Sie warnen vor Giftigkeit
Looking through the threshold of the front room, his wife’s bedroom now, he caught a glimpse of her gigantic silhouette. The swollen pregnant belly seemed about to explode. The mountain of flesh, hidden under a knitted bedspread, lifted and sank, lifted and sank, to the faltering rhythm of her breathing.
He put the kettle on and ran upstairs. He took his time shaving, allowing the blade to flick water at the mirror with a dull spatter. He rinsed it and towelled his face dry before heading downstairs; the kettle was whistling. In the kitchen, the stagnant air of last night’s work met him, heavy and sickly-sweet. On the counter sat the fruits of his labours: six jars of shining golden marmalade. He held one of them up to the light. It did not move. The liquid had set. He allowed himself a slight smile of relief.
After cutting two slices of bread and rubbing them with tarragon he breakfasted standing up, sipping at his hot tea. It was the day of the barter market, or rather the day the militia turned a blind eye to non-official transactions, which was the same thing. He looked at the marmalade and ate hurriedly, worrying that he’d miss the best offers.
He liked getting to the market when they were still setting up the stalls, putting together planks and wooden boxes protected by rusty metal frames and oilcloth. He would look at everything. Only then would he decide where to trade, and with whom.
The map on the kitchen wall was a stain of purples and reds, drawn on top of the furrows of the canal system and the river. The river was a curve that surrounded the city from the north, squeezed it, hugged it like a drowning lover. The river was the danger. The purple patches showed the areas that had been flooded in the last two years; the red dots marked possible danger zones. He felt a stab of pain in his chest, but this was now a more diffuse hurt, not like the sharp needle of months back.
It was with a mixture of apprehension and defiance that he had started to study the river. Grief for what had happened with his wife’s last pregnancy, alongside a furious certainty that he would not let it happen again. He forced himself to take another sip of tea, which burnt his tongue and tasted mouldy. The most important thing was to continue with those small gestures, the little familiar things. Shave every morning. Sip a comforting cup of something resembling tea.
The noise from the back garden took him to the window. He allowed himself to imagine fox cubs, leverets. He hadn’t seen any for ages. But neither had he lost hope that they would reappear, and he continued greasing and recalibrating the traps which he had set several months ago.
The garden was a muddy square, abandoned and haggard. Guilt squeezed his chest again. He couldn’t do anything about this, not yet. His wife had looked after the garden. That’s how it had always been.
What he saw was a woman bent over a sort of gigantic bramble of aromatic herbs, grown up all by itself after the garden had been left to rot. She was wearing a brown cotton tunic, army boots, and her hair was dyed blue. Several amulets were clinking round her neck, little jars of cures for almost all illnesses. The woman stood up slowly, sniffed at the herbs she had just gathered, and turned to walk towards the back door. She entered the kitchen, and directed her steps to where the kettle still was steaming.
The woman moved round the room as if she were walking round her own house. Without hesitating, she opened the little cupboard where the cups and saucers and teapots were kept, washed the herbs at the sink, smashed them into a one-person teapot, and poured hot water on top of them.
He watched her without saying anything.
The doula had been with them for almost four months, during which time he had been able to go to work every morning feeling the pain in his chest relax a little.
‘It’s the barter market today,’ the doula said.
‘That’s right. And I need to pay you for the week.’
He held a jar of marmalade out to the woman. She frowned.
‘Is that real marmalade?’
‘From real oranges?’
The man nodded.
‘It’s not synthetic?’
‘Can’t you smell it?’ he said, waving vaguely at the air in the kitchen. The doula shrugged.
‘I don’t remember how anything smells any more.’
He couldn’t stop his lips curling up a little. The doula was still young, childbearing age. He felt the guilty pang all of a sudden and composed his face. The woman accepted the jar, still disbelieving.
‘This would be enough for the whole month.’
‘It’s for a week.’
The woman stroked the jar.
‘In the black market…’
‘I’m going to be late,’ he said.
