"The Woman Men Couldn't See" is an expansion of Hand's acclaimed critical assessment of author Alice Sheldon, who wrote award-winning SF as "James Tiptree, Jr." in order to conceal identity from both the SF community and her CIA overlords. Another nonfiction piece, "Beyond Belief" recounts her difficult passage from alienated teen to serious artist.
Also included are "Kronia," a poignant time-travel romance, and "The Saffron Gatherers," two of Hand's favorite and less familiar stories. Plus: a bibliography and our candid and illuminating Outspoken Interview with one of today's most inventive authors.
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By Elizabeth Hand
PM PressCopyright © 2017 Elizabeth Hand
All rights reserved.
The Saffron Gatherers
He had almost been as much a place to her as a person; the lost domain, the land of heart's desire. Alone at night she would think of him as others might imagine an empty beach, blue water; for years she had done this, and fallen into sleep.
She flew to Seattle to attend a symposium on the Future. It was a welcome trip — on the East Coast, where she lived, it had rained without stopping for thirty-four days. A meteorological record, now a tired joke: only six more days to go! Even Seattle was drier than that.
She was part of a panel discussion on natural disasters and global warming. Her first three novels had presented near-future visions of apocalypse; she had stopped writing them when it became less like fiction and too much like reportage. Since then she had produced a series of time-travel books, wish-fulfillment fantasies about visiting the ancient world. Many of her friends and colleagues in the field had turned to similar themes, retro, nostalgic, historical. Her academic background was in classical archeology; the research was joyous, if exhausting. She hated to fly, the constant round of threats and delay. The weather and concomitant poverty, starvation, drought, flooding, riots — it had all become so bad that it was like an extreme sport now, to visit places that had once unfolded from one's imagination in the brightly colored panoramas of 1920s postal cards. Still she went, armed with eyeshade, earplugs, music, and pills that put her to sleep. Behind her eyes, she saw Randall's arm flung above his head, his face half-turned from hers on the pillow. Fifteen minutes after the panel had ended she was in a cab on her way to SeaTac. Several hours later she was in San Francisco.
He met her at the airport. After the weeks of rain back East and Seattle's muted sheen, the sunlight felt like something alive, clawing at her eyes. They drove to her hotel, the same place she always stayed; like something from an old B-movie, the lobby with its ornate cast-iron stair-rail, the narrow front desk of polished walnut; clerks who all might have been played by the young Peter Lorre. The elevator with its illuminated dial like a clock that could never settle on the time; an espresso shop tucked into the back entrance, no bigger than a broom closet.
Randall always had to stoop to enter the elevator. He was very tall, not as thin as he had been when they first met, nearly twenty years earlier. His hair was still so straight and fine that it always felt wet, but the luster had faded from it: it was no longer dark-blond but grey, a strange dusky color, almost blue in some lights, like pale damp slate. He had grey-blue eyes; a habit of looking up through downturned black lashes that at first had seemed coquettish. She had since learned it was part of a deep reticence, a detachment from the world that sometimes seemed to border on the pathological. You might call him an agoraphobe, if he had stayed indoors.
But he didn't. They had grown up in neighboring towns in New York, though they only met years later, in DC. When the time came to choose allegiance to a place, she fled to Maine, with all those other writers and artists seeking a retreat into the past; he chose Northern California. He was a journalist, a staff writer for a glossy magazine that only came out four times a year, each issue costing as much as a bottle of decent sémillon. He interviewed scientists engaged in paradigm-breaking research, Nobel Prize–winning writers; poets who wrote on their own skin and had expensive addictions to drugs that subtly altered their personalities, the tenor of their words, so that each new book or online publication seemed to have been written by another person. Multiple Poets' Disorder, Randall had tagged this, and the term stuck; he was the sort of writer who coined phrases. He had a curved mouth, beautiful long fingers. Each time he used a pen, she was surprised again to recall that he was left-handed. He collected incunabula — Ars oratoria, Jacobus Publicius's disquisition on the art of memory; the Opera Philosophica of Seneca, containing the first written account of an earthquake; Pico della Mirandola's Heptaplus — as well as manuscripts. His apartment was filled with quarter-sawn oaken barrister's bookcases, glass fronts bright as mirrors, holding manuscript binders, typescripts, wads of foolscap bound in leather. By the window overlooking the Bay, a beautiful old mapchest of letters written by Neruda, Beckett, Asaré. There were signed broadsheets on the walls, and drawings, most of them inscribed to Randall. He was two years younger than she was. Like her, he had no children. In the years since his divorce, she had never heard him mention his former wife by name.
