Science Fiction & Fantasy

FEAR CITY by F. Paul Wilson

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Fiction

Frost Painting

Soon after Galena Pittman’s plane landed in Williston, North Dakota, she began to pick up nuggets of valuable information. To wit:

  1. They really listen to Country Western music in the country west. Monotonous, whining hours of it, in fact.
  2. Edible vegetables are as rare there as art critics.
  3. Don’t depend on public transportation if you want to get somewhere before dehydration sets in.

“I’ll just catch a cab,” she said to the woman at the ticket counter in the one‑room Williston airport. The woman was dressed in the polyester pant suit all small‑town females seemed required to wear, and she had that rural look of certainty that she knew how the land lay. Right now she was regarding Galena as if she were a six‑year‑old who needed life explained to her.

“The cab drivers will both be at home,” she said.

Both?” Galena said.

“It’s suppertime,” the ticket woman said, efficiently piling up papers.

She cast an eye over Galena, taking in the stylish bolo tie with the ceramic cactus pin, the wide‑brimmed hat with the quail feather, the hand‑painted cowboy boots. Her left eyebrow rose.

“How am I supposed to get to the motel, then?” Galena said. Outside, there was nothing in sight but range land. It was going to be a long walk.

At last the woman sighed. “I’ll give you a lift.”

Climbing into the woman’s pickup, it occurred to Galena that the context had changed the message of her clothing since she had left Chicago that morning. Normally, she took pride in dressing with the kind of riskiness that said to onlookers, “This is a trained professional. Do not try this at home.” But here the cultural referents were different.

“I suppose you think I’m intending to be satirical,” she said as the truck thudded across cattle grates onto the highway, bouncing her off the seat. “Actually, I’m making a kind of reflexive commentary on the banalization of the Western motif in the mass market.”

No reaction.

“It’s a statement on Eastern use of Western symbols. I’m satirizing us, not you.”

“You heading for the Windrow Mountains?” the woman said.

“Yes.” Galena was surprised to be found out so quickly.

“I figured. You’re the type.”

The type? Galena would admit to being many things, but not a type.

“We’ve been getting a lot of you through here,” the woman went on. “Arty types.”

Kooks. Weirdos. Galena could almost hear the woman thinking the words. “I’m not going there to stay,” she said. “Joining a hive‑mind’s not my thing. I’m not a Californian.”

“Uh‑huh,” the woman said.

There was something like a siren that went off in Galena’s mind at times like this. It was whooping, wrong, wrong. She had made a fool of herself again. It was like a career.

The next morning when Galena picked up the white rental Hyundai at the Chevrolet dealership, the boots and bolo were gone. Even so, the car dealer spotted her right away. Guessing where she was bound, he turned suddenly reluctant to rent her the car.

“Look, I’m just going there to see a friend,” Galena said reasonably. “I’ll be back Sunday.”

“So you say.”

“You want to see my plane ticket?”

“You all have plane tickets.”

Exasperated, Galena said, “Have they ever heard of tolerance in this town?”

“It’s easy for you East‑Coasters to be tolerant,” the man said. “You don’t have to live near them. I’ll tell you this: If those weirdos ever decide to come out of the mountains, we’re going to be ready for them. That is, if you liberals haven’t taken away our guns by then, too.”

Galena would have gladly gotten into a scrap with the man, but there was no time. She ended up leaving a signed credit‑card slip with him to cover the cost of retrieving the car, if necessary.

Unfolding the map on her dashboard, she saw that across the Montana border southwest of Williston was nothing but blank space with anemic gray lines wandering through it. “Road condition unknown,” the map said helpfully. “Hi ho Silver,” Galena said to the Hyundai. Then she put on her sunglasses and prepared to cross the Great Plains in a Korean rattletrap.

“I hope you appreciate this, Thea,” she said.

***

“Galena Pittman,” a rival columnist had once written, “is aptly named for a poisonous mineral.” The phrase had amused Galena’s colleagues so annoyingly that she had adopted it, mentioning it so often and laughing so hard that everyone began to realize it stung her.

In fact, Galena had been stinging since she was born. Long ago she had realized she was the world’s pincushion, a target for every petty mortification, every nettling slight the world could invent. She could chew her cuticles raw thinking of the condescensions she had to endure in a given day, the premeditated cruelties of cabmen and bureaucrats. The only defense was to attack earlier and more wittily, to wear a coat of banter thick enough to keep the pins away. It rarely worked.

Her mother had a favorite saying: “If you make a bed of nails for yourself, you’d better lie on it, and like it.” Galena had spent a lifetime casting barbs at that slogan, trying to find ways to disprove it.