Before he left the house, he went through into the front bedroom.
It took ten minutes by bicycle to reach the market square. He had to add in five more for the morning river inspection. He decided to push himself, to get this time down to thirteen or even twelve minutes. He took Ferry Path at full speed and came up onto the Fort St George, stopping in the middle of the small bridge. The bicycle halted with a slight jingle from the jars of marmalade in the wooden box on the back.
What came down the river was a vague brown stain of liquid mud, which brought to mind the thick blood of an enormous animal. The opaque water led to only one conclusion: the river was rising. He took a deep breath, considering the dark current that pushed the river onwards.
It would be impossible to imagine another outcome than the eventual flooding; he knew the signs. The mud-lie water was punctuated by rubbish, stems and stalks, branches, trash, clothes, cardboard — all from who knows where — that floated on the bright oily surface, showing where the accursed water was flowing, and how fast.
If he shut his eyes he could still see the bundle of stained towels falling from that same railing a year ago; he could even hear the phantom cry of a newborn baby. He forced his mind to compose a different image: at the last moment the child had taken flight, had headed up to a clean blue sky.
The cold snapped him back to reality: a sky filled with storm clouds, eternally tainted as a blackboard, bruised and sick, hanging over them like a stone, and an air so thin and cruel that it had turned everything into a lifeless swamp.
After leaving his bicycle in the patch that served as a parking lot he crossed the deserted street in the direction of the market. The proceedings were only just coming to life. He went past the stalls, looking at the goods still packed in their boxes, the pedal-powered carts, the eel-baskets. He rummaged among the bicycle spare parts, and the woollens, all in that characteristic indeterminate drab colour that years of use had given them. He noticed sadly that there was hardly any food. Almost no one traded the food from their own gardens any more.
A group at one of the corner posts excited his curiosity. The larger the number of customers, the more likely it was that there would be something to eat. His instinct was right. They were selling eatables. At a distance he could see ducks and coots hanging from a rope, covered in tar to preserve them. As best he could he made his way through the crush, until he got to the side of an old man who was staring open-mouthed at the goods on offer. He stood stock still, and almost dropped the box with the jars of marmalade.
In a large metal washtub, the stallholder had five or six giant swallowtail butterflies, huge and tarnished yellow-brown, each with a blue eye on its wing, unusual spots for this species, or at least that’s how it appeared to his expert gaze. He calculated that each butterfly must measure more than twenty inches across. And they were fresh, no doubt about that. Fresh but frayed. The bottom of the washtub was a muddy pit of water and earth and the remains of those bright wings, ruined by death and by the hunt. Those broken wings were beautiful: the deep blue eyespots, which seemed to be staring straight at him, were nothing more than a chance discrepancy, but they almost provoked the old familiar pain in the pit of his stomach, mixed with some other emotion he could not recognise.
‘Orange dogs! Orange dogs! Ducks, coots!’ cried the stallholder.
‘Where did you get them?’ he found himself asking. There had not been butterflies like these for several years: he had only seen dissected specimens.
‘They’re not mine, I didn’t catch them. I’m only selling.’
‘It’s very important that you tell me, I need to know,’ he insisted. The man lifted his hands in a gesture of surrender.
‘Mate… I only sell them. I don’t know anything else.’
He managed to convince himself that his interest had been purely professional, and he walked away from the stall, from time to time turning back to look at it, as if he still couldn’t quite believe what he had just seen. The old man he had been standing next to was following him with his eyes.
The morning went by much as expected. In exchange for his jars he got supplies and parts to fix the door of the wood-burning stove in his kitchen. But the biggest prize was the medical supplies that the preserves had managed to win him. When he only had one jar left, the old man came up to him.
‘Excuse me… Is that real marmalade?’
‘Yes,’ he muttered. He was exhausted, and only wanted to leave. His eyes kept on wandering to the insect stall. ‘Do you want to make a trade?’
‘I haven’t seen marmalade since I was a kid… Much less eaten it. May I ask how…?’
