It was northern Indiana and there was nothing to look forward to.
And as soon as a single woman starts swinging an ax in her front yard, people talk.
When I moved in, the neighbors fawned over my shiny coat, my just-suburbia-birthed gleam. Despite the fact we all lived on giant acres of land. Unfamiliar preciousness shot out my ass, I guess. But, after a few weeks, I put on goth boots, ripped out boxwoods and tulips, and dragged the ax around. The neighbors dutifully disappeared.
Down the street, for example, this woman, Carole, said she would really like her scalloped casserole dish back. I started using it as an ashtray. She could get it when she was ready. Carole, I’m sure, was worried I could read her mind or fly or turn water into wine.
I do none of those things. No one can.
Not all the neighbors turned sour. The older guy next to me, Yardley, wanted to talk all the time about fish. He didn’t treat me like a lost daughter or a doting niece. Often, he sat cross-legged in the middle of the driveway, skin sagging off his limbs.
He looked as if nothing had changed because, to him, change was nothing.
I know little of the Tableau representatives or how they found Yardley. Agencies hold that power. I know they encountered Yardley twice.
The first time was alive. The second was dead. I was with them the second time.
The first time they came as cartographers from Britain. They couldn’t say who they worked for, except that the Tableau was based in London, Bishkek, Kinshasa, and Montevideo. They were working hard in Eastern Europe, too. This was months before the New Berlin Wall fell.
Inheritance is a weird concept. A bruised idea. Relatives disappear and material objects pass into your care.
Shazam. You own a house!
Abracadabra. Acres of land! Property taxes! Death ends up becoming the ultimate failed stage magician.
My father said they moved back to Japan so my mother could be closer to relatives in her failing years. This was bullshit. They wanted grandchildren. And procreation wasn’t my purview.
I’d only moved back from out west months before and felt conflicted about touching cold domestic objects in drawers, cabinets, and medicine chests. Everything still in piles of cardboard boxes. I was convinced my mother left her personal effects everywhere to spite me.
I had a perpetual look of crazy-exhausted set all over my dirt-caked face as I moved from room to room, collecting her stuff into an old leather suitcase with a buckle flap.
I met the Tableau representatives as I stepped out of the garage with the ax in my hand. An extended and awkward pause followed. A woman with a weapon.
“We tried knocking,” one of them said. They peered around. I appeared a hoarder. “Miss…?”
“Kayoko. Burke. Ms. Burke. Or KB. Whatever.” I did not extend a hand.
“You look a bit busy, Kayoko, um, KB,” the other said. “A bad time?”
They asked if I would allow them access to my property for “important cartography mapping.” I didn’t catch the redundancy right away. Or their lack of devices and instruments.
So cramped with sociableness, I invited them in for black market coffee or beer or cigarettes. The representatives were Randall Wyndham-Grate and Victor Hsu. Pleasant enough. Two men in suits, with tailored waistcoats. Wyndham-Grate’s nose was dented and flinty like ancient earthenware. They both had frustrated accents, cool and furrowed. Like they’d spent time marinating in Canada and Kenya, then baking their voices in Wales. Both requested tea with milk, no sugar. Sugar agitated Wyndham-Grate’s ulcer and plain disgusted Mr. Hsu.
We sat among boxes and bare windows. Dust had formed tiny mounds on the sills. Apologizing, I offered them Oreos on a paper plate.
“Just moving out or in?” Hsu asked. He pushed the Oreos away.
“In. Sort of. I used to live here way back. This was my parents’ place.”
When I said this, I turned and confirmed that—yup—there were no pictures of me at all in this house. What comfort!
For a moment, I forgot how to make hot tea. Don’t pour it over ice, Mr. Hsu suggested. Imagine being told you’re an utter buffoon without using those exact words.
“It’s not hard,” W.-G. said. “Boiling water, is all.”
They resisted my tea like it was ladled from a bucket under the sink.
One time, before their visit, I took Yardley fishing with an old lover from high school, Pamela. She worked for the Dept. of Fish Subsidies, so we pulled creels of unpermitted fish. Half-way through the day, we lost their biting.
