The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)

By Matthew Kressel

“The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel is a science fiction story about a dying writer who is trying to finish one final novel on the distant planet he settles on for his demise. His encounter with a young girl triggers a last burst of creativity.

When I lift up my shoe in the morning there’s a dead baby lizard underneath. It lies on its back, undersides pink and translucent, organs visible. Maybe when I walked home under the strangely scattered stars I stepped on it. Maybe it crawled under my shoe to seek its last breath while I slept. Here is one leaf of a million-branched genetic tree never to unfurl. Here is one small animal on a planet teeming with life.

The wind blows, carrying scents of salt and seaweed. High above, a bird soars in the eastern wind. I scoop up the lizard and bury it under the base of a coconut tree. Soon, I’ll be joining him. I can’t say I’m not scared.

“All tender-belly spacefarers are poets,” goes the proverb, and I’m made uncomfortably aware of its truth every time I cross the stars. I ventured out to Ardabaab by thoughtship, an express from Sol Centraal, and for fifty torturous minutes—or a million swift years; neither is wrong—gargantuan thoughtscapes of long-dead galaxies wracked my mind, while wave after wave of nauseating, hallucinogenic bardos drowned my sense of personhood, of encompassing a unitary being in space and time. Even the pilots, well-traveled mentshen them all, said the journey was one of their roughest. And while I don’t hold much faith in deities, I leaped down and kissed the pungent brown earth when we incorporated, and praised every sacred name I knew, because (a) I might have met these ineffable beings as we crossed the stellar gulfs, and (b) I knew I’d never travel by thoughtship again; I’d come to Ardabaab to die.

I took an aircar to the house, and as we swooped low over bowing fields of sugarcane, her disembodied voice said to me, “With your neural shut off you have a small but increased risk of injury. Ardabaab is safe—we haven’t had a violent incident in eighty-four years—but the local We recommends guests leave all bands open, for their safety.” She sounded vaguely like my long-dead wife, and this was intentional. Local Wees are tricky little bastards.

“Thanks,” I said to her. “But I prefer to be alone.”

“Well,” she said with a trace of disgust, “it’s my duty to let you know.”

The car dropped me off at the house, a squat blue bungalow near the beach set among wind-whipped fields of sugarcane and towering coconut palms. Forty minutes later I was splayed on the empty beach while Ardabaab’s red-dwarf sun—rock-candy pink at this late hour—dipped low over the turquoise sea, the most tranquil I had ever seen. For a station-born like me, it was utterly glorious.

The wind blew and distant lights twinkled over the waters. I smiled. I had arrived. With pen and paper in hand, I furiously scribbled:

Chapter 23. Arrival.

When Yvalu stepped off the thoughtliner, she bent down and kissed the ground. Her hands came up with a scoop of Muandiva’s fertile soil, which she immediately swallowed, a pinch of this moment’s joy that she would carry in her body forever. Thank Shaddai. She was here.

A lizard skirted by. Strange people smiled and winked at her. She beamed and jumped and laughed. Ubalo had walked this world, perhaps had even stepped on the same dark earth still sweet on her tongue. Ubalo, who had brought her to Silversun, where they had watched the triple stars, each of a different shade, rise above the staggered mesas of Jacob’s Ladder and cast blossoming colorscapes of ever-shifting rainbows across the desert. Ubalo, who had traveled to the other side of the galaxy to seek a rare mineral Yvalu had once offhandedly remarked she liked during an otherwise forgettable afternoon. Ubalo, whose eyes shone like Sol and whose smile beamed like Sirius. For him she would have suffered a trillion mental hells if only to hold his hand one more time.

I wrote, and wrote more, until I ran out of pad. And when I looked up, the sun had set, and new constellations winked distant colors at me. Ardabaab has no moon. I had been writing by their feeble light for hours.

Early the next morning, after I bury the lizard, I head for Halcyon’s beachside cafe with a thermos of keemun tea and four extra writing pads tucked deep into my bag. While hovering waiterplates use my thermos to refill cup after cup, I churn out twenty more pages. But when a group of exuberant tourists from Sayj sit nearby, growing rowdy as they get intox, I slip down to the beach.

I return to last night’s spot, a private cove secluded from all but the sea, and here I work under the baking sun as locals, identified by their polydactyl hands and violet eyes, offer me braino and neur-grafts and celebrilives, each on varying spectra of legality.

