Home and Garden Show
By Juliana Rew
Failing to decide is a decision. I flip the handmade slugs over and between my fingers like a magician with a coin. I made them myself to a fine tolerance. The action soothes me. I let them fall back into their coffer, slide it to the back of the drawer, and lock it. I wonder if the time has come. . .
When I was a kid, my father and mother bundled me and my brother up, and we all set off to see the annual Home and Garden Show at the Coliseum.
We walked the six blocks to the rail platform and stood in the scant shelter of a wall flecked with pigeon droppings, while the wind poked its icy tendrils through the seams of our woolen coats. Mother tied our mufflers more snugly around our heads and distracted us by reading the broadsheet detailing the fantastical sights we would be seeing. The House of the Future! Garden displays with exotic plants and water features!
Our train arrived, billowing steam and smoke and nearly shattering our eardrums with a loud whistle. A boisterous muster of green-clad soldiers with sabres at their sides pushed their way onto the train ahead of us, but eventually we found a place. We sped through the rings of increasingly gentrified city toward downtown. Brick-and-mortar mansions replaced clapboard houses and frost-blasted lots. My brother pointed excitedly out the window as a zeppelin passed overhead. Mother poured us all tiny cups of pressed coffee from a silvered glass thermos, which we used to warm our hands.
After we arrived and disembarked, Father flagged down a small hack-pulled taxi to take us the last several blocks to the Coliseum. The steam-powered taxis were still too expensive for the everyday citizen, and were mostly hired by tourists. Nonetheless, the city enjoyed something of an economic boom, since the new steel factories had been built to support the war effort, and the family was looking forward to the short holiday. The cabbie pointed out an excavation site where a steam shovel was clawing at the earth and piling it toward the sky. He told us the city was building a new underground transport system. We gazed in amazement, unable to see the hole’s bottom.
The Coliseum was a vast whitewashed space still smelling faintly of the equestrian show the previous week. People queued up, eager to see demonstrations of all sorts of new-fangled labor-saving devices.
When an illicit seller of necromancy chemicals began hawking his wares down the line, Mother hissed and made us turn our faces away until he had passed. Events like the Home and Garden Show were bound to attract undesirables, she said. He was indeed a fearsome figure, with his red-rimmed eyes staring out from under a beaver hat.
“Mark my words, you’ll be begging for my services soon enough,” he growled at Mother.
Finally, liveried ushers admitted us into a warm auditorium, heated along the sides by coal-fired braziers. We wriggled out of our coats, settled into pillowed seats, and waited expectantly for the gaslights to dim and the show to begin.
We were not disappointed. The distinguished announcer raised his megaphone and introduced a wondrous parade of machinery displaying the finest that steam-powered science had to offer. Robots that would clean the house. Houses with walls that could talk and sing. Clockwork lights that would turn themselves on when it got dark. Self-making beds. Colorful moving images of stars reeling through the sky. Bicycles that would let the rider jet about through the air.
Everything would work with only the touch of a button, the announcer intoned.
“Best of all,” he prophesied, “in the future, no one will have to work more than a few hours a week.”
I was thrilled at the prospect of all this automated chore-doing, since I spent a good portion of my before- and after-school hours hauling buckets of coal home from the blackspots to stoke the furnace and kitchen stove. My fingernails were always soot-stained, although I had done my best with soap and water before going to the show.
Too soon, the gaslights brightened. The audience sighed and stirred from its reverie, and we children chattered as the family filed out of the auditorium and into the garden exposition. A dazzling display of hothouse flowers and foliage met our eyes, training jasmine and yellow bonnets, all sheltered from the bleak winter outside and warmed by gently wafting steam. Circulating mechanical devices using suction and pressure raised water above our heads and flung it in colorfully lit cascades down into basins and meandering streams. We luxuriated in the rare bit of humidity, and I admired how Mother’s blond wavy hair turned into ringlets.
Being something of a natural philosopher, Father explained to us how blond hair made the best hygrometers, because it was the most sensitive to water vapor.
