The Dazzle of Day
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
ON THAT DAY, the go-down day, Juko Ohasi stood at the head of the weathermast—stood with her feet on the spindly seven-yard and her arms spread wide in the windless glare—looking sunward for her husband.
People who had never gone aloft imagined they might climb to a masthead and see the compass of the windship spread below them, but there was no seeing the whole of it from anywhere on the rigging; this was something every sailmender
knew. You had to go out in a small boat, get five or ten kilometers away from it, before it began to be possible to see the whole configuration, the sails entire: Seven carbon-fiber yards thin as thread ringing the torus in concentric circles a kilometer apart, as though the torus had been a pebble dropped in still water; twelve wire-fine spokes radiating from the center in a complex reticulum of torsional support, intersecting the ring-yards and branching, branching again, until the twelve masts were fifty; two hundred panes of reflective vilar—a crowd of sail—each infinitely more tenuous than a soapbubble, each broader than a corn field, bridging the delicate webwork of yards and masts; myriad servos as fine as watchwork trimming the sails in a restless canting with respect to the horizontal axis; and all this immense diaphane supporting the small cumbrous payload of the inhabited torus, a thick-bodied, eight-spoked wheel lying at the center of the sails in a hammock of stays and shrouds along the elliptical plane, like a moon at the eye of its corona.
Among sailmenders, yes, there was a custom, a usual habit, of standing at the outermost tip of a spoke, but not, as other people thought, for a glimpse of the whole architecture turning in an elegant roundelay against the stars. From a boat, at ten kilometers’ distance, or twelve, the Dusty Miller was a vast round mosaic of mirror, a great segmented disk rippling with light and movement; but from the seven-yard, standing up from the head of a mast, what you saw was a billowing field of sailcloth stretching wide and away beyond eye’s reach, as the sea must have stretched away from the eye of the blue-water sailor, and the torus a small purplish atoll at the far horizon. Standing at the head of a mast, people looked, not for the whole, but for
what must be the true aspect of a World: something larger than the eye could take in.
Juko Ohasi, standing at the head of the weathermast, only looked for her husband.
She had meant to keep from it. In the sixty-nine days since Bjoro had sailed ahead of them in the Ruby, other people had daily looked sunward from the fields of sail seeking a glimpse of the far off boat, but Juko had not. She and her mother-in-law both were inclined to eat sporadically and to sleep at unlikely hours, and Bjoro inclined to push them toward more orderly habits, so there was a certain narrow pleasure and freedom in his absence, and she always had taken to heart the old axiom that you shouldn’t expect your husband or your wife to carry too much of the weight of your happiness. For sixty-nine days she had felt very clear, very self-contained, unsentimental. She’d been comfortable not missing Bjoro at all, and had understood in a dim, restless way that looking for her husband, or toward him, she might be stricken suddenly with loneliness.
She knew, in any case: From the rigging even the world they steered for was indistinguishable—three hundred days across the measureless distance: a minute light circling the small orange sun amid a turning field of stars, and the little Ruby, circling the world, an infinitesimally small mote of dust. Foolish to look for it—she had not meant to look for it. Had not meant to stand along the weathermast finding a balance in the compass of space, opening her arms as if she were offering something to God or calling up a spell against the night; had not meant to put her feet along the outermost rim of the fluttering array of sails and, spreading her arms to the black, windless firmament, to let in this fierce, this very precise longing for
the smell of Bjoro’s wet hair when he came from the bath, for the weight of his hands resting on her shoulders absently as he stood behind her in a crowd or in a queue.
It is the simanas, she thought, and took a kind of mournful satisfaction in it. All of us are gone a little mad these days.
Her mother-in-law, Kristina Veberes, was apt to keep still about a worry until it was well past, and then she liked to complain to everyone how she’d lost sleep over it. She hadn’t spoken a word of misgiving in the sixty-nine days, and wouldn’t be wanting to complain yet with nothing known, no one safe; but Juko, standing at the head of the weathermast staring irresistibly, uselessly sunward, suddenly had in her mind that she and Kristina could get a little drunk tonight and comfort themselves with sarcasm, a habit they were both prone to. People believed the go-down day needed ceremony, and neighbors privately had given over to her two rare, small bottles of wine; she yearned suddenly to be sitting in the bath with her mother-in-law, drinking that wine, listing the son’s, the husband’s manifest faults.
