The Garden of Extinction
Sometime—in the night before her departure—Kedu finds herself awake. The moon, pale as a curl of melon rind, hangs in a sulfurous sky. Kedu slides her feet into her clogs, makes her laborious way to the door. She does not bother to turn on the light. There is enough of it outside as it is, casting its poisonous glare through the glass walls onto her furniture.
Her studio lies at the far end of the corridor. An interminable distance. Kedu puts her head down, concentrates instead on traversing each gray tile beneath her feet. One. Two. Three. Her walk is barely a shuffle; it infuriates her. She had always been a quick woman, a dasher, a scrambler, but the medication they prescribe has made her slow. Or perhaps it is not just the medication. She had begun to feel it recently, the weight of her years. She grinds her teeth, takes another few steps. Seven was it, or eight? It is as though her feet are shod with lead.
She shouldn’t even be awake. The fools must have miscalculated, she thinks, and the idea arouses the old rebel in her, sends a thrill scampering down her spine.
At last she reaches the door. She rests, worn down by the agitation of her heart, its painful deceleration, and then forces herself onto her tiptoes to peer into the lock. The retinal scanner whirs a weary welcome. Be quiet, she orders it. Wouldn’t do to have anyone else here, not now. Certainly not that obese nurse who speaks to her as though she is a child, but manhandles her with subtle cruelty. Horrible creature. Let him slumber on.
The door slides open. Kedu hobbles in. Shadows mottle the floor, like the corpses of slain ghosts. The world is full of them. She navigates her way between their dark shapes to her desk, where a painting, her most recent work, lies. Kedu puts her glasses on. The sketch will never be finished and, perhaps because she must say goodbye to it, she finally recognizes its flaws, all the things that once eluded her. But this is not what summoned her in the night. She turns from the work and opens the right desk drawer, pushing her hand deep inside, over all her antique things, her paintbrushes, and pencils and inkstones and curling, faded photographs, until her searching fingers encounter silk.
She tugs at it. The textbook is wrapped up inside, very snug; the whole package is not that easy to extract, and as she does so, the drawer creaks, an awful, strained bleat, which makes her heart thrash in her chest. And then the parcel is free and on her desk, like a rectangular swaddled baby.
Kedu unwinds the scarf. It once belonged to her mother, and although it has been in Kedu’s possession for five, maybe six times as long, it has never relinquished the influence of its original owner. She drapes it around her neck, sliding the fabric between her knuckles. The silk is as soft as a moth wing and quite as fragile—a jagged hole mars a corner; the fabric is literally disintegrating. For several long seconds, Kedu just sits there, allows herself the luxury of being once more her mother’s daughter. But it is not her mother, or even her childhood, but the book that clamors for her, that has broken her sleep in the darkest part of the night. She straightens her shoulders, turns to face it.
Insects and Diseases of Rice Plants in Japan by Akira Kawada. Her dear old friend. Not Kawada, of course, he was a ghastly brute, but the book, the book itself. She opens it up at random, discovers a frangipani, still moon-white, pressed between pages 61 and 62. She turns some more leaves. Ah, here are cherry blossoms, some perfect, others fluttering to dust. And there, a few pages on, purple violets with tiger-yellow eyes, collected in the mountains. She smiles. The beginning of her affair with Murakami. Making love on a mossy rock; him stopping halfway to rhapsodize over a nearby anemone. “Darling, don’t,” she had cried. “Please! Don’t!” But he had clambered off her regardless to take a photograph, his pants around his ankles. What a fool.
Some of the flowers still harness scent. She lifts the book, flares her nostrils, inhales. Outside, she can just make out the glowworm glimmer of the Sk*eyes™, their zigzagging patrol above the vastness of the conurbation, then notices with surprise the sudden roar of the aerial interconnector between Tokyo and Wellington. Why does she hear it now? The white noise of the world is so engulfing she is ordinarily deaf to it.
“I hope it is quiet up there.” The words manifest aloud and the raw, unfamiliar sound of her voice comes a shock. Her throat convulses, contracts into a fist.
Of course, it won’t be truly silent. There must be pollinators—insects, animals, or versions thereof—but who on Earth knows? There is no official information available. No research. No contact. And yet how many people, her people, have made the journey? Countless, including Murakami, who left soon after their brief liaison, dancing up the gangway of the container ship on his little feet. He was charged with a rare violet plumeria. When she said goodbye to him, he was carrying the seeds in a vial around his neck. She waved him off from the viewing deck, recalls the sun glinting on that little metal bottle. What else? Oh yes, she was wearing a yellow straw hat.
