by Beth Goder
Brill touches the floating lilies of her galactic garden, her scaled arm outlined against dark planets and white-hot stars. Zoom out, and she’s a figure suspended in space, surrounded by bluebells and seaweed and the hushed, crumpled newness of hyacinth. Her magnificent tail flicks like a feather, her scaled head shines. Zoom in, deep into her body, into the pouches under her skin where she catches cosmic dust, and she’s an efficient cartographer, a careful explorer, a mermaid who appreciates the work that goes into well-made things.
In her hand, a lily dies, turning back to dust. The lily loses its molecules one by one until it is only scattered parts of something that used to be whole. Brill has never seen a flower disintegrate. Her gardens are made to flourish, built from the dust she absorbs into the pouches under her scales.
Soon, her sister Yulana swims up to the garden. Zoom out, and Yulana is a blue-scaled mermaid framed against a backdrop of twelve planets orbiting elliptical around a pallid sun, surrounded by schools of rainbow fish and pods of space whales. Zoom in, and she’s a lover of good literature, an accidental chemist, a mermaid who thinks space gardens are a waste of time. But she’d never tell her sister that, not in so many words.
Brill points to the place where the lilies used to be. “Do you know anything about this?”
Yulana smooths out the scales behind her ear. “Your flowers are turning back to dust?”
“I built them well. They shouldn’t have fallen apart.” Morning glory vines brush her face. Pollen tickles the scales on the back of her neck.
“This system has lots of interesting stuff,” says Yulana. “A group of us are looking at the chemical composition of the gas giant closest to the star. We could always use another mer to help.” The offer hangs, floating between them like a water droplet in weightlessness, held together by tension, waiting for the lightest touch to decohere. Their group of thirty mers has been traveling for years, slipping beneath the scales of space into new systems. They will return home with knowledge of other places, updated maps, new chemical formulas for durable materials. Brill does her work, which consists mostly of navigation and mapping, and then she makes gardens.
“I would rather figure out what’s happening to my lilies.”
Yulana reaches into the pouch under her ribcage and pulls out a wad of cosmic dust. She shapes a lily, pulling everything into place, until the dust turns white, until a stem twists delicately green. “Look at how small this lily is,” she says, waving her arms to encompass everything.
Zoom out, and this lily is a fraction of the total matter in a twelve-planet system, an amount that could be swallowed by a margin of error many times over, definitionally insignificant. Compared to this system’s sun, this lily is like an atom within a molecule within a grain of sand buried on a beach stretching out to the horizon, and the sun is larger than an ocean. Zoom farther and this sun is one of a billion trillion stars in the observable universe, stretched across distances so vast that metaphors fail, because nothing within our understanding is that huge. It is impossible to see lilies from this distance.
Zoom in, and this lily is hastily made, rough where it should be smooth, petals too symmetrically identical. The stem is one-toned green, without variation, missing its leaves. Still, it is a made thing floating in an expanse of unshaped light, which is why Brill feels a pang when it too disintegrates.
The sunflowers are next. Bright petals wither and break. Brill gathers the cosmic dust into her subcutaneous pouches, but she can’t catch it all.
Purple lotuses drift softly, each petal lovingly indented. Roots float outward like gossamer tentacles. Brill crafted each anther and filament, each peduncle and petal, each leaf.
Before her eyes, water ferns shrivel. Bumpy fronds caress the back of a galactic tuna before becoming nothing at all.
Brill sighs, her scales rippling in a sympathetic tremor. In times like these, it is appropriate to make a list.
POSSIBLE REASONS MY SPACE GARDEN IS TURNING TO DUST
- Pests created and imported
- Failure of construction
She takes the points one by one. Could the millions of fish or pods of whales (a whole ecosystem travels with the mers) have nibbled on her garden? Or perhaps the insectoid creatures Brill has created? Pollinators and nemeses to plants, both. But the plants don’t have bite marks, leaf galls, or any signs of such decay.
Perhaps some hidden flaw sleeps within her plants, although Brill is not in the habit of making mistakes. She examines a creeping primrose-willow for hours, running her hands along the glossy leaves and red stem. If there’s an imperfection, she can’t find it.
That leaves sabotage.
Brill finds Yulana swimming to the core of the gas giant with five other mers. Lustrous tails shimmer like rainbows.
“You’ve come to help us,” says Yulana, looking so happy that, for one moment, Brill thinks perhaps she will spend the day exploring the planet with her sister. Isn’t it easier to let Yulana believe that Brill has an interest in endless layers of lifeless gas? But then she thinks of her garden disintegrating before her, like rain melting into the sea.
“Actually, I just wanted to ask you something.” Brill hates what she says next, but she’s desperate to get an answer. “Do you know if anyone has been messing with my garden?”
Yulana stops swimming. The other mers pass by them, one of their colleagues looking back with an expression that can only mean sisters and good luck.
“You think that I had something to do with your lilies?” Yulana’s face scrunches up and her voice goes dangerously low. She did this when they were kids too. Such an expression is always followed by anger.