They had an old, mother-daughter friendship, she and Kristina, years older than her marriage to Bjoro. Juko’s own mother and Kristina had been childhood intimates, their families bound together in a tangle of distant kinship, of marriages several generations removed, and Juko had made a second mother of Kristina when her own mother was dead. She had been still married to Humberto in those days, but when their younger son had died and she and Humberto had divorced, she had moved her belongings into Kristina’s house as a daughter returning to her mother’s family. Much of that unmarried year was lost to her, a dull grayness, unremembered.
She remembered the Plum Rains—the haloes around the xenon lamps in the wet, humid nights. And Kristina’s son, Bjoro, a man she had known only as a would-be cousin—she remembered his gravity, his tolerant look, and the way that look had become unburdening, a safehold. Before the Plum Rains had come round again, they were married. And their marriage had been knit to that old friendship between Juko and Kristina—an inextricable web of family and familiarity.
On a little release of breath, someone said, “Ha! I’m up-top,” and Juko, who was standing up-top herself, looked round for the other. On the incom the voices always were burry, indistinguishable, and across the great distances of the diaphane the sailmenders were gnats against the burnished vilar, but they had named the two hundred fields of sail as farmers will name their fields of corn, and she recollected some part of the sail chart for this watch: There was Aric Engirt on the Weather-Beater, Al Poreda on the Square-Away, Orval Wyho on the Rock-Bottom. Someone was pulling swiftly out along the dark thread of the spankermast, no telling who that was. The one who was up-top, standing at the head of the skymast—Juko thought it was Marca Negro.
In the earpiece there was a little sound, a sort of grunting disgust, and the person crawling up the spankermast made a quick slow-down, going clockwise onto the sail named the Far-Cry: giving up a race.
“Who’s racing? Is it Juko Ohasi? I seen Sonja go sprinting by me with her eyes fixed on her hands, but you beat her good, eh, Juko?”
Sonja Landsrud was twenty-three or four, quick as a snake, and it had been years since Juko had pulled out a mast on the
race, fast enough to beat Sonja Landsrud. She laughed. “No, wasn’t me,” she said. “But I guess I’m not old, then, if somebody’s thinking it could’ve been me.”
“Could be you’re still old, but fast,” somebody said, and people laughed. Then Marca said, “It was me—Marca. I’m the one beat her. I beat Sonja,” and she let a little flourish be in it. I beat her!
“I was one-armed,” Sonja said, a squawk. “Hey, Marko, you saw me, eh? When I came out the hub? banged my wrist a hard one on that damned big fitting that sticks out beside the hatch.”
“Get on, Sonja. Marca beat you, so don’t whine.” That was Marko, maybe, though hard telling on the vague incom.
Sonja said, surprised, “Whining’s what I do,” and that made people laugh again. It was an old aptness of Sonja’s, become a joke she played to: She had always a particular reason for defeat.
Juko’s ear became silent—they kept the incom mostly open for matters to do with the work, and for exigencies—and when the laughter had quieted, the weight of the silence carried her down past the moment of inertia and foolish yearning as she had stood at the vantage of the masthead. She fell softly onto the sail, the field called the Knock-Around, as softly as people, waking, fall back into the middle of their lives.
On the great sails there was silence, aloneness, as there never was in the crowded torus and maybe for this reason menders had a habit of coming together at the junctions where their fields joined—exercising their human connections. At the six-and-weather corner of her field she waited for Al Poreda, thinking he would come across the Square-Away in his usual steady plowman’s pattern, lapping back and forth between the masts, monotonous, prosy. But maybe the Lark had brought
his soul to poetry: He was covering the sail today with a loose, indecipherable chasing, a secret hieroglyphic. He kept at it, leaving out the corner, not seeing her there.
“Beauty,” she said, her thumb on the incom, and that brought his head around slowly, looking for her. “Don’t know what design you’re making, but it has beauty,” she told him.
There was distance between them, two or three hundred meters. He let himself come up from the undulating field, until his white exo was a small, drifting brilliance against the absolute blackness of the void. He opened his hands, a slow gesture, open-palmed, and brought his body around to her orientation. “Looking for a pattern,” he said. “Not finding it.” Al Poreda had a grimacing, intent smile, like a man placing himself between fire and the body of his child. The skull of his exo was opaque, but she imagined his mouth letting the words out through that smile.
“No corner in your design, eh? I guess I’ll quit waiting for you.”
