Bones Placed in Apposition

~ A. P. Howell

Featherstonhaugh glanced upward at the old State House. Lukens’s new four-sided clock was an impressive feat of engineering, but there was something to the criticism of its legibility at a distance, especially when the sun was bright and the viewer’s eyes less sharp than a young man’s. The steeple’s white paint stood out brilliantly against a cloudless sky, and the clock confirmed Featherstonehaugh was on time for his appointment. He crossed Chestnut Street, avoiding horse droppings with an ease borne of extended periods of urban living.

He stood now in the heart of Philadelphia, which was—or at least had been—the heart of the new country. On the corner, City Hall bustled with the thousand and one tasks necessary to maintain a city of eighty thousand souls. When Featherstonhaugh had first arrived in the city, the Supreme Court had but lately relocated to the new capital, and the locals had often lapsed into calling the building the “old courthouse” or “new city hall.” Across Fifth Street sat the Library Company of Philadelphia, soon to be celebrating its centennial.

Featherstonhaugh’s destination was a brick building standing proudly beside City Hall on Fifth Street: Philosophical Hall. One of many noble institutions shepherded into existence by Franklin and like-minded contemporaries, the American Philosophical Society was a jewel of American intellectual life. It was devoted not merely to the acquisition of learned volumes, in the manner of the Library Company, but to expanding knowledge on all manner of subjects.

This was a worthy goal in general, but particularly necessary in America. An entire continent of mysteries laid waiting for discovery and documentation. As rich as European intellectual society might be, correspondence could go only so far. Home-grown intellectuals were needed to advance knowledge, solve problems particular to the United States, and make use of its natural resources.

“Good afternoon!” Hays called as Featherstonhaugh stepped inside. He waited on the second floor, leaning against the banister and looking entirely comfortable in this temple of learning.

“I am most happy we found a mutually agreeable time.” Featherstonhaugh did not whisper as he ascended, but pitched his voice politely low. A murmur of voices from behind closed doors indicated a university class in session or some other consultation. The other man had not precisely been rude—especially if he happened to know the other conversation was of little consequence—but Featherstonhaugh chose to err on the side of propriety.

Hays was a medical man in his thirties. Featherstonhaugh understood he had formerly been involved in his family’s East India trade, but had apparently found himself ill-suited to the work. He had developed something of a name as a natural scientist and had literary ambitions, having already produced writing in the medical field. He was unmarried, a fact Featherstonhaugh could not help but look upon with a hint of suspicion and pity. He wondered a bit at the temperament of a man who had not yet settled into matrimony.

By Hays’s age, Featherstonhaugh had been a new father, married for half a decade. Memories of Sally still pained him. Thoughts of his boys brought forth painful details of the girls’ final days. Instead, he considered Charlotte, her genteel upbringing and charming Virginia accent.

Languages had always been among Featherstonehaugh’s interests. If not for his fascination in the subject, he would not have come to America, would not have settled here (settled: that was true, and infinitely safer than met Sally). He would not have met Charlotte with her charming accent and the youth that was lost to him, and would have neither needed nor found a second chance at domestic life.

Thoughts of mortality brought him round to the reason it was Hays ushering him into a second floor room, and not the author of the article that had caught his interest.

“I am sorry to have missed Godman’s lecture, and sorrier for his passing,” Featherstonhaugh said. “He had been ill for some time, I believe?”

Hays nodded. “But though it did not come as a surprise, he still passed too young. He will be missed. His mind is a great loss to the medical community, and to America’s natural historians.”

“His Transactions paper piqued my interest. A new genus and species of elephant . . . it is a bold claim.”

“So Harlan says,” Hays noted. “He also believed he described Lewis and Clark’s Iowa fossil adequately, before I corrected his work with my Saurodon. He cannot be said to understand reptiles, for all the words he writes on the subject, much less mammals. And were Godman here, I am certain he would remind you of the man’s plagiarism.”

