Days of Grass
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Now for the first time in e-book, genre master Lee's postapocalyptic dystopia that follows a young woman after the fall of humanity.
The free humans lived underground, secretive, like rats. Above, the world was a fearsome place for them - the open sky a terror, the night so black, and the striding machines from space so laser-flame deadly.
Esther dared the open; she saw the sky; she saw the Enemy. And she was taken – captive - to the vast alien empty city. Surrounded by marvels of science not born on earth, Esther did not know what they wanted of her. There was mystery in the city, dread in the heavens, and magic in the handsome alien man who came to her.
Release date: August 23, 2022
Print pages: 204
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Days of Grass
As always, in the spring, the sun rose behind the black spike of the tower.
Most of the intervening buildings had fallen, so that the tower, solitary in its pointing, had assumed importance as a landmark. It was perhaps eight or nine miles away, and somewhere beyond it lay the river.
Esther had never gone as far in that direction as the tower. At least, not when traveling Above Ground. And now the tower had become ominous and significant for her.
Overhead, the birds were swirling in the bright air like dregs in water. Their pre-dawn cacophony had petered out to isolated formless noises, as it always did once the sun had lifted from the horizon. The birds were very strange, and once very fascinating to Esther. They lived, crusted thick as their own droppings, on the ledges of the city. And, unlike men, they hunted and fought and mated and birthed and died under the sky.
There was other life, too. When a couple of dogs gave tongue, southward, Esther touched the pistol lying against her hip bone—but it was a ritual gesture. Two years ago, Standish had given her the pistol, and taught her to use it, but she had never had the need to shoot at anything Above, not even the feral dogs.
The sun was now balanced on the tip of the tower.
Esther turned resolutely and started out from the sheltering portico, toward the tower, and the moss-clotted river beyond.
Four years in her past, after fifteen years of living in the colony underground, she had discovered an open, stinking pipe, and crawled up it into the brackish daylight of the museum. Filtered by black windowpanes, the light was, even so, much more descriptive, much less analgesic, then the constant ocher light Below. She had understood herself at once to be in the presence of a terrifying novelty.
She was fifteen, and what had driven her upward, outward, was unknown to her. A sudden urge, panic-stricken but undeniable. No obstacle had been able to turn her back—not the filth in the pipe, its twists and turns. She had broken forth, frenzied, bloody, rank with sweat, into a place so unlike the regimented, predictable place Below that never in those initial years did she attempt to reconcile the two. Or to find explanations for the one place in the other.
On her first three arrivals in the upper world, she had gone no farther than the museum. She had been confused and intrigued enough by the smashed glass cases, the incomprehensible debris strewn about the mosaic floors and vacant galleries. On her fourth visit she had explored more widely, and emerged into a yard with a stone basin and seats. Here she looked up and saw the sky, and part of her had shriveled like paper in a fire. It was too big, too lofty, and too bright. She scurried back among the shadows of the museum, but they were no longer deep enough to protect her. So she had burrowed down into the darkness of Below, and it was half a year before she came again.
That half-year, spent in the artificially lit dark, was an era of unvoiced and frustrated rebellion. She came late to puberty, and in that time. The irritable doctor, in his grubby white coat, seemed to take pleasure in telling her she was now saddled with her female condition. She felt her quite illusory freedom run out of her, like the blood.
In the uniform underground world there were neither friends nor family. Her parents were long dead, the mother at Esther’s birth, the father two months before it. She had been a remote child, intelligent in an oblique way often mistaken for stupidity. Her own sex disliked her, for she did not blend in with their moods or aspirations. Men were distrustful of her. Even at an early age she had an aura of resentment that was unattractive to them. Besides, there were many prettier girls, and she, with her long, straight, tar-black hair, and eyes and mouth eternally narrowed, was at pains to show herself unwilling, and unavailable, with no hint of a possible softening. So she existed alone, did her chores—monotonous as the abject throb of the generator—and pined for the bright fear Above, without knowing it. Eventually, she went back.
