The stocky horses clapped their feet gently where they stood, harnessed to the carts. The light rain had passed and soft steam came off the animals, the sun now warmly on their backs. Steam came too off Jane King, lifted off the shoulders of her thick waxed coat. The coat had been her husband’s, oversize, too heavy for the time of year, and gave her a squareness. It was a contentious point among the men, Jane King’s figure. Whispered guesswork.
One claimed to have seen her silhouette one evening through the canvas of the tent, as she washed her long hair. This was altogether too romantic.
She stood in the sun by the piebald. It pushed out its breath too forcibly. Was visibly old. Its eyes fixed on some distant point.
The other horses worked their legs, anticipated the rhythm of the long walk. But the piebald stood still.
Jane King put her hand on the bridge of the mare’s nose, kneaded the ridges beneath the long white blaze. Scratched her nails gently in the compact hair.
She breathed in the scent of chamomile flowers rubbed into her bandana to mask the off-milk stink that fugged around the landfill even through the azalea smell of the animals. With her face mostly covered there were only her eyes to read and the horseman could not meet them.
“Last walk,” quietly she said. Then, to the horseman, “Load her with enough to give her dignity. She can walk with us home.”
The troupe of Picas had been at the landfill almost three weeks. It had rained — as it always seemed to — just as they packed down the camp. Were she the sort to believe such things, Jane King might fancy the rain timed itself to clean things down.
Three weeks away from my boys, she thought.
Her droll eldest, 11, growing with slow patience, twisting with determination like a tree. Her unruly nearly nine-year-old.
Three weeks, she thought. Ten years.
That she had produced such different sons amazed her.
She had reached a point at which she felt her feet were solidly on the earth. That no matter what came, she would stand the blow. Then came a child. And ever since — all the time — she feels she walks miles up in the sky on glass-thin ice that could give way any minute.
They’re our children, her husband King himself said. You could drop them from a building. They could be run over by a train! They’ll be fine.
The heaped-up earth around the landfill made it look as if gigantic moles had been at work beneath the ground. Magpies popped on the wet heaps, their black bands flashed with oil, mimicked the peacock sheen on the sodden space around the carts, where the rain had washed axle grease onto the soil.
The birds hopped, paced, as with hands held behind their backs to peep at the earth, which they flicked at, and turned. Pecked at tiny mica. One’s sorrow, two’s mirth. Jane could not help but count them. Nine.
She did not know what nine magpies might mean.
And then a wren cricked; the birds stopped, for a moment intensely attentive, then scattered. A sudden tensioning.
The horses went stock still. Ears stiff. Eyes distanceless, each animal, as if it could see some catastrophe that had not yet unfolded, a foresight. Then there was a doubling rotor chop, a thud, thick thud in the air, and a helicopter hove into the sky, a great steel box below it, swaying.
The ground felt loosened as it blatted over. It seemed to grip the shipping container like some prey it had clutched and was carrying off. The noise raked through the sky behind as it traveled away. Smaller and smaller until it was gone, and swallowed into cloud.
“Relocator housing,” noted one of the nearby Picas men.
Sounds came tentatively back into the uncertain silence that followed in the helicopter’s wake.
The ground ticked as the moisture sank. There was the thock of heavy ash poles as they landed in the carts. The rich snort of horses.
Thick smoke rolled from the dampened burn-pits in dirty columns that lifted up and spread and seemed to grey the clouds.
Jane pushed down her bandana. The sour smell. Momentary, with the waft of stale milk, a memory — a child at her breast, the crew at work, the sea, a shimmer beyond the landfill.
She watched the magpies return, one by one, as if they aimed to cue the rhyme. Still, she could not think what nine might mean.
A kakkaratcha prattle, abrupt into the stilled quiet.
We have pretty much taken all that glitters.
Almost an apology. The carts were loaded and the camp struck. Now only the methane drains to douse.
It’s just the plastic. The dull plastic. And the heavy dark soil. We should take that too, for the rooftop gardens.