In college, she had wanted to be an artist; but she had soon learned that she couldn’t bear to see others looking at her work, thinking thoughts she couldn’t control. She had tried to explain herself so intrusively, and had annoyed so many people, that it finally dawned on her that the explaining was all she was really good at. So, unable to be criticized, she became a critic.

Galena had actually fallen in love with Thea Nodine’s art several minutes before she fell in love with the artist herself. It had happened on a day when her landlord had decided to repair the plaster without any notice, and she had spent most of an hour calling everyone she knew to come help her move furniture, receiving only one recorded message after another. At last, where friendship failed, money had to take over. The people at Hank’s Hauling had been only too happy to help, once they had taken her Visa number hostage. By evening her apartment was in chaos, and Galena was in a state of advanced disappointment with the world. She wouldn’t have gone to the opening if she hadn’t been paid to cover it for the North Side Review.

Standing there in a haze induced by exhaustion, cheap Chablis, and whatever nutrition came from Brie on rice cakes, Galena saw her first frost painting. It was a feathery, crystalline abstraction on glass—almost an image, like an elusive memory. It had been taken from its refrigeration box and set in a wooden stand for display, and the overheated gallery air was beginning to melt it. She stood and watched as the painting slowly turned to water from the outside in. She couldn’t figure out why she found it so moving till someone behind her said, “That’s how I feel.” Galena realized it was how she felt, too—like a fragile thing being destroyed bit by bit, aging and perishing as everyone stood and watched. She stared until the painting was no more than a sheet of glass covered with tears, and all that was left was a memory of beauty that had changed and passed on, like time and lost youth.

She asked the gallery owner about the artist, and he said, “Oh, you’ve got to meet Thea. She’s simply an angel. All her work is perishable, you know. She works with the craziest things—sand, smoke, ice, sparks.”

Thea was dressed in an oversized lumberjack shirt and jeans, her tangled, brown hair falling around her shoulders. At first Galena wondered what kind of shtick this was; but a look at Thea’s young face immediately told her that it was no shtick—the girl was simply unaware of the impression she made. Galena was suddenly seized with an urge to cherish this wisp of smoke, to protect it from all the winds that might dissipate it, to keep it young forever.

She gave Thea a ride home that night. The artist was living in a squalid, firetrap loft with five others, sleeping on old mattresses and cooking on a portable grill. The next morning, Galena bustled to the rescue, transplanting Thea into her apartment. The girl came willingly enough, but without the gratitude Galena had expected. She had yet to learn that Thea was oblivious to her environment, existing like an air plant with no soil, just on sunlight and inspiration.

Galena made the nest, brought in the money, and kept out the world. Thea brought into her life almost‑forgotten pleasures like scented soaps and silk pajamas, pearly Christmas ornaments, and pomegranate seeds. Their relationship had all the hallmarks of permanence: an adopted cat, Chinese takeout in front of the television, Saturday morning errands, repainting the bedroom, bike rides in the park. Life was so normal, so trustworthy, it lulled Galena into forgetfulness. She almost became amiable.

She missed the signs of Thea’s restlessness at first. In hindsight, the whole shift to wind sculpture had been part of it—a yearning attempt to grasp impermanence again. In that sunny spring Galena would come home to find her staring at the vortexes formed in plexiglas tubes by the wind machines. They were like miniature, multicolored tornadoes, made visible by smoke or sand or bubbles. They had never looked strong enough to sweep any Dorothys off to Oz. Or Montana.

***

GAS—CASINO—ALIEN CURIOS, said the hand‑painted roadside sign. Galena lifted the sunglasses onto her forehead; in the rear‑view mirror she saw they had left white circles in the dust on her face. Without the green tint of the lenses, the landscape looked bleached into shades of gray. Eroded hills, tufted with buckbrush and jackpine, cooked under the glaring sky. Ahead, hovering above the distant horizon, was a brushstroke of white—not clouds, but the snow capping unseen mountains.

She turned the Hyundai into the gravel parking lot in front of the gas station. The air conditioner sighed wearily as she killed the engine. When she twisted to get out, a sharp pain caught her unawares. She waited, sweaty, till it was gone, thinking: Serves you right for growing up.

Outside, the heat radiated off the yellow ground. In a dust‑caked pickup by the gas pumps, a young woman waited with a child, her wispy blonde hair blowing in the dry wind. The bumper sticker on the truck said, IF YOU DONT WANT HEMORRHOIDS, GET OFF YOUR ASS. A Western sentiment, Galena presumed.

A wiry, bowlegged man was buying cigarettes at the counter inside. Galena wandered down the aisle of dusty tourist trinkets: Rubber tomahawks, dribble glasses, ashtrays with toilet humor on them.

