When Caitlin is framed for the murder of her brother, to save herself she must disappear into Industrialized Faerie, looking for the one person who can clear her.
Unfortunately, the stakes are higher than she knows. Her deeds will change her world forever.
The Iron Dragon’s Mother by Michael Swanwick is on sale June 25.
Dying is a dreary business. Helen V. learned that lesson early in the process, when she was first coming to grips with the fact that not only would she never get better but that nothing she did in the time remaining to her was going to matter in the least. For a ninety-something-old woman whose thoughts and actions had always, ultimately, mattered, it was a bitter pill to swallow. As was not having anything to look forward to but the final hammerblow to the back of her neck at the end of the slaughterhouse chute.
She didn’t know that the dragons were coming for her.
“And how are we today, lovely lady?” The day nurse came dancing into the room, inexplicably chipper as always. At least he wasn’t whistling. Some days he whistled.
There were a dozen leads attached at one end to various parts of Helen’s body and at the other to a rank of monitors, all of them like little children, prone to demanding attention for no reason that made any sense to Helen. One had been beeping away for half an hour valiantly trying to alert an uncaring world that her blood pressure was high. Well, of course it was, and would remain so, too, until somebody switched the damned thing off.
It hurt to turn her head, but Helen made the sacrifice so she could move her glare from the monitors to the nurse on the far side of the jungle of plastic vines that moved fluids in and out of the desiccated sack of flesh that had once given her so much pleasure. “We are dying.”
“Oh piffle. Just listen to yourself—you’re being so negative! How are you ever going to get better with an attitude like that?”
“Well, I’m glad that you see my point at least.” The day nurse briskly yanked tubes from catheters and swapped out plastic bags on their chrome rack. He locked a gurney to the side of the bed and with a tug and a shove rolled Helen onto it. Then he changed the sheets, rolled her back again, and made the gurney go away. Finally, he tapped the weeping monitor, silencing it, and said, “Your blood pressure is high.”
“Whatever happened to those lovely flowers you had?” Without waiting to hear that Helen had commanded they be thrown out because she did not care for hollow gestures from distant relations she barely knew existed and would not recognize on the street, the day nurse picked up the remote and switched on the television. A crackly roar of laughter flooded the room. Least jolly sound in the universe. Still, she had to concede that it was doing its best to hide the profound silence of her life dwindling away.
“Either that television goes or I do,” Helen said. “Oscar Wilde. November 30, 1900.”
“Nobody ever gets my jokes.” Helen closed her eyes. “Story of my life.” Which was true. Yet she was unable to refrain from making them. She was stuffed so full of cultural trivia that she could no longer hold it all in; it seeped from every orifice and psychic wound in humiliating little dribbles and oozes. “This is slow work,” she said, and lapsed into what previously she might have mistaken for sleep but was now merely and at best the negation of consciousness.
When she came to, it was night.
Early in her career, when she was a mere scribbler, Helen had learned that every scene should be anchored by at least three evocations of the senses. A short-order cook in a diner hears the sizzle of eggs frying, smells the half-burnt coffee in the percolator, and leans a hand on a countertop that’s ever so slightly slick with grease. That’s all you need. But it couldn’t be done here. Everything jarring, unclean, or worth looking at had been smoothed away or removed. There were no sharp corners. All the sounds were hushed: distant, emotionless voices, the unhurried squeak of soft shoes on linoleum in the hallway. The colors were all some variant of grayish off-white: eggshell, taupe, cream, cornsilk, pearl, latte, gainsboro, beige. Worst of all were the smells: bland, anodyne hospital smells. Now that all the unpleasant things had been made to go away, she found she missed them.
I am like an old dog, she thought, deprived of interesting stinks and stenches.
A hospital was a place of elimination. It was where you went to eliminate pains, diseases, waste products, blood specimens, wrappings, bandages, smells, sensations, internal organs, and, ultimately, one’s self.
“You are headed straight for Hell,” the night nurse said with absolute conviction. Apparently she’d woken up in the middle of a conversation. These things happened.