He was silent, his arms still open. Then he said in a tender whisper, “Don’t wait,” and let himself down on the sail, on the winding, unknowable pattern. We are all gone a little crazy.
A little retractable ribbon had a house in the waist of her exo, and when she pushed off with her hands against the weathermast the tether trailed her, sliding soundless on its endpin, following the curving track of the seven-yard. The Miller was braking, had been braking for forty years, and now they had come within the inner harbor of the new star their navigation had become an intricate, interminable equation of motion, a continuous contraposing of the outward stream of light, and of the solar wind, of the star’s centripetal attraction, the
perturbations of its four small planets, and the old momentum of the torus. The diaphane presented its face, like a blossom, always toward the sun, while the petals of shimmering sailcloth tilted their edges at shallow angles to the elliptical plane: finding their balance and then seeking a new one. Juko bobbled over the Knock-Around like a shorebird above a slow heaving sea.
Where there was a tangle in the halyard, she wrapped her legs over the yard’s thin line and swayed there, picking the little knots in the fine carbon filament. Where an edge of sail was hung up in its rigging she pulled scrupulously at the jam until it was loose again, and with a flat-iron tool pressed out the creases in the cobwebby cloth. Where there was a hole in the sail she soldered the little breach—a dozen atoms expelled in a bead at the tip of the fine mending needle.
The mechanicals were ancient, deteriorating, the sailcloth and the rigging frayed and dilapidated. The Dusty Miller had borne sail for its first fifty years, gathering way in a stately, deliberate acceleration; but for eighty-five years, while the bare toroid coasted through the darkness between the old star and the new, the vast diaphane had been furled, its vanes contracted about the torus with some little hope the folds of mirrored cloth might shield them from the bombardment of cosmic rays. Then in Juko’s childhood the great circle of sails was spread again for this long, difficult braking, and the Maintenance Committee blamed the poor condition of the old sails on the long closure, the reopening.
Juko had heard some people say they thought it was a decay of artistry as much as apparatus. She had learned the sailmender’s art, herself, from people who had, years before, gone up in the hub and hung a field of sail in that high-ceilinged
space above the foundry and studied the servos for the spar devices, setting and resetting them, and watching the ways the little mechanical brain turned a halyard wrong or needed a hand to pull a yard down taut—setting and studying and resetting and watching again, figuring out the old art and then climbing out onto the black void, spreading the great sails for the long braking inward toward the new, the unnamed world. Most of those people were dead now, never had seen the new sun. Juko thought if you complained of lost artistry, probably you never had been out on the rigging; she thought people who had never been outside sometimes were inclined to criticize the people who had.
Where the jackmast joined the seven-yard, she went inward along it, girdling the big trapezoid of the Knock-Around, eleven hundred meters along the seven-yard, a thousand meters along the six. The Weather-Beater and the Knock-Around abutted one another along the six-yard and whenever the sail luffed under her, Juko saw Aric Engirt in the glimmering swale, working steadily toward her across the Weather-Beater. When he had made the corner where the jackmast crossed the six, he floated there with his legs wound round the thread of the yard, his face turned toward the little orange bud of the sun. Maybe he was keeping track of Juko from an edge of his eye: In the soundless sky, as she came down to him at the corners of their fields, he broke off his staring and let his body come around to her orientation.
“Phtt,” he said, a wordless complaint, with his thumb shutting out the others on the incom so the sound of it was closed-up, a small-room sound. He made an exaggerated gesture with his shoulders, a slumping, and she remembered he
had been sick lately, a cold or a cough, one of the nameless, catholic viruses.
She said, “You should have stayed home, kid, you look still down with the bug.”
He gave her a grimace, a ducking boyish look. “Should’ve. Yeah.” He lifted his gloved hands gently, numbering with his fingers. “There’s six babies in our damn house. People kept wanting to put me to someone’s breast. I’ve got this baby’s face, Rita keeps telling me.”
Juko laughed. It was true, his face was smooth, dimpled; inside the fiberglass skull of the exo, his hair hung down in a thick, childish forelock. “Six! You ought to tell Rita to let you alone.” Juko had not much recollection of this wife—a small woman, dark hair? She remembered they had a new baby, maybe it was a boy, born in the dry season.
Aric grinned, showing his teeth in a leer. “Too bad we didn’t make them all,” he said. “Only one, and the rest are my brother’s doing, and the neighbors’.”
“Six in the same house?”