She had lived the terror of the sky so often in her mind, in dreams, that it was easy at last to come to terms with the reality. This time it had been harder to negotiate the pipes—she had broadened a little at breast and hips—her panic then was that she would not get back into the upper air. She skinned her flesh and tore her nails from then on. Each successive journey was harder, and the goal became increasingly imperative. Soon she had seen the dawn, and faced out, on the cold portico of the museum, the advent of night. She had never seen such light, nor such blackness. And she had also discovered the city. She came as often as she could, sometimes every other day, but it was months before she ventured into the city streets.
Even from the portico, however, she witnessed many changes in the landscape of brick, which stretched away on every side, and found its pivot in the black pointing of a tower.
Sunsets she saw, and weather. And seasons. And that the moon altered its shape. Winds scoured and rain flamed silver on the cobbled courtyard of the House of Wonders (the museum). She caught her breath in mingled horror and delight at snow which, when it visited the ruins now, lay undisturbed, making a change that seemed irreparable. Yet she saw the spring melt it, and briers and dark grass taking back the walls. (That first spring, probably undone by extreme cold and thaw, a huge block of glass and concrete to the north suddenly and slowly collapsed before her eyes, leaving only its fading outline in dust on the air.) She saw the birds.
Everything she watched, like a book of pictures, riveted, but unable to enter. But it was only a matter of time.
The summer before she was seventeen, she walked in the city. It was a warm, a luscious, summer.
Below, life went on like a slow underground river. A life cut in slices, and going by the names Day and Night—or Darklight, when the generator automatically dimmed the lights. And these days and Darklights made up dry, seasonless months. She did her work, scrubbing, cleaning, serving the revitalized food from the kitchens. She tidied the refectory, mended clothes. She schooled the unwilling children—simple, inconclusive lessons, since each generation learned less than the preceding one to pass on to the next. And at Darklight she would lie on her back in the dormitory for unmarried women, listening to their snores and mutterings, their comings and goings to the latrines or to their lovers. Yellow-haired Patty, who particularly hated her, and who went exclusively with the soldiers, would now and then lean over to Esther in the gloom and whisper, just loud enough for other insomniacs to hear: “Fancy me then, do you? You’d enjoy it with me, wouldn’t you, Ess?” And laugh. Those who were different in any way were unpopular. Though if Esther had been a homosexual they might have liked her better, if only for giving them an excuse to punish her.
Her body was perpetually patterned by the injuries of her journeys through the pipes. No one took notice. They thought she wandered off through the unmanned warren of tunnels and sewers—dangerous yet lawful routes. They did not care where she went, or if she damaged herself.
While Above, she walked through the city. Through two months of that swelling warmth, scented by brickwork and cement and open air.
Then, they found her out.
It was a simple, obvious thing that gave her away.
With the summer, she had kept less and less to the buildings, which acquired a fetid smell in the heat. She walked the asphalt, bubbling in the sun and split by flowers and weeds. One whole afternoon she abandoned the shadows and lay on the flank of one of the rusty overturned vehicles, turning herself as if on a grill, taking off her blouse and shoes, the scalding atmosphere rinsing her body. She was entirely at peace and at home in the city that summer, even though she had found human skeletons in it, and other marks of past violence. These things did not trouble her. The city was her private fantasy; she felt no responsibility toward it. It always seemed to have been erected and utilized by a race unconnected with her own.
Returned Below, she showered in the women’s washroom, put on her clothes, and came into the refectory to help dole out the day’s last meal.
Shortly she became aware that people were staring at her. Presently one of the soldiers lifted himself out of his lounging against the wall and came up. He took her by the wrist, roughly, so that she dropped the scoop with which she had been dealing out the gray mashed potato.
“Come with me,” he said.
“Why?” she said sharply. “What for?” She hated the soldiers, their brown uniform, their guns, their sanctioned arrogance.
