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eBook by George Alec Effinger
eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: In HEROICS, Irene--like everyone in the future--struggles with boredom. Food, clothing, and all the necessities of human life have been taken care of. But, what does that leave of life itself? At eighty-two, Irene sets out on a pilgrimage across America hoping to find the answer. Along the way, she becomes transformed, both physically and by her interactions with other civilians all trying to cope with this new world. Filled with wry humor and fantastic symbolism, HEROICS mixes adventure and philosophy in a way both engrossing and entertaining. Of this book, friend and fellow writer Harlan Ellsion said, "It is the best Effinger yet ? and for those of us who have been watching with amazement that is about as rich a compliment as you can expect from other envious authors. Damn him, he's good!" George Alec Effinger was a true master of satirical Science Fiction. Before his death in 2002, Effinger was a prolific novelist and short story writer, earning acclaim from his fans and peers, including a Nebula Award nomination for his first book WHAT ENTROPHY MEANS TO ME. In HEROICS, he revisits some of the themes and characters of that first book for startling, funny and poignant results.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, Published: 1979
Fictionwise Release Date: March 2011
A Fateful Breakfast
* * * *
Irene hadn't always been dead.
She remembered that she had lived a very long and very full life. She was grateful for the opportunity she had been given. As she floated in the blackness she recalled one incident after another, things that had happened to her, things that had made her happy or sad. She had enjoyed life, and she wished that she could personally thank whatever had made it possible. If the old men in California had been right, Irene's wish would come true. She was doubtful, though. The empty blackness that surrounded her seemed as infinite and unchangeable as anything she had ever experienced. She was dead, and death was empty and unchangeable. The old men in California had tried to persuade her that there was more to death than that. Irene was doubtful.
She hung in the void and thought. Without sensation, without even the sense of her own body's existence, there was nothing else to do. Irene thought back to the morning that had begun the sequence of events leading to her death and her present occupation: floating. Dreaming.
Irene remembered that morning very distinctly. It had been early spring, the second week in April. The trees had begun to show the first pastel hints of the dark forest-green leaves to come. The day was Irene's birthday, her eighty-second. She was happy about it. She loved birthdays, her own and those of her family. Every birthday was a reason to celebrate--not her own defiance of mortality, but the wealth of associations that had grown over the years. She stayed in bed after sunrise, when she usually got up, and indulged herself with memories. She felt warmth and melancholy together, thinking about her mother and father, about her brothers and sisters, all dead. She remembered previous birthdays, parties, special outings, small gifts now lost. The sun moved half an hour closer to noon while Irene lay in bed. She heard her great-nephew and his family moving about in the other rooms of the house. Still she did not get up. Her thin arms rested on the old quilt, her mottled hands folded together over her chest. She felt her lower lip quiver, and she had a recurring twitch in her left cheek. That made her feel old. She didn't like that feeling; she shook her head slightly, as if to shake the growing feeling of depression from her mind.
A bird began to sing in one of the trees near her window. Irene listened. "The bird is awake and about," she said to herself. "It's time for me, too." She pulled back the covers slowly, swung her legs over the edge of the bed, and sat up. She put her feet into her old comfortable slippers and stood up. She put on a frayed robe over her nightgown, tied the belt in a loose knot, and made up her bed. The bird in the yard sang again. Irene clucked her tongue and walked slowly to her door. "It's my birthday, bird," she murmured. "I'm eighty-two years old today. In eighty-two years, I haven't done as much as you have. You have baby chicks, don't you, bird? In eighty-two years, I haven't found the time for children." Irene opened the door and went out into the long, high-ceilinged hallway. She walked silently toward the family dining room. She wondered if her great-nephew would remember that it was her birthday.
