H O N O R V I N C E N T
The Village at the End
People from elsewhere stopped visiting us two weeks ago due to the season – it is impossible to get into and out of the village with any kind of cargo between October and April. I have to assume this is why this robot arrived last week: so that there was no one from outside to ask what it was, and none of us could easily leave. And I am sure it was no coincidence that the radios stopped working and the internet went out a few days after its arrival.
I do not know who or what controls this thing, but for my own sanity’s sake I must assume there’s a person behind it, somewhere. That is why I will address you human to human. I’ve heard your voice when I follow my mother out here for her daily prostrations. I do not like to imagine what I am talking to if not someone else.
And so, my plea: our situation is deteriorating. There are only eighteen of us left here, four men, nine women, and five children. We had seventy people six months ago, when I arrived for my father’s funeral. The men who walked along the river to the next village to ask for a new radio disappeared. Yuriy and Dersu realized that the animals that we would hunt to tide us over from October through April, when the roads and rivers are impassible, were nowhere to be found, either. Yuriy put his family and several others into his truck and the sled hitched to its fender and left. It was like the thing that happens to animals when a disaster approaches: they scatter. The rest of us felt it too, but there wasn’t another working car in town, so we stayed.
Most people have come to believe this robot was dropped here from the sky, as there was no sign of anyone else near it on the morning it appeared, and the only track nearby was a single, pin-thin, perfectly straight line that had been melted into the snow from the tree line to its feet.
It’s clear this robot is a built thing, made with a purpose, not a real animal, but made with a wolf or a dog in mind. It seems as though it sprung from the snow and stone themselves, all seamless metal and plastic, built in such a way that it is impossible to take apart without destroying. You’ll be relieved to know that so far everyone has remained too respectful or afraid of it to do a thing like that. No one recognizes the name on its side, though I assume it’s the company that sent it, the one whose headquarters you are probably sitting in right now, watching me rave. Lethe Systems, we think it says, though no one here speaks English well enough to say, not even Sveta, who spent three years in St. Petersburg studying dentistry before her mother died and she had to come home, like me.
Why did you send it here? The machine never moves when we are watching, or if one of us is in its line of sight, but every morning I see its little track in the snow. I imagine you could hurt us very badly if you wanted to, from inside of it. It reminds me of a crouching dog, but the size of a moose. It looks like its watching the trees for something even worse. Is it here to protect us from something?
Dersu followed your track into the forest one day, and he saw at its end consecutive piles of ash. He turned, looked through his binoculars, and there it was, eye to eye with him across the field.
After that we started to listen for movement at night. No one could ever catch it move or make a noise. Each morning for the first week, someone would swear they heard creaking, hissing, bellowing, and we’d tramp over to check for signs of life, but find nothing.
And then my mother found it.
She has not been doing well, which is the reason I am here in the first place. Her mind was always fluttery, but after my father died all the different parts of her brain flew apart entirely. She might be laughing to herself in one moment, and in the next she will fall to the ground to cry, and then she will rage about something that happened years earlier, clawing at me or at her own chest.
She was not raised like I was – she lived in a big town until she met my father and he moved her here, to the village, to take over his father’s butcher shop. She brought her gauzy clothes and her shoes that she could never wear on the mud and ice. Even though there were more people here then, she was the most beautiful woman in the village. But she was not a butcher’s wife. When the hunters would drag a bloodied moose, swinging from a pole, to my father’s shop, she was never there to see it. She could barely touch raw meat without gagging. I learned to do everything she should have: I watched my father work, and I seared the meat before she had to touch it to wrap it. When even that became too much for her and she stopped coming to the shop, I wrapped it myself.
I resented her for a very long time. I thought she was lazy, useless, a fainting coward. But then I went to the city, and I understood that while I loved my father dearly, I would never have moved somewhere like the village, even if I had romantic opinions of rural life (and having spent my childhood here, I do not). It’s quite a thing for a place to foreclose even the nostalgia of childhood.
When Sveta called to say my father had died in his sleep and my mother rolled over in the morning and screamed for hours, I did not know what I would be coming home to, but I knew I did not want to come home for very long. I had every intention to return to the city with my mother after my parents’ house was packed up. I could put her up in my apartment until we found a more suitable place. I thought she might even recover some of her old self in the city. Why not? After a few months there myself, I’d begun to build a life that was different from the place where I was raised. People would ask me, Did you drink blood to stay warm? Was your father a brute? Is your cousin your husband? You left, good for you, but aren’t you just as polluted as they are? I wonder if you don’t think the same things about us. Perhaps you’re on safari in your robot, watching us peasants lose our minds.