‘I work in the Old University Natural History Museum. We have a pass to go to London twice a year, to the National Museum.’ He didn’t normally explain so much about his life, but he only wanted the old man to shut up. ‘Do you want to trade or don’t you?’
The man’s face clouded over. His little eyes were the only things that still shone, reflecting this liquid gold.
‘I don’t have anything.’
But as he was turning to go, the old man said: ‘The only thing I can offer you is information, perhaps something you want to hear.’
Had he heard right? Information? Who was this man, and what did he know about him? What did he know about his wife and his dead son?
‘What the hell are you trying to say’’
‘I know where they’ve got a nest.’
The old man was trying to string him along, for sure.
‘Listen, my job is studying the Papilionidae… I know they don’t live in nests. So you can get lost.’
‘These ones do,’ the old man said.
He realised that he was in fact intrigued.
‘All right. Okay. I’ll give you my last jar in exchange for whatever it is you want to tell me.’
The old man smiled like a child.
‘But I must warn you that if you’re lying to me then I’ll denounce you to the militia. I am a third rank specialist worker, and they will listen to me.’
This was just a bluff. His rank had been no use at all when she needed medical assistance. They hadn’t even deigned to come and pick up his son’s body after the child had been stillborn in the sixth month, so he didn’t know if what he was saying was true or not. But the old man seemed to believe him. They walked off to an alleyway, and made their exchange, a fairly common exchange, all in all: information for food.
He cycled furiously. In the early dusk, the water was as dark as the sky, and shone with spectral glints.
After a time he realised the impossibility. The disused lock the old man had spoken of was several miles away, and night was falling. He would have to try again tomorrow.
He turned round and went home, following the river, which kept twisting and twisting, and he was incapable of making himself look to see if the water had covered the greenish marks of its last high point.
After his careful additions, the map looked the next morning like a grotesque purple and red stain.
If his predictions were correct, then the floods could be worse than in previous years. He wondered if anyone else had spent the last few months watching the water, making calculations on a plan of the town. It was clear that the authorities had not foreseen the consequences of a possible new rise in the water level. There had been no official announcements, or advice about what to do in that case; the people were once again abandoned to their fate.
He spent the first part of the morning examining the map. Bates Lock was quite a long way for him to go and come back after work. It was not uncommon for night to come upon him while he was in the museum, cataloguing specimens or inspecting exhibits.
Just as he was about to leave, the doula asked to speak to him.
‘You have to be ready,’ she said. ‘It could be any day now.’
He looked straight at her for a few seconds; he wanted to thank her. To tell her that they wouldn’t be where they were without her. But he froze. His tongue felt dry and scratchy inside his mouth.
‘Thank you,’ he managed after the woman had already left the kitchen.
He left the house and got onto his bicycle, but he did not start pedalling. Something stopped him. His mind was a blank, he couldn’t think about anything, couldn’t decide anything.
Bates Lock floated in his head.
Then he had an idea. He would ask one of his neighbours’ children to come over the bridge into the centre of town to find him if anything happened, if she went into labour, he forced himself to think, strangely aware of the meaning of the words. Only then was he ready to go.
While crossing the Fort St George Bridge he went over in his mind the route to the lock that he had memorised. He did so compulsively, trying to push aside his fear of that thing, the other thing, that was about to happen. In the leaden sky a flock of geese circled, a ragged “V” with no apparent direction, stunted and lost, spiralling in its vague escape to nowhere.
He reached the museum in less than twenty minutes, his best time yet. Thanks to his job there he had not lost his house, and had even managed to garner certain privileges: some food, warmth during the winter, access to certain books. The biannual trips to the capital. Who knew how, but it was a place where strange food managed to appear, memories of a memory, things whose taste and smell no one remembered clearly.