Featherstonhaugh shrugged, suspecting that Godman would have a good deal more to say on the subject of Harlan. Philadelphia’s natural historians’ opinions about one another were no less passionate than their opinions on scientific matters. “That is why I wish to see the specimen myself. As masterful as Peale’s illustrations may be, there is something to be said for direct observation.”

Hays unlocked a cabinet. “The vertebrae, ribs, and bones of the limbs are available for your examination as well, and may be of interest since illustrations did not accompany Godman’s article. But you are no doubt here for these.” Hays carefully transferred the skull and jaw fragments to a table.

The largest intact section of the upper jawbone was seventeen inches in length. Five inches of upper tusk rested within their sockets, with another twelve inches exposed on the right side and ten on the left. A good seven and a half inches in circumference where they emerged from the socket, the tusks did not begin to narrow to a point until the final four inches of their length. The patterns of wear had been represented to a fair degree of accuracy in Peale’s illustrations.

Featherstonhaugh paid particular attention to the lower jaw, the formation of which had so strongly captured Godman’s attention. It was indeed dramatically elongated at the extremity, the angles more rectangular than the curvature he had observed in other mastodon specimens. A full three inches of tusk rested in the socket; the exposed portion, about one inch in length, was covered with black enamel and ended with a spiral twist. He pressed a thumbnail into dry, grayish bone of the tusk and felt it yield.

“It is similar to the mastodon,” Featherstonhaugh said, “as Godman himself noted. The wear upon the milk teeth reveals only surface enamel, as in the mastodon, not the elephant . . .”

“Not any elephant heretofore known,” Hays said.

Featherstonhaugh continued to examine the lower jaw. “They are, without doubt, milk teeth. Godman is certainly correct in his assertion that this is a juvenile animal.”

“Yes, that is quite clear.”

Featherstonhaugh frowned, more at the prickliness creeping into the other man’s tone than at any feature of the long-dead animal before him, and squinted at the sockets of the tusks. “The elongation of the jaw is indeed interesting.”

“If I may.” Hays reached into a pocket to produce a pair of spectacles. “These may be of some use.”

Featherstone set the jawbone carefully upon the table. “Do you mean to insult my observations? Or have you invented lenses to ease the work of natural scientists?”

“More the latter,” Hays said, in pale imitation of Featherstonhaugh’s attempted jocularity. “I seek to work at the forefront of ophthalmology. Our eyes fail, whether through disease or age or mischance. But with research, skill, and the proper diagnosis and intervention, what has gone wrong may be put right.”

Featherstonhaugh took the spectacles, always interested in the state of scientific advances. The frames were wire, functional, and sturdy; though hardly fashionable, neither were they unnecessarily unattractive. The lenses themselves appeared well-made, which was unsurprising with the resources at Hays’s disposal. With a casual examination, Featherstonhaugh could not discern the lenses’ intent; there was none of the distortion one might expect in a pair of spectacles made to correct either far-sightedness or myopia.

He hooked them over his ears, expecting the blurriness of wearing another’s spectacles, but his vision remained unchanged. If not for the visible wire of the frames within his field of view, he would not have known he wore them. He wondered if this was some joke of Hays’s, or if the man’s skill did not extend to lens-grinding. But Featherstonehaugh’s concern about politic statements were rendered moot.

Hays lifted the upper and lower jaws, one in each hand. This seemed unnecessarily cavalier: though the lower jaw was only one foot in length, the upper jaw was half again as long and further unbalanced by twelve inches of tusk. Featherstonhaugh wondered if he was to play witness to a careless loss to natural history and a strike to Hays’s reputation.

But Hays proved dexterous and settled the jaws together as they would have met in life. The right side of the head was, as promised in Godman’s text and Peale’s plates, in excellent condition. Held together, Featherstonhaugh could see the animal as it would have been in life, a youngster more kin to elephants than mastodons, and utterly (if subtly) distinct from all other known species. Tetracauldodon mastodontoideum.