“I’m happy to be a walking hygrometer,” Mother responded, “but fortunately I think this frizz will subside when we get home.”
Father tapped on his bowler to signal that it was time to go home and led our small family down the side street toward the train station. Suddenly, we heard cries and shouts and were shocked to see a large crowd of men carrying bats and clubs spill onto the street ahead of us. Soon we realized that they were retreating from one of the Peacekeeper wagons, which pressed forward, running over people foolish enough not to avoid the cowcatcher mounted on the front. Puffs of smoke issued from the Peacekeeper as it fired volleys into the crowd.
My parents frantically ushered my brother and me to the edge of the street, where we crouched until the press of men and machines had passed. A few of the injured limped away, and one man lay face down in the street, a growing carmine pool near his head. I started to stare, but Father pulled me against his coat and hustled me on.
“Well, that was certainly an exciting end to the day, wasn’t it,” Father said, glancing at Mother.
“What was going on, Father?” I asked.
“Oh, probably some sort of rebellion against the latest wage cuts at the colliery. Here, I know another route,” he said, taking me by the hand.
I was relieved that the riot wasn’t a protest of the war against the Kernovians, which I was sure we were winning. We had gone a short way when I noticed my empty pocket.
“Oh, no,” I gasped. “My program for the Home and Garden Show! It’s lost!”
I looked back down the street, but the program was undoubtedly trampled amidst the layer of rubbish left behind by the crowd, and we were running late.
I cried a little, but I forgot about it when we soon reached the station. We stuffed our pockets with tiny red polser sausages in buns and rode the train back to the city’s outer ring.
My father raised me and my brother to be hard-working citizens, and though he sometimes treated us with a strict hand, we knew he loved us and Mother. After laboring long days in the colliery, he gathered scraps of wood and brought them home, picking his way down the dark, rubble-filled streets. Our poor neighborhood was never outfitted with gaslights. Rather than burning the kindling in the stove, he turned the kitchen into a temporary lutherie and built a violin. Mother taught us songs, while Father sawed away in accompaniment. Once he brought home a new Orthophonic and some records with the popular tunes of the day. He and Mother danced together around the small tenement, and they held out their hands for us to join in.
It’s hard to believe that ten years have passed. It’s become a bit of a family joke that we all neglected to ask the Home and Garden Show announcer the important question: When is this fabled future going to get here, please?
“I’ve worked hard to show you boys the better way,” Father said. He was unhappy when the State called for young men my and Robert’s age to join the army. He opposed the continuous war with the neighboring country of Kernow. He was a scientist, but he refused to work for the war effort, instead taking a low-paying, physically demanding job digging tunnels deep into the earth below the colliery.
“If you stick with your science studies, you can make a good living, and you won’t have to join the army.” He pointed out the recent completion of the underground tramway and the steam electrification of the factories. Good technical jobs were going begging.
“I’ve invented a new earth-boring technique that will enable us to extract a new energy source to power everything with less loss of life than coal mining,” he added. “Please, just stay home until I can get the funding from the banks to start the business,” he pleaded.
But my brother and I felt it was our duty to go. We were excited to serve our country. I wanted to get away from the family life I viewed as dreary and mundane so I could show heroism and valor on the battlefield. But I was not assigned to the infantry and was instead put to work as a radio operator at headquarters, where I was far from the front lines. I wanted desperately to distinguish myself somehow.
I ignored my father’s wishes to keep a low profile during my service in the war, going to my commandant’s office and knocking on his door.
“Yes, what is it?” he asked.
“I think I have something here that you might be interested in. . .”
I am ashamed to say that I revealed the secrets of Father’s invention, even demonstrating some of the new liquid petroleum energy that could be extracted using the modern techniques. As a newly promoted officer, I helped design and set up a plant to manufacture armored vehicles powered with the new essence. I also shared my skills at machining ammunition and invented a new formula for increasing projectile power and received a medal as a hero of the Republic. I was quite proud of myself at the time. Surely this would finally give us the upper hand to win the war.