The group he was working for was trying to throw a little light on the reasons why, after their appearance on the island formerly known as England, the papilio cresphontes had developed certain unusual habits, some of them violent, for example the males eating the females, and occasionally even the larvae. This had been a key to the early disappearance of the insects. Some of them had developed a strange venom, and it was believed that the unusual colours in the eyespots was a warning of its presence. Shortly after their appearance they had given themselves over to hunting smaller creatures, such as field mice and even on occasion baby hares, flying away with their prey immobilised. It was believed that the venom the group he was working for was trying to track down served this purpose.
These were no more than hypotheses. After the irreplaceable loss of most of the books, of the computer communication system, of the telephones, of almost everything that had provided information and facilitated scientific exchange, they knew almost nothing, and that was the truth. They had to start again from the beginning, to examine this new world. This was his obligation, the important job that survivors like him had to carry out.
His access to books was very limited, but he knew German, and most surviving treatises on butterflies were by mere chance in this language. He only knew how to operate a small number of the heavy brass instruments, to turn the crank and adjust the microscope lenses, to fill the little stoves with coal and wood, to filter the water for the distillations. His job was important but not irreplaceable. But he felt it as his duty to find the lock. It was vitally important, if a small population of Papilionidae had established itself in the county, that they had access to it.
What he didn’t stop to consider was why he felt disinclined to share the knowledge of the nest with anyone in the museum.
The papilio cresphontes—commonly called ‘orange dogs’ — had disappeared in the same sudden fashion that they had appeared in the records. The annals recorded their arrival as being after the first great flood. A large part of the town had been submerged. The canals where the students had punted, with their straw hats and their picnic baskets, their books of poetry or mathematics, had overflowed. The colleges of the university bore the brunt of the furious water which finished off the destruction of all their treasures, a destruction that had been started by the months-long freeze, unexpected and murderous, which had preceded the waters. The world’s most expensive wines were drowned in the college cellars, and the large kitchens and dining rooms and studies lost their impressive beauty under the force of the silt. Whole libraries of incunabulae were lost. The whole town was flooded, Jesus Green, Mill Lane, the Backs, like a less luminous Venice in its death throes.
But the water was not exactly hell, that was still to come. For after the flood had come the summer, the long-awaited summer. The first of the hottest summers ever recorded. Fifteen fateful years of suffocating heat, damp, mosquitoes, monstrous and terrifying greenery. The flood had surpassed all expectations, but in the end the water had been sucked up in some form by the earth, risen in order to fall back down again, drop by drop, only to be spat out and multiplied in the form of a swampish miasma under the survivors’ feet, after which the ground had exploded into an impossible jungle where all kinds of unknown flora had sprung into life, bringing the strange fauna along with it. The town had transformed itself into the unexpected home of parrots and parakeets, the river the cradle for swarms of mosquitoes so dense that they sometimes covered whole houses.
And then came the giant insects, like dark angels who had climbed up from hell by mistake. The centipedes, the caterpillars, and the moths and the butterflies, huge and ugly, brightly coloured, pot-bellied. The forms and shapes of the eyespots on their wings were not recognisable as those of any catalogued species.
That late and lengthy summer had not been a period of truce for the exhausted human race. Even after the waters went down there was less to eat. The unexpected heat led to old diseases, which had been cured generations ago, and returned now to decimate the population.
And then came the eternal autumn, in which he had been born. They ploughed the fields once more, they reverted to the old wisdoms. But it was too late, many people thought.
The butterflies disappeared then almost entirely, the caterpillars buried themselves in the earth so as never to come out again.
He had been bluffing with the old man. The sanitation patrols never came round now, not even to register a death. They only let themselves be seen, descending from their bumblebee helicopters in masks and white jumpsuits, when there was a suspicion of cannibalism. This was something that they were determined to stamp out root and branch, vanishing suspects with them up into the sky. No one came when his wife went into early labour, not even the doula could cross the river to help them, because that year it had risen more than ever.
It had been his fault as well, he knew that much.
He had not paid attention to the signs.
The sunflower field, the one he could see in the distance from his office at the museum, completely submerged, the heads of the flowers the only visible things above the grey water. The coots walking into the middle of Jesus Green, leaving their watery nests, making themselves easy to catch.
