Ahead of Jacqueline and I, the child born thousands of years ago is prancing on the asphalt footpath. My girlfriend chose and bought a modern costume for our girl: mid-calf leather boots, skinny pants, a wool sweater, and a lemonade-pink scarf. However, she may as well be wearing her leather tunic the way she’s bopping and swaying to the long-lost song she’s humming, making her twin loose braids bounce and the tail of her scarf flop around. Maybe she’s mimicking the beastly gait or mating dance of one of the many species, like the giant tapir, the woolly rhinoceros and the saber-toothed tiger, that were blown apart by superbolides, drowned in the floods, were buried under tons of mud and ripped-out trees, had their DNA cooked and mutated, starved after their food sources vanished, turned into vampires through a bite from some vampire-creature, or froze to death during the roughly 1,300 years-long plunge into glacial conditions. A phantom of catastrophes that may come again.
We crest the hill. The path turns on level ground, leading towards a playground and its recreational equipment, which gleams silver in the moonlight. Twin human-sized contraptions depict the structure of the atom; metallic hula hoops represent the orbitals of the electrons, but the nucleus is missing. Beyond that equipment, a play tower is constituted of four poles, a slide, and a perforated vertical panel that resembles a grater.
In a grassy area adjoined to the playground, a venerable tree’s trunk is as wide as an obese person’s waist, but it supports a humongous, leafy canopy that resembles a mushroom cloud. The breeze is bullying its leaves around as their cast shadows on the grass and across the path form a labyrinthine maze. Maybe the tree is several hundred years old. Perhaps it was a sapling during the Ice Age, and then survived the heat of the cataclysm, outlasted soaring flood waters and the twitches of volcanos, in pursuit to yield fronds of fine lace. But who would place a playground next to a radioactive tree?
Our child gawks at the playground equipment. As she wriggles with excitement, she jabs her index finger at the metallic hula hoops and utters a few words that suggest that she’s begging for permission to play. I doubt that the girl has caught on yet that nodding means yes, but smiles must have been a universal currency even back in frigid times, because as soon as Jacqueline shows off her pearly whites, our dainty lambkin darts ahead to the playground. Her twin braids sway in rhythm with her confident strides, those of someone unable to conjure up dangers more metaphysical than delinquents throwing cherry bombs, or dragons that spit poison.
When the child steps onto the rubber tarmac, its springy nature distracts her. She looks the surface over, which is painted in three distinct wavy shapes, red, green, and blue. Squandering this much paint in coloring a floor must be a sign of high civilization.
Our girl forgets about the tarmac, and leaps onto the closest atom-like structure. From up close I realize that the builders have created surfaces for the two inclined orbitals by attaching sturdy nylon nets. I wouldn’t know how to play with this equipment, but our adopted daughter exercises her monkey nature by balancing herself on the netting and by swinging like a pendulum between the orbital rings. Although the metallic hula hoops must be hand-burning cold in this November night, the child clutches on to the top of the vertical orbital and pulls herself up while giggling.
I sense a presence to my left. I find myself staring at the most ravishing woman of the Holocene, who looks back at me with a pair of gleaming cobalt-blue eyes. Jacqueline’s face is tinted peach orange in the lamplight, fitting for the succulent fruit whose juice sweetens my life. Her raven-black hair shimmers with dark cerulean highlights. Her nose, the cupid’s bow of her upper lip and the fullness of her lower one are shading the right half of her face. Her long eyelashes flutter, then the corners of her mouth rise in an affectionate smile.
In front of such beauty, I feel like a cockroach. Yet, I speak.
“Not going to lie, Jacqueline: this playground is kind of shit.”
She breathes out through her mouth, which forms a white cloud, then she laughs.
“You silly idiot. I brought you here because of the trees! The playground at the end of the street is far better, and it offers a lovely panorama of the outskirts of our city.”
“Just how many luxuries have you been able to afford through your debauchery?!”
Jacqueline closes her eyes and giggles as her shoulders tremble. When she pulls herself together, she cocks her head at me and smirks.
“Hey, do you think that I invest all the money I make at work in a retirement fund? Every little bit contributes to provide a safe life away from the tumult. I’ve always loved peace and quiet. Did I tell you that I used to dream of buying land in one of the many hills further into the province, large and green enough to grow crops and raise animals? Wouldn’t you have loved to grow up in such a place? Once I got used to the notion that I would never have children, I gave up on that dream, but… look at us now. Haven’t I won the lottery with you, baby?”
A shiver runs down my spine; she must have knocked at a fissure in my porcelain-ice psyche. My neck trembles, and I consider averting my gaze before the warmth gathered behind my eyes escapes through my lacrimal glands in liquid form.
Jacqueline drapes an arm around my shoulders, pulls me closer and rests her head on mine. I swallow saliva to loosen my throat, but my voice comes out thin.
“I’m tempted to assert that my company is like contracting a plague.”
“I know you think so, honey.”
