“Salix sounded like he was afraid of you. I’m not sure. But I thought he was.”
Erth looked surprised. But she said: “Yes.”
“He did not seem like the kind of person who would be afraid of anything, really.”
“He comes across that way, yeah. Nowadays.”
“What with being –”
“Why is he afraid?”
Erth made a gesture as if she was brushing something away with the back of her hand. “Reasons. Well. Okay. The main thing I guess is that he thinks my ability lies in making people do things, but in a way they are not aware of, and he has no way of knowing if the things he does are because I am making him do them, or if anyone does things because he wants them to or because I’m making them do those things.”
“It’s not a very bright idea. The stuff he does – you know the kind of stuff he does. You’re a sort of – direct casualty – so. If I was making him do stuff do you think he would have started the War?”
Ary laughed and felt strange. “ ‘Not a bright idea.’ ”
“He’s – clever. But he’s paranoid. They’ve always been, actually.”
“Salix says that all he is trying to do is make people happy.”
“He really believes that.” Erth did not say this approvingly or disapprovingly.
“You don’t agree with him.”
“I don’t know.”
“Hmm.” Erth turned up the heat and put a pan of water on the stove. “I just don’t think people are designed to be happy. It’s not a complicated thing.” A small blue flame. Zeidgrebe had to be a very old boat. Or maybe Erth was that sort of person. “Do you remember a time when you were happy? Actually happy.”
[During their second Break Ary and John went to Canis I. They hired a sturdy car with generous windows at the old port at Stettal and simply drove in a straight line across six states through the height of summer. Just a car trip. Once they were driving through something that must have been an orchard, although they were not sure what kind of tree it was. Thousands and thousands of rows of thousands and thousands each. Apples or some variant thereof, fruit that messily spangled the grass and smelled sweet with rot. Ary picked out one tree that he could see ten columns or so back standing there in the middle of a row. One in a billion. He thought that was what he was.
John was driving, and didn’t speak much, but he was in such a mood that once he laughed at something Ary had said. Ary couldn’t remember now but he knew that he had not said anything funny. He thought it was something about how they were doing to get the car back. They both did not want to waste their allowance so at night they pulled over deep into the unkempt grass and slept on the seats and woke up smelling a like vinyl with one cheek pressed into crevassed maps and divaricate lines. Ary often woke at night but did not turn on the light because of the insects. They sinewed into being everywhere, quietly but persistently, and would not go after the 14-watter incandescent was turned off. When he did wake Ary looked at John, perfectly expressionless in sleep, no smile or frown or impression of a dream, and thought how he looked like something freshly born or elsewhere wanted.]
What he said now was, “Yes. CM didn’t leave us much to be happy for but we could be happy.”
“But were you happy then?”
“At the time you say you were happy – when you were living it, did you actually feel happy? If I had asked you then, would you have said, yes, I am happy?”
Ary thought. “No. No, I was – worried. I was thinking – it was hard not to think – that soon we would both be dead.”
“You see. That’s the thing. The truth is that almost all our happiness is remembered. It’s not in the moment. No-one is actually happy here, in this precise moment, in this stupid uncatchable now-ishness. Sometimes you feel it like it is in the moment, very rarely, but even then you are lying to yourself, because what you feel is the idea that this moment can abstract itself into some higher otherised realness and continue. It never does. You know the feeling right after those moments. I’m sure you know it. Like the days are coming out from under your feet. Sand pulling away with the tide from just under the balls of your feet. That kind of feeling.” Erth waved her arms awkwardly, imitating a person losing balance.
“That sounds incredibly cynical. That is incredibly – sad. I don’t know. Maybe just remembering is good enough. It’s not a lie.”
[Ary and John did nothing of interest on the trip. They moved though the uncontoured fields and lines of standing crop. No human demarcations apart from the line they moved along. A million years before or something like that glaciers had come and sheared the land flat. They found an abandoned building and without really agreeing to do so they stopped the car and went over to it. The roof had fallen in. Just as they had done in Tityra after the massacre they climbed to the top of the wall and watched the evening. They sat on the callused brick and put their feet out into an the abyss in which people had once breathed. Twenty-wheelers generated seismic ripples as they dopplered past and sent out washes of diesel air whose warmth survived all the way from the road and broke against the walls.
