Strongest Conjuration

A tale of the Incrementalists—a secret society of two hundred people, with an unbroken lineage reaching back forty thousand years. They cheat death, share lives and memories, and communicate with one another across nations and time. They have an epic history, an almost magical memory, and a very modest mission: to make the world better, a little bit at a time. Their ongoing argument about just how to accomplish this is older than most of their individual memories. They first appeared in the 2013 novel The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White; subsequently, Tor.com published an Incrementalists story by Brust, “Fireworks in the Rain.” “Strongest Conjuration” takes place directly after the events of the novel.

This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

 

1. Humble

I opened my eyes, and the mudflats vanished, leaving a whiff of ocean and a tooth-deep case of the shivers. Phil, who had been reading on the sofa next to me, put a fat white mug into my chilled hands. He wrapped an arm around me with a whiskery, “Welcome back, Ren.”

I breathed in green tea steam and let the sensory jungle of reality drift into background. In the Garden, any detail that doesn’t signify evaporates. Here, the cardboard smell of packing boxes and the snuffle from the kitchen of Susi at his food dish meant only that Phil had already fed the dog, and it was getting late.

“About four hours.” Phil answered the universal question of Incrementalists just back from grazing. “Learn anything?”

I shook my head. We both knew I wouldn’t, but Phil’s way of asking made it sound reasonable—noble, almost—for me to burn vacation days trying.

“But you’re still having fun?”

“Fun? I’m conducting important, potentially groundbreaking research here!”

He kissed the top of my head. “You’re exploring.”

“Just mucking about,” I said.

Phil chuckled at the dumb joke. My Garden is infinite brackish mud. His is a villa he admired two thousand years ago in Rome, a sprawling decrepit beauty. Oskar roams a gritty, burgeoning late-eighteenth-century Paris. You’d think a UI designer could do better, but no. I’m the interface designer with a bad interface.

“Hungry?” Phil nudged me. “I’ve waited very virtuously for cheese and crackers.”

I needed to eat, but Phil’s shoulder, snug and muscular against mine, was feeding something emptier than my belly. “Let’s wait for Ramon,” I said and, to stay curled next to him a little longer, added, “What do we call him now anyway?”

“I call him Ray.”

“He hates that.”

“Yeah.”

“I mean, what do we call him now he has boobs and a PhD?” I said, and the doorbell rang. “Jesus, he’s early.”

“Almost always.”

Susi skittered into the room, delighted to alert us to the bell surely only he heard. Phil stood and caught him by the collar.

I’d meant to straighten up the front room, at least. Phil’s coffee, my tea, the electric cup warmer, and both our laptops cluttered the table, and we still had no place for coats.

Phil opened the door with a funny little bow. “Welcome to our humble home,” he said, as he always did.

I chucked the cup warmer in a drawer and collected our mugs.

Ramon shook Phil’s hand with the severe economy of motion I remembered from his previous body, despite Sarah’s softer curves. He had the thickest eyelashes I’d seen on anyone over twelve. “What a great house,” he said. “Ren must have picked it.” He handed me a bottle of wine.

“Anima Negra,” I read. “Spanish?”

“Mallorcan,” he corrected. “A new winery, but it tastes like . . . It tastes right.”

 

2. Sweet

I let Susi outside to play, and Ramon opened his housewarming present that tasted of his home. Phil sautéed garlic in a mix of olive oil and butter, and we all ate cheese and crackers while Ramon caught us up on his death and new Second. “It was poorly timed,” he conceded. “I was unprepared.”

“Very careless of you.” Phil’s tone was light, but his knife went thiwk thwik through the fat red peppers with a keen, hard edge. He’d spent a lot of time at Casino Del Sol during the days we’d waited to learn whether Ramon’s memories and personality would survive the spiking ritual. “Damn lucky we already had a recruit lined up,” he said.

“For Irina’s stub, yes.” Ramon glanced at me, but I kept my face neutral. Or full of crackers, which is mostly the same thing.

“Irina can stay in stub,” Phil said. “Doesn’t bother me a bit, not two months before all-of-us-but-mostly-Phil-get-naked-in-front-of-everyone day.”

“Who’s calling it that?” Ramon had always half cloaked his laugh in a modest cough; in Sarah’s throat, it sounded half-undressed.

“Me, mostly.” Phil shrugged one shoulder, chopping steadily. “But almost everyone agreed we needed you out of stub and integrated by the twenty-fourth.”

“Almost everyone?” Ramon raised sculpted eyebrows.

“Pretty much.” I fed Phil a generous hunk of cheddar on a melba toast. “The Incrementalists going public has a lot of people really excited.”

“And I was seen as rather a wet blanket?” Ramon studied the scarlet lip print on his wine glass. “I never opposed this course of action,” he said. “But I find enthusiasm in our ranks, as in law enforcement, troubling.”

“We should only do what we don’t like to?” I teased. “Not a recipe for job satisfaction.”

“Satisfaction is for finished work,” Ramon said. “Its anticipation is self-indulgent. Incrementalists should undertake only what we begin reluctantly.”

“I’m reluctant,” Phil said.

“You’re nervous. It’s not the same. In 1856 you were reluctant.”

Phil met Ramon’s eyes and threw peppers in the hot pan.

I could graze for what meddlework Phil had undertaken reluctantly more than a hundred years ago, but I would never share their memory of it. Celeste had seen to that. “Want to tell me the story?” I asked.

“Later,” Phil promised.

“It’s not important,” Ramon said.

I guessed it probably wasn’t, and went into the kitchen to be closer to Phil. I threw away garlic skins and pepper stems, a raven in the wake of his culinary war. “You’d think an Incrementalist would clean as he goes,” I marveled in mock wonder, “but no.”

