“Human Abstracts” by B. Pladek
You are all too young to remember the Shapes, but I knew she who killed them, and because I loved her, I will make no apologies.
I cannot make you understand what the Shapes were. You will never know: that’s why Cue did it. But I can tell you a little of what they were like. And perhaps, knowing, you may decide for yourselves—no matter what the Colleges say—whether they had to die.
Let me begin by getting the facts out of the way (the facts, thankfully, are not the Truth). If you know of Cue at all, you know her as Dr. Quercus Meno, once a rising star in the College of Physicians, whose career ended when she was laughed off the lectern delivering the Hunterian Oration of 18—. She was known, among those to whom she was known, as a precise anatomist and theoretician, an avid botanist, and a frequent contributor to the Lancet. Her small practice, tucked like a rabbit beneath the brown brow of Midtown Heath, was popular among the middling classes and had, despite her youth, its share of titled patients.
You do not know of me, because I was her courier.
In the back room of Cue’s surgery that opened onto the hill, she dissected things: clocks, cadavers, concepts. Each day after her final patient left, she waited at the gaslit garden door, dark and stern as a knife, for me to bring her that night’s anatomical specimens. What started with frogs and coneys became books and ideas, and, finally, myself.
So began our love. For the first two years it opened only at night, like a cool flower, for physicians of the College do not love their basket-girls. Together we sat on the stoop of the garden door and watched the dusk exhale into stars, while Cue tried to summon the Shapes.
“What a beauty you are,” she whispered into my neck. Then she paused, waiting.
I flushed. Pulling away, I folded my rough hands beneath my apron. “Only one woman in the world was ever confirmed by Beauty,” I said, “and Helen was gentility.”
Cue gazed at me with the same earnest attention she gave all specimens. “But what is Beauty, then, if it won’t appear for you?”
I dropped my eyes. “Who knows?” I muttered. And then we both fell silent, for of course—and this is what you will not understand—it was a lie. We knew.
The Shapes did not name themselves, though we had names for some of them, based on when they appeared: Beauty, Equity, Truth, Goodness. Cue had, like most Collegers at one time or another, attempted to discover a new Shape. Like all, she had not succeeded; but somewhat unusually, she had managed to call up most of the known Shapes at least once—a feat difficult for a Colleger and nearly impossible for anyone else.
One night that past spring, when a butter moon had melted along the gables of the City and laid a rich shine on the new leaves, a group of Collegers had gathered for an astronomical party on the bare crest of the Heath. I was there, masquerading as Cue’s servant, carrying tea and oatcakes between the scholars who chatted softly between their telescopes.
They were watching the Archer. Her slow spring recline along the horizon was nearly complete, and Betelgeuse raised a red fist over the trees.
Cue stood apart from the party, tuned to the wind like a sapling, her hands framing the sky. All at once she palmed her hands together, then pried them apart, turning the dark soil of the night air. Before her lay the Archer. Against the crystalline proportions of those astral hips her hands moved in fluid, deliberate motions, like a surgeon rearranging organs in a geometric body. As Cue worked, the other Collegers stilled their talk and looked up. I lay down my tray. A feeling, pervasive and rich as smell, was blossoming in the night air. Instinctively our gazes turned to the Archer, who, though unaltered, seemed to pulse with meaning.
Cue’s hands dropped, and she whispered a single question.
How can I describe it? You will not understand. Nothing changed, and yet in that moment there was a flash that tasted of gold, and the ice of our language cleared so that we could see below—down endlessly into the gulfs whose unseen currents buttressed our lives. In the Archer’s light the form of all things was revealed as their perfect fulfillment. In those golden dimensions, our lives were sieved and resolved like sun through a prism. We all felt it at once, and we all knew, without a doubt, that it was genuine.
“Beauty,” whispered Cue, and the Collegers, and me.
And then it was gone.
As radiance drained from our blood and the world became opaque again, I picked up my tray. The Collegers shook their head. A few began making their way to Cue for discussion. Quickly, she circled over to me and in the affectation of grabbing an oatcake, whispered, “They’re alive.” Then, smiling, she turned back to her colleagues.
“Alive?” I asked the Archer, languorous on the horizon.
Beautiful, she seemed to reply.
