Living but not living

This specially-commissioned story sees the human race depending on a biological architecture

At first you think no-one’s there – no-one human. But it’s very early. Low slopes, green hills, few trees – many of them young – forests behind, and flashes of dark life on the ground. A blackbird unthreading a worm, flicker of a stoat, ruined turf left by a badger builder.

The first bullet head pushes out of the hill. Rooty limbs. Then others. Humans! Every­thing flees, but not far. You feel the thrum of their feet but they’re hard to see, their skins dark or dyed with earth and ochre. Skins in layers – they’re wearing other creatures’ skins. One climbs on top of another in the long grass and muscular buttocks drum like a brief burst of music. Oh, and there’s another. ­Grasses move like rain as the muscles twitch.

 The human crew spills out of the holes that hide tunnels where they sleep. Dogs, goats, skinny strong-legged chickens, children, far more children than adults, squawking, barking. Something has caught their attention.

In the distance, which could be anywhere, just over the horizon or over the hills, over the cliffs, over the sea, over Europe, over north ­Africa – something like a rainbow bubble swells and moves, pulsing in crests like detergent in a giant bowl. It’s enormous! Alive! The light on it is dazzling. Parents in the clearings try to shield their children’s eyes, but the children fight off the restraining hands, drawn by distance. Though they also like beetles and dormice and mushrooms and the milky clouds of froghopper flies disturbed by their feet, and their parents point down, try to keep young eyes on the ground, where nourishment is.

‘Look, by the clover, badger droppings!’

‘It’s a different place to usual,’ says a small boy. ‘The badgers have moved.’ 

‘No,’ the man lies, afraid. ‘They were always here, like us.’

The gash in the side of the rainbow bubble was closing, with their own young inside, puckering and pulling itself together; a low kissing hiss and it was gone

In the distance, yes, still there, stealing restlessly along the horizon, in constant motion, is the bubble, brilliant as snow or ice or cocaine. Is it alive? The adults aren’t sure but they fear there are living things in it. One ­remembers a story her grandfather told her.

How the rainbow bubble had landed nearby. His world was suddenly split into blinding brightness where the sun rebounded off its sides, and pitch black where its shadow surged. In the shadow, everything died. A party of humans from the clearing went out with some children they wanted to teach how to fight and they covered their eyes and stabbed and tore at the bubble’s nacreous side. What fell out the grandfather could only partly describe. ‘Blind things, weak, wriggling.’ But another old man interrupted and said, ‘We thought they were humans, unspeakably changed.’ Something like grubs or aphids, tiny thin screams at the light, tiny howls of pain as the men from the clearing shuddered and kicked and stamped on them. It was an unfair fight, they felt, so they stopped, in horror and shame, till they suddenly saw that the children were missing, and the next instant the gash in the side of the rainbow bubble was closing, with their own young inside, puckering and pulling itself together, then back in the air and shimmering and sucking and sighing along the line of the hills again; a low kissing hiss and it was gone.

But some little glistening things were left behind on the grass evincing  minuscule bat-squeaks of pain that made one man, a new father, scoop them up, when no-one was looking, and tuck them away in his skins. ‘He was my pal,’ the grandfather said. ‘A kind man, if foolish. And he told me this.’

Back in the forest, most of the creatures died, one morning nothing but dull pale scabs that fell on the ground and were snuffled, then spat, by a rat. But two survived. When they were exposed, little by little, to the sunlight, they became opaque; then light golden. They grew. One crawled, and the other followed, feebly, and soon they were just two more human children, a little runtish, but not so different, except that they could not see. And when they reproduced, their children were not blind.

The two beings from the rainbow bubble told what they remembered of life inside it. ‘The building was our body. It dreamed for us and breathed for us and fed us. It was like a wasp’s nest, but shining bright. It was ourselves.’ But the people of the clearing were uneasy and angry and said, ‘That’s unnatural. That’s bad,’ though a few of the young ones were fascinated and thoughtful.

And one day, in the distance, on the ­horizon, something pulsing with almost unbearable light caught their attention.


 

Maggie Gee is a novelist and professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University.