art by Steven R. Stewart
The Large People
by Karen Heuler
Karen Heuler's stories have appeared in over 50 literary and speculative journals and anthologies, including Clarkesworld, Weird Tales, and Fantasy Magazine. Her third novel, "The Made-Up Man," will be published by Livingston Press this December.
Patricia Sweetman saw a bowler hat on the ground, its rim resting against the surface. She went to it, bent over, and studied it. There was dirt in the crease on top, more dirt on the sides, but for all that it looked fresh and unharmed. She reached out and lightly brushed off the dirt, making it neat again. She considered taking it home, to give to someone or perhaps even wear herself in a style inappropriate for her age.
She lifted it up and saw, underneath, on the ground, like a small hill rising, a man's head of hair, parted on the side. The part was clean and white, the hair was dark brown. She froze. At first she thought she was mistaken, that she was suggestible, that no one's head would be stuck in the ground. Then she thought, "Why not?" In this incredible world, why not? With all the weirdoes running around, uncaught and even undisclosed, why not someone who buried a man standing up, though--as she straightened up and looked around, noting the condition of the soil, the sprouting plants, the rooted bushes--though nothing looked at all disturbed. It all felt quite natural.
Of course she couldn't get it out of her mind, so every day she returned, just to see. Every day the head of the man rose a little higher as if he were indeed another plant anxious to get going now that the earth was warm.
And then she noticed another hat, a cap really, come pushing up out of the soil. And then a beehive hairdo, a baldish head, a scarf tied around the slicked back hair on another head. Until in all there were almost two dozen of them, now with their eyes above ground, looking serious and patient, until their chins tucked free and they moved their heads slightly, observing the world with faintly impatient airs.
Sometimes the head with the bowler nodded slightly when she showed up. One of the women winked at her once. Soon their shoulders were above ground and she saw they were all dressed in business attire--even the women wore suit jackets, clean shirts; the men wore ties, except for the one in casual business wear, who wore a sports jacket and polo shirt, but very crisp and pricey looking. By the time their waists were showing she herself wore her best clothes, or really to be honest, her better clothes because she was retired and her best clothes were out of date. But she was determined to honor them by dressing as they did. And it was interesting, too, how wearing business clothes again made her feel a bit more efficient. Uselessly efficient.
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By then, one man and two women had asked her how the land was doing around there, subject to breakage and contaminations. Patricia wasn't sure about the way the questions were asked so she said, "Pretty much the same as yesterday," and they would put down their newspapers (they all had newspapers) and then look into the distance. She followed their eyes and saw a haze just down the road, where the city sat like a blister. Her heart gave a little lurch; she had worked there and missed the sense of importance and irritation the city gave her; if they went there, she would go with them. Why not? Whatever these people were, they weren't ordinary and she herself had been reading more and more about the organic lifestyle anyhow, so she had the feeling they were topical. For a woman who had once been lower management, being topical felt almost lusty. And the fact that it was all so unusual made her happy. She felt less inconsequential; she felt part of the new order, and she imagined the new order would be fundamentally daring. She could be daring.
When the last one of them shook his feet free from the earth, she had her own briefcase and wore a suitable jacket and skirt. All of them were carrying briefcases and cellular phones and paper cups of coffee that had grown beside them in the last few days, steaming in the morning, the vapor rising from the neatly folded dib in the plastic cup.
They assembled gently on the road. Remarkably, the dirt didn't cling to them; perhaps it was the peculiar texture of their business wear, which seemed wrinkle-resistant and smooth without being shiny. Their shoes were polished. Their white shirts were spotless. The women--there were six women in addition to over a dozen men--wore skirt suits and low-heeled shoes.
Patricia would have bet that the women carried chai lattes, and that the men were evenly split between coffee black and cappuccino with a double espresso shot. That had been the rule where she worked. But she'd retired five years ago; perhaps the caffeine fashions had changed.
Her own hand was empty. She felt faintly embarrassed and bent down to pluck a daisy from the side of the road. When she straightened up she saw that they were looking at her. She bent down slowly and put the daisy back on the ground.
The last of the large people--for they were well over seven feet in height and were proportionately thicker than normal people, too, giving them a substantial impression, a width that was almost tree-like--the last of them had reached the road. The man with the bowler asked, "Are we all here then?" and someone answered, "Yes, Roland, we're all here."
They strode off, in twos and threes, casually rippling together as if they had no weight. They quickly passed fields, then houses, then strip malls. The city rose ahead of them like rows of mountains, its spires the peaks, the streets the valleys. Around them, shouldering their stride into the city, through the industrial suburbs, were the high-flowering ranks of electrical towers, the granite squat of generators and transformers. Tufts of drying grasses sat disconsolately on broken macadam, with exhausted branches flung nearby. The sky was a pale blue, almost white.