The next day was filled with deliveries, as is any day succeeding the appearance of a Shape. The painters had added a line to their slim list of Beautiful subjects and wanted charcoal and oil so they might fill next fall’s Academy with portraits of the Archer; noblewomen frantically ordered roses and chocolates to send to their lovers as consolation for not being chosen; and the Collegers, as always, wanted more books.
I saw none of these clients, however: Cue had hired me. That day I trotted along behind her as she visited her senior colleagues to receive their gifts of congratulation. If it was unusual for a Colleger to summon more than one Shape, it was still rarer for her to raise the same Shape twice.
Somehow, news of Cue’s success had already swept through the City. As we threaded the crowds about Parliament, dejected heads lifted to follow her. In those days, commoners could only win consideration by the Houses if a Shape appeared to sanction their plea, and this happened so rarely that we looked on members of the Colleges, who could with effort summon Truth or Goodness, as near gods. Cue was not thirty and had now raised Beauty twice. Around us, the pressure of the crowd’s longing eyes eddied palpably in her hair and seemed to sway even me as I rode behind, watching, in the stillness of her wake.
As evening blew the City’s smog into night, we rounded Harley Street for our final call. But when Cue pointed out a trim rowhouse whose walls were slimed with the remains of thrown fruit, I recoiled. There lived, as I knew, the smallpox doctor who ran cowblood in the veins of her subjects until they sprouted horns and tails, and whose daily supplications to Truth in support of her heinous experiments were always denied.
“Don’t be thick, girl,” Cue scolded, and I looked down. “It’s called vaccination, and it’s perfectly safe. Tails! What nonsense. Dr. Montague is brilliant, and she was a good mentor to me in my first apprenticeship.” With that, she knocked on the door and we were received.
Dr. Montague, like her ash physician’s cane, was brown and silver as driftwood. Though she did not turn me into a cow, she did raise an eyebrow as Cue nodded at me to lay down the packages and sink against the bench of the study’s pianoforte.
“A personal servant, Quercus?” she asked. “A bit high for your taste, isn’t it?”
“Ah—my courier, just for today,” Cue said.
“I see,” said Montague, turning a slow smile to me. “She’s lovely.” She motioned her head towards a divan. “Why don’t you sit somewhere softer?”
I slid uneasily into the cushions as the doctors talked. Besides congratulations, Cue had come to ask Montague for guidance, as she was a scholar whose methods Truth refused to confirm yet had been largely accepted by the Colleges. “How do you weather it? What do you do when Truth doesn’t come? See, Mary, I have a theory…” Cue’s long legs jittered like a spider’s. “I think it’s right, and I wish to present it soon. But it’s strange—I fear it will only be accepted if Truth confirms it.”
The silver doctor gave Cue a long, still look. Then abruptly she turned to me. “Tell me,” she asked. “Do the people still say I summon Truth every day and fail?”
She laughed. “Of course. Well, I don’t summon it—at all. Or Goodness, or Equity, or any of the others.”
Cue looked incredulous. “What? Why not?”
Montague did not reply immediately. Her knuckles tightened on her cane, their garnet stillness framed in the shadow of the vaccination clinic’s door. Then she said: “You await Truth to confirm your theory. I am tired of waiting on a Truth or a Goodness I am not sure is mine.” She saw Cue beginning to protest, and cut her off. “You ask me my advice? It is this: do not wait on Truth. Now what’s your idea, Cue?”
Cue’s objection poised on her tongue another moment or two; then she swallowed it. Glancing to each side, she muttered a few terse sentences in jargon too dense for me to follow. Montague’s eyes widened. There was a beat of silence, in which both doctors sat solemn and airless as a Grecian frieze. Then Montague whispered: “If it’s true, we could be free of them.”
Cue’s head whipped up. “Free? Why? When we could finally understand, even use them!”
“We use them too much as it is,” Montague replied. “And besides, when have we needed to understand something to use it?” I shivered, for she had glanced briefly at me.
They continued talking long into the night. Unable to follow more than snatches of their conversation and tired from carrying Cue’s gifts, I fell into uneasy sleep. In my dreams, my life lay gauzy along the loom of Shapes whose reality framed and spun it: my mother, a washerwoman, crying as Justice ignored her petition to place me in school; seeing Truth for the first time when a Colleger announced a rule of geometry I could not understand; Beauty arched over a dove on the spire of the sunset Cathedral; Cue, radiant and undeniable, kissing me behind the door in a haze of joy golden as transcendence.