“What for?” he joked, turning to the crowded tables and grinning. “What for, eh?” The tables made a sympathetic noise.
“I haven’t done anything.”
“No? She hasn’t done anything. Just come with me, miss.”
“I won’t, damn you,” she said. It was a mistake. He jerked her wrist in a way the soldiers knew, which almost but not quite broke it, and then dragged her out through the kitchen, past the freezer units and the room with the great throbbing heart of the generator in it, up an iron ramp, and along the glare-lit, dripping, whitewashed corridors with their smell of rats and slime.
He was taking her to Standish.
She had not been inside that interview room before, though she had heard snatches of talk about it—walls with metal tiles, and one all books, a communication system wired to most of the colony, a great black desk, with a black leather chair behind it. Prior to their going in, the soldier spoke through a rubber tube by the door. Next the door opened by itself, and there was Standish, sitting in the leather chair behind the desk, gazing straight at them.
Esther had never seen much of Standish. Even when she was a little girl, Standish had been an old man. Occasionally he would breach his own legend and appear to them, presiding after a birth, or at the celebration of a wedding, or else to speak a few words above a corpse before it was taken away to be hygienically cremated by the soldiers. Mainly, Esther surmised, Standish did this in order to prove to them that he was still alive. He was their “Leader,” whatever that might mean now, descended from other leaders, who possibly, in their day, had had something significant to lead against, or for. A figure of authority—she supposed he was necessary. He had no children, and had fixed on no man to follow him. Perhaps that was clever. That way they relied on him implicitly, and could envisage no other in his place. Certainly there were benefits in being Standish. He had his own private sleeping room, like the doctors, and a private washroom—though who had ever seen them? And he commanded the soldiers, or at least, when he told them to do something, they left the other things which they were doing for themselves, and obeyed. Also, if there was a theft or a murder, the criminal was taken to Standish first, before the soldiers shot him. Not that such a thing had happened in her lifetime.
Would she be shot? To go Above was prohibited. She had always known. She had realized also, by now, through the waves of sick pain in her arm, why the soldier had arrested her. She was brown, brown in varying degrees from scalp to neck, neck to waist under the shirt, and her bare legs too. No wonder they had stared, the whitewash-colored beings underground.
She looked at Standish, not quite able to look directly at him, holding her head a little sideways, and with her lips thin and tight with nervousness. Yes, he was a very, very old man, so old he looked to her mummified. And when you saw his jewel-bright eyes, or into his healthy mouth when he spoke, the outer skin, by contrast, seemed all the more like an extraordinary mask of wrinkled pleated yellow paper. So much like paper that it was possible to imagine that, if you ran up to him and tore it open, underneath would be the smooth wholesome flesh and jet-black hair of a young man.
“I see,” Standish said.
It was not clear whether he said it to the soldier, or to her, or to himself.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, you can leave her with me.”
The soldier clicked his booted heels and went out, and the door shut. Faintly, through the metal, Esther could hear him smugly whistling down the corridor outside. She rubbed her wrist.
“Where did you go,” Standish said, “to get such a fine tan, young lady?”
She faced him defiantly, no longer really afraid. There was no emanation of cruelty in this room.
“Above Ground. Where else?”
His eyes—the young eyes behind the mask—widened a little, hardly with surprise; it was a sort of humor.
“Oh, really. There must have been something of a heat wave, up there.”
Esther stared about the room. Her eyes went to the books, which, like the other rumored objects, were accurately present. There were a few books kept in the refectory, mostly missing portions and without covers. Some concerned mechanical things, such as the building of pumps and engines. Others described sentimental love, or else the sexual act in laborious detail, except where pages had fallen or been torn out. A very few spoke of places and matters so incomprehensible to the intellects Below that they were never read, and rotted quietly in corners. None of these books was like the books of Standish’s collection. If indeed Standish’s books were books at all, for they were unnervingly beautiful—backed with shiny leather in many shades, with titles in gold.