The warmth that emanates from her body, as well as her hair brushing my face, takes me back to the nights that I have spent under Jacqueline’s sheets, nestled between the ample globes of her bosom. That goddess consumes my maladaptive vulnerabilities with the sheer exuberance of those tits. Hasn’t the temperature kept dropping since we got out of her Audi? I want to finger myself under a blanket.
Our child is draped face down over the top of the vertical orbital, balancing herself while she expels puffs of vapour that rise around her head.
My eyelids are growing heavier, my brain turning into a sponge. A big yawn overwhelms me, and Jacqueline copies it.
“Careful,” she says in a sleepy voice, “you are going to unhinge your jaw if you open your mouth that wide.”
“My jaw will never go unhinged. It’s the only sane part of me.”
Jacqueline snorts. She touches my lower lip with the tip of her index finger.
“And that mouth of yours looks like it was made to eat bonbons.”
She giggles at her own words, although the pastry-adjacent reference has brought up recent trauma. She lowers that hand to mine and interlaces our fingers. The breeze has chilled the back of my left hand, but its palm and fingers now feel snug in Jacqueline’s grasp.
I want to sneak along Jacqueline’s inner thighs and climb through to enter her honey labyrinth headfirst. What delicious feelings would tighten around my nape.
“You are a queen bee, Jacqueline,” I say to my sublime beloved.
“Then you should be a ladybug.”
I want to scoff at such notion, but I sigh instead. If Jacqueline were to study every detail of my skin, apart from dirt and grime and insect bites, she would recognize the traces of sunburns and countless bruises. The lines and furrows are engraved there by decades of sadness; the blue-gray discoloration is due to postorgasmic trauma after determined self-diddling.
“I’m not the least bit ladylike. In fact, I’m feeling more like a slug right now. But I would like us to make love in a hive and then emerge with thousands of childish faces crawling all over my body.”
“I… need some time to process that imagery.”
“I devoured a decade’s worth of pastries, so I’m afraid that I won’t be able to have sex tonight. I’m going to pass out as soon as I lie down. However, you can take advantage of my unconscious self however you see fit.”
“Oh, don’t tell me that, darling, because I will take you up on the offer.”
“Give me a stamp and I’ll make it official.”
Jacqueline turns to me and lifts my chin with her free hand. Her cobalt-blues leer at me through their eyelashes while her warm breath caresses my lips. It smells faintly of sugar and jam.
“What I will do tonight is hold you in my arms and entwine my legs with yours. Soon enough you’ll start drooling and snoring against my neck.”
My blood grows hotter. After I close my eyes, the lustful urge becomes a comforting lullaby, a hymn for my heart to sing while the blood pours through my body.
“Yeah, squeeze your tits against my comparatively puny ones until I can barely breathe,” I say in a weak voice. “That’s the optimal state of this world.”
Our child squeals with joy. How can anybody distil so much fun out of a misguided representation of an atom, one that was turned into playground equipment?
A gentle breeze brings the scent of damp leaves, and flutters my hair.
“Isn’t it such a nasty thing to do to someone, Jacqueline,” I say, “to present them with a child from a Paleolithic forest for whom they are responsible, at least until she turns eighteen? All the baggage, rules, duties, chores, sexual hangups, eating disorders and seclusion-seeking behaviors, without anyone asking if you’re ready for that kind of commitment.”
I melt into the sound of her chuckles. She rests her forehead against my temple, then she nuzzles my ear.
“Oh, I’m not mad,” she whispers. “Not at all. But don’t you think it’s about time we name our daughter?”
Jacqueline’s half-lidded eyes are sparkling, and the warmth in her smile suggests that she would push me out of the way of an incoming truck even if it would flatten her instead. My knees weaken and my heartbeat quickens. Now that we have a daughter, our relationship has become more serious.
“I-I suppose that any child would have a hard time growing up if her parents can’t be bothered to name her. Why don’t we just call her Child? Capitalize it, pretend it’s a name.”
Jacqueline giggles, then shakes her head.
“Leire, we can’t do that!”
“Why not? We’ll always know we are referring to her. We don’t have more children running around.”
“Do you think we’ll keep her cooped up in the apartment forever? What if other people find out that this child that somehow belongs to us is called Child? We would get a visit from Child Services in no time!”
My mind has devolved, and I barely discern solid thoughts in the fog. I rub my temples.
“Sorry. Only the most rudimentary notions are rising from the dark matter inside my cranium.”
Jacqueline squeezes my hand.
“That’s alright, darling. Coming to the park after the day you’ve had was asking a lot of you.”
“So our girl needs a proper name, but what kind would fit a prehistoric painter?”
“This morning I’ve been researching names on the phone, and I think I’ve come across a good one.”
“Great, because my brain would love to settle for nonsensical ones. But please, no clichés. I wouldn’t be able to handle that.”
“‘Alicia’ goes out of the window, then?”
“Unless you want me to vomit. Besides, we’d have to give her the full-on hippie treatment. She’d wear a flower crown and a headband made of wheat stalks.”
“What do you thing about ‘Leire’?”
“Too common. Also, that’s my name.”
