Zus!

Monica Datta

 

ZOE HAD BEEN PETITIONING TO GO TO THE SHORE EVER SINCE THEY ARRIVED. In a marshy patch she pushed the clay upwards so that it yielded to the ocean. Bliss was not for her: instead she was subject to an infantile tubular metaphysics. Inside the building, mumpsy kogelvissen and the enormous schildpadden – everyone’s favourite grandgrandgrandgrandparents – wept in vitrines, with new toy names. She looked for eggs and wondered if she could cultivate a better exposition.

Ursula, four years younger, six inches shorter, somewhat less blond than Zoe, preferred sand and mashed her toes into the cold ground till she squealed. The seashore was unbearable without text. In the aquarium she gazed at the fine print on the biologist’s scuba tank as he humiliated the largest of the schildpadden.

Sigrid, four years younger, six inches shorter, somewhat less blond than Ursula, slipped at the shoreline and soaked to the skin. She had broken into het huis van de pinguïns and no one knew she was missing till they returned. All the sisters agreed the aquascaping was naïve.

Zoe subsisted on tea from home with sinaasappelstukjes and the occasional woody apple plucked from a tree lining the fat streets, nourished by the meagre river. She slipped her dinner under the table to Sigrid, who scraped the plate into an empty koektrommel. It rained all day.

Ursula agreed that the river was meagre. Better was the bay, primordial with tea and thick, sulphuric crude oil. (Everyone loved tea and crude oil.) It rained all night.

Sigrid, satisfied after both dinners, would set her alarm clock, a phosphorescent Voronoi giraffe called Esmildred, to midnight so they could read after everyone had gone to sleep. Esmildred stretched her luminous neck at a picture of a girl rowing a boat through Birmingham, where the canals were filled with milky breakfast tea. ‘Oh, Esmildred, I also love water!’ Sigrid whispered.

Zoe, who often boasted that English was her worst subject, was learning to endure lengthy periods without saying anything. On day three she said ik verveel me. Now all the burgers in school wanted to be her friend. She spent a weekend in New York photographing her Sharpie marker-bruised toes holding up small syringes of Valentina hot sauce. When everyone on the internet liked it, she chucked her mobile in the harbour.

Ursula, reflecting on the profligate disuse of canals in the United States, suggested that the rank character of their surroundings emerged from a mutation; the burgers had repressed their seafaring history and had a chemical swamp instead of a collective unconscious. There was only one thing left to do: in unison she and Zoe cheered, ‘Let us effect a canalisation scheme throughout the United States of America!’

Sigrid was so excited, even though no one would tell her what a canalisation scheme was! At school the next day she coated her street crossing workbook in blue watercolour and had to stand in the corner all day, its own reward.

Zoe, in a van Doesburg monograph, found a series of gouache sketches to inform the first few iterations: they would square off the eighteen-thousand-two-hundred-forty-one canals in the United States – all wrecks – if one included Alaska and Hawaii, which, thanks to the ocean, would cause no problems of continuity.

Ursula agreed that all the canals should be orthogonal, bloated to accommodate the movement of boats. They would supersede the existing highway system and reintroduce the burgers to water.

Sigrid squeezed oil paints into ice cube trays and chanted, ‘Jef-fer-son! Jef- fer-son! Jef-fer-son!’

Zoe discovered a working canal in New York State just two hundred kilometres away that went not only through Amsterdam, but Rotterdam, London, Frankfurt, Palmyra, Syracuse, Troy and Medina!

Ursula said that two hundred kilometres were nearly the length of the Netherlands; forcing the burgers to cycle such a distance would tire them, increasing their receptivity to current ideas.

Sigrid tumbled towards them on a tiny violet driewieler: the hill was so steep! Zoe and Ursula gracefully backed away, cackling.

Zoe, the next time they went to the shore, led her sisters down the coast to rocky patches, where the boulders were soft and suggested boring the canals with ice. Films with fjords in them hypnotised the subjects so profoundly that they collapsed in despair afterwards.

Ursula moved rocks to form walls. Injections of whimsy – karst formations, icebergs, predatory wildlife; imitation Atlantises constructed by octopuses – would lull the burgers into pleasure.

Sigrid scoffed. Fools fell for false fjords.

Zoe was born on Huidenstraat between Keizersgracht and Herengracht. Ursula was born on Elandstraat between Lijnbaansgracht and Prinsengracht. Sigrid was born in hospital further out. This explained everything.

Zoe was the blondest, on the way to blue hair. Bleaching turned it cheap biro red-black, then brittle rust till one day it broke Labrador yellow.

Ursula was less blonde than Zoe. She had alopecia areata and refused the silky temple-scraped bob for which she had been fitted, favouring instead a wardrobe of bright synthetics the texture of fishing line. Nearly every day since they arrived she wore a French ultramarine mullet that turned Zoe green.

