Okay. I don’t want to tell you where I got this idea. But I will tell you that before I started Week Five, I decided to write a story in parts. What’s below is my second start of the week and the third part is the second third part of the piece. Go ahead and see what you think:
The town was at the edge of a canyon. Beyond that, a mountain range that looked lazy at a distance, all of its sloping peaks seen on a clear day. For one hundred years, the town was an outpost for men who climbed down the canyon and then up before disappearing into the mountains and whatever lay beyond. No letters came back. No man climbed from the canyon and told the town what he’d seen. So many men, especially those accompanied by their wives and children, decided that reaching the town was far enough and bought up parcels that licked the lip of the canyon, set porches facing the mountains, naming the peaks after their children, unofficially, so that at school fights settled whether the peak was Jedidiah or Samuel. But after a hundred years, one of the farmers plowed a furrow that sparkled.
For another hundred years, the town kept their dirt secret. What they did was live as farmers. Acres that yielded gold, silver and copper at the turn of a spade were given to the town and harvested every two years. The rest of the acres, each man planted and harvested annually. They had dirt under their fingernails. Everyone could afford shoes. It became difficult for anyone taking a look at the expanse of canyon to buy a parcel. More men traveled on, their bones collecting at steep drops in the canyon, in caves and burrows on the mountains. For a hundred years, it went like that. The town yielded to progress: electricity and phone lines spooled a hundred miles from the nearest other town, as if trying to keep the town from falling over the canyon edge. People bought televisions. They watched the moon landing. For a year after, the young people in town thought the metal should fund their own rocket, launched to colonize another place as remote.
That’s what all the gold, silver and copper was called: the metal. It was melted to bars and stacked in discreet warehouses around town. Since men weren’t coming through to cross the canyon and mountains to whatever lay beyond (they could fly over and what lay beyond was a cold ocean), the barns and sheds hiding the metal weren’t guarded. Anyone in town could go take a peek at the inventory.
On the alternate years, the previous harvest was added up and the town council hosted a meeting to talk about the inventory. The meeting went on for at least a week, each citizen allowed to say how they thought the metal should be spent. The trouble was, they had so much. And because they still lived like farmers and because secrecy had been burned into them from infancy, no one suggested tours of Europe or cruises in the Caribbean.
The school could use a better server, said the IT director. The librarian nodded. She raised her hand and said, I think the whole town should have digital access to all the books in the world. Everyone who liked to read, clapped. She said, And better internet means we can watch all the shows. Everyone else clapped.
If they could have planted thick cables and run wires through everyone’s walls, flipped a switch and connected the town high-speed to the rest of the world without inviting anyone from the rest of the world to walk their streets, that’s what they would have voted. Every year, the little high school churned out enough kids interested in engineering, architecture, medicine and plumbing to keep the town stocked. And the kids who went away to study literature, art, mathematics and history returned to teach or open a studio and marry the engineers, architects, doctors and plumbers. A few of the council men and women were starting to talk about everyone having the exact same nose and ears. But that was another problem and not one they knew how to fix with internet.
Two things happened the year the town got high-speed internet. First they got internet, brought in by men in blue jumpsuits with a swirled logo on the back. These men were too friendly. They told the town all the stories people believed about its people: they were ghosts (not true), they were illiterate (not true), they didn’t know who the president was (not true), they only ate corn (not true), and they were inbred (the town gave the friendly men that). But these men really were too friendly. They flattered the young ladies who had returned home after four or five years of university to find that not even a plumber remained and they’d have to wait until next summer when the next college graduates came back. These bored young ladies had a lot to talk about in the cafes and bars, on lonely roads away from the canyon. The night the job was finished, one of these ladies whispered something in a friendly man’s ear and an hour later a neighbor saw a blue jumpsuit figure lifting the door of a storage unit.
The second thing happened and no one was prepared. There was a lot of blood. They had to stage an accident and fake a search party before calling the high-speed internet company and saying they’d found a van with the logo, at the bottom of the canyon. No survivors. A few of the townspeople were hysterical. For a month after, nearly everyone was on some kind of anti-anxiety medication. In June, a young woman returned to the town with her psychology degree.
Thank God, the city manager said, You have to help. He pulled Molly into his office and told her what happened. She thought about driving east again, never returning. But the mayor was broken up about all of it. He was afraid. Everyone was walking around with blood on their hands.