Michael, his wife, Constance, and their daughter, Alyse lived in an immense house in what had once been downtown Louisville. All traces of the city had been obliterated, and dense forest covered the whole area. It had been that way for centuries. No one in the world had ever seen a city. References to cities and their problems were common in materials left over from the old times, but they were difficult to comprehend. To Irene, to Michael and his family, cities were like dinosaurs; they certainly had ruled the world at one time, but they were almost impossible to accept emotionally. There were so few people now, so few settlements. The world had gone back to unspoiled nature and no one wanted to change it. The last men of the old times, the last industrialists, the last scientists, the last administrators and executives, the last paid laborers, had all worked with their last resources to destroy nearly every trace that they had existed. They removed the marks that man had made on his world. It was a project that consumed decades, scores of them, along with millions of lives, along with the accumulated wealth and knowledge and skills of the entire race.
The world was changed. It was changed into what the people of the old times thought was a better world. It was greener now, it was lovelier, it was fresher, there were more birds, animals, and flowers. There was no crowding, no pollution of air and water, no noise, no racial tensions, no hunger. Now there was no one to decide if it was better. There was no one who could compare. Irene, in her ignorance of what life in the old times had been like, hoped that the old people had known what they were doing. It was too late to change back.
Her Great-nephew Michael had inherited the huge old house from his father. Michael was only thirty-four years old, but he was the master of a domain some 250 miles square. Michael's parents were living in another large house, near what had once been West Virginia. That house had always been a vacation home, but Michael's mother preferred it. Michael had been given the great house as a wedding present, along with the responsibility of caring for Great-aunt Irene.
Irene sometimes thought of herself as a kind of legacy, to be passed from family member to family member. She didn't mind. The family loved her, and Michael and Constance had the most comfortable home and the fewest burdens. Irene thought of herself as a roll of one-five-four in a game of gabrio. Not as bad as a three-three-seven, not as good as a one-one-one. To her relatives, she was about equal to burning one's tongue on a spoonful of very good but very hot soup. Not pleasant, but not fatal.
The sun shone in through the windows as she walked along the hallway. The wood paneling glowed in bright rectangles. Irene could see golden motes of dust swarming in the sunlight. She walked through the warm clouds and disturbed them. As she got closer to the dining room she heard laughter. It was Constance, laughing at something her husband had said. Their daughter, Alyse, was fifteen years old; she was Irene's great-great-niece. That thought made Irene pause for a moment. She had a great-great-niece, so Irene must be very old. She was eighty-two.
Irene raised one hand slowly to her lips. She was very old. Then she made an impatient gesture. "So what?" she said aloud. She walked on toward the dining room. The sounds of laughter came again. Irene wondered if they were getting ready a surprise for her birthday.
"Good morning, Aunt Irene," said Constance, a few moments later.
"Good morning, dear," said Irene. Her voice sounded strangely harsh to her.
"Did you sleep well?" asked Michael, coming toward the table and carrying a small cage covered with a white cloth. Irene nodded, looking at the cage. Michael removed the cloth. There was a little white animal in the cage.
"What is it, Michael?" asked Alyse.
"It's a baby cat," her father told her. "I caught it by the well."
"It's a kitten," said Irene.
"Yes," said Michael, "that's what they call it."
"What are you going to do with it?" asked Constance. She looked at the kitten and shuddered.
Michael put the cage down on the table and sat at his place. "I thought of hanging it in the sunroom."
"Not in my clean house you won't," said Constance. "And get it off the table. We're going to eat breakfast here. That thing's filthy. Who knows what kind of disease it's carrying?"
Irene sat down in her chair, sighing a little. She folded her hands in her lap. "They're very clean animals, as I recall," she said.
"It won't be any problem," said Michael.
"Can we keep it, Constance?" asked Alyse.
Her mother shook her head. "No," she said, "definitely not. I won't have it in the house."
"Oh, please?" said Alyse. "I'll take care of it."
"No, not in the house. Either let it go or keep it in the barn."
Michael stood up. "All right, Constance," he said. "I'll put it in the barn. It'll be fine out there."
"We could let it loose in the barn," said Alyse. "It could run and play. I could teach it to do tricks."
"Not kittens," said Constance. "They are mean, vicious animals. You can't tame them. They grow up to be killers."
"That little thing?" asked Alyse. "It couldn't hurt anything."
"I've heard stories, Alyse," said Constance. "They grow up and turn on their masters. That's why you have to keep them in cages. They eat meat, like we do. One day that kitten will be a cat. Then it won't think anything of slashing you and eating you."