My brother Robert was quite proud of me too. A handsome young man with Mother’s blond curls, he bragged to his comrades that his older brother had provided the army with the super munitions they were going to use to win the next offensive.
I modestly protested that I was but one of many, but I felt confident as I watched Robert’s coterie board the train for the Kernow border. He leaned out the window and waved wildly until the train was a pinpoint in the distance. “Give them hell, Robbie,” I shouted, but he was already gone.
I know it crushed my father when my brother never returned from the front. Two men in dress uniform came to his door with Robert’s possessions.
“Your son was a hero of the Republic,” the Sergeant said, handing my father Robbie’s kit bag, stiffened and black with his blood. The necromancer’s prediction proved true, when Mother pleaded with Father to try illegal means of retrieving my brother from beyond the veil. He would have none of that superstitious claptrap, of course. I felt secretly responsible for my brother’s death and was sure Father blamed me.
As if to add insult to the blow of Robbie’s death, the bank denied Father’s loan, and he complained bitterly, “the army has stolen my invention.” I never set the record straight.
After I came home from the war, I moved out of my parents’ house. I took apart my service revolver and put the pieces at the very back of the top shelf of the closet. Now Father and Mother are both dead, and I have children of my own. I never spoke to my Father again. But I did speak to the necromancer.
I resolved to redeem myself by finding a new energy source that would be even better than coal, gas, or petroleum. I labored long to identify a chemical that could absorb the electricity of the aether and make it available on demand. But nothing worked. That is when I thought of the necromancer. Perhaps the methods he used to recapture life energy could be put to use in capturing energy from the air.
I rifled through the mementos left by my mother until I found the card. The man’s spidery scrawl stood out on the yellowing cardstock: Ramules the Magnificent. A good name for a magician, I thought, or a charlatan. I knocked on his door.
“I remember your family. Your father threw me out. I sense that he’s dead now, thank the dark ones. What do you want? To revive him? I’d warn you against that. The corpse must be fresh.”
Disgusted, I said, “I’m not here to try to raise the dead, but I do want to know your secrets.”
“You must be prepared to pay for knowledge,” Ramules said, smiling with that menacing way he had affected when my father ejected him.
“Anything,” I said. “Provided it is the knowledge I seek.”
I explained my research and the dead ends that I had encountered. The reprobate listened carefully and at last nodded and said, “I can help you. For a price.”
The fee turned out to be the corpse of a young lady, dug freshly from the grave. I overcame my fear and distaste, telling myself it was merely superstition.
I sharpened my shovel, waited until three hours after midnight to approach the cemetery, and located the grave of Miriam M–. One shovelful at a time, I slowly descended until I was standing next to the coffin. I opened the lid. Just at that moment a flash of lightning lit up the girl’s face, her dark lips and open eyes standing out against a pale skin and blonde hair. My shriek of terror was hidden behind the peal of thunder, and I managed to steel myself long enough to wrap the body in a blanket. I alternately dragged and carried her away, as rain poured from the sky to create a waterfall into the gaping hole.
“I fulfilled my end of the bargain,” I told Ramules. “What is the secret of pulling energy out of the air?”
“I have obtained the proper materials for a demonstration,” he replied. Then he showed me his laboratory. Miriam was laid out on a table.
“No, I don’t want a zombie,” I said.
“She will be a vessel.”
“For energy?” The poor girl. “Never!”
“No, for a seance. My power is to channel the spirits of the dead, either into their own or others’ bodies. We can use Miriam to speak to someone on the other side who knows how to do what you desire.”
“And then she’ll go back to being dead?”
“Of course. Nature will only allow us to borrow her for a short time before her essence is gone.”
I didn’t understand what he meant by essence, but I consented to the seance. Ramules prepared a potion that he poured into her lips, chanting some words in a foreign language.
“Miriam!” he called. “Speak to us!”