He imagined layers of muscle and flesh and fur, tendons snaking between bones, those jaws opening and closing. He extrapolated the rest of the body, and after that the effects of maturity. But for whatever mischance had killed the beast, it would have grown to adulthood. He could picture it striding across the continent with its fellows. This one had died in Orange County, and why would it not have roamed Featherstonehaugh’s old estate? Tromping over hills and fields yet to be planted, a place where one day a house would be built, sheep imported, fields tilled . . .

Featherstonhaugh blinked hard at an incipient headache. He removed the spectacles and rubbed his eyes. When he opened them, his vision was doubled. Two identical sets of bones, one belonging to an elephant and one to a mastodon, were superimposed upon one another.

He blinked again. His eyes began to focus properly, as though a film had been removed. Hays still held the bones, but they were only that: the bones of a long-dead creature, shattered and incomplete. They told a story to those who knew how to look at them, but not nearly so interesting or vibrant a story as the one he had just seen.

He folded the spectacles closed and placed them on the table. Though dizzy, he did not fall.

Hays watched him with evident concern, but Featherstonhaugh was not prepared to assume the other man had his best interests at heart. “The right side of the head is, indeed, beautifully preserved.” There was a tremor in his voice. He swallowed and the action or the pause proved helpful.

Hays set the bones down once more. “Do you wish to continue your examination?”

Featherstonhaugh followed the other man’s gaze, not to the bones but to the spectacles. He had the inkling that Hays cared little for his opinions of the ancient animal. “No, thank you.” His voice was steadier, at least. “Having seen the specimen, I will look at others to compare. Perhaps I will return later.”

“Viewing evidence with fresh eyes is valuable,” Hays said.

With an effort, Featherstonhaugh refrained from shuddering and beat a passably dignified retreat. He kept one hand on the curving banister. He was lightheaded, as though untethered. He feared that he might slip and smash open his skull, or that he might float away entirely.

Hays, chatting politely, seemed infinitely more embedded—in his body, in this city, in this reality. It was a preposterous illusion, of course. Featherstonhaugh was no less real than the man beside him. And though he had been born across the ocean, though his family was not part of Philadelphia society, though he was only part of New York society by virtue of his marriage, he had no less right to occupy this place than Hays.

And yet it was Hays who remained within Philosophical Hall, and Featherstonhaugh who walked away.

The State House clock showed how little time had passed, how little time was necessary to shake the foundations of one’s world. But the clock also served as a reminder of its maker, Lukens, and his crusade against Redheffer’s spurious perpetual motion machine. It had taken time and effort for Lukens to build a machine that proved Redheffer’s a fraud, but prove it he did, and in this very city.

Featherstonhaugh took a steadying breath. He did not know what Hays had done—yet. But he had some guesses as to why he had done it. The cliques of Philadelphia’s intellectual community were well-known, and those alliances could be stronger than the allegiance to truth which every man of science ought to hold dear. Misguided loyalty was bad enough; engaging in fraud was far less forgivable. Featherstonhaugh was not by nature a particularly forgiving man, and he had no intention of letting Hays win the game he played.

It was not merely an affront to natural history, but to Featherstonhaugh personally. To conjure forth a nonexistent creature, to suggest that it had walked the same hillsides as Featherstonaugh himself . . . The image was, suddenly, quite unbearable. He could almost feel the erasure of some essential, if hitherto unknown, aspect of his old estate. A juvenile mastodon, that was right and proper. That belonged to the far-distant past of the place where he had raised children and imported the best agricultural products.

Featherstonhaugh meant to prove that elephants had never meandered across his old estate, or any other part of the continent. The days of Tetracauldodon mastodontoideum were numbered. He was a geologist, well-positioned to argue the truth of the matter.

As he walked, his determination and confidence grew. He had no destination in mind, but took great comfort from the cobblestones beneath his feet. No matter what he had seen—or thought he had seen, or been forced to see—the stones were real. The very bones of the continent were real, and he meant to understand their true shape.

Knight of Cups

 

A. P. Howell lives with her spouse and their two kids, sometimes near a lake and always near trees. She has a master’s degree in history and her jobs have spanned the alphabet from archivist to webmaster.

Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of places, including Daily Science Fiction, Little Blue Marble, Martian: The Magazine of Science Fiction Drabbles, Translunar Travelers Lounge, In Somnio: A Collection of Modern Gothic Horror (Tenebrous Press), and Los Suelos, CA (Surface Dweller Studios). She can be found online at aphowell.com or tweeting @APHowell.

 [ issue 7 : summer 2022 ]

Reggie

~ Nathan Batchelor

The sound coming from the guitar amp was interference, I told Maggie, opening the door of the closet where we kept Reggie’s things. The smell of him was still here. Pencil lead and the lightest touch of mole. You could never get that scent out of a man born in mole country.

“It could be spies,” Maggie said.

“It’s not spies,” I said.

“Russian spies,” Maggie said. “or Chinese.”

“This is Canada, hon,” I said. “We’ll check the radio stations. What we’re hearing is sure to be from there.”

“Still, Boston is close. There has to be important things there, right?”

I kept hearing the click of her tongue ring, while I dug through Reggie’s things. Here was a medal from a 5k race, third place, just a year ago. Here was his undergrad thesis, titled The Composition of Dung Balls in the Canadian Dung Beetle. Here was a photo of him as a child, pushing a mole on a swing set, the mole’s face set in fear. When I asked him about it, he said the mole was so scared that he snapped the chain with his grip after the photo was taken.

“Do you want me to help?” Maggie asked.

I forgot sometimes I had no hands. Birth defect. One arm ended at the elbow. For the other, there was a wrist that terminated in a ball of flesh without fingers. I had learned to manage, and with some setup could do just about anything someone born with two hands could.

“Go ahead,” I said.

It gave me time to think. I hated puzzles, at the same time, it was the most excited I’d seen my daughter since she’d stopped helping me make cookies, before she wore black lipstick, before I found the scars on her arms.

Moving the amp around did get rid of the interference. That was enough for me, but Maggie, like her father, had to know what the interference was.

After she’d dragged out the boombox, we sat around it in the living room and clicked from station to station.

“It’s none of them,” Maggie said.

This wasn’t something I could let go of. My daughter was growing away, doing things her father never would have approved of. I needed this. She needed this.

“I’ll ask at work,” I said.

“But you teach anatomy.”

“I still have friends in other departments, Maggie.”

I hardly knew anyone in the physics department, except for Dr. Blagg, who I knew because we were on the committee for students with disabilities. He stared at equations of gravity all day, but he would know enough to help us.

On Monday, I found him in his office, aroma of chalk and coffee. His pants were spotted with white handprints.

“It’s not spies,” he said, after I explained the situation to him.

“Of course, it isn’t. But will you come look?” I asked. “Please,” I must have sounded a little desperate. “For my daughter.”

He came Friday evening. He squatted by the amp with his ear next to it. Maggie sat on the edge of the couch with a notebook, writing, though I knew not what. They looked ridiculous. There was some part of my heart that tugged for Blagg. I had made him dinner and was prepared to entertain the notion of some kind of unspoken gift, perhaps a brush on the arm, a date, even a kiss. He wasn’t a bad looking man. But he hadn’t expected any of that. Nor did he seem all business. He seemed to take an interest to Maggie. Asking her questions about her life that seemed to excite her. Something I had not done in a long time.

“What are you doing?” I asked her.

“Trying to write down what they say,” she said.

“They?”

“It’s more than one person. Can’t you tell?”

I couldn’t. I wasn’t even sure that the sounds were even human.

“I’ll be back,” Blagg said. “I can’t hear anything either.”

He came back with an electrical device from his car. “We’ll just hook this up to the amp. It’ll record the sounds. I’ll clean up the audio this weekend.”

After he left, I washed the dishes, the sound of laughter extinguished, nothing but the hum of the air conditioner. The silence bothered me so much that before I went to bed, I turned the amp on for a little while. But I could make out nothing.

