THE STATUE GARDEN AT DUNCAN'S BLISS
My morning began with a concussive series of horrors.
My dream world was antiseptic and warm, permeated by the echoey, tinny murmurs over the intercom system. Somewhere, a machine beeped. I smelled Nurse Randa and rejoiced to be safe in my ward. I opened my eyes. The vicious cat was sitting on my chest, staring into my eyes with its unholy, malformed pupils.
I screamed and jerked. The cat dashed away with a sort of screeching howl. I sat on the floor and went to rub the gashes on my neck, but screamed again when I found the area to be blazing with pain.
Wincing and breathing hard I turned around to manoeuvre my way outside, but found the tiny doorway blocked by the fearsome face of a monstrous albino ape, eyes hard and lips sneering. "Buh!" I said, in a shining moment of eloquence and poise.
"Who the fire are you?" the ape demanded, the hair around its face flexing weirdly as it spoke.
Pish's reedy voice sounded outside: "I told you, his name is Simon!"
I nodded. "Simonithrat Fell. Please don't hurt me."
"Come out of there!" commanded the hairy ape person, withdrawing from the way and stepping aside on the platform. It creaked ominously under his weight.
I crawled out on my hands and knees and straightened slowly, adjusting my robe and retying the sash. I regarded the burly, imposing figure that stood over me, the dappled morning sunlight playing across his broad face. He was dressed in a set of clothes so worn and sullied it was difficult to discern the borders where the frayed fabric gave way to his dirt-smudged skin. Pish loitered behind his leg, apparently oblivious to the smell.
"Good morning Pish," I said. "Is this...a friend of yours?"
"It's Dad," said Pish.
"Hello, Dad," I offered.
"He's my father," Pish clarified.
Dad frowned. "Hush, Pish." He looked me up and down with his keen green eyes, the colour of wet grass. "Are you on the run?" I nodded mutely. "You're in some kind of trouble?" I nodded again. He considered this for a moment, chewing his lip the same way his son did. "You hurt anybody?" he asked.
"No sir, Dad," I replied.
"You can call me Duncan," he said. "I understand my boy has been running food out to you."
"That's true, Duncan."
"Around here," he continued, "we all work for our bread."
I nodded soberly. "I understand."
A long pause. Duncan gazed into my eyes shamelessly, chewing his lower lip, a furrow flickering across his brow. "Why don't you come up to the farm and do a few chores for me? How would that be by you, Mr. Fell?"
Surprised, I looked up. "Fine," I said. "Please, yes."
"I love you, Dad," whispered Pish.
So that is how I came to be in the employ of Duncan Menteith, a giant, quiet man who appeared periodically throughout the day to watch me at my work. I would fork aside the last bale of tied hay and there Duncan would be, standing across the barn, a long leaf of grass dangling out of the nest of hair on his face. He would give me a nod, and I'd go find Pish to show me the next task.
Beyond the barn and the fields was the house where Duncan and Pish lived, a dilapidated building of wood with one end canting downward at an alarming angle. The yard outside was littered with rusted equipment, chunks of plastic, and nonfunctional robots with tall grass growing between their legs. Across the distance of the fields I at first mistook them for men, but by my third passage on my way from one task to another I noticed that none of the gentlemen with such exceptional posture had moved an iota.
At Pish's direction I filled long troughs with slop to feed some pink and brown creatures covered in white hair, whom Pish called "hoggerchinas." I learned that eggs somehow come out of loud, brown birds (who bear a name in common with a food I've eaten called "chicken"), and I learned to sort the eggs by weight. I moved a pile of stones from one side of a field to another. Pish and I had lunch sitting on a tree-stump behind the barn, and then we pulled weeds out of a garden where different kinds of food were stuck in the ground, like tiny trees with discoloured tomatoes on them, and cucumber slices assembled into a single green oblong.
Pish brought over a red, irregular fruit about the size of a large apple. It was covered in tiny seeds. "Try it," he said. I bit into its soft flesh, its juice making my cheeks tingle in the oddest way. My mouth was suffused with flavor and aroma. "Do you like it?" asked Pish. "It's called a strawberry."
"That is the most delicious thing I have ever tasted," I swore.
Pish giggled. "Just you wait til supper."
