the apparition flickered. Yes. Like it hadn’t done before. But its reflection in the mirror stayed the same.”
“Did not flicker.”
“It means nothing,” said Sally.
Giddens looked down at the list. At the bottom was a simple line: “Kill the pig.”
“Where? Oh, you’re reading.”
Sally leaned over: there might be a typo.
“Oh, yes, Henry. The pig has to go. We have no more use for it.”
“Kill the pig!” said Giddens. “A clock didn’t put that there. You told it.”
Sally shook her hair.
“It doesn’t matter, Henry,” she said looking aside to butter her toast. “You have to obey the cold equations. Don’t try to avoid responsibility. The pig is history. I’ve noticed you often have the urge to make matters far too complicated or too sentimental. And it’s not necessary. It never is.”
For certain, Giddens reflected, things weren’t too complicated for her; all complication got assigned to the clocks which she happily punched and wheedled into ordering the farm and each thing in it, including himself. Each day had its tasks.
“You didn’t get a list for the pig himself,” Giddens said thinking that might irritate her.
“Good idea,” Sally trumped and in a second she had a list for the pig. It read:
Today’s task for the Pig:
2.) Ask Henry if you need help.
Sally reiterated how she had consulted her chief clock, which, she reminded him, was the smartest. Giddens sighed but inwardly he was starting to grin. First of all, he consoled himself, she couldn’t kill the pig herself. She wasn’t strong enough and none of the clocks were either. She’d never ask her precious Fogarty to dirty himself. There was a rifle, but only fifteen cartridges remained for it. But then when he looked back it was as if she had seen his thoughts.
“If you’re squeamish about the matter,” she said clearing off the spices, “I’ll do it myself. We have plenty of ammo.”
“No. No, that’s all right.”
“We’ll pickle the skin,” she went on in a thoughtful mood. “Hooves and joints will go in the garden. Where I added DNA, but we need more. I have an enzymatic tincture, I believe. Should be enough in the haunch for six dinners. And the ears… I found a recipe…”
“What do you mean,” he asked, “about added DNA?”
Sally went into one of her silences again.
“We have to conserve, Henry,” she said after a pause. “It’s Kimmel’s DNA. And that should make you proud. At least he contributed something to the farm he spent his life building up.”
Giddens nodded and turned a philosophic eye at the floor.
“In the time he had. He died rather young, I thought.”
“Yes,” the half-wished cat intervened. “With the right nutrients, he should have lived for a thousand years.”
“Well, we’d all like to,” said Sally, “but this farm is a mess. We can’t expect it to support us if we aren’t thrifty.”
With dainty insistence she pushed the list a few millimeters as if Giddens would need help.
Kimmel’s DNA, he thought. Well, Sally was probably right. Kimmel had been a very special human. Not all DNA had his pedigree. Still, it made Giddens sad.
“Finish your waffles. Plenty of protein,” said the cat. Quietly Giddens did. He forced himself though he wasn’t hungry.
That afternoon there was a sandstorm. Giddens went to the pig and told him the story. The pig blinked thoughtfully into the grainy air.
“She, well, she… what?”
“Wants you dead.”
Giddens waited to see if the matter would sink in. But the pig spoke again.
“I suppose… well, it’s … Death? Is that it? Hm. I suppose it’s an experience I should not endure.”
“You can’t endure it,” Giddens said. “You don’t know what death is. It’s the end of experience.”
The pig grew pensive again, as if the matter of dying were a complex mathematical conjecture.
“I… see,” he said finally. He waddled over to the tie ropes on the stake.
“Well, you have to take the tarp.”
“You don’t seem too worried.”
“Come at evening,” the pig said. “I’ll show you what you want to know.”
“And the tarp. You have to fix that today.”
“How do you know?” Giddens asked.
“I know,” said the pig.
The human eyes searched into Giddens’ face. He had never seen such urgent quietness from the pig. He knew even then that he would do as he was told more readily than he would for Sally.
“You have to fix it a certain way,” said the pig, nosing at the connector. “See this sprong? Flip that.” Giddens did.
“Then pull out that shunt and put in the branch sequence. This thing here.”
“Okay.” Giddens clicked it in place.
Giddens leaned back in thought.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “If Kimmel’s protein is under the sink, why is there a grave at all?”
“There is. She couldn’t take everything. She couldn’t take the man. And here. You’ll need this.”
In a corner next to the shed the pig buried his horny nose and unearthed a pinkish pillowlike form. He nudged it over the ground and then took it to Giddens. It was soft but one end was a hard metal disk of glowing multi-eyed facets. It was the Tagalong.
In the afternoon Giddens moved the tarp to the roof and connected it despite the heavy wind.
After dark he went to the pig, who seemed to be waiting.
“Did you bring the pail?”
