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Greener Grass
A short story by Cheeseburger Brown
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Greener Grass, a short story by Cheeseburger Brown; illustration by Matthew Hemming

PLEASE NOTE: This story contains mild profanity. Reader discretion is advised.

I.

Cancer calmed Cabot.

His physician frowned. "Would you like me to put you in touch with a counsellor?"

Cabot scoffed. "Hell no," he said; "haven't felt so relieved in years." The doctor raised his brow so Cabot explained: "Living while your body falls apart under you leaves a man never knowing which way is up. Dying, on the other hand -- dying I can understand. It may be bad news but it least it's got a direction."

He took inventory. He did the paperwork. He had appointments at the banker's and the lawyer's, and he kept them both, making sure each of his no good grandchildren would get a little something to fritter away. His kids flew out to visit, cried, made nuisances of themselves, finally went back home to their so goddamn important jobs -- jobs doing things they never seemed very capable of explaining to Cabot. Computer this or Internet that, banking for lawyers or a lawyer to bankers, busy and brusque and tired.

"They gave me six months," he said to his barber at the seven month mark. By eight months he started getting restless.

He sat on his porch, turning a cold pipe over in his weathered hands. The Appalachians were blue in the south. A hundred kinds of bug and bird were chittering. The air smelled like laurel and mud. The underbellies of the clouds were pink, remembering the recent dawn.

"Shit," said Cabot, because the moment was so beautiful he wished it could be his to die in. Instead, with considerably less poetry, he would probably end up giving it up while watching the hockey game. Or on the john.

He grimaced. That'd be no good.

There were no choices left for Cabot to make; he had become an observer in his own life, a fan sitting in the bleachers rooting listlessly for some kind of conclusion. His situation was static. He was too Christian to hasten the hand of fate, but not Christian enough, he reckoned, to just sit and wait for it like a statue made of meat.

He knocked his pipe, squished in a plug of tobacco, struck a match and closed his eyes. Thinking.

His next visitors more likely than not would be Mounties coming to check up on his silence. They'd come out of the house to escape the smell, one foot perched inside the open door of a squad car while they radioed in for the coroner...

The pipe crackled.

"Well," said Cabot to himself, "why not make it interesting for 'em?"

That was the moment he decided to transform the acres of woodland surrounding his house into a labyrinth. He decided that the path to his corpse would not be straight, but rather convoluted. He would not have gone quietly, then, but rather would have set in motion a story the cops and coroners might tell to their kids, to neophytes or to students: "There was this one time -- strangest thing I ever saw -- an old fellow who died smack dab in the middle of a giant maze. Took us hours just to find our way through. Almost a work of art."

A work of art. Cabot let his pipe go out. He rubbed his chin, nodding his head. Somewhere between the tumours he was devising his last act. And he meant it to be grand.


II.

The labyrinth was grand.

Living walls of laurel and juniper and ash described winding paths between pillars of maple, moosewood and basswood. Topiary arches of box and holly marked the inputs to small courtyard-like clearings where Cabot set up plastic birdbaths or preformed sundials he bought at Canadian Tire. Here violets, there forget-me-nots, everywhere ferns. And, of course, wild daisies because they had been a favourite of Véronique's when she was alive.

It had been twenty-one months since diagnosis. When Cabot woke up in the morning he spent a solid hour in the john, heaving up nothing. Little cuts and scratches took their sweet time healing, and never quite seemed to heal all the way. He was tired all the time.

But he didn't die, so he kept on puttering around the maze. Making little improvements and such. Nip and tuck, prune and tie. Squint and nudge.

What else was there to do?

He made the maze harder. He complicated it. He took straight quadrants and convoluted them. Carefully he sculpted illusions in topiary -- false turns, apparent breaks in the walls where none actually existed, and dead ends that lured you in with forced perspective. It came to be that his original plans, as complex as they had seemed at the time, represented only a grossly simplified cartoon of only the labyrinth's most obvious avenues; and even so there were now exceptions to those broad strokes the map did not record.

Cabot annotated copiously for a time, but eventually his efforts seemed to fall behind. More and more often he'd come to turns he'd forgotten to append. He forgot about the map. Who needs it? He knew the maze like he knew his pocket.

