by Daniel Ausema
I first saw “The Constructs Foresee Their Doom” as a teenager growing up in Taenil Heights, still a good neighborhood in those days with even a few living branches scattered among the dead streets. So, like other privileged girls at other privileged schools we took a trip one year to the great art museum in the Pahl, uptree from the ritzy shops of Upper Marbol.
The cable that had run directly from Taenil Heights to The Pahl was already shut down in an early sign of our city’s decline. So we had to walk downtree to Mnessil, on the twisting stairways, to catch a cable car across. Crumbling manors gave way to smaller homes, to tight-packed shops with apartments above them, but the sharp metal spikes of the railings didn’t change. How those nuns watched us, their little chicks, as we marched from the station through the oil-covered cable yard and into a car. I remember noticing the thick rust on the cables as we climbed in and wondering if the cable would snap. It was idle curiosity, maybe even desire. Not fear.
The air filled with black smoke and the smell of burning oil as we pulled away from our tree and across the open air toward the Pahl. The bass roar and punctuating shrieks of the car made it hard to talk, but most of the other students tried anyway. I did not. I pictured our car lying below in the waters of Beyond, smashed liked the limbs of Fallen Crown. I tried to imagine what position my body would end up in down there, beneath the shallow water.
The cable car took us directly to the front of the art museum. Houses spread around the tree beside the cable station, buildings much like those in Taenil Heights only larger and kept in better condition. They were old, though — each one could have been a museum in any of the other neighborhoods; here they housed the useless ranks of minor ministers.
The actual museum stood out from the trunk, curving around out of sight of the branch where we disembarked. Its façade was towering, ancient and decayed. It stood right in the groin of a branch and the trunk, but the front extended well out onto the branch with a simple rectangular structure that bored us even before we had seen the first piece of what our teachers considered “art.” Several of my classmates managed to slip off into the shadows of the other houses, waiting to go downtree to Upper Marbol and its quaint shops and dangerous boys. But the nuns caught on before many could escape. They ushered us inside.
Most of the art there was old, passive, decaying. Maybe not literally rotten — though my mind seems to remember a distinct smell of moldering wood, an odor I would expect in Ironwood or Stump, not in the Pahl — but artistically, philosophically as stagnant as the waters around Fallen Crown.
Not that I would have said any such thing at the time, but even as a teenager I knew I didn’t like them. I was looking for something more. So while my classmates disappeared down side hallways to kiss each other or strangers, I wandered the endless halls of paintings.
Soon I was deep below-trunk, into passages few people walked, though I saw a couple of selichi, their pencil-thin bodies bending around the corner ahead of me. When I turned the corner, they were nowhere in sight. Instead my eyes focused on a single painting that alone occupied the left-hand wall.
Four figures stood on a narrow branch, three conversing with each other and the fourth, with its back to the viewer, seeming to look off into the distance. But these figures were not people — not humans, not selichi, not even ratites — though they had human heads. Their bodies were nothing more than frames made of metal. Oil glistened at their shoulders and pelvic joints, a drip from one forming a black pool in the wood at their feet, and rust tarnished their limbs.
The three appeared so deep in conversation that they failed to notice a creature climbing among their limbs. The creature reminded me of a squirrel, but far too small to be the kind of domestic squirrel that the ministers of Droyess ride about their neighborhood. And yet it didn’t quite resemble the smaller wild squirrels either. Maybe it was a construct as well, and its fur hid clockwork parts.
It seemed to me, though that the creature was a danger to those constructs, that this was its importance among them. It showed their fragility there on the branch, the frailty of their rusted metal parts.
But after all, it was the constructs themselves that most struck the teenage me. There was so much more to the painting, but my eyes always came back to those constructs, and later they were all I could recall.
They were exactly the way I saw everyone around me, with their oblivious heads and mechanical bodies. Every one of my classmates blindingly did whatever was expected of them — if not by the adults, then by whatever persona they had adopted — and all teachers, my parents, every adult I knew did just the same. They rusted, their lives leaked away, and they knew nothing.
But even more, I knew it was me. I was falling also into their mechanical pattern of life, the me I knew dying slowly, turning into a construct like these. I looked again at the title. It didn’t look to me like they foresaw anything, but I did. It was not too late for me to do something about it.
• • •
I survived on what little I could steal, selling it for Iron Twigs or simply bartering it directly for food.
But now I’d learned of a miner who came into some money and moved not far downtree from where I’d grown up. I never knew where the money came from and never cared, but I decided to pay his house a visit.