The door closed and Galena became aware of someone watching her. A woman stood motionless at the head of the aisle, not unlike one of the rock formations outside: A wind‑scoured, lumpy shape with a cracked complexion that looked hard to the touch.

“Where are the alien curios?” Galena asked, thinking that the woman herself looked a little like one.

The woman pointed to a tabletop display case at the end of the aisle. Galena had to wipe the dust off the glass to see inside. She had expected plastic E.T.’s, but instead saw an assortment of lumpy concretions like fossilized organs. The shop’s proprietor eased in behind the case, moving her bulk with uncanny silence. Without asking, she opened the case, took out one of the rocks, and handed it over. It was translucent, like onyx, and threaded through with red‑brown veins. Galena suddenly had the feeling she was holding a giant eyeball, and put it down on the counter, a little revolted.

“How do you know it’s alien?” she said to play along.

“It sure’s hell ain’t natural,” the woman said. She had a breathy cigarette‑voice.

“So what is it? A transdimensional doo‑dad?”

“One of the things the Dirigo leave behind.”

Galena said, “I thought the Dirigo looked like strings of Christmas lights.” That was how Unsolved Mysteries had it, at any rate. “No one ever said they left turds.”

The woman drew another object from the case and cradled it in her palm. It was the color of a kidney, and shaped a little like one. Its surface was slick, as if wet. “The aliens didn’t leave these. The people that let them take over did.”

So this was the much‑publicized art created by the Windrow Mountain colony. It was not up to Thea’s standards. Galena felt partly relief, partly anger that Thea could have been hoodwinked into participating in this travesty.

The woman’s mineralized skin did not show a flicker of emotion. “You going up there?” she said.

“Yes. I’ve got a friend there.”

“You think. There’s nothing human living up there.”

There’s nothing much human down here either, Galena wanted to say; but she curbed her tongue.

When she emerged from the shop, a wind brushed by, scented with sage. She turned to look south, where the Windrow Mountains still hovered like an unkept promise on the horizon. “Don’t leave, kid,” she whispered. “I’m coming.”

***

The reports from Montana had fascinated Thea from the start. There were many versions from the beginning. Remote Montana community taken over by aliens. Demonic possession in Montana wasteland. Mystery Montana disease baffles scientists. Galena scoffed at it all.

After anthropologists at the University of Montana began to investigate, the explanations still metamorphosed to suit every paranoia. It was a type of mass hysteria. It was a scandalous case of environmental contamination. It was genetic inbreeding. It was a secret government experiment. One debunking journalist concluded that the “victims” were in fact members of a harmless New Age religious community who were being stigmatized by society as “ill” for their nonconformity.

The explanation of the victims themselves never changed. The Dirigo, they said, were enabling them to create art of a type never before imagined.

It was the art that riveted Thea’s attention. As pictures finally filtered out, Thea bought all the magazines and pored over them. “Just think,” she said, “I could work in real wind, real lightning, if I had their inspiration.”

“If you had their inspiration, you’d be in a loony bin,” Galena said.

But it did seem as if Thea’s creativity was lagging that spring. Her studio was cluttered with unfinished work; it was over a year since she had held one of her famous shows that drew crowds to see the self‑destroying art. As her comfort increased it seemed her drive faded. Galena worried that her own happiness was poisoning the well from which it sprang.

One morning when Galena, ready to leave for work, leaned over the bed to kiss her partner goodbye, Thea looked up out of the rumpled bedclothes and said, “I’m going to Montana.” Galena laughed, brushed the scattered hair out of Thea’s face, and said, “Ride ’em, cowboy.”

When she got home that evening, Thea’s suitcase and backpack were waiting by the door. The truth smashed all the elaborate structure of Galena’s security. Contentment had come to her so late, so unexpectedly, that she had never thought it, too, could be perishable. She followed Thea around the house, asking questions in a voice like a lost child.

“How can I get in touch with you?”

“What are you going to do there?”

“How long will you be gone?”

“Why are you doing this?”

“When will you know?”

“What about me?”

“What about me?”

To which Thea could only answer again and again, “I don’t know.”

And that was all Galena had ever gotten out of her. She consented to drop Thea off at the airport, but wouldn’t go in with her, and they didn’t part with a kiss, or even a hug.

***

The road deteriorated as it began to climb. The shoulders were first to go, then the paint, till all that was left was a line of asphalt about as flat as a strip of cooked bacon. Galena’s stomach was running on empty, but a touch of nervous nausea kept her from stopping to eat the granola bars she had brought. She didn’t know how she was going to find Thea, and she didn’t want to be wandering the Windrow Mountains all night.

