Day of the Builders

The following story originally appears in Kristine Ong Muslim’s 2016 collection Age of Blight. Be sure to also check out our interview with Muslim.

***

This happened long before the initial signs of sickness from the outsiders rippled across my village. You should understand by now how my people were easy prey because most of us were trusting, greedy for finery, and readily distracted by new things or any semblance of finesse.

Being the only one in my village who could converse in the language of the Builders, I helped catalyze what the learned ones called modernity. I met the Builders at the gates that day. Oblivious to the sweltering heat, one of the Builders took pictures of the towering natural rock formation we used as landmark and general lookout post. There was nothing significant about the typical karst formation, except that according to one of the Builders, it indicated how the area used to be an ocean floor.

That’s fascinating, I said. And I meant it. I found it remarkable how one could deduce that from a rock formation.

Their leader introduced himself by first giving his title. Doctor, he said, but of a different kind, not the doctor who heals. He had a white and unnaturally even set of teeth. He appeared sincere when he smiled. He also offered his hand to me, a gesture I found unnerving. His hands were clean, the nails neatly trimmed, while I had not washed my hands and there was encrusted

dirt under my fingernails. He did not flinch when I clasped his proffered hand. Or he may have willed himself not to cringe.

I showed the Builders around the village. They oohed at the fossilized tree trunks near the lake. They aahed at the marvelously pronounced stratified layers of rock and earth exposed by years of weathering. It is obvious to me and to the elders, however, that the Builders seemed unexpectedly at ease, as if they already knew their way around the village. For example, they weren’t surprised, or even pretended to act surprised, when I led them to the Pit of Hell—a natural hole in the rocky village’s access to the underworld.

That’s natural gas, the doctor who claimed to be the type who could not heal, said with no hint of emotion. In the face of such fiery display and overpowering smell of rot, he explained stolidly, It must have ignited at some point. And since the area is incredibly rich in natural gas, the fires never died out. That foul odor you’re smelling—that’s sulfur.

Devonian shale over here, a middle-aged man wearing eyeglasses exclaimed. I did not understand until much later the significance of his discovery. You won’t believe what I found in the gates alone, another whispered. He was close, so I heard him perfectly. Dickinsonia costata, intact and perfectly preserved. They must have thought to shelter it from the elements because they believe the markings have either divine or magical origins. To prevent damage, I think we should superglue it in situ and foam-wrap the rest.

Another Builder conferred with his companion, What do you think of this, Greg? Does it look like a fossilized fern of some sort?

I don’t think so. It looks like good old dendrite to me. See those fissures across the rock? But take some samples just to be sure.

All the while, I marveled at their clean-looking clothes, their neatly trimmed nails, their short hair. Like many people in my village, I was used to being disheveled, with no care to whether I wore ill-fitting clothes or hadn’t combed my hair. I looked at the woman carrying electronic gear, and I felt shame. I felt ugly.

Looking back to that fateful day, I could vouch with my life how they came in peace, with their proper manners, their familiarity of our ways. They must have studied us without us knowing. They knew not to look us directly in the eye because that would be misconstrued as a sign of aggression. They did not walk ahead of us because we would have interpreted it as a form of belittling. And the fact that they were studying the surroundings with a clinical eye while deciding where to begin their construction told me that although they definitely wanted something from us, we could also get something from them in return—an understanding of our natural world through their educated eyes, perhaps. I thought that would benefit my people. That was why I convinced everyone that they should be allowed to stay. They should be allowed to stay even if I smelled the sickness coming off their perspiration. Oh, it was unmistakable—the stench of sickness from outsiders.

They brought out their odd-looking tripods, informed me it was for surveying the landscape. They also brandished whirring metal detectors. Two of them began the process of positioning on the ground what I recognized as the titanium struts of portable tents.

They then explained what they could do for the village.

We will build a hospital and a school, the Doctor said. And highways so you can reach civilization. You could build a tourism base, too. You could sell things to tourists, perform magic shows for them, whatever you want. We would build factories, so you could make more things faster. Then pumps to siphon underground water, so you need not rely on unsafe and exposed well water. Then plumbing systems. Then dams. We could also have a chemical plant somewhere in the plain east of the canyons. The chemical plant will front the fields of lavender. We’ll have our well-trained plant operators manning that part of the project.