They would need more carts. The earth bagged and stacked and sold, taken to the tops of city buildings for the new rooftop allotments. Vertigo lifted within her at the thought of rising in the gardener’s box past sheets and sheets of solar glass. Seeing herself frightened in her own reflection. Her now constant fear of drop.
Mining the landfill was a sort of treasure hunt, a gamble. King’s precious falling-apart paper maps, his marks and crosses. But there was always soil.
There is always plastic. And there is always soil.
The sun fell in a foil on the wet oiled canvasses not yet loaded. Seemed to transfix one magpie, as a mirror might, solitary, stationary as the others continued to parade.
Maybe we should line the diggings that we leave.
Pictured a bright surface of water.
Line the shallows to make a pool. Then we would just need to carry the purifier. We would not need to carry water. It would give us more space on the carts. It would give us space for soil.
She imagined leaving the ‘fills like a network of islands, to reach sites not practical from the city. Stations, clean water gabbling from the purifier.
There were many, farther out, the dotted patches that showed the tips and spoils, ringed and marked by her man on his maps; in some contrariness against tradition, those crossed with X discounted. Too big, these, too rich, and thus worthwhile to licensed crews, who fashioned furnaces to gasify the over-spoil, and foundries on-site to turn the smoldered residue to plasmarock.
No. The Picas knew their role.
If we planted the ground around the pools, potatoes. Apple trees.
They could come with her, again. Her boys. Perhaps. King. As far as the stations, at least.
“Douse the flues,” she ordered.
Airy blue flames played from the ducts of the methane drains, the view of the piled plastic and pilled dark earth bending and warping through them. After what happened to her husband, they used the digger now to shut them down.
The magpies rattled away into the surrounding willows as the machine coughed into life.
“We can start moving,” Jane called.
She glanced once at the great painted machine rolling toward the flues like some totemic beast.
She had not been with her husband but could hear, as if she had been, the pop, flare, scream; see the burst that had engulfed his body.
To each side of the road the nightsoil fell in thick fountained bands from the autractors that worked in measured grids across the vast fields. The human slurry hit the crop with small slack pats.
The stink became a taste. Jane brought up her bandana.
Even the horse at the rear of the team coughed, swiveled its head, an effort to shake away the stench.
Ahead of them, the caps of the distant buildings above the otherwise monotonous horizon, faint silhouettes, the hydrophilic glint of dewcatchers. It was not possible that she truly heard it, but already the muted zizz of electraffic seemed, white noise, to occupy the air.
Then a tremor, at first barely noticeable, thickened in the agriland, set until it came into the boards of the cart, as if the cart itself drew the shudder from the ground. Momentary.
Ten million gallons of water, two hundred miles per hour.
Although she knew it to be the Water Train, it left some portentous and unsettling thing. She felt the judder had got into her somehow. Come for her specifically. That it had shivered from the city into her bones like a chill.
The carts pulled up behind Jane King in a row that backed out of the yard and disappeared around the far corner of the street.
“Change the horses,” she announced, “We’ll take things straight away.” It was relatively early.
They sorted the larger reclaim into piles, collected the small scrap into sacks. Any one-time plastic stuck amongst it they cast free and the kids that had come amongst them ran it to the incerbin, fed it in, saw it gobble down into the city’s energy system. Not one of them was able to resist watching each colored patch they took thump into flame.
You cannot work the landfill without bringing plastic home any more than you can pluck a fowl and not find feathers in your hair.
“Where’s the bag?” Jane asked.
With the carts sorted and reloaded, the troupe went different ways. A cart of metal, a cart of glass, a cart of relics. The clop of horses, trundle of the iron-ringed wheels.
Jane climbed onto her own cart, set the bag down on the wooden seat and checked once more her boys were not about the yard. No. She knew. But it was the first time they were not. They’re outgrowing me, she thought.
The idea of age made her look over at the piebald. The horse seemed somehow younger now after the walk.
Jane clicked her tongue, flicked the reins. Moved on.
When she turned onto the street, she saw immediately the brutality that had been meted out. The proud old plane trees all cut down. The road widened and bereft.
Blackbirds picked through the mulch of damp sawdust and dead leaves that had gathered in the unfixed maws left in the paving where the stumps had been wrenched out. The birds tap-tapped with their bright beaks the way the troupe tapped objects with their trowels to test of what material they were.
