The bonsai, a miniature banyan, is a little out of line. I move it an inch to the right, equidistant between the pen holder and the soapstone owl.
The desk is tidy. The shredder has done its work. Notebook and phone are slumbering with fishes.
They will go through the house with their unique brand of thoroughness. They may leave no sign of their violation; or they may leave a maze of a mess behind, stage-setting the post-mortem–an armed robbery gone wrong.
My throat feels as if I’ve swallowed a bagful of sand. I head to the kitchen for some water. Just a sip; I can’t afford a full bladder.
The sound of a vehicle rips the night’s silence. I wait for it to stop, disgorge. It races past. Silence shrouds the night again.
Why did I go to the park? Would I be working on a mathematical dilemma now or reading a book or sleeping, had I not taken fate’s fork to that wasteland of trees?
I drink the water, one sip at a time. No, the park wasn’t the turning point; it was a landmark on the road.
Invisibility—attribute of gods, desirable to man—held no fascination for me. What intrigued me was its antithesis, a visibility so potent that nothing could conceal it.
I mused about it in the university journal, a light-hearted commentary on the possibility of creating a material that would defeat every attempt at concealment. A material visible through any covering, natural or manmade. I called it The Über-visibility possibility.
Two weeks later, Colonel M, the governor of the province in which the university town was located, called on me.
He came unannounced, except for a perfunctory knock on my door. I was working on a research document and looked up expecting to see a colleague or a student.
When the tall uniformed figure strode in, clicked his heels, and closed the door behind him, I understood the meaning of that standard cliché: my heart fell to the floor.
The colonel smiled. There was nothing gloating in that smile. It was a normal smile, as though he was so used to my kind of reaction from everyone whose privacy he invaded, he had ceased to see anything abnormal in it.
He wished me a good morning and handed me a sealed envelope. He pulled a chair and sat down, telling me I should read the letter now.
I tried to pick up the letter opener and realized the meaning of another cliché: my fingers were all thumbs.
Five thumbs mangle-opened the envelope, revealing a single sheet of paper: a paragraph, a sentence, an invitation: the president will see me at 5pm today.
Today: October 26th—I knew what the day was supposed to hold, a lecture at 11am, a lunch appointment at 12.30pm, a tutorial at 3pm, a lecture at 4pm.
Life’s ordinary doings must vacate the stage when confronted with the extraordinary.
The Colonel stood up, clicked his heels again, walked to the door, and held it open.
“The helicopter is waiting,” he said.
Throughout the ride, and the long wait for the appointed hour, I wished I had brought some music or a book, wished I could get a canapé or a cake past my dry throat, wished I could stop drinking glass after glass of iced water.
Most of all, I wished I could stop remembering the grainy photos of the man and the woman who had been my colleagues, who vanished one ordinary day, reappeared months later in a conspiracy trial, and vanished again into whatever black hole those guilty of unspeakable crimes end up. I clung to the knowledge that when a petition asking for clemency for my former colleagues landed on my desk, I sent it away unsigned.
The water was weighing on my bladder. I hurried to the visitors’ washroom. Behind its closed door I felt safe. Then I thought of hidden cameras, of someone somewhere watching my desperate struggle against a recalcitrant button, and had to clap my hand over my mouth until the bile returned to where it came from.
The beetle browed, bespectacled and mustached visage was familiar. I saw it almost every day, everywhere, papers, television, posters, internet, books…
But seeing it in flesh and blood was another experience.
My first thought was that he was old. In the pictures, the salt and pepper hair makes him look distinguished, ageless. Face to face, you see what pictures hide, a hint of a wrinkle, folded flesh rising above the shirt collar. And behind the ever-present tinted glasses the shadow of a squint.
The President smiled, making an expansive movement with a muscular hand, indicating the three chairs facing him across a table that was full of papers, yet orderly.
He expressed the hope that I was well looked after by his people.
My yes didn’t sound like a yes even to my own ears.
He leaned back against his chair. “I read your recent article.”
That was when I noticed the magazine on the table, open at my piece.
My thank you sounded quite like a thank you.
“A fantasy, Sir,” I said.
“When I was a boy, many of the things we take for granted now would have seemed like fantasy.” He chuckled, a strangely high-pitched sound. “Professor, my life’s work is to forge a new future for our beloved motherland. In that task, I need both practical men and men of vision. I have enough of the former but not enough of the latter. That was why I was delighted by your piece.”
I stared, trying to make sense of the words, failing, floundering, lost.