I made my way to the only cable car station in Fallen Crown, where citizens gather every day hoping to escape. The officials stood at the head of the line, questioning each of us. I slipped in behind a tall ratite with the build of a dominant male of their species. He looked at me with his beady eyes, then turned his beak back forward.
The line dragged as the day warmed and we stewed in each others’ stinks. The officials rejected far more than they accepted, letting through those few with legitimate proof of work outside and a handful of others — for no reason any of us waiting could ever determine. But every day the gamblers gathered hoping it would be their turn.
Finally the ratite in front of me stepped forward to the waiting official and I took a deep breath to free myself from the tang of ratite feathers. That was a mistake. If I had expected clean air, I was disappointed. The stink of Fallen Crown sparked a coughing fit that only ended when I stepped up to the young official who had just dismissed my ratite friend. The birdman shot me an angry look as he walked away, as if my coughing had prejudiced the official against him.
The young official smiled when I stepped up, not a pretty smile in that disproportioned face, but I smiled back. We knew each other. More than once he had stayed in whatever house or bed I called mine when his duties kept him in Fallen Crown overnight. But he was being watched by a pompous minor minister, so we pretended I was getting through for legitimate business.
The minister looked me over, his eyes lingering well below my face. But he said nothing as I walked by him and into a waiting cable car.
When the car was full, it pulled away with a rusty screech. The cable — just as now, the only one out of Fallen Crown — went directly to Ironwood, which made for an easy route to Mnessis, just uptree from there. I walked the climbing streets as one neighborhood shifted into another.
In Mnessis I waited until dark.
Did I worry about being observed? No. Unless you go to Droyess or the Pahl, the police don’t even notice one more lost person on the branches, even today. So much has changed, but not that.
The miner’s house was large, nice by miner standards. Although larger dwellings lined the thick limbs through there, the lowest on the tree, he had chosen the prestige of a house built against the actual trunk, which suited my plans. Like most buildings built into any of the four trunks of Boskrea, it had its decaying corner. I simply had to find where the wood had rotted sufficiently and break through, a quiet enough job in most parts of Boskrea.
But when I stepped through the hole I’d made into a darkened hallway, there it was, the painting.
In the light of my handful of glowing fungus, I studied the painting that had turned me from a respectable doom to the life I now led.
What struck me first was how little the figures now seemed. In ten years they had grown in my mind to encompass most of the canvas, but now I saw how they only filled a small piece of the whole, even if that piece lay near the center.
The light of my fungus could not reveal any color, but I saw the shapes on the painting. The constructs stood on a branch, a thin one, so that from the perspective of the painting I could see the bottom of the branch as well. Far below I thought I could see the stagnant waters that surround Boskrea. No branches filled that vast emptiness between the one they stood on and Beyond. But as I followed the branch over to the left where houses stood out from the trunk, I noticed something I hadn’t seen in the museum. The branch ended before the trunk.
It was as if Scolyard were telling me that the only thing that kept them from plunging to their deaths was their own obliviousness. This I realized was their doom, not the inconsequential animal that played within their rusted parts. In the light of the fungus, the break in the branch was especially obvious, and I had the distinct impression that the painting was trying to tell me something. Some meaning lay there.
Too late, I realized the truth. My doom also came upon me in my obliviousness as the miner tackled me and held me down until the police arrived.
Boskrean prisons are not kind to a fallen girl from Fallen Crown. I spent years forgotten by what passes for a justice system in tunnels deep inside the trunk of downtree Ironwood. They were years of distant lights, sporadic food, and things I choose to forget. The occasional release so we could sweat over some manual task, turning great wheels or pulling loaded platforms up from below. Who knows, I might be there still if not for Pieter Wit.
Yes, the Pieter Wit. The outlaw artist himself freed me. Stole me, you might say. It was for nothing special in me that he did it. He was wandering through the tunnels, a forged key in one hand, and wearing a rain-soaked overcoat that reached down to his shoes. Maybe he’d ducked into the tunnels to dry out. Maybe he was looking for something specific to add to his art, though what he might expect to find down there, I don’t know. Whatever the case, like his art, I was simply something he found … and stole. And stolen, I became one of his group of helpers and apprentices.
In my first job for Pieter, we helped him erect one of his sculptures. We all arrived separately over the afternoon and evening in Upper Marbol, each of us carrying some small item Pieter had earlier stolen. I had in my pocket an ornamental knife from a selichi temple to their god Crait. It made me nervous, on edge, to carry something so clearly stolen that close to the selichi community of Marbol.