“Six! Born in the same year, in the same damn domaro! Maybe all the husbands laid down with their wives on the same night, and in the morning all the wives got up pregnant. Anyway, now one of the chicks is ailing with something, maybe it’s what I’ve had—you know how a thing like that goes round a neighborhood—so people are carrying that baby back and forth and up and down, and a house with so many babies is prone to be in a kind of rush regardless, eh? things never still. Rita likes it. I guess I do, but this bug has made me surly.” He grinned again. “No crying kids out here, anywise.”
Juko thought he wanted this to be a joke, but his pallid face,
grinning, drew up in a sort of pinch, suppressing a little dry cough. She said, “So you thought you’d find some other people to be surly with, besides your neighbors? Come out here and gripe at your friends?”
He laughed in a small way, looking at her shyly. “I guess I just wanted to come out. Couldn’t lay in bed, you know.” He moved his shoulders once more, eyeing her self-consciously from beneath the straight brow-cut of his hair. “The Lark, you know. I wanted to come out.”
She didn’t know why she skirted her eyes away from him. Maybe she had caught from him a kind of embarrassment. Both of us are crazy then, I looked for it myself.
Twice a day or three times, the radio people had been sending someone around to neighborhoods with copies of the Ruby’s voice logs, everybody wanting to know what was being said, even if the only talk going on was pointless and sentimental. This from Arda, the word had come down today. We have a window thirteen o’clock for the go-down. Hans and me will stay on the Ruby. On the Lark there’ll be Luza, Bjoro, Peder, Isuma. They’ll mean to call again when land is made but they’ll be busy so maybe not. Don’t worry! Hans or me will call when we hear up from them. Now we’ll have a real look-see!
Not Bjoro’s words—this was something Juko would have known without Arda naming herself. Bjoro was inclined to be methodical, mathematical; he’d have been more formal and more precise. Arda had a deep, loose alto, she always would say important things in an offhand, exclaiming way. So at the window, will launch the Lark!
For years, while the Dusty Miller had gone on making its slow and slower approach, they’d been slinging little scoutboats out
ahead to learn what could be learned from brief robotic flybys of the sun and its small system, but now they had come inside the orbit of the star’s outermost planet, and the slow old Miller was within a year of parking round the sun’s second planet, its one livable world, and so they had sent six people in the fast motorboat Ruby sprinting ahead across the inner compass of the solar system for a first human glimpse. The Ruby had had a sixty-day traverse, and now for nine days had been orbiting the new world while they sent down the first two dozen tropospheric survey balloons; and today, finally, the Ruby’s tiny go-down boat, the heavy-lift launch the Lark, was cast off from the Ruby; and the four people in it—Bjoro!—must even now be making their quick, narrow crossing to close with the land.
“So you’ve had your look at the boat,” she said to Aric Engirt with a tender grimace, “and maybe you should go in now. There’s no babies in my damn house, and I’ve got a small family, eh? and Bjoro gone. My mother-in-law will leave you alone if you want to roll out my bed and sleep on it. When I come off, I’ll send you home to Rita.”
He made a slight, sheepish hand sign, a sort of pushing away. “No. Not that sick. Anyhow, I’ve just got started. I ought to get the cross done so I don’t lose track of what I’ve done.” Menders had each their own style of working a field, few of them crawled the same sail in just the same way. It was Aric’s habit to run up a mast then down on the diagonal, go across the yard and upward diagonal again, cutting the field into diamonds. “I’ll quit when I’ve run the ex.” And then, beginning to smile, “It must be this damn baby’s face, eh? You’re aiming to mother me, now your own has grown up and flown away from you.”
He meant Cejo, seventeen. He would not know—would
have been a child then himself—one of her babies had flown away from her by dying. She hunched one shoulder up, deflecting the little irritation, if that was what it was. “Go on, then, if you want,” she said, and made a mouth, a smiling frown. She lifted her hand in a quick, half-peevish good-bye, and pulled out along the six-yard, taking herself off swiftly until Aric had fallen out of sight across the luff of his field and she was alone again.
She had an old, leathery callus that protected her in such moments, but he had got by it a little. She never had been inclined to mother anything sick, that was the sore point. It had been Humberto who had clasped their first son to his breast in the first colicky weeks, muttering useless wordless sounds of comfort, walking round the room and round in his flat bare feet, while Juko sat on the floor making wicker, or peeling oranges. She had liked Cejo rather better at three and four, thin sweaty arms wrapped round her neck, solemn kisses pressed on her lips. But by then she and Humberto had made a second son, and sometimes in those days she had gone on lying in her bed with the heels of her hands against her ears while that son was crying, crying, and other people had brought Vilef to her breast, brought him to lie over her unmoving heart, and it was only afterward, when he was dead, that she had felt the slow beating behind the bone.