Yardley laughed. “Promise you won’t tell,” he said. We promised. He took one of the already-caught fish and flaked some scales into his hand and spit on them. I elbowed Pamela in disbelief. Then he slammed his hand down on the floor of the metal boat. He’d cut himself. On purpose. The scales, blood, and saliva mixed. Pamela gasped and said it looked like an outline of the lake, a map. “That’s cause it is,” he said. The blood was the fish. We kept catching for hours. I thought he was lucky at best. At worst, eccentric.
It didn’t occur to me to ask the relevancy of two hard-to-pin-down strangers in Indiana on a cartographical survey of a worthless section of land. My property was mostly scrub, young saplings, and an untilled soy field behind me. Yardley’s land consisted of a large trapezoid of dense woods and a dribbling creek he called Cassandra.
Pamela blamed my actions on the cumulative effects of loneliness and an inflated sense of importance. “You’ve always been paranoid about being paranoid,” she said. I said the strangers mentioned something about unique sand deposits and a possible quartz mine. She said I always despised geology.
“But they said they were representing a quartz speculator,” I said.
Pamela shook her head.
“Yeah, and they own a Swiss watch company in Basel,” she said. “They’re desperate for quartz. It’s the gold of the future!”
One of the first questions they asked me was if I knew Yardley. “Barely,” I lied. I told them he’d helped me carry in my mattress and box spring from the U-Haul. That’s as far as our relations went. Of course, by then, we had already fished and discussed the best options for draining rainwater away from my foundation.
Mr. Wyndham-Grate took all the notes. He smiled as he asked condescending questions. Mr. Hsu sipped his tea and nodded like a bothersome grandmother.
“Have you ever heard of Edgar Allen Horn,” Mr. Wyndham-Grate asked.
“No, should I have?” I said. “Who is he?”
“No one,” he said. The first of many steno notepads flipped open, followed by the judgmental click of a ballpoint. “There’s no reason to. He’s an obscure cartographer.”
Stone-faced as they were, they were hideous liars. Mr. Hsu tapped his pinky against the bottom of his cup when he spoke. Mr. Wyndham-Grate inquired about past jobs I’d held and unrelated subjects about my current status.
Have you ever felt someone prodding your thoughts for information? (Yes. All through college.)
Have I experienced these or witnessed them? (No.)
When did my parents emigrate from Japan? (Not sure. My father was American.)
How many times have I been married? (None.)
At what age did I first understand the concept of loss? (Sometime around the extraction of my wisdom teeth.)
Perhaps they came seeking telepaths or foresights. All because some idiots, probably private think tank drones, claimed large swathes of non-Caucasian Neo-Soviet women had evolved faster to cope with an impending environmental catastrophe. Turns out extra-sensory perception was bunk. All that Blavatsky bullshit. But the nightly news, tabloids, and governments were taking it seriously. Conspiracies and cover-ups abound. Even the ever-skeptical Johnnycarson-Bot was talking about it.
“You’re not here to map my land are you,” I said three hours in to the meeting. Pamela was right about paranoia.
Hsu’s quit finger-tapping. He turned to his partner. “See, I told you it was obvious,” he said.
“Victor, please,” W.-G. said.
“What the hell is going on?” I asked. Not that they noticed, but I still held the ax over my lap.
“Ms. Burke, if we may be honest here, you are correct. We’re not here to inspect the land. We’re here to enlist.”
“Enlist me in what?”
“Your neighbor, Mr. Yardley, has something we need,” Hsu said. “We need particular information first. For confirmation. We need observations.”
“I can’t read minds,” I sighed.
“We’re not stupid, Ms. Burke,” Hsu said. He was hesitant. “If such talents were real, we wouldn’t need you.”
Wyndham-Grate interrupted: “Americans value neighbors. As you already said, Mr. Yardley helped you move a very private piece of furniture without so much as knowing your name or employment.”
“That’s true,” I said, lying again. I had no reason to be embarrassed about that. Or did I? “Wait— in your estimation, what counts as a ‘private piece of furniture’—?”
“And,” he continued, ignoring me: “It’s vital we don’t spoil the experiment. The problem of the observer, and all that.”
I didn’t follow.
“Can you explain who you are and why you’re here?” I asked.