When I awoke, dawn was powdering the walls with light and Cue’s hand was on my shoulder. I rose blearily and gathered the packages, knowing I was already late for that day’s deliveries. Watching Cue’s tired face, I tried not to let it matter.
As I was passing behind Cue through the door, Dr. Montague touched me on the arm. “Take care of yourself,” she said softly. “Don’t wait on Truth to tell you how.”
Later, much later, Cue would try to explain her theory to me in terms I could understand, as practice for the famous lecture she would deliver that year to laughter and derision—-the beginning of the end of her career at the College and the beginning of hers with me. Before I go on, I will record it here for you, for though Cue and I met the Shapes firsthand, that experience is still more foreign to me than her words, which were imperfect but somehow clearer. Their abstraction was at least human.
Now, of course, human abstractions are all we have.
“I can’t read, miss.”
Cue paced the surgery like a colt, restless with knowledge. “That doesn’t matter. You, a courierwoman, know as much about the Shapes as most anyone in the schools. Yet we use them every day—that’s the mystery!” Wheeling at the garden door, she strung a question. “Sal. What is Goodness?”
“I don’t know. The opposite of badness?” I looked down, squeezing the wool of my skirt as if to wring out my ignorance. “I’m sorry. I can’t do this—I can name good things—for you…”
“Precisely!” She grinned. “Goodness is a quality. Without its Shape, we only know it as an attribute of something else. But because Goodness appears, we know that everything we call ‘good’ resembles Goodness, just a little bit.”
“All right,” I said wearily.
“So why doesn’t Goodness appear whenever something is good? Why does it only appear sometimes?”
“Because not many things are really good?”
“Because Goodness isn’t ours!” Cue cried triumphantly. “It only seems so. We think that every time we say ‘good,’ we add a piece to a giant puzzle, and when we see ‘Goodness,’ the Shape, we’re seeing the whole puzzle at once. But it isn’t like that. We didn’t make Goodness. It comes from somewhere else, and it appears to us only when it wants to.”
“When it wants to?”
“Because the Shapes are alive, darling.” Ignoring my shame, she bounded to my side and crouched there, one long arm flung conspiratorially about my shoulders. “They’re creatures from another world. And,” she whispered, squeezing me, “I think I can get us there.”
I could feel myself shuddering, my body cold and far away. “Us?”
“Us,” she breathed, as warm and real as a Shape on my neck. “You saw a little of that world, when Beauty came to the Archer. I need to have a witness when I go, and I want it to be you. Do you believe me, little one? Will you come with me to the world of the Shapes?” And leaning in, resplendent, she kissed me.
What else could I say?
Later that year, when spring was smudging the hardness from the edges of the world, I stood at the back of the College’s largest lecture hall, watching the physicians who had gathered for the Hunterian Oration watch Cue leap across the platform of honor. Her sleeves lay damp against her dark arms as she built architectures of golden words. As she spoke, space opened between them, doors between the worlds. Just as it seemed to me that the lecture hall was a ship breaching a fissure in the ice of speech—the Head of the College stood up and strode to the front of the stage. Loudly thanking Cue for her very provocative speculations, she waved her ringed hands to raise an applause short and brutal as grapeshot. Cue stumbled, caught in mid-sentence; then fell silent. About her, plashing in the muffled laughter of the crowd, blocks of language split and calved orphan abstractions to the sea.
A week later, Cue was cast out of the College. And though they could not strip her of her title, after that day the patients stopped coming.
We heard, later, that some of the younger physicians who had not entirely ridiculed Cue’s ideas had gone up the Heath that night to lay her theory before Truth. As is custom, they had expounded the idea in full to the sky, asked the question, and waited. No Shape appeared. The doctors descended the hill again, more secure in their dismissal.
“It means nothing,” Cue muttered darkly when I brought her the news, on a rainy morning in the drafty garret she now occupied. “The Shape of Truth is so rare. It didn’t even appear for Newton, and”—thumping her desk—”no one doubts gravity is true.”
The Newton story is an old saw among Collegers. Cue hated old saws, so when I heard her rehearse it I sat down, though I had more deliveries that day.