Autumn came, then solstice. The kids called at Christmas. "It's a miracle, Dad." Cabot pet his taxidermied dog and looked out through the frosted windows, longing for spring the way he hadn't cared to push time since he was adolescent. He watched hockey. He sat on the john.

Vernal equinox. The world rolled and the land awoke. Cabot went to town to buy milk and meat and seeds.

It was on May Day the first time Cabot got lost in the maze. He didn't let it faze him until it happened again; overnight this time -- disoriented, shivering in the clammy spring air. He found his way in the morning but he was so weak it took him until noon to drag himself to the porch. When he made it into the house he drank from the sink like a dog and then lay down on the kitchen floor and slept for two days. He came to soiled and shaken.

"Jesus Christ. Take me already."

The pills they told him to swallow made his gums bleed, so he stopped taking them. Sores erupted on the backs of his hands but dressed and covered by his gardening gloves he usually forgot to pay them much mind. He got sudden, brief headaches that compelled him to sneeze.

For a while he tended the gardens only closest to the house, but by late June he'd forgotten why. He ventured further. The deeper he penetrated the maze the more apparent it became that it had changed. Walls out of place, courtyards he'd never cleared, arches twisted with vines in a gaudy style he reviled...

A chill ran down his spine as he realized that someone must be trespassing on his property, and goofing around with his topiaries. Some brazen interloper -- probably a teenager high on drugs -- was screwing with the labyrinth just to get Cabot's goat!

Cabot marched back to the house to fetch his gun.


III.

By solstice the air inside the maze was close -- humid, buzzing with life. Heavy with the crossing perfumes of sap and hot leaf and mushroom. The air crawled with flies, moths, mosquitos, motes. Chirping on all sides. Each cell of the labyrinth had its own mix of natural neighbourhoods, each a slightly separate shade of summer sleepwalk.

Cabot advanced slowly, rifle roving.

He turned to face a long run of laurel, the way cut at intervals by beams of sunlight shot through with drifting currents of pollen. Cabot eased through the first beam, blinking to chase away the colour-splotched blindness after the dazzle. His vision continued to throb with afterimages as he proceeded to the next shaft, eyes plying every niche in the greenery around him. He ignored the phantasms -- soft-edged rabbits melting into flocks of pulsing birds -- to focus on the details. The details that would give his quarry away.

Here, a snapped twig. There, a bit of thread. An impression that might be a footprint. Cabot felt he was close. After weeks of searching the maze, this time he could almost smell the interloper.

He passed through a second shaft of sunlight. Afterimages upon afterimages.

When he turned around the way he had come was gone. He was used to that. Cabot had come to accept that the maze was inexplicably restless. He'd moved beyond trying to track his trail: his experiments with leaving a path of yarn as he travelled had only served to bamboozle him further when he retraced his steps to find the yarn unwound into its constituent threads -- each leading down a different turn.

Now Cabot came prepared: rain poncho, tinder box, water and preserves. He had ammunition and toilet paper. He had binoculars, a sleeping bag and a silver crucifix. Cabot wasn't afraid of finding himself lost.

Grace.

On the far side of the furthest sunbeam the sky was leaden. Cabot sniffed: rain. He shifted his rifle and advanced a few more paces, blinking away the foo. The blanket of birdsong had changed. His bones reported the barometer. "It's a whole different day in this stretch," he said aloud as he untucked his notebook and jotted. "Whole different maybe of the weather."

He turned. The next cell was unfamiliar. It had statue in the centre, a reproduction of Artemis after Myron. Bit pretentious for Cabot's taste. The rainy day had aged to sunset without his noticing. The long shadows and Cabot's colour-splotched vision made the face of the thing swim and seem alive. Creepy. Cabot couldn't shake the feeling that he wasn't alone.

He sniffed and moved sideways, taking the northern way. He meandered along a classic Cretan spiral.

At the end of it was a small court clearing at night. The stars blazed above, the galaxy's ecliptic a bold slash of smoke and glow such as Cabot had seldom seen. A fire burned below, orange and slithery, its sliding shadows betraying the shape of a man leaping to his feet.

The air whistled as an arrow flew past Cabot's ear. He shot the Indian without hesitation.