They repeated their names, said they were from the Tableau, and left it there. Hsu said Yardley was of interest to them because he possessed a unique ability. When they tried to explain it, I didn’t follow.
“Just be patient,” they said. “If he’s who we think he is, you’ll see what we mean.”
Papers, waivers, forms. I gave them full access to my bank statements, medical records, library card account, and any FBI files. I had nothing to hide. They’d already seen my underwear spilled over the kitchen counter. (Pamela had asked how long I was going to use the silverware drawer as an armoire.)
Thus, the plan was to let them pay me while I reported back absolutely nothing. Because that’s what was going on. Nothing.
I remember that day like a newly asphalted country road, featureless and soft. They made sure I was to received a check for one thousand dollars every month for doing this offhand observing.
Did I mention inheritance is a bruised concept?
Things got serious two weeks after the Tableau representatives left. This was on February 27, 2089. On March 1, I began as amanuensis. They’d left a pile of thick ruled notecards and a stack of envelopes, all stamped and pre-addressed to a post box in Scotland. When I dug out an old atlas and found the destination, it was the middle of nowhere. Truly. Scoured, rust-colored highlands. Real Ivanhoe territory. Also, there was a small box full of sharpened pencils and ballpoint pens. The graphite in the pencils never snapped under pressure. This impressed me. And scared me.
During one visit, I found a stolen birth certificate folded neatly deep in a Folgers coffee can that still smelled of fresh grounds. It said Yardley was born Edgar Allen Horn, in Fort Wayne, IN, 1943. The 1943 was scratched out and replaced with 1934. The four was drawn with reticence. A pensive four. Then a series of dates followed: 1927, 1925, 1913, and 1899. Each written like that, descending, as if it were a multiple choice test. It didn’t say why he changed his name.
Yardley told me he was never lost. He said he was constantly in the process of being found by himself whether he wanted it or not. For example: the month after the Tableau men left, we were walking along my property line when he pulled up his trouser leg and pointed to a small birthmark. Amazingly, again, it was the exact outline of my land.
“Quite a coincidence,” I said. I pretended the fishing trip hadn’t happened.
Yardley smiled, sad for me. “Do you know Schlegel? The philosopher? He said something I recite daily: It’s equally fatal for the mind to have a system and to have none. It will simply have to decide to combine the two.”
Some nights he helped me stagger home across the yard. Some nights he fell asleep on my couch watching an old horror movie, those kinds with dapper actors who clearly died in obscurity, all the while acting their goddamn faces off in these inane scenes with sentient blobs of goo or hovering hubcap spaceships.
Yardley told me that when he was seven he discovered a ridge in the roof of his mouth was the same shape as the path he walked to school all year during second grade. Ever the skeptic, even then, he varied his path to see the outcome. He tongued the ridge all the way home, disappointed, when he tripped over an embedded rock and fell face first onto the pavement. His upper palate cracked. Surgery followed. Months afterward, when he could, Yardley again tongued the ridge. This time, it matched the new path. He didn’t deviate from it until he graduated high school.
So I admit that after these anecdotes, I grew skeptical of him. Yes, he made a mean fried perch and slaw. Yes, he taught me and Pamela pinochle. And yes, we kept score for Jeopardy! every other weeknight. But as he’d get up off the couch for another glass of wine, my easy-goingness strained a little. Would he come back with a gun? Will my wine taste funny? It was all I could do to have to start turning down his slaw. I didn’t know if I was being tricked or if I was facilitating an elaborate fantasy for Yardley.
The first letter from the Tableau men came June 12: “Greetings. We’ve been receiving your weekly updates. Don’t worry if there’s nothing to report on. That’s almost as important as something happening. We need you to steal something of value from Yardley and lose it on your land. Be a good sport. Report back. Warmly, Wyndham-Grate and Hsu.”
I stole a pair of antique spectacles Yardley kept on his mantle. They used to belong to his grandfather, I think. I left them in a furrow under a lump of dead vines. The next day Yardley said he’d found the spectacles without ever knowing they were gone. He was in the shower that morning, and the form his hair made over the drain was similar to my acreage, and when he nicked himself shaving, a drop of blood fell in the center. Well: that was all he needed. Maps need reasons to exist.
