Sleepside: The Collected Fantasies, p.1Greg Bear
The Collected Fantasies
Introduction: On Losing the Taint of Being a Cannibal
The White Horse Child
Richie by the Sea
Through Road No Whither
The Way of All Ghosts
Introduction: On Losing the Taint of Being a Cannibal
by Greg Bear
I'm reminded of the line delivered by Joseph Bologna in the motion picture comedy, The Big Bus. His character, Dan Torrance, once drove a bus through Donner Pass, and of course got snowed in. Desperation quickly set in among the passengers, and some odd recipes were resorted to. Torrance pleads that he did not know what was in the soup, adding, "One lousy foot, and they call you a cannibal for the rest of your life!"
Writing science fiction is one of those odd activities, like being a cannibal, that marks you permanently, even should you later become a vegan.
The odd relationship most people have with science—awed fascination, not infrequently dismay and distrust, and guilty dependence—guarantees a mixed reaction among the reading public: "You actually enjoy science? Writing about it, making it up? How interesting."
Their tone of voice tells you that you are now marked forever in their minds.
Science fiction explores the outer limits of the current Western paradigm, science; its playground is all that we know about the universe, and what we imagine we might eventually know.
Many of us, at one time or another, enjoy playing with previous paradigms—mind over matter, magic, dream logic, and so on. Literature does not play favorites; excellent stories have been written in all these areas.
A science fiction writer who writes fantasy, however, is regarded by some as an odd bird indeed. Write science fiction, become well known for it, and—well, your fantasy stories become almost invisible. All those times when you weren't a cannibal—simply forgotten.
Yet most of the great science fiction writers have written a great deal of fantasy, and I have, as well. But prejudices and snobbery on both sides of the fence have grown in the past ten or fifteen years.
I've never thought of my fantasy stories as dabbling or slumming. They represent an important part of my writing. Some of my very finest work is fantasy. The first novel I ever finished—an early version of what would later be published as The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage—was fantasy. My second published novel, Psychlone, is a ghost story, heavily influenced by Stephen King. In real life I've even gone hunting ghosts in a world-famous hotel, just like Carnacki, though without his spectacular success.
I love fantasy.
Perhaps by gathering some of my fantasy in one volume, I can convince the world that I've had at least a few moments when I was not a cannibal.
But I won't bet on it.
Being a writer of science fiction is just so odd.
It lingered in the air, a dead and sterile word made for whispers. Vultures fanned her hair with feather-duster wings. Up the dictionary’s page ran her lean finger, wrapped in skin like pink parchment, and she found Andrews, Roy Chapman, digging in the middle of the Gobi, lifting fossil dinosaur eggs cracked and unhatched from their graves.
She folded the large, heavy book on her finger. The compressed pages gripped it with a firm, familiar pressure.
With her other hand, Miss Abigail Coates explored her face, vacant of any emotion she was willing to reveal. She did not enjoy her life. Her thin body gave no pleasure, provoked no surprise, spurred no uncontrollable passion. She took no joy in the bored pain of people in the streets. She felt imprisoned by the sun that shed a revealing, bleaching light on city walls and pavement, its dust-filled shafts stealing into her small apartment.
Miss Coates was fifty and, my God the needle in her throat when she thought of it, she had never borne a child; not once had she shared her bed with a man.
There had been, long ago, a lonely, lifeless love with a boy five years younger than she. She had hoped he would blunt the needle pain in her throat; he had begged to be given the chance. But she had spurned him. I shall use my love as bait and let men pay the toll. That had been her excuse, at any rate, until the first flush of her youth had faded. Even after that, even before she had felt dry, she had never found the right man.
“Pitiful,” she said with a sigh, and drew herself up from the overstuffed chair in her small apartment, standing straight and lean at five feet seven inches. I weep inside, then read the dear Bible and the even more dear dictionary. They tell me weeping is a sin. Despair is the meanest of my sins—my few sins.
She looked around the dry, comfortable room and shielded her eyes from the gloom of the place where she slept, as if blinded by shadow. The place wasn’t a bedroom because in a bedroom youslept with a man or men and she had none. Her eyes moved up the door frame, nicked in one corner where clumsy movers had knocked her bed against the wood, twenty years ago; down to the worn carpet that rubbed the bottoms of her feet like raw canvas. To the chair behind her, stuffing poking from its the middle. To the wallpaper, chosen by someone else, stained with water along the cornice from an old rain. And finally she looked down at her feet, toes frozen in loose, frayed nylons, toenails thick and well-manicured; all parts of her body looked after but the core, the soul.
She went into the place where she slept and lay down. The sheets caressed her, as they were obliged to do, wrinkles and folds in blankets rubbing her thighs, her breasts. The pillow accepted her peppery hair, and in the dark, she ordered herself to sleep.
The morning was better. There was a whole day ahead. Something might happen.
Afternoon passed like a dull ache. In the twilight she fixed her pale dinner of potatoes and veal.
In the dark, she sat in her chair with the two books at her feet and listened to the old building crack and groan as it settled in for the night. She stared at the printed flowers on the wallpaper that someone must have once thought pretty.