Molly thought about it. She’d roomed with a student who studied art therapy. She’d looked at pencil and crayon pictures done by kids caught in wars or inner cities. Maybe the town could draw what they remembered.
They ran out of red and blue in an hour. Everyone got very tired and sad. One old man gave Molly the picture he drew. He’d stolen all the metallic crayons from the tables and made a giant patchwork of gold, silver and copper. His eyes were runny and he sniffed when he talked. But he had an idea. No one would listen to him because – he knocked on his head – but she was psychology graduate, she could say she knew a thing or two, right? Molly nodded and went to the town council with his/her idea.
Count this as the third thing that happened. Every citizen over the age of ten got metal, slim bars the size of a Hershey. One each of gold, silver and copper. That first year, the sculptures were garbage. Only a few turned out a little pretty. Most of the townspeople melted their bars into a teardrop of swirled metal. The edges were sharp. No one was sure what they were supposed to do after making the pieces. Molly leaned into a microphone set up in the park and looked out at the hundreds of men, women and children gathered for what the town council promised as a Day Of Remembering, Mourning & Restoring. Molly tapped the microphone and the squeal of feedback got their attention. She held up her own lumpy metal and said, Let these be a way to honor our experience and grief.
No one clapped. She tried again. Let these remind us not to do that again. The men, women and children held up their own tiny metals and shouted or cried.
At the inventory that year, someone suggested enough bars be set aside for another Day Of Remembering, Mourning & Restoring – only maybe we could call it something different this time. After a decade, the festival held each July was called Metal Honors. A few students left to study metallurgy and sculpture and gave workshops in the months leading up to Metal Honors. The game was to melt down the previous year’s figure and remake it, adding the three new bars.
After fifty years, the town farmed less and worked metal more. Again, they kept their secret. The acres continued to yield gold, silver and copper. Each metal had a different temperament and townspeople swapped each other for their favorites. It became difficult for the town council to propose the inventory be used to send anyone to college. Or to buy updated textbooks. Or to paint stripes down the center of the main road. Or to fix the sewage system. Finally, in a coup, the town council pushed through a measure to insure basic utilities and education would be paid for in perpetuity. Everyone knew the council was right. But the bars of gold, silver and copper were so slim. You could barely add an eyebrow to some of the older honors.
Even so, men women and children continued to gather in the park each July to remake their honors. Eleven-year olds got a little ceremony called First Melt. Everyone in town was marked with scars from one of their Metal Honors. In the cemetery, honors took the place of marble slabs, so you could guess the age of the dead by looking at how heavy their honor was.
It went on like this for another hundred years. The town let their high-speed cables rot. Everyone’s eyes took the same shade of blue. Their skin was translucent, like the friendly men had told them so long ago no one alive remembered: people say you’re all ghosts.
The children began to go deaf. The first child was sick for a month after playing in a cold river. That was why he went deaf. But the other cases came in the warm spring and hot summer months. When adolescents and young adults began to lose their hearing too, doctors hypothesized that microwaves were interrupting synapses in the brain, frequently enough to cause permanent loss. Or maybe it was the genetically modified soybeans. Maybe it was the rinse used on the finished honors. But the children got along okay. Everyone learned enough sign language so that when the older adults also went deaf, they could still order pie at the diner and ask how you were doing. It was nice to have quiet. It fit the landscape, to hear nothing when you stood at the edge of the canyon. To hear nothing but a picture of how you’d use your next honor bars.
Every few years, a high school graduate would still leave the town. One young man spent his PhD reading dense papers on telekinesis. He mistook an old television series for a documentary, two FBI agents digging through conspiracy theories. He decided that this must be the fate of his town, an experiment orchestrated by the government: poison in the water, thought control, invisible and potent energy waves scrambling their senses. He wrote a letter home, to his cousin who understood him best. The envelope was stamped Return To Sender. Blind underlined twice. The town was blind.
Soon, no one left. Deaf and blind, the townspeople touched their way through each day. They turned their yards into gardens, crawled through the rows harvesting meals. During winter they ate dried vegetables and fruits, potatoes stored in basements. No one remembered tiny screens swiped awake, chirping messages, vibrating reminders. No one remembered what birds sounded like or what clouds looked like. So much of the day was at the feet of their honors, touching the metal: tapping, knocking, caressing, hammering, tracing, resting. Their hands took the shape of their honor. They identified one another by the curve of fingers, the cup of palm. Food began to taste the same and then to taste like nothing. They ate to sustain. They ran their tongues over the bumps and grooves of their honors, imagining gold was salt and silver fat, copper sweet. These words – gold, salt, silver, fat, copper, sweet – were like heat shimmers on hot, cracked asphalt, disappearing when they got close enough to almost smell what they almost knew. Most of them accepted this. A few children were born with other memories, so disturbed as they neared their First Melt that parents locked them in rooms before the ceremony. There was no joy in making a child hold a slim bar of gold. No joy in making a child ignite a torch and mix the metals into his first honor.
