Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club

Two bright bangles on an arm clang,
a single bangle is silent, wander alone like a rhinoceros.
—Khargaviṣana-sutra [the Rhinoceros Sutra] c.29 BCE

Ten years ago, Clara had attended a creative writing workshop run by Karen Joy Fowler, and what Karen Joy told her was: We are living in a science fictional world. During the workshop, Karen Joy also kept saying, I am going to talk about endings, but not yet. But Karen Joy never did get around to talking about endings, and Clara left the workshop still feeling as if she was suspended within it, waiting for the second shoe to drop.

Eventually, Clara had attempted a cold equations story, and though Karen Joy never read it, Clara thought she might have liked it if she’d had the chance. In Clara’s story, “False Equations,” the Emergency Despatch Ship (EDS) was packed full of animals, rather than people, and the stowaway was the child of a White-backed vulture pair. An egg when she was smuggled aboard, the stowaway hatched during the journey to Walden (rather than Woden).

Clara had made several copies of the story and sent them out to the other members of her book club. Fern wrote back to say that the story was too complex and far-fetched. Bea wrote that she hadn’t time to read anything just then except the book that they were supposed to be reading for their next meeting. And Belle said simply that there were far too many “Cold Equations” reworkings and inter-textual responses out there, and she didn’t see why Clara had bothered attempting another if she had so little to say about the matter.

Clara, like Fern and all of the other members of the Karen Joy Fowler Book Club, had never managed to finish reading the set book before their scheduled get-together. But then, none of their planned book discussions had yet taken place. There was always some complication, some hindrance that they were incapable of overcoming.

The workshop had not been a total loss, however, since Clara had met Belle there, and they had ended up good friends. They lived near each other—their farms were only a short walk apart—and a few years ago they had opened up a café in town where they served good, simple food and provided their customers with a shaded garden in which to sit and chat.

These days, when Clara can, she takes time off from the café to go and visit her daughter. Alice lives near the great lakes. She has a large house; tall and stone-walled, with large windows to catch the afternoon breezes. As Clara comes down the shared driveway to Alice’s house, she always experiences a moment of something like regret, or fear. What if, once she enters her daughter’s house, she isn’t able to leave again? What if, once she sees all the children her daughter cares for, she can’t stop herself from saying something cruel? Telling her daughter what she believes: that Alice’s house full of other people’s children is just a way for her daughter to endlessly delay her own grieving, her own letting go of things. Or what if the opposite occurs: What if she enters that house full of children, sees all the work that needs to be done caring for them, and is caught up in her daughter’s Sisyphean task of feeding, bathing, and holding other creatures’ young? Like Sisyphus forever pushing his stone up the same mountain, only to watch it roll down again.

Clara isn’t sure she is a welcome visitor any more, or whether she wants to go there. She doesn’t think about these things directly, but as she comes up the walk she tries to imagine herself greeting and being greeted by her daughter and struggles to construct an image that contains ease or warmth.

As it happens, she finds Alice in the garden with her new lover. They are walking from tree to tree, looking up into the canopy of each one and then moving on.

This is not Alice’s first lover, Jeff, who is dead now, and Clara has difficulty remembering this one’s name. Blue? Balloon?

They go to wallow in the mud-hole that spreads out from beneath the African tulip tree. The one Jeff had liked to wallow in with guests. They had been cooling off there together—Alice and Jeff—when they had told Clara there would be no grandchildren. “It’s my fault, I’m afraid,” he’d said, as if he’d forgotten to pick up ice on the way home, but blushingly. “They’re no good, my swimmers. My—”

“She knows what you mean,” Alice had said. “There’s no need to go on and on.”

Clara had remembered, then, the termination Alice had when she was in high school. The waiting room full of pictures of empty landscapes at sunset, the interview with the cheerful nurse, the other young females in the waiting room—all of them avoiding each other’s eyes. And afterwards, her daughter wanting ice cream and to sit by the river and watch the waterbirds dancing in the shallow water. Alice had rested her head on Clara’s shoulder, curled her feet up under her bottom like a child. Her breath had smelled of milk and sweet biscuits, and her hair of antiseptic. It is the last time Clara can remember her daughter wanting to be held.

The garden has changed more than Clara’s daughter has, since Jeff’s passing. The paths that were once just worn earth have been widened and cleared of weeds. The beds of unnamed flowers that Alice and her husband used to grow have been replaced with vegetable patches and rows of imported exotics. Mulched and weeded and trimmed and fertilised to within an inch of their lives.