I started to wonder if this talent of Yardley’s wasn’t purely solipsistic or conveniently dumb. Sure, it was unusual, but it also sounded like an elaborate hoax on his part. How badly did I want to believe?
Every time Pamela asked about my mother, I left a room. In this way, the rules of a game were established. We acted out Domestic Pac-Man. To change the subject, she’d ask my thoughts on these Neo-Soviet telepaths and foresights (all women) in the news. “Think they’re real?” she asked. “Just what the Russians need. Another way to scare America.”
“What if you were telepathic?” I asked. “Would you read my mind without my permission?”
“Good grief, Kay. There’d be no need to. I’d only pretend to concentrate hard, squint my eyes, and you’d spill your guts.”
When she said that, I wondered why honesty always requires disembowelment, removal, excision.
Yardley claimed to hate sayings. He once said, despite being an agnostic: “When God shuts a door, He doesn’t open a window. Deities don’t have houses. When God closes a door, He opens an all-night diner. That makes more sense.”
After breakfast one Sunday morning, Yardley requested I trace the veins in his arm onto paper. I did the best I could. Then he pulled a large yellowed map from his hall closet. He laid the tracing over the map. A river that branched into three smaller tributaries matched to scale his varicose veins.
I asked him where this was. He said it was the Manasee River a half mile from where we stood. I asked him if it was a hoax. Did he set this up? He defied me to prove him a liar. I found no reason to. Nor had I a way even if I wanted.
Later, on my own, I verified his claim. I distanced myself from him, then, purely on animal fear. Came to pass that if I had to send off a report, I’d wait for hours before posting it to make sure he was gone. Field glasses came in handy. And as I peered through them, I wondered why I was doing this. Pamela asked what I was doing, what I was always writing down. Ugh. Never have I been metaphysical. Still. If all this——the emergence of more Neo-Soviet women, Yardley’s antics——wasn’t magic or a miracle, then what the hell was it?
That’s why I kept sending notes to the Tableau.
Here’s the fifteenth letter: “Greetings. The included syringe has a high-concentration of phenobarbital. Careful. Jab Yardley in buttocks and abandon in secluded spot. Blindfolded, hands tied. Report back. You’re doing a superb job. Warmly, W.-G. & H.”
Later in the fall, Yardley smashed his right hand in the car’s trunk door to see how the hand bones would set. He had a theory. Nothing came of it. Except a huge medical bill and the fact I had to keep score for Jeopardy! for nine weeks.
Yardley’s thumb spasms started in March of last year. His thumb clipped against his index finger while we talked sports or old love. It trembled on the table by a tiny loaf of ash from his doused cigarette. He never attempted to stop the spasms. Nor did he care.
In late April, he brought a manila folder to my front door. Paper-clipped copy paper hung out the ends covered in ink. He asked me to read the contents. Give me an assessment, he said. There were dots and dashes. It was a load of Morse code. I couldn’t read a thing of it.
I shrugged. “General studies major,” I said.
He’d been recording his thumb spasms and trying to find an appropriate translation. He’d come over the next day. We were eating fried bologna sandwiches. “Turns out,” he said, “that they’re allnumbers, the spasms.” And the numbers fell into navigational coordinates. “Map stuff,” he said. Latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates used by explorers and fishermen and spies.
“Spies?” I asked. Like the Stasi or KGB?
“Okay, so where do these numbers refer to?”
“All over the place. Mostly in the ocean. But one of them was here in Indiana. Close to where my father was born. Miles out of town, in the boonies. Where’s the ashtray?”
I slid Carole’s casserole dish over.
“Close to his birthplace, but not exactly?” I asked.
“Not exactly,” he said.
“Does this not feel silly? –Use the dish there. Why would spies give you the wrong coordinates?”
“I don’t think I’m controlled by spies,” Yardley said. “I just said spies use coordinates. Ashtray?”
“Yeah, and so do land surveyors and—”
I reflected more intently on Wyndham-Grate and Hsu. Their info. Their papers. Our meeting. The last letter from them was posted a week prior. I’d not yet gotten around to reading it. Things were slowing down after I decided not to drug Yardley.
“Just ash in the coffee cup,” I said. “Man alive.”
