There are babies burning in her belly, two of them, being constantly infused with the fantastic chemical fear that comes with abstract guilt. Would the babies call someone “mother” or float along isobars as she had done, foster to foster ad infinitum?
Her apocrine terror leaks into the courthouse. They can literally smell her fear. Should she have called Victoire for the hearing? She has no jurisdiction beyond Quatchik County, and certainly not across the ocean from her home to France. But Laney feels something like love for the woman who has come, unrequested, to her rescue several times. She would be able to explain things, pare everything terrible down to an administrative error.
It had been Victoire that had placed her here, at an internship within the Assembly of Europe four months prior. Victoire who had determined that living as a heroin heroine under a bridge was indeed no life at all and wasn’t she a bit old for these shenanigans anyway? She had called around her old contacts in the Observer State offices to place Laney as far as possible from anything she had known. Victoire knew the Assembly, where she had interned at the Canadian Chancery and carved out a following for Caribou among euro-diplomats. She could find a place for anyone; she had found a place for Laney. But, alas, Laney will not call Victoire now. She would only be a disappointment to the poor woman.
All she knows is that she has no one to go home to. That Maître Topoglu is doing all he can to get her into an experimental nursery wing of the St. Kell Prison. That her new home will now be beating as two hearts deep within her to the rhythm of an unseen drum.
Nicky won’t come to see her, this she knows. He’ll forget her name, just like he did in front of the ethics panel from the Russian Federation. He probably already has. He’ll forget how hard he pulled her hair as she bent over the Norwegian delegation’s coats in the cloakroom. Her business casual heels had provided little friction for the thrusting; they were only meant to click and clack across mosaic tiling like horse shoes for a geisha.
Even as the head of the bioethics programme at the Assembly, with m and an e to show solidarity against American imperialism, he’ll never know the ins and out of paternal biology and how quickly one can conceive at the edge of 36, when ovulation becomes a desperate, spontaneous necessity.
No, Nicky the Programme Manager with hairy chest and a golden anchor charm worn around his neck, won’t come to see her or send her flowers. He’s from such humble roots, a farm boy with ambition. He surely won’t testify that she didn’t do whatever it is that one supposes she has done. He won’t mind that she’s going to prison, that she’s leaving this world. Perhaps he’ll live another two months, at which point he’ll be telling jokes that make his entourage erupt in such laughter that an aide in the back will crack a hyena peal. The laughter will be so sonorously comical as to accelerate Nicky’s heart and make him lean on a railing two stories up and quaking with glee. The railing will have been installed by a nepotistic contract employing a Romanian cousin, but it will not support the transformation of energies and prevent the free fall of Nicky, sending him to his death below. Perhaps.
But back to now. What is it now, exactly, that she has done? Visions, glimpses come back, but they are trails she can’t follow. In her mind, Nicky is already dead again, an object of his own folly. An accident of his own devices. She sees him there, plunging in slow motion, through the shabbily-constructed railing, through the air, through the veneer layer of tile to the powdery substance that flies up from the cracks in the floor.
Hide the body.
Clean the scene.
Crouch in the bushes when lights drive by.
The keycard. Shit, the keycard.
So maybe Victoire wouldn’t be able to call this an administrative error after all. Nicky, the farm boy who raised rabbits with his grandma in a suburb, would he help? No, she’s been through this. Nicky is here. Nicky is not here. Where the fuck is Nicky the Programme Manager when I need him?
She’s not wearing an orange jumpsuit like her incarcerated sibling in America. Her clothes look like clothes. But she hasn’t yet been approved for elastic in her underpants. Suicide risk they say, but Maître Topoglu is working on that.
The prison chaplain comes at random hours and seems an odd fit: a burly Indian who she doesn’t yet know can sing. Not enough French Catholic priests he’d said. They’re so happy I’m here. She’s thankful for an English speaker amid the riotous shouting that is now her life. He takes her into his office once a week. It’s important to remember, to record. But, what does he mean? Ancient Mesoamericans wrote their history on a series of strings. They kept records in knots, hundreds of strings, all across a continent; but with no key. No one knows what it means. But at least they left a trace. At least they told a story.
They’re back in a courtroom and Maître Topoglu is arguing now, clothed in the pomp of a black and white smock. “Your honor, she doesn’t understand what she’s done. She thinks he’s still alive. Laney Enders doesn’t believe she’s murdered Mr. Arbogast. She doesn’t remember pushing him in front of 200 witnesses. Doesn’t remember mopping his blood and dragging the body in front of fainting dignitaries. She’s living a delusion, your honor. Maximum security is not necessary, however consistent medication is.”