Patricia had to jog to keep up, their strides were so much longer. The road turned into a street and then an avenue. They walked sturdily and quickly up to the first glass and marble tower, its windows shaded gray like a building hidden behind sunglasses. Here the group divided, half moving forward along the avenue while the rest (including Patricia) went into the building. These marched without comment past the security guards and the main desk, up to the elevators, where they broke apart without a word, standing in front of different elevators--unwilling, she thought, to tax the weight limits. She had followed the bowler hat, who seemed to be in charge. When the doors opened, the elevator's passengers took one startled glance and scurried out, peering at the massive forms from lowered heads.
The large people stepped into the elevator, allowing room for Patricia, and pressed the button for the 30th floor. She noticed that the man in the bowler hat was looking at her with raised eyebrows. "I'm Roland," he said.
"Patricia," she said.
"Ciceline," the woman who stood next to him said. "Thank you for joining us."
"Are we going to a meeting?" Patricia said hopefully; she missed the self-importance of meetings.
"We are going to take over," Roland said evenly. "Things have come to a pass."
The phrase itself said nothing. Rather than display what might be perceived as ignorance, she merely nodded. Taking over would change what had come to a pass and it would all become clearer. She had no objection to it; she was old enough to have seen what had been and what was; and she disliked, sometimes, the world as it was.
The doors pinged open--all the other doors on the other elevators pinged open simultaneously--and a beautiful kind of orchestrated step forward happened as the large people put their right feet out at once and kept walking, striding, wonderfully moving together into the corridor. Patricia was proud to be part of this movement; and she felt a little smug, too, as if she'd been selected.
They swept past the receptionist into a meeting room where a dozen men sat around a table with coffee and a tray of bagels in front of them. There was a Power-Point presentation going on. The screen read: Projected Highway Miles. The lines on the chart went upwards, in thousands of miles, a figure that astonished Patricia. Thousands of miles per year?
The large people stepped through doorways the way anyone else would step through a hatchway: right foot, right arm, body. They bent down a little, to avoid hitting their heads.
One by one they assembled behind the men in their chairs, who turned, surprised at what was going on. The man at the Power Point looked around the room, trying to figure out whether this disruption was something he was supposed to handle. The men at the table were shifting, looking around, whispering to each other as the man at the head of the table rose. He said, "I don't know who you people are." Everyone looked at him expectantly.
Roland nodded at another of the large men. "That's the one," he said. "Take him out, Anselm." The large man with the brown hair and the brown suit stepped neatly forward, placed his enormous hand on the shoulder of what Patricia presumed was the president of the company, and took him outside, protesting intensely, his head bent back to look up into Anselm's impassive face.
The room rustled with indecision. Roland turned off the projector and addressed them: "No more invasions," he said. "For every mile you pave, a mile of land must be restored."
"We have a contract," one man said testily. "Restoring land is someone else's job." Immediately, two of the large men moved towards him and placed their fingers on his shoulders.
The man narrowed his eyes. "Get your hands off me," he said. "I'm calling security." He reached for his cell phone.
"Take him away," Roland said. Two of the large men grabbed him and they disappeared to the hallway. "Take them all away," Roland added. The businessmen jumped up, some arguing but many saying that it was better to give in than to protest. Patricia felt a small qualm. She had assumed the large people were benign: were they? She sat down quickly, her hands in her lap.
"We'll have lunch now," Roland said, clearing the table of notepads and notebooks, of handouts and charts. The door opened and some of his cohorts entered with trays piled high with money of all denominations, as well as mayonnaise and salad dressings. Roland sat down with apparent pleasure, took a plate and fork and began to select bills and pile them on. "Help yourselves," he said. The other large people came in and sat down, leaning over for plates and food. "I prefer the twenties," he said, glancing at Patricia. "Not as crisp as the fifties, not so soft as the singles." His plate was now quite hefty with bills. He poured Italian dressing on them, careful not to dribble over the sides. He sat back and began to eat, chewing vigorously and thoughtfully. "Eat up," he said, motioning with his fork.
Patricia reached out and took some of the hundreds--she would have to take something to be polite and these seemed cleaner. She chose blue cheese dressing and decided to roll up a bill with a wad of dressing in it and eat it like an hors d'oeuvre. It wasn't bad; the dressing made it all that much easier. Eating money! she thought. Eating money! She was inordinately pleased.
Roland and the large people ate quickly and quietly, their heads lowered, concentrating on the task at hand. When he was done, Roland put down his flatware, cleaned off his hands, and rose.