By this point, I’d wanted it all to wash out like artificial dye: his speculations and theories. Either he was a titan, a demi-god, or a hallucination. And what was I doing to spend my time? Delivering packages part-time for a parcel service every morning. In the evenings, in spite of Yardley, Pamela, and the Tableau men, I’d drive out to the middle of nowhere and just walk. The plan was to get lost. And frequently, I think I did. It was liberating. I’d walk ten, twenty miles, end up in a small town. Drink a cup of coffee, then walk back and drive home to Pamela watching interviews with confirmed Neo-Soviet telepaths and foresights.
She was excited. “They found one in Thailand!”
In a letter, the men from the Tableau called Yardley’s talent autocartography.
In another letter shortly after: “…so we need you to convince him of sacrificing a hand or foot. Or, maybe you could assist him…? Preferably a hand or a foot, though. Nothing too crazy, of course…”
This wasn’t as maniacal as it sounded. For, in the preceding months, Yardley’d been making some grandiose statements.
“I contain the world, that’s why I don’t need to leave.”
Or: “The shape of the universe is somewhere in my spleen, or pancreas.”
Or: “If you split me up, chopped me up into quarters, and spread me across the globe, I’d fall together like magnets.”
He’d say these things over mashed potatoes or a game of euchre. I had no response. So when, with a lot of reluctance, I began to encourage these overblown claims, carefully, carefully: he jumped on them and agreed. It was the best, and only, solution. To put his sayings into action.
I helped take his leg off for him on December 23, 2090. Below the knee. He made me study a few textbooks, mostly in the area of controlling bleeding. Once he felt I could safely cut him, we sterilized his garage, and I sharpened the ax. I used the narcotic syringe I was sent. W.-G. and H. relayed a few helpful tips on field surgery. I’d dressed a buck once with an uncle’s help. It was rough times.
I kept the leg in the deep freezer in my garage. It was wrapped in Saran Wrap and butcher paper next to some bison steaks my ex-brother-in-law sent me.
Why did I say that inheritance can be bruised? I think because it’s alive.
He healed rather quickly. Rather too quickly. Still bandaged, he thought it best to carry out his test. When I asked what it was, he refused to share. And, it was one morning in June after my delivery route that I knocked on his door and got no answer. His car was in the driveway. But no lights were on. I wrote a letter telling the men from the Tableau. Days later, they left a message on my answering machine, saying, “We’re in route.”
January 3, 2091. The men from the Tableau were on my doorstep, cold and frustrated. Their flight from the British Isles was swarming with “fretful infants and gormless hollow-heads.” Yet their capacity for turn-around was deep. We sat knee to knee on my couch and reviewed my notes.
There had been others, a few, that were like Yardley.
“Like who?” I asked.
“Thoreau,” Wyndham-Grate said.
“No, Henry David Thoreau. The writer. We have reason to believe he had similar properties.”
“That’s why,” Hsu said, “He moved into the woods. To Walden. He was desperate to lose himself in the world. That’s all he desired. But he kept finding order in flux. Ants, ripples on the pond, the leaves.”
“Who else?” I asked.
Isabelle Eberhardt. Dr. David Livingston. Ambrose Bierce. All people who “got lost,” as it were.
It took Wyndham-Grate and Hsu four creative and worthless tries to read Yardley’s leg until they despaired. Finally, they made a breakthrough, and it went like this: first, they peeled the skin and stretched it and dried it. Second, they used the print off his toes as elevation maps. Third, they sprinkled his leg hair over a piece of static cling paper. Fourth, they let some of the thawed leg get carried away by birds. The theory being that the birds would lead back to Yardley. (They didn’t.)
Here, I lost it. I blamed them for his disappearance. I told them I was fed up and going to the authorities. Calmly, Wyndham-Grate reminded me that I had chopped off a man’s leg without his apparent permission and now he was missing, probably dead. When I lunged at one of them, W.-G. dodged and clasped my wrist and bent it back. Hsu methodically unscrewed the end of his fountain pen and pulled out a small blade. He delicately touched the point to my neck. It wouldn’t take much on their part to tweak the situation to make me look murderous.
They had a point.