When we were called in we put aside our work brushing the morrels' sleek, orange coats and made for the house. Pish sprinted directly to the door but I found myself hesitating to so blithely cross the strange statue garden of weed and vine-entwined metal figures standing sightless in the yellow grass. Awkwardly, I bowed my head to each side of the group as I shuffled along the dirt path between them and followed Pish through the door.
The inside of the house made the tree-house look like a palace. It was dark, and objects of all shapes and sizes were strewn about the floor, smells of all musks and tangs commingling heavily in the air. Pish led me to a dingy sofa and we sat down. He pulled over a wooden table so dirty it was black, and kicked aside a pile of kipple so we could stretch out our legs. Pish pulled three stained napkins out of a drawer, handing one to me and tucking another into the front of his shirt. "Are we having strawberries?" I asked hopefully.
"No," he replied. "Dad's cooking."
I became aware of the mix of scents in the air permeating the house's general funk -- overlapping, intense and shifting from second to second. I began to salivate, and swallowed with a gulp.
A door on the opposite wall I had not been aware of pushed open suddenly, presenting Duncan framed by a bloom of rolling steam. He stepped up and deposited two platters of hot morsels on the table before us and then swept back into what must have been his kitchen. A moment later he re-emerged with another steaming tray in one hand and a stack of plates in the other. He sat down on the sofa beside us, which lurched under his weight, and efficiently doled out three identical helpings.
Pish pushed my plate over to me, and bid me to begin.
And so I wished it would never end!
I can't describe it to you -- I won't describe it to you. It's pointless. It would tarnish the spirit of it. All I can say is that I had my complete understanding of the concept of food totally re-engineered over the course of a single meal. It was transcendent! I knew art, and my body liked it.
The portions were small, proportioned in craftfully divergent and complementary sensations, decorated like little dollops of sculpture. I struggled not to lick my plate, and settled instead for licking my fingers. I looked up to see Pish and Duncan watching me. "What did you think of that, Mr. Fell?" rumbled Duncan.
I licked my lips and closed my eyes. "I think I shall spend my entire life in debt to you for what you have given me tonight, no matter what I do."
Duncan's furry face split into a wide grin. "That's what food is for. Mere nutrition is for squirrels."
"I feel like I have a new religion," I told him.
"I'm glad to do it for you, Mr. Fell." He stood up and wiped his hands on his pants. "Lest I forget how," he added cryptically, collecting the plates and disappearing into the kitchen.
"My dad is the best chef in the galaxy," Pish told me.
"That is obvious to me," I agreed.
A large, brown, wolf-like animal snortled over to us, and inserted its muzzle into my crotch. My eyes widened with alarm but Pish just laughed. "That's my dog," he explained. "Simon, meet Fartles."
"Hello Fartles," I said.
Fartles farted ponderously, an eye-watering aroma wafting over us and erasing the lingering air of the magnificent dinner. I sighed, and waved my hand before my nose resignedly. The dog licked my wrist and shuffled away into the shadows again.
Duncan lit a spark in the corner, and the light revealed a hearth. In a matter of a moment a cozy blaze was flickering, orange and gold and green. "I've only seen fire in pictures," I said in awe. "The reproductions do it no justice."
Duncan regarded me for a long moment, and then withdrew a tall bottle and poured out two equal portions into grimy glass cups. "Time for bed, Pish," he murmured. Pish kissed him on the only part of his cheek devoid of hair, a small patch just beneath the eye, and retreated into another part of the house with a wave.
Duncan sat back into the sofa and put his feet on the table. He watched the fire for a few moments before sipping his from his cup. "Oh yes," he said.
I drank. The liquid was pungent but pleasing, like flowers with an edge. I drank again. "What do you call this, Duncan?" I felt a little lightheaded, and my lips went slightly numb. "It's marvellous."
"Wine," said Duncan. "It's called wine. A fifty-eight Mavrodafni, from Reneti."
We drank in silence for a while, and then Duncan spoke again, eyes on the fire. "Pish and I have been on the run for nearly his whole life. I tell you this so you understand the risk I take, accepting you into our home."
"Thank you," I said.
"But my boy can read people, and he said you have a good soul. I've watched you work and I've watched you eat, and I believe it." He sighed. "Good people can be few and far between. I was a good man, once."
"Are you not a good man now?"
"Maybe. Maybe not. Society reckons not. I do the best I can. I try to make life worth living for my boy. I can't escape what I did, but I have the conviction to take responsibility for it. But Pish comes first. If I had let them take me away I wouldn't see him again until he was a man, and someone else's son." He finished his drink in a gulp. "When he can stand on his own, I'll turn myself in."