The doctor, the one who does not purport to heal, went on and on. I was swayed.

I looked out to the fields and the valley we tilled for crops, imagining how they would teem in the hands of the Builders. The rough beasts of summer languished among the trees, their horns silvery in the dwindling afternoon sunlight. From afar, the forest loomed. All these would soon change, I thought. In my mind, I saw rain against macadam. I saw the feet of my people no longer barefoot and filthy against the ground. Soon, there would be no such thing as out there.

That night, I explained to the village elders that once we let the Builders touch us, the dissolution of everything we believed in, everything we were, would begin. I gave them the consequences in black and white. I knew they understood without me having to lay it out for them. They smelled the lingering sickness of the outsiders, too, caught a whiff of the outsider’s breath, caught a glimpse of their shapely hands—the type of hands that could destroy as well as create.

What was surprising was how ferociously the elders had argued. Some of them were in favor of the Builders staying in our village to do what they came here to do. Maybe, the elders thought it was all up to them to decide whether or not to welcome the outsiders. Or maybe, it was the desire to still have some control that led them to discuss things as though they still had a choice. I did not think we could make the Builders leave even if we wanted to. If it came to that, the Builders had ways and possessed things they could use to defend themselves if we tried to forcibly drive them away.

So, the Builders ended up staying. Most of the terms were fair and were made transparent to us. What remained unspoken that night was the fact that we just could not make them leave, diplomatically or otherwise.

***

The next day, one of the Builders had an accident while climbing the hand-and-foot trail on the rockface. The belay mechanism failed, and there was nothing else to break her fall.

The Builders took a day off after the tragedy. I spied on them, pretended to look at their blueprints and what they called tomographic readings, pretended to understand their need for taking measurements and recording data. What I was really curious about was how they grieved. I had been taught to believe that one could only truly grasp what binds a group of people by observing how they mourned their dead. And the Builders—oh, they were beautiful in their desolation in this alien territory, in their shared grief.

I noticed one man crying silently outside the air-conditioned tent where the Builders housed their electronic equipment. I was told he was the dead woman’s brother, and he worked as the group’s computer technician.

In retrospect, I realize how arousing pity can be wielded as a weapon. But at the time, observing the dead woman’s brother agonizing over his profound sense of loss made me want to help the Builders in their mission. I remember snapshots of world history while I was schooled by outsiders many years ago. I remember how the swarthy Catherine de’ Medici, even through the atrocities that followed her reign, charmed her people because they somehow felt sorry for her. They imagined their Queen looking into that hole on the floor to the bedchamber her husband shared with Diane de Poitiers. They imagined their Queen in her desperation when she resorted to drinking copious amounts of mule’s urine because she thought it would help her conceive an heir to the throne. Yes, the ability to incite pity could be compelling in so many ways.

***

On the third day, the Builders resumed their work. And when they did, the Doctor generously explained to us, with me doing all the translating, the spectacular location of our village. He had slides projected on the wall of the darkened tent. He described, one by one, what they knew of my people, why they came here, and how their research here could simultaneously change paleontology and anthropology. Some of the elders were impressed. Some were scared and intimidated. Only two of them protested violently, lashing out and whisking aside what looked to be telecommunications equipment.

Tiago, one of the elders who adamantly refused to give the Builders access to his home, looked at me and said in our language, Flesh is dry. Flesh is parched. Flesh is forever flawed and unwilling to hide telltale marks of abuse. Join me. There is only so much that we can carry. These Builders don’t belong here. The boils will appear behind their necks. The boils will grow right under their skin. Their descendants will carry the mark

It was the Curse of Ridika, god of pestilence. My people knew what it could do when recited in full by an enraged elder. To prevent him from finishing, one of the elders approached him from the back and tackled him to the ground. It took the whole night for the rest of the elders to calm Tiago down.