I wandered from shop to shop always looking over my shoulder. The sharp spears of the shop awnings constantly brought to mind the sharp tips of selichi weapons. The afternoon dragged by, and darkness brought me no relief. I kept expecting a selichi priest to step out of the narrow shadows of dead lampposts and grab me.
I was walking cautiously down a dark side street when I got the sense that someone was near. I whipped around and saw nothing. I turned back and sped toward the main route where some of the streetlamps were still working.
The feeling grew. I stopped suddenly, but no sound came to me except my own echoes and the sounds, farther off, of Upper Marbol night life — music in the upscale clubs and the shouts of people high on expensive mushrooms.
I started walking again, this time slowly, looking carefully into every shadowed doorway. Suddenly and silently a figure appeared beside me.
I stifled a scream. Instead it was Pieter’s voice that broke the silence. “Well done. Most don’t even suspect someone is there.”
He said nothing more but walked soundlessly beside me to the square where we had all planned to meet.
The others were already there, and Pieter immediately began to create his sculpture from the objects each of us had smuggled in.
To watch him work was always a treat, a bit of magic. He would set all the items out before him and carefully select one at a time to create a surreal statue of nothing. Don’t ask what he used to bind the pieces together — he never let anyone know that mystery. And no, I have no idea where he might be hiding today or what his next work will be.
• • •
Among the stately houses of Droyess beside what by then were the last living branches and green leaves in all of Boskrea, is Nothpy & Vandeker’s, the great art house where the city’s twelve Major Ministers purchase their art. The house would often get their hands on Pieter’s installations and auction them off to ministers’ chambers or banks’ lobbies. Pieter never got a twig from the sale, but he never minded. When Pieter heard that they planned to sell one of his early works that had broken as two pieces, each as “authentic Pieter Wit,” though, he decided to stop them.
We slipped into Droyess traveling uptree from the emptiness of Scarltry. It’s strange to move up the trunk and through the branches where there are no houses, no buildings at all and never have been. Only herds of giant, domesticated squirrels and flocks of birds. Nowhere else in all of Boskrea is like that, so desolate. And this is what makes Droyess difficult to sneak into. Whereas the other neighborhoods each blend into the next, Droyess is alone, almost a city to itself. It shares its tree only with the wilds of Scarltry, and far downtree the neighborhood Wray, which is hardly more than a cable car station and a couple of houses clumped together for the Scarltry farmers and herders.
But Pieter could move anywhere, and the two of us with him seemed blessed by his shadow. Some things I won’t tell about Pieter, some secrets he would want kept. There’s nothing arcane, though, in what he does. We moved from shadow to shadow, deliberately though not slowly. At the edge of the neighborhood, he led us over a garden wall, through the shadows of sculpted lichen, and into the branches of Droyess.
A bright light shone on the entrance to the auction house, but the light was steady, and the shadows plentiful. We slipped inside without alerting anyone.
Pieter found the pieces of his sculpture right away and laid it before him. Then slowly he moved about the building, stealing random items from shelves along with several small sculptures and paintings from other artists. Returning to his earlier work, Pieter began to assemble a new sculpture, one that wouldn’t break … nor likely fit back out the door.
While he worked, I wandered. And there, in one corner among the lesser works the auction house hoped to sell was the painting. My heart raced. The last time I had seen it I had been arrested. Surely it was an omen, a warning of my doom.
This time I did not spend long minutes studying the painting. I fled. One image had burned itself into my mind though, one impression as I crept back to the wilds of Scarltry, this time without Pieter’s shadow. As I ran I saw the buildings of Droyess become the buildings of the painting, not logically arranged but surreal. Where the branch failed to touch the tree, crooked buildings sprang out like crystals, each one proportionally correct on its own, but pushing out from the trunk in strange ways.
The buildings ran all the way up the left side of the canvas, crowded close together. The perspective didn’t fit with the rest of the picture, but the shift was subtle. That slight sense of being off-kilter was what burned in my mind then. As if the whole of Boskrea were preparing to shift toward me, to come after me. In short, my doom.
I was convinced as I stumbled down the branch streets into the squirrel lands that Pieter Wit was doomed, that he would soon be arrested and destroyed. This time, I told myself, the painting had warned me off.
• • •
I could easily have returned then to the dregs of Boskrea, but I had learned some things in my years with Pieter, and I put these to use. Through Pieter I had come to understand art, at least his kind of art. I couldn’t create it myself, but I got it, you know?
