THE FORESTS OF GOLD
I wake up when a loud clanging sounds in my ears. I open my eyes, stare at the dark starless sky, but I don't move. It's the hovercraft, I think, come to collect the harvest. Although I've never heard the Polis's hovercraft make so much noise. They're usually silent, and if they don't switch on the headlights, no one will ever see them coming.
I hear the sound of some people talking within the barracks. A torch flickers on and illuminates the wooden rafters for a moment, and I hear someone say, "Should we go look?" I'm not the only one the craft has awakened. It buzzes above, making its occasional clangs, and its blue light touches the side of my face. I turn away from it, onto my side and stare at my sleeping sister. No clangs can ever wake her up; she sleeps like a log.
I cuddle closer to her, and she shifts in her sleep, unconsciously draping her leg over mine. Her mouth is slightly open, lips parted as if she was in the middle of a question when she fell asleep. Knowing her, she could have been. She'd been prattling about rabbits and grasses when I fell asleep. I place a finger beneath her chin and close her mouth, then tuck our blanket tighter around both of us. She's five, and she's beautiful. No awkwardness about her at all. I'm starting to think she'll grow up to look just like our mother- beautiful, fine boned, graceful. While I've inherited my father's strong bones and his shy, dark features.
The voices of the people around me grows from whispers to murmurs, and then solidifies into actual loud conversation. Someone prods me, tells me to, "Wake up! Wake up, Mandy!"
I scowl as I recognize the voice. I know hovercrafts and super science fascinates Jan Nefes, but he doesn't have to try and get me interested too, just when I'm catching shut-eye. But then he leans right over me, his skinny twelve-year-old shadow momentarily obscuring the blue light still swathing my face in patches, and shakes my sister. "Lish! Mandy, come on! Wake up!"
"What?" I snap, sitting up. I don't get further than that because I can suddenly see through the blue light. The metal netting buzzing with electricity that drapes over the opening of the barracks into the fields- it's been pushed open, and the people are climbing out of the barracks. They push and shove, and some people fall off the ladders that lead down to the ground with sickeningly loud thuds. I hear something loud and sonorous, and from somewhere, a sweet, sick smelling gas folds over us. I cough as the gas coats my throat and the back of my mouth, choking me. Lish rolls over in her sleep and then rolls again, her lips turning blue.
"What- what's going on?"
Jan's elder brother, Kez, grabs Lish and throws her over his shoulder. "You two! Get out! Meet us at the bridge!"
Jan chokes out a sentence I can't understand- everything sounds like birdsong, every breath feels like fire. He grabs my arm and pulls me away from Kez and Lish, through the throng of people who've thrown themselves out of their sleeping positions, hair sticking out, coughing and choking on the gas. We don't go to the exit, where people are still falling out of the barracks onto the cold ground below, or trying to get down the ladders. We run through tangled blankets and discarded belongings- I nearly stamp my foot on the face of a toddler who's been abandoned and make a move to pick him up, only Jan yanks at my arm and drags me forward. He stops at the end of the barracks, pulls a rope down from the gutters of the roof and pushes me towards it. I look at him, at the panic in his thin face and confusion evident in his almost purplish eyes. Then I climb.
We're both barefoot, both in our shapeless lumpy worker's clothes. Thistles and splintered wood catches my bare feet and tears into my skin as we run over the roof. A misty blue gas has spread all over, and I look towards the fields, my eyes bulging. The hovercraft that's arrived sits in the middle of the fields, a metal monster amidst acres of golden stalks. Black oil and orange fire makes for a vivid sight in the blue-filtered surroundings. The hovercraft crashed? I wonder, as Jan and I leap onto the next barrack, the empty one that was abandoned after the pests bit through the stilts holding it above ground.
I want to tell him that it's not safe to attempt to climb down into the fields using this barrack, but I can't speak. I follow him blindly, wondering if the only logic he has is that the barrack might be strong enough to hold the weight of two skinny below fifteen-year-olds. I'm ten, and I must be as heavy as two reams of All Feed, the golden crop we cultivate. That's not very heavy. And Jan, with his translucent skin and ethereal looks, must weigh as much as a beam of sunshine.
We jump down into the abandoned barrack, and the thud rattles my spine. I don't have time to catch my breath because Jan grabs my wrist again, fingers nearly clawing into my arm, and we run towards the empty entrance. Remnants of beer bottles and broken glass shards scrape against my feet, and I nearly stumble over a large piece of wood sticking vertically out of the floor. I feel wetness beneath my feet and guess I'm bleeding. I'm also choking, my lungs burning for air. We reach the entrance and encounter a brief bout of terror. There's no ladder.