It was as if some treachery had been carried on while she was not at home to stop it.
The wizard gestured at the board.
The price was chalked beside each rare earth metal on the list.
Jane nodded, pleased. “Gone up these last three weeks.”
“Gone up,” the wizard said. He had a strange elemental energy to him. Enjoyed the role. Was always, Jane thought, somewhat acting up the eccentricity. What other sort of person would inhabit such a nickname?
She hoisted the bag to the level of the table and tipped out the old handheld screens and phones.
Insects scurried from the joints and cracks and damaged edges. Woodlice and earwigs. Two pied beetles they had not seen the like of before.
“And there’s a cart outside. A cart of widescreen televisions.”
“You must,” the wizard said.
“It does not befit a King!” Jane bridled.
“Asphyxiation doesn’t either.”
Reluctantly she put on the mask.
“We go through this every time.”
“It turns my head into the shape of a pig’s.”
“The pig’s a noble animal.”
The chief sound was the cracking of plastic. Sharp, snap, crack, snip.
She smelled nothing through the mask but was sure the place must stink. The place was mostly dim apart from where some brilliant spit of liquid metal flashed momentarily to life.
“People!” the wizard called. “King of the Landfill Miners!”
All turned their heads toward Jane, as if a herd of swine paid homage. Then gave a muffled grunt of deference, went back to their fiddly business, prying alloys from piles of archaeotech.
A silvery-white ribbon ran bright along a narrow trough and slumped into a collection vat.
“Gadolinium!” the wizard said. “It’s magnetocaloric. That vat’s six barrels’ worth of ice water.”
“Where’s the gold?” Jane asked. For gold she understood.
The breathing mask had dug into Jane face and given her a broad dark mark that looked bizarrely tribal and deliberate.
The jewelry girls busily tapping and finicketing and fashioning were in bright clothes. They pretended not to be distracted. Flicked their eyes from Jane to one another, their glances running from her look with the same delighted mischief as the beetles that had wriggled from the screens.
They were not quite sure how to behave before this woman.
Jane rubbed at the feeling of pressure round her face, suspecting it was visible. She smelled horses on her hand. Dug a nail into the soft oblong of gold, no bigger than her thumb.
“How’s your man?” the wizard asked.
“I’ve been away three weeks. You’ll likely know better than me. I’m still on my way home.”
As if this conversation had conjured the event, the place broke into kerfuffle, and a boy came in. He had run unmasked through the wizard’s lab and he gasped for breath. Red-eyed. Whether from the noxious fumes or simply from the effort.
“It’s King, sir,” he said. He looked at Jane. “Miss. He needs you now. He heard you’re back.”
Jane put down the gold.
“Is there something wrong?”
“They’re gone,” he said. “Both of them.”
“They’ll be somewhere,” she said.
“No one has seen them.”
“They cannot both be gone.”
“And you have asked.”
She saw beneath the burned stretch of her husband’s face. His melted neck, the lump of arm. She saw into his good eye.
She had always thought that if it went, that it would crack, but she felt the ice she walked on become fluid.
“Well, children are as children are. They’re boys. They’ll be somewhere.”
She saw his hollow fear.
“They’re not. They’re not anywhere.”
Jane held herself tall as she went among the dried-out canal beds, but the usually comfortable chaos of the dwellings improvised there suddenly seemed foreign. The garish shacks, the blatant shanties. Colors like noise turned up too loud. The clown performing on the corner. Bead sellers and stalls. Toddlers flickering in the crowd. All came through a glaze.
People nodded and she kept her swagger, but she felt full of liquid panic. It lapped into her throat. Felt like stumbling to be sick.
She was sure she could still feel the loop of pressure from the pig-shaped mask.
She seemed to hear only the drum of her boots, step after step, the hollow pat of them as they hit the lifted pallet walkways. They were not her feet. Could not be her feet going so solidly along among the carnival cloths and panels of the homes. It could not be her face that felt the sun, her eyes that flinched at the bright flashes off the great glass buildings all around.