“Papist nonsense,” Helen retorted. She’d expected better from a good Baptist lady like the night nurse. Next thing you knew, she would be elevating the Host and praying novenas for the salvation of Helen’s soul. Helen felt a twinge of pain and tried hard to ignore it.
The night nurse began unclipping tubes and unhooking drained plastic sacks so they could be replaced with plump new ones. She never talked when she did so; she gave the task her full attention. Admirable, one supposed. “I am no more than a device. For transferring fluids. From one bag to another,” Helen declared. “In the most expensive manner possible.”
Her work done, the night nurse said, “You make a joke of everything.”
“You have me there. That’s exactly what I do.”
“You are standing at the edge of the abyss, and still you laugh. You are about to fall right over into the flames and you’re giggling like a madwoman. Lord Jesus has his hand out to pull you back. You need only accept his grace in order to be saved. But what do you do? You pretend that life is nothing but chuckles and smirks. Out of pride and arrogance, you are laughing yourself right into eternal damnation.”
The night nurse preached a righteous sermon. Direct, no nonsense, straight from the heart. But did she hear an amen? She did not. Not from Helen, anyway. Helen V. felt nothing inside her but the growing insistence of a not at all spiritual pain. Anyway, it would be hypocritical for her to pretend to believe in a God who, the nuns of her distant childhood had all agreed, hates hypocrites.
“What’s this you’re reading?” The night nurse picked up her paperback book from the nightstand.
“Words, words, words,” Helen said wearily, hoping the night nurse would put it down without pursuing the matter any further. The pain twisted, making her gasp.
“Some kind of pagan trash,” the night nurse decided, insightful as ever. She put the book back, face down.
“I need a painkiller.”
“Mmm-hmm.” The night nurse was filling out some damned form or other.
“I really need that painkiller.”
“You’ll get it. Just hold your horses.”
“This is a power play. Isn’t it?” She could well imagine how a woman who had never gone scuba-diving in the Maldives or found herself inexplicably judging an air guitar competition in an unlicensed slum bar in Johannesburg or spent a summer trying to convert a rusty old Ferrari to run on vegetable oil because she’d fallen in love with a boy who wanted to save the world might resent her. The night nurse had probably led a hard life. One could understand her withholding drugs from extremely annoying old women just because that was the only power she had. Not that Helen, in her final days, was extremely anything. She liked to think of herself as the Nemesis of Nurses, the Terror of the Tenth Ward. But probably the people charged with ushering her into the next world with as little fuss as possible thought of her only as the difficult old lady in room 402. Well within the normal range of human rudeness. “God, if there is a God, will forgive you. For finding me a pill. If there is no God. Then the goddamned zeitgeist. Of our collective unconscious. Will forgive you.”
“You got all these big words. But they don’t actually say anything.” The night nurse went away, leaving Helen weeping with pain and hating herself for it almost as much as she hated the night nurse for doing this to her. The petty, petty, petty . . .
The monitor began to beep again.
Then the night nurse was back. There was a ripping noise of plastic being removed from packaging. Small fiddling sounds as she did something with the tubes and plastic bags. Finally she said, “I put some Demerol in your drip. Be patient, it’ll take effect soon.”
“I like you,” Helen managed to say. “Really. Thank you. I really do like you.”
That cut no mustard with the night nurse. “And you tell me any damn-fool thought that enters your head. It don’t matter who you like. Only whether you love God more than you do the sound of your own smart mouth. You better think about that. You better think about that long and hard.”
Amen, sister, Helen thought. In assisted living, she had expended a great deal of energy pretending to work on her memoirs, Writ in Water. Well, now the time had come to admit that not only was she never going to finish them but she had never really intended to make a proper start. Life was for the living, memoirs were for those who had something to say, and she had been a failure on both fronts for a very long time.
The night nurse silenced the monitor. “Your blood pressure is high.”
“Is it? I can’t imagine why.”
“Oh, those two,” the evening nurse said in an easy, good-humored way. Once again, it seemed, Helen had been awake and talking for some time. Emily was a little dumpling of a woman with a round, pink face and thin blond hair. She was also, or so Helen V. believed—and her judgment was acute in such matters—genuinely kind. She must have known a lot of pain in her life. “I don’t know how you put up with them.”