“Soon you will join me,” he had said in that final embrace, but she had seen the pity in his eyes. Or at least, she imagines she saw it. It was so long ago, and she remembers so little about him. She counts on her fingers. The smell of verbena on his fingers. The mole on his right shoulder, slightly furry to the touch. That perfect anemone, hanging like a luminous yellow sun in dankness of the forest foliage. His pale backside.
Will he be there? Somewhere overhead? Or is it down? The stars and their incumbent planets look alike from the ground. Invisible. Would he even remember her? Ah yes, she recalls now, he had called her his “loam-soled lover.” He had fancied himself a poet. A sound, like the rush of dead leaves across tarmac, bursts out of her. All that is left of her laugh.
Outside, toward the bay, an interplanetary ship begins its searing ascent into the sky. It barely appears to rise at first, and she finds herself mesmerized by the violence of its amputation from the Earth, its baptism in cloud. Tomorrow that will be her. That uprooting. The grip on her throat tightens further. She shakes her head. No point in getting maudlin. What the hell is there here for her anyway, except the lackluster ministrations of her nurse? She must think ahead, as she always has. To the Garden.
She tugs her stool out, eases herself down, and turns another page in the book. Here is a flower from early in her life. A rare, tiny orchid, a flattened dragon. This one she had discovered with her grandfather on one of their excursions. Long, black socks pulled over her knees. Jiji’s butterfly net jutting out from his shoulder—a single, quivering antenna. Jelly-filled jars, for cuttings, chiming like bells within his backpack. It was he who had told her about the Dryad Project, about the Garden. How it hung amongst the stars, remote, undisclosed, on which every extinct plant thrives, a celestial ark, pulsating with bio-flora no longer even imagined on Earth.
“Is it real?” she had asked him. “Really real?” And he had said, “Yes, yes, my darling, it is real as you and me, a beautiful, blue, living dream among the gas and rocks and dunes and dust and lifeless light.”
“And will I see it?”
“If you are chosen,” he had told her. “And only the most deserving are.” He had lifted a strand of hair out of her eyes, smoothed it behind her ear. “It is like in the old legends. The garden is guarded by angels. It is a paradise in the sky.”
Jiji was summoned three days before Kedu turned eleven. Her family was overjoyed; they released one hundred white lanterns toward the darkening horizon. She sat on the hillside and watched them, those ethereal lights sailing to their demise over the sea. The hill pulsed with the fragrance of wild garlic (oh, why had she not thought to save a flower for her book?) and cricket song, and, in the euphoria, her birthday was quite forgotten. She did not care. Jiji was gone and her heart was so heavy she could barely breathe.
This was when she began to suspect she was made of different clay. When others felt joy, she felt despair. What they accepted, she challenged. Not verbally, of course, that would be unthinkable, and she was barely conscious of her dissent; instead it manifested itself as curiosity. She longed to see where he had gone.
And so, on the day she reached her majority, she got up early, caught the Transport into the Hub, and signed herself up for the Honorable Flight List. And then she had waited.
She had never imagined anyone could wait so long.
Kedu swallows. She has never been a weeper. Water is to nourish, not waste. She turns another page. Dandelions. She touches a finger to their crisp, tiny petals. These are later memories, after Jacques; after he had come into her life and then left, following Jiji, Murakami. Ten years. Ten years in a sea of years when she had been almost happy. There had been a moment of hope, then, for the forests and the oceans. For the old multiplicity. She and Jacques had worked tirelessly. She had decoded species, saved what she could. So what had come between them? She wracks her brain, remembers him sullen, drinking, his long, white legs stretched out. Her. He had been unhappy with her: with her success, her looks, her disinterest in him.
“You don’t care for me,” he had whined, but what he meant was, “You don’t cherish me. You don’t elevate me above yourself.”
She touches the dandelion again. Funny that. That she now understands. I was not the best of wives.