“I got Buddhalight,” a passerby says, interrupting my stream. “Back from zer early days, before ze ran out of exchange.”

I grit my teeth in frustration. I was really flowing. “Thanks, but I prefer my own thoughts.”

“Alle-roit,” she says, swishing off. “You kayn know ’less you ask.”

I turn back to my pad and write:

But no matter who Yvalu asked, none had heard of a mentsh named Ubalo. And when she shared his message with the local We, the mind told her, somewhat coldly, “This transmission almost certainly came from Muandiva. But I have not encountered any of his likeness among my four trillion nodes. It’s plain, Yvalu, that the one who you seek is simply not here.”

“Then where is he?” she said, verging on tears. “Where is he?”

And the local We responded with words she had never heard one speak before: “I am sorry, Yvalu, but I have no idea.”

I finish a chapter, and a second, and before I begin a third, a shadow falls across my pad and a sharp voice interrupts me. “What you doing?”

“Not interested,” I say.

“Not selling.”

I look up. A child stands before me, eclipsing the sun. Small in stature, her silhouette makes her seem planetary. She has short-cut dark hair and six elongated fingers. And though the sun blinds, the violet glare of her eyes catches me off guard and I gasp. I raise a hand to shade my face, and sans glare, her eyes shine with the penetrating violet of a rainbow just before it fades into sky. I’m so taken by them I’ve forgotten what she’s asked. “Sorry?”

“What you drawing?”

“This isn’t drawing.”

“Then what is it?”

“This?” It takes me a second. “I’m writing.”

Writing.” She chews on the word and steps closer. “That’s a pen,” she says, “and that’s paper. And you’re using cursive. Freylik!” She laughs.

It’s obvious she’s just wikied these words, but her delight is contagious, and I smile with her. It’s been a long time since I’ve met someone who didn’t know what pen and paper were. Plus there’s something in her voice, her cascade of laughs, that reminds me of my long-dead daughter.

“What you writing?” she says.

“A novel.”

“A novel.” A wiki-length pause. Another smile. “Prektik! But . . .” Her nostrils flare. “Why don’t you project into your neural?”

“Because my neural’s off.”

“Off?” The notion seems repulsive to her.

“I prefer the quiet,” I say.

“SO DO I!” she shouts as she plops down beside me, stirring up sand. “Name,” she says, “Reuth Bryan Diaso, citizen of Ganesha City, Mars. Born on Google Base Natarajan, Earth orbit, one gravity Earth-natural. Age: ninety-one by Sol, two hundred ninety-three by Shoen. Hi!”

For a moment I pretend this girl from Ardabaab has heard of me, Reuth Bryan Diaso, author of fourteen novels and eighty-seven short stories. But it’s obvious she’s gleaned all this from public record. I imagine wistfully what it must have been like in the ancient days, when authors were renowned across the Solar System, welcomed as if we were dignitaries from alien worlds. Now mentshen revere only the grafters and sense-folk for sharing endless arrays of vapid experiences with their billion eager followers. No, I don’t need to feel Duchesse Ardbeg’s awful dilemma of not knowing in which Martian city to take her afternoon toilet, thank you very much.

“My name’s Fish!” the girl says exuberantly, snapping me from my self-indulgent dream.

“Fish.” I test out her name. “I like it. Nice to meet you, Fish.” I hold out my hand, not sure if it’s the local custom.

She ignores me and turns to the sea. “Here they come,” she says.

In the sky above the waters an enormous blowfish plunges down from space, a massive planet-killing meteor, trailing vapor and smoldering with reentry fire. A crack opens in its face, a gargantuan mouth opening as it falls, as if it were a beast coming to devour us all. I grab Fish’s arm, readying to run, when I remember: this is no monster. This is a seed.

The blowfish slows as it swoops down, and the air thunders with its deceleration. For an instant it skims the surface, then eases its great mouth into the waters, scooping up megaliters, stirring up goliath waves. Now, belly full, it screams as it arcs back to the sky, mouth sliding closed, while cloud and spray and marine life flicker-flash in long tails behind it as everything that missed the cut tumbles back into the sea.