Sigrid was less blonde than Ursula because she wasn’t blond at all. Airport security the world over spent hours examining her head for explosives. In Heathrow a famous sculptor – after having assured customs he didn’t know who headed ISIS in his home country – witnessed this routine procedure and begged to purchase her hair so that he could make the blackest black none more black pigment and anything it touched would disappear!

Zoe’s first attempt at a master plan, scolded Ursula, redlining shakily, was, at best, unrefined: how much farmland was she planning to flood? She would have to fix everything.

Ursula then critiqued Zoe’s naive earthmoving procedure, her total ignorance of rock formation, the historical precedent of canalisation in the United States – the burgers did not require two whole generations to forget – and the withered husk that was the Colorado River. Zoe crumpled up a page and after it bounced off Ursula’s spectacles ordered her to build it.

Sigrid operated the lorry that carried the document: one thousand A0 pages weighed eighty kilogrammes.

Zoe’s oma grew up above the rubbishripe North Canal and knew all the ghost stories. Through mad laughter she told them all about headless priests and their beloved black dogs. Crashtrain stray limbs. Boiled potato children. Pregnant girl buried: she knew all about Dutch schooling.

Ursula worried about presenting the scheme before Parlement and was sure it would be vetoed by the minister-president who had spent much of his childhood in Jakarta.

Sigrid didn’t say anything. Every time they visited she wanted to go into the water herself, which was more exciting than the stuff back home.

Zoe on the other hand was confident Parlement would approve the canalisation scheme, except for some of the proposed cryptozoological creatures. Het Monster van Loch Ness didn’t have a single counselling appointment till next year.

Ursula, via an expensive, Immarsat-facilitated call, put Lagarfljótsormurinn on speaker: worms were socially undesirable and excellent listeners. Routinely discriminated against for their sliminess, sexuality – half hermaphrodite, half male – and ability to survive being cut in half, Lagarfljótsormurinn – despite being a bit psychic – had been continuously heartbroken for all Lagarfljótsormurinn’s six hundred seventy-one years. As a baby worm in medieval Iceland Lagarfljótsormurinn was placed in a tiny jewel box on top of a gold ring but one day curled up inside it and started getting fat. When the young girl who kept Lagarfljótsormurinn found out she screamed and threw out the entire box. Ever since, Lagarfljótsormurinn would blind anyone who looked at Lagarfljótsormurinn, and poisoned the fields. Now Lagarfljótsormurinn was condemned to life at the bottom of the lake.

Sigrid began to cry with Lagarfljótsormurinn. Zoe and Ursula were also very sad. The canals had to stand for something. They had to stand for Lagarfljótsormurinn.

Zoe read that if the canals flooded, the world would become a pitch-black egg.

Ursula watched, on her mobile, the underwater explosion of a plastics factory. It was too dangerous to take aerial photographs, but bits of hat were expelled into the air before returning to their swampy birthplace.

Sigrid’s mobile rang: it was Het Monster van Loch Ness! They turned on the camera: she floated on a velvet crimson pillow as smaller monster footmen adjusted her legs and belly for comfort. She beamed regally and agreed not only to provide any required counsel but to preside over the ceremony.

Zoe gasped. The American president had been ousted! It seemed the burgers would not, as predicted, coronate a queen like the rest of the civilised world; instead a petrol-soaked basketball had become the new ruler and planned to build a hundred-meter seawall around the perimeter of the country. Now they would have to wait months to present the plan before Parlement.

Ursula didn’t blame the burgers for not wanting to welcome in water: she knew water was not their friend, per se. It was many things, majestic things, extraordinary things, but not their verdommen pal.

Sigrid came running in: Parlement said they would entertain the canalisation scheme!

Zoe, after a long night of travel, was nervous about presenting the scheme to Parlement: what if they didn’t understand? What if they, themselves niet normaal, said it was niet normaal to effect an orthogonal canalisation scheme throughout the United States? If she rolled her eyes and shook her head and said niet normaal, would it help or get them be deported? The girls stepped up to the podium.

Ursula, towering over a man who assumed the girls would need step stools, did most of the talking. She fielded questions about not using enough crude oil and assured them it would be there if only for decorative purposes; every year there would be a competition in every canal region to make the best illuminated crude oil balloon sculpture. ‘Niet normaal,’ hissed Zoe.

Sigrid stood on her toes as the votes were counted. ‘Nee.’ ‘Jee.’ ‘Nee.’ ‘Jee.’ ‘Jee.’ ‘Nee.’ ‘Jee.’ ‘Jee.’ ‘Nee!’ ‘Jee!’ ‘Jee!’ ‘Jee!’ Hoera! They were going to do it! They were going to effect an orthogonal canalisation scheme throughout the United States!