People liked to say romantic love was a childish sentiment, something you ought to get over with in your green years. To marry a lover is fatal, people said. Everyone knew, the relationship of lovers was transient, electrical, while marriage above other things must be a durable partnering, a system of mutual reliance, a friendship. Family and neighbors were expected to
indemnify a marriage by anchoring it in patience, affection, and support; and Juko’s family had mostly followed that charge. She had been given, in Humberto, a husband who was melancholy, passive, prone to chronic physical complaints—but someone of tolerance and stillness, someone disposed to agree with her values and judgments, an undistinguished, predictably tender sexual partner, a conscientious father to their sons. The Senlima Clearness Committee had admired the tying of their wedding knot. And counseled its unraveling. People had blamed that divorce on Vilef’s unhappy birth, but she and Humberto, both of them, always had understood: It was Vilef’s death, not his birth, that was to blame. Humberto never had been able to forgive her for receiving her son’s death as a gift, and she unable to forgive him for his unequivocal, stubborn devotion to grief.
Now her marriage with Bjoro, without children at its center, but tied to Kristina in a complicated gyre of mother-son, husband-wife, daughter-mother, was altogether unsentimental; everything between them was arguable, everything sufficient, abiding. She had, as she thought, reinvented marriage, and it had been years since she had thought of the Plum Rains at the end of her old divorce. But she was adrift, today, in the wake of a vague resonance. The narrow, explicit lonesomeness that had come up in her body when she had stood at the head of the weathermast had become a kind of homesickness, a bleary unfocused pining.
Her own pattern of mending was to circle a field at the yards and masts, repairing the halyards and smoothing the tangles, and then to drift inward slightly and inward again, spiraling toward midsail, looking for tears. While her body rose and fell on the slow breath of the sail, she made the wide
smooth circle around the field and then around again, a chip of wood borne in on the eddy, circling. The silvery web of sails wheeled languidly, the star field turning with it. She kept from looking starward but she felt herself turning with the sails, felt the small orange sun holding steady in the vast blackness, and gradually she began to feel the muddy mood suspended about her like the depthless sky. She began to work well, to work habitually, not thinking of Bjoro finally nor the Lark, nor even of old marriages and dead children.
Someone said “Hans!” in a sudden yell drawn out long on a fading note. There was a small silence, a surprised dumbness among them all. Finally someone said, “Hey, Sonja. What?” for Sonja and Hans were cousins—one of them had an aunt who had married the other’s uncle—and everybody knew Hans was orbiting in the Ruby, waiting with Arda while the Lark carried the other four down to landfall.
Sonja laughed. There was not much timidness in that woman anywhere. “Oh hell. I can’t hardly believe I did that. Oh hell. I guess I was just sending him a sort of kiss or a marker buoy or something. I’m up the head of the spanker and from here you can see forever or what passes for it, and I all at once had to send his name out on the wind, eh?” Juko, looking, made out the tiny thread-end trailing from the tip of the spankermast, Sonja Landsrud standing as Juko earlier had done, at the rim of the sail staring sunward. We are all gone a little mad these days.
There was only a brief silence and then it was Orval Wyho who said, flat and short, “The simanas, I guess. It’s put you over the edge.” Orval always had a crabbed way of speaking; you knew his voice on the obscuring incom. Some of them laughed, making an indistinguishable noise.
“Hey, Juko, you’d better leave a word for Bjoro too!” There followed a smacking sound, wet, a loud kiss.
“Who’s to yell for Arda, then, and Peder? They’ll be lost.”
“Arda! Here’s for you, dear!” “Luza!” “Hey, Isuma!”
“H-A-L-L-O-O-O the Ruby!” “Hey, Lark!”
Juko had no impulse to call to Bjoro, but she had liked Sonja hailing the boat that way, girlish, not grown too staid yet nor too reasonable. So on the little momentum of the other voices, she yelled once too, “Bjoro!” hearing it come out stiff and fierce-sounding.