The blowfish wails as it speeds away, shrinking rapidly, off to the hell-bardos of thoughtspace and the Outer New, off to seed life on some distant planet’s virgin seas. The ship recedes until it’s too small to see, and when I awake from my stupor, Fish is gone. My hand holds not her arm, but a crumpled towel. Beside me, a dozen small footprints lead into the sea.

A creature has dug up my grave. A rat, a bird, a monkey, it’s hard to say. But, whoever it was, they left the lizard behind. Small red ants have gone to work dissecting it, and in the hot morning sun, its skin has turned to leather. I contemplate burying it again, but these local animals seem to have a better idea of what to do with it, so I leave it be.

Fish surprises me on the beach that afternoon. “I don’t get it,” she says.

I look up from my pad, unexpectedly happy to see her. “What don’t you get?”

“Why write novels at all? You could project your dreams into a neural.”

“I could. But dreams are raw and unfiltered. And that always felt like cheating to me. With writing, you have to labor over your thoughts.”

My words seem only to perplex her more. “But you could dictate your story. Why make it so hard?”

“You mean, why use a pen?”

She sits beside me, her violet eyes boring into mine. “Exactly.”

“Here,” I say, handing her a spare. I pull out an empty pad from my pack. “Try it, and tell me what you feel.”

She holds the pen like it’s a sharp knife; a long time ago, all pens were knives. “I don’t know what to do,” she says.

“Just press the tip to the page, and swirl it around.”

She gives it a try. Her eyes go wide. “Ooooooh, this is fun!”

“You’ve never scribbled?”

“Not with a pen.”

I let the sounds of her drawing and the gentle breaking waves mesmerize me into a memory: my daughter sitting in our kitchen one sunny morning, scribbling on paper; my wife, sanding down her wooden figures in the next room; me, listening to them work, feeling full, feeling complete. Eventually, I wander back to my pad and write:

Once, when they had lain beside each other on Oopre’s sparkling beaches to watch a parade of comets cross the sky, Ubalo had said something that had stuck with her across the ever-broadening gulfs.

“Can you imagine,” he’d said, “what the first person to come upon a grave must have felt? When he saw the disturbed earth and smelled the fresh loam? When his human curiosity led him to the inevitable discovery of a body intentionally laid to rest? Did he understand what he’d just found? Was this the first time a human knew the sadness of the whole race, that despite all our lofty, endless aspirations, we are finite, we have an end?

I reread what I’ve written and hate it. It’s too cerebral. It doesn’t drive the story. I tear off the page, crumple it, and toss it into the sea. Beside me, Fish has drawn the likeness of the blowfish gulpership on her pad.

“Wow, Fish!” I say. “That’s amazing!” I’m not just flattering her. She’s fantastic. Her detail is astounding.

“Nah,” she says, tearing off the page. She throws it into the sea.

“Hey! Why’d you do that?”

“I don’t know. Why you throw yours away?”

“Because . . . it wasn’t perfect.”

She squints at me, her violet eyes shining like lasers. Then she stands, drops the pad onto the sand, and hands me the pen. “I gots to go.” And before I can stop her, she saunters off down the beach.

An ankle-high wave washes her crumpled paper toward me, and I wade into the water to fetch it. The ink has bled, but the core remains.

Back at my bungalow, I spread Fish’s drawing on my kitchen table to dry. To my surprise, the running ink actually enhances the image, makes it seem as if the blowfish is leaping off the page into space.

Later, because I’m a masochist, I check my health. Five weeks, if I’m lucky. I’d better get cracking. Instead, I get drinking.

I was well into my cups last night before bed, so when someone knocks on my door just after sunrise, it takes me a while to rouse. When I finally open the door, Fish darts in and immediately gets a blood orange from the maker, plops on the couch, and says, “You made all them books by hand?”

“Still do,” I say, fetching keemun from the maker. I’m not yet caffeinated enough for conversation.

“But that’s so much work.”

“It’s also a ton of fun. I love the physicality of it, the smell of the pages, the feeling I get when I hold a book I’ve made in my hands.”

“But you set every letter and print each page by hand?”

“I do.”

“And everything else too?”

I take a large sip of tea. “Not everything. I have a maker build the printing press and the movable type. But, yeah, I’ve typeset, pressed, and bound every single copy of my books.”

“But . . .” She seems as if she might explode. “I still don’t understand how!”