Ramon smiled. “Some Incrementalists do.”

“Right,” I said. “Say ‘all Incrementalists breathe,’ and Oskar would suffocate trying not to.”

“A potentially useful stratagem.” Ramon sat back in his chair. He studied his hands, tilting his red-painted fingernails in the light. “What do you do with your vestigial claws?” he asked, waggling them at me.

“They’re the ultimate skeuomorphs, aren’t they?” I raised my hands don’t-shoot style, but rotated to look at my own nails. “I keep them short so I’m not tempted to paint them.”

Ramon frowned.

“I tend to get experimental with color,” I explained. “But I forget about them, the polish chips and peels, and then there’s a client meeting. Inevitably. And me with nails like scabbed knees.”

“Skeuomorph?”

“It’s a design term.” I began reuniting spice bottles with their MIA lids. “Things like rivets on blue jeans or, more mindlessly, the freezer above the fridge. When a new iteration retains as decoration a once functional element. UI designers borrowed the term for the way we’ll appropriate the look or sound of real-world things to suggest ways of interacting with electronic ones. Call data packets files, and users will know to put them in folders or trash cans just like they know, intuitively, that clicking the little house icon will take them back where they began.”

Ramon nodded and turned to Phil. “Did those who opposed spiking my stub into Sarah Waverly’s body do so on those grounds?”

“What grounds?” Phil looked up from the sink where he was filling the pasta pot.

“On the grounds that breasts on my body would be like wings on a chicken?”

“Delicious deep-fried with hot sauce?”

Ramon sighed. “Skeuomorphic,” he said.

“Something like that.” Phil hoisted the filled pot onto the stove. “We debated whether your mind would function as well in her brain.”

“And whether you’d hate it,” I added.

“No.” Ramon cupped Sarah’s breast, evaluating and abstracted. “I may prefer it. A body has never been what defines an Incrementalist.”

“To Ray.” Phil raised his wine glass. “Every bit as rational, now twice as pretty.”

Ramon lifted his glass in manicured fingers. “It’s Ramon,” he corrected, and the worry pinching Phil’s eyebrows finally let go, if only incrementally. It really was Ramon. The trust between them went hundreds of years back, and Phil needed him there.

 

3. His Castle

In the glow of Ramon’s wine and Phil’s rustic pasta, our new house felt more ours for having shared it. I emptied Ramon’s bottle topping up his glass, and Phil went down the hall for a new one.

“So, Ren,” Ramon said, spooning himself seconds from the ancient earthenware dish, “what have you been working on?”

It’s a question every Incrementalist has an answer for, and I did, my work just wasn’t meddlework. Ramon inclined his unfamiliar head in his familiar way, and my curiosity spilled over into the silence he held open. “I’d actually really like your insight,” I confessed. “I’ve been trying to figure out how the Garden actually works—the mechanisms of how it stores and shares memories—and you’re the first Incrementalist since Celeste to get a new Second without shading.”

“Is this professional interest?”

“Not really. Sort of.” I held Ramon’s eyes, and felt Phil’s as he came back in with the wine. “Yes, my agency has a client who’s working on an electronic model of human memory, but it’s primitive. They’re trying to remediate pathology, not enhance capacity. Honestly, if the Garden is to memory what the microprocessor is to computation, the rest of the world is still doing math on its fingers relative to us. Nobody’s even dreamed of building something with the kind of scope the Garden has.”

“Somebody has.” Ramon put a neatly coiled forkful of pasta between his studiously lipsticked lips.

I shrugged. “I’m not really, here or at work. An electronic version of the Garden would be years away, even if it’s possible, and it probably isn’t. I just want to know how, when one Incrementalist seeds a memory, the rest of us can graze it and remember too. Is there some actual, external thing we all share—some resource only Incrementalists can access? If there is, what is it, and how do we interface with it?”

“You’re not looking for a physical object or location?”

“Of course not.”

“And why is my recent stub and Second relevant?”

“I’ve been concentrating on the spiking ritual.”

Ramon just waited.

“Designers study edge cases,” I explained. “Extreme users, handicapped users. Sometimes you can learn more about typical-use scenarios that way than you can from focusing just on the meaty part of the bell curve. I was hoping to find out something about our memory from the one thing that We Who Remember forget.”

“We don’t forget anything.” Ramon wiped crumbless fingers on his napkin.

“So you remember what turned Sarah Waverly into Ramon Llull two weeks ago?”

“Of course not.” Ramon refilled my glass from Phil’s new bottle. “But I didn’t forget. One can’t lose what hasn’t been made.”

I took a long, red swallow of wine, Ramon’s precision irritating me precisely. I started to brush off the quibble, but quibbles can be clues. He was right. I put my wine back down. “Okay,” I said, thinking it through. “You’re saying you have no memory of your stub getting spiked into Sarah because you didn’t make a memory of it. But why wouldn’t you? Maybe it’s something about how the spiking ritual handles memory directly?”

“A stub is not a memory,” Ramon said.

“Okay,” I conceded. “That’s true. Stubs are more than just memory. And they’re weird in other ways, too. They’re made automatically when an Incrementalist dies, instead of being seeded. They vanish from the Garden once they’re used, instead of staying permanently.”

I looked from Ramon to Phil. They both nodded, so I kept going, working it out for myself aloud. “A dead Incrementalist’s stub is what transfers his memories, his personality (sometimes), and his access to the Garden into the recruit’s mind and body. It’s what turns one of Those Who Forget into one of Those Who Remember.”

“We don’t call ourselves that anymore,” Ramon said.

