“How Long is the Road?”



“How Long is the Road?”

Anthony Sheenard
Translated by Gergely Kamper


How long is the road in metres
from the sun down to the blood-orange?
–Pablo Neruda

The two of them were sitting on top of a hill near the city staring at the distance where they knew the sea was stretching.

“They wanted to take a sample of Jensen,” Kathlen said. “The fool walked into a zemota-park to take a look around and they attacked him just like that.”

She laughed so hard she cried. Her laughter was missing the easiness of candor, though, it was somehow forced. Kathlen felt it wasn’t all right and paused. Only a faint, sad smile lingered on in the corner of her mouth.

“He couldn’t get himself out,” she went on in a more withheld manner. Meekly even. “He tried to talk them out of it but in the end the only thing he could do was run. Which would have been okay, but he couldn’t find the way out, and he would still be tumbling up and down between the nestbeds if he hadn’t realized in the nick of time that the number of the zemota nests decreases farther from the sea. I’d told him about this some time ago and he remembered.”

Kathlen glanced at the small squatting zemon next to her.

“This is the time for taking samples,” Artonoto said. He shaped the earthly sounds clearly in the hoarse, whispered voice of the natives.

“Yes, but Jensen is human. What could they do with his cells? This is not how we produce our offspring.”

“This is the time for taking samples for everyone living here. Whether they be from your race or mine. The night is due soon… The sky is getting dark above everyone who lives here now.”

Kathlen folded her arms around her legs and laid her face on her knees. The sun, red seal of wax, hung low in the sky above the distant horizon of woodland. The sun, around which a year equaled a day, as the planet only revolved twice while it navigated around its star.

After ten months of daylight, night was dangerously close. Darkness and frost, which also meant death for the natives. The earth woman couldn’t answer the small zemon; she was just sitting there next to him, and fell asleep. She hadn’t slept for twenty-eight earth hours, and although she had got used to the rhythm of life on the planet, these twenty-eight hours exhausted her both physically and emotionally.

Later, when she woke up, she was alone. She felt awkward as she stood up. She adjusted her clothes and hurried to Artonoto’s home. The zemon was out, and he didn’t even leave a message as to where he had gone.

“And he left alone?” Kathlen was astonished.

“That’s how it is,” another zemon whispered. He spoke like Artonoto: he could hardly make himself understood. He must have learnt it during a unification and may have never used it since. Kathlen leant closer. Natives only reached as high as her waist.

“Where could he have gone?” she asked.

“He may be looking at the forest… Many are looking at the forest now.”

The woman pulled herself upright, and set off among the tube-like, adjoined, erratically winding homes to find Artonoto.

In the distance the trees cracked as the sun lowered its weight on the forest. She was heading in that direction. She found the little zemon faster than she’d hoped she would.

“A trick of the light,” Kathlen said.

“No,” whispered Artonoto and he waved his hand around. From the top of the look-out tower they could see quite far. “The trees are rematerializing. They’re gathering light now. It’s as if their hearts were starting to beat. Up till now they had just stood there, but soon they’ll possess souls. The gates of the fields of the overworld are being opened… Look!”

Kathlen didn’t answer. She had been near the mystic forest, not too close, though, as she didn’t want to offend the zemons’ faith. Then she hadn’t seen any light filtering from the roots of the trees. Neither sacred, nor simple. On the other hand, the natives have much more complex eyes, and this is their world.

“The wind,” she said, “bends the tops of the trees. Nothing happens, but the wind is rising. The wind moves the branches.”

Artonoto didn’t look at her.

“I know,” he said.

Kathlen felt ashamed.

“They’re standing guard,” the zemon added with heartfelt piety. “They’ve been standing guard there for centuries, for millennia even, and they’ve seen all our generations. They may be older than even your race. They’re as old as the universe.”

The woman knew that the forest was inconceivably old, but there was no way he could believe that they were born together with the planet. She didn’t say a word, though. The doubts of science had no say in this matter. The zemon was preparing for death… and he was no different from a human preparing for death.