The morning was fine. The afternoon was hot and sticky and she took a walk, wearing sunglasses. She watched all the young people on this fine Saturday afternoon. They hold hands and walk in parks. There, on that bench; she’ll be in trouble if she keeps that up.
She went back to the patient apartment that always waited, never judging, ever faithful and unperturbed.
The evening passed slowly. She became lazy with heat. By midnight a cool breeze fluttered the sun-browned curtains in the window and blew them in like the dingy wings of street birds.
Miss Coates opened her dictionary, looking for comfort, and found words she wanted, but words she didn’t need. They jumped from the pages and would not leave her alone. She didn’t think them obscene; she was not a prude. She loved the sounds of all words, and these words were marvelous, too, when properly entrained with other words. They could be part of rich stories, rich lives. The sound of them made her tremble and ache.
The evening ended. Again, she could not cry. Sadness was a moist, dark thing, the color of mud.
She had spent her evenings like this, with few variations, for the past five years.
The yellow morning sunlight crept across the ironing board and over her fanciest dress, burgundy in shadows, orange in the glare. “I need a lover,” she told herself firmly. But one found lovers in offices and she didn’t work; in trains going to distant countries, and she never left town. “I need common sense, and self-control. That part of my life is over. I need to stop thinking like a teenager.” But the truth was, she
It had kept her away from danger so many times.
Her name, Coates, was not in the dictionary. There was coati, coatimundi, coat of arms, coat of mail, and then coauthor, Miss Coauthor, partner and lover to a handsome writer. They would collaborate, corroborate, celebrate.
She shut the book.
She drew the curtains on the window and slowly tugged the zipper down the back of her dress with the practiced flourish of a crochet hook. Her fingers rubbed the small of her back, nails scraping. She held her chin high, eyes closed to slits.
A lone suitor came through the dark beyond the window to stroke her skin—a stray breeze, neither hot nor cool. Sweat lodged in the cleft between her breasts. She was proud of her breasts; they were small but still did not sag when she removed her bra. She squatted and marched her hands behind her to sit and then lie down on the floor. Spreading her arms against the rough carpet, Miss Coates pressed her chin into her clavicle and peered at her breasts, boyish against the prominent ribs. Untouched. Unspoiled goods.
She cupped them in both hands. She became a thin crucifixion with legs straight and toes together. Her head lay near the window. She looked up to see the curtains fluttering silently like her lips. Mouth open. Tongue rubbing the backs of her teeth. She smoothed her hands to her stomach and let them rest there, curled on the flat warmth.
My stomach doesn’t drape. I am not so undesirable. No flab, few wrinkles. My thighs are not dimpled with gross flesh.
She rolled over and propped herself on one elbow to refer to the dictionary, then the Bible.
Abigail Coates mouthing a word: Lover.
The dictionary sat tightly noncommittal in buckram, the Bible silent in black leather.
She gently pushed the Bible aside. For all its ancient sex and betrayal and the begetting of desert progeny, it would do nothing for her. She pulled the dictionary closer. “Help me,” she said. “Book of all books, massive thing I can hardly lift, every thought lies in you, all human possibilities. Everything I feel, everything that can be felt, lies waiting to be described in combinations of the words you contain. You hold all possible lives, people and places I’ve never seen, things dead and things unborn. Haven of ghosts, home of tyrants, birthplace of saints.”
She knew she would have to be audacious. What she was about to do would be proof of her finally having cracked, like those dinosaur eggs in the Gobi; dead and sterile and cracked.
“Surely you can make a man. Small word, little effort. You can even tell me how to make a man from you.” She could almost imagine a man rising from the open book, spinning like a man-shaped bird cage filled with light.
The curtains puffed.
“Go,” she said. She crossed her legs in a lotus next to the thick book and waited for the dust of each word, the microscopic, homeopathic bits of ink, each charged with the shape of a letter, to sift between the fibers of the paper and combine.
Dry magic. The words smelled sweet in the midnight breeze. Dead bits of ink, charged with thought, arise.
Her tongue swelled with the dryness of the ink. She unfolded and lay flat on her stomach to let the rough carpet mold her skin with crossword puzzle lines, upon which the right words could be written, her life solved.
Miss Coates flopped the dictionary around to face her, then threw its clumps of pages open to the middle. Her finger searched randomly on the page and found a word. She gasped. Man, it said, clear as could be next to her immaculate, colorless nail. Man! She moved her finger and sucked in her breath.
“There is a man in you!” she told the book and laughed. It was a joke, that’s all; she was not that far gone. Still grinning, she rubbed her finger against the inside of her cheek and pressed the dampness onto the word. “Here,” she said. “A few of my cells.” She was clever, she was scientific, she was brilliant! “Clone them.” Then she thought that possibility through and said, “But don’t make him look like me or think like me. Change him with your medical words, plastic surgery and eugenics and phenotype.”
The page darkened under the press of her finger. She swung the dictionary shut and returned to her lotus.