“And the other?”
“Tatrime has it. He knows how it works.”
By the splayed light of the taped flash only their faces shown. The pig nodded and with no more motion went off at a trot down the low incline at the end of the field. The scrub thickened here, and there seemed to be no path. Around the high rock ledge the pig stopped and pawed at the ground.
“No… no. Further on.”
The pig trotted on and came to a low sandy area where water would gather when it rained. It was dry now. Giddens had brought a shovel.
“Dig,” said the pig.
By his little flash Giddens was throwing sandy earth for what seemed like an hour. He hit cloth. Then something else. The corpse was there. It was not even in a box, just wrapped in burlap from stacks in the barn.
“Get the dirt away from it,” the pig said.
“I can never lift this.”
“You don’t have to,” said the pig. He leaned over the edge. “Clear away that dirt.”
“All right.” Giddens brushed it so only burlap shown.
“Get up. Get out of there. You ready?”
Giddens scrambled out. Tatrime on a ledge above was only visible as a dark form against the wash of starlight.
“Pour in the stuff.”
Giddens emptied the pail.
“Step back,” said the pig. “Wait.”
Giddens sat by the side of the pit and stared up at the skein of tiny light. Before long a loud whirring came from above them and Giddens watched the stone outcrop. A blue haze arose from the form under the cat’s arm and spread its glow over his face. A flame shot out and twisted in air. It vibrated with the whirring sound that grew to a higher pitch. The lighted air tilted like an overbearing dancer wreathed in scarves. The howl became louder and nearer till it seemed to occupy the space all around them. Then Giddens saw it condense and form a sheet which swirled in a vortex down into the darkness of the hole. It settled in and then it was silent.
They all sat still, unsure if anything more was going to happen, or if more was required. The pig cocked up his ear and violently shook his entire frame.
“Fill it in,” the half-wished creature said.
Giddens did. They trudged up past the rock and Giddens heard the half-wished cat trot along above them. Tandem file they returned silently in the dark.
The wind picked up strongly that night. Granules of granitic sand peppered the windows and etched the panes to translucence. Giddens cowered where the air was stiff and dry. Then, near dawn, the other noises began very late. They built to a crescendo and then there was a burst of cracked metal and exploding glass and reptile hiss of burning coil. The smell came up to his room and Giddens followed it down to Sally’s. She lay dead, with smoldering parts of Fogarty embedded in the wall, spread out over the room and all over Sally’s body. Bits of shrapnel protruded from her arm. There was a psychotic leer across her lips, as if she were in pain and at the same time gloating abroad at her own starry-eyed demise.
“No. No. No!”
Giddens cringed and turned away. The cat sniffed in at the room. They both stumbled about in the acrid smoke.
“You don’t mean that you loved her.”
Giddens couldn’t speak. He was in tears. Finally he said:
“Well, I… I didn’t want that to happen.”
“You’re too sweet, Henry.”
“But she… she’s dead.”
“So? Now you don’t have to kill the pig.”
They stanched what might burn and escaped to the open air filled with sand. Giddens knelt down, sweating in the howling wind. They couldn’t speak but made their way to the shelter of the barn. In the relative silence there they seemed to speak before suffocating.
“Electrocuted I guess,” said the mutant cat, “judging from the smell. This high wind. Piezoelectric friction would do it. What the tarp was for originally. Especially with this sand. It’s well known.”
“Really?” Giddens sank down. Talk of technics seemed as grotesque as the scene in the bedroom. “Oh. Oh no, that can’t be right. Electricity alone couldn’t do that. What I saw. Fogarty… Fogarty was blown to smithereens. It had to be the ghost that did that.”
The cat peered through a crack at the first threads of dawn.
“No one will believe that, Henry. Think for yourself. And don’t forget the shunts. If her family come around, you want them to blame it on you?”
“Well, they would. I’m the only human.”
“Ah, Henry,” said the cat philosophically, “the pig told you how to do it. You didn’t know. The tarp was supercharged by friction of the wind. Then the sand with charged particles heightened everything. Or something. You only followed what he said.”
Giddens stared into the dark that seemed a nice place to go.
“It could happen that no one will know for a while,” he muttered.
“Well, I won’t tell.”
“So I think, I don’t know, er… for now it could happen that… I might be safe.”
“Yes,” said the cat.
Judson Blake is a New York actor, director, and emerging fiction writer and has been published internationally in many journals, including: Whistling Shade, Ariel Chart, Adelaide, The Loch Raven Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Lamplit Underground, Red Fez, Fiction on the Web, Bewildering Stories, CC&D Magazine, The Literary Yard, and Freedom Fiction Periodical. Two of his stories were selected for the 2019 American Emerging Writers Series, and his full-length play, Perversion, ran for five weeks in the West Village.