The President nodded. “We are busy men, Professor, in our different ways. Let me come to the point. I think extra-visibility is a great idea. I want you to set up a committee of experts to study how this visionary concept can be turned into a useful reality. And I want you to head this committee. Money is no problem; neither are non-monetary resources. My secretary has already talked to the university. You will be given indefinite leave, fully paid of course. And for this project, you can name your own salary.”
Is this what drowning feels like? I wondered, this sense of being submerged by a force of nature, helpless, hopeless.
“Let me reassure you, Professor, that I don’t believe in politicians trying to control experts. In the pursuit of this project, you will have all the freedom you need. I have only two conditions: speed is of essence and so is secrecy.” He pushed his chair back soundlessly, got up and held out his hand. “I wish you all the luck.”
I stood up, my chair creaking even against the thick carpet, clutched at the table edge with my left hand, and held out my right.
The blue sea runs until it meets the blue sky.
I wanted to say the words out loud. I didn’t, because they sounded trite, and I wasn’t alone.
“The sharks come almost up to the beach,” the President said. He sat straight in the rattan chair, an incongruous figure in track bottoms and t-shirt.
I nodded. Over the last three years, I had become an expert in the art of conversing with the President. He often made remarks for which he didn’t expect an answer. He never did that in his office. But here, at his retreat, a headland shielded from curious eyes by the ocean, a river, a lagoon, and a carefully tended wood, he allowed his iron control to relax, to be himself.
“Some more tea, Professor?” The President never used my name. He never used the full names of any of us working on Project Ü. It was always Professor this or Doctor that. His tongue would linger on those academic handles, as if they were the icing on a cake.
I accepted the tea, even though I didn’t want it. That was another unwritten rule, when the President offered you tea or sandwiches (watercress or mango-pickle), never refuse.
The President refilled my cup and watched as I struggled with the tongs, almost dropping the cube of brown sugar on the pristine white tablecloth.. “Anything on your mind, Professor? Nothing wrong with the project I hope?”
My fingers gripped the bone china handle. “No, no.”
“The first test will happen as planned?”
He leaned forward, friendly, confidential. “A personal matter then? You need something? Money perhaps?”
The words rushed out. “It’s about Dr. K’s pension.”
The narrow forehead creased. Beneath the bristly moustache, the thin lips morphed into a straight line. “I hear his wife is becoming a problem.”
“His widow, Sir,” I said, replacing the still full cup carefully on the saucer.
“An unfortunate accident. He was rather inebriated at the time, I hear.” The President chuckled. “Drunk as a skunk was what the police chief said.”
Forty one days ago, the wife-turned-widow sat by the coffin, straight and tearless, telling each visitor, “He never drank.” A mantra, a challenge.
I tested each word before allowing my tongue to say them out loud. “His death was a shock to her. Sir. She’s not in her right mind. You know what a bereaved woman is like.”
The stare continued, like the sea, until it reached whatever place it was going. “I know what women are like, my dear Professor. That was why I didn’t want any involved in this project.” He shifted the heavy gold wristwatch up and down. “She was a radical during the university years.”
“Everyone’s a radical in university, Sir.”
The colorless eyes swooped on me. “Were you, Professor?”
“No, no. I had no time for politics. I…”
He smiled. “Exactly. I chose to trust you with this project not only because it was your idea, and you had all the necessary qualifications. Expertise is important. But loyalty is the only indispensable quality. I don’t mean that you have to sing my praises. All I ask is that you don’t oppose me. Do you understand the difference?”
I gulped and nodded.
“I fear this lady was exerting pressure on her husband. Wasn’t he asking too many questions in the last several months? Didn’t he visit you at home to ask you how the extra-visible paint will be used? Didn’t you tell him that was a question for politicians and not scientists?”
There was a vein of fire in my throat.
“My advisors told me that he should be eased out of the project. I was reluctant. He was a brilliant physicist. His only fault was not picking his wife carefully.” He stood up. “Death erases life, so it should erase life’s mistakes as well. I will advise my secretary to attend to the matter of the pension. I hope the lady will forget her delusions and devote the rest of her life to her fatherless children. I have some work to attend to, but please Professor, do sit and enjoy the view.”
I didn’t sit again. Once he was gone, I walked up to the shade of an ailanthus and stared at the sea, no longer calm, a little restless.
“Are you waiting for the sharks, Professor?”
Colonel M loved cats and walked as silently as one, boots notwithstanding. He was the liaison between the president and the committee, the link between the experts and the paymaster.