Her mind wanders to the chaplain and his portrait of the woman with stars around her head. She sits above his desk like a watchman. She’s the same woman who hangs in the courthouse, Europe presiding over the justice system. “What does it mean?” she’d asked. “What’s she for?”
What had the chaplain said? What had carried some truth through all the details of this hearing? His voice had come through like a tale from a period of more understanding. And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.
“But what does it mean?” she’d asked, she was sure of it. Sure she’d asked.
You can call it Revelation or you can call it Apocalypse. Verse 12:1. But you need to call it something. Carry it through. Tell a story.
She knows now as Topoglu gestures toward her blank face, reiterating arguments of innocence that no one will share. She knows she’ll hold those two things in her belly like the dollies she never had, wondering if madness runs in the family like twins. Hold them in her nursery cell built right over the ruins of Nicky’s rabbit farm. Maybe she’ll ask the chaplain for white ribbons to tie in their baby-fine hair. And what kind of stories will she read them in prison?
Clip clop, go the business casual heels.
Swish swish, go the key cards.
It’s a new day at the farm.
She lies half awake the day after the preliminary hearing. The actual trial won’t be for months and she already can’t sleep at night. She’s trying to remember the words of the chaplain, repeating what he’s said as though it will make more sense, when a commotion arrives down the corridor. Visitors on a press mission from the Assembly stream by her cell. They’re taking photos and scribbling notes until Nils Winter, the Secretary General and de facto Prison Warden himself has somehow commanded the opening of her cell and is now uncomfortably poised on her cot. He motions the photographers away and signals to his assistant, “Marten, I need a moment. No notes please.” Then he turns his attention to Laney. “What did you say about that chaplain, Miss? I don’t recall there being a chaplain at this site.“
“He calls himself Aunt Vicky. Strange, I know, for such a burly man.”
“Yes, I thought that’s what you said. I have an Aunt Vicky too,” he says now hushing his voice, his cornflower eyes trained on hers. He’s close to her ear now and smells like maple syrup. “She’s the strangest thing in the world. Well, perhaps not much stranger than telling a murderer in my prison about her.” He hesitates without taking his eyes off hers, running a million tiny calculations to determine if he should continue. “My Aunt Vicky is an animal, a fox. She glows blue at night and is terrible at keeping secrets. She’s trying to give the universe away, a half dream at a time. Does that sound like your chaplain, Miss…”
“Enders. Laney Enders, prisoner 6601. No, the chaplain is a person, not a fox. He looks like a person anyway, and his voice is like a song.”
“Miss Enders, I’m inclined to believe Aunt Vicky takes many forms, but carries the same message. In fact, I think I would be more surprised if you said she was your actual aunt and not a large Catholic prison chaplain from the Indian subcontinent. You see, my messenger, in all her florescent glory, let on that her form is dependent on her audience’s experiences from the last, um, how shall we define it…life. I remember this precisely because it was the information I was meant to forget in a middle-of-the-night gab with that not-so-sly fox.”
“Is this some sort of experiment? You’re in on it too? Because I feel like they’re drugging me here, making me see things and hear things.”
“From the corridor you’re in, I’d guess you feel this way because of a lack of drugs, a contrast to your former existence. This is a good opportunity to get clean for your babies. St. Kell’s detox program is excellent, it’s funded by the Assembly. If you’re here it’s because a transfer will be in order in a few months’ time. It’s lovely down there in the nursery wing. I don’t know how long you can stay. I mean eventually it becomes a conundrum of imprisoning the children, doesn’t it? But your case will be revisited several times. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves now.”
“I really think they’re giving me something; I can’t think clearly. I just feel so strange, so heavy.”
“Maybe you’re finally making peace with gravity. Or, like I said, you’re in this corridor for a reason. My staff are good. They can see the addiction that haunts people across lifetimes, in your case across continents. Is that an American accent that you’re wearing?”
“Yes, I…I came her a year ago. I didn’t mean to stay so long. I was working there, at the Assembly. I’ve served you coffee before, Sir. And I was once the person who handed a pen to the person who hands you pens.”
“Marten,” he says with the kind smile. “And I know. He told me about you. Someone finally killed that bastard, Nicky. I’m grateful, actually. He willed the land to me that you’ll be moving to next. Until he died, the prison nursery was in limbo.” He pauses and continues, “Anyway, pay attention to what Aunt Vicky tells you. I haven’t come across her in some time. Pay attention without trying too hard. You need to make yourself remember what she says.”