Cabot came closer, eye trained over the sights. He was breathing hard. So was the other fellow. He felt like he was in Korea again. Like he was a kid, hunting Communists. He nudged the Indian's leg with his toe. The Indian groaned.

"Can't see worth a damn," hissed Cabot; "but I reckon I can shoot you off my boot faster than you can shoot me out of your sky, red."

The Indian didn't stir. Cabot risked knuckling his eyes, forcing sparkling circles of pressure to override the image of the muzzle-flash still lingering on his retinas in dripping scarlet and oozing violet. When he opened his eyes he could make out the Indian brave. Scared. Grimacing. A hole in his chest.

"You claiming this land?" shouted Cabot. "You some kind of eco-terrorist?"

The Indian squirmed and gibbered, his reply an incomprehensible stream of nonsense and animal noises. His leather shirt was quickly turning dark.

"You on drugs?" Cabot demanded sharply, squinting along the barrel.

The Indian expired with his eyes wide and haunted.

Cabot lowered the gun and took off his hat. "Lord have mercy," he said, and meant it. He guessed that the drug-crazed trespasser had probably been sexually abused in a residential school or something. Wasn't this fellow's fault to be born to a hopeless culture, though, to be fair, it wasn't as if that gave him the right to do things like using his native witchcraft to alter the weather and the ways in Cabot's labyrinth. No matter how you shook it, that was just plain wrong.

Cabot was too weak to bury the fallen brave, so he made the man's own campfire a pyre.


IV.

The dust first appeared in the east. It was like a fine, soft dew of rust coating the leaves and painted in turbulent whorls along the paths. Cabot scratched his head.

Was this some new sort of gift?

The gifts had started appearing at the autumnal equinox. There were certain cells Cabot could count on to be replenished invisibly with flax and linseed and myrhh; others which seemed to sprout slaughtered livestock or burnt offerings; still others where Cabot collected treasures like his auroch-head mantle and jade-hilted dagger.

And blood. He could never figure out what to do with the blood.

He found his house again in October. The answering machine light was blinking and the refrigerator smelled terrible. Cabot loaded up on ammunition, then cracked open a beer and got caught up watching the hockey game on television. The goddamn Habs lost.

He went to the washroom before he left. He emptied the medicine chest into his army rucksack and then, as he carefully straightened, saw his reflection in the mirror. He was startled because he didn't recognize himself -- a weathered, yellow-skinned skeleton blinking back at him from within the maw of an auroch, its horns casting crossed shadows over his features. His stubble was pure white, sparse, and adolescently soft, as if his body could barely rouse the effort to produce proper hair anymore.

His eyes had no colour at all. They looked like stone. "Jesus," he muttered. "Goddamn cancer." He shouldered the rucksack and shuffled out.

The nights were getting colder. He hunkered beneath bearskins. In the crisp mornings the eastern sky was green behind decks of suspended rust. Cabot couldn't help but keep glancing up as he began his patrol. The wind carried more dust. It stuck to Cabot's gun, like some kind of weird magnetic cinnamon.

He came to an offering of frankincense and venison, so he started a fire beneath a gallery of trees he had shaped by tying the branches in the spring. As he chewed he wondered what Véronique would've made of all this if she'd still been alive. Véronique had always loved deer.

Cabot continued east, following the dust. His hips hurt. His shoulders, too.

He came to a series of rectilinear Roman convolutions, pausing at the entrance to survey the scene over the rifle's sights. He cocked his head, listening. The air was cooler here. Bronze dust everywhere. Freshly pruned walls, clippings on the ground.

Cautiously he moved forward, eyes and muzzle panning side to side. He winced as he crouched down, joints complaining audibly. He frowned over a print in the snow -- a smaller boot than his own, the tread bulging around an unfamiliar logo. "God damn," he whispered. "This ain't no Indian."

Once he managed to stand up he stretched the kinks out of his back and swore. "Ain't no Hellene, neither." He double-checked his weapon.

Near the southern end of the convolution he heard the humming. It was aimless but melodious. Human. Cabot licked his lips and took a steeling breath before proceeding. Then he let his rifle lead the way rounding the bend of a pillar of spruce.