He was afraid.

As the night approached, the cold arrived in waves from the dark side of the planet. The air had become agreeably mild, at least mild for the earth woman after the long months of unbearable heat.

Artonoto was shivering with cold.

“Let’s go down,” he breathed.

Five hundred steps led from the look-out tower to the ground.

From up there the exhausted ball of fire seemed to provide some more time for the forest, but at the bottom of the tower they were greeted by the sight of trees burning in the light of the setting sun.

The city of the zemons was unusually empty. Kathlen made a remark on that.

“This is so because of the separation,” Artonoto whispered, and he started towards the inner streets. “It’s only natural.”

“Why don’t you stick together?” Kathlen asked.

The zemon chose not to tell her that even the assumption was considered rude. Only a human could ask anything like that. A nice, lovely human.

“Sample taking and then preparation. You’ll have to get ready for the road.”

“Together. As you live, as you think, as you feel. What if you went together, everybody with their spiritual companion?”

Artonoto shook his head like humans do.

“No. We share the light, but we keep the darkness to ourselves. We must tread the road to the overworld alone.”

They were ambling on deserted streets. Kathlen and the tiny zemon by her side with small, limping steps. The town was a maze. It had only one face that looked the same wherever she went, and if she stretched a bit, above the pipes she could see the arching grey or sometimes pink stone roofs, and she could perceive how far this system of tubes reached before it turned back to bite its own tail.

“Where are we heading?”

She couldn’t make sense of the answer.

“Who to?” she tried again.

“I’d like to present you with something.”

Kathlen was watching Artonoto. The zemon was walking on the edge of the lengthened shadows of the walls, on the borderline of light and shadow. The red of the sun took over everywhere: it descended from the sky and settled on the city like a gloomy dream.

One that you can never avoid whether you want to dream or not.

They proceeded through familiar and unfamiliar parts of the city. Kathlen had long been tired, and Artonoto looked exhausted as well. By their own measures the zemon was very old, and he was aging ever faster. She considered carrying him, but even if she was strong enough, she respected him too much to dare suggest anything like that. They walked on in silence.

“Here we are.” Artonoto suddenly stopped.

Kathlen looked around for familiar signs that might help her find out where they actually were. She was sure she’d been here before, but she’d met so many zemons through Artonoto, so many seemingly identical natives, and now she had no idea which one of them they were visiting.

“I’ve already brought you here on a few occasions. True, that was a long time ago,” Artonoto helped. “To Okava’s home.”

Okava was waiting for them in the door covered with a thick curtain. He used to be an abrupt, fast breathing little zemon, but by now his movements had slowed down, and he even seemed smaller as his back got bent. This is just the exterior, she warned herself, but Okava (like Artonoto) became reserved, somehow more distant than he had been a few months before when Kathlen had first met him.

Kathlen had to crawl into the zemon’s home on all fours. It was but a single room, although a two-story one. The furniture and all the objects in the room were made of stone. Pulling her legs under her she knelt down. Her head almost touched the ceiling anyway. Meanwhile Okava took a shapeless object off one of the shelves and gave it to Artonoto, who handed it over to the woman.

“He had fetched it himself from the spreading dark side,” Artonoto whispered.

“What is this?” she asked.

“A flower. It blooms early in the evening and radiates light. It had to be covered.”

Kathlen knew what the approaching night meant to the natives, and now watched the two zemons dubiously.            

“He crossed the boundary of light?”

“He entered the nowhereland,” Artonoto nodded. “Night brings death, and death brings night… And still, Okava crossed the line. He had planned it for long, but he could do it only after the night had crept up from above the eastern sea to the mainland.”

Kathlen was studying the small package in her hands, and she wasn’t about the lift the shawl that was covering it for the world.

“Even in the night, this is the present of our sun,” Okava interrupted quietly. “May it remind you of us.”

“You have no idea how much you have given us.” Artonoto turned away. “You’ve told us about your world, about the people. And I can’t even take this with me.”

Kathlen suddenly felt a lump in her throat.

