Rumpus Exclusive: An Excerpt from River Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts

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On the subject of amputations—

Seventy years into Matilda’s voyage, days after the disaster that claimed the bulk of the Guard’s high-ranking members, a scientist named Frederick Hauser proposed a solution to the problem of the Tarlands’ declining population.

It was wasteful, he declared, to recycle the Tarlanders’ defective bodies into Matilda when the steady pulse of an electrical current could reanimate them as perfect, obedient workers. It didn’t matter that the genetic anomaly endemic to their people might lead to their extinction if their spiritless cadavers could hoe fields effectively. No productivity loss.

The few who’d survived the disaster crinkled their brows at Hauser’s scheme. They argued that every creature in the Heavens’ creations deserved the dignity of death.

According to Hauser, however, Tarlanders were not of the Heavens. Even beasts of the field were made male and female, were they not? So they might multiply and spread the Heavens’ bounty. Tarlanders did not come male and female—everything but.

In his speech to the Guard’s remaining members, pre- served forever in a phonograph cylinder, Hauser explained that Tarlanders came from the Realm of Chaos—the world that existed before the Heavens overruled it, replacing nonsense with divine structure. Their demon forms could not conform to the Holy Order set forth by the Heavens.

(Aster knew he referred to what the Surgeon once called hereditary suprarenal dysregula. Due to a broad range of hormonal disturbances, Tarlander bodies did not always present as clearly male and female as the Guard supposed they ought. This explained Aster’s hairiness and muscular build despite being born without the external organs that produced testosterone.)

The man who’d taken the role as interim sovereign cleared his throat and, judging by the sound of a clinking glass on the recording, drank from a glass of water. He said that he could not allow the degradation of a creature in the Heavens’ realm, whether that creature came from somewhere else or not.

Hauser countered with a compromise. Via amputation, he could use body parts rather than the body whole. Electrified arms to pull rakes. Electrified hands for sewing.

The Interim Sovereign asked Hauser to leave, but the meeting carried on after his departure. They debated the merits of the scientist’s idea. The recent disaster meant Matilda was in turmoil. Such a program might reify the supremacy of the Sovereign and his Holy Order of the Guard.

Ultimately, however, they decided the plan required too many resources and too much manpower to implement, especially with their depleted ranks. Their meeting moved on to other business before the phonograph recording cut off abruptly.

Aster had asked the Surgeon if any of the record cylinders explained the event that had weakened them so substantially. He shook his head. Most recordings of the transitional Guard’s meetings had been destroyed.

Aster carried that knowledge inside her. These men had the means and opportunity to destroy evidence, to protect their legacy, but not one of them thought earnest discussion of reanimating a person’s limbs for the purpose of manual labor warranted deletion from their official record. Forget the horrifying cruelty—the incompetent science of it all.

* * *

“Wait, now, yo’wa, not so quick,” said Flick’s great-grandmeema. She tugged Aster’s suspenders and dragged her back through the cabin hatch. “Take this.” She held out a large gray cloak.

“I should be—” Aster started, but stopped herself when she remembered Flick’s anti-should tirade. “I have to be going.”

“See if it fits. Won’t take but a second to try it on,” Flick’s great-grandmeema said, reminding Aster of her Aint Melusine. The woman who raised Aster had similar levels of persistence.

Flick’s great-meema smiled, revealing intermittent metal teeth, sloppily rooted. Whoever had installed the implants neglected to perform a sinus augmentation and gum graft on the decayed gingiva and posterior maxilla.

Aster set down her medicine bag and took hold of the offering. Curled sheep’s wool lined the inside, off-white and dirt-stamped.

“It’s been in my family since before Matilda, I reckon,” the old woman said. “I never had much use for it before these energy rations, except for those early-born babies who couldn’t keep their temperature up. I’ve washed out all the spit-up. It’s yours now. You like it?”

Aster squeezed the soft lining. “It’s too dear.”

The woman snorted and waved a hand. “I’d say it’s a pretty fair trade for the stove, no? We got quite the bargain.”

In the corridor, a guard shouted orders, and Aster moved to the side where she couldn’t be seen in the cabin. “But you supplied the materials for the stove,” she said.

“Materials are meaningless without knowledge, which is what you gave us. A cloak for a stove, that’s the trade.”

Aster slipped her hand into her left trouser pocket to check her watch. If she wanted time in her botanarium before returning home to Q deck, she needed to leave now. “Really, it was nothing. I must go.”