“Right. I know.” Some quibbles are just too quibbly. “But maybe there’s something about the transfer of access to the Garden that breaks contact with the Garden. Does gaining the collective memory somehow make you forget how you learned to remember?”

“Maybe.” Ramon turned to Phil, whose eyebrows did the who-me? dance.

It was a cute look, and I smiled out of habit, but I had a fish by the throat, and they’re slippery and don’t have necks.

“Your personality stayed intact through the spike,” I pressed Ramon. “But if it hadn’t, Sarah would have become the newest Incrementalist. Unless something broke for her like it did for me, she would have inherited your memories and your access to the Garden. But she wouldn’t have gotten your Garden. Your metaphor, your grid of x, y, z and alpha axes would have shaded with you. Sarah would remember it, but she’d experience the Garden through a new, unique metaphor of her own. If she wanted to remember one of your seeded memories, she would need to remember your coordinates, like you have to remember the navigational metaphor of whoever’s stub made you an Incrementalist.”

“Jaime.” Ramon inclined his head in respect.

“Right,” I said.

Most Incrementalists cherish a nostalgic affection for the personality that shaded when they were spiked. Mine tried to kill me, so I really don’t. I took a long, restraining sip to keep from buffaloing Ramon’s moment with my eagerness. He raised his glass in a silent toast, and I continued, “Oskar believes the Garden is an inexhaustible resource, a bottomless soup pot limited only by the number of spoons. What if understanding how the ritual transfers access to the Garden lets us make more spoons?”

It was Ramon’s turn for a too-slow sip.

I grinned at Phil. “We could share the Garden,” I said. It would make a fitting revenge on the secretive Celeste to open up the Garden to more people. “It might even let us make an electronic backup. Phil sure would have been happier waiting to get you out of stub in advance of get-naked day, knowing nothing you knew had been forgotten.”

“Nothing is ever forgotten.”

“Technically true,” I agreed. “But functionally irrelevant. The work required to reach back three personalities or more means we lose meaningful access to memories only a few hundred years old.”

“Several thousand, if you’re Phil.”

“Fine,” I said. “It still means we all end up forgetting almost everything eventually.”

Forgetting is imprecise.”

“Forgetting is unbearable.”

Phil had been watching me ping-pong with Ramon, enjoying it more than I did. His voice came in quiet and slower than ours. “Ren, you didn’t forget Celeste.”

Incrementalists and their persnickety precision!

I’d let myself get fully angry with Ramon, but Phil was trying to be kind. “I know,” I told him. “But access to the Garden is what makes an Incrementalist an Incrementalist, and she left me a broken spoon.”

“That’s not all that makes an Incrementalist an Incrementalist,” Phil said.

Ramon squinted over his glass at me. “Are you trying to fix your spoon?”

“She’s trying to make things better,” Phil said before I could make a there-is-no-spoon joke. His smile didn’t flicker, but he was watching the way only he can. “Because that’s what makes an Incrementalist an Incrementalist. You know that, right?”

Phil had never questioned my motives. He would ask how my work was going. He’d put a new hot cup of tea beside me every few hours. But he’d never asked why I was grazing instead of unpacking.

“I just think it’s an interesting problem.” I stood up and realized how much wine I’d drunk. “I think I’m going to call it a night.”

Ramon got to his feet, wobbling less than I did despite what had to be unfamiliar heels. “Thank you for dinner,” he said. “Your new house is beautiful.”

He picked up his plate, Phil’s, and mine and carried them to the sink. Phil wrapped his arms around me. “You aren’t going to graze again, are you?”

“No. Just sleep.”

“I’ll do the dishes and come join you.”

“Don’t,” I said, and kissed him. “I’ll get them in the morning. Take the whiskey out on the patio with Ray.”

“Mmm,” he agreed and kissed me while Ramon rinsed the plates. “Sweet dreams,” he said.

 

4. Fly Away

I dreamed of red peppers, tall as houses, with walls curled inward like ears. Every whorl held nested fractals—peppers made of peppers—and Peter Piper looked a lot like Phil. He picked them, and packed them, and peeled their blistered skins into sheaves. He gave them as folio pages to my nana, who lost them—all but one. It, she sharpened against the edges of her red-and-black-spotted carapace. When it was honed to a blade of bloodied midnight, she handed it to me. I took aim at Phil, and sat up in our empty bedroom. My heart beat my eardrums.

I shucked off the tank top I’d been wearing, and wrapped Phil’s bathrobe around me in a cotton hug. From our bathroom window, I watched him and Ramon, settled deep into patio chairs, with Susi curled up under Phil’s. I wondered whether Ramon’s curvy young body could metabolize whiskey at the rate his ancient personality was accustomed to throwing it back. Having other Incrementalists nearby was good for Phil, especially now. I’d asked Matsu and Jimmy to come visit in the next month too. I really needed to finish unpacking.

I brushed my teeth, but nothing helped. We were too close to Phil-gets-naked day for me to be comfortable with anything resembling blood or books. I needed to check my Garden for bad ladybugs.

I propped my back against the headboard, and let the root-beer tickle of my Garden’s sense triggers pull me into a landscape as greedy as suburbia, and as bleak.

Standing again, ankle-deep in desolate mud that stretched strange and far away, I said, “July first, 2011, Phil, Las Vegas,” and everything not a part of the memory Phil had seeded on that day and in that place drained away, leaving alpine trees and snow. I stepped into the chilly landscape and knew what Phil had recorded of the ritual in which he had spiked the stub of Celeste—his lover across four hundred years—into me, and I had not become her.

I had been toggling all week between this seed, and mine of the same event. Phil had recorded his right after he’d finished the ritual, while I was asleep. He didn’t know yet what Celeste had done, and it was a simple, informational memory. I let it surround me, but nothing had changed, gotten lost or weaponized, and the mountains melted back to mud.