“You should keep going,” Alice says to her lover.

“Oh,” he says. “Oh yes, of course! Women’s talk.” He winks at Clara as he moves away. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

When he has gone, Alice sighs and settles into a more comfortable position. “The sad thing is, he means it,” she says. “He won’t tolerate me doing anything without consulting him. He calls it communication, when what he really means is him telling me what to do.” She flicks her ears a little to clear away the flies. “It almost makes me glad we’re too different to breed. Imagine us: the parents of the last generation!”

Clara squints into the sun and watches her daughter’s lover still moving from tree to tree, looking up, thinking, then moving on. She is tired of being a visitor already, but Alice asks her all the questions a daughter asks anyway. No, Clara hasn’t heard from her husband of late. Yes, the café is going well. They’ve started a new tradition of monthly dinners. Seasonal dishes, all made with local produce. No, nobody special.

Alice looks across the mud-hole to the forest. “I’ve lost track of Dad,” she says. “Wasn’t he out west somewhere, living on a wildlife refuge of some kind?”

“I’d heard that,” Clara said. “Him and that female were working the summers and mostly left alone in the winters. Wandering the hills.”

“Janet,” says her daughter.

“What?”

“Dad’s new partner, her name is Janet.”

She ought not to have come, Clara thinks. Everything her daughter says or asks of her feels like a reproach. Even the gardens are reproachful, the liquidambars arching over the green lawn. The perfect garden beds, the even paths, the vistas like postcards. It was just what she’d dreaded, coming down the driveway, just what she’d been preparing herself for.

Alice wants to show her around the bottom end of the garden, which she says is where Jeff spent most of his time during the last few months of his life. Sometimes, he would fall asleep on the lawn, stretched out like a child and snoring so loudly that the small birds—the fairy wrens and tits—would scatter with fear.

“When I woke him up he would always say he hadn’t been sleeping at all,” Alice says. “He’d say he’d been writing. He’d tell me all about whatever it was he had been working on. By the end, the things he told me were just a jumble. A nonsense. But at first I believed him. Or . . . or I wanted to. He was working on a cold equations story, he said. But it was set here on Earth, and instead of people, the two characters were rhinos, like us. The last two rhinos on Earth. And as soon as one died, the other would become functionally extinct.”

Alice was smiling, as though even now she could hear Jeff working out the shape of his story in her head. “That must be how he thought of us,” she said. “After all those years of being together, of sharing our lives and building this house and this garden. That there was no point to us being together, or having children. That we were just the leftover scraps of something that had once been whole.”

• • • •

Jeff had died five years ago, just before the end of the summer, but Clara had not heard about it until six months after that. She got the news in a letter from Janet, her former husband’s new partner, one of the founding members of the Karen Joy Fowler Book Club. They had once met, purely by accident, near a temporary market in Pullington. Janet had been walking away from a dungpile that Clara was going towards and somehow they had gotten to talking. It wasn’t till much later that they had realised they shared a man. In a manner of speaking.

Of course, I know that you knew Jeff far more intimately than I ever did, Janet wrote. But I’ve been surprised by how often I’ve thought about him. His passing makes me think about all of us, how we were, fifty years or so ago, when we didn’t know that it was all going to come to such an ending. We were full of ideas for growing the future—remember that plan Hildy had for forming a partnership with the San Diego Zoo?—and the males were all so ready to charge out into the world and lay down babies wherever they could.

Of course, Jeff wasn’t like that. Not even slightly. He never wanted anyone but his one dear wife; he wasn’t like his father, or any of that generation that were ours to love. Jeff seemed the most vulnerable of us all, even when he was young. I remember I could hardly bear to look at the dark spaces between his skin folds.

Did Janet really think that’s how it had been, for all of them? That, like her, they’d spent their youth getting babies on and from whoever they could? Clara’s memory of those days was that she and her husband had expected to stay together for their whole lives, babies or no babies. Until one of them died and was left to rot in some godforsaken grove of spindle-trees. Without a future generation to be mindful of, there was no reason for him to move on after twenty days. He could stay; they could form a pair-bond that would last through as many breeding seasons as they survived.