"That's just a plain house cat," said Michael. "You're thinking of lions. They get big and dangerous. This kitten won't ever get much bigger than a rabbit. It's harmless."
"I don't believe it," said Constance. "My father told me all about them."
"Ask Aunt Irene," said Michael.
"Oh," said Alyse, "she won't help. She's so old, she doesn't remember anything anymore."
"Alyse!" said Michael. "Don't you ever talk like that about anyone! Apologize to Aunt Irene."
"It's true," said Alyse sullenly. "She's always saying things to keep me from having what I want."
Irene felt her face flushing. "I just say what I know," she said.
"That's not much, these days," said Alyse.
"That's enough," said Constance. "Go to your rooms and stay there."
"But today's the party at Felicia's house," said Alyse. "I have to go over there after breakfast and help with the decorations."
"You'll just have to miss it," said Michael. "Now go to your rooms."
"See?" said Alyse, as she stood up from the table. "See? It's all Aunt Irene's fault again. If it weren't for her, everything would be fine. She's so old. She's always getting me in trouble. She's always making me miss things."
Irene felt tears in her eyes. She raised one hand and wiped the tears away. "Constance," she said, "let her stay. Let her go to her party. I know how it is with her. She just doesn't understand."
Constance's expression was stern. "She'll have to learn, that's all."
"See?" said Alyse. "She's doing it again. She's making you hate me."
"Alyse, go to your rooms. Right now," said Michael.
"Let her stay, dear," said Irene. There was a long silence. Irene was very embarrassed. Alyse watched her mother. Michael looked at his great-aunt.
"All right," said Constance at last. "You may go to the party if you apologize to Aunt Irene."
"I apologize," said Alyse in a voice hardly above a whisper.
"Thank you, dear," said Irene.
"All right," said Michael, "let's eat breakfast."
"Put that animal in the barn first," said Constance. Her husband nodded but did not say anything. He carried the cage out of the room.
Irene took a deep breath and sat back in her chair. Her expression did not show the emotions she felt inside. She had taught herself at an early age to keep her feelings to herself. She wondered sometimes if that was a wise thing to do. She was certain that Michael, Constance, and Alyse believed that she was a little cold, a little distant. Perhaps they thought that Aunt Irene had become slightly senile, out of touch with her surroundings, unaffected by events, all because she rarely showed joy, sorrow, or anger. Irene knew better, of course; she knew how deeply Alyse's words had hurt, how happy she felt looking at the kitten, how sad the cage around the kitten had made her. The only outward sign of these feelings had been the quickly wiped-away tears. She knew how the kitten felt. Irene was caged in the house. She was caged in her body. She was caged by the weariness of eighty-two years.
Alyse wouldn't understand that. Alyse was sixty-seven years younger than Irene. Sixty-seven years! thought Irene. Much more than a half century. There were too many generations between them. It was impossible for Irene to teach anything to Alyse; it was just as impossible for the young girl to say anything to the old woman. Irene looked across the table at her great-great-niece. Alyse was impatiently toying with her silverware, waiting for the servants to bring breakfast. Irene knew that whatever Alyse learned about life, she would have to learn the hard way. There was no way for one generation to pass experience on to the next. That was the main cause of grief and the primary source of pleasure in life.
"I hung the kitten up between Blaze's stall and Lucky's," said Michael. His words roused Irene from her thoughts. Michael pulled out his chair and sat down.
Constance smiled. "That's fine, Michael. I just didn't want a wild animal in the house. You know how they make me feel. Sometimes I just can't breathe."
"When are we going to eat?" asked Alyse.
"Yes," said Michael, "Cook should be finished. Why don't you call for Man?"
Constance picked up a small wooden mallet and hit a small brass gong on the table in front of her. A moment later a middle-aged man came into the family dining room. He was dressed in black coat and trousers, white vest, white shirt, and black scarf. He wore a gold chain from his vest, with a great many keys hanging from it. He stopped just inside the doorway, his expression serious, looking at the far wall of the room. He never looked at any of the family members seated at the table, even when he was addressed. He had been with Michael's family, and his parents, and with his father's parents; nonetheless, he still appeared to be slightly past forty years old. No one knew how old Man was, not even Aunt Irene.