There was a lot of laughter, a choppy noise. Then Romeo Thorkildsen, from the sailchart desk in the hub, sounded through it with his steady voice, unamused. “Can’t hear a damn thing, you know, mid that racket,” and made them subside. In the short silence afterward, it seemed to Juko that their little stopped-up breaths, their sighing restlessness, must be the sound of the Dusty Miller, sails and torus all, falling light as a milkweed seed inward toward the sun. Then Romeo said, a closed sound only for her ear, “You see Alberto there, Juko, from where you are?”
Her eyes followed the black edge of shadow slipping smoothly clockwise, the luff of her own field casting its umbra across the Square-Away. “No. What.”
“He’s clockwise of you. On the Square-Away.”
“Sure, but he’s hid in the dark.” Looking for him, waiting for the ebb of the shadow, she said, “Al?” and then, “Hey, Al.”
She had known Alberto Poreda a long time, been a child with him in the Senlima siro, been a little in love with Al once, when she was eleven. In Senlima, in that neighborhood of their childhood, the Ring River cut two shallow channels, and the
footings of the Fiddle-Spoke rose straight up from the gravelly island to pierce the high ceiling. When she had been eleven, she had sat on the island in the shadow of the spoke with a boy whose name she no longer remembered, and she’d let that boy touch her flat brown nipples. She had told this to Al afterward, without knowing why she had wanted him to know, but she remembered the reddened look his face had taken on, and that he had kept away from her for weeks—maybe it was from panic. Why was she remembering that now? All this looking backward.
“Juko,” Romeo said, “he’s gone offline is all, see if you can get him to answer up, wave his hand or something.”
She made a reply, wordless, and left the center of her field for the weathermast, sculling across the open sail without hurrying, and then coming in along the mast beginning to pull swiftly hand over hand. There was no wind, only the steady small light of the little sun, and the star field skipping a dim shine off the facets of sail. In the absence of windrush, Juko heard the beating of her own blood in her ears.
She and Al had used to sail tetherless, all bravado and foolishness when they were young, twenty, sweeping across the face of a field in long, heart-stopping glissades, imagining other sailmenders watching them must be struck with envy and respect. People who were twenty still sometimes went onto the sails without a tie. Young, stupid, reckless, Juko thought now. She knew, though, why they were doing it—remembered her own body’s voiceless yearning to belong to a larger, a less coherent pattern. She hadn’t loosed herself from a sail tether in years, she and Al both having become more careful after their children were born.
And she remembered suddenly: Where Al’s son should have had a hand there was a smooth rounded nub, very pink. She could not remember the child’s face at all, but very clearly the look of that nubbin, and the use he made of it, deft, delicate. Or she was remembering her own son Vilef, the single finger of his ill-formed hand climbing her chin.
When the mechanism of the sail drew the edge of shadow back smoothly across the Square-Away, she could see Al’s small dark shape on the shivering field of vilar, and another little beetle, it would be Aric Engirt over there on the Weather-Beater, pulling slowly out along the six-yard.
She said, “Al,” and no one answered, but then Romeo said something, not to her, and she heard several voices but not the words, and then Romeo again, the others falling silent as he spoke. He was a balding little man with a big voice. “Juko,” he said. “I guess you’d better go on in to him. Aric, you go too, eh? until you can see him? what he’s up to? One of you get an answer out of him, so we don’t worry.”
“Going,” she said—for Romeo, an answer—and then heard Al’s soft word, the echo unexpectedly in her ear, “Going.”
In the small silence afterward there rose in Juko an uneasy remembrance of Al Poreda’s dark narrow face, the line of his white teeth below the edge of his burning smile. And then in her ear the little hissing as in a closed room, as if he had put his body in the fire at last. She was struck by a preposterous fear, something to do with Al sailing tetherless across his field as they had used to in the old days, all bravado and foolishness. And now she was crossing over the long bright sail to him, dropping like a bird, a bead of rain, a stone into his open hands, when she saw the sudden stiff spreadeagle puff of his exo, and
the shape he made bobbing on the tether like a New Year’s kite, bright cloth on a wire frame standing out stiff in the windless cold.
“Oh!” Aric Engirt said, in a surprised, childish voice, and Juko saw that he had checked his momentum, had hooked his legs around the rigging of the Weather-Beater. She went on a moment longer, falling toward Al, the mast passing swiftly under her in a thin blurred thread, and then she tripped the dragline with her thumb and when her body had ceased moving she felt something still moving within her, a jittery excitement in her chest.
“What,” Romeo said, steady and gentle.
“He’s breached his exo,” Aric Engirt said, still filled with astonishment.