Clara and Janet had never been close—they had their reasons not to be—but Janet had known where to reach her when Jeff died, and she had kept in touch with Jeff, or with Clara’s daughter. She had known about Jeff’s death, and written to Clara with those strange, true words. Without Janet, Clara might never have known that her daughter’s husband had died. She might still have been keeping her distance, thinking that one day soon she would hear from him, and from her daughter.

• • • •

The first time she went to Belle’s place it had been to drop off some salad greens she had picked up from a roadside stall on the way home. Belle’s crash was more or less what Clara had expected. Abundant and shabby, her teenage daughters sprawled across the savannah, leaving a trail of unconsciously messy beauty in their wake. Belle didn’t come to greet her, just hallooed her in, and when Clara came through she found the kitchen, unlike the one in the café, a lively and fragrant jungle of ingredients. Belle herself was the least colourful thing. She had taken off the two clanging bangles she wore around her ankles at work and stood in the kitchen barefoot, her skin rough and grey.

Belle’s husband, Robert, poured drinks for all of them. Clara put the greens in a clear space and somehow was invited to stay for dinner. The food Belle served was not as fancy as that she served in the café, and the dinner service was a mismatched collection of hand-thrown pottery pieces. The kind you pick up cheap at garage sales and second-hand stores. Robert kept their glasses full and talked about the fields of grapes he had seen growing on a property out the other side of the reserve. He also told stories about the Scandinavian furniture he had bought cheaply on eBay, especially about a queer couple of Silverbacks from whom he had wrangled a pair of original Thonet chairs. The way he talked about the exchange made it seem scandalous, as though they had propositioned him in some way. Later, when he made coffee, he talked about a workshop he had gone to on “cupping” and tried to teach Clara and Belle how to smell the grounds, insisting that they all drink their coffee sugarless and milk-free in order to better appreciate the flavours of the coffee.

During a pause in the conversation, Clara asked Belle if she had thought any more about whether she wanted to join the Karen Joy Fowler Book Club. Robert leant back away from the conversation, raising an eyebrow at his daughters as if he had been interrupted mid-anecdote, and then listened to his wife talk about the book they were planning to read with studied, careful attention.

After dinner, the pale-skinned daughters dragged their father off to help them with something and Belle and Clara were left alone in the mud-hole. The solar fairy lights were starting to dim, but the citronella candles threw off more than enough light. Belle stretched herself out, her feet in the cool spot where Robert had been sitting.

“I should go,” Clara said, and Belle turned and reached out as if to stop her.

“Don’t go,” Belle said. “Nobody else gets a word in once Rob gets going.”

Clara saw how it was. How Belle was in no hurry to be left alone with Robert after their evening of high talk and laughter. How he was the kind of male who was roused by such things into something like rage. Belle was weary, and filled with the kind of dread that comes when a party is over and you see, all at once, all the damage you must now repair.

• • • •

Clara and Belle were both of that generation who were unlikely to have grandchildren, though they had both had husbands and children of their own. They were the mothers of daughters they did not understand, and whose troubles they could barely recognise. They went in and out of each other’s houses on a daily basis. They would graze in the savannah, or stand side by side in the kitchen making bread and listening to Belle’s daughters talk about their lives. The jokes about being the last of their kind. The bullying and despair. The gossip and conspiracies. A female in another herd had had a child, but it had died after one year. Another had given birth to three at once, stillborn and pale as cake. Clara and Belle looked at each other and twitched their ears in silent amazement. Who were these females? What lives were they living?

“Where did you hear that?” Belle said. “Facebook? It sounds like a hoax. Fear-mongering.”

The girls said it didn’t matter if one particular story was true or not, the point was not that one female had bred or not, but that they would never have children of their own. And if they did, they would be outcasts.

“We’d stay friends, if one of us had a child,” said one of Belle’s daughters.

“Sure,” said the other. “We’d set up a home and raise it together. Share it.”

“What about the bull?” said the younger daughter. “Would he have to live with us, too?”

Belle and Clara shared another of their looks, folded and pounded the dough they were working.

Belle’s older daughter shrugged. “You know what the males are like,” she said. “The ones who can breed are like . . . ugh.”

When they had talked enough about the future, the daughters talked about movies and music and the parties they were going to. Belle’s daughters were into bushwalking, and were always trying to drag their mother and Clara along on their week-long walks across the reserve. They talked about the places they would walk to next, and the things they planned to do when they got there.