I moved to the area just below jagged peaks of Stump — Tam Sledge the locals still call that part of Stump, the name it had before Fallen Crown fell. It’s a crowded neighborhood though most of the people work outside of Stump. I opened a small gallery there, a gallery of real art — active, dynamic and controversial. I shocked my comfortable neighbors, but many snuck back later when they thought no one was looking.
Not that I made tons of Iron Twigs or anything, you understand. There may be thousands of people living in Tam Sledge, half a million or more in Stump, but the taste for good art is still rare. I scratched by.
And so, you’re thinking, Scolyard’s painting came one day into my gallery? No. I had nothing to do with such passive art, no paintings of any kind. Some sculptures I sold, those that seemed to speak on their own, to enter a conversation with my customers. Mostly I looked for art that would change, art that would dissolve and decay over time and become something new.
No, I have no idea what ever happened to “The Constructs Foresee Their Doom,” or even if it ever left Nothpy & Vandeker’s. Maybe it’s still collecting dust in Droyess. But I did see it one last time, this time in a vision, beside the waters of Beyond.
I had owned my shop for a couple of decades when I heard of a new painter, a new type of painting that wasn’t so dead. Rumors spread about new dyes, or new ways to mix old ones, and about this painter — whose name the stories always left out — who did amazing things with the paint. Somehow, it was said, over time his paints would fade, nothing special about that except that this painter manipulated the different ways different paints will fade so that eventually the painting becomes something entirely new. Two reds that looked the same at first might each fade into a different shade, one that matched what had once been a brown, and one that remained a dull red. A portrait of a minister, in the first rumor I’d heard, metamorphosed over a year’s time into a landscape painting of the mists out over Beyond with the edge of one tree on the side, none of which had been visible in the original painting.
The rumors grew, as they will, and stories spread that other paintings continued shifting, not just once but continually over time. This was a painting I could accept in my shop; this was real art.
I decided to seek it out.
It took time, connections I had never lost from my days in Fallen Crown. Eventually I tracked down the rumors to a clan of ratite dyers living beside the waters of Beyond in the lowest parts of Stump.
I walked downtree through Stump into the gnarled paths of what had once been called Cron, a predominantly ratite community. The lower part of any of the trees is difficult to maneuver, and Stump maybe more than any others. The houses cling precariously out from the trunk with twisted pathways running down and around without any clear logic. There could be no doubt that I was a stranger there.
But I had lived in Fallen Crown, and even some three decades later I had no fear of any place. People looked at me from the porches — humans, ratites, a few selichi — and I looked back and kept walking.
I smelled the dyers long before I saw them. They made various blues and purples, and the process involved rotting shellfish. I climbed down a jutting root and found them gathered around stinking vats of dye. Small boats carried other ratites out into the brackish water where I could see them diving and returning to the surface. Beyond the coracles was nothing but water — Fallen Crown and the other trees lay out of sight around the other sides of Stump. I had little time to study the sights. The dyers quickly moved to intercept me.
It was then, before I could explain myself, that I saw the vision. Out above the waters of Beyond I saw Scolyard’s painting. Again I saw the four constructs in the center, the small creature wreaking havoc among their parts. Again I saw the branch that did not reach the trunk yet seemed to hang in the air effortlessly. And again I saw the buildings of our city shifted out of perspective and pushing out from the tree. But all these details faded into, or rather were consumed by the background, a poisonous green meant to be the waters of Beyond.
And here beside the actual waters I saw that the color was accurate. The water dotted with small boats was exactly the poisonous color I could see in my vision, and it seemed to grow, to reach out and try to swallow me. I could feel myself falling into that green, drawn down into the painting itself.
I came to with a splash. It was not the waters themselves I had fallen into but a dyer’s vat. To this day I have no idea how I made it past the dyers or what exactly brought me down to the vats. The dyers pulled me out with their wing-like arms and pushed me violently away from their business. They yelled at me in their high-pitched voices, but I did not listen. I was still picturing the poisonous green of my doom.
Time has passed. I went back to my gallery without the new, dynamic painting. And the rumors died soon after.
Now I’m dying. The doctors say it’s a disease, maybe something I picked up so long ago in Fallen Crown, maybe a sickness from the prison tunnels of Ironwood. But I know the truth. It is no disease but a poison, a poison from the dyes perhaps but more importantly — even if less true — a poison of Scolyard’s painting, a poison of Beyond, a poison of my city.
My doom. Boskrea’s doom. They are the same.
© 2013 Daniel Ausema, all rights reserved