Zoe’s new zoning plan, despite the recommendations of Parlement, squared off the existing topography. She decided to name each zone based on animals the burgers had been working to make extinct (Kariboezone; Zeehondenregio) and the entire scheme Olifantgracht, because they needed to soak in the shame.

Ursula said it was redundant to have an elephant in an elephant, and the animals should be ones that the burgers already killed, like the trekduif.

Sigrid said that Zoe could name the scheme after Airavata, the beloved elephant of the god Indra, but only Esmildred would listen.

Zoe’s suspicions were confirmed as she met with state and local officials: the burgers were real failures at this canal thing. In the narrowest country they could find, they designed a system of locks so bad they had to install their own police and kill thousands of workers.

Ursula, addressing protesters, tried to assuage their fears: the sisters didn’t know enough people to make their own police. Robots would dig the canals. This brought about more rage; they had heard the scheme would provide employment.

Sigrid shouted, ‘Everyone’s new job is to take care of the elephants!’ and with that an ‘ahhh’ floated about the crowd before the protests resumed.

Zoe asked, ‘What is a quart?’ They sent for a sample kit of iron weights to help them understand the archaic system of the burgers and had to collect it from an ocean liner. Was a quart a pond? Two ponds? The ton was not so bad, only half a scheepslast, or half a million herring.

Ursula said, ‘One-fourth of a gallon or one-two-hundred-fourth of an okshoofd, or three-point-two-two mingles.’

Sigrid said a gallon was five trout. They all nodded.

Zoe had created some canals with radial symmetry that would interlock the main waterways to attract buitenaardsen according to farmers and the architects of Stonehenge who said they preferred round forms.

Ursula felt it would be too much water, turning the landmass to even more of a swamp. Too much digging and wasted soil. Besides, centuries later, ruimtewezens tired of circles and were too smart for bait. What exactly did Zoe expect the aliens to do?

Sigrid drew a pretty sequence of spirals on one of the draft plans. ‘Maybe if the circles were together, like this?’ Her sisters looked at it and sneered. ‘You’re wrong, Sigrid.’ ‘Concentric circles are a waste of time, Sigrid.’ ‘That’s not what a concentric circle is, Zoe!’ ‘Well there are still too many, Sigrid.’ ‘Yeah, why can’t you spend your time being more productive by moving the weights around, Sigrid?’ ‘God, Sigrid is such a waste of time.’ ‘Ruimteverspilling.’ ‘In cirkels.’ ‘Tijdverspilling.’ ‘Vicieuze cirkels.’

Zoe opened the window. There were hundreds of people outside, shouting ‘Get out, Petrus Stuyvesant!’ ‘Except that each of you has two legs!’ ‘We should not mention that we have noticed the fact of your ethnic minority status but that is one of your only differences which is not to say it makes you any better or worse than he!’ ‘Go back to Holland with all six of your legs!’ ‘Cricket!’ ‘Ladybug!’ ‘Fire ant!’ ‘Every ant!’ ‘Broken spider not that we discriminate against the disabled!’ Zoe adored Petrus Stuyvesant, who had saved the burgers from drinking and knifing themselves to death not to mention the English and they still named a cigarette after him.

Ursula had already explained that Petrus Stuyvesant was the most notorious slave owner in Nieuw Amsterdam, a racist and antisemiet who left behind masses of excavated soil from ditches. His ghost was still around. Zoe scoffed, ‘That was probably someone else.’

Sigrid, in tears, put Esmildred, a roll of Verkade digestives and a pocket torch in her rugzak and went in the freight elevator.

Zoe, at the press conference, couldn’t see a thing in the bright lights. Hundreds of dogsnose microphones all barking. She couldn’t understand a word. ‘Wijlhaaland gebussmoonee furdekoonaels?’ ‘Oordekoonaels perdaar mootseekus kantraabooschon foorduwaal?’ ‘Oofyu beld dokoonaals wattelhaffenwitte trains?’ ‘Why?’

Ursula did most of the talking. ‘No.’ ‘No.’ ‘The trains will still be trains because of bridges and aqueducts.’ ‘We feel that a canalisation scheme, if effected throughout the United States, will provide an efficacious system of transport. It will force burgers to respect the gorgeous mercilessness of water.’

Sigrid listened to the interview from the train as the power lines rushed above her head. She knelt on the seat as they crossed a big canal – which might have been the sea – and gazed at the hippopotamuses.

Zoe sighed after another bewildering presentation to the Cupboard. ‘Ursula: it’s time for a coup. Some of the weights and measures are substantial enough to help with the task.’

Ursula said that one did not stage a coup against the Cupboard who merely provided advice. If she wanted to stage a coup it was because she had always wanted to stage a coup and maybe she should just do that instead.

Sigrid and Esmildred found a job cooking pannekoeken and said anyone could create round forms with flour and eggs and milk barring modern allergy but did not intend to imply it would be easy to implement an orthogonal canalisation scheme throughout the United States; although roundness could be approximated by angles from a distance, the inverse was not necessarily true.