I half-turned, the sea still in my eyes. “Why would sharks come here?”
“For the same reason birds come to a bird feeder.” He laid a hand on my shoulder, light, friendly, and something else. “You won’t see them now. They come only at night.”
‘ I frowned. “Do sharks feed only at night?”
He shrugged. “The helicopters come only at night.”
The first test was an eighty percent success. Success seemed within reach. A second test was scheduled for later in the month.
The accident happened in between. It made headlines, the tragic death of the widow of the noted physicist (who died four months ago in another accident) and her two children.
The funeral was a scant affair. The family, her parents and his brother, looked as if they too had been hit by a mega cement mixer. The mourners stood in ones and twos, avoiding each other’s eyes. Not a word was said, only an occasional sob. No viewing, because there was nothing left to view. A brief religious service then straight into the merciful fire.
I stared at the four men carrying a coffin that just one of them could have lifted.
Three plus one is four.
The attendants closed the door of the crematorium. The handful of mourners scattered like leaves caught in a vicious wind.
I clutched my umbrella and joined the hurrying herd. It wasn’t raining, but the sky was gray, funereal.
A sandwich bar drew me in because it had artificial light and people safe in their own ordinary worlds. I bought a cheese sandwich, but my gravelly throat turned eating into a kind of torture.
Three plus one is four.
Did someone mutter that accidents were kinder? Who? Where?
Was it me?
The waitress eyed me warily. I wrapped the uneaten sandwich in a paper serviette and went out, allowing my feet to take me wherever they wanted.
They took me to the park.
The park had been abandoned some years ago, because the municipal council lacked the funds for its upkeep. It was now a square of wilderness at the edge of this university town, all symmetry obliterated by a profusion of branches, leaves and vines.
Did she ever come here recently?
She would have loved this wilderness.
Three plus one is four.
Forgetting, that was the true cue to happiness.
I pushed my way in, found a reasonably intact seat, and sat down, dumping the umbrella and the cheese sandwich beside me.
Did we sit on this very seat?
Three plus one is four. Or is it zero? All gone, vanished, empty?
A rustle made me turn, to see a bushy tail vanishing into the undergrowth.
A dog or a fox.
There is no life without forgetting. Only death. A cement mixer, for example.
Four plus one would be five. No, four plus one would be zero. Why see, when blindness is beguilingly safe?
I forced myself to get up. I’d go after the dog or fox. Walk about in this wild place until I was calm. Then go back home. Forget the past. Live in the present. It has served me well all my life.
“You care only for figures,” she had said in parting, kissing my cheek, and then laughing, “Mathematical ones.”
Did the President know? That day, when he mentioned her radical university days, did he know?
What was there to know? A moment of light in an infinity of dullness? A starburst of chaos in an otherwise orderly universe?
The sound brought me back, high-pitched, like the President’s chuckle, a bark, not a laugh.
I stopped, realizing the meaning of yet another cliché: rooted to the ground.
The fox stood, barring my path, barking. Behind it was a child. A girl, raggedy hair, dirty pinafore, eyes as wild as the park. She clutched at the cheese sandwich with stubby fingers.
Small, like the last of the three coffins.
My feet turned into wings. I fled.
“What went wrong?” The Colonel’s cheeks were flushed, his eyes dilated.
I met his eyes. “That’s science; things go wrong all the time.”
“The paint was supposed to be indelible. It can be as extra-visible as hell, but if it goes off at one rub, what’s the point?”
“Depends on how you mean to use it.”
His eyes narrowed. “In whatever way necessary.”
“Why the sudden interest, Professor? You never wanted to know before, and this is the time not for questions but for answers. If I were you, I’d focus on giving the paint a little more permanence.”
“It’s not vulgar curiosity. If I know what kind of surface it will be used on, for example paper or human skin or- Oh!”
The Colonel’s fingers closed on my arm, like a vice. He bent his head, until the cinnamon scent of his aftershave clogged my nostrils. “You are not a bad man, Professor. And I like you. So let me give you some advice. Stop asking questions. Stop thinking. Just do the job you were hired to do.” He turned on his heels, strode ahead, and stopped saying over his shoulder, “And stay away from funerals.”
Life went on.
The park was cleared for a multipurpose development project, mall, offices, apartments, restaurants, cinemas. Trees felled and taken away. Homeless trees, homeless fox, homeless girl.
Three plus one is four plus two is six…
How many trees?