Clara and Belle also worked together in the kitchen at the café. Or they went to other cafés to eat cake and drink coffee. They liked to sample the menus in the other cafés and consider the clientele. Sometimes, they would buy flat, sweet Dutch donuts from the baker, and get take-away coffee from the place next door to that, and then they’d go for a long walk along the beach together.

They talked, at first in a sidelong fashion, and later with increasing heatedness, about the males with whom they had paired, their children, the lives they still felt they might live.

Clara said that her husband had been the kind that, whenever they invited people for dinner, would insist that she spend the two days prior to their arrival cleaning the whole of their home from top to bottom. She would pull out the weeds along the pathways and pull out the saplings that were too hard or bitter to eat. Trample the path till it was good and wide, and gather extra food for everyone. “It got to the point it was just easier not to have guests,” she said. “By the time they arrived, I was too exhausted to enjoy their company.”

Belle said that she had found out Robert still wrote letters to his childhood sweetheart. One a week. And that the woman wrote back just as often.

“What do the letters say?” Clara asked.

Belle shrugged and looked away, squinting out to sea. “I don’t know. He keeps them in a toolbox in his solitary territory. I’ve never had the courage to read them. I can’t decide whether I want them to be in love still, or not.”

They looked at each other, and then they both laughed. It was ridiculous, wasn’t it? The way the ones that were meant to be the centres of their lives were so peripheral. It was their friendship with each other that was the true and central thing.

“I shouldn’t talk about him like this,” said Belle. “He’s a good enough husband.”

Clara nodded. “Mine was, too. He was all right, as far as husbands go.”

“Just not—I don’t know. It’s as though he’s given up. As though now that we know we’ll go extinct—there’s no point in paying attention to the lives we do have. The lives we’re living.”

“As if we’re already ghosts,” said Clara. “Already dead.”

“I’m going to leave him,” Belle said. “I can’t go on like this for much longer; living in the afterlife.”

• • • •

After they separated, Belle and her husband were friendly enough. He stayed in touch with the girls and was still often at their place, dropping them off or picking them up, mending this and that.

Belle spent most of her time at the café. She put in a herb garden, and then a vegetable patch. There was a vacant lot next door and it was soon overrun with pumpkins and nasturtiums, zucchini and tomato plants. She stopped wearing her bangles to work, and was often working in the garden, showing off her bare, strong shoulders and sturdy legs. She seemed younger every week, rather than older. Cleverer, too, and full of easy opinions about things. The customers who came into the café liked to talk to her about their own gardens, and their own efforts at baking this or that. They liked to walk beside her as she moved through the garden, pulling weeds or turning soil. In the middle of the day, if it was too hot and there were no customers to speak of, she would find a shady spot in the garden, spread out a picnic blanket and sit outside reading.

Sometimes, one of the customers would go out into the garden to see her; they would bring her an armful of rosemary, or a bucket of beets they had grown. These were always single females. They weren’t lonely, exactly, but they seemed to like to come and take up a corner of Belle’s blanket and talk.

Finally, one night after closing up late, Clara invited Belle to come to her house for a drink. Usually, Belle was busy in the evenings. She had the girls at home most nights, after all. But this time she said yes, and followed Clara up the long dirt road to her house.

Clara’s house was small but she had an earnest, quiet affection for it. It had a long, narrow room running all along one side—a closed-in verandah—which was her very own library. There were windows at both ends, but it was a cool, dark, narrow room. She had her desk in there, but it was mostly just bookcases. Floor to ceiling, wall to wall. In the early evening, it was flooded with a faint, stippled light that came in through the bush surrounding the house. The room, like the rest of the house, was very plain and tidy. Clara found this plainness comforting amid the flourishing chaos of the bush in which the house sat. The winding, shaded paths through the rainforest. The weedy, vine-strangled creek. Here, the books spoke their own quiet language.

One of the deep, unspoken pleasures of Clara’s life was to spend a whole day putting the books in order. She would catalogue everything like a real library, using the Dewey Decimal System, or ordering the books by colour and size. She would often lie on the cool concrete floor, with the reading lamp lit and her notebook at hand. Not reading, just waiting. It didn’t matter what book it was she was meant to be reading. None of what was in the books mattered, in a sense. The fact of their existence was enough.

She heard Belle come down the path to the house. Heard her exuberant halloooo as she descended. Clara felt a fish hook catch in her ribs, and pull. She went out into the hall and saw Belle coming in at the door, leaving it open in her wake.