“You mean what he says. The chaplain is a man, Sir.”
Nils Winter rises to leave as Marten returns with word of a strategic photo opportunity down the corridor. “Just listen. Aunt Vicky’s words may be the only truth you’ll ever know.” Laney’s eyes follow the warden out the barred gate and nods her heavy head.
Over the next week, Maître Topoglu comes every second day, but the chaplain takes his time to return. Laney wonders if it’s because she’s finally sleeping again, and no longer getting trapped in the interstices between states of consciousness. Nausea now wakes her and heat pushes her out of her cot each morning. Her stomach has a firm spot where the twins are pushing against the outside, but not yet big enough for anyone to notice.
By the time her system is cleaned out and pregnancy hormones have taken over, she’s been appointed mopping duty in the hallway above hers. It looks identical, down to the details in the peeling paint, and she lingers at the cell just above hers. He’s in there. The chaplain is sitting in the cell as if it’s perfectly normal to have switched sides of the grate. “Aunt Vicky,” she says, her smelly mop quivering in hand.
“I hear you’ve been looking for me,” he says with a grin. He stands and pushes two metal bars apart to step into the hallway. No, he’s not leaving, he’s inviting her in. Before realizing what she’s doing, the bars are back in place, inflexible and peeling like the walls. It’s happened so quickly, before the mop has had a chance to fall to ground. They both watch through the bars as it clacks to the floor. Vicky is on the other side now, back in her cell, but a level up and close enough to the chaplain to smell the turmeric he’s been cooking with.
Laney, what do you think is down below?
It’s me, I’m down below, in my cell. Or maybe I’m here, I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore. My children will be born in prison, to a murderer. Isn’t that all that matters anymore? Does it really matter which floor I’m on?
Laney, I’m not talking about one floor down. All the way down, under the prison. What’s there, Laney? Are you there? Holding someone? Laney looks down at her hands, but now they’re twisting around the braided, knotty mop. The mop head is somehow drier, cleaner than moments before. It’s the Quipu. This isn’t another cell, it’s the chaplain’s office. Does the chaplain have an office? Laney looks from one angle and sees an exact replica of her cell, but she can also see the chaplain’s furniture, the painting of Lady Europe and something else. Two bodies, their fingers laced together in strobing blue light. She sees herself and Nicky. No, his name is Nico. But he’s the same. Standing over the pair are Warden Winter and someone else. Who is he?
Aunt Vicky echoes the question from her mind. Who is he? Do you recognize him?
“Should I? Is he my father?”
No, not in the way you’re imagining anyway, no. He’s older, a bit chubbier, but look at his eyes, Laney. Who is he? Who is the man from Argentina?
“It’s Nico. But…how is he Nico? How can he be both people?”
He’s been going down the longest rabbit hole with you, child. Dropped you right in so gravity could suck you down with him. The chaplain’s speech is changing with every word.
“Obviously, I don’t understand, Aunt Vicky. I don’t understand a thing.”
You weren’t made to understand, darlin’. You’s a tool. A sacrifice. But you got some ideas of your own. I don’t know how, but you do. See, Nico, he’s Marka Swandish. He’s Mo. He’s me. He’s even you. A thousand times back.
“Who’s Marka? Mo? I don’t – I don’t…”
Yes, you do. You know all of them folks. And they know you. But, they all came from somewhere else, from Nico. Far as I can tell, Nico read an article about inmate who used to be an intern at the Assembly, a scientist on the bioethics panel. Sound familiar? She didn’t have a name, but Nico was drawn in because she was imprisoned in the town his family was from, way back. This scientist, whoever she was, was trying to block a project on human brain simulation, worked with Andrei Soltanovsky, Carl Enders, the usual suspects. They knew about the project at St. Kell and tried to block it. Legally, at first. They took it to the European Court of Human Rights, but no one understood. Their case was thrown out and the rest of them got some desk jobs and the equivalent of tape over their mouths, but the woman ended up in jail. Maybe that was part of the plan. Went on hunger strike, that woman, until her big, beautiful ball of hair started to wilt. She lost her hair, probably lost her mind. But she got closer to the Vicki. Became an addict in there, exchanging potatoes with the neighbor boy over the prison wall. Started sending messages in those potatoes too. Messages about what needed to be done. Where to go, what to do. How to slay the bull. Well, the kid on the other side of the wall found the Vicki, but he didn’t destroy it. Not even close. He wrote about it online. He figured out how to turn the machine on, Sugar, just like you did. And he published that woman’s story just before he pulled the switch. Or at least that’s how Nico understood it. Everyone I make interprets things in such funny ways.
