A sprawling brick home in the suburbs, with turrets and cupolas and hexagonal windows, the last before the unfinished road gave way to yellow weeds and ruptured grass. A tidy yellow tractor sat just beyond the churned gravel and gnarled dirt, in the jaunty beams of the streetlamps, meant to mimic the old mid-afternoon sun. Jacob was fifteen, delivering hydroponic flowers on his bicycle.
Down the long, twisting drive, shaded by the new permatrees, meant to resemble old-world oaks, pines. Jacob took the stretch as slowly as he could, letting in that moist scent of leaf. Those who had known light noted their chemical scent, but to Jacob, who had never visited a Light City, the permatrees were all he knew of nature.
Slowly, he savored the curves of the drive, tiny boomerang-shaped pallets whirring around him. He remembered his mother saying what those had been made to resemble: whippoorwills. Which reminded him of another word, a word he had seen take form only in photographs, movies: umbrella.
Seated cross-legged on a wooden bench, beneath a permatree budding with oily, bulbous fruits, each one the size of an eye, was a woman.
As Jacob drew further down the drive he discovered she held something in her hands. The tree bore fruit—what was the word? Cherries. Several weighed heavy on the branch above her head, grazing the shawl draped upon her hair.
Something about the stillness of the woman’s body, the strong, straight line of her back, the delicate folding of her hands into the space of her lap, made Jacob dismount from his bicycle. He walked very slowly, trying to tread as lightly as he could so as not to disturb her. He squinted to see if her eyes were open or closed, but it was impossible to tell. Though they surely were not open, he couldn’t be certain they were entirely closed, either. The expression on her face was of an innocent, expectant baby. It made Jacob think of the pictures they showed in school, of old-world masters: people who had once found reason to pray.
Jacob checked to make sure the begonias were still secure in their layer on the tray behind his seat. He paused, stroked their papery leaves, looked back at the woman. A strong force rooted his feet in place; he glanced down at his sneakers to see if they had gotten stuck in something. But the driveway wasn’t wet with new asphalt, there were no sudden sprawl of mud to hold him still. Without effort, he felt his eyelids closing. He stood that way for awhile, thoughtless, remote. He could hear the movement of his blood, the measured ticking of his heart. Then even those sensations drifted away and he felt suspended in a state freed of desire. He did not think of the flowers he had to deliver, whether it was getting late. Eventually, he forgot even about the woman on the wooden bench.
Until a sudden sensation forced up his head.
His eyes opened. He saw the woman. Her eyes were open, too.
They were the color of violets.
Jacob, just old enough to stand, had pet a horse once when he was five, when his parents had taken him to an indoor arena. The animals were kept alive just like the humans, from rows of radialights strapped to the ceiling, beaming down sky-vitamins. Between the bars, Jacob cupped his palm lightly to the warm, whiskered muzzle. The grey horse stood perfectly still, wide-eyed and patient beneath Jacob’s hand. The muzzle was softer than the softest softness Jacob had known. Until then, his greatest experience of softness had come on a frigid night—winter—when the heat in his family’s apartment had stopped working. His mother had built a fire in the hearth, set a blanket in front of it to warm. She brought it to Jacob’s room and sat on the edge of his bed and moved it in slow circles over his cheeks until he fell asleep. Jacob had to rename that prior soft with the horse muzzle’s new one.
In the same way, the serenity he saw in the woman meant Jacob had to redefine what woman could be.
She stood. An ankle-length dress made of silken material undulated her slim frame like pieces of a wave. Her arms were long, uncovered, glowing in the flawless white way of milk.
She held her hands out to him. Still, he was not close enough to see what was in them.
She nodded her head, smiled so her teeth shone.
The shawl was still perched like a light hood on her head, its ends lulling down over her dress like a wave atop a wave, one ocean moving over another.
Jacob let down his kickstand, secured the flowers again, moved closer. His feet glided along at a pace he did not realize was his own until he was standing directly in front of her, looking down into her luminescent fingers, pitched out from beneath the long folds of her dress and shawl.
And he saw what she had been holding in her hands: a bundle of leaves.
She pulled one leaf from the sprig and lifted it to her mouth. As she chewed she raised her eyes to Jacob, pointed to the leaves remaining in her hand.
Jacob tore one leaf away as delicately as he could with his nervous hands. He mirrored the woman: placed the leaf in his mouth, began to chew.
Leaf to lip: taste of salty mint, at the same time sweetness, all the while a bit of bitter. He thought of the belly of a cave, or the utter depth of the few remaining seas. Apples, cinnamon. The ginger cake he loved to eat at school. A mild hint of almond, wheat-crunch of toast. The sinewy super-abundance of all he had ever lifted to his mouth.
As the chewed leaf moved down his throat and dripped into his belly he looked up into the woman’s face. Her eyes were webby and bright like a baby’s, though there were feathery wrinkles laced across the papery skin of her forehead, pressed into the fine skin encircling her mouth.
Jacob wanted to ask her what the plant was, where he could find more, how he could share it with everyone he knew—especially his mother, oh, his mother would love it, she with her dwindling appetite and the strange smeary rash that had taken residence on her skin.
But his mouth would not make the words. Any sound he might make seemed too delicate in the presence of the woman.
She turned, went back to the bench, sat the way she had before, effortlessly lifting her legs cross-legged, a youthful movement that had no relationship to the wise skin of her face. She closed her eyes.