My gaoler reminds me of Odette. She smiles a little. Sometimes. For the thousandth time I ask her where I am.
“I’ll tell you that when you tell us who you work for.” Her voice isn’t harsh anymore, just tired. We stare at one another across a battle-scarred table top. It is her eyes that are like Odette’s. Ice blue.
“I’m a geologist, damn it. Forget about borders. I’ve told you countless times what is going to happen to the planet. It’s the truth. Why won’t you believe me?”
The smile disappears, held back tightly, like her hair.
“Because you’re a liar. You’re more politician than geologist. You couldn’t even pick out the truth in a line-up.”
I don’t dignify this with a response.
She frowns, then says, “Okay, whose truth? The Russians? The Chinese?”
“The Martians,” I retort. She walks out, slamming the door behind her. “It’s too late for any other truth,” I shout after her. No footsteps. She’s still outside, listening.
The next day things go the same way, except this time, instead of walking out, she leans across the table towards me. I know she isn’t Odette, but I can’t help telling her the truth again and again. Odette would have believed me, yet I don’t even know this woman’s name. I never asked, but then she doesn’t know my real name either. I doubt she could even pronounce it. The closest approximation for a human would be Luke – that’s who I was to Odette, but now I go by the name Peter. I hardly know why; it doesn’t suit me.
“Any fool can predict the future … Peter. The only variable now is which tribe survives.” Her words hang in the air between us like frozen breath.
I shrug, remembering the time I visited the last king of Tharsis, dying in an empty oil well he’d renovated and then called a petroleum cave. A person’s breath certainly froze there – not a place for matches though. Be careful what you wish for.
She rolls her eyes. Desperation makes a person wilful. We’ve talked about subterranean living before – never seeing the sun.
“We’ve got the whole underground thing covered, Peter. Nice and cosy, and if you go down deep enough you get underfloor heating thrown in. Am I still calling you Peter?” she continues. “You don’t look like a Peter.” This time I smile.
“What’s so funny, Peter?” She leans back in the chair, her expression cold.
I shrug again, then jump as the door flies open. Two soldiers run in and drag me to my feet. My hip catches the corner of the table. Pain blooms.
“Well, Peter, time’s up. We’ve got something that will really make you laugh now.”
That was yesterday or perhaps the day before. Her words come back each time the pain recedes. I sleep in fits, ragged little dreams come and go. One doesn’t live on Earth for two hundred years and not have plenty of memories to haunt their dying days.
- October. Everyone is dead. Snow is falling.
I wake to the sound of my ship’s radio crackling. It is astonishing how long a power cell can last. By rights, I too should have died quietly in my pod millennia ago. Somehow one cell just kept on working, preserving me in stasis whilst the centuries rolled by. Perhaps it was the cold. When we landed, much of the planet was covered in ice. Great sheets pouring down pristine mountainsides. Gouging. Grinding. Now I am the only one still alive on the ship. How long it had been since we landed, I do not know. My wife’s pod contains only dust. I check all the pods, then pack and leave as quickly as I can.
- March. Snow cover still thick.
The woodcutter leads the mule through the woods. The steady drag of the log is muffled by the snow. He never looks up, but the mule senses me and shies. The woodcutter crosses himself and looks around. He forgets to look up, on purpose, I think. I have not always been so lucky. The children, almost invariably, look up. Now the villagers are fearful and their dogs howl at night.
Odette is different. We met in December. The day had been short, darkness was falling, adding an extra layer of silence to the forest. The hardest time of day. The cold does not worry me – my body is well adapted – but necessity drove us underground on Mars so I have never loved the dark. She was carrying a lamp, its glow, amber against the black and white of the winter forest. I hardly thought she was real at first, but then she called out to me, asking me for help. I could hardly believe my ears, and without thinking, I scrambled down from the beech tree where I now sit. I stood and stared. I have often wondered how she didn’t flinch as my boots crunched down into the snow – solid and real – but perhaps I cut a homely figure after all. Perhaps she expected a tree spirit to be tall and grey like the beech itself. I hovered outside her circle of light, staring stupidly, drinking in the red of her lips and the blue of her eyes, her glowing skin, and the shining, brown curls falling on the white fur trim of a fawn cloak that almost covered a matching dress embroidered with blue.