Sometimes in the afternoon huge storms gathered. They could get very bad. The ozone first, not quite electric and not quite metallic in the air, and milky wall clouds bulbing and turning. A swathe of leucistic grass on one side of the road, or just ahead, would suddenly bow and turn white and a second or so later the car would shudder and skid left or lean over crankily. They put on the attractors to get through the worst storms, although this drained their fuel fast. Afterwards the air for miles around would reek of geosmin.]
“Does it sound that way? I don’t think it sounds that way at all. I’m not trying to say it’s bad. I’m just saying, happiness is difficult. Sal’s whole – thing. Maybe we should look for something else. I’m not saying anything not experienced as happy is not good. Maybe many things are good, as in capital-G good.”
Erth took the pan off the heat and poured the water, into two cups. She opened a can and spooned something amber in. There was a faint hissing sound.
“It’s quite nasty the first time, but all the boaties have it. Pretty good, actually, really keeps out the cold.”
It was nasty, and burned, but it had a good aftertaste.
[After one storm Ary and John stopped at a town for food. The person serving them took the CM credits and walked away from the table and then turned back and said, “You guys are fucking us all up, you know that?” He was the type of person who smiled when he was angry. This afternoon he was smiling a lot, and he kept his eyes on John and Ary as they ate.
When he came to take the plates he said, “I mean it. I hope you all die fast so that we lose this properly and you stop taking our money. We’re all dry here, all bone dry. You motherfucking bastards.” He laughed. Ary said thank you and stood up to go. The man actually put his hand on Ary’s shoulder and said, “Just give me a moment.” He turned around and shouted, “Got a couple of cammers here.” People looked up from their tables. Some looked emabarrassed on Ary’s behalf. Many did not. The waiter turned back to look at them and spoke, loudly, grinning now. “You want to blame someone, folks? Look here. Oh yes look at these quiet ones. I’m thinking when they are all dead—”
John broke his glass on the table and stood up fast. The first blow opened a red gorge through the centre of the waiter’s face from the bottom of the left cheek through the nose. The waiter went down immediately, less because of the force and more because of the shock. He tried to shout but managed a whistling burble that was only savagely comic. John stepped hard on his face twice, putting the weight of his body into it, and the waiter stopped moving. John bent over him and stuck the glass in his face again and again. Then he used the other end and started pounding, very precise and very brutal. Ary stood there and Inside his numb head he counted. At n.6 the nose went and around n.11 the face caved in crunchily. John ignored Ary’s shouting and the pulpy mess got all over his front and face. When the others came out of the kitchen screaming and tried to get him off John pulled out his Botze and shot one of them in the knee. And then he finally got off the waiter and stared at the other man writhing on the floor and shot him in the knee again. Ary got in front of him and faced the people and said something like I’m sorry, I’m sorry and left the signoff for all his remaining credits on the table.
John had shouted something as Ary took him out, something like, “Don’t we die well? Don’t we die well? I I I see.”
They got back in the car, John dripping with blood, and moments after Ary slammed the door shut John started making a high-pitched jerky sound that was like crying but turned to huge shuddering laughter. Ary looked at him with horror and then started laughing as well. He went on and on. He couldn’t stop. There were slivers of bone on him. He thought of Tityra and all the people dead there and he felt something had come finally justified, something all aligned together. It was a clean and good feeling. You nearly took the leg off, he said, wheezing.]
“It’s good,” Ary said. “Where do you get this?”
“There’s a small market near the station. It’s an hour’s drive.”
From the window Ary could see that it was getting dark outside, fast. “I’m not sure I agree with you. Still.”
“It’s always the same problem once Salix has talked to someone.”
“He’s very persuasive.”
“Of course he is persuasive. When he was on Stize. You should have seen.” Erth looked a bit sad. “University life. How are you feeling now?”
“Pretty warm, actually, I’m—”
“No, I mean—”
“Oh. Oh. John’s dead. All the people I got to sort of know, for a while. I’m not sure – I am not sure what I should say. What do you think I should say.”
“You know what I think? I think that a long time from now you will remember these days and you will think that you were happy.”
“If I. Why would you. No.” Ary waited for a while. “If I am happy now how will I know that this is not just you.”
“You could ask.”
Ary sat like a crippled thing. “And?”
“I’m not doing anything. Well I am doing something but only what everyone is doing all the time. I’m trying to make you feel a bit better.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“You see? It’s happening already.”