The mountains wore a skirt of pine forest. The road veered to and fro through the still trunks till Galena began to suspect it didn’t know where it was going. Down under the canopy of needles the air was dark as twilight, though the sun had to be in the sky, somewhere.

She rounded a corner and laid on the brakes. Ahead, the road was blocked by a fallen tree. A large yellow sign said, PRIVATE PROPERTY. TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED. The sign was pockmarked with bullet holes.

She got out to survey the problem. The air was surprisingly cool; she must have climbed in altitude. The tree turned out to be just a poplar sapling, more leaves than trunk, felled by a chain saw. She seized a branch and dragged it across the asphalt, out of the way.

“If you want to keep me out, you’ll have to try harder than this,” Galena said to the unknown woodsman.

The effort had winded her, and she sat sideways in the driver’s seat a while, her door open on the chill, quiet air. At first she thought that her tired eyes were playing tricks; but no, the shifting points of light were real. Off in the forest, down the winding corridors of pines, some people were carrying candles, or flashlights.

“Excuse me,” Galena called out, getting up. “Can you give me some directions?”

The lights winked out. Piney silence surrounded her. Only then did Galena remember the reports—floating strings of lights sighted; gauzy veils, unexplained. She realized she was standing with one arm outstretched, as if hailing a cab. With a nervous laugh at her own absurdity, she headed back to the car and the security of self‑examination. One’s first brush with the paranormal ought to have more dignity than this, she decided. In her mind she composed the headlines. CHICAGOAN TRIES TO CATCH RIDE ON UFO: “I THOUGHT IT WAS A CAB,” CITY SLICKER SAYS.

The road plunged down a ravine, then abruptly emerged from the trees into a barren valley. The setting sun touched the sandstone cliffs, a vivid orange. Lines of erosion made the rock face look like an ancient bas‑relief, so worn away that the original sculpture was barely visible. Galena stopped the car to study it. She could almost see figures in motion—no, an inscription in flowing characters. It reminded her vividly of something. It was on the tip of her tongue: She would remember in a second.

It was just a cliff. Frowning at the illusion that had drawn her briefly out of herself, she put the car in drive again and followed the winding road down into the heart of the valley. Rock formations rose on either side: Twisted sandstone pillars that looked like figures hidden in stone cocoons, their proto‑limbs still obscure beneath the surface. They drew her eyes, as if subconsciously she knew what shapes lay beneath. The valley floor held an army of them in a thousand poses, straining to free themselves. Galena sped through them; they towered over the little car, their shadows lying like barriers across the road.

At last the forest enclosed her again. It was dark now; she turned on the headlights. There was still no sign of any colony—no sign of humans at all. The last motel she had passed was just after noon.

At last, a light shone through the trees. She slowed, then spotted the driveway—just a dirt track, really. As she drove up it, the tall grass swished against the car’s undercarriage.

It was a log house, probably built as a hunter’s lodge. Leaving the headlights on, Galena skirted the stack of firewood and climbed three board steps onto the porch. The screen door creaked when she opened it to knock. It was several seconds before there was any response. Then, hesitantly, the door opened a crack and someone peered out.

It was Thea. “Hi there, kid,” Galena said, as if she’d known it was going to be her.

Thea stood staring. “Galena,” she said.

Her long brown hair fell in curly tendrils, uncombed but fetching. She looked more thin and waiflike than ever in a flannel shirt and jeans. Her feet were bare. Galena wanted to hug her to make sure that everything was all right, but there was something in her manner—a slight shrinking back, a wariness.

Thea held the door open. “Come in.”

***

The kitchen table was soon strewn with the snapshots Galena had brought—mostly their cat, Pesto, doing assorted catlike things. Thea stared for a long time at one where the flashbulb made the cat’s eyes light up like headlights.

“He’s gotten to be a real sentimental slob,” Galena said. “After you left, he wandered around the house and cried for a few days.” So did I, she didn’t say.

“Mr. Garavelli at the dry cleaners told me to say hi to you,” she continued the patter she’d tried to keep up ever since entering, afraid of what silence might mean. “They’ve been repaving the street out front, and it’s been unbearable all summer: Nothing but dust and noise. Workers leaving their shirts on the bushes. Manly sweat everywhere.” She took a sip of the tea that was virtually all Thea could offer her; the refrigerator was almost empty. “I had to go in to Dr. Hamer for a biopsy last week. I find out the results Tuesday.”

At last Thea’s eyes focused on her. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Getting old, that’s what’s wrong.” Getting old alone, she thought. No one to tell how it feels, no one to give a damn. “Never mind,” she said.