When Dr. Blagg didn’t call on Monday, I wasn’t worried. He was a busy academic. But he wasn’t there for the committee meeting on Thursday either. Later, when I called him, it went to voicemail. But when I called the secretary of the department, she had said he had missed no classes. I prayed nothing was wrong.

When I asked Maggie if she had figured out what was being said, she said nothing, but in a curious way that would set off any mother’s alarm. After she’d gone to bed that night, I browsed her notebook. She had written a script out of the noise. Speaker one and speaker two. Syllables and words randomly placed. There was a single word circled. Dad.

I didn’t feel anger, so much as sympathy. There were stories of children acting out fantasies about their dead parents, but I had thought my own Maggie would be immune. The therapist said her turn to darker things was nothing but a phase, that I should support her in whatever she wanted to do, even if it wasn’t something Reggie would have agreed with.

“People change,” the therapist had said. “Perhaps he would ask her what she wants.”

I doubted that’s what Reggie would have wanted. I put the notebook back where I left it. I would call the doctor in the morning.

 

“I really don’t want to say,” Dr. Blagg said when I’d finally tracked him down on campus. “It’s not certain at all really.”

His feet were slanted away from me, and when the lightest rain began to fall in front of the physics building, he started to walk away. I followed him. I had not brought an umbrella. They were awkward to use without hands.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “Are you saying the message is some kind of secret thing?”

“There’s two options,” he said. “Either you’re in on the joke, or you’re not.”

“What joke?” I said. “I’m asking you honestly here, as a mother concerned for her daughter. Why can’t you just tell me?”

The wind picked up and blew his combover erect.

“You know I’ve never been able to smell the rain,” He said. “Everyone knows when it’s coming. Except me. I’ve never been able to.”

He wrote an address down on a notepad and handed it to me.

“This is where the signal originates. Perhaps it’s some relatives of his playing a joke with your daughter.”

“Relatives of who? Reggie?”

He nodded. “You’ll have to ask your daughter how she did it. Beats me why she’d go to such trouble.”

It wasn’t until I was back in the car that I looked up the address. It was in mole country.

 

I waited for Maggie to get out of school that day. I hadn’t picked her up in years. There was a new section on the school, one I didn’t recognize. When Maggie came out, it took me a minute to pick her out among the other kids. She walked like her father’s sisters, a bounce in her step that reminded me of Judy and Nancy, who both lived in Chicago. Not at all like the girl she had been, years before.

“Where are we going?” she said.

“Mole country,” I said. “For the weekend. Where your father grew up.”

She smiled.

The problem with mole country was that the maps barely help. Roads end and begin without reason. Roads may be horse trails, service roads, or abandoned mole tunnel toppers. And when you forget to download the maps, like I did, only the gray and green spaces greet you. When my phone lost service a hundred kilometers away from any major highway, I pulled over on the side of the road.

Maggie sat on the top of the car with her jacket off. It was warmer here, and the trees were not yet completely naked of their leaves. We had seen a mole walking up the road, a bucket on his arm full of apples, resting on his cane as he paused to peer at our car. Maggie had watched him with the requisite amazement.

She held the maps while I tried to match up the roads between what was on my phone and the map we’d picked up at the first gas station in the province.

“Not to be mean, Mom. But shouldn’t you be better at this. You’re a professor and all.”

“There are a lot of things I should be better at,” I said. “But you’ll just have to deal with me.”

I was losing my patience. This place wasn’t dangerous. The rumors of people being lost and eyes being harvested by the moles were exaggerated. There had only been one case of that, nearly a hundred years ago. Reggie had told me in detail, as his adopted mole parents had told him. It was better for her not to hear of such stories. That would only make things worse between us.

“Do you think a mole will try to take our eyes?” she said.

We sat in the car a long time before I decided to go into the convenience store. I left Maggie there. She was still fuming from an argument we’d had about where to go. I let her know that I was just inside, that there was pepper spray in the glove compartment. We hadn’t taken the self-defense course that long ago, and the instructor said Maggie was a natural at combat, which had bothered me at the time, but now I felt thankful.

