In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.
These are the facts.
Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.
Brooke Bolander’s The Only Harmless Great Thing is a heart-wrenching alternative history that imagines an intersection between the Radium Girls and noble, sentient elephants. Available now from Tor.com Publishing.
Part I: Fission
There is a secret buried beneath the mountain’s gray skin. The ones who put it there, flat-faced pink squeakers with more clever-thinking than sense, are many Mothers gone, bones so crumbled an ear’s flap scatters them to sneeze-seed. To fetch up the secret from Deep-Down requires a long trunk and a longer memory. They left dire warnings carved in the rock, those squeakers, but the rock does not tell her daughters, and the stinging rains washed everything as clean and smooth as an old tusk a hundred hundred matriarchies ago.
The Many Mothers have memories longer than stone. They remember how it came to pass, how their task was set and why no other living creature may enter the mountain. It is a truce with the Dead, and the Many Mothers are nothing more and nothing less than the Memories of the Dead, the sum total of every story ever told them.
At night, when the moon shuffles off behind the mountain and the land darkens like wetted skin, they glow. There is a story behind this. No matter how far you march, O best beloved mooncalf, the past will always drag around your ankle, a snapped shackle time cannot pry loose.
* * *
All of Kat’s research—the years of university, the expensive textbooks on physics and sociology, the debt she’ll never in the holy half-life of uranium pay back, the blood, sweat, and tears—has come down to making elephants glow in the goddamned dark. It figures. Somewhere her grandmama is sure as hell laughing herself silly.
A million different solutions to the problem have been pitched over the years. Pictographs, priesthoods, mathematical code etched in granite—all were interesting, intriguing even, but nobody could ever settle on one foolproof method to tell people to stay away. Someone had even suggested dissonant musical notes, a screaming discordia that, when strummed or plucked or plinked, instinctively triggered a fear response in any simian unlucky enough to hear it. The problem with that one, of course, was figuring out what exactly would sound ominous to future generations. Go back two hundred years and play your average Joe or Jane Smith a Scandinavian death metal record and they might have a pretty wicked fear response, too.
Then came the Atomic Elephant Hypothesis.
Kat grew up, as most American children did, associating elephants with the dangers of radiation. Every kid over the past hundred years had watched and rewatched Disney’s bowdlerized animated version of the Topsy Tragedy (the ending where Topsy realizes revenge is Never The Right Option and agrees to keep painting those watch dials For The War Effort still makes Kat roll her eyes hard enough to sprain an optic nerve) a million times, and when you got older there were entire middle school history lectures devoted to the Radium Elephant trials. Scratchy newsreel footage the color of sand, always replaying the same moment, the same ghostly elephant leader eighty-five years dead signing the shapes for “We feel” to the court-appointed translator with a trunk blorping in and out of focus. Seeing that stuff at a young age lodged in you on a bone-deep level. And apparently it had stuck with a whole lot of other people as well: Route 66 is still studded with neon elephants cheerfully hailing travelers evaporated to dust and mirage fifty years back down the road. The mascot of the biggest nuclear power provider in the country is Atomisk the Elephant, a cheerful pink pachyderm who Never Forgets to Pay His Utility Bill On Time. Fat Man and Little Boy were decorated with rampaging tuskers, a fact deeply screwed up on several counts. It’s a ghoulish cultural splinter the country has never quite succeeded in tweezing.
Kat had taken a long, hard look at all of this, rubbed her chin in a stereotypically pensive fashion, and suggested a warning system so ridiculous nobody took her serious at first. But it was one of those fuckin’ things, right? The harder they laughed, the more sense it seemed to make. They were all at the end of their collective ropes; the waste kept piling up and they needed to let whoever took over in ten millennia know what it was, where it was, and why they probably shouldn’t use it as a dessert topping or rectal suppository.
And so here Kat sits, tie straightened, hair teased heaven-high, waiting to meet with an elephant representative. Explaining the cultural reasons why they want to make the elephant’s people glow in the dark is going to be an exercise in minefield ballet, and godspeed to the translator assigned.