Relieved, I stood at the center of my empty Garden—all my great-aunt Cece had left me. I didn’t like it, but I was grateful to be an Incrementalist—even an incomplete one. It didn’t make me angry, just a little panicky about all the open space and endless muck, and fiercely protective of Phil.

It wasn’t his fault it had gone wrong.

It wasn’t his fault, but it was why we were cracking cover. The Incrementalists could soon be a memory for anyone able to spot the seed and willing to graze it.

It wasn’t his fault, but he was the one getting naked.

On a whim I said, “Phil, September twenty-fourth, 2013, Tucson.”

Nothing happened. Of course not. We can’t see the future. We only imagine it the way we imagine the Garden.

I bent and pressed my palm to the ground to watch the unfiltered muck well between my fingers. Against the uniform brown, my brown skin’s smattering of browner freckles just looked messy. I pushed my hand deeper, remembering kindergarten palm-print turkeys in finger paint and pasted feathers. I wanted to leave an imprint, to make my mark, to prove I had been there—that I had been at all. I wanted to make my Garden mine.

“Mine,” I whispered. The mud sucked at my palm.

Then it gave way.

I caught myself with my other hand to keep from falling in up to my shoulder. For a disorienting second, I thought my Garden had run to quicksand, but only the mud beneath my hand had moved at all. I extracted my arm and peered down into the digit-laced hole.

I pinched up a wad of mud. “Pebble,” I said, and waited, and dropped it, and waited. The pebble fell, making no sound, down and down. A dangerous, indulgent thrill slid up the nape of my neck as I listened, and never heard it land.

I opened my eyes, grabbed a blanket, and ran for the back porch.

 

5. A House Is Not

Susi galloped to greet me, and I hitch-stepped to keep from tripping over him or my trailing bedding.

“You’ve been grazing.” Phil unfolded from his chair to hug me, and I burrowed my icy nose into his neck. “Sit down,” he said. “I’ll tuck your feet in.”

I took the empty chair between him and Ramon, and grinned at them both. Their new forty-dollar bottle had fewer than ten bucks of whiskey left, but I felt drunker than either of them looked.

Ramon drained his glass and poured for us both. “You’re peppy for someone just back from the Garden.”

I took a sip of the whiskey and slid it back to Phil. I told them everything: I’d dreamed about get-naked day, and that our gamble had gotten lost or turned into something dangerous; I’d grazed to reassure myself, and made a palm print in my mud, and it had gone deep and stayed that way. Phil’s eyebrows rose in polite surprise, but Ramon scarcely tipped his head.

“I wanted to make a bigger hole and jump down it, but I was afraid I’d break my leg.” I was mostly joking, but the pebble drop had both thrilled and frightened me.

Phil and Ramon said nothing.

“This is what I’ve been looking for,” I explained. “It has to be a clue about how the Garden works!”

Maybe they were drunk.

A graceful curl slipped over Ramon’s shoulder to feather just over his breast. “It doesn’t have to be anything,” he said.

“No, you don’t understand,” I insisted. “I graze seeds as landscapes I step inside. What if I could have walked into that handprint?”

“You’d have remembered big hands?” Ramon blinked his baby-doll lashes.

“Ray hasn’t done much drinking since the spike,” Phil noted.

“You do know what they say about big hands!” Ramon giggled.

“Big gloves?” Phil would enjoy teasing the morning’s sober Ramon with tonight’s flirtatious one.

“Seriously,” I implored. “What if, instead of Who, What, and When, I could filter the Garden symbolically?”

“Everything we do in the Garden, we do symbolically.” Phil’s words were weary, but not slurred.

“What if we could graze that way?”

“I doubt we could,” Ramon said. “This may well be a quirk of your subtractive metaphor. What was it? ‘Take all the egg out of a baked cake,’” he quoted my directions to the first memory I’d seeded. “Oskar was livid.” He giggled again, and drained his glass. “But that’s how it usually is with shamans. Jimmy’s castle makes grazing faster for him. Matsu’s garden makes Garden patterns easier for him to spot.”

“And this would make Ren what?” Phil asked. “A symbol shaman? We don’t have those.”

“We haven’t had those,” Ramon corrected.

“Grazing by symbol would be more anomalous than spiking in general, more even than mine in particular. Who knows what that kind of an edge case might show us? I think I’ll give it a shot,” I said. “I’ll make a symbol, and step into it the way I walk into a landscape to graze. Maybe nothing will happen. Maybe I’ll get the entire symbol’s worth of information.”

“A symbol’s worth would be a lot to remember,” Ramon said.

“Phil remembers more all the time.”

“But he remembers cumulatively, little bits over long periods.”

“Incrementally,” Phil said.

I grinned at him, but he wasn’t joking.

So there I sat, the only Incrementalist who didn’t remember JFK, in love with the only one who remembered Christ. It didn’t dampen my love for Phil, but it didn’t simplify things any. “Well?” I asked, standing up. “No harm in trying, right?”

I didn’t like feeling I needed his permission.

Phil met my eyes, then let his gaze linger on the wrap of his bathrobe over my body. “You’re good with symbol.” He smiled, using his Ren-voice to tease me. “You’d think an Incrementalist would go slower, do some research, maybe wait till morning, but no?”

“No.” I winked and shrugged. “I’m kind of a screwy Incrementalist.”

“You’re not.” He stood up and curled me into him. “You couldn’t be better. Not even a little bit.”