“Hello?” I said.

There was a mole wedged between two shelves, the top half of his torso inside the hole in the ground, just like, well, a mole. It was every run-down shop in every run-down mole town. The musky scent. The cellar door, where moles who preferred to travel underground could enter and exit. Two aisles worth of monocles, glasses, and lorgnettes for the nearsighted creatures. Spiced strips of flypaper swaying in the breeze from the buzzing air conditioner. The sound or tremor of my steps must have alerted the mole. His butt wiggled.

“What? You finally find that flathead screwdriver?” the mole with his head in the floor said.

“No,” another voice said, this one much older, feebler. “We got a guest, Paul.”

I hadn’t seen the mole behind the counter, straining his eyes out of disbelief at this woman without arms standing in his store in the middle of nowhere. His fur was coal black. The lenses of his glasses were as thick as they were round.

“Be right with you,” Paul said.

“That’s okay,” I said. “I don’t mean to interrupt. I really don’t need anything at all. Just some questions.”

The mole behind the counter clicked his tongue. Was that a mole message? Perhaps a sound of warning. I wished I had come here more with Reggie. Though he had never wanted me to see the place he grew up.

“You some kind of cop?” Paul asked.

“She doesn’t have any arms,” the older mole said.

“Well, that don’t mean she can’t be a cop, Mason,” Paul said. “Mr. Sudduth had his legs cut off in the war and he is a cop.”

“Was a cop,” the older mole said. “Died last winter. Cancer.”

“No, I’m not a cop. I work at the university. In Toronto. But I knew Reggie,” I said, hoping their eyes would light up in recognition, thinking the stories were true that everyone in this part of the country knew each other by name.

I repeated Reggie’s name, the full one, mentioning his adopted parents, his sisters. “He was my husband.”

Mason’s head swiveled. I glanced back at the car. Maggie’s feet were up on the dashboard.

“He’s the one hit by the car, right, Paul?”

“It was a truck. Reggie was Leonard’s cousin,” Paul said.

I didn’t know a Leonard. I found myself holding my breath. Then caught myself. How foolish to think these moles would know something of Reggie’s death, something that would tie things up in a pretty bow.

“Weren’t you there, Paul?” Mason said.

Paul stopped wiping his hands on a rag black with earth. I couldn’t tell if his hands were getting cleaner or dirtier.

He looked at me, then back at the old mole. “Say miss, would you care for some fly juice?”

There were chairs out back, hand-carved from mud like they sold in the department stores in the city, except these were the real thing, chairs shaped by powerful mole hands. I worried that my pants would get dirty, but Paul reassured me. Awkwardly, he handed me a soda. I had passed on the fly juice. He pointed to the chair. A delicateness in his hands reminded me of Reggie.

“It won’t dirty you up,” he said. “The chair, I mean. You coming, Mason?”

“To hell with your breaks. Someone’s got to work,” Mason called through the open door.

Paul sipped his spiced fly juice.

“I saw the truck pull out, strike your husband’s car on the side,” he said. “I was working on the subterranean road at the time. Volunteer Tunnelers’ Association.”

“I’ve heard of it,” I said.

“It was about noon. I was on break,” he said. “My eyesight’s a lot better than that old mole in there. Vitamins.”

“It was a mole driving,” I said.

He licked his lips and rubbed his eyes. “It was.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that,” I said. “The driver’s name was Arthur. Did you know him?”

“There’s lots of people I don’t know around here ma’am. Maybe it’s better if you just say what you came to say.”

What had I come to say?

“I’m sorry,” I said. I had offended him. “My daughter has found something.”

He leaned forward. I explained the radio signals, the amp. I thought I droned on, but he never looked away. He never looked at my arms either. He never seemed to notice my disability.

“You say the signal is from here?” he said.

“Yes,” I said.

“That would make some kind of sense.” He rubbed his chin. “We are spies after all.”

I thought I had misheard. I felt an unease in my chest.

“I’m joking,” he said.

And then laughter came bursting out of me.