“I didn’t mean to say you did something,” Brill says with an injured tone, although that was exactly what she meant. “Just that, maybe one of the others. By accident.” At the look on Yulana’s face, she trails off.
“I defended you to everyone,” says Yulana. “Making these insane gardens.”
Now it’s Brill’s turn to be angry. “Why do you care what I do in my spare time? I have so much of it because I’m efficient.” Her cartographic excellence is well known. It only takes her two swims around a system to know it like the distinctive pattern of scales overlapping the back of her hand. In every system, after finishing her work, she has grown a garden. It is a distinct joy to shape the opening petals of a water lily, to construct sturdy rhizomes. It is simply the joy of making something.
“Stop acting like you’re the only one here,” says Yulana, before swimming away, light glinting furiously off her scales.
Back in the garden, Brill can’t stop thinking about what Yulana said. She bypasses the remark’s obvious meaning about selfishness and pushes deeper. She’s not the only one here. Neither are the mers.
When a yellowcress disintegrates, careful petals unknitting, Brill watches how the dust dissipates, too chaotically, no particle going the same way, in a dizzying explosion only obvious when she peers closely. The antithesis of a pattern.
Brill knows, then, who has sabotaged her garden.
Brill finds Entropy by slipping through the scales of space and swimming, at incredible speeds, towards chaotic twists, which light a path to Entropy like a beacon.
Like all spacefaring mers, Brill has met many of the entities that inhabit her plank of the universe. She has hesitated outside the great sentient castles of the January Islands and called to the sea beyond. She has worn the delicate shawls made by the claws of Vernitian fishers, letting the feather-soft cords slip over her shoulders, touching each fifth fisher claw as a gesture of defiance and comprehension. She has dined on molted weedworms with tall Union Carpenters, their lithe twelve-limbs glinting in the light of their dusty sun, and burned her eyelids with the melting wax of the stone people of Mald. But of all the people and peoples she has met, perhaps none are more powerful than Entropy.
Now, Entropy lounges in the space between worlds. Brill tries to swim in front of her, but it is unclear where Entropy’s front might be. The only thing Brill can distinctly see about Entropy, who is constantly changing her proportions, is that she has an inordinate amount of heads.
Zoom out, and Entropy fills the space and keeps expanding to fill it. Zoom in, and Entropy is fractals all the way down. It’s best not to do any such manipulations with entities such as Entropy, those infinity beings who have trouble with scale and range and limits.
“Excuse me,” says Brill, feeling very small.
At once, all of Entropy’s eyes are fixed on Brill. It is a lot of eyes.
“Why are you here?” asks Entropy. Her voice is like every voice that has ever existed being spoken at all possible frequencies, and also, just the tiniest bit prickly. The sort of voice that is not used to being bothered.
Brill pauses, but there’s no use in waiting. “Have you been destroying my gardens?”
“Yep,” says Entropy, in a way that is frankly pretty smug.
This seems, to Brill, like an appropriate time to make a list.
WHAT TO DO WHEN AN ALL-POWERFUL BEING WITH TOO MANY HEADS HAS ADMITTED TO DESTROYING YOUR SPACE GARDEN
- Ask her politely to stop
- Give her a gift
“Will you stop destroying my garden?” asks Brill politely and with too much hope.
“Nope,” says Entropy. Some of the heads laugh, and others shush them.
Brill reaches into the subcutaneous pouch below her breastbone and removes a wad of cosmic dust. She shapes a needlerush because it seems like the type of plant Entropy might like, the rigid stems splaying out in all directions. “This is for you.”
Entropy does like it. “Thanks,” she says. The needlerush disintegrates into powder. “That felt pretty great.”
Brill swims around Entropy to get a better angle, but it’s not possible. Entropy has no good angles. “Why did you destroy it?”
An uncountable number of Entropy’s heads sigh. “Do you know how rare it is to find complicated things? Things shaped by consciousness? I love destroying those things the best.”
“I’d like to make a deal with you,” says Brill, moving swiftly to the third item on her list.
“Good, because there’s something I want from you,” says Entropy. About half of Entropy’s heads smile, and since Entropy has infinite heads, this means that an infinite number of heads are smiling. Brill has to stop thinking about this before she tumbles down a mathematical chasm.
“What do you want me to do?” asks Brill. She thinks, if she closes her eyes, it might be easier to talk to Entropy, but she worries that would be rude.
“Make me something complicated. Labyrinthine. Something beautiful and intricate, with the intensity of joy you put into your gardens.” Entropy laughs, a booming echo. “Make me something I can unmake.”
Brill scrapes all of the cosmic dust from her pouches and begins to build. She shapes layers and folds, molecular temples and great, sweeping lines. Her aesthetic principles battle with the weave of her creation’s physical, tangible existence. She adds color and light and shadow. Interlocking structures and crisp, delineated shapes, whispered lines thick as subatomic particles and tessellated patterns in millions of colors. She spends hours on a sculpture no bigger than her thumbnail, which she places in the center of a structure limbed with ridged lace.
Hours melt into days; she cannot stop. It feels like she is pouring out everything she has ever thought or known into this creation.
