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The Sea Became a Diamond Sheet

William Squirrell is a Canadian writer living in western Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in numerous online and print venues and he has a novel forthcoming with Radiant Press. He is also the editor of the science fiction journal Big Echo (bigecho.org). More information can be found on twitter @billsquirrell, or through his website blindsquirrell.com.

It seemed to us he came from the other side of the planet; from somewhere beyond our buried cities; from even deeper in the impoverished burrows than our narrow ghetto capillaries; from below the hydroponic caves; the chthonic fish farms; the leaking concrete power plants. From deeper places than ours. Much deeper. Deeper and darker. Yet he had risen to the heights. Past us all. To the apex of what was possible.
His lavish apartment was a bubble trapped against the ceiling of the slums. He knew rich men from beyond the gates, men so rich they had windows, donned radiation suits and walked for pleasure under a star-glutted sky, stared through golden visors at the white hot intensity of the sun. He knew rich men who needed him for drugs. Not banal poisons brewed in backroom laboratories by semiliterate chemists, or manufactured by off-duty cops in impounded factories, but weed grown in night soil, cocaine from plants hidden in forgotten access tunnels, tobacco from between the rows of hydroponic corn. They loved rough textures, these rich men from just under the skin of the world, they loved the idea of something once alive, something dirty, unhygienic. They loved the smell of shit on their fingertips.
There were a few of us he would bring to his parties as adornments, entertainments. Sometimes he would let us linger in the hungover aftermath, make unheard of breakfasts from the remains: creamy omelets spiked with fresh herbs and runny cheese, toasted breads, black coffee, mushrooms drenched with butter. But even as he spoiled us he watched us jealously, made sure we did not take too much, did not fill our pockets, made sure we appreciated his generosity. Kuppler was rich in the way poor people become rich; his fear increased with his wealth rather than diminished.
His one retreat from this fear was not sleep, which for him was a horror of twitching muscles and grinding teeth, but a room he had built in which the ceiling and the walls were squares of blinding white light. The floor of the room was sand, smoothed into a perfectly flat surface by a robot caretaker that drifted silently about on a cushion of air. There was a single chair in this room in which he would sit for hours, his eyes closed, casting no shadow.
He talked to us only rarely. Terse instructions. Orders. Occasionally he would attempt a conversation. Provide us with a sentence or two that seemed to describe a mental state, or a memory, to be an expression of empathy, of sympathy. As these sentences accumulated, and we exchanged notes on our employer, we realized the evidences he provided of himself were a collection of superficialities, contradictions and lies. Nothing more than badly manufactured gestures meant to produce the illusion of an interior life.
Until I met Kuppler and his clients the only person I knew who had seen the sun was my great-grandmother. She lived with us in the three rooms my half-brother had off the Schimmel Tunnel near the wet market. It was chaos there: infirm aunts and uncles, cousins and cousins-once-removed, friends and the friends of friends. People came and went, looking for work and food. In and out. But everyone was welcome because my half-brother was a religious man, a follower of the Saints who taught that each act of deliberate kindness was also an act of necromantic exchange in which the microscopic elements of death that polluted our souls were transformed into quivering atoms of light.
He did not care for me, my half-brother with his long beard. He did not care for the way I lived, but he took the money I gave him, and he was kind to my younger siblings, and he thanked me politely for the meals I cooked, and included my name in the long list of names he recited in his prayers each night.
In the morning he would go to work at the market; gutting fish and mopping up the guts and the blood from the floor.
"I cannot remember the sun itself," my great-grandmother told me in the long afternoons while I brushed her hair. "Just how it changed what it touched: the sea became a diamond sheet, the houses blinding white, trees shimmering ghosts, lemons fat blisters about to burst."
I knew it would not be the police Kuppler would send after me if I stole from him but one morning I did so regardless. It was after a long night of assuring and reassuring one of his clients how very much I appreciated his desire to converse with me in particular, how I appreciated that he had chosen me to lavish with attention, of all the rest he chose just me. I was exhausted by it. By my gratitude. Exhausted by the neverendingness of it all. Exhausted by the unequal exchanges of energy that comprised the entirety of my world. Exhausted by the resistance required to maintain an identity separate and distinct from all those dreary unequal exchanges. Exchanges from which I could not escape. I was exhausted by it all. Exhausted. So I stole a lemon from Kuppler's breakfast table.
The whole way home I kept reaching under my jacket to scratch the waxy peel, to get at the fragrance, to get it under my nails, the pure holy delirium of it. I would cook Great-grandmother a carp I told myself, a muddy carp from the subbasement tanks, I would squeeze the lemon, turn it inside out, drench the world in bright acid. I tried not to think of the price Kuppler would extract from me for my great-grandmother's pleasure, for mine: I too, would be squeezed, would be turned inside out, would spill my light and heat out into the world, just like the lemon. I tried not to think about it. About what in a fit of pique I had chosen for my future. I tried not to care. I imagined instead a citrus mist settling on oily protein broth, chunks of fish illuminated, the chipped bowl and spoon illuminated, Great-grandmother's eyes illuminated, sparkling in the sunlight, illuminated, sparkling with a joy Kuppler could never know.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 12th, 2021

Author Comments

"The Sea Became a Diamond Sheet" is an attempt to use a post-catastrophic world to think about the relation of valuable objects to personal identity.

- William Squirrell
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