He did not want to think about his guilt. But she had not abandoned the garden, had carried potatoes and parsnips, her belly sticking out, proud of the activity she could still perform. That’s how she had been until almost the sixth month, until the day she started to bleed.
He had to help with the birth himself, had to carry out that horrendous task. The river had broken its banks as well, had flooded Jesus Green, had flooded Midsummer Common, had almost reached his house. His wife had not stopped bleeding until the doula arrived, but she had survived, a miracle. If he had helped stop her haemorrhage then he had no recollection of how he had done so. The baby had not been so lucky. He remembered it as a liquid mass of unmoving flesh and blood. The doula had told him that it would not survive, that he should bury the bundle before the mother woke up. Had she said he was dead? He simply was not sure.
Recently he had started to remember those horrid hours differently, seeing the child’s eyes in his mind; a cruel joke of his exhausted brain, for the little thing never opened them. He could still feel the little chilled body, and the doula insisting that he bury it in the garden, almost opening the back door and pushing him into the inhospitable outside. He stood there for a while, a bundle of bloody towels in his hands, and started to walk somewhere.
Those memories might have been invented, tainted by the shadowy twilight that hung above them, or by the thick fog that rolled up often from the river, conquering the world. It was easy to call up strange memories when the fog came upon you at the riverside, it was easy to get disoriented. Everything, his memories and his daily life, seemed changed by that shadowy unreality.
He decided to go home. He could not allow it to happen again, it would not happen again. By now he understood the signs better, and realised that the city would flood again in a few hours. He could see lightning far away, a vast electrical storm, oddly silent in the distance, and realised that this was the last warning, that soon after the storm reached them and burnt itself out, everything would once again be covered under the stain of black water.
The birth happened that afternoon, and it was much quicker than the first time. A few hours of pain, and then everything seemed to take place in ten minutes: a few pushes, the doula shouting instructions and cheering her along, and soon he was holding in his arms a boy, purple with the effort of the labour, long and apparently perfect, and, most importantly, alive. His wife rested under the doula’s close watch, and the baby slept alongside her.
That night he stole a couple of hours of sleep away from his constant fear. His dreams were troubled, filled with water. The baby had little electric blue eyes. It’s too soon to tell, the dream-doula said, but he looks like he’ll have his mother’s eyes.
In the dream his wife died, and he sat up for her wake, feeling lost and alone.
He woke up with his heart filled with grief, into the comfort of the real world, realising that everything was fine, that they both were fine.
His dream had been very different. He had been aware that she was dead because of the way her face had changed, becoming dry and powdery as parchment. People who died only needed a few hours to gain this uncertain texture of fragility in their skin, falling back against their bones so that the dead person resembled a human skeleton, like the ones they had in the museum.
There was a moment when he felt a new tremor run through his soul.
He went to the front room and entered without making any noise, to lean over his wife. Her skin was glowing, and the child’s was as well, and both of them were moving slowly to the deliberate rhythm of their breathing.
It was then that he knew. The bundle that was his son a year ago had not dried out either, his skin had not become the parchment-like texture.
This was a fact; at last he had found one.
He sat at the foot of the bed for a few moments, and cried in silence.
It took him all his strength of will to go out without making any noise, shutting the front door carefully. The sky was an endless black stain. He got on his bike and rode down the street.
If it is difficult to measure distances in the dark, then in the unreal eternal twilight it is almost impossible. The canals spread out before him, apparently endless. When he reached the lock he would not have been able to say how long he had been riding for, or how long it had been since he left his wife and son in the distant town.
The light after the storm spilled ghostly onto the canal. Maybe it was the tiredness he felt, the tiredness that weighed in his eyes and swelled his brain, but he could not say if it was day or night.
The lock was closed, abandoned. The sign that said ‘No Bathing Allowed’ still hung on one of the walls of the lockkeeper’s hut, its red letters bleeding rust and mould. On the horizon a late bolt of lightning shone out. A few distant groans, and the unexpected howl of some living creature broke through to reality.
