by Mark Patrick Lynch
It’s easy to recognise the man who fashions trees. His face is florid. His hair is a crow’s nest. His eyes are crackernuts gleaming in his face.
He is patient and economic like a small bird.
His every action is measured and considered.
He is a professional in a world of amateurs. He is an artist on a planet stricken with vandals and inconstancy.
Mai-Soon has seen him many times through the many ages of her eyes. From the safety of her high and hidden perch she has watched him go about his work. She sits on the narrow windowsill, both feet nestled before her as she, aslant the glass, peers out and observes. In her climate-controlled room, she does not feel the warmth or the cold from outside. The glass, a special self-regulating organic compound, is always at body temperature. She can sit for hours unbothered, just watching, and feel not the slightest discomfort from the weather.
She does not know his name, this man who fashions trees. In turn, he is unaware of her existence.
Even if he were to interrupt his work and glance above him, all he would see is the dulled reflection of clouds on the window (one of many such windows in the tower block, windows that have been roughened and pebbled on the outside to try and curtail the sharpness of the reflected image, for reflected images are dangerous and addictive).
Behind her glass, Mai-Soon is hidden to him.
She can only guess at his age. Since the Time of the Change, this is not as easy as it once might have been. Nothing is as assured as it used to be in the years of her grandmother. Mai-Soon has read about life before the Time of the Change. It was lived in a strange world of regular linearity. Mai-Soon, brought up with time as the parts of a scattered jigsaw, has considered this often and arrived at the conclusion that it was a boring world where change was slow and incremental, a tidal thing. She much prefers the world she inhabits, the cut and thrust of swift and sudden change, the turbulence of fast-flowing currents.
Still, for all the assuredness of uncertainty and the impossibility of guessing by sight, she thinks the man who fashions trees is around her age. Call it a feeling. Because nothing is sure. He could be a hundred years old. Just because he has worn the same face and body in the time that she has observed him, this does not mean he is her age by the calendar. She has only her longing, if that’s what it is, that he be so.
Mai-Soon has undergone impatient transformations in the weeks she has been watching the man. She could be any age to him subjectively. The illegal mirror she owns holds fascination for her.
See her face and she is young – with glistening eyes and an expressive, thick-lipped mouth; see her face and she is old – corrugated with lines, the colours bled from her face, her eyes, her hair; see her face and she is settled in what was once the middle years – a satisfied weight to her, a face at peace with on-setting biological age, yet still hinting of youth, eyes wise enough to know of sadness and delights.
Every new day could bring a different visage. Such is this world since the Time of the Change. And because of that, the world is addicted to reflections. Mai-Soon knows the risks in owning a hand-compact. She has witnessed those addicted members of the Narcissus Chain, the sad shuffling gatherings they hold at a lake’s edge, hoping to find themselves there, see in the waters some sign of change or thwart the moment of transformation. Impossible, of course.
Mai-Soon watches. She watches the changes of her life. She watches the changes of the city. Sometimes she thinks she detects a subtle synchronisation between the two otherwise quite disparate things.
It is against all the known science. It is impossible. Learned papers would have everyone know this. The government, a shifting thing itself, constantly on the squirm, would have it known that the Time of the Change is total defragmentation and reassembly. There are no patterns to map and thereby assert that there are colluding synchronicities.
But still, knowing this, Mai-Soon seeks patterns. She watches the green moon, wondering which phase it will be in each evening, or morning, or noon, or night – whenever it appears – and if it marries the face she wears that day with its own shifting visage. Be it a child’s face, an adult’s, or somewhere between the two, or lost on the way to geriatrification.
Sometimes the moon is not the moon. Sometimes the moon is a swirling gas giant, ringed, angry with a tightening storm and magnificent aurora. But most often it is a moon, the familiar green moon of many ages.
Whatever the world of streets and trees through her window, Mai-Soon watches, and watching tries to marry the external with the internal, and map a confluence of whys and wherefores with each other.
But always her eyes return to the small park below her building, and to the man who fashions trees day in and day out.
She has friends. Mai-Soon speaks to them, but distantly, and thus she hopes safely, through wires of interactive fibres, recreating moments of linearity (for all she might protest against the tidal dullness of old Earth and its steady seasons and forward ticking clocks, even she and her friends demand the straight smooth lines of the graph of social contact, speak and listen, listen and speak). Immersed in a computer-generated world of none-hereness, of geographic blurring, she and her friends play and dance and make love, they talk and speculate, and sometimes dream.
Ultimately, Mai-Soon comes out of her time on the interactive threads and fibres alone. Whatever she is, housed within her body (how rarely she finds herself at one with her whole, the shifting eddying turns and twists of her one being, body and mind together), whatever desires her flesh feeds her she sates by plugging back in, un-embodied.
And yet, it is not enough.
