The following is an excerpt from the 2017 novel Borne by Jeff Vandermeer. In Borne, a young woman named Rachel survives as a scavenger in a ruined city half destroyed by drought and conflict. Rachel ekes out an existence in the shelter of a run-down sanctuary she shares with her partner, Wick, who deals his own homegrown psychoactive biotech. One day, Rachel finds Borne during a scavenging mission and takes him home. Borne as salvage is little more than a green lump―plant or animal?―but exudes a strange charisma. Borne reminds Rachel of the marine life from the island nation of her birth, now lost to rising seas. There is an attachment she resents: in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet, against her instincts―and definitely against Wick’s wishes―Rachel keeps Borne. She cannot help herself.
Borne made me happy, but happiness never made anyone less stupid. During my recovery, I had such trouble remembering what waited for me outside, as if I had to learn it all over again, despite having been taught so many lessons.
All kinds of dangerous ideas entered my head while groggy. It was as if the little foxes and other animals out in the desert ran in circles around my mind, barking and kicking up dust, stopping only to stare at me from afar and encourage me to wander. I kept fantasizing that I lived in a real apartment in one of the stable, lawful sanctuaries from my past. Everything would be fine — I just had the flu or a cold and was out sick until I got better. And when I was better, what would I do? When I was better, I would go back to university and to some part-time job. I would complete my studies so I could become a writer. Because the ruined city was just a bad dream and my life as a scavenger was a bad dream, and soon I would wake up, and the visions of almost drowning, of losing my parents and with them all connection with the past would prove to be an illusion, too.
The longer Wick expended time and energy protecting me, the more ideas like this took hold of me. They had only a vague relationship to my memories of flight, of trying to find refuge, of all the dangers before the city.
But minds find ways to protect themselves, build fortifications, and some of those walls become traps. Even as I started to walk around my fortified rooms with Borne, even as I ventured out into the corridors. It was so sad a fantasy that I brushed by without recognition the revenants that told me it was a lie. The chair stuck in the wall. The filing cabinet rusted beyond use, now just a barricade at the mouth of a tunnel. The lack of libraries or other people.
Yet those sequestered weeks also contain some of my best memories because of Borne. Wick was gone a lot, spying on the Magician’s movements, providing beetles to his small band of dealers … and possibly because of our argument.
Which left Borne and me ever more time to explore. He’d gotten tired of being cooped up in the apartment. On days when I knew Wick would be out for hours, I’d take Borne into the hallways, prickly with the fear of discovery and stiff from my slow-healing wounds.
It was all a construct by then, this game of not telling Wick that Borne could talk. He had to know. But because I never admitted it and Wick never brought it up, Borne became an open secret that existed between us like a monster all its own. It made me reckless, as if I wanted Wick to confront me. That somehow our relationship would be a total lie if Wick didn’t confront me.
Ignoring the strain on my own body, Borne and I would race down dim-lit, dust-covered corridors, Borne afraid of colliding/congealing with the wall and tripping over his own pseudopods, wailing as he laughed: “You’re going toooooo fast!” Or, “Why is this fuuuuuuuun?” Which just made me laugh, too. When you don’t have to run and you have the chance to run for the hell of it, it becomes a strange luxury.
Then we’d collapse at the end of the hall and Borne, in addition to his usual observation that he was hungry and needed a snack — I now let him hunt lizards and rats to blunt his appetite — would ask some of his questions. He never stopped asking them, as if he were really ravenous for the answers.
“This dust is so dry. Why is dust so dry? Doesn’t it need some wet for balance?”
“Then it’s mud.”
“I haven’t seen mud yet.”
“No, you haven’t. Not yet.”
I would show Borne a photo of a weasel in an old encyclopedia and he’d point with an extended tentacle and say, “Ooooh! Long mouse!” Which brought me quickly to the idea of teaching Borne to read, except he picked that up on his own. When we played hide-and-seek, I’d sometimes find him hunched up on the edge of a midden of discarded books, two tentacles extending out from his sides to hold a book and a single tentacle tipped with light curling down from the top of his head.
He would study any number of topics and had no real preferences, his many eyes enthusiastically moving back and forth as he read the pages at a steady clip. I don’t believe he needed light, or eyes, to read, but I know he liked to mimic what he saw me doing. Perhaps he even thought it was polite to seem to need light, to seem to need eyes.
But the truth is, I don’t really know what he thought or how he thought it, because most of the time I just had his questions.
Eventually, I took him to Wick’s swimming pool, which was Wick’s laboratory. I loved the swimming pool, and perhaps that meant I loved Wick, too, in a way. The swimming pool had originally had a skylight above it, extending to the top of the Balcony Cliffs, and a divot of open space remained all the way to the top, with Wick contriving to camouflage it from above with his illusions.
When the light from the hole in the ceiling was right, it formed green-and-gold waves, as if the moss and lichen on the surface had mingled with the sun’s rays and been transformed in some fundamental way. The light would glisten against the living filaments Wick had placed there as part of his work, and you could see dust motes floating and the occasional water bug or glider and, rising off the water, a mist that curled back on itself like certain kinds of ferns.
It could take a while to get used to the mélange of chemicals, which gave off a dank smell, cut through with something spicy. That spice could be sweet or sour, but was always sharp. Wick needed the light in the mornings to feed the rich, revolting, shimmering stew-brew to finish his beetles and other creations. But our shit and piss fed it, too, although the harsh smell was more of algae and peat and some bitter chemical. I’d long ago gotten used to it, even found it pleasant.
Eellike things wriggled in the mire and the fins of weird fish broke the surface only to submerge again.
“What’s a swimming pool?” Borne asked.
“A place people go into to … swim.”
“But it’s full of disgusting things! Disgusting things live in there. Just disgusting. Really disgusting.” Disgusting was a word Borne had just picked up and used often.
“Well, just leave those disgusting things alone, Borne, even if you are hungry.” I gently slapped away a tentacle he’d begun to inch toward the water. I had no idea what effect those chemicals would have on him. Nor did I want Borne eating Wick’s supplies, which would only endear him further.
Borne summarized for me: “A swimming pool is a place where people like to swim in disgusting things.”
“Close enough,” I said, chuckling. “You won’t be encountering many of those when you’re out in the real world.”
And then I wished I hadn’t said it, because I’d acknowledged that this wasn’t the real world. That we lived in a bubble, of space and time, that just couldn’t, wouldn’t last.