In 1785, to slake the growing city’s thirst, men laid the cement for a reservoir that could hold twenty-one million imperial gallons of water; enough for the whole city. The reservoir became obsolete before a century had passed; the developing metropolis had spread in every direction — including up — surpassing by far the imaginations and machinations of the 18th century men.
Rather than fill in the reservoir, men decided to keep it as a fishing place. They laid out a park to surround what they now called a lake, with lawns, trees, shrubs and flowers. They smoothed a path around the lake, added a boating shed and a bowling green. They fenced it all in with wrought iron and painted the fence green. Men then fished.
From beginnings of concrete — of something man-made, born of dead materials and singularly purposeful — a place for nature arose. A public place for all seasons and various creatures, quiet though a-bustle with life. If it weren’t for the fence and the path around the lake, you would not have thought of this as any kind of concrete-y place. What it was now was a hybrid; both dead and alive.
By the time 20th century men came there to fish, the trees were in their prime. In the Summer, light laddered the shadows of the cherry trees on the approach to the lake, so that men might stride both upwards and forwards at once. Sun sliced through the heads of the beeches, dropping a million silver flowers onto the water-top, and amongst these morning sparks hopped the flies of the 20th century men, who fished. Fins blushed gold-red whenever they broke surface and the tickled lake, packed with tench and bream, wriggled with delight.
The wriggling caused a stirring down on the lake bed, and a mostly undetectable rumble in the concrete below. And from that stirring, at the bottom of the lake in that hybrid dead-alive place, a thing was born. (TICK). From nothing it popped into being in the form of something very tiny; a little wiggle of plankton, a planklet. But it wasn’t only a planklet. Let’s call this thing a genie, though it granted no wishes.
Almost immediately, the genie was swallowed, but it didn’t die. It had only recently had an inkling of its own existence when it saw the tench mouth gliding out of the grey; a drowned-pink flesh-O growing larger as it approached, come to suck the genie’s whole world in. Into the tench mouth the genie whooshed, whirled in a glub and went quickly out again, then zip— up to the surface on the whim of a fish-breath-bubble where the genie turned into a pond-skater. Men fished. They did not know about any of this.
As a pond-skater, the genie got a look at its own reflection and acquired self-worth. It skated to the edge of the lake where it became a grass-green beetle and charged up and over, crossed the path and crawled into the bushes. Men fished.
From the bushes, the genie’s beetle eyes watched as walkers circled the lake. It tilted its small, angular head as it listened to their thoughts and read their bodies. It saw how the people’s feet listened as they walked, connected as they were to both the inside and the outside. The genie noticed how the circling of the lake helped people’s thoughts to revolve; how they would return to the same point with a little more perspective each time. It also noticed how the lake, which as a reservoir had not been big enough to hold water for the whole population, was at least big enough to hold people’s feelings until their thoughts had grown large enough for the task. The beetle-genie watched people leaving the lake, carrying their feelings more tenderly than before. Then it became a honeybee, emerged from the bush and flew to the fence.
The genie’s new golden fur reflected sunlight into its eyes a little, so that everything in the park appeared golden too, and content. The genie felt golden and content now, and rested there a while. What a peaceful world, it thought. But it wanted to know more about the men who fished, so it became a tiny fly and flew down from the fence, zagged across the flish-flash sparkles of the lake and zigged up and around the heads of the men. The genie-fly could not keep quiet and one of the men slapped a hand around to try and stop its buzzing. Embarrassed at disturbing the peace, the genie retreated to the trunk of a nearby tree and became a garden spider. It sat for a while, watching the men and listening to their thoughts.
One of the men grew peckish and took an apple from a bag, started munching. The genie-spider saw that the apple was dead and the man was alive, and all its spider legs twitched as if startled. It saw the living follicles on the man’s head and the dead hair that sprouted from them. It saw the man’s thoughts pouring out into the lake, many of which disappeared under the water forever. It saw that the man did not know that a planklet had disappeared just a few feet away from him.
The genie-spider heard another of the men asking questions of the lake. It saw that the lake did not answer these questions, but returned a dispassionately quizzical gaze back on the man, who took this as a sign to continue his interrogations. The genie saw that the man could answer his own questions, sometimes.
A third man felt that his time was running out. The genie didn’t understand this. As far as the genie could tell, time was a habitat, like an atmosphere or a bubble. If time is a habitat, thought the genie, how can it run out? The genie turned into a curled caterpillar, black-brown and furry, and plummeted to the ground, bouncing one-two-three on the grass before stopping and unfurling. Almost immediately it was snapped up in the beak of a sparrow and found itself soaring through the air for a third time. A nauseous mid-air battle commenced as another sparrow challenged for the fluffy genie, but the first sparrow took a gamble and lost, dropping the genie-pillar into another bush.
The genie made a cocoon around itself, and dangled from a leaf. It sat inside the cocoon, thinking. If time is a habitat, it thought, then all of this is already gone — but it is all here too. This is fine, decided the genie, except for the disappearances. Or to be clear, it thought, for the unnoticed disappearances. It unsettled the genie that the men seemed oblivious to the fate of things they could not see. And yet, it thought, they cannot see the deep-swimming fish, but they believe that they are there. The genie wondered if men would still fish if the fish weren’t there, and if the fish would still exist if the men weren’t there. It knew one thing at least; that the fish would not exist if the plankton were not there.
The genie heard a voice from outside the cocoon. The voice asked: does it matter? Yes, it matters, said the genie, talking about itself. It burst from the cocoon and sailed into the air over the lake, spreading its gigantic black wings and casting the entire lake into shadow. Men stopped fishing. The genie hovered; it only needed to beat its enormous wings every few seconds to stay aloft, which was somewhat fortuitous as each wingbeat caused the genie acute pain. For a moment it lingered, like a great flying saucer or a calamitous storm, but with every painful trembling of those terrible wings came a nightfall of softest dust down onto the lake like sparkling coal until the genie became translucent and finally dissolved in air.
Published in The Curlew (2019)