Three days later, two children had succumbed to the sickness exuded by the Builders. They just did not wake up. There were small boils along the length of their arms. There was also the telltale odor of putrescence on the young bodies that had only died a few hours before. My people and I washed and wrapped the bodies of our dead children, prayed, and carried them to be buried beyond the valley. The rough beasts of summer looked on as we buried our dead.

It was only the beginning. Around sixteen more of my people fell ill and died. Tiago was the first of the dissenting elders to die. Only the ones who had nothing against the Builders were immune to the sickness. We survived. We assimilated.

It did not take long for us to cease looking disheveled, to look buffed and polished and well-mannered. Slowly, my people learned the language of the outsiders. Next would come learning their arts, their sciences, their ways of looking at the world. When we met each others’ eyes, we no longer considered it an act of aggression. And when the Builders walked ahead of us, we no longer considered it to be belittling.

***

Time passed, and the valley was now a bustling metropolis. An atrium enclosed by a glass dome filtering UV rays served as the Builders’ command center. I worked with them now, on their payroll, as a sort of emissary, a token intermediary. I was well compensated for performing easy tasks.

At the entrance to the Builders’ command center was a translation of the first of our nine sacred stones. The Builders must have found it quite important to commemorate what was written on the first sacred stone, the one that chronicled our beginnings. Now written in the language of the Builders, the story of my people was etched in a large metal plate. It said,

Do you see now what has become of us? When you first found us, we were swarthy and inelegantly intact—our horns and hides bristling in place, our hooves not yet scored and bloodied by a hundred different splinters, our quiet manifold darkness tucked away from sight. That was before an iron-laden rock roughly a mile in diameter decimated the area of the tropical forest we called home.

The blast razed the trees, turned them into supplicants that brooded as they circled the periphery of the crash site, now a dumb and faceless crater lake cupping algae-ridden water. What once were trees became stunted wooden figures bending toward the direction of the crater, as if they ended up worshipping whatever it was that had killed most of them. And if you look at the not-quite-trees closely enough, you might notice how they twitch and flinch and rustle their phantom branches bearing phantom leaves—all these subtle motions taking place even in the absence of wind.

Some of us died. The ones that survived were those that could mimic what passed for dead. The ones that flourished were those that resembled the rough beasts of summer—the restless and the languorous, the reckless and the selfish, those with tough hides allowing for elevated thresholds of pain. They entered the cities and mingled with the two-legged ones, the ones that learned long ago to stop walking on all fours, to covet ever so strongly what others have, to always take more than what was needed.

The remaining elders were made comfortable, of course. The Builders made sure of that while they razed the valley and relentlessly carved the first layer of an open-pit mine at the edge of what was once the forest sheltering the rough beasts of summer. With butlers, chefs, and health care professionals at their beck and call, the elders were each provided with well-furnished, temperature-regulated quarters in the residential skyrise. They occupied the ones on the west side, the ones sporting the widest balconies and walls laden with a dizzying ladder array of hydroponics-grown vegetables—an addition I suggested because I knew it would please my people.

The balcony railings were gilded and glared harshly under the sun. I made a mental note to have those replaced with wrought iron railing as soon as possible.

I read yesterday how the Builders wrote about us in the history books. The books were lavishly illustrated, complete with systematically labeled interior plates. The different areas of the valley were assigned as Grid 1, Grid 2, and so on. They even gave new names to my people’s magic charms. The Builders called them many such names, the likes of archeocyathids, trypanites, edrioasteroids, and petroxestes—all under the chapter entitled Fossils.

Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of several books of fiction and poetry: Age of Blight (Unnamed Press, 2016), Butterfly Dream (Snuggly Books, 2016), A Roomful of Machines (ELJ Publications, 2015), Grim Series (Popcorn Press, 2012), We Bury the Landscape (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2012), as well as Lifeboat and Black Arcadia, two poetry collections from university presses in the Philippines. She serves as poetry editor of LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, a literary journal published by Epigram Books in Singapore, and was co-editor with Nalo Hopkinson of the Lightspeed Magazine special issue, People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction. Widely published in magazines and anthologies, she grew up and continues to live in a rural town in southern Philippines.