After I left the village for the city, she barely spoke with me whenever I phoned. I could talk to my father until the lines crackled and failed. But with her, I would ask what she was doing and she would say ‘Oh ho, nothing at all,’ and wait for me to get bored and tell her I loved her and goodbye. I believe she resented me for abandoning her, in the same season all her friends were beginning to leave or die of cancer or stress.
I thought that when I saw her again it would be different. We would pack her old clothes and shoes so she could wear them again in the city. She would be happy to return to civilization, and perhaps I would wring a laugh out of her as we closed up the house.
When I stepped off the ATV on my return, it was clear that she was not taking care of herself anymore; her hair had thinned because she would pull it out when she thought no one was watching, her nails were dirty, she smelled sour, and her skin was ashen and papery. What was most alarming was that she seemed determined to stay here in the village.
At my father’s funeral she could not look at his body, laid out on grass and flowers on top of the pyre. She turned away and walked home. I was so embarrassed for him that I did what she should have: I threw myself down and wailed and wept until our neighbors, satisfied, went home.
I tried to keep the news of the robot from my mother, because I didn’t want her to have another reason to stay in the village. She came up with enough of those on her own, most of them having to do with ghosts, and so I would explain that father or Aunt Liuda were dead, the neighbor kids long gone, and she would fall into a sulk for days and lock herself in her room. Months passed this way: I would pack a bag in the morning, go for a walk to escape the stench and oppression of the house, then come home and the bag would be unpacked and put away. Depending on her mood my mother might come at me and try to grab my hair or the back of my neck, shrieking, or she might have a loud conversation with herself about how she needed to get this awful woman out of her house. And then on other days she would be good, seem almost like her old self, and she would squeeze my shoulder gently and wipe the counters down and walk to the general store to see if there was any mail for her.
I discussed the matter with Sveta many times, and we agreed that my mother needed more care. Sveta told me that she had asked for some sedatives to be delivered with the next round of emergency supplies, enough to get my mother to the next town and on a train. But those never came, of course.
I don’t know how my mother found you at all; you are far away from her usual route to the general store and back and out of sight of it. I’m beginning to think you called her here somehow, and I can’t forgive you for that. I found her here last week, whispering to you about something that happened to her when she was a little girl, a story I had never heard. I stood in front of you both and heard the faintest hum; I pressed my ear to you and your casing was warm. I know you are in there.
She sits with you until the sun fades and she stiffens up, and I have to put her on a sled to bring her inside. When I do this, she cries, then laughs her foxlike laugh, then screams, and it makes me very uncomfortable. You don’t see her when she’s at home, only when she’s here with you and docile, so perhaps you think you’re just talking to an old woman. See the fresh scratches on my neck? All night she tries to get out of the house to come back here, even though she could die in the cold. I have to tie her down with bedsheets and bar the door. All she talks about is this robot.
Yesterday evening when I came to get her, I believe I heard you sing. It wasn’t the machine doing it, I’m sure of that – it’s you, whoever’s controlling this fucking thing. It was singing a happy human lullaby, the same one my mother has been humming for days. This also made me very uncomfortable, as I’m sure you can understand if you take a moment to see my side of this. There is so little room inside of her anymore for anything but her madness, and now you fill it all.
I had hoped that when the other villagers began to visit you, too, all of them acting like that you would lose interest in my mother or she would lose interest in you. But still she sits here all day, and still I have to drag her home. Dersu and Sveta sit, watching the trees like dazed children. They barely speak to me anymore – in the morning they rise and walk here, and in the evening they go home. I don’t know if they’re eating. If I try to get close while they’re here they gently push me away.
But everyone is at home now. In the name of fairness I would like to tell you that I have my father’s rifle here and earplugs in my ears. I know this robot must have been expensive to produce, but as I said, I cannot take you apart without destroying you. I simply want to take my mother and go home. You have until tomorrow to undo what you are doing; allow me to communicate with someone outside of here, or I will take you to pieces and start walking. If you let us go, I won’t say a word to anyone about this. But if you don’t, you will not be happy with what happens in the morning and with who I send after you when I return to the ci—
Honor Vincent's prose and poetry have appeared in Yes Poetry, Heavy Feather Review, Orca, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. She also writes comics, and won 2000 AD's Future Shock contest. You can find links to her work at https://www.rhonorv.com/words.