Outside, the sun was slowly diving under the horizon. Above, the sky was ripped apart, the clouds were the gaps, foam on the back of the blood red sea.

She waited for Artonoto outside the house. Though she had been introduced to the secrets of the zemons’ unification, and she had been present on a few such occasions, now she chose to leave the room. After this one the separation will be final.

Okava didn’t inquire where they were going, and Artonoto didn’t say. Everything that they had ever offered each other during their lives was taken back now. Artonoto couldn’t see with Okava’s eyes any more, he couldn’t hear with his ears, and he couldn’t feel anything through the other. They were separated.

 “Okava was the imagination,” Artonoto whispered later. “Everyone thought I was the imagination, but they were wrong. I was the hand and the mouth…”

Kathlen remained silent.

By then the forest had overcome the sun.

Every city in the west had its own forest, which meant three enormous forests on the only continent of the planet.

 “Go home,” Artonoto whispered.

 “No.”

 “You’re tired.”

 “Just like you. I’m not going.”

Artonoto bent his head aside and looked Kathlen in the eye.

“Why aren’t you going to leave me alone?”

They were rambling aimlessly in the city, but Artonoto didn’t speak any more. The zemons avoided them because of the woman. The streets were deserted now, the natives were trying to find their place, and started towards the forest… They feared they wouldn’t have the strength later.

Kathlen felt the tiredness, too. Although the long walk and the time that passed hung heavily on her shoulders, and her legs were aching, she was faithfully following Artonoto. Once she tried to start a conversation.

“How did Okava dare to cross the boundary? To enter the territory of darkness?”

“Only tradition is stopping us,” the zemon whispered without turning back.

“I thought some ancient fear is what holds you back.”

“That may well be so.”

The kizant was a scrub-like plant which was cultivated outside the city for its fruit, but Kathlen knew that for humans only the leaves proved edible. Artonoto led Kathlen to an orchard of kizants. He himself didn’t eat anything; he was just staring at the woman.

The fruit was sickly, anyway, and fell off at the slightest touch. The taste of the leaves had changed, they’d lost their moistness and were crackling painfully when her teeth started grinding them.

“It would be pointless to head westward,” Artonoto whispered. “The sea is the boundary. We are born out of the sea, the zemota nests are placed there, and that is what would stop us if we wanted a longer life. If we intended to follow the sun. Or the spin of the planet as you suggested.”

Kathlen knelt by his side.

“A long time ago,” the zemon continued, “darkness brought on death. Now darkness rises within ourselves, not in the sky. It is not the night that overcomes us, but our faith. The sentence that is passed is written in our own souls. And that’s something we cannot run away from.”

“You could build ships,” Kathlen said. “In our world there’s a story of a man who built the largest ark in the world so that he’d be able to survive the flood with all the animals. You could survive the night. Together we would build several ships… Plenty of ships. With the aid of human genetics, we could extend your lifespan. I would help you find the antidote for aging, and then you could see your children hatch from those nests.”

She’d been saying that for weeks, but the zemons didn’t accept her proposal. Kathlen had even conducted secret experiments, but the lack of support hindered her efforts so much that she had no chance to make much progress. Not one of the natives was willing to help her. Had they learnt what she was getting at, they might have made her and Jensen leave the planet.

“No one would board those ships.” Artonoto shook his head. “You know it as well as I do.”

Far away in the distance the sun finally slipped under the horizon for another half a year. Fear filled Kathlen’s heart. She turned around.

Behind them, in the east, the dark ribbon of night unfurled.

“Do you know how long you’ll be staying? You and Jensen?” Artonoto asked. They were once more sitting on top of the hill, on the silky, drying canopy of plants. Kathlen may even have slept some while Artonoto was watching the long stretch of fields that were full of small figures trotting towards the forest. The twilight had taken their faces and their names. They were but shadows, feeble, fragile, tired, lonely shadows.

Kathlen pretended not to have heard the question.

“Until the first stars appear.”

Some of those on the field collapsed and they had to stand up without any help from the others. They toiled and strained themselves but not one of them remained lying there.