She had not been the best at anything except her research, and in that she had excelled. She had been like a conjuror. Quadrupled the growth rate on wheat. She had fed the ever-growing populace. Why, it was due to her breakthrough that the End-of-Life date had been legally extended—to three hundred seventeen years! Double the previous allotment. All those living souls, nourished with her grain, her A-anion™ varietal. They were like her children, she supposed. She gave them life. And yet, ironically, she had never actually been a mother. Hadn’t wanted children. Hadn’t wanted anything domestic, to be honest. It had all been about work. Work, work, work. No wonder Jacques had left her, gone ahead.
She opens the book again, at random, and a Rosa banksiae, the color of her yellow hat, falls into her lap. She stares at it. Where had she picked this? Her mind is playing tricks on her. And then it comes back in a rush: Micou, her little sister—they must have collected this together. But where was it? She cannot remember. The fist in her throat again. She will not think of Micou, of Mama, and their conscientious objection. How they had chosen the old way. She had begged them to relent. Gone down on her knees and implored them, but they had been so stubborn. Perhaps she might have forgiven her mother, but Micou had been so young, so brilliant. It had seemed almost selfish. The way she had let nature take its course. Abandoned her only sibling.
Kedu closes the book with a bang, shoves it aside.
She does not know how much time passes, but at last the toxic glow of the mined moon dips below the horizon. Kedu glances at her console, at the time. She should be getting back to her room. Soon they will be coming for her. She reaches out a hand, hesitates, then pulls the book in close again, presses it against her chest. All these years she has waited for her summons, but now that it has come, she finds she is weak. Oh, it has taken her a long time, a lifetime, an extended lifetime at that, but she alone understands what the summoning involves. It has taken her years to work it out. No. No. That is not true. She knew from the beginning. When Jiji departed. When she was left with silence. She understands that now. She just hid that knowledge away. Wrapped it up in the carpentry of her heart.
Jiji. He had taken his butterfly net. His butterfly net! She cannot help herself; her dead-foliage laugh bursts out of her again. But maybe they were the lucky ones? After all, she thinks, they lost nothing. They feared nothing. The words of the song come back to her.
And the fools went first,
shooting like fireworks into the sky.
Murakami with his pitying eyes. Jacques. All those botanists. Those scientists. They had been so triumphant. So proud. They had had no inkling. None of them would have done what they did to the Earth if they had not been brainwashed to believe in the Garden. They were like children building sandcastles, she thinks. Stamping on their creations with joy because they could simply construct another one. But it was all a bluff. She is sure of it. A paradise? Oh, for Heaven’s sake! She starts to laugh again, gasping now for breath. They had inherited Paradise! The Garden was a fraudulent insurance policy, not worth the paper it was written on. And being sent there was not an honor. It meant you were expendable. And she has not been expendable, until now.
* * *
She wraps the book up and slides it back into her desk. Perhaps the fat nurse will find it. He will inevitably go through her things. Maybe he will learn something, but she doubts it. He lacks a recalcitrant mind. No, he will report her contraband all right, her illegal flora, but by then it will be too late. She will be gone, for soon, very soon now, they will arrive in a cavalcade, and she will be escorted out to the middle vehicle. She has already decided she will not bring her cane. She will walk out, down the path, with her head high, past the empty beds where, two hundred years ago, her campanula still grew. She will not let them take her hand. She will maintain the fiction. She will not let them know that she knows. She will be handed her Originals. Then they will drive out to the peninsular, where the Pod awaits, gleaming like a golden egg in the dawn light. She will be stripped down to her bare flesh. She will be purified. And as the Pod rips its way into the sky over the fiefdoms of engineered soy and maize and wheat, over her golden empire of A-anion™, she will carry those seeds inside her, buried deep in her dust, her water, into Jiji’s deathless sky. And for as long as she can, she will tell her seeds about their new home, about the Garden. She will tell them where they came from and how to flourish. She will exhort them to be brave. And she, Kedu, will be brave too. She will surrender herself to the dream, and she will find strength in it, as she has always done.
About the Author
Sam Grieve was born in Cape Town and lived in Paris and London prior to settling down in Connecticut. She graduated from Brown University and has worked as a librarian, a bookseller, and an antiquarian book-dealer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous magazines, including A cappella Zoo, Daily Science Fiction, PANK, and Southern Indiana Review. Stories of hers have been recognized as Notable in The Best of American Nonrequired Reading 2014 and she won the Broad River Review 2015 Rash Award for Fiction.