Every costermonger ferried rumor. She heard the whisper filter through the canalleys, a horrible new nursery rhyme.
Even in her vertigo, she wanted to scale the giant wharf cranes. Stand imposed on the derelict metal towers above the emptied riverbed and call out at the city: Does someone hold some grudge against me?
Ask: Have you taken my children? Is there something I have done?
They’re boys, she repeated within herself, over and over, a voice from elsewhere, they’re boys. They’ll be playing. They’ll be out somewhere with friends.
She walked the bends of the drained river. A feathery iridescence to the mud. The white flash of the overland trains between the black struts of the bridges above. And then a warm memory, at once sickening because it came as if they had died long ago and she could recall them without pain: how they larked in the riverbed, and how the older one came home with mud no higher than his knees, the younger covered head to toe, as if he’d rolled in it.
She wanted to split from her skin. Unloose herself.
It was not from worry for her children — it had not formed yet as a real thing. She could not believe they would be gone. It was her husband’s certainty. The solidness in his eye.
The men stood from their game of dice at the low deal table. They were uncertain in Jane’s presence, as if guilty of something they were unconscious of themselves.
“Well, we can ask our young,” one said. “Tonight.” Then asked, reluctant, “Have you checked the hospitals?”
Another held out his selphone, the red hairs of his arm standing out unnaturally in the lamplight of the tent.
“I thought we didn’t have screens here,” challenged Jane.
“I’m not one of you,” the red-haired man replied.
She saw the headline on the screen: “Nine More.” A picture. Bodies under white sheets, crisscrossed by the black straps of a gurney.
The men kept talking. But Jane tumbled into the screen. The horse-cart clack of the gurney wheels, the clean chemical stench, the hiss through the morgue attendants’ masks, inhalation, exhalation.
The wriggle of insects. The piebald.
The red-haired man held his hand out for the phone just as the air above the canalley tremored. Another helicopter. Traveling from the drained docks nearby.
The pile of coins answered the thudder with their own jingle, a tiny bright sound like the distant clink of harnesses.
The die looked to have curiously approached the antique discs.
Black and white.
A five and a four.
“I lost them.”
“You have not lost them. They are boys. They’ll be off somewhere adventuring. Perhaps they’ve even gone to look for me.”
King sat with his back to her, as he did now. His shoulders were still broad and strong. The single giant hand he’d kept.
“It’s because I cannot go out with them.”
“It is not, King. They are boys.”
His skin felt like plastic sheet. When she laid her hand on him, he could sense, she knew, no more than a basic pressure.
He sucked a deep breath in, and a growl came from down within his chest, a rattle like a magpie’s clack.
“They found themselves a dog.”
For a brief moment, when he said this, she thought, He’ll be okay. He’s the strongest man I know.
“A scruffy mongrel thing.”
She noticed then the deep slices in his wasted forearm. New. The cuts long and bloodless in the skin.
In the cartyard she threw the bales and tubs of mash and beat the walls until the screaming horses brought the others running.
“Bring me the mask,” she told the wizard.
“More and more.”
The woman was old and desiccated. Jane thought, It is like she is not made out of flesh. That is why she can nurse like this. She is paper and sheets, not person. There is nothing for the sickness to take.
The woman simply nodded. “Some.”
It felt to Jane that the earth itself gave way when the healer said, “There are nine.”
“I need to see the children. Boys.”
There were baskets of herbs burning. Lavender and wormwood and garlic bulbs that, through the mask, she could not smell. The glare of the stalks like the liquid metals of the wizard’s lab.
The hush was unbearable. Here, below ground.
The small prone shapes; the white sheets stark; the black bars of the cot rails.
She went from bed to bed. And with each child that was not hers, her tears thickened, pooling in the mask.
I must look like some grotesque thing to them. Come to take them. A visitation come to take them.
Things began to swim.
Jane was sure the mask was going to crush her head. The last few beds.
Relief, thickening. Hope coming. The salt of it. Stinging her eyes. The world ahead a blur.
They’re good boys, she told herself. They’re good boys. They’ll be out somewhere adventuring.