“What is your name?” The old man asked this suddenly.
“Esther,” she said, and looked at him again.
“Esther. The Martineaus’ daughter. The father died of typhoid, the mother of hemorrhage following delivery.”
Esther winced. The minutiae of her loss disgusted rather than pained her.
“You’ve got a good memory,” she said. “For an old man.”
She wanted to see what he would do. She wanted to force his hand, one way or the other. He did nothing, or nothing apparently related to what she had said.
“Esther, did you know that you were prohibited from going Above?”
“Then why disobey?”
For a moment, she found herself groping to give him a real answer, a true answer. Then she checked herself, and said, “It’s a damn silly rule, isn’t it? I’ve been going Above for nearly two years now, and nothing awful’s happened.”
He studied her attentively. “How would you know?” he asked. “Perhaps there’s some disease Above, insidious but fatal, which you have now introduced below.”
“There couldn’t be. You’d know already. After two years.”
“Then if there isn’t a disease, why do you suppose, Esther, that no one is allowed Above?”
“It’s just a silly rule—to keep us in line, to make us frightened, to stop us thinking for ourselves. All the rules do that. And the soldiers are there in case anyone wakes up.”
She expected any response. But he absurdly said: “You’ll have missed your meal. You must be hungry.”
As he rose, simultaneously one of the metal walls grated open. What lay beyond was obviously Standish’s private suite. Nonplussed, Esther made no move.
“Please,” Standish said politely. He went over to the opening with a stiff elegant gait, and stood waiting for her to enter first.
What did this sudden invitation mean? She was sixteen. She thought, Surely he’s too old to—Then recalled the old man in the hospital who snatched at the girls’ buttocks when they saw to his bedpan.
One of Standish’s brittle white eyebrows rose.
“Young lady,” he said, very dryly, so dryly she could not miss the innuendo, “your virtue, I assure you, is entirely safe with me.”
She crossed the room toward him, but hesitated again, by the wall of books. Partly to see how he would react now, she reached up and laid hold of one of the spines. He did not remonstrate, but neither did the book come free in her hand.
“Dummies,” he said then, gently. “A symbol, nothing more. The real books are in here.”
She went through the opening, treading unconsciously cautiously, catlike, and he followed her, and the opening shut.
The rumors could not have prepared her. Later, she was to realize there were only four rooms, but at first there seemed to be a multiplicity, a labyrinth. They were white. Warm unobtrusive snowy walls, a kind of plastic tile, not whitewash. Furnishings were functional, yet not graceless. In the room with the white wood table, there were three dark varnished paintings with dark gold frames like whorled treacle, and above, a gallery, with shelves of books running behind. There was thick black carpet on the floors.
Once in the Labyrinth, she began to hate him. It was partly the opulence she saw he had been living in, this old man, while she had scrabbled for sixteen years outside, with the rest of the herd, like rats, in the dark and comfortless rat-hole. He must have sensed her hate, must have been prepared for its likelihood, for it was perfectly inevitable.
He had his own freezer and kitchen unit, too. The aroma of food stuck thorns into the ducts of her mouth. When the food came, it was steak and green beans and fried potatoes, with a little carton of blackberries for dessert, and black coffee with cream. The manner in which he brought the food to her was not in any sense servile or even domestic. She was reminded of the way she and other women fed the children in the refectory. Then she began compulsively to eat. He sat in a swivel chair, turned a little away from her, tactful, or indifferent. Poor old bastard. She pitied him. He’s got all this, and he can’t even enjoy it, can’t even eat. He’s too old. Probably his teeth hurt him. But Standish’s teeth, which were his own, were very white, she had already noticed.
Finally, she pushed back the plate and cup. She eyed the room again. She said: “There are paintings Above, but most of the canvases are slashed.”
He did not answer. She saw that he was writing in one of the manuals that soldiers used for their rosters. This boded ill. Was he writing about her? Thrusting from the chair, she stood up.