He said, “Would you like to see him?”

“Arthur? The man who hit him?” I said.

“No. Your husband,” he said. “Well, what’s left of him anyway.”

Reggie’s sisters had identified his body before my plane returned from an academic conference. I only saw him after the morticians were done with him and only from the neck down.

“It’s better this way,” his sister Judy had said.

It was dark in the tunnel with Paul. The musty smell was overwhelming. Chicken feed, dried corn, tubs of sawdust and stacks of firewood glowed green in the sight of the night-vision goggles he had given me.

“I kept it in here. Things last longer inside the Earth,” he said setting aside what must have been some kind of mole scarecrow.

After he turned on a light, and I removed my goggles, he offered me a ball of something. Teeth, hair, pencil shavings protruded from a something that resembled mud.

“What is it?” I said.

“I found this at the site of your husband’s wreck. I was wearing headphones, and they were picking up some noise. Voices I thought. But when I came back here, the sounds had stopped.”

Paul flipped on what looked like a baby monitor. I could hear voices under the static.

“Maybe this is your signal. I never put it and your husband together until you came in. I just thought it was some trinket thrown out a window,” he said. “Perhaps his presence amplified the signal somehow. Perhaps your presence works the same way. Yes, that must be it.”

I thanked him, though I knew he was caught up in a kind of mole superstition that Reggie and I would never believe in.

“If you want, I can let you talk to the Matron. She’d know more,” he said.

“But what is it? Why do you say this thing is him?”

“It’s a dung ball,” he said, “made by beetles. But I figure he made one. Probably not with dung or it would stink to high heaven. But it’s probably his teeth and stuff there.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. He studied beetles but he wasn’t crazy.”

“Maybe he wasn’t crazy. Maybe it was something he believed in. I don’t know what else to tell you,” Paul said.

Maggie was in a better mood when I returned to the car. We stopped at a diner run by moles. The food was so greasy I could barely eat it. She picked over mac and cheese.

“The trip isn’t completely wasted,” she said. “Do you know where Dad lived?”

“He would never tell me exactly,” I said. “He was ashamed.” I was suddenly not at all hungry. “Let’s go home.”

“But I’m still eating.”

“We’re leaving,” I said.

I almost threw the ball away then. Reggie wouldn’t carry such a strange thing. He wasn’t the kind to carry things. He even hated carrying wallets. And I knew enough of physics to know balls of dung didn’t give off radio waves.

I would put it away with his things when I returned home. The ball would serve as a reminder of the danger of wishful thinking.

If the signal was still there, I was going to get rid of it somehow.

That night, after Maggie had gone to bed, I switched on the amp. I marveled at the setup Maggie had made around it, almost an altar, with pen, paper, headphones, cups of coffee with just slivers of black in the bottom. I heard no voices, no interference.

I drank wine to celebrate. I put the ball away in the closet with the rest of Reggie’s things and went to sleep. Some part of me would miss the adventure, the bond with Maggie. But this had all been myth and circumstance.

Then the next morning, when I came downstairs, Maggie was sitting on the couch, the amp was on, and voices were coming out of it. Clear voices. Mine and hers. We were arguing.

“What will we do with Dad’s body? Bury him?” Maggie said.

“Yes,” I said.

“Again? This has to mean something.”

“There is nothing else. There is no meaning.” I said.

I was screaming. I barely recognized myself. We had never had that argument. I shut off the amp.

“Mom?” Maggie said.

She was holding the ball of dung in her hand. I slapped it away. She drew back, eyes in a way I’d never seen them before. Not showing horror, but anger, enough to coax tears from her eyes. She stomped away. I had underestimated her. She had seen the dung ball, had snuck into my room to get it.

I turned on the amp and sat in the floor. But when I moved the ball, the noise cut away. I couldn’t take this. I called 911. But when they asked what they could help me with, I didn’t say anything. There was no one who could help.

But perhaps there was. By the time Paul said, “Yes, That’s what we’ll do,” the police officer was knocking on my door.