She asked me again for help, peering into the darkness where I stood. The winter had been hard, and a wolf was preying on the village; I had already seen it and fired a warning shot to frighten it away. When I answered, it was the first time I had spoken to another living being in an ice age, and my wife was nothing like Odette. My voice sounded stilted to my own ears and I saw she strained to catch the words. Without thinking, I promised to help, although it would pain me to kill the wolf. When she smiled, I could feel the warmth of the lamplight on my cheeks. She thanked me and turned to go. I watched until her light disappeared behind the barn. Later, there was blood in the snow, so I left the wolf’s body where it fell, just outside the puddle of light the village makes as candlelight seeps out through shutters and under doors.
After that day, we have spoken many times. She has brought me gifts all winter: a ball of cheese wrapped in cloth, butter, a hunk of freshly baked bread, bacon. Her face often wears a look which tells me this is secret. Her secret. Our secret.
The figure of the woodcutter is fading into the distance when I see her pushing through the snow. I clamber down, keeping my distance. I am tall by her standards and my skin is paler than hers – a legacy of living underground, where all colour seeps away. Mars had long grown inhospitable before we left, its warmth fading season by season, our water seeping ever downward into the cracks we made as we relentlessly mined the shale. We were fools.
“Luke, you have frightened the woodcutter again.”
“He did not see me, Odette.”
“The mule knows you are there and Peter loves his mule.”
“You know I would not hurt them.”
“But the wood is vast. Why must you always be where he walks?”
“How else can I learn?”
Odette smiles. Today her cheeks are an impossible pink. She always wears animal furs, I can smell them, even with the distance I keep between us. New gloves – wolf skin, I suspect. She eyes me curiously although she has long since outgrown her fascination with my clothes. Synthetic fibres, fine yet warm. Built to last, and so they have.
“You must learn new things now, Luke. Spring is almost here.”
“The time when things will grow?” Something twists inside me. I love this shiny little piece of reality just the way it is. Besides, I have never seen such things happens outside a lab. The dry-cold of winter somehow reminds me of home, or perhaps of my ship. Winter stasis.
“Yes.” Odette hesitates. “I am to marry Peter in the spring. I will not be able to bring you food anymore.” Her smile has gone and now her eyes shine strangely.
“He will stop you?”
“He will be my husband.” I wait for her to go on, but there is no further explanation. Something twists inside me again.
“Then I will walk. Observe this thing you call Spring, Odette.”
Odette leaves me, her head bowed, and her skirt hems wet with snow. A few days later she says goodbye. The snow is beginning to melt and there is a different feeling in the trees, as if they are coming alive. I sit for days and listen to the birds sing and I watch the snow as it softens and melts. Fringes of ice crumble and break. The ground beneath smells sweet. Earthy. This planet is well named. Once there was soil on Mars too – ruddy, fertile earth – or so the stories go. Hard to believe, but then it is not so far away from Earth. Too late, we realised how thin the layer was – a mere crust, ready to crumble into dust and fly away on vortexes of wind.
One day I hear church bells ring out, so I begin to walk.
- August. Hot and dry. Odette has wrinkles around her eyes.
The wood has changed subtly around me. Trees fall and new ones take their place. Peter looks up now, he no longer crosses himself. He just squints and shouts out – making wishes. I have made another friend.
Today is humid and airless. I am high in the beech, hiding behind the silver-grey of its trunk. My clothes blend.
“Can you make it rain?” Peter asks, with a wry smile. Odette follows, the children straggling behind her like ducklings.
“Who are you talking to, Peter?”
“No one.” Peter turns and shrugs. “Just your tree spirit.”
“Daddy is talking to the elf.”
“Hush,” Odette’s eyes flash up into the tree, trying to pick me out. I stay still. We have not spoken in seventeen years, and she has not laid eyes on me in that time. Now my conversations are with Peter. A one-way thing – I grant his wishes when I can.
