From the author: Some time after a strange apocalypse, a woman helps to uproot a young girl who grows poppies out of her head.
It’s been three years. Or five? No three. Gardner can’t remember much from before the shift. She knows little things, sure. How to read, what plants to eat, and how steel always kept its shape. Now, three years after, it grows like barley. It may as well be a thousand years, for all it matters. Here, present day in the settlement, only the task at hand holds precedence. Memories are important, but not as important as the garden.
She is standing on the roof of the courthouse sifting through the compost with her toes and plucking out any seeds that were carelessly tossed away. Not maliciously, no one in her settlement would ever drop a seed in earnest. But some are missed. It is the way of small things. Like pepper seeds. They cling to everything, fall on the ground and are swept into the garbage before anyone can regret them. It is why she sifts. No garbage is wasted. A thin steel cable unravels itself from the tangle that makes up her arms. It shoots down into the muck and picks out a seed, recoiling and dropping the thing into her satchel. She doesn’t look, doesn’t feel anything through the cable. Her focus is in her feet. Her toes clench and slog through the compost, brushing past worms. The cable coils back into her arm, lying flat against the others, mimicking the bunching of muscles, splitting at the end to form a hand. There are too many fingers though, and Gardner doesn’t remember what her elbows looked like, or where they were placed.
It must have been five years, she thinks. Her watch ran out a year ago and the battery was insured for at least five years. She remembers that, too. The entire known world blinked out of existence, everything she knew was lost, and that cheap stupid watch that seconds before was wrapped around her wrist just dropped there to the floor. The seconds continued to tick, and outside her office the ocean rested at the fifth floor. Her boss slumped over in his chair, a corpse that had died at least a year before. And her arms were missing. No blood, no scars. She never had arms to begin with.
Another cable shoots out from the rest. This time Gardner looks. An avocado pit. Now that is just careless.
“Gardner!” Orbit yells to her from across the roof. He found the name in a desk drawer when no one could remember one for him. He runs over to her. “I found poppies over in the stadium district. They’re growing out of a girl’s head. I didn’t move her, though. Looks like she’s rooted there.
The cables snap into place at her shoulders and upper arms, but stay loose at the end until Gardner glances at Orbit’s hands. Five fingers. She tries to copy, then hides her arms behind her back. “Poppies? We don’t need poppies. They’re ugly.” Fuzzy mammalian pods and bloody tissue paper petals. Invasive. Addictive. They grow like weeds. “Besides, there’s hardly enough room up here for the food.”
“Doctor said he needs them. He says there’s recipes in some of his books that use poppy for medicine.”
“I don’t like it,” says Gardner.
“He said you wouldn’t. He said to tell you that the oil can be used for cooking.”
“That’s what the olives are for.”
“He said he has a spot for them already. He’s already turned his balcony into a bed for them. You don’t even have to touch them. Just help me uproot the girl. I told her I’d find someone to help her.”
“She’s still alive? I thought we found everyone.”
Orbit shakes his head, his shaggy straw hair falls into the eyes on the left side of his face, and he jerks his head hard to sweep the hair back. “Well, turns out we didn’t. So you’ll help?”
Gardner thinks of brushing his hair back, but stops herself before the cables react. She steps out of the compost pile and wipes her feet on a towel. “I’ll help you uproot the girl. She should be moved here anyway. But if the doctor has to hurt her to get his medicine he’ll have a fight on his hands.”
Orbit smiles. “He said you’d say that, too.”
The stadium district marks the end of the new world. After that, a mangrove forest where the Sogvotters live, and to the west the open sea. The settlement never ventured past the old Stadium Hotel. It was supposed to be a fortress, a utopia. The four foot thick walls would protect against the faceless Sogvotters, the ones without a shred of memory to connect them to the former world. They slurped away all your humanity, left you white and faceless and roaming like them. Orbit knows them. He was nearly taken by them, and he named them, about a year into the shift. It is his duty as explorer, naming the new dangers of the world. Gardner has never seen a Sogvotter, but she knows their feel. They roam outside the courthouse in spring, bumping their little boats into the walls. Nobody lives on the fifth floor because of them. Just being near them deadens your thoughts.
The walls of the hotel might have kept them out, but the walls crumbled in the shift, barely able to cling to the cliff that now makes up its spine. But the hotel was well made, and even with its floors dropped away, the brick still holds up the spires that haven’t fallen into the sea. Bodies of those who stood in the wrong place during the shift were found lodged into the walls, but the settlement found no survivors. Without a floor to support the settlers, they crawled back to the courthouse. They still trim the end of the bridge every year after they harvest its fruit to keep it from overtaking the garden. It was grown from an invasive blend of fire escape and blackberry, developed by Gardner in the first year after the shift. Only the end of the bridge is harvested. The rest is left to Orbit, who still trains new shoots of the bridge into unearthed buildings, all the while recording every new thing about the changed world.