“It must be good to be a leader,” she said. “Hard to give up. Are you frightened to fix on another man to follow you because of this? Frightened in case he finds out what’s in store for him here, and kills you to get to it more quickly?”
She did not anticipate an answer, but she did anticipate some sort of give-away, for at that time she could still be forgiven for anticipating such things of Standish. When he failed to provide a give-away, she moved quickly around the swivel chair to confront him.
“Why?” she said.
“Why?” he repeated. He did not look up.
“I’ve broken the rules, Standish. So why bring me here, let me see how you live, let me eat the sort of food none of us ever gets from the communal kitchen—if it’s a game, I’m not playing.”
“No, of course you’re not.” He did look up then. She had forgotten how he could look at her. “Above,” he said. “What’s it like up there, now?”
“If you want to know,” she said, “why not go up and see?”
He smiled. Again she saw the other man observing her humorously from behind the papier-mâché mask.
“Don’t you think, Esther, that I’m somewhat derelict to be crawling up pipes?”
She turned away, holding herself very straight. Self-conscious. She had abruptly stopped hating him. She moved toward the carpeted gallery stair, went up it, and stood eyeing the wall of books instead. She pulled at one abruptly. The book was real this time, and slipped into her hand. She held it, running her fingertips over the leather, not seeing the title, and not opening it.
“There’s a building,” she said, “with books like this, and paintings and old clothes behind glass, only it’s broken. Outside the building is a city.”
“And it’s summer in the city?” he asked slowly.
“It’s hot,” she said, “and things grow, like in the hydroponics room down here, but more of them, and different.”
“Different in what way?”
“The plants down here are sickly. Barclay sweats over them, but they die. And the vegetables are always three-quarters rotten. Up there there are flowers, and they’re huge, strong enough to push through the paving. And there are trees—all I’d seen was a picture of a tree in a book.”
“Esther,” he said, “is there anyone alive in the city?”
She heard the change in his voice.
“Me,” she said flippantly. “Foxes and things. Who else should there be?”
“Men,” he said. “Or unmen.”
“I found bones.” Puzzled, she turned then, and came halfway down the stair. She said: “Unmen are what?”
Standish said, “Sit down.”
“Tell me first what’s going to happen to me. The punishment.”
Her eyes were the color of burnished fall leaves, and she had extravagantly widened them, so he could see all their russet color—almost red. He wondered what kind of hidden genealogical pattern had had to evolve in order to establish eyes of that color. Perhaps merely living underground, . . . And she was what? Fifteen? Sixteen? A child. A tough, edgy, dangerous child—
“No punishment, Esther. Please, sit.”
She sat on a stair, and, he noticed, deliberately arranged herself as if relaxed and at ease—though her knuckles showed white on the unopened book she was still holding.
“Do you know how to reckon time?” he said to her.
“There’s the clock in the refectory. It runs on the generator.”
“So it does. Do you know how long the clock has been ticking?”
She sensed, without knowing, that what he was beginning to say mattered.
“One hundred and forty-one years,” he said. “Very approximately nine times your own lifetime. It would seem a long while to you. And like all the fourth generation of tunnel-dwellers, you know nothing of any place your ancestors might have lived before. Not that the third generation know much. The second and first generations are, of course, dead. And existing as we do, it’s been easy to forget.”
“A hundred and—”
“And forty-one years. Below Ground.”
Her hands also relaxed on the book.
“The city Above, where else? And other similar cities.”
She absorbed the idea as if she were blotting paper, very thoroughly and quickly, feeling the texture of her outlook changing as she did so. She’d always known, hadn’t she? Known, but not known.
“If,” she said, “if our—if they were living Above, what pushed them off down here?”
“Can you read, Esther?”
“Yes. I can read. So what?”
“The question was relevant. If you can read, you’ll be able to read this.”
And he held out to her, closed now, the manual in which he had been writing.
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