The silence had its own quality of surprise. “He’s dead, then?” Romeo said, dumbfounded, without truly asking anyone anything. In a moment he said to someone else, not to any of them out on the sail—perhaps turning to tell the others gathering behind him there in the hub—“Alberto Poreda has got himself killed.” Juko thought she ought to say something to Aric or to Romeo on the incom, but what she felt, still felt, was that breathless flutter, and no words came.
She had bathed her mother’s body when the soul went out of it, had watched or helped other people do the same for their own family members—she wasn’t afraid of looking at someone who was dead. But the tumid body seemed not Al’s, seemed only ambiguously human. She waited, looking, from a hundred meters, and then went on slowly out to the end of Al’s tether, and in a little while Aric Engirt came on too.
Al was bobbing above an edge of field that had tangled hard
in the lines. The exo had a glossy look, solid; there was a long straight rift in the left forearm of the exo, and a distended blip of Al’s arm was extruded into it, an egg-shape, taut and shiny, bruise-colored. The knife was still in the fist of his right glove. Juko fixed her eyes on his closed hand, the narrow serrated knife, and kept from looking at the clear skull of the exo, the fierce grin in the blood-swollen face.
“He’s cut through his exo,” Aric said, whispering this as if it might be a secret other people weren’t listening to.
Romeo Thorkildsen, his voice going on being surprised, said, “Oh! My dear God!” Then, becoming steady again, “Well, you’d better bring him in, eh? Aric? You and Juko bring him in.”
Aric Engirt looked to her in alarm. The soft pouches below his eyes were dark, the way Cejo’s had used to be when he was needing sleep or coming down feverish. Baby’s face. Something moved again in Juko: It was her jumpy heart contracting, tightening. “Yes,” she said. Then she put her hand out deliberately and took hold of Al’s big wrist. There wasn’t any feel of a limb inside an exo. The thing she had hold of had a smooth slick softness, rubbery. She opened Al’s hand and took the knife from it and folded the knife and put it away in her own tool belt. Then she took a better hold of his wrist, and the old marks of her fingers remained impressed in the exo.
Aric watched her, or he watched Al, not coming up to take hold of the other wrist. His need not to touch the body made her feel obscurely admirable. She didn’t speak to him—what would she say?—but then a few murmuring words spoke themselves, not for Aric’s sake. “It’s still Al. He’s just got himself killed, is all.”
She sculled gently, starting down along the mast, bringing
Al’s body by the one arm. It twisted slightly, trailing behind her as a stubborn child twists to have a hand let go. Aric opened his mouth to let a breath in, and the air going down in his body made a little sound in her ear, a sigh. Finally he came and took a gingerly hold on the other arm. They went slowly inward, both of them, with Al Poreda carried buoyant between them.
People were waiting at the ring-yards. Without speaking, they fell in behind, a few and then a few more, until it had become a sort of cortege.
“He has that father sick and set to die,” someone said.
Someone else made a small answering sound, a sort of clucking of the tongue.
“What,” said Orval in his flat, recognizable tone. “I don’t know about that.”
“A cancer,” someone said. “He’s not old yet. Maybe he’s sixty, sixty-five.”
Juko cast around for something to say. She had learned from that dying old man, Al’s father, how to roll sweet brigadeiros in cinnamon and the zest of an orange; should she say that? She found that she had got used to the feel of the body. After a while she took a new, firmer grip, and looked down with mournful curiosity to see the old marks of her fingers where they remained imprinted on the exo.
“It was the simanas, eh?” someone asked them all tenderly.
It was a sort of madness, an exquisite pain of utter and unspeakable aloneness. Their own. It was not a small thing. In Juko’s memory, perhaps a dozen people had killed themselves to end unbearable, unspeakable alienation; and when the clerk read the names of the dead at Yearly Meeting, these suicides seemed to lie at the center of all their lives, a heart of
inexplicable grief. But they had all got to calling any least sadness or fear by its name. It is the simanas, they said, blaming that mind-sickness for quarrels and forlornness and names cast like bottles into the void. Maybe they meant to enfeeble it, giving its name to other, slighter insanities. It was plain, though, that this question was asked in the old way, true and narrow. Has he gone crazy, then? killed himself?
Juko’s eyes sprang with tears, a short stinging that was not grief, she thought, but tiredness and an obscure fear, something to do with madness, with bad weather, or the Plum Rains. She didn’t look at anyone.