“If Truth hardly ever appears, why do we put so much stock in it?” I asked gently. Around us, rain sighed through the thin walls, dampening the stacks of paper on Cue’s desk—correspondence with distant patients who had not yet learned of her shame.
Cue gave me a look I knew well, though it seemed threadbare now, dulled by misfortune. “Because it’s Truth.”
“Even if it isn’t ours? Like Goodness?”
“But that’s the point.” Cue shivered and pulled her greatcoat tighter around her shoulders. “The Shapes only matter because they come from outside. It wouldn’t work if they didn’t. Then we’d only have ourselves for knowing what was true, or good.” She sneezed. “God, Sal, how do you people live like this? I can barely think, it’s so cold. Is this what it’s like for all you commoners?”
In the back of my mind I could see Dr. Montague’s eyes. “You’ve never seen where I live,” I said, very quietly. “You’ve never even asked.”
The same startled look hung again on Cue’s face for a moment; then the wind moaned, and it fluttered down. “I… yes.” She looked away, fingering her greyed cravat. After a few moments, her voice slid haltingly over her shoulder: “Sal, what do you do when you’re not with me?”
“Besides work?” I asked. But Cue’s face was so earnest that I could not sustain the jibe. “Well, I talk with the other women at the boardinghouse, and sometimes I’ll see a trial. They’re public, so they’re free.”
Her brow furrowed with the same methodical concentration that she used for dissection. “Would you want to go to a trial sometime? With me?” she asked.
“You mean together? In public?”
“You honor me,” I said reflexively, then winced. Cue watched me with an expression I had never seen before, the naked fright of a falcon whose jesses have been cut. “I mean: yes, I would.” I reached out to take her hand. “We can even go tomorrow. There’s a murder at nine. It should be good.”
Cue nodded stiffly. Outside, rain and wind carved the light into grey ghosts of shapes.
“Good,” she said.
We went. Bundled and uneasy in the press of a murder crowd, Cue witnessed, for the first time in her life, our old custom of trying criminals in the open air and declaiming each verdict into the clouds as it is handed down.
“Who are they calling to?” she asked.
“Justice,” I said.
The charge was infanticide, a woman accused of drowning her baby in the river. After two hours of debate, the verdict came down: not guilty.
As the words were shouted, morning’s knife lanced the clouds, and a golden hush fell. The crowd held its breath. Then the sky spoke behind our eyes, and suddenly Justice was there, like gravity, drawing the verdict into itself. So too we were drawn, the mass of the City’s people like a river that could feel, all at once, how the waves pulled together towards the sea. It was absolute and undeniable—the real murderer would confess a week later. It was Justice. And then, like an eye closing, it was gone.
For some minutes the crowd frothed, until gradually its bulk ebbed away in runnels down the alleys. I was still shivering when Cue turned to me and asked, “Does Justice appear for many verdicts?”
“Yet we convict people anyway.” And she stood before the platform for a long time, silent, before I finally pulled her away and we followed the crowd down into the warrens of the City, towards my old life and her new one.
That was the beginning of the end, though I did not know it at the time.
Cue’s mind worked in anatomies, so as we grew closer, I should not have been surprised that she would frame her life with me in them; nor that, once exposed to the doings of my class, she should plunge her hands in and begin cataloguing the organs. But she did, and I was. Something about how her surgeon’s mind arranged the bones of my experience limned facts I had always known about myself in antiseptic brilliance. They were no truer, in the way that pain is no truer for a doctor having diagnosed it; but they burned with the ideal precision that attends any Colleger’s proclamations.
“This is injustice,” she declared, watching the thin greasegirls smear the rail tracks with fat as grey as themselves.
“So you say, mum?” said one, tipping her cap. “Mighty kind. Sure, Justice’s never ‘proved it.”
And in a district where the cholera had come, asking the apothecary sampling the pump whether she had proof of her notion that tainted water was responsible: “Your theory must be true—why won’t Parliament fund sanitation?”
The worn woman laughed. “Money, of course. Though they’ll say it’s that they can’t be sure of its Truth.” And, smiling, “Truth is not found by apothecaries, Dr. Meno.”
And finally in my boardinghouse, among the easy-laughing women who perched on the fire ladders to watch the sun dissolve behind the stockyards: “This is… good.” Her arm was winched through mine, as if her self now teetered on the edge of the rail over which her reputation had already tumbled. “I did not think it could be good, to be poor,” she murmured, staring out over the reddened city.