If there is one thing that has defined writers throughout history, it’s our endless capacity for procrastination. I need to finish my book soon—in a matter of weeks—but the thought of Fish becoming my apprentice excites me more than anything has in decades.

“Fish,” I say, “if you’ll let me, I’d love to show you.”

Across her face, as broad as a gulperfish, a smile.

Fish is a sponge, and that’s not meant as a joke. If I show her something once, she remembers it forever. And she’s not using her neural. When she’s with me, she shuts it off. She says she wants to know what it feels like to be a writer.

In the past I’ve waited until I’ve finished my book before typesetting it, but besides the obvious issue of time, this project delights me too much. We remove the beds from the bungalow’s spare room and I have the maker set up the large printing press there. Its wood and iron frame smells delightfully ancient. The wall underneath the room’s tall windows becomes our workspace. And though Fish had never seen cursive handwriting before mine, it takes her less than a day to memorize the patterns, even accounting for my awful penmanship, and before Ardabaab’s pink sun has set she’s transcribed twenty pages of my scribbled words into her own neat hand using a fountain pen she’s had the maker craft for her.

“Yvalu and Ubalo are stellar in love with each other,” she says.

“Yes, they are.”

“Have you been in love, Reuth?”

“A few times.”

“What’s it like?”

I pause to consider. There are a thousand answers and none of them true. “What’s your favorite thing in all the universe?”

She answers instantly: “Watching from my undersea bedroom the way the fish change colors as the sun rises.”

I have a vision of Fish beside her window, eyes glowing in the morning light, watching Ardabaab’s abundant sea life swim by. It makes me smile. “Being in love is like seeing that beauty every moment in the one who you love. But it also hurts like hell, because love always fades, and life after love is gray and lifeless.”

“Oh,” Fish says, hanging her head. “Oh.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, shaking my head. I feel like a schmuck. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“No,” she says, raising her head. “I’s not afraid of truth. I want to know everything.”

And I want to tell her. I want to tell her how it’s not the big things you miss, but the small ones, like the peck on your cheek your daughter gives you before bed, or how your wife left pieces of stale bread on the windowsill so she could watch the sparrows come and eat them. I want to tell her how much their deaths still hurt, even now, all these decades later, how I still dream of my wife sleeping next to me and how I always wake up gasping. Instead I say, “You’ve got time enough for that,” and walk over to inspect her work.

On her pad, beside my transcribed words, she’s drawn a woman with wavy dark hair, large curious eyes, a glittering gem in her nose, the same gem Ubalo had crossed light-years to fetch.

“That’s Yvalu?”

“You recognize her?” she says.

“This is fantastic, Fish.”

“You think?”

“Fish, I have another idea. Do you want to illustrate my book?”

Hill-a-straight?” Wiki-less, she seems confused.

“I want you to draw pictures of some scenes. We could have the maker convert them to lithographs and we can print them alongside the text.”

“But I’m not any good.”

“No, you’re not good. You’re amazing. With your permission, I’d like to use this picture of Yvalu on the cover so it’s the first thing people see.”

She stares at me, her violet eyes boring into mine. Then she breaks eye contact. “But,” she says, almost a whisper. “Who will see it?”

I feel a pang of dread. Another fact she’s gleaned from my wiki is that my readership has steadily declined over the years, so that the last person to request one of my printed books was an Earth antiquities dealer on Bora, who carefully sealed my book in plastic and placed it in storage, where it would serve as an example to future generations of what paper books had been like. As far as I could tell, the dealer had no intention of ever reading it. That was twelve Solar years ago.

Fish turns back to me. “Reuth, I’d love to hill-a-straight your book.”

And at this we both laugh.

We get to work. Each day, Fish comes by just after sunrise and we use the mornings to set type. It’s a laborious, slow process, but I love every aspect of it. I show her the right way to hold the composing stick, why she should let the slug rattle a bit, and how to use leads to add spacing between each line of type. I show her how to swipe her thumb to keep the type in place as she adds each letter, and I explain why it’s imperative to have snug lines and why it’s wise to start and end each line with em quads.

We press a few test signatures, adjusting here, correcting there, as our hands and faces become stained with ink. In the afternoons, after a break and a light lunch, Fish retreats to the corner to ponder my novel and draw new scenes, while I churn out more pages on my pad. Fish loves everything about the process and laughs easily, even when we make mistakes. And her joy is contagious. I haven’t been this happy in a long time, and for no reason at all I find myself smiling too.