At last silence fell. Inside the wood stove, a log settled with a brittle sound.

“Galena, I can’t come back,” Thea said. Her voice sounded like a guilty child confessing. “I’ve made the commitment here.”

“Sure. I understand,” Galena said, barely hearing the words. “What’s important is your work. How’s it going?” She glanced around the cabin. There was not a sign of artistry anywhere, just worn Salvation Army furniture.

“I’m working outside now,” Thea said. “I’ll show you tomorrow, if you want.”

“Yes. I want.”

Silence again.

“I’d better get my suitcase out of the car,” Galena said. There was a twinge of pain as she rose, mocking her. Think you’re brave, do you? it said. She took care not to react. She couldn’t bear to seem vulnerable.

“Sure. You can sleep on the couch,” Thea said.

Galena looked at her silently. Thea wouldn’t meet her eyes. “What is this, Montana morality?” Galena asked.

“No.” Thea’s voice was pleading. “I just can’t, Galena. I don’t want you to lure me back. It will be too hard.”

Too hard on whom? Galena wondered. “Okay,” she said slowly. “You make the rules.”

Suddenly, Thea gave her an impulsive hug. “Thank you,” she whispered. As she disappeared behind the bedroom door she glanced back. The light caught her eyes with an odd glint, as if the retinas were brushed metal. For a moment she looked utterly alien.

That night Galena lay alone on the lumpy couch, kept awake by wind in the branches outside, the skittering of small feet across the roof, insect wings on the window screen. None of the soporific sounds she was used to—the roar of garbage trucks, the wail of sirens. No comforting weight of possessive cat on her feet. She wondered if Thea were awake.

This desire to be held and comforted was childish, she told herself. You’re an adult now. You know how to survive.

Lying in the dark, she imagined a tumor growing inside her, a living thing that wasn’t her, like the child she never had nor wanted. Nature had a way of getting back at people who didn’t follow its rules. And reproduction was the first rule, the evolutionary imperative.

She had never made a decision to swear off men—just drifted into it, the path of least resistance. Her last attempt at a straight relationship had been a madcap fling with a sculptor. The only time they had had sex together, while she was still basking in the afterglow, he had smiled at her and said, “You look like a woman who’s just been fucked.”

The statement had jarred her. Why was it she that had just been fucked, and not him? He had slipped, and revealed the real reason he had done it—not for the enjoyment, no strings attached, but in order to transform her into something she hadn’t been before, as if she had been raw material he had made into something. As if he had put his mark on her, like a dog pissing on a lamppost.

From that moment she knew that for men, sex was inextricably connected to power, and always would be. No matter what they said, or how enlightened they acted, sex was dominance to them; on such an instinctual, hardwired, brainstem level they could never overcome it. And she had far too vivid a sense of her own individuality to ever imagine herself as a thing marked as a man’s territory.

Thea’s love had always been free of other agendas. It had never been mixed up with power, or pride, or self. It had been a spontaneous gift, unpremeditated, as if it sprang from the air between them. Galena had never had to give up being who she was in order to be who Thea loved.

She hugged the pillow to the hollow feeling in her body, wondering if loneliness caused cancer.

***

In the morning, Galena ate a breakfast of granola bars and tea; Thea was not hungry. By daylight, the cabin looked more dilapidated than ever. One of the kitchen windows was broken, and there was an old mouse nest in a corner. “How did you find this place?” Galena asked.

“Everyone stays here when they first come,” Thea answered. “It’s where you wait.”

“Wait for what?”

“For the Dirigo. I’ll be moving on soon.”

“On to where?”

“The colony. I’m almost ready.”

“Will you show me the colony?”

“If you want.”

Thea set out as if to walk, but Galena asked how far it was, then persuaded her to take the car. Thea looked at the Hyundai as if she’d forgotten how they worked, then opened the door awkwardly. Galena watched her carefully, suspicious.

“What do you want to see first?” Thea asked.

“What’s the choice?”

“There are work sites all around us. The Wind Clock, the Haunt, Nostra Knob.”

“What have you been working on?”

“The Flens.”

“Let’s see it, then.”

A few miles down the road, Thea suddenly exclaimed, “Stop! Stop here!”

Galena pulled over. They were high on the mountainside; on their right hand was a steep drop-off, giving them a wide view of a wooded valley that wound into blue distance, interrupted by the out-thrusting roots of mountains on either side.

“Look out there,” Thea said. “Do you see the painting?”

The vegetation on north slopes, south slopes, and valley floor was a pattern of green, teal, and umber. It was as if someone had taken a giant brush and painted the land to form an abstract of overlapping tints. “Isn’t that natural?” Galena said.