They went through the house. Clara had not turned on any of the lights. There was only the reading light in the library.

They sat on the floor in the library. Clara showed Belle her collection of fairy tales. Pictures of geese and princesses, ravens and hedgehogs, foxes and underground castles whose kitchens were acres and acres wide.

Belle stretched out across the floor and closed her eyes. Clara read to her, and she fell asleep. They both did. Then Belle left while Clara was sleeping, without saying goodbye.

But Belle visited again the next night, and told her a story she had heard when she was a child. They were sitting on the floor in the library again. Their backs against the bookcase, and their legs stretched out in front of them. When the story was finished, Belle said, very quietly, “You know, you’re very important to me.” They sat in the almost-dark room. It was hot, but a storm was about to break outside. You could feel its wet promise in the air. Belle tilted her head till it rested on Clara’s shoulder. And then she got up and went away again.

She stayed away for three nights, then came without warning. Knocked and stood in the doorway, asking Clara if she would come to the river with her, right then and there, and walk along it in the dark.

They sat for a while on the enormous stones that lined one section of the riverbank. There were a few boats moored in the water, and the she-oaks that lined the shore on the other side made a soft, comforting sound. Like mothers hushing their children. They made love in a sandy gap between two large, flat stones. They walked along the river’s edge afterwards, not touching, not talking. Clara felt herself a strong and independent female, unhampered by marriage or children or housework.

At home, she walked through the house spreading sand over the freshly swept and polished floors. She bathed, but there was sand in her creases that found its way into her bed. She woke with the smell of river-water and night air still on her skin, would not have been surprised to find a small fish swimming in the sheets.

• • • •

Clara became consumed by this other version of herself. A night-time version that bore only an uncertain relation to her ordinary daytime self. The map of the reserve that she had held in her mind changed subtly. A secret map was sketched across the day-lit one, with its markets and mud-holes and roads. The second map drew attention to the edges of places, and the gaps between them. To shorelines and unmarked paths. Places, like her library, that she thought of as corridors, light coming in at both ends and herself flying through them, like the sparrow in the old story by the venerable Bede.

Clara felt herself to be full of increasingly numerous pockets of strangeness. Walking to work, or cleaning the house, grazing on the savannah or kneading bread in the café, she contained fragments of another female, one who had during the night made love with Belle on the weedy grass at the edge of the forest, or on the savannah, or, during one particularly wild rainstorm, in an empty carpark. That other Clara whose body seemed to be always already naked and beautiful.

How many females, she wondered, had felt this looseness, this glorious severance from the future? Had she been moving towards this feeling her whole life? Since her husband had left her? Since her daughter had stopped speaking to her? Since the scientists had said, finally, and with a sense more of exhaustion than of sadness, that there was no hope for their species?

The trouble began when Belle said that she loved her. They were in the kitchen at the café, standing side by side chopping pumpkins for the soup.

“I didn’t know this was going to happen,” Belle said. She was blushing, but seemed determined not to acknowledge that this was so.

“I know,” Clara said.

That night, they walked through the darkness and met each other on the road between their houses. They hadn’t planned it that way. Both of them had simply decided to walk towards the other. They moved off the road, into the forest, and found a place to lie down. Not a word was uttered, but Clara felt the things that Belle had said earlier that day like a widening of the channel in which they lay. She worried that the space would narrow, or disappear altogether. But it broadened out, from a narrow corridor into the high, bright nave of a cathedral. They could not look at each other, though their eyes were open. Their skin was cool and smooth to the touch. Clara felt that they were like fallen statues of themselves, organless and simple both inside and out.

• • • •

“That story you wrote,” Belle said, “the one about us going extinct.”

“I never wrote a story about extinction,” said Clara.

“False something, it was called.”

Belle had started the conversation in that quiet moment when they were lying in the library, after making love, when last time they had not spoken at all, but allowed the stillness between them to express everything.

“Did you ever think of having the two females just go on together? The mother and the daughter: Alice. They could jettison the male and have enough resources to make it to Walden.”

The male White-backed vulture in the story had been perhaps the most troubled by their predicament. The nest he and his partner had built, in the nearest thing they could find to a tree in the EDS, was lined not with green leaves and grass, but with the hair of other animals, with electrical wires and strips of soft plastic. He had tried to get some of the other animals—in particular the other birds—to become part of a breeding colony, but nobody would join him. Nobody wanted to become the mother or father of a child who would have to be jettisoned into space.