* * *
They killed their own just to see time pass. That’s how it started. Humans were as hypnotized by shine as magpies, but no magpie has ever been so thinkful about how many days it has left before it turns into a told story. Even in the dark they fretted, feeling the stars bite like summer flies as they migrated overhead. They built shelters to block out the sight of their passing. This only succeeded in making things dimmer; the unseen lion in the tall grass is still a lion that exists. Clever-turning cicada-ticking sun-chasers they tied together so that they would always know where she was, clinging to the sun’s fiery tail like frightened calves.
(Try not to judge them; their mothers were short-lived, forgetful things, clans led by bulls with short memories and shorter tempers. They had no history, no shared Memory. Who can blame them for clinging ape-fearful to the only constants they had?)
“But how to track time’s skittering in the night with such tiny eyes and ears?” the humans squeaked. “What if the sun should go wandering and leave us and we don’t even realize we’ve been left behind?”
The answer, as with so many things those piteous little creatures dredged from the mud, was poison.
They gored the earth with gaping holes, shook her bones until crystals like pieces of starless sky fell out. Trapped inside were glowing flies. Trampling them made a smeary shine, but they carried sickness within their blood and guts. Pity the poor humans! Their noses were stumpy, ridiculous things and they couldn’t smell the Wrongness, even as they rubbed it across their teeth and faces. All they could see was how bright it looked, like sunlight through new leaves. For want of a trunk, much sorrow would come to them—and on to us, though we knew it not in those days.
* * *
There was a good place, once. Grass went crunch-squish underfoot. Mother went wrrrt. The world was fruit-sticky warm and sunlight trunk-striped with swaying gray shadows smelling of We. Mud and stories and Mothers, so many Mothers, always touching, always telling, sensitive solid fearless endless. Their tusks held the sky up up up. Their bare bones hummed in the bone places, still singing even with all their meat and skin gone to hyena milk. Nothing was greater than Many Mothers. Together they were mountains and forevers. As long as they had each other and the Stories, there was no fang or claw that could make them Not.
They had blown raw red holes through the Many Mothers, hacked away their beautiful tusks, and the sky had not fallen and she had not mourned the meat. She was She—the survivor, the prisoner, the one they called Topsy—and She carried the Stories safe inside her skull, just behind her left eye, so that they lived on in some way. But there is no one left to tell the histories in this smoky sooty cave Men have brought her to, where the ground is grassless stone and iron rubs ankleskin to bloody fly-bait. There are others like her, swaying gray shadows smelling of We, but wood and cold metal lie between them, and she cannot see them, and she cannot touch them.
* * *
In this mean old dead-dog world you do what you gotta do to put food on the table, even when you’re damn certain deep down in your knowing-marrow that it’s wrong and that God Almighty his own damn self will read you the riot act on Judgment Day. When you got two kid sisters and an ailing mama back in the mountains waiting on the next paycheck, you swallow your right and you swallow your wrong and you swallow what turns out to be several lethal doses of glowing green graveyard seed and you keep on shoveling shit with a smile (newly missing several teeth) until either the settlement check quietly arrives or you drop, whichever walks down the cut first. Regan is determined to hang on until she knows her family is taken care of, and when Regan gets determined about something, look the hell out and tie down anything loose.
The ache in her jaw has gone from a dull complaint to endless fire blossoming from the hinge behind her back teeth, riding the rails all the way to the region of her chin. It never stops or sleeps or cries uncle. Even now, trying to teach this cussed animal how to eat the poison that hammered together her own rickety stairway to Heaven, it’s throbbing and burning like Satan’s got a party cooked up inside and everybody’s wearing red-hot hobnails on the soles of their dancing shoes. She reminds herself to focus. This particular elephant has a reputation for being mean as hell; a lack of attention might leave her splattered across the wall and conveyor belt. Not yet, ol’ Mr. Death. Not just yet.