"Good morning, Man," said Constance.
"Good Morning, madame," said Man. He stared above her head. In all the years that the family had known Man, they had never seen him look directly at another person.
"We wish to be served breakfast now, if you will."
"Yes, madame." Man turned around and left the dining room. He did not make a sound as he walked away.
"Tell me, Michael," said Constance, "what have you planned for today?"
Michael bit a fingernail as he thought. "I'm not certain yet, Constance," he said. "I have two or three things to decide among. We might travel to one of the meadows and observe the flowers. We might lie upon some hill and attempt to find shapes in cloud formations. We haven't done that since last fall. Or, again, we might retire to the third-floor right front parlor to sing songs, while you or I play one of the musical instruments. We might try to start a garden, with blooming plants or vegetables, near the house or at some distance. We might find some creek or river and pass the day skipping stones and smiling. Or we might--"
"Oh, Michael," said Constance, "our lives are so full!"
"Yes, my dear," he said. "We have so much for which to be grateful."
"I am, Michael," she said. "I thank my private ghosts every night and every morning for the wonderful miracle of our life together."
Michael reached out and took one of Constance's hands in his. "I do the same," he said. "Every night and every morning. Just the way they did it in the old books."
The two adults looked at each other. There was a pleasant stillness for a while, until it was interrupted by Alyse. "I want to get some stamps," she said.
"Stamps?" asked Constance. "What are stamps?"
"They are things that people collect," said Alyse.
"Oh," said her mother, "I must have some of them, then."
Alyse was excited. "You do? Oh, Constance, what do they look like? What color are they? Where are they from?"
Constance only laughed quietly. "The impatience of youth," she said. "Aunt Irene, Alyse probably seems so intense to you."
Irene turned to look at Alyse. The girl, obviously embarrassed, stared at the table. "I am gladdened by her," said Irene.
At that moment Man re-entered the dining room, pushing a cart laden with bowls, platters, and pitchers, filled with the day's breakfast foods. "You may serve us now, Man," said Michael.
"Yes, master," said Man. Behind him walked Woman, dressed in a long white dress with a black bow around her neck. She wore a white cap, with her long black hair in a braid down her back. Man stopped the cart near the table and stood aside. Woman served Constance first, then Michael, then Irene, and finally Alyse. When she finished, Woman stepped away from the table. Together, silently, Man and Woman backed away. They turned and went out of the family dining room.
"Do you know what stamps are, Aunt Irene?" asked Constance.
"No," said Alyse, "she's too busy being gladdened."
"Alyse," said Michael.
"It's all right, Michael," said Irene. She turned to Constance. "I've read of stamps, of course. If Alyse is collecting them, I would be very interested in seeing them. I have never witnessed one before."
"You don't witness a stamp," said Alyse scornfully. "You don't witness them. You lick them."
"Lick them?" asked Michael.
"That's what you do, Michael," said Alyse. "You lick them and put them on things. I want to collect them."
"What do you put them on?" said Constance.
"Letters," said Alyse. "I don't know exactly what they are. I don't care, though. Let someone else collect the letters. I'm just collecting stamps."
"How many do you have, my dear?" asked Irene.
"See?" said Alyse. "See how stupid? I don't have any, as if you didn't know. There aren't any stamps anymore. If you haven't ever seen one, what makes you think I have?"
Irene said nothing. When she was hurt the most she said nothing.
"Alyse," said Michael, "I don't like the way you've been speaking to Aunt Irene. I want you to apologize."
Alyse spoke through gritted teeth. "I apologize."
Irene said nothing.
"This is good," said Constance, trying to change the subject, trying to relieve the tension in the room.
"Yes," said Michael, "the breakfast is good."
"Our Cook is remarkable," said Irene. "I have never enjoyed meals quite so much. Every day is like a festive occasion. I always take delight in the pleasant garnishes and the attractive colors, fragrances, and flavors. Cook is a treasure."
"Don't forget to include Man and Woman," said Constance.