The hotel room was small and stuffy. There was a wooden ceiling fan that turned slowly, barely stirring the white curtain that covered the single window. It overlooked an airshaft. Directly across was another old building, a window that showed a family sitting at a kitchen table, eating beneath a fluorescent bulb.
"Come here, Suzanne," said Randall. "I have something for you."
She turned. He was sitting on the bed — a nice bed, good mattress and expensive white linens and duvet — reaching for the leather mailbag he always carried to remove a flat parcel.
"Here," he said. "For you."
It was a book. With Randall it was always books. Or expensive tea: tiny, neon-colored foil packets that hissed when she opened them and exuded fragrances she could not describe, dried leaves that looked like mouse droppings, or flower petals, or fur; leaves that, once infused, tasted of old leather and made her dream of complicated sex.
"Thank you," she said, unfolding the mauve tissue the book was wrapped in. Then, as she saw what it was, "Oh! Thank you!"
"Since you're going back to Thera. Something to read on the plane."
It was an oversized book in a slipcase: the classic edition of The Thera Frescoes, by Nicholas Spirotiadis, a volume that had been expensive when first published, twenty years earlier. Now it must be worth a fortune, with its glossy thick photographic paper and fold-out pages depicting the larger murals. The slipcase art was a detail from the site's most famous image, the painting known as The Saffron Gatherers. It showed the profile of a beautiful young woman dressed in an elaborately patterned tiered skirt and blouse, her head shaven save for a serpentine coil of dark hair, her brow tattooed. She wore hoop earrings and bracelets, two on her right hand, one on her left. Bell-like tassels hung from her sleeves. She was plucking the stigma from a crocus blossom. Her fingernails were painted red.
Suzanne had seen the original painting a decade ago, when it was easier for American researchers to gain access to the restored ruins and the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. After two years of paperwork and bureaucratic wheedling, she had just received permission to return.
"It's beautiful," she said. It still took her breath away, how modern the girl looked, not just her clothes and jewelry and body art but her expression, lips parted, her gaze at once imploring and vacant: the fifteen-year-old who had inherited the earth.
"Well, don't drop it in the tub." Randall leaned over to kiss her head. "That was the only copy I could find on the net. It's become a very scarce book."
"Of course," said Suzanne, and smiled.
"Claude is going to meet us for dinner. But not till seven. Come here —"
They lay in the dark room. His skin tasted of salt and bitter lemon; his hair against her thighs felt warm, liquid. She shut her eyes and imagined him beside her, his long limbs and rueful mouth; opened her eyes and there he was, now, sleeping. She held her hand above his chest and felt heat radiating from him, a scent like honey. She began to cry silently.
His hands. That big rumpled bed. In two days she would be gone, the room would be cleaned. There would be nothing to show she had ever been here at all.
* * *
They drove to an Afghan restaurant in North Beach. Randall's car was older, a second-generation hybrid; even with the grants and tax breaks, a far more expensive vehicle than she or anyone she knew back East could ever afford. She had never gotten used to how quiet it was.
Outside, the sidewalks were filled with people, the early evening light silvery-blue and gold, like a sun shower. Couples arm-in-arm, children, groups of students waving their hands as they spoke on their cell phones, a skateboarder hustling to keep up with a pack of parkour practitioners.