The child giggles. A game. The oldest daughter lays a bundle carefully at the foot of the beech. I have become a creature of habit. I have become the spirit of this great tree. Certainly, I know it better than I ever knew my ship. How strange I can climb so well. In the end, there was nothing left to climb on Mars, save the ladders that went down and down. The caverns were our greatest blessing and our greatest curse. Stone chambers big enough to house us all when life on the surface finally became intolerable and we traded one slow agony for another. The natural caves were the best, but the chill. The spoils of the winners in our final war. We heated them with power from the endless wind and sun, but the ambient cold always seeped through. The old mines and wells were foul. In the final count, no one made it out of those places onto the ships. Oil slimed the walls and gases oozed through the endless cracks in the rock. They were lined with what plastic we had not burnt, but the planet often shifted and there were always new cracks. Truly, we had created Hell. For Odette and Peter that place is only a story, a myth, a threat. I envy them.
Did I mention, Odette has wrinkles around her eyes?
- November. The first snows are falling.
Men with guns hunt in the woods now. I am not safe. I have wandered far and wide, but I could never get Odette far from my mind. Perhaps it was because she was the first face I saw on Earth. Now it is her granddaughters who bring me food. They all call me the wood elf and they crossed themselves. Peter’s girls, every one of them.
Today I hear the church bells ring again. Solitary, echoing chimes. I will leave this place now, I will walk again. I will wait for Spring, and when I see its first flowers, I will remember her.
- The season does not matter.
For a hundred Earth years I wished had died on Mars. For a hundred Earth years I watched as industry grew. Steam and coal. Then oil. History repeating itself.
Trees are being cut to line trenches. I go back to my ship, wishing it could fly. It cannot. It is buried, trees and bushes have grown over it. Earth has claimed it. I do not have the heart to go inside. Instead, I walk into the nearest town. People stare. I don’t care anymore; I am done with hiding. Why, they can see Mars in their sky. Amidst this carnage, why would it be so hard to believe I am a refugee from another planet?
- No days. No nights. No seasons.
My prison cell is deep and dark. It reminds me of the cavern where I last took refuge on Mars. Years slip by. Decades. I am quite at home. Their doctors come to see me. They stay on the far side of the bars. They whisper, ‘an experiment, a freak’. I speak their language, plead with them to listen to me, but it makes no difference. Our species are so alike. No ears.
- I miss Spring. I miss Odette.
Gaolers have come and gone. They have flown me across the sea. They have forgotten they first captured me in a village in France in 1915 and I should be long dead. Someone lost my file. Used to happen a lot on Mars too. I am not of much interest – a failed Russian experiment – that is what they whisper now. They seem to be more interested in my clothes. They have taken my coat away.
- Spring. The northern ice cap has melted.
The woman with Odette’s eyes comes for me and leads me out of my cell.
“You are free to go, Peter.”
I laugh, but we are in the desert and the sound rings back at me. Hollow. Am I back on Mars? Is this a dream?
“You never did tell me where we were?”
I look at her, searching for Odette. I’ve never heard of Nevada, but I’m guessing Italy.
“This place reminds me of Mars.”
“Red?” She lashes the word at me, but I sense her need to talk. To listen. I study her face, trying to decide whether I care anymore. I am an old man now, with wrinkles around my eyes.
“Do you have anywhere to go?”
The woman pulls a face at me and sets her hair loose.
“You always said 1915?”
“That was when your friends first locked me up. I was born in 1818.”
“I believe you.”
“You never did tell me your name.”
“My name is Eva. Is Peter your real name?”
I study Eva. In the daylight she is nothing like Odette.
“Eva, how far away is France?”
I landed in Paris in October. I wore dark glasses. An eccentric tourist – hardly a second glance. From there I travelled east, following my nose. Following my heart. Everything has changed, the once-fertile lands – vineyards and fields – ravaged by a growing cycle of flood and drought. Only the mountains remain the same.
- January. Flecks of snow settle on the stubble that was once our forest.
Odette’s headstone has slumped. I wipe away the moss growing over her name. I hesitate for a moment, then wipe Peter’s name clean too. Poor Peter, there are no trees to cut down now – no house, no village. No stately, grey-trunked beech.
Earlier, I went back to my ship. It had filled with water, becoming part pool, part cave. Tree roots had broken through the hull. I did not think our alloys would weaken so, but this is Earth, not Mars. Now I am carving the names of my fellow crewmembers on this headstone too.
A power plant stands a short distance away – where the village used to be. Odette’s family are long gone. They are city dwellers now. Somewhere with them there will be an ancient grandmother who everyone thinks mad because she talks incessantly about an elf. Perhaps her name is Odette.