“Of course not. This was one of the first landscape paintings the colony did. Here, let me drive so you can watch.”

A little reluctantly, Galena got out and went to the passenger side. Thea said, “Unfocus your eyes just a little,” then started the car slowly forward.

At first Galena saw a complex patchwork of sunny streaks. Then, as her perspective changed, a dark, spear‑shaped wedge began to push its way into the foliage colors. As it touched each band of color, that area went suddenly dark, drab, and uniform. It had almost reached the opposite side when a cascade of rust, sienna, and lemon erupted from the spear tip and turned the landscape bright again.

The car stopped. Galena blinked out at the view, which had been transformed by traveling 300 feet along the road. “How did they do that?” she asked. “By painting the back side of every leaf?”

“I don’t know,” Thea said. “It looks different at every time of day, and every type of weather.”

Galena shook her head. “Landscape painting. I see what you mean. Not painting the landscape, but painting the landscape. How many people did it take?”

“I don’t know,” Thea said again.

As they continued on, Galena looked on every prospect around her with new attention, to find more trompes l’oeil hidden in the leaves.

They arrived at the Flens down a rocky path. At first, it looked like a range of rampart cliffs, formed into organ‑pipe pillars of a thousand dimensions. A swarm of people was at work on the cliff face, some on scaffolding anchored into the rock, some swinging on ropes. Though she tried from several angles, Galena could not tell what the sculpture was going to be.

When she asked, Thea laughed. “The sculpture is not in the rock,” she said. “The medium we are working in is wind. At sunset, the mountain above us cools faster than the valley, and a wind rushes down the slope. The Flens will catch it in a thousand fissures, and part it, till it forms a shape. We will know we have gotten it right when the rock pipes sing. It’s almost done; we are tuning it now.”

“You are making an organ from the mountain,” Galena said, struck by the strangeness of the concept.

“An organ only the wind can play,” Thea answered.

As Galena watched, the workers vacated one area. There was a puff of smoke, then an echoing explosion.

“They use dynamite?” Galena asked.

“We use anything that will do the job,” Thea answered.

The workers moved back into the dynamited area, their movements efficient and coordinated. Galena could see no one in charge, hear no shouted orders.

“Who designs the artworks?” she asked. “Who is in charge?”

Thea looked at the ground and shrugged.

“Thea?” Galena said.

“You will just misinterpret it,” Thea said.

“Try me. Come on.”

“The colonists just know what to do. They feel what’s right. Imagine having the skill to produce each effect deliberately. Imagine thinking, ‘I need pathos here, or an ominous effect,’ and knowing exactly what you have to do to create it, as if it were being whispered in your ear. And everyone else knows the same.”

“Kind of like having a muse?”

“That’s right. The Dirigo are our muses.”

Gently, Galena said, “You never needed to use anyone else’s inspiration before. You never worked by anyone else’s plan. That’s what made you so good.”

Nervously, Thea brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “I was never as good as you thought I was.”

Galena was about to protest strenuously, but Thea said, “You blew me up so big, nothing I could do would ever justify it. Everyone’s expectations were so high.”

“Thea, kid, you deserved it!” Galena said.

“You see what I mean,” Thea said, then turned back toward the car.

“So is that my sin?” Galena shouted after her. “Having faith in you?”

Thea didn’t stop or answer. When they both got back to the car they sat a while in silence. Galena considered, and rejected, half a dozen strategies: Conciliatory, wounded, encouraging, authoritative. None of them were sufficient to the way she felt.

When Thea finally spoke, it wasn’t about Galena at all. “Here, no one makes the art for any reason but because we want to.”

They drove on to other sites. The art was everywhere. It was fashioned from streams and sand, shadows, lichen, and rain. In one place a flight of swallows was an intermittent part of the sculpture. After a while it was impossible to see the landscape as a backdrop, an accidental thing.

“Supposing these Dirigo were real—” Galena started.

“They are real,” Thea said.

“Okay, okay. Are they trying to tell us something?”

“I don’t know. You’re the one who gets messages from art.”

“Do they talk to you?”

“No. Not the way you mean. We don’t know what they want. We’re not even sure they know we’re any different from the trees and rocks. Except—”

“Yes?”

“Some people feel they’re trying to remember something. Something they once knew long, long ago, but now they’ve forgotten.”

“Like us all,” Galena said.

The last site they visited was what Thea called the Pivotary. They drove up a long gravel road that climbed past the trees into a cold, bleached world where the very air seemed purified and rare. Through the afternoon an ache had been growing somewhere between Galena’s back and gut; when they reached the end of the road she parked and sat a while, waiting for it to subside. The sun was low, but above them the sky was still bright.