“It’s far too late,” Artonoto sighed. “They’re the last ones. Most of us have reached the haven. They’re resting now.”

“Okava must have seen the stars,” Kathlen noted quietly.

“He’s seen them, and he showed them just before the separation… But I want to see the lights of the night with my own eyes, and I want to know that one of them is your star.”

“My star.” Kathlen produced a faint smile and lay back on the grass. “Where’s my sun?”

“The stars give us nothing. It was you and Jensen that first told us about the stars.”

“And you…?”

“It can’t be taken from us, neither from those following us. We’ve bequeathed it to the generation after our death. The knowledge lies dormant in the zemota nests.”

From behind their backs the dark ribbon sent grey troops to seize the sky. Even if the night arrived as a murderer, it wouldn’t interfere with the offspring of the zemons. With their inheritance.

The sample takers had already trusted the zemota nests to the stream in the sea that would carry them after the sun, and in which the tiny creatures would hatch. They’d spend the first part of their lives in the water. They’d swim around the planet. They’d start from the western shore of the continent but they’d arrive at the eastern shore – together with the dawn.

“I’m glad you’ve been with us,” Artonoto whispered. It was a very human confession. Tears filled Kathlen’s eyes.

She had long stopped counting how many times she was on the brink of weeping.

“I’m glad, too, that I could be here. With you.”

They were silent for some time.

 “I’m grateful. No one had ever taught me as much about the world as you did…”

Ever since the sun had sunk under the trees it had been gradually becoming colder and colder. Artonoto curled up, shivering with cold. Kathlen put the covered plant on the ground and folded her arms around the zemon.

“From the tower perhaps we could still see the sun,” she said.

“No. It’s a long way away. And I… I’d like to see the stars now… For the first and last time.”

Two colors had taken over the sky by now – grey and red. Two entwining giant specters that stole the physical presence of objects, along with the third specter, the wind. Gentle movement, dazzling shadow-play turned transient into eternal.

The growing blackness of the sky had nothing to do with the mating of the red and the grey: it was conceived as the child of outer space. And it brought on death.

“Do you know how long you’ll be staying? You and Jensen?” Artonoto asked. They were once more sitting on top of the hill, on the silky, drying canopy of plants. Kathlen may even have slept some while Artonoto was watching the long stretch of fields that was full of small figures trotting towards the forest. The twilight had taken their faces and their names. They were but shadows, feeble, fragile, tired, lonely shadows.

Kathlen pretended not to have heard the question.

“Until the first stars appear.”

Some of those on the field collapsed and they had to stand up without any help from the others. They toiled and strained themselves but not one of them remained lying there.

“It’s far too late,” Artonoto sighed. “They’re the last ones. Most of us have reached the haven. They’re resting now.”

“Okava must have seen the stars,” Kathlen noted quietly.

“He’s seen them, and he showed them just before the separation… But I want to see the lights of the night with my own eyes, and I want to know that one of them is your star.”

“My star.” Kathlen produced a faint smile and lay back on the grass. “Where’s my sun?”

“The stars give us nothing. It was you and Jensen that first told us about the stars.”

“And you…?”

“It can’t be taken from us, neither from those following us. We’ve bequeathed it to the generation after our death. The knowledge lies dormant in the zemota nests.”

From behind their backs the dark ribbon sent grey troops to seize the sky. Even if the night arrived as a murderer, it wouldn’t interfere with the offspring of the zemons. With their inheritance.

The sample takers had already trusted the zemota nests to the stream in the sea that would carry them after the sun, and in which the tiny creatures would hatch. They’d spend the first part of their lives in the water. They’d swim around the planet. They’d start from the western shore of the continent but they’d arrive at the eastern shore – together with the dawn.

“I’m glad you’ve been with us,” Artonoto whispered. It was a very human confession. Tears filled Kathlen’s eyes.

She had long stopped counting how many times she was on the brink of weeping.

“I’m glad, too, that I could be here. With you.”

They were silent for some time.