"Everyone just seems so much more absorbed here," she said. Even the panhandlers were antic.
"It's the light. It makes everyone happy. Also the drugs they put in our drinking water." She laughed, and he put his arm around her.
Claude was sitting in the restaurant when they arrived. He was a poet who had gained notoriety and then prominence in the late 1980s with the Hyacinthus Elegies, his response to the AIDS epidemic. Randall first interviewed him after Claude received his MacArthur Fellowship. They subsequently became good friends. On the wall of his flat, Randall had a hand-written copy of the second elegy, with one of the poet's signature drawings of a hyacinth at the bottom.
"Suzanne!" He jumped up to embrace her, shook hands with Randall, then beckoned them both to sit. "I ordered some wine. A good cab I heard about from someone at the gym."
Suzanne adored Claude. The day before she left for Seattle, he'd sent flowers to her, a half-dozen delicate Narcissus serotinus, with long white narrow petals and tiny yellow throats. Their sweet scent perfumed her entire small house. She'd e-mailed him profuse but also wistful thanks — they were such an extravagance, and so lovely; and she had to leave before she could enjoy them fully. He was a few years younger than she was, thin and muscular, his face and skull hairless save for a wispy black beard. He had lost his eyebrows during a round of chemo and had feathery lines, like antennae, tattooed in their place and threaded with gold beads. His chest and arms were heavily tattooed with stylized flowers, dolphins, octopi, the same iconography Suzanne had seen in Akrotiri and Crete; and also with the names of lovers and friends and colleagues who had died. Along the inside of his arms you could still see the stippled marks left by hypodermic needles — they looked like tiny black beads worked into the pattern of waves and swallows and the faint white traces of an adolescent suicide attempt. His expression was gentle and melancholy, the face of a tired ascetic, or a benign Antonin Artaud.
"I should have brought the book!" Suzanne sat beside him, shaking her head in dismay. "This beautiful book that Randall gave me — Spirotiadis' Thera book?"
"No! I've heard of it, I could never find it. Is it wonderful?"
"It's gorgeous. You would love it, Claude."
They ate, and spoke of his collected poetry, forthcoming next winter; of Suzanne's trip to Akrotiri. Of Randall's next interview, with a woman on the House Committee on Bioethics who was rumored to be sympathetic to the pro-cloning lobby, but only in cases involving "only" children — no siblings, no twins or multiples — who died before age fourteen.
"Grim," said Claude. He shook his head and reached for the second bottle of wine. "I can't imagine it. Even pets ..."
He shuddered, then turned to rest a hand on Suzanne's shoulder. "So: back to Santorini. Are you excited?"
"I am. Just seeing that book, it made me excited again. It's such an incredible place — you're there, and you think, What could this have been? If it had survived, if it all hadn't just gone bam, like that —"
"Well, then it would really have gone," said Randall." I mean, it would have been lost. There would have been no volcanic ash to preserve it. All your paintings, we would never have known them. Just like we don't know anything else from back then."
"We know some things," said Suzanne. She tried not to sound annoyed — there was a lot of wine, and she was jetlagged. "Plato. Homer ..."
"Oh, them," said Claude, and they all laughed. "But he's right. It would all have turned to dust by now. All rotted away. All one with Baby Jesus, or Baby Zeus. Everything you love would be buried under a Tradewinds Resort. Or it would be like Athens, which would be even worse."
"Would it?" She sipped her wine. "We don't know that. We don't know what it would have become. This —"
She gestured at the room, the couple sitting beneath twinkling rosecolored lights, playing with a digital toy that left little chattering faces in the air as the woman switched it on and off. Outside, dusk and neon. "It might have become like this."
"This." Randall leaned back in his chair, staring at her. "Is this so wonderful?"
"Oh yes," she said, staring back at him, the two of them unsmiling. "This is all a miracle."
He excused himself. Claude refilled his glass and turned back to Suzanne. "So. How are things?"