They walked side by side up a gravelly path that curved between two spurs standing out from the mountain like rock gates. Beyond them, in a sheer‑sided bowl, lay a mountain lake, its surface so perfectly still it mirrored every rock around it. When they came to a halt beside it, and their footsteps ceased, silence settled in. The air seemed so crystalline it might break at a touch.

In a hushed voice, Thea said, “This is where the Dirigo live. They’ve been here for eons, maybe since the beginning. It’s possible that the Blackfeet Indians knew about them. We think other humans may have known, once, in other times and places. We come here to invite them in. Don’t worry, they can’t inhabit anyone who is unwilling. You would have to go into the lake to make them part of your life.”

“Like a baptism?” Galena said.

“That’s right.”

There was a silence. At last Thea said hesitantly, “You could do it, too. You could join us.”

“Oh, Thea. When will you learn? I don’t have the talent for art.”

“You could. There are people in the colony who never made a thing before coming here.”

“So that’s what the Dirigo offer? Instant talent?”

“Vision. Creativity. A feel for the elements. If that’s talent.”

“What a deal,” Galena said, stirring a pebble at her feet. “You’d have to be crazy to turn it down.” She glanced sidelong at Thea. “But what’s the catch?”

“There are only catches in a human context. Catches belong to the outside world.”

“The human world, you mean. Catches are part of being human.”

“All right,” Thea said. “The catch is, I have to hurt you, by leaving you behind.”

They stood looking at each other then—communicating, Galena thought, for the first time, though not a word was said. I need to say it aloud, Galena thought. I have to admit how badly I need her.

As the light shifted with the setting sun, it caught Thea’s eyes, and the retinas reflected through, opaque as mirrors, beautiful as gemstones. A chill went down Galena’s spine. She grasped Thea’s hand. It felt cold.

“Have you already gone into the lake?” she asked.

Thea nodded. “Three weeks ago.”

“Can you still back out?”

“I don’t want to.”

She was the same, but unknowable. Unchanged, yet wholly different. “What did I do to make you want this?” Galena said.

“It has nothing to do with you.”

It couldn’t be true, Galena thought. Somehow, this was her fault.

“Look!” Thea said, pointing out over the lake. “They’ve come.”

The sun had set, and darkness leaped up from the ground. But the sky was still light, and the lake, reflecting it, glowed azure in the twilight. Above it, a constellation of sparks danced, firefly lights cavorting. Around them the air shimmered as with heat waves. Galena glimpsed something like a shred of iridescent gauze, gone as soon as she focused on it.

“What are they doing here?” Galena whispered. “What do they want?”

“The art,” Thea said. “It’s all they want. To make beautiful things. They can’t do it themselves; they need our hands, our ingenuity.”

She was gazing at them entranced. I am losing her, Galena thought.

The valley was growing dark; now faint streaks of colored light flashed and disappeared above the lake, like an aurora, or a reflection from a light that wasn’t there.

Galena took Thea’s hand firmly in hers. “Come on,” she said, “I’ll drive you home.”

Following the headlights down the steep road, Galena remembered how, in the days when Thea had still gone down to her old studio to work, Galena had picked her up after work, to drive home. Sometimes she would climb the steps and hear the artists who shared the space laughing together uproariously, like teenagers. When she entered the room, the laughter would cut off self‑consciously. Even if she told them to go on talking, the atmosphere would turn stiff and formal, as if Teacher were watching. It had made Galena hate to go there after a while, just to feel out of place, unwanted.

There was an ache in her gut that said, No more future, no more chances. Always the future had been there, a sketchbook where she could try out new scenarios. Now experimentation was done; only action was left.

She came to the main road, then retraced the way back past the turnoff to the Flens, past the landscape painting, speeding faster with every mile. As pine trunks flashed by in the darkness, Thea said, “That was the turnoff to the house. You missed it.”

“I know,” Galena said.

The road curved and plunged downwards, into the valley of the stone shapes. Thea said tensely, “Stop, Galena. I can’t leave.”

“Yes, you can,” Galena said. “And I think you’d better, before they’ve brainwashed you completely.”

She pressed down on the gas, wanting to get past the rock formations that loomed in frozen motion over the road. The passenger-side door opened, and Galena heard the pavement rushing past. She reached over to grab Thea’s arm, only to feel it pull away. The loony girl was actually going to jump. Galena braked hard, and the car slewed around on loose gravel. For a moment she had a terrifying out‑of‑control feeling. Then the car came to rest in the roadway, facing back the way it had come. The headlight beams pointed crookedly into the dust and exhaust. The passenger seat was empty.