Jan sits on the edge of the barrack and looks down. Then he lies down on his stomach, and inches himself off the edge, and I peer down to see that he's caught hold of one of the slits. I ease myself onto my stomach and do the same. My fingers bite into the rough, thick wood and my arms encircle it in a death grip as I swing my legs off the floor and dangle. Then I throw them around the wood as well, hanging from the stilts like one of those furry creatures- the ones Kez calls fruit bears- that hugs trees.
We reach ground in a panic-fuelled five minutes or less, and by then I can barely breathe. I begin to resent Jan, the fact that he can still run. Doesn't he need to breathe? Perhaps when you're made of moonshine, you don't. Only earthly creatures need filling their lungs with air.
I let him drag me, my feet slipping on the cold ground as my consciousness begins to fade. We run- I don't know where we are running towards, but he has direction and so he's my rudder for now. Black flowers bloom in my vision and I begin to think disjointed thoughts about how I want to fly, how I want to take Lish and sneak into the cargo hold of the hovercraft so it can take us to the cities floating above us, where there's prosperity and food and happiness. Where Lish wouldn't have to work, where we could actually have futures. Where I wouldn't have to guard her against the pests and the diseases and the rains. Where the sun actually shone.
I stumble over my feet and fall. The ice and slush on the ground reminds me of how we'd harvested this section of the ground and then spread the stalks over it to prevent the cold from leaching it off fertility. It doesn't seem to be working, because the rainwater has condensed to ice, and this is more than just a danger to crops, it's a danger to our very lives. No harvest, no food, no life.
Jan's voice cuts through the blackness, pleading. "Mandy. Mandy, please! Just a little more"
I roll onto my back and lie in the squishy wetness, unable to breathe. I want him to go away so I can die without knowing I'm dying, dreaming of good things: of food and water and a nice, comfortable bed. My fingers trace circles in the wet mud beneath the stalks, and I think of how this hidden soil beneath the gold is really our lives: dark, formless, no hard edges to move towards.
I dream of being in the pictures from the books… the sky looking simply ridiculous, candy-fluff clouds and a blue that gives the impression that it should be bottled and sold as gourmet food. The sun a white ball emitting hard light that looks like it could split into shards and pierce into my skin…I dream of floating up, growing wings, and rising into that candy blue sky I've never seen in my life. Up, up until the sun melts me…
But instead I drown, drown in the blue sky of my imagination, falling down deeper and deeper into nothingness…Even as I fade I wonder what happened, why the hovercraft crashed, where the gas is coming from, why the sky isn't stained pink from the lights of cities above, floating. Have the cities shut down?
The candy-sky disappears, swirling black coming down to swallow everything into a gaping maw. I smell fire; I breathe smoke, choke, cough water, and inhale musty dampness. I fly up, up, up against the current, against the blue I'm drowning in. And I feel lucidity clambering over me.
Stalks, wetness, purple eyes.
Jan holds a cloth full of water drops against my nose.
I cough and splutter as I realize and then push him away. He falls backwards on his butt and looks a little hurt. "I was only trying to save you. You weren't breathing"
I cough water, drops of it dribbling out of my nose and my mouth. I feel ridiculous.
I take a breath. It doesn't feel as constricting and terrible as it did before, although my chest still tightens.
"Pocket…of air" Jan chokes out, as he tugs at me to stand up. I decide to listen to him, because without the water, I would have been dead by now.
We run again, through the field, our feet easing into the monotonous, mindless routine. I hold the cloth to my face, gagging at the rather foul smell of it but never letting go. Golden crop flashes past us surreally as we run, stalks crushing beneath my feet. In some places, the fields are trampled where people have run across it. The hovercraft still burns- black and orange, the fire rising to the cities above. I look up, shuddering. No lights, no pink-stained sky painted by the neon of the cities. It's like everything that was bright and fine just a few hours ago has faded into an achromatic nothing.
Jan leads me to the canals on the far side of the stretch of field, to the giant concrete worms crawling across the land and giving sustenance to the nutrient-leached fields.
We climb down a metal ladder into the pipes. The smell hits me even as I climb down onto the second rung- pesticide riddled water, dammed by mesh and wooden shutters; rodents, sludge.