“Where am I?” a voice came. Not from her lips, but from the air.
“Tell her what you want,” Ramules prompted.
“D– Do you know anyone who can create electricity from the air?” I stammered.
“A man here knows,” she replied.
“Let me hear him.”
“Hello, John. It is like a ray of sunshine to hear your voice in this dark place.”
It was my father. I fainted.
My wife and sons have been out gathering wild greens for supper, and she bakes soda bread in the cast iron stove using some wood pellets I got cheap. I hate to see her long, elegant hands ruined by drudgery, as she unfastens her skirts tied up to hold the day’s foraging. It seems like my family and I work from dusk til dawn til dusk again to put food on the table–and I still have black fingernails.
My sole ambition, meager as it is, has been to keep the wolf from my family’s door. Ever since I fled the necromancer’s laboratory, I’ve resolved to use only scientific methods to pursue my goal. My guilt about my father, plus the horror of imagining I talked to a corpse that looked like my mother, must have deranged me. Yesterday, I tried again to work on a new way to harness energy for electricity, but the most I could accomplish was to send an electrical current from a bolt of lightning through a copper wire. I couldn’t get it to work long enough to power a motor. I made a compound of gallium and arsenic, which seemed promising as a way to channel electrical current. But I couldn’t figure out where to get the steady current in the first place. Frustrated, I kicked my work table over. After a while, my wife came over and put her arms around me.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get it,” she said. “You don’t have to work so hard to prove yourself to me. We’re doing all right, and we have enough to eat. I know you want to live up to your father’s accomplishments, but you’re not like him. You have to find your own way, is all. Why don’t you take a walk to clear your head?”
Once outside, I trod carefully. The leaves had turned to slime on the city streets, and the few trees were nearly bare, except for a few starlings following me with beady eyes. The fog of my breath hung in a cloud above my head.
I met a man by the tracks who is trying to organize another demonstration against the coal and gas barons. He argued earnestly about the unfair working conditions at the colliery and urged me to go to the demonstration tomorrow.
“You’re a big war hero,” he said. “If you came, everyone would listen to you.”
I didn’t tell him that I had put my gun away.
“You’re just going to stir up more trouble for yourselves,” I countered. “I’ve got a family to think of.”
“We all have families. We’re not going to take it any more,” the man averred. “They killed Jimmy Corrigan last week, and he was only talking to the men. Think about his wife.” He flashed a homemade firearm briefly and stuffed it back into his waistcoat. I thought the weapon a rather poor bit of workmanship. My father endowed me with a high degree of metal- and wood-working skill.
Normally I would have ignored him. “Violence begets violence,” as Father would have said. But for some reason my thoughts returned to that bright day from my childhood–and the disappointing ending that has clouded my mind all these years.
“Failing to decide is a decision,” the man pointed out.
Finally I grudgingly agreed to think about joining the demonstration tomorrow. I wandered the somber streets for hours, returning home at last to reassemble my army gun and fashion a coffer of finely milled bullets.
The rays of the early morning sun insinuate themselves behind my eyelids to prise me from a troubled sleep. Slipping silently from the bed so as not to awaken my wife just yet, I creep down the hall to look in on my sleeping children. I listen for a moment to the rhythmic sighs emanating from tousled heads burrowed under dingy blankets. As I glance upward, I imagine the ceiling rising to vast heights open to the sky, and solar-powered gaslights flaring to life in sconces along the walls. That was the secret all along: turning the sun’s rays into electricity. I feel Father standing at my shoulder, telling me that he forgives me and to believe in all the future wonders to come. I want badly to do so.
Reluctantly, I come back to reality. Crying like the son I was–and still am–I double back to return the gun and bullets to the drawer, heart pounding. I may keep them, but I won’t be going to the trainyard today. I know another route. Again I find myself in front of the children’s room.
Rapping on the door jamb, I call out hoarsely, “Get up, kids. Get your coats on. We’re in for a treat today. I hear the Home and Garden Show is in town!”