"What about the rest of it?" Patricia asked, looking at the leftover money.
"It will grow," Roland said without interest. Ciceline came into the room, glanced around, and placed a small green ball on the platter of money. She put her newspaper over it, then emptied a glass of water over the whole thing. Patricia followed them as they left. She glanced back; the stain from the green ball was spreading through the newspaper already. The fibers in the newspaper were starting to move.
"Roland," Patricia said. "I know I should have asked earlier, but I need to be clear. Are you going to harm anyone?"
He stopped to look at her without emotion. "Yes," he said. "This is a war."
She shivered. "Who are you?" she asked.
"We're next," he said simply.
"Next," she repeated and bowed her head. Roland waited while she thought it through. "Then I'm not on the right side?" She had always believed in being forthright and honest whenever possible.
"How can there be a right side in war?" he asked reasonably. "It's just that each side wants to live."
She wanted to live, too. For a moment she doubted that she was doing the right thing, but her feet continued after Roland. She felt no sense of betrayal. She had watched the large people grow, so she was naturally attached to them. And she had always had a complex reaction to working in the city: some days she loathed it, some days it seem more real than her own life. It seemed to her that she had been, most of the time, on the road between the self she was in the city and the self she was outside it; between structure and order, inbetween worlds. She had stopped moving back and forth when she retired, but from that point on she had felt dull and discarded. With Roland she felt strong and certain and ahead of everyone else. It was, no doubt, not the thing to base a decision on, but she hadn't felt this empowered in years. Her own people had left her behind; she would go with Roland and his people.
They met up with the others back on the street. The large people stood idly, looking at a spot along the avenue. There, right on the corner, a small dry cleaner's shop was absurdly lopsided, its back wall up in the air, its front wall tipping toward the street as a thin crowd watched behind yellow caution strips.
The building gave a small but obvious lurch.
"That's good," Anselm said. "Almost there." They began to walk slowly towards the store, and people moved out of their way if they saw them, with a look of surprise on their faces.
A cop came over and spoke to Roland. "Heard a report," he said. "Of some big people--pardon me, not a judgment--disrupting a meeting." He looked at Roland. "That's what dispatch said. Disrupting a meeting. Would that be you?"
Roland nodded. "Shareholders," he said. "Stock disagreement."
"Thought so," the officer said. "As far as I know, those stocks are outside the law anyway. Just checking." He nodded and moved towards the shifting building, calling out, "Get back now, behind the line. Never saw a building collapse before? What are you, from out of town?"
The dry cleaner's, Patricia could now see, rested on a pale green slab of some kind. She craned her neck forward. Anselm, noticing her difficulty, pushed aside everyone in front of her so she could see it unobstructed. It was the color of new spring growth, and it perfectly filled the lot the dry cleaner's store stood on. There was a sound of breaking glass and a groan from the roof of the cleaner's, echoed by a groan of excitement from the bystanders. "Move back! Move back!" the police cried, just in time, for the building suddenly heaved up a few more inches and toppled bulkily into the street.
The green shelf below it had sprouted up a foot or so. Anselm had a smile on his face. "Is that a plant?" Patricia asked. She had an urge to touch it but the police blocked the way.
Anselm's smile increased. "An office plant," he said. "Evergreen."
She liked the mass and decisiveness of the large people, as anyone would who had always been seen as irrelevant; she liked how they brought with them a sense of turnover and vitality and a lack of cant. They would not pretend they were good for the economy or good for the average man or woman, she thought; they would not have secret accounts, or backroom deals, or documents that covered their lies with tired, boring, overworked words. There was a little bit of outlaw about them, and a little bit of savior. She could see that it was the outlaw part that appealed the most, and she was too old for outlawry--or so she had thought.
Roland moved off and some of the large people went with him, moving down side streets to the back of some commercial buildings. They walked slowly, looking at surfaces and signs. Ciceline bent down to look at a browned bush and some browned weeds; she turned, walked back a few yards, and knocked over a fire hydrant to water them.
Further on they caught up to some of the ones who had broken off from the group earlier. The man in casual dress--the one who wore a sports jacket rather than a suit--faced the side of a grooved, white stone building, his body right smack up against the ridges, so tight that Patricia thought it must be painful. His arms were splayed out, his fingers in the channels around each stone. Those fingers, she saw, were very long, stretching along the ridges--even as she watched they stretched further, inching along and, she thought, catching in the small textures of the material. Yes: adhering. His fingers were turning into vines. His body pressed and flattened into the building, his face tightened into a pale sunflower, his suit changed into leaves, his trunk into a stalk, even as she watched, so that she had to squint to see what was left of him, still hidden behind the growth. A shoot rose from the top of his head, sliding up to the second-floor windows.