I climb anyway, and Jan follows me down, his footsteps the only thing I hear save for the crackling hiss of hovercraft-flames. He pushes the manhole shut, throwing us into the dark, and we descend into blackness.
I stumble around in the dark. The absence of sight is made up by all my other senses working overtime. Smells and small scraping sounds overwhelm me, and a burst of paranoia shoots through my veins, turning me to ice. Rats. I hate rats.
I imagine myself walking on a bed of sniffing, thick-tailed, brown-bodied rodents and nearly scream. Only the remnants of the gas coating the back of my throat sourly stops me from jumping for the manhole out of the pipes. Inside the pipes, there's no gas, although there's a lot of foul air. The air here is still breathable. The air here still supports life.
"I was right. It is water soluble," murmurs Jan.
The gas. Above this, a little to the right, the water flows onto the surface. The gas can't get past that"
I begin to shiver, the mindless flight through the fields finally catching up to me.
Kez had said something about a bridge, and I want to remind Jan, but my voice is gone. He is subdued, as well. A minute later, a green flame flickers on and lights up his face with a ghostly emerald hue. The faint light throws shadows beneath his eyes and on the sides of his face so he looks older than he is. His violet eyes reflect the flame as flickering ellipses.
"Where did you get that?" I ask, sharply. He's not supposed to carry a lighter, none of us are. Only the Supervisors carry lighters.
"Don't tell. Please, Mandy, you have to promise! Please, don't tell!" he grabs my wrist again, and looks at me pleadingly. I stare at him a few seconds before turning and marching away. I almost expect him to go the other way, but then I hear his footsteps as he runs to catch up to me.
"I won't tell. But you have to start calling me Mandarin" I say, smugly.
He sighs. He doesn't reply, and once we start walking, I'm too obsessed with not stamping on any rat's tail to await it. And I'm glad we have the lighter. Not just because it gives light- also because it's flame, it's good against animals. I'm never going to tell him that though.
We never wonder aloud what happened. Years ago, at least a century or so before I was born, land shortage and developments in technology led to the floating cities. They floated miles above the surface of Earth, huge antigravity engines keeping them up there. Three or more generations were born and died there, with never a glance at the planet they left behind. The only ones who ever came were the people in the hovercrafts- people who came to collect All-Feed, the crop that we grow on Earth. The only crop in fact, which we grow. The Cities above reportedly have processors to transform the rough, fibrous grain of the crop into food that's not only consumable but also tasty. Here, all we make out of it is brown soggy boiled grain, which we sometimes drink as soup or eat with crushed greens. But it was neither the food nor the rules of the strict Earth Guild that bothered us: it was the fact that there was never enough sun, never enough light. The cities have blocked it out. We are always in darkness or in permanent twilight. Perfect conditions for All-Feed, not so perfect for the rest of the plants.
I climb out at some point in time, and the gas is still everywhere, covering everything in a faint green sheet. Jan looks like he wants to look outside too, but I push him under.
"The gas could light up!" I hiss, and instead of looking hurt, he looks delighted that someone else is intelligent enough to think of how gases could explode when exposed to flame. I'm not about to give up my secrets though. And even though he's just dying to ask how I know that, he doesn't.
We climb back down. I plop down on the ground, tired.
"Let's stay here awhile," says Jan, waving his light in front of his face. ", We can't go out anyway"
I gape at him. "We can't! What about Lish? Kez?"
His face contorts in misery; he looks like a lost little boy. "I don't know. But we can't go out, Mandy"
"You said you won't call me that." I remind him, angrily.
He falls quiet. I don't know what exactly I'm angry at- maybe the fact that my peaceful day-to-day existence has been disrupted by a strange green gas that came from the group of cities above us, the Polis. Maybe the fact that Lish and I are separated. Maybe that Jan Nefes has a pretty pale-green lighter when I don't.
I hold out my hand and he gives it to me. I'm not surprised: Jan has always been generous to me. He gives me food even when he has less of it. He shares his medicines and supplements with Lish and me. He's strange and quiet, but he's not bad. Although, apparently, he steals lighters.
I flick it on. "Okay. We'll stay here awhile"
He smiles in the darkness, a smile of relief. Probably, he'd been expecting me to fight. That's what Jan and I mostly do. Fight, fight, fight. Mostly, it's over which spray-can to use or which Supervisor to report to when the pests eat the stalks. Even if he gives me things, he can still be irritating when he's being self-righteous.