“Hey,” she signs, again. “You gotta pick it up like this. Like this. See?” Her hand shakes as she brandishes the paintbrush, bristles glowing that familiar grasshopper gut green. She can’t help it; tremors are just another thing come along unexpected with dying. “Dip it into the paint, mix it up real good, fill in each of those little numbers all the way ’round. Then put the brush in your mouth, tip it off, and do it again. The quicker you get done with your quota, quicker you can go back to the barn. Got it?”
No response from Topsy. She stands there slow-swaying to hosannas Regan can’t hear, staring peepholes through the brick wall of the factory floor opposite. It’s like convincing a cigar store chief to play a hand. Occasionally one of those great big bloomers-on-a-washline ears flaps away a biting fly.
Regan’s tired. Her throat is dry and hoarse. Her wrists ache from signing instructions to sixteen other doomed elephants today, castoffs bought butcher-cheap from fly-bait road-rut two-cent circuses where the biggest wonder on display was how the holy hell they’d kept an elephant alive so long in the first place. She pities them, she hates the company so much it’s like a bullet burning beneath her breast bone (or maybe that’s just another tumor taking root), but the only joy she gets outta life anymore is imagining how much the extra money she’s making taking on this last job will help Rae and Eve, even if Mama don’t stick much longer than she does. Regan ain’t a bit proud of what she’s doing, and she’s even less proud of what she does next, but she’s sick and she’s frustrated and she’s fed the hell up with being ignored and bullied and pushed aside. She’s tired of being invisible.
She reaches over and grabs the tip of one of those silly-looking ears and she twists, like she’s got a hank of sister-skin between her nails at Sunday School. It’s a surefire way of getting someone’s attention, whether they want to give it or not.
“HEY!” she hollers. “LISTEN TO ME, WOULD YOU?”
The change in Topsy is like a magic trick. Her ears flare. The trunk coils a water moccasin’s salute, a backhanded S flung high enough to knock the hanging lightbulb overhead into jitter jive. Little red eyes glitter down at her, sharp and wild and full of deadly arithmetic. The whole reason Topsy ended up here in the first place was because she had smashed a teasing fella’s head like a deer tick. You don’t need a translator to see what she’s thinking: Would it be worth my time and effort to reach down and twist that yowling monkey’s head clean off her shoulders? Would it make me feel any better if I just made her… stop? For good? Would that make my day any brighter?
And Regan’s too damn exhausted to be afraid anymore, of death or anything else. She looks up and meets the wild gaze level as she can manage.
“Go ahead,” she says. “Jesus’ sake, just get it done with, already. Doing me a favor.”
Topsy thinks about it; she sure as hell does that. There’s a long, long stretch of time where Regan’s pretty sure neither of them’s clear on what’s about to happen. Eventually, after an ice age or six, the trunk slowly lowers and the eyes soften a little and someone shuts the electricity off in Topsy’s posture. She slumps, like she’s just as dog-tired as Regan herself.
You’re sick, she signs, after a beat. Dying-sick. You stink.
“Yeah. Dying-sick. Me and all my girls who worked here.”
Poison? She gestures her trunk at the paint, the brush, the table, the whole hell-fired mess. Smells like poison.
“You got it. They got you all doing it now because you can take more, being so big and all. I’m supposed to teach you how.”
Another pause unspools itself across the factory stall between them. I’m supposed to teach you how to die, Regan thinks. Ain’t that the dumbest goddamn thing you ever heard tell of, teaching an animal how to die? Everybody knows how to die. You just quit living and then you’re slap-taught.
Topsy reaches down and takes the paintbrush.
* * *
When their own began to sicken and fall, they came for us, and there was nothing we could do but die as well. We were shackled and splintered and separated; the Many Mothers could not teach their daughters the Stories. Without stories there is no past, no future, no We. There is Death. There is Nothing, a night without moon or stars.