"Because you deserve to be punished?"
"Maybe," he said again. "Maybe not. But either way what kind of a lesson do I teach my son if I refuse to stand for my actions?"
"I don't know. But I don't know very much. I'm new."
"He's new, too. That's why I'm showing him. You can borrow time, but you can't take back the past. No one can, not even you, Mr. Fell. You'll one day have to reckon for what you've done, too." He leaned over and pulled out another bottle, upending it into our cups. "In the meantime it isn't my place to judge you. Is Simon your real name?"
"As far as I know," I said.
"That's no good. You have clean money, a safe plate?"
I pulled my bits out of my wide, robe pockets. "I have these."
Duncan snorted. "That's faecal money and an unsafe plate, friend. But they're awful pretty. I think I can fix you up. Here, come with me." He gathered my bits into his arms and stumbled into the kitchen.
I wondered at this until I stood up and also felt the world tilt and wheel around me. I chortled giddily and stumbled after him.
In stark contrast to everything else I had seen the kitchen was all gleaming, polished metal -- orderly and cherished and clean, a kind of temple in homage to food. There were rows of reflective utensils hanging above the shining counters, pots and skillets from tonight's dinner pushed over to one side of the range, flotillas of jars bearing neat labels, a cool hum of machinery. A silver robot with elaborate curlicues on its untarnished carapace was washing our dishes.
Beyond a set of great wide refrigerators was a tidy workbench and a stool. Duncan sat on the stool and placed my bits on the workbench. He slid open a drawer and extracted a handful of tiny tools, and then attached a series of wires to my wallet and my plate. "This will allow us to browse without being tracked," he muttered, eyes fixed on his work.
"Okay," I said.
"Jeremiah!" he barked. The silver robot stepped up and bowed its head. Duncan commanded, "Establish a library signal, wrapped and scented. Extra safety."
"Sir," replied Jeremiah. He did not move. After a moment he said, "The connection has been established." His speech was crisp and clear but accented by a strange, sing-song lilt.
"Is your robot singing?" I asked.
"No, he just talks that way because he's from Eridani. Bloody court accent. I don't have another voice module."
Duncan made some final adjustments with his tools and then invited me to slip my finger into the end of the thimble-shaped wallet. I did. A slurry of text scrolled across a small round readout on the workbench. Duncan snorted again.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"Nothing's wrong. You're rich, that's all. Stupid rich."
"I don't suppose I can spend any of it though, can I?"
"Sure you can. You need just to put it through a safe wallet, first. I can hook you up for ten percent of the balance."
"That's very generous of you, Duncan."
"Ten percent of your balance is a lot of money, Simon."
While he did his work he said I could thumb through the contents of my plate safely, so I picked it up. It didn't show anything when I pointed it around the room, except when I faced Jeremiah -- for him the plate identified his model and make, his year of construction and his legally registered owner (somebody named Terron Volmash, apparently).
In playing with the controls I somehow found myself confronted with the image of a woman. Her black hair was tied into elaborate braids, the end of one she held in her hand loosely as she regarded something out of the frame, her profile serene. I was lost in the picture when I felt Duncan's breath beside me. "Who's that?" he asked.
"I think she's my wife," I said, tilting the plate so I could see a little more of the front of her face.
"You think?" echoed Duncan.
I tabbed forward and was presented with an image of a young boy and slightly older girl, smiling as they lay back on a grassy hill under a grey sky. Their eyes were folded and slanted like mine. "These are probably our children," I said softly, my finger tracing the girl's face on the surface of the plate. "I don't know them."
Duncan squeezed my shoulder. "You should. You can't escape your past. And if they're your kids you owe them a future." He handed me my wallet. "You can stay here with us and work as long as you like, but it seems to me you have some affairs to attend to, Simon."
"They'll find me if I try to see them."
"No they won't. I'll fix your plate. Your wallet's already good, re-routed six ways from Starday. You just need to be a little more careful. We'll need to encode a new identity into your bits."
"You...you would do this for me?"
Duncan nodded and smiled sadly. "If it means those kids get their father back, by fire I will, Simon. You do your part, I'll do mine."
I was moved by his high valuation of kinship. I was moved by his love for his boy, and the love he extended to me, a fool stranger. In Duncan I met my first example of a man.