Paul had given me night-vision goggles again, though these fit worse than the last pair. The Matron’s blankets ensconced her and gave her the impression of a child. She was small, withered, and the hairs on her head were like vines spiraling out of control. Paul said she must be more than 200 years old, but I’d had trouble believing it. Until I saw her. The frailness, the scars on her arthritic hands where men had cut off her claws years ago, in bits of history Canadian humans would like to forget.

“Raise me up,” she said. Her accent was thick with the old mole language. It took me a moment to understand.

Two girl moles, teenagers I thought, perhaps only a little older than Maggie, pulled on pulleys weaved of roots. Then the old mole was staring at me, or perhaps she was totally blind and feigning a stare.

“What’s the problem?” she said, turning to Paul.

“She’s found a dung ball,” Paul said.

“My husband, he died and now there’s a dung ball that—I can’t believe I’m saying this—is broadcasting some kind of message,” I said.

Her eyes turned on me with the judgment only old lady moles are capable of.

“A singing ball of shit,” she said. “And I thought I’d heard everything.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I came because I don’t know what else to do.”

“What do you think is going on?” she said.

“I think he left a message for us,” I said. “Somehow the dung ball is… him or part of him.”

“Then what do you need me for?” she said. Her old face cracked, and a smile formed among the wrinkles. Her arm touched mine. Her grip was so powerful. “It’s okay. You’re scared.”

“But why is this happening?” I said. “Is it because he was raised by moles?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “We merely collect things. Maybe it’s not the fact that he was raised by moles, maybe he is special.”

Out of all the things to leave a message of. An argument about a body we’d never seen. Out of all the ways to leave a message. A ball of dung. Perhaps the sounds coming out of the amp were his last thoughts. Yes, that had to be it. But he thought about us arguing? Why?

It was long after midnight that I returned home. I sat the ball down atop the amp and went to the kitchen. When I came back I saw, slumped against the overturned amp, Reggie’s body, wearing the same clothes he’d worn the day he died.

It was as if some joke had fallen flat. I felt empty. Reggie’s body looked so livid. He looked as if he were only asleep. The ball of dung was gone. Of course, I didn’t understand, but I realized, like his death, I was past the point of understanding.

I wrapped the body in sheets as best I could, and picked up the phone, but how could I dial any number? Who could I call? Instead, I crept upstairs. Had Maggie seen him? She slept soundlessly. Of course not, she would have called someone, if not me, then the police.

I didn’t know what I should do. If I should call the cops myself and have the body taken away, or if that was precisely not what Reggie wanted. Instead I lay there on the couch, glancing from the amp to the body wrapped in sheets, until I fell asleep.

It felt like I hadn’t slept at all when I woke. Maggie was sitting in the floor in front of the amp.

“It’s gone,” Maggie said. “I’ve tried moving the amp everywhere and the signal is gone.”

Then she sniffled and said, “What will we do with Dad’s body? Do we bury him?”

“Yes,” I said, reflexively, not even catching what I was doing.

“Again? But this has to mean something.”

I was already standing. My jaw wired so tight, I thought if I opened my mouth a scream would emerge that could shatter the world.

But I looked over to the body. I thought of the words of the matron. And then I think I saw my daughter for the first time since Reggie died. There was some magic here. This did mean something. What, I wasn’t sure. It was just out of reach. Instead of screaming, I opened my mouth, and words of understanding came out.

“What do you think we should do, Maggie?”

When she looked at me, I knew something had changed between her and I and what was left of her father. I knew what the message meant and why he had left it. He wanted Maggie and I to get on with our lives, no matter how incomplete we felt without him.

“I don’t know. But maybe we can talk about it.”

Yes, I thought. That’s exactly what we’ll do.

Knight of Cups

 

Nathan lives in and writes fiction from Columbus, Ohio. He has sold more than a dozen stories to magazines across the world. He is currently in a creative writing MFA program at Ashland University.

You can find him on twitter @NateBatchelor.

 [ issue 2 : spring 2021 ]