Fish draws: the cascading light of Jacob’s ladder spilling across the desert; a close-up of Ubalo’s eyes, fearless and sad, creased by time; a thoughtliner tearing through a hell-bardo, trailing the disturbed dreams of its passengers; a parade of glowing comets crossing the starry sky; Yvalu’s desperate hand, reaching for a falling leaf. More than once, I catch Fish writing words of her own, but before I can look she always tucks her pad away.

Meanwhile, my words flow better than they have in decades. I write:

And after days of thought and deliberation, Yvalu knew there was only one reason why Ubalo had called her across the gulfs, why he himself could not be here to welcome her. There was only one reason why he had erased all evidence of himself from the planet’s records. He had called her out here not to bring her toward him, but to move her away from something else.

He had sent her here to protect her.

I reread my words and a warm feeling fills my heart. There are moments as I’m writing when I think this might be my best work yet, my magnum opus. By now I should be suspicious of such thoughts, but the feeling is hard to shake. If only I can finish it in time.

The afternoon is hot as Fish and I work from opposite ends of the room, deep in creative flow when the voice startles us. “Dolandra! Oh, thank Mitra!”

A woman stands outside the window, and even from across the room, the glare of her violet eyes shines brighter than the sun. She has the same shape of face, the same nose as Fish. “I been looking for you all day!”

“Moms!” Fish says, dropping her pad. She leaps to her feet.

I walk to the front door to let the woman in, but she gives me a look as if I’m a demon come to eat her soul and stays put. “DOLANDRA!” she shouts.

Fish sprints around my legs, outside and onto the grass. Her shirt and hands are stained black as she stands beside her mother, head hung low, and I can’t help but feel guilty even though I know I’ve done nothing wrong.

“Why you shut your neural?” her mom says, eyeing me. “What the bones and dreck, girl?”

“I’s . . .” Fish says. “I’s drawing, Moms.”

The woman stares lasers at me. “I got your number,” she says. “You stay the fuck away from my daughter, or I show you real Ardabaabian justice.” She grabs Fish by the shirt and yanks her away, down the path toward the sea. Before they turn around a bend of sugarcane, Fish looks back.

I wave goodbye, because I have a feeling I’ll never see her again.

The bungalow is quiet without Fish’s exuberance. I try to write on the porch, but find myself scribbling random shapes on the page, which pale in comparison to her art. I try the beach, seeking the inspiration I found on my first days here, hoping Fish might return to plop beside me. But I meet only wind and floating gulls and the occasional ship drifting slowly across the sky. To jar my inspiration I buy a neur-graft of Gardni Johnner and experience her famous BASE jump on Enceledus, the one where she tore her suit on a rock and nearly died. But this just leaves me shaken and craving solid earth. At night I drink and stare at Fish’s drawings, following each delicate line, wishing she were here. And still my words do not flow. I’m as dry as a lizard carcass in the sun.

The baby lizard still sits in the yard, just leather now. Even the ants have departed for tastier shores. The rain and wind have tossed it about, but the carcass lingers always near, as if it’s trying to tell me something.

“I know,” I tell it. “I know.”

It’s been six days since Fish has left, and I’ve written a sum total of negative three thousand words (I have scrapped two chapters) when I activate my neural for the first time since I arrived. I request a skinsuit from the local We, and after it instructs me on the standard safety precautions—using my dead wife’s voice again, the bastard—I walk down to the beach.

I’ve found the address of one Dolandra Thyme Heurex in the local wiki, and my neural guides me to her home. While the hot sun slowly rises over the placid waters, I wade into the turquoise sea. I’ve swum in a skinsuit before, but my heart still pounds as I fully submerge. Fins grow from my feet and hands, and black-and-yellow striping appears on my body to mimic a local species.

And there are many. Their sheer number and palettes of bright colors make me gasp. It’s as if some ancient god let her creative spirit loose on the canvas of the sea. Crimson and gold fans of coral wave like bashful geishas of old. Barracudas peer curiously at me before swimming off. Schools of fish flash in the sun as they dart from my grasp. In the distance, a pair of bottle-nosed dolphins inspect a sponge on the sea floor.

Fish’s house is set among a group of blue-gray domes in twenty meters of water. I swim up to the door and try the chime.

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