"Of course," said Irene. "Man and Woman are indeed treasures, also."
"Yes," said Constance.
There was a lull in the table talk, while the four people ate their breakfast. Irene noticed that Alyse frequently stared at her, and the look in the young girl's eyes was unpleasant, even threatening.
Man and Woman returned, just as everyone finished the morning meal. They took away the bowls and platters and pitchers. When the family was alone again in the dining room, Constance turned to her daughter. "Why do you want to collect stamps, my dear, when you've never seen one? You aren't likely to come across one, you know. You're asking for frustration and disappointment. Why did you choose stamps?"
"Because," said Alyse.
Michael laughed. "Yes, yes," he said. "I remember that reason very well. That is the most persuasive argument a young person has. 'Because.' What humiliating failures are suffered on its account."
"I will not be humiliated," said Alyse. "Not by a stamp. I hate being humiliated."
"We all do, dear," said Constance.
Alyse stared at Irene. "Some people must not," she said slowly, "judging by the number of times they are humiliated. Some people must enjoy it, they do it so often."
"Alyse," said Michael. The girl ignored her father.
"How are you feeling today, Aunt Irene?" asked Constance.
"I am very well today," said Irene.
"That's good," said Michael. "Are your eyes better?"
Irene took a deep breath and sighed again. "I am old," she said. "I am eighty-two years old. My eyes will not get better."
Constance dabbed at the corners of her mouth with her napkin. "Have you thought about improving your eyesight with eyeglasses?"
"I have," said Irene. "I have also thought about improving my hearing with a mechanical aid, my heart with an electronic device, my legs with braces, my few remaining teeth with dentures, my feet with special shoes, my palsy, arthritis, neuralgia, and indigestion with chemical aids and exotic treatments. But I have too many failures of flesh, too many breakdowns in my body, too many ailments, infirmities, disorders, attacks, mild convulsions, fevers, swellings, inflammations, and infections to overcome. I feel lost. The cycles of disease are too strong to break. The worn-out members and organs are too closely related. I cannot conquer them before they co-operate to conquer me."
"That's a horrible way to talk, Aunt Irene," said Constance. "It frightens me to listen. You make life sound so hopeless, so ugly. If all that is true, what can you do about it?"
"You can't do anything about it," said Irene. "You can only count your blessings."
"Count your blessings!" cried Alyse. "How many do you have?"
"These days, I count five," said Irene.
"If you spent more time counting your five blessings," said Alyse, "and less time--"
"Alyse," said Constance, "go to your rooms. Now. And don't come down until you're ready to apologize to Aunt Irene."
"But Constance, I--"
"You heard me. Now go."
Alyse glared at her mother, then turned to Irene. "All right," she muttered, "I apologize."
"No good," said Michael.
"I apologized," said Alyse.
Constance shook her head. "Go to your rooms and stay there until Woman calls you for luncheon. We'll see if you've learned a little pity for Aunt Irene then."
Pity! thought Irene. She showed a small bit of her distaste, but no one was looking. As quickly as it had come the expression changed again, to her normal, placid appearance. She didn't have the slightest desire for anyone's pity. That was the one thing, in fact, that she hated most about her old age. She could count on the love of Michael and Constance, but it was the kind of love that people gave to animals and objects that have been kept for long periods of time. It was only familiarity, love by default. She never had anyone's respect. Instead, she received tokens of sympathy, compassion--and pity. People had a tendency to overlook her errors or accidents too quickly, in recognition of her age and the accompanying decrepitude they believed must exist. Irene resented that; she could never again win the regard that her mind and achievements justified. Honest love, true respect, natural courtesy: All these had ended at some arbitrary point somewhere in her past.
Alyse glared again at Irene, and again at Constance. Alyse turned and went angrily to the entrance of the dining room. She almost knocked into Man, who was coming in. She glared at him, also.
"What is it, Man?" asked Michael.
"I wish to know if master or madame would like today's rain this morning, or later in the afternoon," said Man. He stood politely three steps into the dining room, his hands clasped behind his back, his posture stiff and straight.
"Do you have any preference, dear?" asked Constance.