He has one of the looser memories. A simple one, so close to being nothing that he might have been a Sogvotter, were it not for the song. He remembers a few willow leaves drifting over his face, and a woman humming in the background. It may have been his mother. He hums the song now as he leads Gardner over the bridge. It isn’t far to the hotel.
Three of the Sogvotters row their little boat below them. Gardner and Orbit stop and hold their breath. They hold their thoughts, too. Tie them up in their lungs. Stare blankly ahead. Do not think. Do not feel. The Sogvotters are below and a single thought can alert them. Gardner and Orbit are safer above, but the Sogvotters have long sucking arms and they can climb better than any bipedal thing should. Gardner closes her eyes, opens them, then runs. The three in the boat snap their faceless heads up to the sky, their shoulders collapse backwards around their spine, the breastbone thrusts up, a voiceless scream, and they launch upwards, arms stretched, reaching, gaining, but the tide is out and the bridge is too high. The Sogvotters fall into the water.
Orbit runs to catch up with Gardner, he stretches out his hand, falls onto her shoulder, and drags her down. They tumble, shaking the bridge, and Gardner’s stomach flips. She hugs tight to the rail, sure it will fall, sure that the reverberating metal will rock her down into the water. Her false arms never learned to swim. This is the end. But Orbit places his hand on her shoulder blade. He moves her curly hair away from her eyes, and watches her until she opens them.
“They can’t hear, Gardner. They can’t see. But they can sense our thoughts. We have to get to the hotel before they get back in their boat and alert any others.” He points ahead to the cliff, and the massive crumbling hotel. “Can you follow me without thinking?”
She shakes her head. “You can’t just stop thinking, Orbit. It doesn’t work that way.”
Orbit smiles. He says “Nothing works the way it should anymore,” and takes her seven fingered hand in his. His hand is warm. She can feel his pulse through her cables. Gardner tries to pull away, then slides her fingers further into his to touch and revel in his tender fragile palm. She nods to him and lets the thoughts run out of her head, slide down her back and puddle around her bare feet. He begins to move, and leads her up the bridge to the base of the hotel just as a hundred Sogvotters climb out of the mangrove trees and swarm around the cliff.
The hotel is silent. Thickly so. Gardner shakes her head as she enters, her head suddenly filled with static, and her ears gum up with the sound of her hair. Orbit takes up his humming as he steps inside, he smiles and tips his head to her, one quarter salute before passing her by.
“Can we think again?” she asks him, though the question is posed too late. She’d been thinking it for a full minute.
“They don’t like roofs, as far as I can figure. We’re safe until we go outside.”
He leads her to the staircase, still grand and polished despite the cliff that cuts it three feet shallow. They climb up, occasionally stepping over withered, mummified legs that stick out from the wall. One face, jaw hanging open, eyes long dried up and vanished, stares out from the cliff on the fourth floor. Its hand grips a yellowed notebook, nearly free of the rock and silt. Gardner stoops to inspect it, she scrapes a finger along the edge of the notebook, trying to break into the rock and excavate it, but Orbit stops her.
“There might be memories in that book,” she says. Her finger still picks at the dirt.
“They don’t belong to us.”
“You don’t know that.”
He pulls her away from the wall. “Hey. Poppies.” He leaves her, and Gardner gets up to follow him. She searches for something to cover the face, to let the eyeless sockets rest, but the staircase is empty. She averts her eyes as she continues upwards.
The sixth floor is missing half of the roof. They creep along the cliff face, holding onto the bannister until the end of the hall. The hall turns, follows the wall, the part of the structure strong enough not to crumble when its base became its neighbor. Orbit walks out on the stable part, hugging the wall where the floor is still perpendicular. Gardner takes a deep breath and follows.
“Why were you walking out here, anyway?” she asks Orbit before biting back her own question, afraid her words might avalanche and send them into the sea.
Orbit shrugs his shoulders, smiles, steps lively over a broken mirror. “I hadn’t been here before.” Then he stops, and points ahead. At the end of the hall, where even the brick has shorn away, a girl stands with her feet apart on the floor. She stares out into the open air, up toward the sun. Poppies grow out of her head.