 “I’m grateful. No one had ever taught me as much about the world as you did…”

Ever since the sun had sunk under the trees it had been gradually becoming colder and colder. Artonoto curled up, shivering with cold. Kathlen put the covered plant on the ground and folded her arms around the zemon.

“From the tower perhaps we could still see the sun,” she said.

“No. It’s a long way away. And I… I’d like to see the stars now… For the first and last time.”

Two colors had taken over the sky by now – grey and red. Two entwining giant specters that stole the physical presence of objects, along with the third specter, the wind. Gentle movement, dazzling shadow-play turned transient into eternal.

The growing blackness of the sky had nothing to do with the mating of the red and the grey: it was conceived as the child of outer space. And it brought on death.

The first star shone brightly but modestly. Kathlen gently shook Artonoto’s shoulder and showed it to him. When the old zemon turned around, and allowed his face to be seen, Kathlen was aghast.

“You’ll have to carry me a short distance,” Artonoto whispered.

 “I will.”

“Let’s wait some more, though.” Artonoto was practically entranced by the only star that ruled the sky. “Where are the others?”

“They’ll come up soon.”

“Suns, like ours?”

“Not this one. It’s only a planet.”

They waited but Artonoto lost his patience. He felt the urge to go and there was nothing he could do to fight it. He tried to hang on as long as possible, but he could just not be left behind.

 “Now,” he said suddenly. “Pick me up, please.”

The field, now immersed in infinite calm, didn’t care for the lean, tall figure that was tumbling towards the forest with its burden. A single shadow in sight and beyond. Kathlen’s steps were becoming shorter and shorter, but the forest hardly came any closer…

“Do the roots of the trees glitter?” the zemon suddenly asked, and he started to squirm in Kathlen’s arms.

“They’re still very far…”

About a hundred steps away from the forest Artonoto asked the girl to lay him down on the ground. A second star appeared. Kathlen held up Artonoto’s head.

“Another planet, right?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll stand up, you’ll see.”

“I believe you.”

“I’ll be met by warmth and lucidity.”

Artonoto was gasping for air. The girl was kneeling by his side watching the little zemon fight his age. As the last trace of daylight, the floating red robe vanished, Kathlen realized the glow spreading from among the roots.

The small creature struggled to his feet, and gathering all his strength, he started for the last few yards alone.

The trees stood far apart, still, their roots and branches made up an entangled mesh. Though the roots were rigid they slid under one another like winding tentacles. The trunks were huge, rock-like giants that reflected the several millennia they had survived. It seemed impossible to capture all of it with just one glance. The foliage started as high as a human head, and the bottom was straight as if it had been cut. Some bare branches broke this order, turning it into a chaos.

Artonoto held the protruding roots, and either climbed over or slid under them while he was heading deeper and deeper into the forest.

“Stay,” he called back feebly. “I’ll find my place.”

“No,” Kathlen answered, and she climbed after him.

“You can’t come any further. Look, how it shines. Nice place.”

“I’m coming with you.”

But Kathlen was unable to follow the zemon as fast as he was crawling with what was left of his strength, and she lost sight of him among the high arches of the roots. The intruding fog blurred her vision.

“Wait! Artonoto!”

The fog was whirling coldly. The light came from the pits at the roots of the trees. In this mystic glow the roots cast ghastly shadows as they strived upwards.

The sound of rolling stones came from the right. Kathlen turned her head, but her eyes were deceived by the reality transformed by the peculiar light.

“Artonoto! Stop! Stop for a moment!”

She slid through under a bunch of roots and kept struggling forward. From the foliage leaves were falling down.

“Just for one word.”

Kathlen slipped on the treacherous surface, and she only avoided falling into a pit by grasping at a root at the last moment. As she grabbed the root, she peeled off some of the bark. From the wounded tree pale magenta drops pearled.

She tumbled past two more trees then stopped, exhausted. She perceived no movement and no sounds. She’d lost track of Artonoto. Darkness had fallen, and the little zemon came here to die, as generation after generation had come since the beginning of time.