"Yes," said Michael. "I was thinking of going hunting after luncheon. I'd rather not have it raining then."
"Shall I arrange for the rain before luncheon, master?" asked Man.
"Just a moment, please. Constance, what do you want to do today?"
Constance's brows drew closer together as she thought. "I hate days like this," she said. "I don't like it when there's a whole day with nothing in it, and we have to find ways of spending the time. Are you sure there aren't any emergencies planned for this morning? No accidents, no freaks of nature, that kind of thing?"
"I am quite certain, madame," said Man.
"I hate it," said Constance. "I don't know. What about this morning, Michael? Pick something. Anything. Just to get it over with."
Michael thought for a moment. He rubbed his forehead and then looked at his wife. "Well," he said at last, "we'll ride out to one of the lodges, check its stores, and build a grove. Or a lake, if there already is a grove."
"Fine," said Constance, smiling. "I'm glad you thought of something. We haven't done that in such a long time."
"Do you understand, Man?" asked Michael.
"Yes, sir. The rain will end at eleven o'clock. You will then have enough time to return, refresh yourselves, and change clothes for luncheon."
"Excellent, Man," said Constance. "We can watch the rain from the lodge. We can play games with it, just like when we were younger. I think this day will be a lot of fun, better than I thought it would be. It's going to be a special day."
Michael laughed. "Yes, Constance, it's a special day, and for a special reason that you've probably forgotten."
Irene allowed herself a brief, small smile. Michael hadn't forgotten his aunt's birthday, after all.
"What do you mean, dear?" asked Constance.
"I mean that with Alyse in her rooms, we'll be at liberty to try some more experimentation."
"Do you mean love-making, Michael?" asked Constance. "I thought we'd exhausted that, oh, long ago."
"Didn't you enjoy it?"
"Certainly," said Constance, "but I thought you meant something new."
Irene was disappointed. She sighed. She folded her hands in her lap. Her hands shook. She watched them. They were discolored; the skin was yellowish and there were large brown spots. She hadn't had those spots when she was Constance's age. She tried to recall when they had first appeared. She couldn't remember.
"There isn't much that's new," said Michael. "There's not much to choose from. We have to make the best of what we have."
Constance rubbed her eyes with one hand. "Oh, Michael, sometimes I'm so tired. It's so hard to keep going, to keep thinking of new ways to spend the time."
Irene thought about Constance's words. Constance was only thirty-one years old. Nevertheless, Constance seemed already worn out by living. Irene enjoyed life, even the meager life that an old person is permitted among the young. Irene would have loved to go with them to the lodge, to build a grove or lake as she did when she was a girl. But neither Constance nor Michael would have allowed it, if she had made the suggestion.
"It's not so bad, Constance," said Michael. "Just leave that all to me. That's my job."
"Then what is my job to be?" asked his wife.
Michael was silent for a moment. "The same as always," he said at last. "Whatever you want it to be."
"Oh, Michael, that isn't an answer. That just makes it all worse."
"I'm sorry, then," he said. "I love you, Constance."
"I love you, Michael."
The two rose from their seats. Michael came around the table and took Constance's hand. They walked out of the room together, chatting in low tones. Irene couldn't hear their words. As they left the dining room, Man looked toward Irene. She shook her head and waved one hand slightly. Man nodded and followed behind Michael and Constance. Irene was left alone at the table.
She felt discontent. She felt forgotten, abandoned, futile. She felt like an atrophied organ in the body of the family, a useless appendage, a vestigial remnant of something that had once been meaningful and important. Her head began to ache. She massaged her temples. She felt her pulse beating strongly on the side of her head. Sometimes she hated the structures of her body. They were all slowly failing, and she feared that some day when, like now, she was aware of her heartbeat, she would be touching the pulse at the very moment when it stopped forever. She was afraid that her consciousness would last beyond that instant, to make her death one of supreme terror. She would know that she was dead, even as she was fading away. "I'm dead, I'm dead, I'm dead, I'm--"
Irene stopped rubbing her temples and folded her hands in her lap once more. Then she stood up slowly. Her back hurt, and she felt a momentary dizziness. She leaned against the chair until it passed. Then she pushed the chair toward the table and walked out of the dining room. Her own quarters were on the same floor, a thoughtful arrangement that had been suggested by Woman.