“And for sure it’s not always, miss!” laughed one of my bunkmates, winking, for they were all still tickled that I had managed to snare a Colleger. “Not mostly, even. Aye, Goodness never peeks its face down here!”
“No,” Cue said, her dark eyes filled with sunset. And then, in an undertone only I could hear: “Not Goodness, only good.”
When she was not corresponding with patients or attending, as she had begun to do, the people of my district for whatever they could trade, Cue accompanied me on my deliveries. These appointments increasingly formed the matter of her researches. She pursued them with the feverish passion of the unbelieved, and I would have worried, had I not so enjoyed the conversations. Cue stretched my soul, as hot glass is stretched and hardens around the invisible force of the blower’s breath.
“Sal, why do you think we have no Shape for Injustice?” she asked one day as we wove through the white stones of the Old City. “Or Ugliness, or Falsity?”
“Oh, I know!” I was carrying a bundle of roses, a gift for a noblewoman’s paramour. Dipping two fingers into the bouquet, I pulled out a red pair. “See this rose? Think if Beauty confirmed it—we’d know for sure it’s beautiful. But then this other flower, it wouldn’t really be ugly. Just less beautiful. That’s all ugliness is, right?”
Cue took the prettier flower. “Yes,” she said thoughtfully. “We know Beauty, so we need no Shape to identify ugliness. Or injustice, or falsehood.” She gazed off across the white city, twirling the rose in her fingers. “Supposedly.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. I put the other flower, the duller one, to my nose. It did not smell deficient.
“Tell me: if you presented to Parliament a plan to ameliorate the conditions of those little greasegirls, would Justice confirm it?” Cue’s long strides quickened, and I skittered to keep up with her.
“Me? Probably not—”
“And so if it did not? Would it make your plan unjust?”
As I jogged, I tried to stuff the flowers back in the bouquet. “Cue, that isn’t the point of the Shapes—”
“But it is!” Cue stopped and wheeled, her patched greatcoat descrying a geometric halo around her. “The Shapes are an excuse. As if we cannot identify Justice without its Shape!”
I shrunk, noticing how, at her cry, the bankers and lawyers of the City turned their heads to watch. “Cue, please, talk quieter—”
She seemed not to hear my plea, but did move closer to continue in a fervent whisper: “The Shapes aren’t ours, Sal. And yet we use them to tell us whether a thing is closer or farther from Beauty—Beauty, which rarely appears, which won’t even confirm you!” I had an instant to sweep the bouquet down to safety before I was in her arms, her tall face bowed like a violet into my neck. Over the wiry mass of her curls, I could see the crowd circling. “Sal, Sal,” she moaned. “Oh, Mary was right! The Shapes give us absolutes, and we wield them to dismiss anything that is not absolute!”
“What are you doing?” I hissed.
“Because the Shapes feel so right, we think we can ignore all the other things that might be beautiful or true or just. Yes, we ignore them at our pleasure, for we can always claim to be awaiting the real Truth, the real Justice.” Her hands tensed down my back. “And in the shadow of our regard, we breed monsters: ugliness, falsity, injustice!”
In the corner of my eye, I saw a magistrate approaching, brows like lightning under the thunderhead of her wig. “Cue!” I whispered urgently. “Can we do this elsewhere?”
“We cannot!” she cried, flinging her arms back. The magistrate began to jog. “We are tied to this plane, as the Shapes are to theirs, and we must either await them forever or reject them utterly!”
“Ok, we’re going,” I said. In Cue’s voice was a terrifying absence, like the breathless vacuum before a storm. Abandoning the bouquet to the cobbles, I leaped up to grab her wrist. Then I ran, dragging her behind me as a current pulls a bundle of jumbled sticks downstream, her cries scoring expressions of horror on the banked crowd as we passed:
“Justice creates injustice! Beauty creates ugliness! Goodness creates evil!”
Killing the Shapes was not Cue’s first idea. She merely sought, in the beginning, to close the passage between our world and theirs—to shut the door so gently that we would not notice, and the Shapes fade into memory like twilight. “To free us—and them,” she explained.
“Them?” I asked. “Are they bound to us?”
“Why else would they come?” she said darkly.