“Then how about ‘Sylvie’? It seems to originate from the Latin word for forest. And Silvanus was the Roman god of the woodlands and fields. Wouldn’t it be an appropriate name for our forest fae?”
“Oh, I love it!”
“I thought you would. Let’s announce it to the recipient.”
We step onto the rubber tarmac to approach our girl, who’s dangling upside down from the top of the vertical orbital. Her eyes are shining like glassy marbles, maybe a combination of the blood pooling in her head and the cold breeze, that is also whipping her hanging twin braids.
When the child notices us, her expression turns attentive; a moment ago she was a cat pawing at a mouse toy, but now she has found herself the target of the whims of two of those bipedal giants that although they feed her and keep her warm, still frighten her with their size, and one day might flip out and stomp her to death. However, the child’s scarf unwinds further, covering her face like a funeral shroud. Both of her hands are busy; she shakes her head and lets out noises of frustration that resemble those of a dog having a fit while being teased with a rolled-up newspaper. She ends up clambering down from the metallic orbital. With her legs splayed, she perches herself on the netting and gazes at us.
“Hey, little one,” Jacqueline says as she stands in front of our child so that the words will reach her directly, echoing through her mind. “Your other mommy and I have decided to take care of you forever and ever, so we will give you a name: it’s Sylvie.”
“We’ll also keep you away from ovens,” I say, “just in case.”
The girl tilts her head sideways.
“Now, how will I make you understand…” Jacqueline wonders. “Oh, I know.” She perks up and points at herself. “Jacqueline.” She points at me, which causes a burst of warmth to flow down to my groin. “Leire.” She points at our adopted daughter. “Sylvie.”
The girl furrows her brow and squints, then her mouth opens in disbelief. She utters a word soup full of vowel sounds and gurgling consonants, but the tone alone spells out her disapproval.
“She hates it,” Jacqueline says, crestfallen.
I put a hand on her shoulder.
“The name is good.”
Our child speaks in a loud, dollish voice.
Jacqueline and I exchange a look. When we stare back at the girl, she’s smiling as if our confusion amused her.
She points at Jacqueline. “Akedin.” She points at me. “Eide.” She points at herself. “Nairu!”
Jacqueline has blushed, but I shake my head at our girl.
“What the hell, child of the woods? Back at the cursed patisserie, I taught you that whole thing of pointing at yourself to share your name, but the two words you uttered to call yourself didn’t sound anything like ‘Nairu’! And why do you keep calling me Eide although you can pronounce the R of the name you gave yourself?”
An impish grin widens across Nairu’s face. She clutches the top of the diagonal orbitals, installed at both sides of her body, and she swings back and forth while giggling like a loon.
I sigh. Our adopted child was born during the Ice Age; for all we know, her birth was celebrated with a drumming ritual during which the proud parents slapped each other’s faces with dead birds, then they danced and beat their backsides to an inhumane rhythm, thus bestowing upon the infant a life of madness, a love of the absurd, and a hatred toward civilization. So I guess ‘Nairu’ fits this girl just fine.
“She may be trying to pull a fast one on us, and that word means ‘booger’ in her ancient language. In that case she played herself, because we will honor her choice. Won’t we, mommy?”
Jacqueline’s shoulders droop. She shoots me an awkward smile.
“Well, there goes my research.”
I walk up to the playground equipment, then I reach to wrap the tail of our daughter’s scarf around her neck.
“Welcome to our deranged little family, Nairu.”
Her face breaks into a joyous smile. She claps her hands and chortles.
The corners of my mouth are fighting against my self-control to curl into a smile. This child is the most endearing little creature that I’ve ever met. I want to slide through her pupils until I reach the back of her brain, where I’d dissolve and become an indistinguishable part of her soul.
How would it be to exist as someone who can hoot with laughter like that? How does it feel to live a life that lacks a looming black cloud hanging over it?
I keep a playlist with all the songs mentioned so far throughout this novel: this is the link.
A genius neural network (old pal of mine), one that has generated plenty of images based on moments from my novel, teamed up with a newborn AI trained on anime to render images from the current chapter: follow this link.
Although it may seem otherwise, this chapter still hasn’t finished the current sequence. I clearly have no clue when it comes to figuring out how many words rendering a bunch of notes is going to take: I originally believed that this story, which is already about 180,000 words long, would be a novella. I’m likely the only person on earth that cares about this, though.
Perhaps three months ago I enjoyed a two weeks-long break from my office job. One of the (very few) special tasks I managed to complete was visiting the park depicted in the current sequence (as well as the previous patisserie). I walked around and took some photos until I had a good notion of how being present there felt like, something you can’t properly garner through photos and videos, unfortunately.
Another thing that writing does, at least for people whose brains work as weirdly as mine, is create memories that feel stronger and more meaningful than those of stuff you’ve actually lived through. So now that park in the hills of Donostia will forever be for me the place where I had a good time as Leire, Jacqueline and their little nugget. I also retain many bittersweet memories of the events depicted in my previous novel. Does this phenomenon happen to people other than writers?