Zoe occasionally showed up for trigonometry. Teachers understood her priorities were elsewhere. She directed discussions to suit her purposes. ‘What about Peixder-type vierkantsvergelijking, where the vectors are orthogonal according to the strictest of axioms as established by Ratz? Does one also need to test for Ulam-Hyers stability?’

Ursula was annoyed by Zoe’s tijdverspilling. She wouldn’t even ask after the passage of persons, animals and aquatic vehicles, instead embarrassing them all by name-dropping mathematicians she wished to befriend.

Sigrid and Esmildred, although they did not win, placed well in a folk dancing competition. Despite their love of seahorses, the other dancers were afraid of Zoe and were sure it was worth the rule of a child dictator just to effect an orthogonal canalisation scheme throughout the United States. Sigrid said their visas would expire soon and they had to return to school in Holland. Each dancer shed a single tear and squabbled over which of them should host Sigrid and Esmildred.

Zoe, just before dawn, wore the jacket she had been forced to wear in winter even though it was certainly not cold enough to stroll the riverside, chunky with ice. The river bloated crablike into the bay, where penguin mosaics floated on whaleskin. It was difficult to move the boats; burgers at work shouted ja ja ja ja ja ja ja to one another. Zoe wanted to take out a tile into the sea on a starless night, so cold she would smell of nothing and the sharks would stay away and where there were neither burgers nor canals.

Ursula was gasifying biomass to produce cold, fluffy clouds. Even whilst wearing gloves designed for space exploration from the NSO her hands were frostbitten but she didn’t care. She hoped Zoe would never come home.

Sigrid and Esmildred went for a long walk in Texas. They followed the cacti, blooming lush to the river, and waded through the shallow water. The Mexican douaneambtenaars demanded to know what they thought they were doing. Sigrid was, from habit, going to say that she and Esmildred planned to effect an orthogonal canalisation scheme throughout the United States, but didn’t want to lie.

Zoe updated the orthogonal canalisation scheme to merge with the canals in Mexico City: it was a colonialisation scheme! ‘We devised a borderless, rhizomatic system that would hijack the power paradigm and encourage cycling,’ she explained to one of the architects.

Ursula said the whole scheme had already been lightly etched into the soil.

Sigrid and Esmildred commandeered a trajinera called Violette to float through the city, looking up at square pink trees and listening to birds then cars then crickets then laughter then cranes then trucks and pneumatic drills then drums then wind. When Violette flipped over and tried to drown them the horizon went to smoke and the trees to fire before the sky fell in.

Zoe saw water rush through the doorjamb. She thought they were going to die but it was the goddess Thalassa, who gave Zoe and Ursula the most beautiful, warm hug, like swimming on the summer solstice. Being filled with water, she saturated the drawing set. Thalassa said, ‘I am very proud of you for effecting an orthogonal canalisation scheme throughout the United States, despite some local discomfort. I will take you for ice cream very soon.’

‘Esmildred and Sigrid seem to be doing very well,’ she added. ‘But sometimes one can have too much water.’

Ursula asked, ‘Have you seen Sigrid?’

‘Sigrid is in Mexico City. She finished the orthogonal canalisation scheme. She called me to bless the karst and serpents.’ Zoe and Ursula fumed but were secretly relieved.

Sigrid, with bated breath, poured the last of the pink concrete, careful not to drip it into the Pacific Ocean. There! Het Esmildred-Sigrid-Ursula-Zoe- Lagarfljótsormurinn Orthogonale Kanalisatieschema d.w.z. Olifantgracht was finished! A school of orcas turned up. ‘Go away!’ Sigrid shouted. ‘If you enter the canalisation scheme you will never make it back to the ocean alive!’

Ursula gazed out over the continent. She watched the first barges turn at radii perfectly suited to right angles and sighed with happiness. The orcas said, ‘we could do that.’

Esmildred and Het Monster van Loch Ness tried to catch apples with their teeth but Esmildred didn’t have any teeth and Het Monster van Loch Ness had a limited range of motion especially with so many cyclists giddily crossing bridges. By now the orcas were nearly in tears.

Zoe said, ‘I suppose you would like me to ask what’s wrong.’ The orcas cried, ‘Waren verveeld!’ Zoe wanted to say, no, you’re not but asked instead if they knew where the Netherlands were, and they said of course they did, they were Papuan and naïve enough to love decoration. It would be a long way, but they could bring her home. She said that had nothing to do with it, and they all set off.

  • Monica Datta’s ‘Zus!’ is published in the new edition of The Evergreen. The Evergreen is a project of The Word Bank, an Edinburgh publishing social enterprise.

  • Full information on the 2019/20 Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize, and how to enter, can be found here.