And so, at the first harvest moon of autumn, we met on the brow of the Heath. Cue had come from her garret, which she refused to desert for the warmth of my dormitory, and from which I was, worryingly, now banned. As she approached, I saw through the windy scud of her sleeves a faint glimmer of gold. She barely stopped to nod at me before sweeping her arms up like scythes. Between their shining prongs hung the moon. “Beauty!” she called in a strange voice, with an irresistible pull of command. “Beauty!” she cried again.
And Beauty came. It came so swiftly I could not react. “Cue—” I called, stumbling, while beyond me she stood, her naked arms raised and blazing. I could barely look at her, yet I did not need my eyes to know that her hands were meridians of light whose dimensions were somehow those of Beauty itself. And behind Beauty, through it, as through the sudden comprehension of a mathematical equation, shimmered a Shape vast and unmistakable, yet which I could not name and did not know. Only for an instant: then a cry smudged the glass of that perfect vision, Cue’s body falling into the damp calm of an autumn night.
Gasping, I lurched across the lawn in time to hear her whisper: “Can’t close it—closing wrong. Of course! Wrong, wrong—not place, Shape.” Then she collapsed.
Slinging her arms around my shoulders, I half-carried Cue back to her garret. She slumped against the door to the room but would not let me in. “Experiments—modifications,” she mumbled. “Come tomorrow.” The lock clicked to silence.
I waited outside the rest of the night and into the next day, pausing only to buy a loaf of bread and cheese. I had deliveries to make; I did not care. Near noon, noises had begun to echo behind the door—hollow, foreign plucks and hums, cries of living harpstrings. The door’s wood, warming, purred like a cat, and syrupy light pooled along its jambs. “Cue?” I called repeatedly. “Let me in. Please!”
Finally, as dusk set in, the door creaked open. Loading the food in my apron, I pushed my way into the room. Whatever light had been there was now bleeding out of the air, though it still pulsed in some objects, as embers wheeze in a dying fire. Among these objects was Cue. Her shirtsleeves had been ripped off, and her thin dark arms seemed burnt with gold.
“Oh Cue—please eat,” I said, laying a hunk of cheese and bread in each hand. She looked vaguely at the food before setting it aside.
“We have to kill it, Sal,” she said heavily. Veins of light ached in her fingers.
“Please eat something. You’re raving.”
“I’m not.” Her hands tensed against the table and she hove herself upright. “It’s logical. Perfect, like the Shapes.” A rattling breath. “They don’t live in a separate realm. They’re abstractions. They live in—they are—a Shape. The Shape of Shapes. It contains them. They are it, and also themselves…” She pitched abruptly forward, and I had just enough time to catch her and ease her back into the chair. “To get free,” she wheezed, “we have to kill it.”
“Calm down. You don’t have to kill anything. Here—” I dragged over an ewer of water that lay at the far end of the table. “Drink.”
She ignored me. “I know how do it,” she whispered, holding out her hands. The strange humming I had heard before began again. I leaped back: between her palms an arc of bright geometry shimmered, an illumination which lit nothing but whose razor edge seemed to prune the contours of reality. In that fierce light, each object was pared down until it was immanently and precisely itself.
“Oh my god, what is that?” I cried. She did not answer, but stood, and as she did parted her hands further. Between them the arc swelled until its flaming immanence sung into a single, shining sweep: a bow of burning gold, arrowless, yet so obviously deadly that I shrunk from it, sobbing and shielding my eyes.
My cry must have stopped her, for suddenly the gold died and the room returned to comforting obscurity. Cue slumped back into her chair. “Can’t explain, doesn’t matter,” she croaked, stretching her singed fingers. Then she looked up at me. “Sal. Help me do it. Help me free us.”
I stood silent for a moment, frozen by a foreign feeling of power. Cue lay feebly beneath me, yet with the same steady expectation in her eyes that had always been there, the unimpeachable assurance I could never know. There, I thought, in that leaky garret with mold at its edges, there finally we should have had nothing to separate us. And yet, even here, I was still a mere courierwoman, whom the Shapes had never confirmed, and she a Colleger, to whom Beauty came like a dog called. Beauty, and me.
I thought again of Dr. Montague, and I swallowed hard.