She doesn’t mean to love the thing she makes, but she has never made anything like this.
Brill never wants to stop, but at last, it is done.
She swims away from her creation and studies it in the dusky universe light. It is not perfect, but it is undeniably her own.
It only takes Entropy one instant to destroy it. One moment, her creation floats like a new sun, like a nebula enfolding elements in beautiful potential, and the next, it is gone.
Brill doesn’t try to catch the cosmic dust as it floats around her. The thing she made, now nothing at all, is impossible to replicate.
“I cannot even tell you how amazing that was,” says Entropy.
Brill says nothing. She feels as if she has to rebuild her words, one by one.
“Now for my part of the bargain. I will agree not to destroy your gardens for a period of 10,000 years.”
Her gardens were never meant to be permanent. Entropy, being an entity of infinity, is a little murky on the concept of appropriate amounts of time for mortals. Ten thousand years will be more than enough. Brill nods. Then, finding her voice, she says, “Yes.”
Entropy cackles. “Wow, you’re really not going to negotiate. I mean, you made me the best ever thing.”
Brill is not sure if the bargain she’s made was worth it, but she has made it. And unlike Entropy, she does not have the power of unmaking.
“Thank you,” says Brill, before swimming back through the scales of space. Being a cartographer, Brill is an expert in vast distances. She thinks now of distances in time and space, of longevity and obsolescence and the ephemeral nature of what we make.
One images sticks in her mind: Yulana creating a lily and thrusting her arms to encompass the universe. Perhaps Yulana has a point about the fragility and uselessness of creation, but Brill thinks it’s unfair to weight a lily against everything—it is an unbalanced scale. Maybe it is enough for a lily to be a lily.
As she swims, she filters cosmic dust into the pouches under her skin.
When Brill returns, the first thing she does is find her sister. Brill explores the gas giant with Yulana, helping her take notes about its composition. It is an apology without words, but Brill says the words, too.
Her garden blooms in turquoise and green and gold. Yulana asks if they can swim to it.
“Why do you do this?” Yulana asks. Dozens of water lilies float around them.
Brill’s face scales ripple. “Lots of reasons.”
“Can I try?” Yulana says quickly, surprising them both. “Can I add something to your garden?”
A space garden needs minerals, bright spots of cosmic dust, the light of millions of distant stars. A space garden needs hope, for it is an impossibility, this growth from barrenness, this a miracle of green.
“Let’s make something together,” says Brill.
Brill and Yulana spend hours making a purple-petaled water hyacinth. When they are done, Yulana rests the flower in her palm. It is tiny and beautiful.
“What’s the point,” Yulana says. “No one will ever see this.”
But Yulana is wrong.
A mere 2,000 years later (what Entropy would call barely enough time to blink of one of her many eyes), a spaceship slips between the scales of space to this twelve-planet system. The people within cannot travel in the vacuum of space without cumbersome suits, which cling to their skin. Neither can they shape matter from cosmic dust. They have no subcutaneous pouches.
The possibility of this group finding this same fragment of space is a statistical improbability. The amount of life in the universe, compared to the vastness of unoccupied space, is minuscule. A rounding error, a grain of sand in a desert that stretches out to forever.
But yet, here they are.
To them, the garden is a miracle. They marvel at the delicately crafted leaves. They brush gloved hands against petals which are still bright. They wonder at this gift and are grateful for it, wishing they could thank the creator of this garden. They cannot, for she left long ago.
Brill, Yulana, and the rest of the mers swim through the scales of space. They are off to explore new solar systems and nebulas and asteroids, to make other gardens, and eventually, to return home.
Zoom out, and you’ll see the mers with their magnificent tails. They swim past the Vernitian fishers and the sentient castles of the January Islands and the stone people of Mald–all of the beings who live in this plank of the universe.
Zoom in, and find a pouch against the skin, hidden under overlapping scales. It holds cosmic dust waiting to be made into something.
© Copyright Beth Goder
Beth Goder works as an archivist, processing the papers of economists, scientists, and other interesting folks. Her fiction has appeared in venues such as Escape Pod, Analog, Clarkesworld, Nature, and Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. You can find her online at http://www.bethgoder.com.
Read the Rest of the December Issue
- The Rime of the Midwinter Mermaids by Kelly Jarvis
- What to Do After Receiving a Starlit Pearl by Mari Ness
- Mermaid’s Hook by Liz Argall
- Which Inland Waterways Merfolk Are You? by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas and S.R. Mandel
- Mermaid Care by Jonathan Crowe
- Lotus Eater by Cameron Harvey
- The Catfish Sisters by Lisa M. Bradley
- The North American Wombats Guide to Random Sea Creatures: The Sea Hare by Ursula Vernon
- Merbraids by Amal El-Mohtar, Caitlyn Paxson and Jessica P. Wick
- Mermaid by Marla Faith
- Magdelena the Mermaid by Ana Merino, translation by Toshiya Kamei
- The Space Mermaid’s Garden by Beth Goder
- How to Spot A Mermaid by Emily Fox
- Deepwater Dance by Elaine Ho
- Into the Light by Elaine Ho