“I’m enjoying them both. I could do a show about either one.” Helen was feeling unaccountably expansive. Must be her second wind. Her last wind, rather. Not that her breathing was any the easier for it. “Nurse Sunshine—about an RN. Who infuriates everybody without realizing it. Chirpy, positive, upbeat. A sitcom, of course. Female, it goes without saying. God forbid a man should be cast as such a ditz. That’s a fight I’ve lost too many times. The pilot writes itself. Starring whomever the head of network programming. Is screwing this season.
“The Night Nurse, though . . . That could be made interesting. A rigidly moral woman. Who takes it upon herself to convert her charges. But here’s the hook. Knowing what backsliders human beings are. Whenever she does save one. The night nurse immediately kills them. So they’ll die in a state of grace. You see. And go straight to Heaven. Every time a patient begins to rise up. From the Slough of Despond. To feel hope again. The audience will quail with dread. Here it comes. Oh God, here it comes. Great suspense. Complex character. With the right actress, it could be a hit.”
“That’s right, you used to be a writer, didn’t you?”
“Not a bit of it. I was a producer. I made things happen.” Helen said it nicely, though, careful not to offend. She liked Emily because she’d let Helen take the conversation anywhere she wanted. It was rare luck to find a good listener here of all places. “Writers are like bedpans. Necessary, perhaps. But you wouldn’t take one out to dinner.”
The evening nurse laughed. “You know what, Helen? I am going to miss you. You’re not like other people, are you?”
“No. Thank goodness. One of me is more than enough.”
But now Emily was tidying things up, and Helen knew what that meant. She didn’t have any material prepared to keep the evening nurse from leaving, so there was no choice but to fall back on the truth. “I’ve got an escape plan,” she said.
“I’m going to bust out of this joint.” She waited until the evening nurse opened her mouth to assure her that this was out of the question and said, “That paperback is The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Annotated. I’ve been studying it. In the instant of death. There’s an instant of freedom. If you try to hang on to your life. You just spiral back down into samsara and rebirth. More of the same. But there’s that one instant. In which you can take a leap into the unknown. Into a better world. I’m taking that leap.”
“I didn’t know you were a Buddhist.”
“I’m not. Opiate of the people. Crap and nonsense. Still, escape is escape. Right? When somebody bakes you a cake. With a file in it. You don’t care what brand file.”
“I don’t think I’m following you.”
“Okay. This book maps out what happens after you die. Nobody else, no other religion, does that in any kind of detail. Well, Dante, but forget him. Maybe they’re on to something. Somebody came back from death. And blabbed. And the monks wrote it down. And it became religion. But maybe it’s not properly religion at all. Maybe it’s just stone-cold fact. Think about it. It’s worth a . . .”
But Emily was heading for the door now. A smile and a wave and she would disappear into the past, a fading memory, a minor regret.
“I could build a show around you too,” Helen said to make her audience stay.
She could, too. Helen was sure of it. A hospital was an ordinary place where the drama of life and death played out in the most ordinary way imaginable. Grand themes reduced to small gestures. At the center of which . . . an ordinary woman, of ordinary goodness. One who never faces down a terrorist or talks an ailing presidential candidate into changing his health care policy or a teenage pop star out of committing suicide. But does what she can for her charges, takes the night shift for a friend— no, not even a friend, a colleague—who wants to see her daughter sing in the school play . . .
Emily was gone.
Just as well. Even Helen V. could never sell such a show. There just weren’t the numbers for something that thoughtful and intelligent. Maybe there had been once, in the fifties, but not today. Today, she was simply sorry that she had said her escape plan out loud. Once spoken, it sounded suspect. Let’s not mince words, it sounded stupid. Still, it was all she had. “I am perplexed,” she said. “Aleister Crowley. December 1, 1947.” Another day, she supposed, was over. Helen closed her eyes and let the darkness carry her downstream.