As my trunk rises from the flower of my legs and the seat of my womb, so, man, arise from the book of all books.
Would it thunder? Only silence. The dictionary trembled and the Bible looked dark and somber. The yellow bulb in the shaded lamp sang like a dying moth. The air grew heavy. Don’t falter, she told herself. Don’t lose faith, don’t drop the flower of your legs and the seat of your womb. A bit of blood? Or milk from unsucked breasts? Catalysts... Or, God forbid, something living, a fly between the pages, the heart of a bird, or—she shuddered, ill with excitement, with a kind of belief—the clear seed of a dead man.
The book almost lifted its cover. It breathed.
“That was it,” she whispered in awe. “The words know what to do.”
Frost clung to its brown binding. The dictionary sucked warmth from the air. The cover flew back. The pages riffled, flew by, flapped spasmodically, and two stuck together, struggling, bulging... and then splitting.
A figure flew up, arms spread, and twirled like an ice skater. It sucked in dust and air and heat, sucked sweat from her skin, and turned dry emptiness into damp flesh.
“Handsome!” she cried. “Make him handsome and rugged and kind, and smart as I am, if not smarter. Make him like a father but not my father and like a son and a lover especially a lover, warm, and give him breath that melts my lips and softens my hair like steam from jungles. He should like warm dry days and going to lakes and fishing, but no—he should like reading to me more than fishing, and he should like cold winter days and ice-skating with me he could if you will allow me to suggest he could be brown-haired with a shadow of red and his cheeks rough with fresh young beard I can watch grow and he should—”
His eyes! They flashed as he spun, molten beacons still undefined. She approved of the roughed-in shape of his nose. His hair danced and gleamed, dark brown with a hint of red. Arms, fingers, legs, crawled with words. An ant’s nest of dry ink foots crawled over his feet, tangling with heels and ankles and toes. Arms and legs fought for dominance up the branches and into the trunk, where torso and breasts and other words fought them back. The battle of words went on for minutes, fierce and hot.
Then—what had been a dream, a delusion, suddenly became magic. The words spun, blurred, became real flesh and real bone.
His breasts were firm and square and dark-nippled. The hair on his chest was dark and silky. He was still spinning. She cried out, staring at his groin.
“Yes!” she said. “I have no clothes for men.”
A suit, a pink shirt with cuff links and pearl decorations.
His eyes blinked and his mouth opened and closed. His head drooped and a moan flew out like a whirled weight cut loose from a string.
“Stop!” she shouted. “Please stop, he’s finished!”
The man stood on the dictionary, knees wobbly, threatening to topple. She jumped up from the floor to catch him, but he fell away from her and collapsed on the carpet beside the chair. The book lay kicked and sprawled by his feet, top pages wrinkled and torn.
Miss Coates stood over the man, hands fluttering at her breasts. He lay on his side, chest heaving, eyes closed. Her wide gaze darted from point to point on his body, lower lip held by tiny white teeth. After a few minutes, she was able to look away from the man. She squinted more closely at the dictionary, frowned, then bent to riffle through the pages. Every page was blank. The dictionary had given everything it had.
“I am naked,” she told herself, stretching out her hands, using the realization to shock herself to sensibility. She went into the place where she slept to put on some clothes. Away from the man, she wondered what she would call him. He probably did not have a name, not a Christian name at any rate. It seemed appropriate to call him by a name like ev
“Webster,” she said, nodding sharply at the obvious. “I’ll call him Webster.”
She returned to the living room and looked at the man. He seemed to be resting peacefully. How could she move him to a more comfortable place? The couch was too small to hold his ungainly body; he was very tall. She measured him with the tape from her sewing kit. Six feet two inches. His eyes were still shut; what color were they? She squatted beside him, face flushed, thinking thoughts she warned herself she must not think, not yet.
She wore her best dress, wrapped in smooth dark burgundy, against which her pale skin showed to best advantage. It was one o’clock in the morning, however, and she was exhausted. “You seem comfortable where you are,” she told the man, who did not move. “I’ll leave you on the floor.”
Abigail Coates went into her bedroom to sleep. Tired as she was, she could not just close her eyes and drift off. She felt like shouting for joy and tears dampened the pillow and moistened her pepper hair.
In the darkness, he breathed. Dreaming, did he cause the words to flow through her drowsing thoughts? Or was it simply his breath filling the house with the odor of printer’s ink?
In the night, he moved. Shifting an arm, a leg, sending atoms of words up like dust. His eyes flickered open, then closed. He moaned and was still again.
Abigail Coates’s neck hair pricked with the first rays of morning and she awoke with a tiny shriek, little more than a high-pitched gasp. She rolled from her stomach onto her back and pulled up the sheet and bedspread.
Webster stood in the doorway, smiling. She could barely see him in the dawn light. Her eyelids were gummy with sleep. “Good morning, Regina,” he said.
Regina Abigail Coates. Everyone had called her Abbie, when there had been friends to call her anything. No one had ever called her Regina.
“Regina,” Webster repeated. “It reminds one of queens and Canadian coins.”
How well he spoke. How full of class.
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