[Excerpt from Book IV of the Books of Babel]
Behind a veil of stubborn clouds, beneath a crystal dome, sweet cherry trees ripened in a park at the heart of Helios.
The glass shell that encased the Tower’s crowning city collected the scheduled fog. The condensation turned into a hesitant rain that pattered upon the canopy of fruit trees. Beyond the garden, gold and silver turrets shone with the diffuse light of evening, while song birds tested the limits of their sky and flew circles about the spires.
Adamos Boreas stood on a stool plucking cherries from the lower branches and placing them into a basket hooked upon his arm. He wore a starched shirt, slender trousers, and his suspenders off his shoulders. His jacket dangled from the stump of a branch above a pair of hard leather shoes into which he had stuffed his socks. Beyond the park’s lush hedge, Adam heard the clatter of a passing railcar. A lively dialogue rumbled through the walls of the city’s landmark theater, a structure that looked like an egg stood upon its sharper end.
Despite the noise, he felt blissfully alone. He hadn’t had more than a handful of minutes to himself since arriving in Helios two weeks earlier. It was novel to hear his own breath come and go, a novelty to think his own thoughts, which seemed suddenly commonplace and small in the absence of an audience. He tugged cherries from branches and thought of how his mother used to dry fruit on the windowsills of his childhood home.
He heard the rustle of someone crossing the lawn but didn’t stop his pleasant work.
“There you are,” she said. She still wore her evening dress, a black shift that flattered her long limbs and longer hair that was as pale as chamomile.
“Celeste,” Adam said, stepping off his stool. Again, he enjoyed the cool prickle of grass on the bare soles of his feet. “I thought you were watching the show.”
“I thought you were, too. Mauvis saw you slip out. He’s worried you don’t like hismasterpiece,” she said, smiling at a joke they’d only recently begun to share.
“Of course, I do. But after two or three or six viewings it begins to stir up…hard memories.”
“Your sister,” Celeste said.
“Yes. Always Voleta. But also…” He looked down, searching for an answer, but then distracted by the beauty of the emerald bright grass. It seemed more precious and exotic than the finest woven rug. “There were so many years of my life when I felt misunderstood. I believed I was only lacking opportunities. Never purpose or self-possession. No, I was just waiting for a fair shot. But now, after confronting so much of my past, I’ve started to wonder if I didn’t know myself half so well as I thought.”
“You always wanted to be a cherry-picker, is that it?” she said, a gentle joke.
He nearly laughed. “No. No, I just wanted to do something with my hands for a moment, if only to give my head a break. It didn’t work.” He held the basket to her, offering her a cherry, though instead she took the handle and set the hamper down. She kicked off her slippers and stepped closer till her toes wriggled over his. He smiled as she reached up to stroke his cheek. “Now, where’s our director?” he asked, his eye shining with a little mischief.
“Oh, who cares?” She felt along the edge of his black satin eyepatch, slipping a fingernail under it.
“Don’t,” he said. “It’s ugly.”
Her smile broadened but saddened at the same time. She let the edge of the patch go. “One day you’ll show me all of you.” She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “So, tell me, Adamos Boreas, Son of the Western Plains of Ur, what sort of wicked thoughts are you trying to chase off with your gardening?”
His posture softened as she kissed him again. He placed his hands on her hips, drew her closer to him. “Nothing,” he said softly.
“Come on. Still trying to figure out what to do with all those gold fixtures you squirreled away in your room? Still plotting ways to smuggle out the silverware? You’re a terrible thief. You jingle when you walk.”
This time he laughed, then kissed her softly on the lips. “Perhaps I have a different sort of treasure in mind now.”
“Oh, do you?” She rolled her forehead against his, her hands running up his back. “Is it buried treasure?”
“It is a little buried.”
“Should I help you dig for it?” she asked.
“If you like,” he said.
As their embrace grew more impassioned, a shiver ran through the city. The birds boiled about the peak of the dome, raising a panicked chorus as the street plates rattled and the ripest fruit dropped into the grass. The quake did not alarm the lovers. Tremblers here were as regular as the rain, and almost certainly not growing stronger.
If Adam’s eye hadn’t been closed, he might’ve seen the men and women in formal dress crouched among the bushes.