I went inside, Susi trotting next to me. I don’t like grazing in front of people, but Phil had seemed a little worried about my plan, so I settled on the sofa in the living room, and let Susi hop up next to me. I closed my eyes and hovered in the nervous racket of my blood and breathing. It’d be worth having the Celeste-shaped hole in my memory if it made me a shaman at something. Being able to filter our collective memory without reference to the original seeder’s analogy would be hugely useful to everyone.

I sniffed for the saltmarsh burn. Root beer bubbled over my tongue, and my blank gray sky and bland brown ground lay at my feet like gifted teens, maddeningly inert, infinite possibility overburdened into immobility. Phil was right. I’d been spending too much time here. I cleared my throat, grabbed a fistful of the goop, and named it “stick,” stickily. I used it to draw a handprint—four fingers and a thumb —in the mud around my feet, encircling myself with the outline. I closed my eyes, but was too curious or scared to keep them shut.

“Mine,” I whispered. Nothing happened. My Garden swallowed my line.

I drew an inverted triangle of dots and encircled it. “Face,” I said, but the mouth and eyeholes filled in with mud, and I tossed the useless stick away. It flew into splatters before hitting the ground—fear falling into frustration.

I loved Phil deeper even than the mud went, but guilt was something he’d swallowed whole, and I wanted him to spit.

It would be so cool to be a shaman.

I made another stick, and drew another face in the wet salt marsh mud. I hadn’t named my hand print “hand.”

I drew a circle around my feet, and another one beside me. I made a mouth and, grateful for yoga, drew an arm-reaching big circle to encompass it all. I took a deep breath, and exhaled. I could do this. I could make mud pies out of mud, and give Phil something juicier than guilt to chew on.

“Me,” I said, and my Garden dropped away. All the way.

 

6. All The Way

I am not cold in the nightdark, and I am not dreaming. There are many of me, and one is bleeding.

I am frightened.

Bleeding causes dying, not every time. She hurts, and I hurt where she is bleeding.

“Stop,” I say.

“Stop.” She shows her teeth. I show mine, but she won’t play.

We are cooking meat. I am angry, and I am hungry. We eat. I take meat to her, but she is dead.

I cry.

 

“Go on to bed, Ray. She’ll wake up when she’s done.”

“She should eat something. It’s been hours.”

“I know.”

“She’s spending too much time in the Garden, Phil.”

“She’s going back to work next week. She wants to make the most of her time off. Go to bed, I’ll just . . . Ren? Wake up, love. Have some tea.”

I opened my eyes, and ate reheated pasta while Phil showed Ramon where to find extra towels and blankets.

It was almost daylight when we went to bed.

“Learn anything?” Phil wrapped around me.

“When you’re tired, do you ever read the same sentence over and over and not remember it?”

“Sure.”

“I’m thinking the same thought over and over, and can’t remember it.”

“You’ve been spending too much time in the Garden.”

“One lonely thought left, no one to tell itself to, running circles.”

“What happened with the handprint?”

“I don’t remember.” I heard fear in my voice, but I couldn’t feel it. “Maybe I left my mind in my memory?”

Phil grunted in sleepy understanding. “The Garden is created in imagination, but it’s maintained in attention. You’re still thinking about it is all.”

“I don’t think I’m thinking.” I closed my eyes inside the comfort of his arms. “I feel weird,” I said. “Like I’m not at home in my head.”

 

She is dead and we carry her inside and hide her. We carry fire, and they cause cavedark to run overfeet like water, overcave like deer.

“Look!” he says at a shape on the cavestone. I whimper. Not her face, but her faceshape overstone.

I grind ash overcave to cause her faceshape to stay, and not run. I like it, but I cry.

“Stop,” he says, and shows his teeth. I show mine, and we play.

 

7. Fires Burning

“Good morning, Phil. Coffee?”

“Mph. Where’s Ren?”

“On the sofa grazing, since before I got up.”

“Did you make tea?”

“Oh right, I forgot Ren doesn’t drink coffee. I’ll put the water back on.”

“Mg.”

“Phil, I heard from Oskar this morning. He’d like you to fly out to San Francisco and talk to John. As you said about my death, there’s enough going on without surprising ourselves, and Oskar’s worried about him.”

“You live in California, you go.”

“Oskar thinks you’re the right person for this.”

“Oskar’s just pissed at me.”

“Oskar thinks you’ve been sitting on the sidelines too long.”

“Oskar is a pain in the ass.”

“Yes.”

“Maybe next week, when Ren goes back to work.”

“Oskar—”

“Oskar can wait.”

“That’s not his best game.”

“It’s our game. It’s the only . . . Is the water hot?”

“Almost. I was going to make eggs. Phil—”

“I’m staying, Ray. Fuck.”

“Here, give it to me.”

“Fine. The tea bags are in the green canister.”

“How many eggs for you?”

“Two, please. I’m going to take Ren her tea.”

My fingers curled around the steaming mug. “Thanks,” I said.

“I thought you were grazing.” Phil’s voice was warm as fur.

“Good morning, Ren!” Ramon popped into the living room brandishing a spatula. “Want eggs?”

“Sarah was a morning person?” My voice was ragged.

The dimple beneath Phil’s mustache belied the gravity of his accusation. “And a cheerleader.”

“How did you—?” Ramon stood frozen. “That information wasn’t in the file. I checked.”

“‘Sitting on the sidelines?’ ‘Not Oskar’s best game?’ Any benign explanation for a sudden use of sports lingo would have been in Catherine’s notes.”

“Don’t.” The deadly edge in Ramon’s voice pierced my mental distance enough to bring me fully present. “Do not ever mention this to Vivian.”

Phil shrugged. “You go see John for me, and I’ll never say a word to anyone.”⁠

Neither man moved, and only an Incrementalist would have recognized the silence as the duel it was.