“No,” I said, my voice quavering. Then again, more firmly, “No, Cue. I don’t understand what you’re doing. I never have. And yet I’ve followed you, trusting you”—I trembled, could not look at her face—”You know I sat outside all night? I’ve lost my job by now. And for what? To hear you tell me you want to kill the Shapes—kill them, like rats or pigeons? And you just expect me to help you do it? No, Cue.” I gasped, shoulders shivering with exertion. Then I risked a look down.
Between the grimed wings of the chair, Cue, recessed, lay filmy with fire and dirt. Breath moved shallowly in her throat. Her eyes were raised to mine but seemed to look through me, at some fixed point behind the folds of the night air. She did not answer. Down my lungs I felt guilt sear like acid.
“Here,” I said, moving to lay the bread and cheese in Cue’s lap. “Take these. You’re not well. I’m”—a sudden thought—”I’m going to get Dr. Montague.” I backed away slowly, watching. She still did not move, but lay there, her arms spread as if pinned by a great unseen weight. As I was turning to leave, I paused for a moment to glance back. My chest felt crushed. “Cue,” I called, “I’m sorry.” Then I stepped out into the stairwell.
Behind me, I thought I heard, very faintly, a short sob. Or perhaps it was just my imagination, for immediately after, the hum rose again, angry, fearsome.
Picking up my skirts, I ran.
As I sprinted for Harley Street, night descended in blue planes pointed with stars. Overhead hung the Archer. Consecrated by Beauty, she nevertheless seemed fragile, a heavenly chandelier whose crystal shivered as unknown Shapes cowered behind her. The Shape of Shapes: I could not explain it then and can barely do so now, in the same way that I cannot really explain what it might have meant for the Shapes to live—or die. I cannot think, as Cue did, from first principles. All I know is what I perceive, unconfirmed by Truth or Goodness. And what I perceived that night was this: as I pounded on Dr. Montague’s door and tried, stumblingly, to explain; and as her face froze in the gaslight and she roared for a horse; and even as I clung behind her on the haunches of a roan leaping up the cobbles towards Cue’s garret; even then, in that tumbling whirlwind, the night felt too still, and the essences of things curled fearfully in the shell of their bodies.
Even before we reached her building I knew Cue was gone. The walls were leached of her and warped away from her missing radiance. “Where, Sal?” Montague cried.
“The Heath,” I gasped, and she wheeled the horse.
Far up in the night, the sky bled the names of Shapes.
When our horse had labored halfway up the slope, I saw light spilling over the hill’s lip. It thrummed down the grass in pulses I no longer heard but felt.
“It’s the bow!” I cried to Montague. She grunted and spurred the roan to a final effort.
We cleared the hill. Combers of light bowled over us, drowning grass and sky, tumbling me to the ground and Montague from the saddle. I rolled and watched her struggle to her knees in a waving haze of gold, the outlines of her limbs sinuous as clothes underwater—only this water was reality itself, and in its current the forms of all things pulled tidally away from their bodies and ran back again hissing.
At the center of the tide stood Cue, a silhouette about whose edges the ideas-of-Cue furled and unfurled. In her hand, alone concrete in the abstracting sea, the immanent bow burned, a sharp gouge in the filmy layers of reality.
“Cue!” I screamed. I felt sick. My forms refracted in their infinity around me. “Cue!”
She looked up and straight into my eyes. But I could not read hers: they had no content, only an emptiness whose circumference, perhaps, revealed the imprint of grief.
Cue looked at me, but she did not speak. Instead, I saw her lips bow into a smile. She fixed me with her eyes. At once, I felt myself and all my swimming abstractions drop away. Cue’s gaze was a kiln into whose searing mouth I had been taken and there fired of my impurities.
Montague was yelling something nearby. At the edge of my consciousness I watched her try to pull herself through the golden undersea towards Cue, only to be clawed back by her shedding selves, like a snake snared by its own slough. I could not hear her. I was all reception, and Cue my master signal. I felt only the molding motion of Cue’s lips and their words:
“My gift. For you: the last Shape.” Burning, she raised the bow so its arrowless fire faced my face.
“Beauty,” Cue said.
And I was.