The girl is dead, thinks Gardner. Turned to stone or ceramic. Her feet are pushed into a pile of dirt that slumps all the way down to the fifth floor, but the moss that grows around her ankles has the same pattern as the rest of the carpet. Her toes stretch out knobby and thin like roots, her heels firmly planted.
The girl’s head was broken in the shift. Its top shattered off like a planter, poppies grow out of her brain. Gardner takes a single step, and the girl moves. The poppies are awake and open in the sun, several others grow up around her knees where the seeds must have fallen last autumn. The girl blinks, the poppies move. She opens her mouth, a petit and cautious “oh.”
“Mrs. Cole?” she asks. “Are you here for story time?”
Gardner’s breath leaves her. She steps closer to the girl, closer still, trips and stumbles to her knees. She does not let the arms catch her fall. She knows the name Cole. It was hers before the shift. She had a husband with crooked teeth and a brilliant laugh. She read Roald Dahl to her nephew’s first grade class every Friday at two. A nephew… she does not remember his name. But the girl. She knows the girl.
“Kirby? Do you know my name?”
Kirby nods, she grins. The poppies bounce around her ears. “Yes! Mrs. Cole! Why is my brain made of daisies?"
“They’re poppies,” says Gardner. “I don’t really know.”
“Okay.” she says, and folds her hands. “Were your arms always that long?”
The arms dangle at her sides. They unravel a little too far, splitting the makeshift fingers halfway up the forearm. “No. I don’t think so. These aren’t really mine anyway. I’m just using them. Mine are gone.”
“Okay. That makes sense. Hi Orbit!” Kirby waves with both hands. Orbit nods to her. “Are you guys going to take me back with you now?”
“That’s what we’re here for, kiddo,” says Orbit. He kneels down beside Gardner and takes a few burlap sacks out of his backpack. He offers them to her, but her hands are gone now, the snaking cables have plunged into the ground and are feeling around Kirby’s roots. Gardner stares somewhere over Kirby’s shoulder, concentrating, but nervous. “Spelling Bee,” says Orbit, though he doesn’t know why he says it.
Gardner works the girl’s roots loose from the ground, careful to follow each one to its end. The feet hold the longest nerves in the body. She heard that once before. In a white room with a calm and soft-spoken man. She glances over to Kirby. The girl smiles at her. “I’m not hurting you?” asks Gardner.
Kirby closes her eyes. “It kind of tickles behind my eyes. But I think I’m fine.” She shifts her feet and sighs. “My roots were getting stuffy.”
Gardner’s cables find the end of Kirby’s roots. She pushes the dirt away and gently pulls the girl’s feet from the ground. She looks to Orbit. He is holding the sacks at his sides, staring at the cables wrapped around Kirby’s white, wormy feet. He realizes he’s being watched, and he starts to give her the sacks, holds them still, looks behind him, looks up, bites his lip, then rests his arms back at his sides.
“Sorry, what am I doing?” he says.
“Fill two of those with dirt,” says Gardner.
He does, and Gardner helps Kirby to step in them. “We’re going to transplant you into my garden on the top of the court-house. Does that sound alright?”
“Will I be alone?”
Orbit answers first. “No.”
“Only when you want to be.” says Gardner. Then she stands up from where she was kneeling, and coils the cables back into arms. She thinks of her name, Mrs. Cole, and knots a cable on each arm into an elbow, almost certain she has the right spot. The wrists and palms come easily after. She thinks of dusting off her skirt, but clenches her fists at her side instead. She isn’t ready to use the arms so casually yet. But Kirby takes her hand and squeezes it.
“Thank you Mrs. Cole.”
Gardner Cole collapses and hugs the girl. She whispers a thank you, regains composure, and straitens to stare out of the broken hotel. Six floors below them, a hundred Sogotters bump their boats into the cliff. Their non-faces point to the sky, quivering, waiting. “How are we going to get out of here?” asks Gardner.
Orbit sits down in the dirt next to Kirby and paws through his bag. He hands an apple to each of them. “We wait. They’ll wander off after a day. You ladies think you can wait that long?”
Gardner nods. Her assistants can care for the garden until she returns. But Kirby wilts. She sits down in the dirt and hands the apple back to Orbit. “I guess.” The three of them sit there for a minute, not thinking, not remembering, not anything, then Kirby asks “Do you guys know any stories?” Her question triggers something deep in the back of Gardner’s mind. She searches for just the right words, and finds them. The first sentence to a favorite fairy tale. It is enough. She can make up the rest from there.
This story originally appeared in Dadaoism (An Anthology).