Mai-Soon watches the man who fashions trees. She sits on her ledge. She perches there with feet veined with the riddling questions that age might ask, with the pristine and flawless marble skin of a young woman, with eyes old and new, with hearts quick and chuggingly thick with blood.
And this is not enough either.
One day Mai-Soon leaves her apartment. The door is troublesome. It has not been opened for so long that she could not say when it last moved. Its hinges function, of course, its lock turns greased with the clever nanobots that function in all moving parts of the city. But the door did not want to open. All sorts of questions were demanded of her before she was allowed to go through.
With her compact mirror concealed beneath the stitched wool of her jumper, pushed up flat beneath the swell of her chest, she travels along the scant details of the corridor to the matt grey doors of the elevator and descends to the lobby. She steps outside the building, once more overriding protection protocols to do so.
The air smells different.
But of course it is different. It is the different air of a million, no a billion, different planets, all spread far and wide across the many cosmoses of the one unifying multiverse, every possible instant of time among them. All the branches, the possibilities of everything that can be and could be and will be and was, intertwine here. Her city is a tree-house on the boughs of the vastness of creation.
Mai-Soon breathes in. Alien air fills her lungs, cleanses the dull sterility left by the apartment building.
She can feel the building glinting behind her to the light of whichever exo-sun shines its light upon it.
The Time of the Change. The beachhead city dwelling on a planet that flickers through realities as eyes phase-shift to capture light and process it as moving images to the brain. This is where she is, this is where she stands.
Memory is not necessarily constant. The thread of a life may dive above and below the weft of the common world, dropping stitches of selfhood along the way. Even the cunning and vast Artificials who run the city for the benefit of its inhabitants work on the principals of mass uncertainties, trying to find ways of walking a tightrope and keeping everyone and everything in balance.
The Artificials’ memories are stored at obtrusive angles to the fabric of the multiverse, deep within and through and around outré singularity points. Human memories, while relying on quantum fluctuations and multi-dimensions to function, do not work in quite the same way.
Mai-Soon clings to her identity, despite her forays to the hand-compact. She is who she is. Her apartment, her view, her many faces in the mirror. Her avatar among the threads of interactive connectivity.
She journeys around the side of the building, aware of the fractal clouds coalescing and evaporating at super-charged speed. There are stars bright enough to be seen during the day here, wherever and whenever the planet has brought them this time. She stops behind the man who fashions trees. He has his specialist equipment with him, tools she has never seen before. Some look sharp and wicked, others like kindnesses to ease unbearable burdens.
The man does not appear to be aware of her presence as he works on one particular tree.
Hello, she says.
He turns and bows, offering her the formal greeting in return. He recognises her as one of the High Born and keeps his head lowered at a respectful angle.
What are you doing? she asks.
Does it not please you? he says.
Mai-Soon doesn’t know. She has not considered the man’s actions to be either a pleasing or displeasing activity. More it is something that intrigues her and, frankly, baffles her. Which is why she is here, she supposes, because she sees in his actions the reflections of mysteries and conundrums she senses swirling around her very existence.
I can stop if you wish me to, he says. But his eyes tell her he would rather continue doing what he is doing.
No, carry on, Mai-Soon says.
He nods and returns to his task. She watches as he selects certain tools from his collection and clips and trims and snips at the tree, a small shrub today.
Mai-Soon is struck by an impatience she does not comprehend the source of. Why do you do this? she asks him. She can hear the alarm in her voice.
He is making the tree neat, tending to it, looking after it. But this is foolhardy. The tree will change. Everything will change. This is the way of things, the Time of the Change. The city, the overriding constant in their lives, even that changes, despite the nanobots constantly building and trying to maintain its shape. Guided by the Artificial minds of the clever computers, they stick to the form of a hazy map of the city. But even then there is change, there is failure. Nothing is set and still.
Turning slowly, the man who fashions trees dares to look into her eyes. His eyes are the eyes she has seen from her window, gleaming joyful contented crackernuts, his face the one she has witnessed day after day, week following week. There is a kindness there, a set certainty, and she feels troubled by the ease she sees in his expression.
Does he not feel the shift in the air, the different patterns of alien suns lighting the days? Does he not wake after sleep and look to his hands to see how they have changed, to seek evidence of supple youth or gnarling age in his fingers?
Why do you do this? she says again.
She waits for him to speak, scared of what he might say.
I am a gardener, he says.
And rather than turn and run to the safety of her apartment, she asks him to explain.
Mark Patrick Lynch lives and writes in the UK. His short fiction, mainstream and genre, has appeared in print anthologies and journals ranging from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine to Zahir. His book, Hour of the Black Wolf, is published by Robert Hale Ltd in hardcover and FA Thorpe in paperback. A novella, What I Wouldn't Give, is available for ereaders. His next book from Robert Hale Ltd is No Fire Without Smoke, due out January 2016. You can find him online at markpatricklynch.blogspot.com.
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