"With Randall?" She sighed. "It's good. I dunno. Maybe it's great. Tomorrow — we're going to look at houses."
Claude raised a tattooed eyebrow "Really?"
She nodded. Randall had been looking at houses for three years now, ever since the divorce.
"Who knows?" she said. "Maybe this will be the charm. How hard can it be to buy a house?"
"In San Francisco? Doll, it's easier to win the stem cell lottery. But yes, Randall is a very discerning buyer. He's the last of the true idealists. He's looking for the eidos of the house. Plato's eidos; not Socrates'," he added. "Is this the first time you've gone looking with him?"
She managed another nod, almost a shrug; was it?
"Well. Maybe that is great," he said. "Or not. Would you move out here?"
"I don't know. Maybe. If he had a house. Probably not."
"I don't know. I guess I'm looking for the eidos of something else. Out here, it's just too ..."
She opened her hands as though catching rain. Claude looked at her quizzically.
"Too sunny?" he said. "Too warm? Too beautiful?"
"I suppose. The land of the lotus-eaters. I love knowing it's here, but." She drank more wine. "Maybe if I had more job security."
"You're a writer. It's against nature for you to have job security."
"Yeah, no kidding. What about you? You don't ever worry about that?"
He gave her his sweet sad smile and shook his head. "Never. The world will always need poets. We're like the lilies of the field."
"What about journalists?" Randall appeared behind them, slipping his cell phone back into his pocket. "What are we?"
"Quackgrass," said Claude.
"Cactus," said Suzanne.
"Oh, gee. I get it," said Randall. "Because we're all hard and spiny and no one loves us."
"Because you only bloom once a year," said Suzanne.
"When it rains," added Claude.
"That was my realtor." Randall sat and downed the rest of his wine. "Sunday's open house day. Two o'clock till four. Suzanne, we have a lot of ground to cover."
He gestured for the waiter. Suzanne leaned over to kiss Claude's cheek.
"When do you leave for Hydra?" she asked.
"Tomorrow!" She looked crestfallen. "That's so soon!"
"The beautiful life was brief," said Claude, and laughed. "You're only here till Monday. I have a reservation on the ferry from Piraeus, I couldn't change it."
"How long will you be there? I'll be in Athens Tuesday after next, then I go to Akrotiri."
Claude smiled. "That might work. Here —"
He copied out a phone number in his careful, calligraphic hand.
"This is Zali's number on Hydra. A cell phone, I have no idea if it will even work. But I'll see you soon. Like you said —"
He lifted his thin hands and gestured at the room around them, his dark eyes wide. "This is a miracle."
Randall paid the check and they turned to go. At the door, Claude hugged Suzanne. "Don't miss your plane," he said.
"Don't wind her up!" said Randall.
"Don't miss yours," said Suzanne. Her eyes filled with tears as she pressed her face against Claude's. "It was so good to see you. If I miss you, have a wonderful time in Hydra."
"Oh, I will," said Claude. "I always do."
* * *
Randall dropped her off at her hotel. She knew better than to ask him to stay; besides, she was tired, and the wine was starting to give her a headache.
"Tomorrow," he said. "Nine o'clock. A leisurely breakfast, and then ..."
He leaned over to open her door, then kissed her. "The exciting new world of California real estate?"
Outside, the evening had grown cool, but the hotel room still felt close: it smelled of sex, and the sweetish dusty scent of old books. She opened the window by the airshaft and went to take a shower. Afterwards she got into bed, but found herself unable to sleep.
The wine, she thought; always a mistake. She considered taking one of the anti-anxiety drugs she carried for flying, but decided against it. Instead she picked up the book Randall had given her.
Excerpted from Fire by Elizabeth Hand. Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Hand. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsThe Saffron Gatherers,
Beyond Belief: On Becoming a Writer,
"Flying Squirrels in the Rafters" Outspoken Interview with Elizabeth Hand,
The Woman Men Didn't See,