It took Irene a few minutes to get to her rooms, because she decided to stop along the way and look out all the windows. She liked mornings. At the age of eighty-two, she had witnessed a great number of them; it was a constant source of wonder to her that each one had been different. She wished that Constance, Michael, and Alyse could understand that.
When she got to her apartments, Irene shut the door and locked it. She passed through her bedroom, through the large dressing room, through the clothes storage room, through the large bath, through the atrium, through her indoor greenhouse, through her library, through the music room, the art room, the sewing room, the small bath, until she arrived at her special, private, secret room. She kept her collection here. She was immensely proud of her collection, but not so proud that she wished to share it with everyone. She kept the collection for her own amusement. She never felt the need to be praised or admired because of the things she had. She wanted to be praised and admired because of all that she was.
One common amusement among the people of Irene's acquaintance was collecting. Everyone wanted to put together pieces of the ancient days, the dark days, the dawn of civilization. Alyse collected stamps, or at least wanted to. Michael collected stones and pieces of metal with words on them. Constance collected pins, needles, nails, screws, bolts, and tacks, all items that had been made useless by progress.
Irene collected glass, a particular, rare kind of glass. While still in her youth, Irene had been given a fiche--a microfilm card that reproduced an entire book in a space five inches by three. The book was a catalog and price list of twentieth-century Depression glass, compiled by a woman named Elizabeth Dawson Douglas. The book was made many years before the Peaceful Revolution. The book fascinated Irene. It described the collecting of glass made during the twentieth-century Depression, which Irene's father said was a medieval time of disruption. The language of the times was odd and unpleasant, to Irene's tastes, but the author wrote of the glassware in such a way that made Irene want to discover some.
The glass had been produced in hundreds and hundreds of patterns, each in several distinct colors, and each pattern consisting of many different pieces. The object, as Irene understood it, was to collect the pattern of one's choice in the color of one's choice, and collect each individual piece, checking against the list on the fiche. The early savages had collected the glass, which was already somewhat rare in Mrs. Douglas' time. Completing a set was an exciting accomplishment, even then. Irene felt a kind of kinship with her predecessors by searching for the same objects.
After nearly seventy years of collecting, Irene owned twelve pieces that she could absolutely identify as twentieth-century Depression glass. She had three pieces that were not definitely catalogued in the fiche but that looked as though they might belong to the same period. Irene knew that she might never know the truth about them. She felt that she had the best collection of twentieth-century Depression glass in the modern world. She had never heard of anyone else who had even a single piece.
Irene opened the cabinet in which she kept her collection. The bright sunlight beamed and sparkled on the fifteen pieces of glass. Irene smiled. She felt peaceful for the first time since waking up that morning. She took out each piece, just as she did every morning. She held each piece up to the light. The glass was beautiful. It was rare. The fifteen pieces were one of Irene's five blessings.
Four of the pieces were the same color, in the same pattern. They were a light, transparent green. The pattern, according to the authoritative catalogue of Mrs. Douglas, was called Doric. It was very lovely in a simple, uncluttered way. Irene had a dinner plate, a cup, a sherbet dish, and a covered butter dish.
She had a green Sunflower cake plate.
Two pieces of glass were uncolored crystal. One was from a pattern called Bubble; it was a cereal bowl. The other was a pitcher from the Iris pattern.
Four pieces of glass were pink. One belonged to a pattern called Lace Edge, a cookie jar with its lid missing. Two were of a pattern called Miss America; one was a divided grill plate and the other was a relish dish. A fourth pink piece was a platter of the Princess pattern.
The last piece that Irene could identify was amber in color. It was a Patrician creamer.
Along with these were a milk-white citrus reamer, a blue mug with a picture of a young girl that was signed "Shirley Temple," and a green candleholder in the shape of a dolphin.
These were Irene's treasures. They were an important part of her life, and they had helped to keep her alive. The search had kept her going for seventy years. While she looked at her precious collections, she felt strong and young enough to search for another twenty years.