* * *
“You would be doing a service not just to the United States, but to the world and anyone who comes after. I know the reasoning is… odd, but when people think of elephants, they think of radiation. They think of Topsy, and… all of that stuff, y’know? It’s a story. People remember stories. They hand them down. We have no way of knowing if that’ll be the case in a hundred thousand years, but it’s as good a starting point as any, right?”
The translator sign-relays Kat’s hesitant ramble to the elephant representative, a stone-faced matriarch seventy years old if she’s a day. Kat shifts in her folding chair. Translation of the entire thing takes a very long time. The meeting arena is air-conditioned, but she’s still trickling buckets in places you never would have guessed contained sweat glands. The silence goes on. The hand-jive continues. The elephant, so far as Kat can tell, has not yet blinked, possibly since the day she was calved.
* * *
She killed her first Man when she was tall enough to reach the high-branch mangoes. There were no mangoes in that place to pluck, but she remembered juicysweet orangegreen between her teeth, tossed to ground in a good place by Mother. She remembered how high they had grown, but there were no mangoes in that place to pluck, so she took the Man in her trunk and threw him down and smashed his head beneath her feet like ripe red fruit while the other humans chittered and scurried and signed at her to stop.
There were other Mothers there, too. They watched her smash the Man, who had thrown sand in their faces and burned them and tried to make them drink stinking ferment from a bottle, and they said nothing. They said nothing, but they thought of mangoes, how high they had once grown, how sweet they were to crunch, to crush, to pulp.
* * *
The county hospital, like all hospitals, is a place to make the skin on the back of your neck go prickly. It’s white as a dead dog’s bloated belly on the outside, sickly green on the inside, and filled to the gills with kinless folk too poor to go off and die anywhere else. Nuns drift down the hallways like backroad haints. The walls have crazy jagged lightning cracks zigzagging from baseboard to fly-speckled ceiling. Both sides of the main sick ward are lined with high windows, but the nuns aren’t too particular about their housekeeping; the yellow light slatting in is filtered through a nice healthy layer of dust, dirt, and dying people’s last words. The way Regan sees it, the Ladies of Perpetual Mercy ever swept, it would be thirty percent shadows, twenty percent cobwebs, and fifty percent Praise God Almighty, I See The Light they’d be emptying outta their dustpans at the end of day.
They’ve crammed Jodie between a moaning old mawmaw with rattling lungs and an unlucky lumber man who tried catching a falling pine tree with his head. What’s left of her jaw is so swathed with stained yellow-and-red gauze she half-takes after one of those dead pyramid people over in Egypt-land. Regan’s smelled a lot of foulness in her short span of doing jobs nobody else wants to touch, but the roadkill-and-rotting-teeth stink coming up off those bandages nearly yanks the cheese sandwich right out of her stomach. She wishes to God they’d let you smoke in these places. Her own rotten jawbone throbs with the kind of mock sympathy only holy rollers and infected body parts seem capable of really pulling off.
“Hey, girl,” she says, even though Jodie’s not awake and won’t be waking up to catch the trolley to work with Regan ever again. “Thought I’d just… drop in, give you all the news fit to spit.” She takes one of her friend’s big hands from where it’s folded atop the coverlet. It gives her the cold shivers to touch it with all of the life and calluses nearly faded away, but this is her goddamned fault for getting them into this mess in the first place. She’s going to eat every single bite of the shit pie she’s earned, smack her lips, and ask for seconds. That much, at least, she can do for someone who braided her hair when they were tee-ninsy. “You hanging in there alright?”
A fat carrion fly buzzes hopefully around Jodie’s mouth; Regan shoos it away with a curse. “Goddammit,” she mutters. “All you wanted to do was keep blowing mountaintops to hell and back.” Deep breath. Steady. “I told you a whopper when we started out. You’d’ve been safer by a long shot if you just kept on mining.”
Excerpted from The Only Harmless Great Thing, copyright © 2017 by Brooke Bolander.