The fifth try, on a whim, Mr. Hsu decided to hacksaw Yardley’s tibia in half. Then, with a bottle of India Ink, he shaved one sawed end down smooth so as to show the porous structure of the bone. He pressed this end into the ink and stamped the bone onto a creamy, heavy paper. After fiddling with which way was up, he satisfied himself enough to return to their hotel room and, using a projector, blow up the image three hundred percent. Then he began plotting out the points of the bone with major natural occurrences in the county’s twenty-five mile circumference.
We took the car and began scouting.
And when they found their spots out in the county, they stirred up the leaves and dirt. I held a shovel but lost the ability to move. The clay was too hard and Wyndham-Grate raked a pick-ax across the ground to break it up. After two hours of random spot-digging, Hsu’s shovel clanked with resistance under some clods of earth. They’d hit upon Yardley’s skull. It was desiccated with the remnants of scalp and hair. He’d been out there for over two months by then. Yet it was the most serene and placid skeleton they’d ever encountered, Hsu said. Wyndham-Grate agreed, nodding in silence. This, in a way, was the ultimate test, they said.
“But is it him,” I asked. “How can we be sure?”
Hsu cleared the thin cover of dirt over the lower half. There lay Yardley, more nature than man with half a leg missing and some of my Tableau letters sticking out of his pocket. My throat negotiated with my bowels for dominance. How did Yardley find the letters?
Edgar Allen Horn used to work for the Tableau, but left many years ago, Hsu said. “People think we won World War II with the Enigma machine, Alan Turing and that. Which isn’t wrong. But Yardley’s an unsung hero, in his own way, auto-mapping U-Boats and V-2 sites in Germany. Problem is many governments desire auto-mappers, and they’re in short supply. And, sadly, the mapping only points to one’s self in the end. All talents have a shelf-life, Ms. Burke. On the other hand, the splendid thing is that auto-mappers seek each other out.”
Wyndham-Grate appeared from nowhere to spread out a blue plastic tarp. Surprisingly, I kept calm. “Have you noticed,” W.-G. asked, “That your notes to us are in strict anapests? That is, if the note begins with a vowel. If with a consonant, you write in dactylic hexameter. Elegant, no? The anapestic notes were, again, coded coordinates. With your notes alone, we’ve been able to track down thirty-five auto-mappers all over the world. We suspect that for each normal person, there’s an auto-mapper for their every movement, for their every experience, possibly. You, of course, are something else entirely—a meta-mapper. So you’re quite special. Imagine what we could do with thousands of auto-mappers.”
“Lots of people are now paying fortunes to hunt down their auto-mapper,” Hsu said. “Keep them close, just in-case. Political elite. Hollywood. Terrorists.”
It was like owning an organic homing beacon.
“But,” I said, “Yardley ended up taking himself apart, practically. These ‘normal people’ could knife parts of auto-mappers off for no reason—”
“He did this for you, Kayoko. To pass it along. Besides, it’s no different than any other time in the history of civilization,” Wyndham-Grate said. “The Ancient Greeks and the Romans ran their empires in this fashion for centuries. Augurs reading bird flight and haruspices reading the entrails of animals. We’ve just switched to humans. Protagoras was right. Man is the measure of all things. Or, women, I should say!”
As they loaded Yardley up, they called after me and said they’d be in touch real soon. If possible, they said, start paying closer attention to my body: the arrangement of moles, a spray of wrinkles, the dispersion of menstrual blood in the toilet water.
“We’ll leave more note cards! Write whatever you want!”
They drove my old neighbor away in a rented truck.
Afterward, I came home and asked Pamela if she’d ever inherited anything. Confused, she said her mother left her a recipe box. Then she added that a few sleek-looking foreign women stopped by asking for me not but ten minutes ago.
“Did they sound Russian?”
“I mean, I guess. Yeah, sort of. Wait, why—”
Inside the house, my phone rang. Pamela’s phone rang. They kept ringing. I sat down in the driveway and shut my eyes. A threnody descended.
I wouldn’t now be prepared to say I didn’t have a slight hope that when I stood up, the world had forgotten me.
Kyle Winkler has published speculative/horror fiction in Conjunction, The Rupture, Annalemma, and elsewhere.