Galena left the car door open and walked down the harsh beams of light, searching the shoulders for a sign, her stomach muscles clenched. Then, ahead on the roadway, she saw Thea’s silhouette, walking steadily away from her. She sprinted to catch up.

“Thea!” She grasped the girl’s arm and forced her to turn around. “Are you—” The headlights caught Thea’s eyes and they shone back, bright and preternatural.

Instinctively, Galena stepped back. Then a desperate sense that she was losing overcame her, and she grasped Thea by the shoulders. “Fight them, Thea! Don’t surrender, don’t let them control you. Be yourself.”

A wan smile crossed Thea’s face, too wise and knowing for her young features. “Myself?”

“Yes.” Galena clutched her tight. “The Thea I knew.”

Thea’s voice was maddeningly adult. “The Thea you invented, you mean. I know all about being dominated, Galena.”

Galena loosed her grip, deeply stung. “That’s not true! All I ever wanted was for you to be yourself.”

“Then let me go,” Thea said.

“Not to give up your freedom,” Galena said stubbornly. “Not to become something that’s not even human.”

“The only humanity I lose is the ability to make things ugly.”

“Oh, isn’t that great,” Galena said, bitingly sarcastic. “Why don’t we all join the Dirigo, then, and have a world of people who want nothing but beauty. A world of saints and artists.”

“Why not?” Thea said.

There was a cloud of sparks around her head, like a halo in a medieval painting, but they cast no light on her features. Half to them and half to her Galena said, “Because it wouldn’t be a human world, Thea.”

There was a silence. The rock shapes around them seemed to be listening. “Then I don’t want to be human,” Thea said.

She was leaving her face, retreating back behind those eyes that revealed nothing. When she turned again to walk into the dark, there was no one left to stop.

The shoal of silver slivers that had hung above Thea’s head did not leave with her. They still hung in the air, darting about in school formation.

Galena knew that she too could wear a halo of stars if she only consented. There was a heavy lump inside her gut—her own inhabiting being, eating her away from inside.

“Get out of here!” she shouted at the pinprick lights above her. “Let us be! You’ve got no business trying to make us better than we are.”

Her footsteps sounded heavy and corporeal as she walked back to the car. When she had turned it around she paused with her foot on the brake, caught on a snag of grief. For a moment she rested her forehead on the steering wheel, then shifted blindly into drive.

***

She had her comebacks ready by the time she got to Williston. When the car dealer’s eyebrows cast aspersions her way, she said, “The Dirigo didn’t want me. I guess they saw I was already alienated enough.”

She would have been ashamed to commit a pun in Chicago, but this was North Dakota.

The sweaty, overly familiar salesman in the seat next to her on the plane found out where she had been and said jocularly, “Did you see any aliens?”

“Not as many as I’ve seen since coming back,” Galena retorted.

As they circled high above the fumes and grime of O’Hare, caught in traffic, she looked down at the barren mess humanity had made of the landscape and imagined it all melting away like one of Thea’s frost paintings.

It would never happen. If humanity were offered salvation on a silver platter, someone would probably just mug the messenger.

She shifted, feeling the bed of nails beneath her.

© 1997 Carolyn Ives Gilman
Originally published in Bending the Landscape,
edited by Stephen Pagel & Nicola Griffith.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Carolyn Ives Gilman

Carolyn Ives GilmanCarolyn Ives Gilman has been publishing fantasy and science fiction for twenty years. Her first novel, Halfway Human (Avon/EOS 1998), was called “one of the most compelling explorations of gender and power in recent SF” by Locus magazine. Her second, Isles of the Forsaken, will come out in August 2011. Her short fiction has appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Bending the Landscape, Interzone, Universe, Full Spectrum, and Realms of Fantasy. She has twice been a finalist for the Nebula Award.

In her professional career, Gilman is a historian specializing in 18th- and early 19th-century North American history, particularly frontier and Native history. She lives in St. Louis and works for the Missouri History Museum as a historian and curator.

4 Responses »

  1. Another Gilman spellbinder.

  2. What an enjoyable read. Thanks for reprinting it, Lightspeed.

  3. I loved it…!

  4. I love the sort of hermeneutic gestalt switch constructed between Galena and Thea, how both of them have these different and seemingly incomparable perceptual apparatuses. So cool, so relevant.

    Am I correct in reading the humanity destroying landscape as allegory for patriarchy destroying women’s bodies? This reading gets me to thinking about Galena’s reflections about her sexuality, and I’m getting a little confused. Is it representative of a type of separatism, the way Thea rejects humanity (insofar as the word “human” seems intentionally constructed to have patriarchal connotations)?

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