They had to meet their death alone by following the sun when it dived under the horizon to promise eternal life in another distant realm.

Kathlen was cold now. The cool drops of sweat drew icy lines along her spine. From the foliage frost set upon her and she suddenly realized that the roots were radiating heat.

This heat, just like the light, streamed from the pits under the trees, through the gaping openings on the surface. Kathlen was sitting on a root swinging to and fro. She kept repeating a nursery rhyme but even she wasn’t aware which of the many she had learnt as a child. She was cold and she had no idea where she was.

The ever-thicker shower of the falling leaves was accompanied by a strange rustling noise.

Jensen would be looking for her, he surely would. And he’d have no problem finding her. Only the plants and the two of them would be alive on this blasted continent.

The light radiating from the pit under her feet was cut off for a blink. It looked as if something stirred down there in front of the source of the light.

Kathlen froze and was waiting for another blink. The first one was too feeble, too uncertain in this ghostly twilight under the cover of the whirling roots, in the ever so heavy shower of leaves.

The light flickered for a second time. If possible, it was even more uncertain—faster and ghostlike. Maybe nothing but an illusion.

Still, hope returned for Kathlen. She took a step, tumbled, and fell over a high protruding root, and into the pit. She slid to the bottom of the hole on her side.

“Artonoto!” she shouted desperately and faced the hole gaping at the bottom of the delve.

There was no answer. Nothing moved in the sharp light filling the delve.

She started digging. She tried to make the hole bigger. Her fingers touched cool, moist earth. When the hole was large enough for her hand and arm to get in, Kathlen lent closer.  The giant old tree silently watched from above.

“Artonoto!”

Did she hear something?

“Artonoto!”

It was really warm down there, but the blinding white light had a strange, distressing effect.

Voices and more voices came from the depth. Not words, but sighs and whispers. Without really knowing what she was up to, Kathlen pushed forward. Meanwhile the trees were bare, their leaves riding on the wind.

After she had fallen through the gap, Kathlen rolled down on a slope. She arrived headfirst. Though a bit dizzy, she felt all right.

As she looked up, she suddenly felt a strong, putrid smell. The smell of corruption, sweet blood, and something unknown: the smell of death.

Kathlen was retching. Everything that had ever been earthlike in this world had come to nothing now. She slowly pulled herself upright. In the incredibly intense light radiating from the stones at her feet she caught a glimpse of a body lying on the ground.

The cave was enormous, she could hardly see the opposite wall. It was freezing. It wasn’t a passage to a better world, as the natives thought. It didn’t lead anywhere. The ceiling was made up of roots, among which some slight tremor started, but Kathlen took no heed, as her attention was occupied by the body in front of her.

She took a step towards it. The movement above her head was getting more and more lively. Drops fell on her face.

Kathlen discovered more humps a bit further. Their outlines suggested that other zemons lay there. She convinced herself, though, that she could only see large stones.

The body lying in the middle was wet from the liquid dripping on top of it and reflected the light. Strings of fiber kept falling on the body and on Kathlen’s head.

She took two more steps.

The zemon was lying on his belly and his face was turned towards a distant corner. Kathlen realized, though, that it wasn’t Artonoto lying in front of her. She didn’t have to stoop and turn him around to take a closer look: she just knew that it wasn’t him.

Suddenly Kathlen had a feeling like she had just woken from a dream. The smell gripped her stomach again and penetrated her mind. She gasped. She had hardly stood up when something jumped on her back, and she fell on her knees. As she stretched her arm to reach for something solid, she touched the dead zemon. Her palm became smeared, the pieces of the bark wriggled as if they were alive.

It felt like a snake sliding along her spine. She crawled away from the carcass, and she only dared to look back then.

She screamed. The roots seemed to be alive as they were wriggling wildly like the legs of a spider. She was lying under the thorax of the imaginary monster. But they were only roots, though not ordinary ones. Their outer bark hung like torn rags uncovering the naked flesh of the tree that was sweating some sort of grey phlegm. Something seemed to be moving behind the cover of the roots.