Is a continuum countable or uncountable?
The third test replicated the results of the second test, with minor variations. The Colonel stared, first at the blank spot, then at his stained finger, stood up, and left.
Everyone else followed.
Two days later, I applied for leave to attend an international conference. My application was refused.
I could have run then. But I had heard enough about the uncertainty and the squalor of fugitive existence to know it was not for me. Our options depend on who we are. I was a mathematician who made an unplanned turn and tumbled into a parallel universe of non-accidental accidents and shark-feeding helicopters.
I continued to work, ignoring the way a room would fall silent when I entered, the eyes that never met mine, the stares that always followed me, so sharp that they felt like arrows on my back.
I worked harder than ever, counting every minute spent on eating, every hour spent on sleeping a waste.
Professor, my life’s work is to forge a new future for our beloved motherland, the President had told me the first day we met.
I too had a future to forge, a future not of presence but of absence. After all, what is mathematical life without zero?
When I left the lab last evening, I had no doubt about the fire. I knew it would be more than enough to pay my debt.
I just hoped it would stop there.
The doorbell chimes, one polite ring, reassuring in its normalcy. I wonder how many people open their doors, lulled by such rings, only to confront monsters clad in everyday working clothes and expressionless faces.
I walk to the door ignoring the books I will never read. On the wall, the landscape of Van Gogh’s final self-obliterating madness watches me.
I look through the peephole. Two men with forgettable faces stand under the porch light.
Panic hits, a visceral blow. I think about making a dash for it. Only for a second. I am a bad runner. And no one will come to my aid even if I manage to reach the crowded parts of the town. People have become adept at not seeing what they are not supposed to see. And in many a paradise, there is none more invisible to the good subject than the traitor.
I should know, because not so long ago, I too was a good subject.
I open the door wide, for the jasmine-scented night, and for them.
The two men stand where they are. From the outer darkness, a third man steps out. A hand falls on my shoulder, light, friendly, and something else.
“The helicopter is waiting, Professor,” says the Colonel.
Sam Muller loves dogs and books, and spends much of her time trying to save one from the other. Her work has appeared in the Truancy Magazine, Deep Magic, and Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores among others.
Author of “Once Upon a Night”
What inspired you to write this story/poem?
The times we are living in. I grew up in a time and a place where democracy was taken for granted to such an extent, it was boring. Now the world is heading in the opposite direction. Democracy, our basic rights as citizens, are being challenged in the unlikeliest places.
In a land that has moved away from democracy, how would a good operate? What would it take for a good subject to move away from her/his shell of denial. What makes a person comply with what is unjust? What makes a person say enough? There is no formula, as far as I can gather. Think of Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984. He betrayed himself and the woman he loved because of his phobia of rats. Something so banal, yet so elemental. Saying yes and saying no, it is an intensely personal choice. But I feel that the desire for redemption for wrongs done or rights not done would form a part of the motivation. I wanted to explore these questions through fiction.
What do you hope readers take from this story/poem?
The importance of keeping the democracy others had won and given us. It took centuries for democracy to become a fact of life. It was a long struggle, and a hard one. People died for it. We are aware of how difficult it was for women to win the vote. But we often forget that universal manhood suffrage too was a long slog, and a deadlier one. Then there is the importance of remaining citizens, of not allowing ourselves to be turned into subjects, not to cooperate in our own degradation.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story/poem has been through?
I can’t remember the number of edits, no less than 10. Where submission was concerned I was lucky because it got no rejections. But this is the exception to the rule. I’ve had between 10-15 acceptances in 5 years and uncountable rejections. If I received a dollar for each rejection, I’d be rich.
I think this process is so subjective, it’s a bit like falling in love. The only thing to do is not to be disheartened by rejections but to keep on trying. I often lay aside a story that has been rejected a few times, then return to it after a while. The time lapse changes the way you read it. The importance of beta readers cannot be overstated. I’ve been fortunate in having a number of very helpful readers including someone who had remained my critique partner for almost five years.
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
The news fascinates and scares me. Many of the arguments you hear in opposition to democracy and in support of moving away from it are rehashes, once regarded as defeated and interred. Still, here they are back among us. That shows that every advance we have made can be challenged and lost.
I want to keep on exploring some of these issues through the medium of fiction. I’ve completed two stories. One is this one. The other one has received one rejection and is under consideration by two e-zines. I’m working on two more stories. If I can I’d like to build up a collection of fiction and non-fiction pieces. But that is a long way away, almost a utopia.