Anselm saw her gaze. "He'll make his way in, under the concrete, into the beams, around the windows and into the walls. As they walk around, sure that the floors are solid, he'll be licking at the materials, putting out a leaf or a pointed tendril."
She raised her eyebrows. "Water and sun?" she asked.
"He'll find water easily; there are pipes and sinks. And the windows--windows will find the sun for him."
Her mind became filled with the image of the plant spreading and pushing its way through the walls, the floors, its relentless small separations loosening a bolt, a beam. "It will bring the building down," she said.
"Everything comes down eventually," he replied.
"No one will know about it. In time."
"That's the problem with time. There's never enough time in the present to know the present. We keep growing."
"Someone could get hurt."
"Someone always gets hurt. It's the fault of time, which always pushes to the end. Doesn't it? Always to the next. Always to the end."
She winced, suddenly aware of her own push to the end. She tucked in the edges of her own thinking, to compensate. Nature always took the long view, and the long view had no sorrow. Personally, she didn't like sorrow either.
They were heading out of town again, back she supposed to the area where they had originally grown. Was it already over? She had hoped for more.
They passed a gas station, where two of the large people stepped away from the group. Patricia saw a large woman plant a bamboo-like stalk next to a drainpipe; she saw a large man leave his newspaper against a pump. But there was no confrontation; and she was disappointed. Were the thrills of the day already done? Hadn't they hinted at more?
The remaining large people moved off a side road that Patricia knew led towards the town dump. When they reached it, they all spread out and she lost sight of Roland. She saw Anselm skirt around the edge of the pit and followed him into the hardscrabble brush around it. She found him bent over a black bag of garbage, pushing it gently, scraping away at the packed soil around it.
"Anselm?" she asked gently, and he looked at her and nodded. She came up and leaned over the garbage, but as she studied it, she saw that it had a root. She said, "It's a plant?" and he answered, "It's a new kind of plant." She pushed at it and it yielded slightly, as a heavy bag of garbage would do. "But why?" she asked finally.
"They won't notice it," he said.
Anselm tapped the plant gently, even (Patricia thought) affectionately. "Have you planted a lot?" she asked. She looked at him, cocking her head. Hadn't he worn a hat? Hadn't his hair been longer? Where had the coffee cup and the newspapers gone? She looked away, viewing the landfill, looking not into the pit but along the sides, where here and there the large people moved and stopped, sowing seeds, leaving roots. She liked the idea of the rest of them leaving traces of full-force green in among the rust and oilcans, among the cardboard boxes and plastic bottles.
Anselm was looking at her. "Our time is almost over."
"You mean for today?" she asked fearfully. The idea that tomorrow would come and go without them was ferociously sad.
"Yes, today is over for us," he said, and she appreciated the delicacy of his answer. It didn't sound like he regretted it; it sounded like the day was enough for him, a concept that made Patricia shiver. The large people met up again, and she noted that they looked a little frayed, and that various items of theirs were gone. The hats, of course, and the newspapers and coffee cups, but also a handkerchief and all of the briefcases.
The sun hung low in the sky as they gathered on a spot beyond the garbage dump, listening to the keening of the seagulls swirling in the air. Roland was missing; it was just Anselm and Ciceline and a few others. They moved languidly away from the dump to a small stand of trees. There they stood until one by one they sat down or leaned against a tree trunk. Patricia sat with them as the sunset bleached the sky. They were no longer large; they had lost bulk and seemed to shrivel in front of her. She saw their bodies relax and their hands grow still. Once they were completely settled, their arms and features arranged, and their eyes shut, Patricia watched over them until the sun set and the moon began to rise. By then, their figures were dim and slumped, and she decided she didn't want to watch them as they slid back into the earth. But she did want something of theirs to take forward, so she bent and plucked off the buttons on their shirts and jackets. By midnight they were thin as leaves upon the ground, and she left.
The next day she went back to where she had first found them. She planted buttons in the ground, got mulch and spread it around, and began to grow herbs around and between them, waiting for the time of the next large crop. People passing by noted her efforts, and the small shapes of flowers and herbs on the set of the hill, and thought nothing of it. For old women like to tend their gardens; what else is there for them to do as time advances and nature takes its course?
This story was first published on Friday, July 29th, 2011
So many things pop up out of the ground and out of my head that it came as no particular surprise to discover that heads popping up out of the ground was actually a story idea. I love these people in their stainless suits and their sprouting coffee cups. I should recycle more. For a while I wasn't sure of their motivation, though they were toppling buildings and chewing up money. Now I know it and I still love them. And I'm planting some strange seeds I found that look like teeth. Or is that another story?
- Karen Heuler
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