“Ramon,” I said. “Check your eggs.”

His eyes flicked to me and back to Phil, testing my comment as wingman’s tactic or sexual reference. Then he smelled them.

“Damn!” He wheeled for the pan. The tension broke; but the eggs were ruined.

 

8. On the Range

Phil shooed Ramon from the kitchen and took over at the stove.

“I’m glad to see you back with us.” Ramon came into the living room, settling in an uncomfortable wooden chair rather than share the sofa with me. No matter how female his cheerleader’s body looked in yoga pants and slippers, Ramon was still Ramon. “I didn’t see anything about your experiment on the forums this morning,” he observed, which put Phil on alert again. I heard it in his spatula. I can get a little defensive about how irregularly I check the forum. Ramon was needling me, but it didn’t sting.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll seed it.”

“Seed what?” Phil asked.

“I’m pretty sure I went all the way back to my Primary.”

“What? Just straight back?” Ramon asked.

I nodded, sipping my tea. “All the way home.”

“Without having to go through any sort of system for naming points along the way?”

“Yeah.” I stood up and stretched. “With a symbol.”

“Interesting, a shortcut through the nested dolls of personality and memory.” Ramon pushed hair away from his face with a blunt, graceless shove. “How was it? That far back, even our brains were structured differently.”

“Yeah.” I carried my mug into the kitchen and refilled my cup, which emptied the pot.

“How do you feel?” Phil smiled at me over his shoulder. “Last night . . .”

“I feel better. Just tired, I think.” I dumped out the filter and grounds, started a new pot, and stood, taking small sips, noticing Phil notice Ramon’s new body, and watching Ramon notice Phil watching.

“Ren.” Phil was white and frightened. “You’re drinking coffee.”

 

9. Where Thou Art

Even before the cold tile under my feet and the warmth of Phil’s temple pressed against mine had faded, we were in his Garden. He caught my wrist in his hand, and pulled me through his front gate like Lot’s wife, or Eurydice, determinedly not looking back. We took a sharp right into grassy hills dotted with windmills, their vast, sail-shrouded arms pointing in circles—my Garden, represented in Phil’s. He stopped and turned to me, eyes closed, praying the Fibonacci sequence. I stood still as a pillar of salt.

He opened his eyes and squinted at something near my left cheek. He scanned the space I occupied. He couldn’t see me. He folded me against his body, and the stillness of his chest said he was back to zero-plus-one-is-one. I glanced at my shoulder, smushed under my chin by the strength of his arms, and saw through it to the grass.

I pulled away to check the rest of me, and we were back in the kitchen, its counters cluttered with two abandoned breakfasts’ worth of pans. I wasn’t transparent anymore, but my heart banged big and noisy in my chest, and my stomach shriveled tight.

“Ray!” Phil shouted.

Ray stuck his head and bare shoulders out from the guest bathroom. “I truly loathe mascara,” he said.

I could see why.

“Ren’s shading.”

“I’ll be right there.” Ramon closed the door.

I trailed Phil into the living room. “What’s shading?”

“You should know that!” Phil almost shook me. “Celeste stole her memories from you—fine. But you should have Betsy’s and Rachel’s before that.”

“Shading—” Ramon had put his sweatshirt back on, but back-to-front and inside out. “Shading happens sometimes when Incrementalists are dying, and already half in stub. They can appear almost transparent in any Garden but their own.” Ramon steered me to the sofa, and put me next to Phil. The lashes of his left eye made a single globby horn. “They may grow distanced from themselves, uncertain of their identity”—his voice hardened—“unclear about their memories.”

Phil scrubbed his hands through his hair. He snapped an elastic band from around one wrist and twisted it into the brown tangle.

“But I’m not dying,” I said. “I’m distracted. And tired. I’ve been spending too much time in the Garden, maybe.”

“That is certainly true,” Ramon agreed. “But it’s not the point. You’re ignoring what you don’t want to see.”

Phil reached across the chasm of sofa cushion to take my hand.

“The Garden is very literal.” Ramon’s thin voice made a strange contrast to his new full lips. “But it’s entirely mental, constructed by, or of, minds, not brains. Shock, or trauma, or illness . . .”

He waited for me.

I took too long putting it together. “I am not mentally ill.”

Phil kissed my knuckles, but he couldn’t meet my eyes. “Something traumatic must have happened to you in the Garden last night. Can you remember?”

“Memory isn’t my best game,” I said, but it wasn’t funny. “Someone died,” I said, groping.

“One of your Seconds?” Phil asked. “I’ve had deaths I still can’t think about. That happens sometimes, the best—”

“No.” I was searching shadows transparent as my hand. “Not me. I was sad, but not in shock.”

“Do you know where you were?” Ramon asked. “Or when?”

It was odd to see so little emotion in a female face, and I wondered vaguely if Phil’s eyebrows had picked up their expressive tricks when he’d had a woman’s body.

“Ren, do you know any of the axis points?”

I shook my head.

“Whenever and wherever you went,” Ramon said, “you left some of yourself behind, pinned in place by the emotional impact of whatever happened.”

I laughed. “I’ve literally lost my mind?”

“Just part of it. And lost is imprecise. Distributed, maybe.”

I remembered my parents with their serious faces, my father beside Mom on the sofa, but not next to her. “No, Renee, ma chere, not divorced,” he’d insisted with his stupid fake French. “Separated.” But he never came back home.

 

10. There’s No Place

“I’ll go with you.” Phil looked at Ramon. “Are you coming?”