I lie down. The stench of the pipes trickle my nostrils, and I raise my arms above my head, flickering the light on and off. Jan sits against the wall, his eyes watching the flame every time I flick it on.
"Let's play stone, paper, scissors" I say. He grins at me, and I wonder if I can push my luck with him and ask if he wants to play fairies, but I guess not. Boys and fairies don't get each other. We play stone paper scissors until he wins and I cry because he wins and he says "No, you won, Mandy!" and smiles at me, his eyes all starry and soft like velvet. Fairy-eyes. I smile back because yeah, he'd said I won.
I don't know when I fall asleep, but I do. I dream of Lish and my parents. Of my mother, singing the song that I know to call/ only as my sleepy-song. She had a beautiful voice, my mother, strangely deep but soothing. The song mixes with my father's harvest-tunes, the songs he sang as we worked the fields grown to full with golden grain. Those weren't bad times…
Acres and acres of gold blur beneath my eyes, spinning like my imagination of sunrays…
The name falls dead on my ears first and then I slowly recognize it as my own. No one ever uses it.
"Mandarin? Mandarin, wake up."
I open my eyes. Jan peers at me.
"I think its morning. Let's go?"
We climb up, and the gas is gone. Diluted, or swept away by winds, I don't know which. Faint light brightens as it shines off the collected husk on the field. There are no workers. No supervisors.
Jan looks at me in a sort of horrific wonder; his fine bones and thin build making him look about eight. Judging by the amount of sunlight coming through the gaps between the floating islands, it must be nearly afternoon…Where are the green vans of the Earth Guild? Where are the sprinklers spraying water in every direction, their mechanical arms moving jerkily?
Jan runs to a tree house and climbs up, and I nearly call out in fear. Usually, the supervisors are never kind to us. I don't want my only ally beaten up or kicked around, and I definitely don't want him blinded with chemicals for seeing the Guild's secrets.
But Jan climbs down after a while, and in his owlishly large, still perfectly beautiful eyes, all I see is a slow, deep, shattering horror.
"No one" he says, hollowly, his voice inflectionless. ", In either directions"
"The bridge" I whisper, suddenly. ", The bridge, Jan…let's go see if…"
We run. I feel like with each step, we're willing with all our minds to make time go back, make the clock spin a few hours backward, make time trickle backwards in a pie-wedge. We shouldn't have separated, my mind chants. We shouldn't have separated…We shouldn't have…
And above that voice, a darker crueler voice says you should have looked for her, you should have saved her… you shouldn't have spent the night sleeping while she was choking up here...
I think we both know no one's going to be at the bridge, but we search anyway. The bridge spans a river, the river that runs like a black ribbon between the fields of the Earth Guild and the dry cracked plains on the other side. The bridge must have been grand and amazing once, with large girders and thick piers, long pylons suspending it. The grandness is lost on the eyes of a starved, beaten-down public. Today, the once four-way bridge is filled with the debris of harvest. It is the bridge that we use to separate the grain from the husk. The leftover husk and stalks make a knee-deep, rough sea of browns and greens.
Jan wades through it but I pause. Standing here, it looks like the bridge is the difference between life and death. Crossing it will blur the lines.
Jan begins to call out his brother's name while I rock back and forth on my heels. I know no one's going to answer; I know it. I lean over the railing of the bridge and look down. The river is afloat with strange things, things that the dark water mercilessly churns out and smashes against the concrete embankments on either side. They make a wavering wall of sorts against the wet grey concrete. Clothes, plates, dolls made of spun cloth. The kind of things that people may have grabbed mindlessly while forced to run out of their homes.
Jan comes to stand beside me. "Maybe they all jumped in the river. Maybe they thought of the gas being soluble too"
I swallow, hard. My voice comes out in a rasp. "Maybe they all drowned"
His hands clench on the rails, pale white showing where his knuckles stretch his skin taut. A few seconds later, I hear him draw a gasping breath, as if he could be drowning too. I hear him lose his grip on the rails and sink to his knees on the bridge, head pressed against the metal, looking down through the gaps, gaze riveted.
I look down, and I see her. Floating, on her back. Caught in a clump of water lilies that grow in the river, their green stalks tangling around her limbs like nature's binds.
She's five. She should have grown up beautiful, like my mother. Instead, she's dead. Afloat, like the poor, lovely Ophelia in my mother's story, amongst the water lilies.