You couldn’t make a child want his First Melt and after a year of burns, the town council felt their way from house to house, spelling out a new rule in open palms. The next year, any child who did not elect to participate in their First Melt followed a rope, hand over hand, to the canyon. With those children, and the next year’s loss and the year after, touch diminished.
The honors were remade even more elaborate. In the last years of touch, the townspeople molded themselves to their honors, choosing the way they would stand or sit or lay, making the space between skin and metal as whisper as possible. The oldest townspeople were reminded of another closeness, fireworks in their bellies, but even that memory was borrowed from generations already dead. No babies were born. They had no memory except for a faint slip of smooth, cold.
For another fifty years, they lived like that. Their bodies made heat, detected by drones. The honors sent up particles identifying gold, silver and copper, also detected by drones. No one in the town knew men and women were seated at a table hundreds of miles away, watching the townspeople on screen and asking each other if what they were seeing was real. In the last days, mouths moved but no sound came. Hands touched but no message went up an arm. A few of the youngest had dreams of blue and red, but no words or thoughts to explain, no sense of needing to make sense when they rested back against their honors. They didn’t know if they lay against their honor or a cement wall. They ate meals of air. The drones went lower and no one looked up.
In the very last days, a caravan of researchers arrived. Men and women from around the globe applied for spots on a team that would go to the town and learn these people. Preparation was extensive. Once the team went in, no one knew what would happen, how the delicately held group might react. News broadcasts covered the team as those sent to Mars had been covered: dossiers posted online, interview clips with each man or woman. For months before the researchers parked their labs at the edge of the canyon, and for months after, the town was all anyone talked about. The last unknown people had been obliterated, purposefully, for the riches on their islands. There had been talk of the same, for this town. But a few academics studying the first footage said that if it was the metal the world wanted, it was worth waiting for the researchers to study the group first. No one had seen anything like it. Stealing the figures before taking notes and learning one of the few unlearned things on the earth – no, we hadn’t come to that yet.
The researchers called the town Edge, after the painted word visible on a sign at the town limit. The town was Canyon Ledge, once, and the abandoned school still had steel letters tacked to its yellow brick: Canyon Ledge High School. But researchers called the place Edge and named the people edges. The first dispatches from Edge were most popular, and by counts, the rest of the world had seen these pale ghosts. They moved as if submerged. After a month of watching one edge, a researched named Dana posted that the edges were like test subjects dunked in water matched to body temperature. If edges could defy gravity, she guessed they wouldn’t know if they were walking on a floor or ceiling.
It was impossible to ask.
And there were enough researchers there to keep rein on ethics. But a few hypothesized that edges were a kind of super race, so advanced they were mentally and physically beyond the bounds of earth, unconcerned with all material possessions, a kind of sainthood, if anyone still believed in sainthood. For a week or so people around the world decided to go mute. Inherent need for solitude got its due. Among teenagers, edge imitation became a game. But the researchers watching saw the initial appeal of the edges’ monastic living wore thin. They produced nothing. There was no joy. No emotion at all. Dana got permission to touch an edge. The medical staff prepared a quarantine.
The morning Dana was going to touch an edge, she suited up in a white material nearly matching the color of an edge, then decided to wear her own comfortable clothes. She walked quickly to a house where a female edge hid in a corner, curled next to a massive metal figure. The figure held Dana’s attention. She directed a photographer to focus on the intricate designs pressed into the gold, a swirling pattern made of silver. She’d seen the pattern before, on other figures. It had to mean something. The edge herself was curled at the base of the metal, one hand cupped over a lump that might have represented a foot or genitalia, Dana wasn’t sure and edge wouldn’t move her hand aside. For an hour, Dana sat next to the edge, only watching and occasionally whispering to the crew accompanying her. She wasn’t sure how to touch this edge, if one body part was more respectful than another. The edge barely breathed, exhaling a floral scent. If Dana looked hard enough, she could see the shapes of the edge’s internal organs, the beat of a heart under spindly ribs.