He followed the sights, then froze.

"Véronique?"

She screamed.


V.

To meet her he followed the red dust. It moved westward with the season.

"I have a theory," she said one day, topping up his cup of tea. She frowned at his hands. "Why don't you ever take off your gloves? It's glorious out."

Cabot shivered. "You're some kind of Eskimo; it's colder than a witch's teat." He looked down sheepishly. "Besides, I've...got sores. You know, a skin condition. Not something a lady should have to look on."

His rifle leaned against a marble statue of a chimpanzee, its fine lines stained rusty. The topiary walls sheltered the pair from the gusting wind that whistled overhead. He had put aside his dagger, she her surveying lens and strange, complicated watch.

"I think you're real," she declared, looking him straight in the eye.

Cabot sipped at his tea, watching her over the rim. He smirked. "That's a relief."

"Do you think I'm real?"

He shrugged. "I've got brain cancer and cataracts. I'm suspending judgement."

Anira sat back on her stone bench and pulled her knees up to her chest, neglected tea cooling on the arm. "I think the maze you built around your house is somehow connected to every other similar maze. Every one there ever was, like a skeleton key that fits into a million different locks."

Cabot nodded. "That would explain all the trouble with Theseus. But I still find it hard to reckon why you think God would ever let such a thing happen."

"Maybe God has nothing to do with it. Maybe it's just about shape, and space, and geometry." She took a breath and looked into the salmon-coloured sky over Cabot's head. "Maybe the universe really is holographic -- a projection to higher dimensions from a lower dimensional stream of information. What if that stream were somehow compressed -- you know, like a computer file? What if mazes of a certain complexity really resemble one another in a very special way...so much that they're averaged together by the compression?"

Cabot snorted. "Pardon?"

"Mazes disparate in space and time could have points of convergence, if their symmetries were smeared together just so," the girl continued, eyes flashing. Her iridescent blouse rustled musically as she leaned forward. "It would fit your experience, wouldn't it? Admit it."

"Have to talk more slowly, missy. That accent of yours is something else, I tell you."

"I think the universe is lossy," she said, taking care to enunciate. "I think you and I are having tea in a compression artifact, a non-local commingling of my grandfather's labyrinth gardens and your maze back on Earth."

Cabot looked up sharply. "Say again? Back where?"

"On Earth."

"Already told you -- I live in New Brunswick."

"New Brunswick's on Earth."

"Sure, I'll give you that; but what place isn't?"

Anira pressed her lips together and then exhaled slowly. "I've looked you up in the library. You disappeared. They found your maze and they found your house, but nobody ever found any sign of George Cabot Colpitts."

"Never told you my whole name," muttered Cabot, mouth dry.

"No," she agreed. "But it wasn't hard to figure out. Not with my library skills. I study dead languages, Cabe -- stale history is my playground." To illustrate her prowess she mimed a series of elaborate ninja poses. "Chop, chop."

Cabot put his cold pipe aside. "Connection keeps moving west. Alignment's slipping. May not even be able to get back through to my own maze anymore. Though I guess it doesn't matter does it? This is where I go from, isn't it?"

She nods, then wipes at her eyes. "I think so."

"You're not sure?"

"Cabe, New Brunswick was a place that existed five centuries ago. Am I sure? No, not really."

He snorts again. "You're very pretty."

"You really do have cataracts."

"And full of moxie, to boot. Think I'd like you to kiss me on the cheek before I die."

She offered him a wan smile. "Okay," she said sadly.

The sun was setting, the air golden with dust. The horizon turned aquamarine. The conifers swayed in a cool breeze, the moist air threatening snow. Phobos was a crescent in the south, Deimos a dot in the west. Somewhere between them, faint and blue and twinkling through the veil of a virginal atmosphere, the Earth.

She peeled away the auroch-head mantle and kissed his parchment-soft cheek as he faded. One corner of his toothless mouth curled. "Goodbye, Véronqiue," he nearly managed to say.

"Goodbye, Minotaur," she said, then closed his eyes with her fingertips.


Fin.


CONNECTED STORIES
Robots Bury the Dead | Stubborn Town | The Extra Cars | The Secret Mathematic

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