“He maybe meant to cut the halyard,” Aric said, low and sick, a boy’s voice. “There was a big snarl. Maybe the field swung up and put him off his balance.”
It was Orval Wyho who said, “I never have tried it, but I expect you’d have to saw quite a bit to cut through an exo.” On the incom his voice had that crabbed sound, grumping.
Juko had known people to die on the sails—three, now four, in twenty years—but it was not those people she thought of. She was remembering poor Tual Mendoza, who had gone mad one day and cut his tether, had folded out his thin sailmender’s knife and carefully, neatly, sawed through the cord and kicked himself adrift. Juko had been in the tugboat that had taken him in afterward. She remembered how he had stared at them all with great child’s eyes, bewildered, terrorized, inarticulate.
At Meetings for Business, people every day were reporting the bleak particulars gathered up from the balloons, the first real details of weather and landforms, the discouraging measurements and jargon of glaciation, of vulcanism, of storms. What Juko had felt on hearing all this bad news, these bad reports,
was just a failure of her imagination. Maybe she never had believed it would one day come to this—people standing on the new world. A hundred and seventy-five years. And now people standing on the land. She remembered how, in the tug, looking for Tual Mendoza in the black depths, all the grandness of the sails was shrunk to triviality: From a thousand kilometers, the Miller was a silver bead on a dark starred field.
Things began sliding around in her head, a random disconnectedness, none of it to do with death, now, none of it to do with Alberto Poreda. She was thinking of a long rattan table she had in mind to build; of asking Leo Furuso for the necessary bundles of reed; of getting some smaller works of hers finished before the big table could be started. Leo Furuso was one of those who’d made her a gift of wine, straw-colored, distilled from the skins of mandarin oranges, or mangoes—she wasn’t able to remember which, and fretted over this in a useless way. I don’t like waking alone in bed, she thought, as if in defense of herself, as if this fact was to blame for the earlier, bluesy pining for her husband. People shouldn’t expect their husband or their wife to hold up too much of the weight of their happiness.
The torus gradually took on size and effect. It had a quick gravitational turning, and at its circumference it lapped the slower diaphane of sails with a tireless constancy. From the one-yard, the periphery of the torus rose from the horizon in a long, lustrous, reeling palisade, with the globe-shaped hub at the axis seeming to stand unmoving behind it like the inner keep of a castle. A small confusion of cupolas and knobby spires projected north and south from the hub, and these poles spun swift or slow or not at all, according to their uses. People climbed out to the sails or back from them along the cat’s cradle of lines
between the one-yard of the diaphane and the docking ports at the north pole. It was the usual thing to trip a dragline and leap over the thwarts of the torus in one long splendid planing: In that one moment, the gray fastness of the wheel became the nucleus about which and for which those two hundred fields of silver-gilt sail were spread. But now, having Al Poreda’s swollen body in their hands, they climbed the hawser with deliberateness, with gravity; and the torus, revealing itself incrementally beneath them, seemed unrevealed, flat, jejune.
There were long apertures chasing the inner circumference of the wheel. The apertures had been baffled against the dizzying turn of the starfield—there was no seeing in or out of them. There had been mirrors once, corresponding to the apertures, for letting the light of the old sun into the world, but they had been disassembled early on and the mirrors sold off, and it had been a myriad of xenon fixtures that had brought them ersatz daylight in the long years between suns. There was a spangle of lights at the hub, in the few small windows and defining the docking ports, but the wheel and its spokes were dark, windowless, arcane. Juko, looking down on it through the architecture of Al Poreda’s stiff, spreadeagled legs, felt bitterly its lack of a human reference.
She thought all at once, inexplicably, of the big, yellowing camphor tree standing on the high side of her house. The altejo aqueduct ran in a narrow channel up there, but where the roots of the old tree shouldered it to one side, the water spread out shallow and slow. It was a favored place for birds to come, drinking and bathing, though the water was brown and there were bits of twig and dead leaves in it. The camphor tree was inborn, but old for all that, a crown ten meters high, shedding
leaves now in great dry drifts, the limbs displaying themselves against the ceiling. People in the siro had had the young forester to look at the sick old tree, but it occurred to Juko now: The camphor might be dead before her husband had gotten home again. He’d be four days, five, surveying on the ground, then thirty days sailing back here in the Ruby—at least that. Al Poreda is dead, she thought, as if that ought to keep the death of the camphor tree from surprising her.