One of the photographers shifted his weight. Are we gonna get on with this?
Fine, Dana said. Are you filming?
She reached out and touched the edge’s shoulder. It was like touching a bird, a hollow living thing. Was that all then? Was that what the edges felt like? The edge hadn’t moved at all. The visible heart beat didn’t quicken.
For the cameras back at the lab, Dana said the experience was spiritual. She had touched a refined being, so secure in its existence that Dana herself hadn’t disrupted the meditation. After the camera cut, she turned to another researcher and asked if he’d ever read anything about meditation, did anyone do that anymore? The other researcher wasn’t sure. Prayer was rare as well. They didn’t know what they were looking at, these edges lost in their own spirits. They used words long ago deemed anti-intellectual. A few of the researchers on site and many more around the world wondered if this was what faith at its purest looked like.
But Dana suspected not. She returned to the female edge several times a day and found the edge unmoved. She went alone one afternoon and sat next to the edge, listening for a sound like religion. Singing or angel hums, something that would explain the complete stillness of the edge. There was nothing. Dana’s stomach turned. She made it out the front door and threw up, walked back to her lab and wrote notes in a shaky hand. I think they are no better than animals, she said to another researcher.
How can you say that?
Look at them. Dana pointed at an edge who plastered himself to a tall copper obelisk. And then at another who stood motionless with her hands at her sides.
Well don’t say that on camera, the other researcher said. Universities are organizing trips here. People think they’re like Siddhartha or Jesus.
Look at them, Dana said again, They’re nothing like Siddhartha or Jesus. They’re idiots.
The other researcher tilted his head and squinted. He asked if she needed a break, maybe a trip back to the city for weekend. Dana shook her head, apologized for her unprofessional attitude. The other researcher said, Remember we’re here to study, not judge.
Right. Dana nodded. But the female edge made her crazy. When Dana was a girl, she’d found a religious text in her father’s library. It wasn’t a title she recognized and that surprised her since her father was one of the leaders in text conversion, ensuring all texts were made into easily shared files so that the whole world could know the same. She read the book secretly and wasn’t sure what to think after. Some of the characters were the same as others she’d read about, in other books about what people were like a long, long time ago, when they did things like sing and pray.
This female edge had none of the peace Dana expected a saint to possess. Instead, the edge opened her mouth in a pink yawn, worked her jaw a little like she might say something, but nothing came. There was an absence of everything in this marble-fleshed edge. It infuriated Dana in a way she didn’t understand. The edge neither acknowledged nor dismissed Dana. It was as if Dana were the ghost instead.
One morning, Dana got up and went directly to the female edge, crouched down and screamed. The edge didn’t flinch or blink or turn away. Dana got hot. She reached out and grabbed the edge by her wrist, wrenching the female’s grip on the metal figure. For a split second, Dana sensed a reaction. She replaced the edge’s hand on the metal, then pulled it away again. Same. Again. Same. One more time, but after Dana removed the edge’s hand, she let go. The edge did not lift her hand to find the metal figure. No part of the edge moved at all, after Dana scooted away and settled against the wall to watch. The edge sat motionless, with her cupped palm resting on her thigh where Dana let it fall. The giant metal figure was inches from the edge, but the female made no move to touch where the surface was worn to a bright shine.
Dana was ready to go when the edge tilted back her head and worked her jaw. Dana watched for a moment. She said to the edge, People think you’re enlightened. Dana said it with a bitterness she hadn’t tasted before, contempt.
It only got worse.
The rest of the world wanted to hear about the higher minds of this lost population. Dana rolled her eyes when her superiors asked what observation supported this idea, that the edges were somehow advanced. The researchers who’d vied for a spot on the team, who’d felt certain this field study would enhance their careers or catapult them into the academic fame occupied by economists and war historians – these same researchers wanted to leave. No one said this out loud, but they were all sure this assignment would dead-end in a month when the world full of edge imitators standing still in the middle of rooms would wake up and realize what they really needed were the tons of gold, silver and copper molded into the most elaborate and hideous forms.