Meanwhile more and more drops fell from above. The unknown liquid started to burn Kathlen’s hands and face. She tried to wipe it off with her sleeve, but soon her clothes were soaked, too. The pieces of bark, like giant worms, were coiling, trying to get under her skin. She felt a minor dose of electric shock.

She looked around for the way out, but she couldn’t see the gap anymore. She was turning about hopelessly; the walls had dissolved in the dim light. Kathlen had lost her orientation and felt claustrophobia taking over.

She heard her own voice shouting for help while trying to tear the living, wriggling pieces of bark off her skin. The drops falling from above had turned the isolated little puddles into an unbroken body of whirling muddy water that covered the radiating stones. It was darker and darker in the pit.

She could still not see the exit; it was covered by leaves.

She chose one side of the pit at random, climbed as high as she could, and as she had no use of her eyes she tried to feel for the passage to freedom with her fingers. Every now and then she slid on the slippery ground, and she didn’t dare to hang on to the roots wriggling above her. She tried hard not to be sick, but there was no way she could keep the nauseating smell out of her nose. After a few minutes of desperate exploring, she was covered with a thick layer of mud.

She grabbed mud, and only mud. She felt her prison eternally sealed, the time that passed seemed like centuries. Kathlen kept on struggling in the cold, stinking darkness. Panting, with tears in her eyes, she was scraping the ground. Leaning on her elbows she didn’t feel her hands anymore. All her life she’d never felt so squalid.

The pit seemed to have shrunk. The liquid at the bottom was coming up, the roots were coming down, and even the earthen walls seemed to be pushing closer and closer. Kathlen was convinced they’d tumble over and bury her. She was choking, her muscles cramping helplessly.

Her fingers grasped leaves – her arm suddenly disappeared in the opening. The unexpected movement and surprise made her pause for a moment and that was enough for her to lose balance and start sliding down the slope. She couldn’t find anything to hold on to, her nails were gauging deep tracks in the wet clay, and she would have shrieked if she’d had the strength to do so.

Someone grabbed her hand and steadied her in the nick of time. Kathlen’s feet found some solid ground and she started climbing. She held on tight to her savior, who was hidden from her by the thick canopy of leaves covering the exit. His touch was telling, though: it wasn’t human, it wasn’t Jensen.

“Artonoto,” Kathlen moaned. “Artonoto.”

She pushed her head through the leaves then managed to squeeze her shoulders out. She still couldn’t see anything, but as the smells had released her she now felt more or less relieved.

It wasn’t Artonoto that saved her. A tiny zemon was standing in front of her, one she’d never seen before. A weary looking unknown zemon late for his own death. Kathlen staggered to her feet, looked down on him and mumbled something in their language.

Later she never remembered what she might have said.

The zemon gently touched Kathlen’s waist to show that he’d like her to step aside. She wished she could hold him back but obeyed without saying a word.

At first she thought she’d tell him what was going on down there, what would happen to anyone descending into the pit: no warmth, no peace, but gluttonous haste and murderous timelessness. In the end she didn’t have the nerve to say anything. The words just didn’t come.

Kathlen stepped aside and silently watched the zemon as with slow, calculated motions and with an odd, expectant smile on his face he descended into the pit. In a matter of seconds leaves rolled on the hole again closing the lid over this strange tomb.

Through the now bare branches Kathlen looked up to the austere sky. Above the forest whished the first wave of an approaching gale. “The moon. When does the moon rise?” Kathlen asked barely mouthing the words. She sat on the ground and wept.

The flower was as beautiful as could be. Kathlen was standing wrapped up in her coat outside her house, holding the pot in her hands. Jensen had flown to the sunny side for a few hours, but she’d chosen to stay. Something had held her back.

The clear sky was full of stars. After the winds that accompanied the darkness, even the thunders that brought the frost had passed by now.

The flower was radiating crimson light.