It was delivered like a question, but Ramon understood the plea, and stood up. I moved closer to Phil to make room, and Ramon packed in beside me, wrapping his manicured fingers around the back of my neck and pressing the pad of his thumb to my temple. The tag of his sweatshirt looked like a miniature bib, or a priest’s collar. Phil cupped my cheek, index finger to my temple, and I closed my eyes, reaching for the funky marsh smell and the idiot taste of root beer.

My Garden manifested around us, featureless and undifferentiated in all directions save one.

“Interesting,” Ramon muttered, moving toward the solitary shadow a few feet away. “A hole on the z axis. A hole in When.”

“Yeah,” I said.

Phil was counting again.

“Perhaps the problem stems from the extraordinary distance between the Whens of then and now.” A tiny smile shadowed Ramon’s hurriedly lipsticked mouth. “Or perhaps from the space between the Who you were and who you are.”

“How about Where?” Phil asked.

“If Ren went as far as I suspect, even the land and water masses were different.”

“What’s that, Lassie?” I joked. “Ren fell down the mindshaft? We’d better get help!”

Phil didn’t smile and Ramon didn’t notice.

“We don’t have to find the memory, just the part of Ren trapped by it.” Ramon’s arm caught Phil across the chest. “Don’t.”

“I’ll jump in and bring her out.”

“That is (a) irrational—we don’t know why she got stuck; and (b) reckless—this isn’t your Garden; the limits of her imagination limit you.”

“Yeah,” I said. “And I rode the symbol down like an elevator. I don’t think you should jump.”

Ramon hadn’t said so, but I knew I’d been irrational and reckless too—greedy to turn my deficits and Phil’s guilt into something sweet for us all.

“What if you made another symbol?” Phil asked.

Ramon shook his head. “I think we’d have the same problem: too much too fast.”

“Hang on.” I closed my eyes, concentrating hard. Back to basics. When, Phil had told me in helping me find my Garden for the first time, usually ran up and down. Usually. I concentrated and Phil stumbled beside me. Ramon whistled. I opened my eyes, but nothing looked different.

“What did you just do?” Phil looked dizzy.

“She turned the axes,” Ramon marveled. “Time now runs ahead and behind, or to the left and right of us.”

“So where’s the hole?” I asked.

“An absence below makes a hole,” Phil figured. “A absence ahead is a vista.”

“No buena vista,” I observed.

Ramon ignored me. “Try picking a point a little bit ahead of you.”

“There’s no point.”

Phil turned sharply, but I shook my head. “I don’t mean like that. One point of mud looks like every other point.”

“Pick an arbitrary one and focus.” Phil’s voice stayed steady, but it was the steady of a man on a surfboard, not a floor. “Do you know what the mud over there is?”

“Same as the stuff under our feet,” I said. “Until I get rid of the extraneous stuff, it isn’t anything. It’s everything.”

“Can you bring it closer?”

I nodded, already trying. Nothing happened. My Garden stayed exactly the same muddy mess. “Don’t force it,” Phil whispered. “It’s not a willpower thing.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I know. Willpower I’ve got.”

“Imagine it.”

“I’m not very good at pretend.”

“Not pretend,” Ramon corrected. “Make believe.”

I refocused on the distant point, made it closer, and believed it.

“Ren.” Phil pointed at a mound in the mud, grinning. “Do it again.”

I did, and time ran like a tablecloth wrinkle before smoothing fingers to pile up at our feet.

“But this is too little too slow,” I said. “I’ve heaped up maybe a couple of years here. By the time we’ve raked up just the Celeste years, we’ll have a mountain to scale or a canyon to span between us and wherever the rest of me got lost in my Garden.”

“Maybe the problem isn’t When,” Ramon suggested.

I went on dragging time into sludgy piles.

“Maybe the problem is Who,” Ramon said. “Perhaps the trauma of experiencing a self untranslated over culture and language—across Whens based on moon and mathematics—separated Ren from herself. Think how much you change in just a single lifetime. You’re not the same man you were even a year ago.”

“Neither are you,” Phil said with a glance down Ramon’s body.

I pulled again, and sludgy time inverted at my feet. I stared into the hole. Maybe its dark was where I belonged. It was where I came from. It was where I had held love in my arms, and I carried the shape of its face in my heartdark.

“Ren?”

On the cave wall in front of me, the symbol was crude, but unmistakable: two eyes and a mouth.

“Ray, can you see Ren?”

I touched my fingers to the ash smudges on the cave wall: two circles and a line—the first shape infant eyes pattern, when all our world is Iandentire comfort, or its terrible lack. Not until that world splits into Me and Not Me, I and Thou, do we learn that we, too, look into the world from behind two circles and a line.

“Ren!”

The cave wall was a glorious welter of umber, rust, and charcoal—long, inverted triangles with heads and feet bleeding into the fluid backs of horses. A red patty-cake blotted out their haunches, half of it scraped white into the cleft circles of female hips and breasts. I wanted to press my palms against the handprints. I wanted to see if torchlight made the horses run.

“Fuck. I should have stopped her! No. Don’t give me that look, Ray. If I had told her last night I thought the experiment was dangerous, she wouldn’t have—Well, at least she might—I mean . . .” Phil’s voice was muffled by mud and time. “You can’t jump a chasm in two leaps. I should have told her.”

I couldn’t see him.

I couldn’t see us either, but we were there, the many of us in the cavestone. Not the one I loved. She was dead. Herdark hurt me.

“What does it mean for her to shade in her own Garden, Ray?”

Mydark hurt Phil. Fear woke up in me at last.

I had no idea what anything meant: mother or face or home.

I didn’t know if horses ran over the stone of our original Garden, or if I’d finally lost my grip on reality. Panic gathered low in my belly. I could barely drag my hands from the cavestone. It was where I came from, and I didn’t belong.