He would not have been able to bury the bundle that afternoon, just a year ago, a brief dozen months, which he remembered as distant as if it had taken place a decade back.
What had happened was different: night had fallen when he found that his footsteps had taken him to the Fort St George Bridge. He watched the river for a while as it nearly rubbed against the bridge, even after going down for a day. The water seemed as dark to him as the sky. He balanced the bundle against the rails, and just when he decided that he was going to go home to bury it, the bundle slipped from his trembling hands. And then he thought he heard the child make some kind of sound, no doubt another sick joke on the part of his mind; this was too cruel to be true. Whatever had happened, it was now too late, as the bundle sank with a dull noise.
Looking down he saw nothing. He went to the other side, following the current, but didn’t see the bundle pass under the bridge. It must have gone into the deepest part of the water.
Just then he saw that winged creature flying up, carrying something whitish and stained. What the creature then let drop from the sky were his towels, and in the uncertain twilight he could have sworn that it was a gigantic butterfly, one that had not been seen for years, flying ochre and leaden into the dusk, carrying his dead unshrouded son like the spoil of a monstrous bird of prey. This, and no other, was the memory that had followed him all that year.
He considered the lock —a rectangle filled up almost halfway with stagnant water, with all kinds of natural and artificial rubbish floating on top.
He thought it must be deceptively easy to drown in a lock.
There was no doubt that he was in the right place. He could hear clearly a papilio’s wings moving. But he couldn’t see where the creature was. He cranked his lantern’s handle, which would maintain the light for the time being. That’s when he saw it, a square hole, artificially made to repair some of the lock’s mechanism, in the side. He threw himself into the water.
It was only then that he understood how dirty the water was. His arms and his head got instantly covered in a dark oily liquid, whatever it was that the water had transformed itself into over the decades, stock still like a dead sea. He did not waste much time in thinking. As well as he could he pushed his way through the tins and the beams and the branches, and reached the spot where the square hole was; he held on with both hands and lifted himself up. He managed to get half his body in, only his legs still hanging out.
He heard the murmur — birds, bats? Butterflies. Papilios. Orange dogs. All of them with the same unusual electric blue stains in the wings, so similar to his wife’s wide open eyes as she pushed and pushed to let their child into the world.
Nothing there of course. He thought he could hear a child whimpering at the end of a large tunnel, and tried to crawl towards the sound. But he could not move. Then the butterfly came out in his direction.
The largest one he had ever seen.
Obviously not a child. Nothing human could moan like that. This made him relax a little. What exactly was he looking for there? What had he hoped to find? His overwrought mind could only hint at the reply to that question.
Another noise broke upon him — the unmistakeable and deafening racket of furious water. The lock would soon flood, killing off those creatures. Killing him as well, if he did not get moving. He chose life, surprising even himself.
Once again he came out to the stagnant water. He looked for the steps cut into the stone, intended to help anyone climb up the canal’s artificial bank, but he slipped and sank. Water filled his lungs. He tasted it avidly as the water soaked into him. This was the end. With a superhuman effort, he moved his arms and found himself beating against the wall. This time he climbed the steps on fingertips, clawing the life out of the stone itself. Without knowing how, he managed to give himself a push and got a foot onto the bottom step. Climbing up was easier than he had thought. He found himself next to the canal, sprawled on the ground, covered in dark mud and spitting out that black water which he had found so sweet a minute ago. He tried to sit up then, but something pushed him back, making him bite the earth. He turned over.
Then he saw them. Spat out of the hole. A swarm of papilios that went following their queen, escaping from whatever it was that had made them grow in such a supernatural way, escaping from the rising waters that would soon have drowned them.
He got on his bicycle and pedalled away as quickly as he could, more quickly than he had ever pedalled before in his life, in the opposite direction, against the current, back to his wife, back to his newborn son, back home.
 They warn that they are poisonous, from a German treatise on butterflies.