“It’s not that simple. You’re making the same mistake as the others,” Clara said.

“What did the others say, about the story?”

Belle tried to nuzzle Clara, to draw her back into an embrace, but Clara moved away slightly. There was a tightness in her gut that wouldn’t allow her to look at her lover. “I didn’t mean them,” Clara said. “I meant the other writers. Godwin. All those men. It’s a false equation.”

“But you sent it to the others, didn’t you? To the other members of the Karen Joy Fowler Book Club? What did they say?”

Clara shook her head, appalled.

“You didn’t send it to them,” Belle said. “Just to me? Or . . . perhaps they don’t exist, those others,” she said softly, squeezing the flesh of Clara’s thigh. “Perhaps there’s only me. Perhaps I’m the stowaway in your spaceship to Walden.”

“Stop it,” Clara said, pushing Belle away. Her rough, insistent touch. “Why are you being like this?”

“Like what?” Belle said, sliding closer, curling her tail, pushing herself against Clara in a mocking, vulgar way. “I just want to get inside you. Inside your pretty head where all the other women meet.” She began to herd Clara against the wall, to wipe her horn on the floor with a terrible scraping noise.

Clara told her to leave. She said that if Belle didn’t leave now, then she would go herself. She moved away, stiffened herself. Belle pressed her horn into the ridge between Clara’s shoulder and her neck, pushed the point in with a soft, ugly curse. The same word she sometimes cried out when they were lying together. Then she pulled away, gave Clara a sour and pitying look, and left.

Clara stayed in the library for some time, wondering what had happened, exactly. What had gone wrong. When she thought about it afterwards—when she had become a solitary wanderer—she decided that Belle had been frightened of what it meant for the love they made to be incapable of producing a future. That was the whole point of love, for Belle, for it to create the possibility of lineage. To gesture towards Walden, when in reality whether they remained in the ship or arrived at some fantastical destination made no difference. What did it mean, to save Alice, when there was no future into which she might travel? Or perhaps Belle had just wanted to humiliate Clara because she was frightened. Or was it all just a part of loving a woman, after all, some ordinary consequence of lying down together?

• • • •

A week later, there was a knock at the door, and Clara was sure it would be Belle. She had been thinking all week that Belle would call to explain herself, to ask for forgiveness, to say that she had been frightened, or even uncertain, and that the uncertainty had made her cruel. Clara had rehearsed their conversation in her head. She would listen, she had decided, patiently and kindly, though she would not forgive her lover too quickly.

But when she opened the door it was only her daughter, Alice.

“Belle sent me a message,” Alice said. “Your Belle. How did she even know my name?”

“I don’t know,” said Clara.

She had told Belle about Alice, of course. She had offered up the story of her lost, wild daughter as a kind of intimacy. Or in order to make herself seem more interesting, more strange and unfamiliar than she otherwise might have seemed.

“She wants to come and talk to me,” Alice said. “What’s the matter with her? What does she want?”

“We had a fight,” Clara said, wondering if that was true, after all.

“Does she want to punish you, by talking to me? Or have me convince you to forgive her?”

Clara shook her head. “She’s not like that,” she said. But she wasn’t sure if it was true.

“I’m going to meet her at the café,” Alice said. “It’s closed, but Belle says we can sit in the garden and talk. I’ll send you a message afterwards and tell you what happens.”

Clara tried not to pay too much attention to the time. Several hours passed. The day ended. She sat in the library, not reading the book they were planning to discuss at book club. She turned the pages one at a time, then in batches, going backwards, going forwards. It didn’t seem to matter.

It was almost morning by the time she decided to walk to Alice’s house. She had no idea what she would do when she got there, but at least the walking would give her something to do.

As she walked, she tried to remember, and silently recite, the lines of the rhinoceros sutra. Only fragments of the already fragmented text would come to her. She remembered that there was something about a kovilara tree that has shed its leaves. She could remember that one of the sutras was: Seeing the danger that comes from affection, wander alone like a rhinoceros. And another: Give up your children, and your wives, and your money, wander alone like a rhinoceros.

She walked down the long drive towards Alice’s house, which was lined on both sides with overgrown black bamboo. There were no lights on in the house. She could see that all the windows were open to let in any cool breeze.