In that shining instant before the bow sang, in the moment when I was not myself but Beauty, or was both myself and Beauty—in that instant my view of the hard world dropped away, and I saw, overlain on our own world or perhaps consubstantial with it, the world of the Shapes, which was not, as Cue said, a world in itself, but rather a Shape: the Shape of Shapes, an endless living possibility, within whose crystalline potentiality all ideas moved as living beings. And within that Shape of Shapes I was Beauty: sublimely alive, the immortal spark thrown off in the flinty comparison between all the hard world’s beautiful things.
Only for an instant. Then, far, far below me, Cue’s tiny cry and the twang of a fired bow.
The Shapes do not die as we die. No pain—only a fissure in that perfect abstraction, a crack in the glass, through which particularity swept as if into a punctured vacuum. The Shape of Shapes clouded; the golden world sucked darkness. As I felt myself whirled back to my body, I looked down to see Cue staring up at me, her shocked eyes brimming. In them I saw, for what might have been the first time, not desire or affection or even Beauty, but—simply and concretely—myself.
I awoke on the grass to Montague’s fingers gently feeling my throat. “Weak, but it’s there,” she said. Her voice shook. “Quercus, you idiot genius. What did you do?”
And wavering in the darkness behind, I heard her voice, weak and aching, but human. “Sal?” it said. “Sal, I’m sorry.”
They say that our colonists did not notice when they killed the last dodo; that one month simply passed with no sightings; then a year; then five; and by the time a decade had elapsed, no one really missed the birds save the few scholars whose guilt filled papers given at the Colleges. I learned this fact in the school where Dr. Montague promptly sent me after I told her I had been fired from the courier service. I do not doubt its truth, for it was the same with the Shapes. A year passed without Justice, and while people felt it odd, they dealt guilt and innocence as they always had; two years without Beauty and the artists complained, then resigned themselves to create their own; five without Goodness and the satirists were smug; ten and they were bored. As for Truth, as the Collegers pointed out defensively, it had always been rare.
Cue was disappointed. She had wanted to save us, and it hurt to realize that the Shapes’ absence did not spell our sudden salvation. Laws stayed on the books; crowds of commoners still waited outside Parliament for Justice’s confirmation, though after two years some of the Reform MPs began to fuss about it. The Shape of Truth remained an invisible standard among the Collegers, perhaps more effective now for being actually unachievable. People do not change so quickly. “Though they will, in time,” Mary said.
“And besides, Cue,” she added, “No one believed you that the Shapes were alive. Why would they believe you’d killed them?” From her padded wheelchair she looked across the clinic to where Cue and I were preparing vaccinations. She waited until Cue’s eyes met hers, and then said in a low, serious voice: “Be grateful for your obscurity. Remember, you have slain a living being without understanding it, supposedly in the cause of human good. Perhaps you should be remembered.”
Cue looked down. That day at the clinic she was unusually quiet. In the busy influx of patients and explanations we had little time to speak, for while Cue mixed and administered the vaccine, Mary had hired me as her spokesperson to the City, to public and to Parliament, and especially to the lower-class patients whose fears I knew and whose language I spoke.
It was not until night, when Cue and I lay down together in our bed in the maisonette above Mary’s surgery, that she turned to me. “Sal,” she said haltingly. “Will you promise me something?”
Her face was so morose I kissed it. “Of course.”
“If I go first, will you tell people what I did?” She swallowed hard, her fingers worrying the bedsheet. “The truth. No sugarcoating. I know you can do it. People will listen.”
I sat up. “I could ruin your name,” I said. “I love you, Cue. I’m not sure I can do that.”
“What name?” she laughed. “Besides, that’s why I asked you to wait until I’m dead. Please, Sal—my good, my beauty, my love.” She raised a hand to cup my cheek, one long finger just brushing the hair on my temples. I turned my chin to kiss her palm, knowing, with pain, and with the surety of love that is like a Shape, what my answer must be.
And so I have. And so have you, Shapeless, heard the truth from me, as far as I can tell it—me, the last woman confirmed by Beauty. I have tried to honor my wife’s request.
I watched the Shapes die. Yet perhaps despite my explanation, you can never truly know what they were, and so never properly judge their fate. That is Cue’s legacy. And it is her legacy, too, that whether what I have told you is True, or Just, or Good, you shall never know for sure, but now—forever—must decide for yourselves.
|B. Pladek is a literature professor and writer based in Milwaukee, WI, who tweets occasionally @bpladek and can be found online at thecalloo.com/writings-brittany.|