A sudden shuddering noise rose up from the machine that periodically inflated the sleeves that had been Velcroed around Helen’s legs, and the miserable things began squeezing and releasing, first right, then left, as if she were walking. It was supposed to keep her blood from clotting, and it was timed so that it came on just when she’d managed to forget about it. She supposed she was awake. Somebody was whistling.
“Wakey-risey, pretty lady. What a beautiful day. Makes you glad you’re alive, doesn’t it?” The day nurse began unhooking and rehooking bags. Then he did the thing with the gurney so he could roll her out of the way and change the sheets.
“No,” she said. “It doesn’t.”
“Oh, you. You’re incorrigible.” He rolled her back onto the bed. Out of boredom more than anything else, Helen said, “I’ve been wondering. Do you have a name?”
“Oh, now you’ve hurt my feelings.” The day nurse put his hands on his hips and, smiling, scowled. “It’s Charles. I’ve told you often enough.”
“Chuck. Got it.” Helen turned her head to stare at the row of monitors and then, because she could not help it, turned back to face him again. “Tell me, Chuck. Why are you always so god-damned happy?”
“Now, stop that.” Incredibly, a note of genuine annoyance entered the man’s voice. It seemed she had punctured his armor of fatuousness. “Just because you’re not well doesn’t give you license to treat people like fools and idiots.”
“Oh, Chuck, Chuck, Chuck. Didn’t you ever see Fellini’s The Clowns? You’re a fool. I’m a fool. The whole damn planet is. A ship of fools. That’s why we’re here. To give God a giggle. If you can’t laugh at idiots, what can you? When you’re tired of idiots. You’re tired of life.”
“Incorrigible. Simply incorrigible.” The day nurse was smiling again.
“I am not tired of life,” Helen said. Then, because it didn’t sound very convincing, “I’m not.”
The day nurse switched on the television. “Whatever happened to those lovely flowers you had?” he asked. Then, whistling, he walked out the door.
Wakey-risey, pretty lady—and don’t forget you’re going to Hell. This was the way time passed. All too slowly, and all too swiftly toward its appointed and inevitable end. Excruciating either way. How many decades had she been here? A month? Nine hours?
Hating herself for it, Helen began to cry.
No, no, no, she thought—that’s not me crying, it’s just my body. But she was lying to herself and she knew it. She was as weak of spirit as she was of flesh. She was afraid of being alone with her thoughts. It was night again and the nurse was nowhere near. The halls were silent as death. Appropriately enough. Come back, she prayed, and I’ll let you convert me. Alleluia. I swear.
A blackness profound and deep was gathering at the edges of the room. Or had it always been there, waiting, and only now was Helen become aware of it? Slowly, it crept from the corners of the ceiling and beneath the bed, like fog gathering in a moonless sky, growing thicker and darker until there was nothing around her but blackness. Like a cheap lens-based special effect in a bad horror flick. She’d been responsible for her share of those too in her time.
All the monitors were crying now. Peace, my children, she wanted to say. A week from now you’ll have forgotten me entirely.
In some far province of her mind, Helen was aware of hurrying footsteps, of people crowding into the room, jerking the bed around, doing urgent medical things. But when she tried to focus on them they faded into unreality, the fantasies of a dying mind. “So there it goes at last, the extinguished thing,” she murmured. “Henry James . . .”
Abruptly, she could say no more. Not the last words she would have chosen had there been an audience. But there was no audience. Story of her life.
Her little machine daughters were really putting on a show, hopping up and down, hysterically weeping and wailing and for all she knew blinking too. Well, they’d simply have to learn to get along without her, for the darkness was closing about Helen like a cocoon. Squeezing the light from the room. Slowly but inexorably compressing it until there was only a fuzzy circle of the stuff dissolving in the distance. Which reminded her that there was something she was supposed to do. Something . . .
Then Helen remembered her escape plan. But there was no time! The light was dwindling, dying, it was only a spark.
All in a panic, she concentrated her thoughts on the distant speck of light and leaped.
She didn’t know that the dragons had come for her. Nor did they.
Copyright © 2019 by Michael Swanwick
Order Your Copy