Clara looked in at the windows and saw that Alice had left the children she cared for alone, and the doors unlocked. None of them woke and saw her looking in at them. Some of the creatures were unfamiliar to her; had they come from other reserves? Other continents? Were they all, like Alice, the last of their kind?

Clara found an open door at the back of the house and went in, closing it behind her. She lay on the cool stone floor of the living area. She lay still, listening to the snuffling and breathing of the children, until she heard the birds outside the house waking. She was stiff and tired. She got up and opened the front door, looking up the driveway for a sign of her daughter. Nothing.

She could not quite identify what she was feeling. She was restless, but wanted to be still. She was impatient, but did not want to hear what Belle and Alice had had to say to each other. She longed for the feeling she was already having trouble recalling, of being in the long, cool channel of the library. With light behind her, and light ahead, and this moment, this now, always just a thing she was passing through.

She went from room to room looking in at the children. How carelessly they slept, with the windows open and the doors unlocked. They lay tangled together, sleeping. So fearless. When had she last slept that way?

Alice appeared at the door behind her, looking in at the sleeping babies. “I told you they were beautiful,” she said.

Clara did not answer. She could barely remember the conversations they had had, so many years ago, about Alice’s decision not even to try to have children of her own. She tried to pretend that Alice had not come home yet, and that as the children woke—they were starting to turn and itch in their sleep—they would come to Clara, climbing up and over her. She would prepare breakfast for them, and watch them play on the wide back lawn.

“She didn’t say anything, really,” Alice said. “We had a bottle of wine and Belle said that she wasn’t sure what had happened between you, but that she hoped it would be all right again soon. She said she thought it was too late now, for any of us, to hold grudges or fall in love.”

She said. “Mum, listen. It’s nothing. It doesn’t mean anything. One day, you’ll forget her name. We’ll have to call her That Woman From The Café. We’ll laugh about it.”

Then, “Mum, what are you going to do? There’s nothing you can do. It’s done.”

One of the children came sleepily out of their room and leant against Alice, then clambered up onto her back. Clara smiled at the way Alice moved to accommodate the child; at how natural and easy it seemed for her to do so.

“I have to go,” Clara said. She felt disconnected from all of it, now that she had seen the house with Alice in it, and all the children sleeping so quietly together. All these years there had been a kind of wire connecting her to Alice. A twinging in her ribs whenever she thought of her, and what her future might contain, and now it was gone. Things were exactly as they were, exactly as they were supposed to be.

Clara never saw Belle, or Alice, again. She left Alice’s house and went home, walked through the rooms in which she had spent her life and did not recognise a thing. Even the library, with its walls of unread books, seemed unfamiliar.

So she left the house and started wandering, alone, like a rhinoceros.

The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club were due to meet in a few months’ time, and if she reached them, that was fine. And if not, that would be fine as well. She got a powerful sense of pleasure out of walking away. She was pleased with herself, with the controlled and deliberate way in which she managed it. She scraped Belle out of herself, all those tangled and uncertain emotions, and found that the hollow that was left behind was a good and simple thing.

She saw that she had been living in a false equation: She had believed, like Belle and all the others, like Janet and her husband, that love and futurity were connected. That without a future, love was no longer possible; without Walden as their destination, there was no reason to jettison the hatchling, and no reason not to.

But love does not require a future in order to exist. And the future exists, whether you furnish it with love or not. The second rhinoceros sutra, after all, was clear: Renouncing violence for all living beings, harming not even a one, you would not wish for offspring, so how a companion? Wander alone like a rhinoceros.

Clara turns onto an unfamiliar path. She has passed, finally, beyond the reserve. She does not think about the future, or love, as she walks through the waist-high grass, with its smell of summer and heat. Past the kovilara trees, past the view of the mountain washed in late afternoon light. She doesn’t think about Belle, or Alice, or her husband. The path is shaded, but warm. She can see where it disappears ahead of her.

As she wanders, she thinks about being in the library late in the day. The light from the forest lying complicated, shifting patterns on the floor. And herself, passing through, from one end of the story to the other.

Nike Sulway

Nike SulwayNike Sulway is an Australian writer. She is the author of several novels, including Rupetta, which—in 2014—was the first work by an Australian writer to win the James Tiptree, Jr Award. Her next novel, Dying in the First Person, will be published through Transit Lounge in 2016.