“Everyone you make?”
It’s too much for your simulated brain, child, too much to comprehend. But I make all of this. I be curious too. My machine’s a bit different though, doesn’t work the same way. But it creates. Makes things out of other things.
Raw materials. The things I know from the world I came from, the one I was made in. You can’t make a sculpture out of something you don’t know. You make it out of clay. Or stone. Marble. Not nothing. You can’t make something out of nothing, child. I made a simulation out of what I knew. Marka, that’s the woman in the prison, and she’s the closest thing I know to being me. She’s an extension of me, a better me, I guess. See, the problem with running a simulation using what you know is that you create a sim that will do the same. Nico turned that thing on. Made God knows how many different strings of possibilities.
“God knows? Do you know?”
I lost count, Sugar, but you can consider it infinite. And I’m sure each one’s got a bunch of curious characters lookin’ to do the same, thinkin’ they’re revolutionary.
“So I don’t have four cones in my eyes? Who ever told me that anyway?”
Laney, you don’t even have eyes. That’s the beauty of it, Sugar. Objects don’t have color, they just bounce light back and your eyes interpret it that way. Color doesn’t exist and somehow, you made more of it. Nico just loved that. And he just adores you, even though you’re part of him. He thinks he’s too creative to be cutting beef in Queens so he spends his days thinking you up. Thinking of anything just so he doesn’t concentrate too hard and slice his hand off as he makes the same cut all day, carcass after carcass. That’s what this is. All you’ve ever known is a fraction of a daydream in the mind of a bored butcher who may have had a family in France, way back when.
You think you’re the one trying to carry him through to whatever is next, but you got it all backwards. In one of trillions of strings, he came up with you and he can’t let you go, fold you back in. Maybe he met someone, learned something, who knows? But he has an idea of you and he wants to keep you just like you want to keep him. So what you turned on, he’s trying to destroy. He doesn’t have memory of where he came from, just like you don’t when you’re in those lives, those strings. All you know is that you have to keep following your track, pushing on just like a beam of light.
He tried thousands of tweaks to get you right. But you needed to be darker, so dark and empty that you’re a vessel, a black hole. Something that can absorb ideas, suck them in. You had to have a sister, a twin, and give her all your light to make you that vessel. But with that emptiness, all you can do is look back, wonder what might have been. Wonder what was missing for you so you can get it back.
“But I still don’t know what was missing.”
It doesn’t matter, child. It just matters that you are who you are for this short time. This split second that’s been divided umpteen times. Nico’s done it in this string, he’s made it come to an end. That car is about to blow, Laney, and you will go with it. You, Nico, the Vicki and those other two underground dreamers who think they’re alive.
“But what do you mean by Carl being Nico? I don’t understand how they can both be Nico.”
You’re built to recognize patterns, Laney. Look and you’ll see the underlying structure. Look at the bones in all those different faces. There are different skins stretched over the same truth. Nico’s inserted himself from another simulation, only earlier, so he could meet your dad. Make a difference earlier on. It took him awhile to perfect, but he needed you to be Carl’s daughter, the real Carl’s daughter. He needed Carl to make the Vicki. Nico wasn’t inspired alone. So he came as an Argentinian, which is pretty silly if you ask me. That’s all just because St. Kell or Strasbourg, wherever that kid came from was called Argentina a thousand years ago. The Argentoratum.
“In real life? Or in the simulation?”
Laney, I don’t if there is, or ever was, a real life. Everything I know could be part of something else. My version of the Vicki allows me to see into my creations, like I’m doing now. I like to give guidance, when it’s needed. I like to answer prayers, Laney. But I don’t know if anyone is listening to mine. What I do know is that you have a choice here, but you need to make it very soon. These strings of life are sliding by, heaving through the ether around you, but you need to look for them to see. Grab hold of one now. You’re still underground, child, holding that boy’s hand. If you think you can find a way to keep him, you’d better do it soon or you’ll be buried.
‘What do you mean, buried?”
Aint nothing below Strasbourg. Nothing underground. The Cathedral’s practically floating on water, held up by wooden beams plunged into a wet mess. St. Kell’s built on a flood plain, child. Try to dig down to find some truth, all you’ll get is wet. That’s just one of many things that a daydreamer in Queens couldn’t know.
“Aunt Vicky-” She starts and stops at the same instant. She’s in her cell. Hot, sweaty and alone. The wet sheet tells her she’s been here all along. A sing-song voice of a chaplain fades into the daylight, streaming through the bars.