After two months, when the team’s video updates were sporadic and the world’s attention was turning again to a reef of plastic trash spanning the Pacific, Dana proposed the team remove the metal figures from the town and see what happened. They were bored. They called for military support in case the edges possessed a power sparked by separation from their figures, but Dana doubted anything violent would happen. She didn’t tell her fellow researchers she’d been tormenting her female edge for two weeks, dragging her an inch or so away from the metal figure each day so that now, even if the edge extended her arm, she wouldn’t feel the cold hulk of gold. Dana couldn’t tell if the edge was actually tormented or not, but Dana liked to think so, in a way that made her stomach turn, in a way that made her think of what she’d learned in a college course about twentieth century wars.
What happened was just what Dana privately predicted. Strong men and heavy machines were brought in to take away the figures, sometimes knocking down a wall for access. Before their removal, each figure was measured and photographed. They were made of material too valuable to plant in glass cases in the world’s museums, but no one on the team thought it was right to send the figures off to melt anonymously. The town was full of gold, silver and copper. A cemetery of squat markers, basements of scraps, a few sheds of half melted bars. And in each standing house, a giant figure filling half a room or more, an unmoving edge pasted to the metal.
The researchers were gentle with the edges. Not like Dana had become, roughly dragging and dropping the hollow-boned female. Dana felt badly about that now, watching the other researchers coo and cradle the edges removed from their figures, gathering the town’s ghostly population in the park, laying them gently on spread blankets under tree shade. Dana’s edge was one of the last to be removed and she went into the house alone. She didn’t want anyone to see how far away from the figure Dana had moved her edge. It was cruel, even if the edge didn’t know.
But the edge knew. Dana got close and saw that the female’s translucent skin had turned grayer, like dirty linen. Dana squatted and arranged the edge’s limbs to carry her out like a child. She picked up her edge and looked at the breast for a heartbeat. There was one, weaker than before. This is what would happen to the others, Dana knew. The edges would fade. Dana felt a kind of sorrow then, knowing she’d done this to an unseeing, unspeaking being. She carried her edge first to the metal figure and placed the edge’s hand on the shining gold, just for a moment. The photographers came in then and asked Dana to stay like that, took a series of pictures that became iconic of the Edge research, the tenderness with which the researchers handled the town’s population.
Dana could never look at the photos.
After the metal was removed, for melting and redistribution, to be spun into tiny wires or pressed into circuit board mazes or laced into human veins, the researchers watched the edges die. No one was sure what they’d learned. The swirled pattern found on nearly every figure matched a logo belonging to a high-speed internet company, when there was a need for underground cables to connect one person to another. The team gathered as many clues as they could – rotting newspapers and photographs, dishes, molds scraped from ancient appliances, tubes of well water – and sent the samples back to labs for analysis. But everyone had the sense that once the edges died, the town would be allowed to fold in on itself. A couple of the medical researchers suggested the edges come into the world, live in an institution designed to care for their bodies. But with the world’s attention shifted again, this time to a riot on the moon colony that threatened international peace on earth, the group of Edge researchers used a word that hadn’t been often uttered in recent decades: humane.
As in, it would be more human to allow the edges to die where they’d lived. As in, perhaps it hadn’t been humane to take away what appears now to have been their whole sustenance. Because it felt wrong to abandon the town before its last edge died, a few researchers elected to stay. Dana was one of them, walking the rows of edges laying as they’d been placed, pink mouths opening for air. The edges got sores and to make up for what she’d already done, Dana turned the frail bodies from one side to the next.
When an edge died, it gave off no scent. Their skin turned a darker gray, and moisture left the body. For the few weeks it took for the edges to finish dying, Dana dug shallow graves and took long walks away from Edge. She looked up and saw the mountains on the other side of the deep canyon. One afternoon she kicked a clod of dirt in a field and turned over a chunk of gold the size of an egg. She put it in her pocket and told no one, and did not return to that field. Many years later, when she was interviewed about her Edge research, Dana was tempted to show the young historian the chunk of gold she’d scrubbed clean in a lab basin and hidden in her bag when she’d left Edge. For decades the chunk of gold stayed wrapped in a sock at the back of her underwear drawer, a secret she could almost keep from herself.
She didn’t touch the gold anymore. She had, at first, a little curious if she could become an edge herself, if the metal contained sucking power, pulling herself from herself and leaving a hollow still version. She wondered if she’d feel enlightened or dead, but after a year of occasionally holding the gold egg, moving it from one palm to the next, she’d put in an old sock. Even so, she found her palms cupping at the memory of the egg’s existence in the other room and the historian noticed her rubbing her hands. She smiled and shrugged, said, Arthritis maybe, or the cold.