Jensen had found both of them easily. On the little screen of the biometer she was the lonely yellow dot on the black background. After he’d taken her out of the forest, he went to find the flower she’d left on one of the hills west of the town. Kathlen seemed to be beside herself demanding him to do so. The wind had blown the shawl off the pot and the dim light it radiated made it easy to find the flower. It was shining lonely on a downtrodden field where nothing was alive now. It would have been far too early.

“Fodder,” Jensen said after Kathlen haltingly told him her story. “This is how the trees make it through the winter. On one hand they squeeze out all the fluids so they can’t freeze… On the other, it’s active secretion… It happens elsewhere.”

They were sitting on a desolate world talking.

“…the leaves drift in, too,” Jensen went on. “The wind sends them in. They decay and are absorbed.”

The spaceship that had been sent for them was nowhere to be seen but Kathlen was constantly spying the sky for it.

“Ghost forest,” she said softly. “It feeds on itself and the zemons. Scavenger trees…”

“Yes. Only these trees survive. They are the only ones that don’t have to retreat to their bulbs, their seeds or underground or into the sea.”

“Ghost forest,” repeated Kathlen.

Yellow and red glowing from the south announced that the fluorescent flowers of the night would grow there until the next storms arrived. She took a closer look and saw that the blooming, glowing field in front of her stretched as far as the horizon.

Suddenly the frosty night wind arrived and tore all the flowers apart.

Only one remained: the one Kathlen protected.

Now she was shivering with cold with her flower in her hands in a ghost town. She could have accompanied the man to the sunny side, but she didn’t feel strong enough. This is how they’d started exactly a year ago: by studying the newborn offspring escaping to the ocean from the zemota nests. They’d discovered the towns and knew that those small creatures were somehow linked to them.

It was then that Kathlen chose Artonoto. She studied him, got to know him, and she was there when this stage of the zemons’ lives came to an end. And after a painful metamorphosis as fully developed and conscious beings he and the other creatures of his species took possession of those towns, the tube-like houses and the knowledge their ancestors had left them. Childhood ended, and Artonoto, who had then long been much more than just a creature to study, became a co-worker, a friend – someone inseparable from Kathlen.

At least they’d thought so for a long, long time.

They’d learnt a lot from each other, the human and the zemon. Slowly, clouds floated in front of the stars depriving the moonless night of this lonely planet from the comforting light of distant suns.

Kathlen turned around. She was on her own in this corridor of the space cruiser. She hurried along the empty walls with the covered pot in her hands.

She had already prepared the isolated cabin for her flower in the botanic garden: a square yard of separated world. Earlier she’d asked Jensen whether the plant would survive in the artificial environment, and he assured her that it would be all right, and she might have two or three flowers the following year. Nevertheless, it would rarely bloom, only for a short period after half a year of daylight at the arrival of the half-year-long night.

It may bloom in the dark, Kathlen thought, but it is the child of that star, too.

She took the flower out of the pot with a small ball of earth and planted it into its new dwelling. She flattened the soil, sprinkled over it a few handfuls of that dry pale blue grass-like something that covered the fields on the planet. She pulled her hands out of the protective gloves reaching through the glass and drew a curtain over the window of the little chamber.

Having done that, she could have switched on the lights in the garden, but didn’t. She went over to the window, and for a long time she was just watching the planet. They were hovering above the sunny side. Below them there was the endless light blue ocean, an unfathomable body of water.

How different the boundary between light and darkness was from up here! To get outside a world full of life is to get outside life itself and to leave time behind.

“I’ll be leaving you,” Kathlen said out loud to the planet, to the continent, to the ocean, to the trees, to the new zemota generation, which, wandering under the water was waiting for the chance to set foot on the continent in half a year’s time. She turned away from the window. With a single glance she took in the earth trees and bushes crowded in the garden of the space cruiser. “We’re going home… Home.”

Sándor Szélesi (Anthony Sheenard) is a multi-award-winning Hungarian SFF and crime fiction writer, screenwriter, and editor, and the head of the Hungarian Writer’s Alliance’s SF Division since 2018. He is the author of over thirty novels and over a hundred short stories.

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sfrarev

SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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