I had tampered with When, and Why crushed me. “Stop!” I said and showed my teeth.

“Is it so much to ask, Ray, to get a year, maybe two, of just me loving her and her loving me back? No drama, no upset?”

“No change, Phil? No growth?”

Why swallowed me in solid liquid ribbons.

“Yes. Exactly fucking that. Is that too much?”

Why? Because Celeste had stolen When from me and Who from Phil.

“Not too much, I think. But too slow, perhaps. A day or a weekend? Sure. But not months. Certainly not years.”

Why? Because the women in my family lose their memories. Trying to save them, I’d lost my mind.

It caved in.

“Shut up, Ray.”

“It’s Ramon.”

 

11. You Can Never Go

My thoughts were eels through oil, no more solid than the air, and no less opaque than mystery.

I wasn’t suffocating. Minds don’t breathe and my brain was in Tucson. If I opened my eyes I would be there, sitting on the sofa, and not a bit muddy.

I’d probably want a bath anyway, but Phil was showering. Ramon had made him. “I have pieces of myself pinned to half a dozen memories I will never look at again, Phil. So do you. Get cleaned up.”

I loved him, and I wanted to kiss him with no guilt on his mouth.

But my subtractive Garden filtered noise from signal, and I was made of static. There was no order left to pattern me. I was the mud suffocating me. Mud in my mouth would turn guilty in Phil’s, and spitting was part of what I’d come here for.

“Phil, listen. Sometimes the best you can do for someone who loves you is just to be okay yourself.”

I spit, and the cave floor ran under my feet in a soup of data points. Each held as little of me as a face holds, and as much.

“Go play poker. You can’t do anything from here.”

“I need to do the dishes first. Ren hates leaving the house with—”

“She’s not—”

“Dammit, Ray!”

If my Garden filtered me—stripped out everything extraneous—Phil would be what was left.

“I’ll be at Casino Del Sol if you need me.”

I was Phil’s Who, the axis he knew best, and trusted most.

I turned my Garden Who-side down and slid out backward.

I woke up in free fall, terrified and inert. Phil had left—and I was falling too fast to recalibrate his absence into anything less shattering than abandonment. But hurtling through desertion’s hole, I recognized it. The Garden—how it is and isn’t—exists (or doesn’t) symbolically. And I was that sort of shaman. Phil’s absence didn’t have to be a hole. He loved me, and love comes with strings attached.

So I threw an attached string across the emptiness. It caught like a Tarzan vine, and my tumble turned into a swing. I swooped sideways.

Bleached white bone, smooth and shiny, rounded like ears or sweet peppers, held a hole I recognized, but could not name. I let go of my vine with one hand and reached, swinging past, shaking, and missed. But it was the sole still thing in a world of falls. I stretched out again—almost too far—and put three fingers into the empty space. They caught and closed and held on. It yanked my shoulder joint, but stopped my fall.

I was still.

I still was.

I hung one-handed, suspended and trembling from the D-ring of a mug handle. Behind it, others in a line of Phil’s care and presence waited, not tidied up, because Phil doesn’t clean as he goes. My fingers ached, but I could almost hear Susi bark.

The caves I came from aren’t who I am, but my emergence is. I would ape-swing my way home on the messiness of love.

But it was gone.

Ramon was straightening up, and I was falling apart again. I scrambled from meanings that slipped when I grabbed for them, but whispered when I looked away. The only axis left was Where.

Where comfort returns.

Where the faces we love come back.

Where the Me-and-Not-Me split world is knit up into We.

Where there are many of me, and one was speaking. “I’m not checking up on her, Ray. That’s not what this is. I just came—”

 

12. Free

“—home!” I opened my eyes.

Phil closed the door behind him, eyebrows screwed down in concern.

“It isn’t where it used to be,” I said.

“No.” Phil’s voice was wary. “We moved.”

“Let’s stay,” I said and beamed at him.

Phil threw himself onto the sofa next to me like into a summer lake. “Welcome back.” His voice was hearthfire warm, and he folded me against him. “Need tea?”

“Nah.” My empty hands felt warm and full with Phil’s shoulders under them. “But I learned something.”

“I’ll bet,” he said and kissed me. His mouth tasted of nothing but love.

“I’m still the little Jewish girl who wrote a huge school report on Easter eggs rather than ask to be invited to a backyard hunt.”

He nodded. “It’s hard for you to reach out when you feel like an outsider.”

“It’s like I parachuted into the Incrementalists, but I got stuck in a tree. I thought maybe I could use my vantage point to help map the terrain.”

“Come down here where you belong,” he said. “You can always climb back up the tree.”

“Phil?” Ramon came into the living room, mascara repaired, hair neatly pinned, carrying his suitcase. “Ren?”

“All better,” I said. “I’m not so sure I’m a symbol shaman, but I’ve found some cool stuff to explore.”

“Up trees?” he asked. “Are they safer than holes?”

“I’ll start small,” I said. “You know, incrementally.”

Ramon nodded, and we walked him to the door. “Phil, Ren, you have a lovely home.” He gave me a quick, silk-hair-and-perfume hug. “Thank you for sharing it with me.”

Phil shook his hand. “No problem, Ray. You’re welcome anytime.”

“It’s Ramon.”

Phil grinned, and we stood together, watching from the door as Ramon climbed — high heels and panty hose — into his rental car, and drove away.

Phil and I ambled back into the house. We went into the kitchen together, and Phil picked up the egg-scorched pan. I took it out of his hand, and pulled him toward our bedroomdark.

“Stop.” I showed my teeth. “Come play.”

 

“Strongest Conjuration” copyright © 2014 by Skyler White

Illustration copyright © 2014 by Wesley Allsbrook

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