“How can you call such a gift nothing? If we’d known how to make one of those things two weeks ago, Flick might never got frostbite, certainly not bad enough to turn to gangrene. That stove could’ve saved my little one’s foot,” Flick’s great-meema said, dark face stern. “If we can get our hands on more alcohol—and believe me, we can; we Tide Wing women can get our hands on anything—when we do, we can save another from my great-grandbaby’s fate.” She tightened the loose-knit shawl around her neck before continuing: “You’re a smart one. You know as good as me and as good as Flick that there is no Promised Land. Matilda’s an orphan, a daughter of dead gods. But the Ancestors is real and their spirits are at work. Baby Sun giving out is how they making a fuss. Tryna tell us it’s time to move, to act. They gave us the same message twenty-five years ago, but we didn’t listen. So they had to make their message louder, break Baby Sun even more. You hear me?”

Aster didn’t know if the woman meant hear literally or as a euphemism for understand. Depending on which it was, Aster’s answer would be different.

“We got to help each other survive long enough to find out what the spirits have in store. That means not dying of cold. Please, try on the cloak.”

Aster unstrapped her minigenerator from her back and set it down next to the ice chest and medicine bag. “Fine,” she said, then slid on the cloak.

“Magnificent,” Flick’s great-meema observed. “Do you like it?”

The fabric weighed six or seven pounds, and it pressed down on Aster’s body. “I do. It is warm and pleasingly heavy. My sincerest gratitude, eldwa.”

The woman tilted her head, squinted her eyes. “You have a harsh accent,” she said. “It’s elwa. Not eldwa. Elwa. See how much better that sounds? Soft like syrup. Though I prefer you not call me that at all. Who wants to be reminded they are old? Call me he’lawa. I am a healer, like you. Well, not quite like you. You’re a little off, aren’t you?” The woman grabbed Aster’s chin, turning her face so they were forced eye to eye. “You’re one of those who has to tune the world out and focus on one thing at a time. We have a word for that down here, women like you. Insiwa. Inside one. It means you live inside your head and to step out of it hurts like a caning.”

Aster had been called worse: simple, dumb, defective, half-witted dog, get on all fours and spread. Not all there.

But Aster was all there. She felt herself existing. Perhaps the derogative referred to her motherlessness. A part of each person lay in their past, in their parentage and grandparentage, and if that history was missing, were said people incomplete?

“I’ll return to examine Flick as soon as I’m able,” Aster said, and bade goodbye once again. She felt thankful that the woman let her go this time.

Two guards stood at either side of the corridor. Aster had a pass to be away from her home deck but she kept her head down, not wishing to draw attention to herself. Pass or not, they might have a mind to start trouble.

A shaved-headed teenager sold blankets in the middle of the corridor, and patrons lined up to barter. They carried bars of soap, swaths of cotton, ivory combs.

Subfreezing temperatures weakened what were already not particularly robust immune systems, and people hobbled to their quarters, wrapped in knit scarves that provided little barrier. Aster thought she should give her new cloak to one of them, but it felt too good around her.

An elderly woman shouted at three children, and they cried. Tears made the charcoal circled about their eyes run down their cheeks in watercolor swirls. They did that here on T deck—smudged black onto their faces in thick, wide circles. Rakkun eyes, they called it, after the scavenging animal; for they descended from a scavenging people.

So they said. So they told themselves. So their stories went. This far from the past, no one could truly know their history.

The children were siblings, going by the look of them. All three shared the same murky gray irises, the color near identical to the ashy swells beneath their eyes. She’d seen them before on the Field Decks during one of her shifts. They didn’t work near her, of course, being from different decks, but she’d noticed them in passing.

The elderly woman pointed a bony finger at them, and they ran away, right into Aster. They scurried past her without an apology, patting their pockets to make sure nothing had fallen out during the bump.

Lowdeckers, Aster included, hoarded. Pockets got new life as homes for various and sundry collectibles—poppyserum, antibiotics, seeds, thread, screws, thimbles. Aster had stolen whole stalks of corn from the fields before. Slid them up her trouser leg.

“Watch where you’re going,” one of the children called over their shoulder, and she did. After Tide Wing came Tributary Wing. Aster took the staircase downward, leaving T deck for her botanarium. There, at least, there was some kind of quiet.

***

Rumpus original art by Zea Barker.

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Excerpted from An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon. Copyright © 2017 by Rivers Solomon. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Akashic Books. 

Read Claire Vaye Watkins’s interview with Rivers about An Unkindness of Ghosts here.


Rivers Solomon graduated from Stanford University with a degree in comparative studies in race and ethnicity and holds an MFA in fiction writing from the Michener Center for Writers. Though originally from the United States, they currently live in Cambridge, England, with their family. An Unkindness of Ghosts is their debut novel. More from this author →