I used to live in a little town not entirely unlike the town in this story. The nighthawks around our steeple weren’t robots, but they really did make a noise like a semi truck driving past.
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I used to live in a little town not entirely unlike the town in this story. The nighthawks around our steeple weren’t robots, but they really did make a noise like a semi truck driving past.
“The Sky, Full of Swallows”
by Kellan Sparver
The boy’s spade strikes a rock in the black loam with the distinctive scrape of steel on stone. He and his father are turning the patch of turf behind the church, still damp with melted snow, into a vegetable garden. With a sigh he sits cross-legged, digging in the dirt with clumsy-gloved hands. At last he raises the rock, and, still seated, tosses it heavily towards the pile of other such rocks in what will be the heart of the garden.
The boy’s father says, “Another ten minutes, kiddo, then we’ll go inside.”
As the boy and his father pick up the tools from the greening grass, the boy’s attention is caught. Above them, in the steely sky, a double-handful of birds tumble, black and glinting, around the white spire of the steeple.
“Dad? Why are those birds shiny?”
His father follows his pointing and smiles.
“They’re robots. They’re made out of metal, like those birds we saw at the natural history museum, and they live in the steeple.”
“Robots like the robot people?”
They bring the tools into the garage, maneuvering handles around the family station wagon. The boy’s mother has hot chocolate waiting for them after they’ve taken off their coats and boots. “Last hot chocolate of the winter,” she says, smiling, “so enjoy it. It’s supposed to be in the fifties next week.” This makes the boy obscurely sad. He sits down at the little table in their cramped kitchen, stocking feet dangling, and inhales the steam from his mug of chocolate moodily.
After they finish their hot chocolates, the boy and his father take the pail of kitchen scraps and go downstairs. As soon as they open the door at the top of the stairs they can hear it—a low vibration which seems to fill the whole house. In truth they have been hearing it ever since they came inside, a subliminal hum, more felt in the chest than heard. Down here it sounds like a gravel truck unloading.
The tumbler is huge, a squat black plastic barrel perhaps as deep as the boy and as tall as the boy’s father, its diameter vertical so that it can rotate in place on electric-powered rollers set in a metal frame. The boy’s father presses the button labeled “STOP” on the switch panel, waits for the barrel to rumble to a halt, and then opens the little door and reaches inside with a gloved hand.
He pulls out a handful of muddy gravel for visual inspection and kneels to look at it with the boy. All the boy can see are gray rocks covered in chalky gray slime. “A little dry,” the boy’s father concludes. He fills a bucket halfway and uses it to irrigate the mass inside the barrel, then pours in the scraps, egg shells and orange peels and cereal from breakfast. He closes the door and pushes the button labeled “START” on the switch panel. The barrel begins to turn again, and they go upstairs.
The family says an evening prayer together, and then the boy goes up to his room and gets ready for bed. After his parents have both come to tuck him in and kiss him goodnight, the boy lies in his bed, listening to the nighttime noises of the house. His parents are moving about the house, watching the news and getting ready for bed themselves. The floorboards are creaking and popping, as the house settles over the decades deeper into the ground. Below them all, the tumbler rumbles on. Somewhere, deep in its chest, the house is singing him to sleep.
The boy’s father meets him and his mother at the church the next morning, wearing robes the color of dead winter grass. He greets people as they come in. The boy thinks that most of them are robot people, but the boy can’t tell the difference between robot people and human people, and the boy’s mother has said it isn’t polite to ask.
“Good morning, kiddo,” the boy’s father says. The boy shakes his father’s hand solemnly, and then he and his mother take their seats.
Mrs. Petersen from across the street comes in and sits behind them. The boy and his mother visit her from time to time. Once he asked her whether she was a robot person or a human person. “I’m as human as you are,” she said, and she smiled at him, making more wrinkles on her old face, and gave him a lemon drop from a bag she keeps in a milk can beside her chair. That was when the boy’s mother told him that that wasn’t a polite question.
“Good morning,” Mrs. Petersen says as she sits down. The boy can smell her perfume—she smells like the roses that grow all around her house.
“Good morning,” the boy’s mother says.
“Morning, Mrs. Petersen,” the boy says brightly.
The boy fidgets through the service but follows along as best he can, mouthing the words to himself.
After the service, Mrs. Petersen says, “You’re so good during the service! Not like the other boys and girls.”
The boy says, “They’re—” And then he stops himself, because of the thing it isn’t polite to talk about. He looks at his feet.
“I know,” Mrs. Petersen says. She pats him on the head. “You sing so nicely. Do you want to grow up to be a pastor like your father?” The boy nods.
“Good,” says Mrs. Petersen. “Good for you.”
After supper the boy’s parents send him across the street to Mrs. Petersen’s. Her house smells of roses, and it smells in a way that the boy is learning to associate with old human people, the smell of sedentary life and failing health.
“Mrs. Petersen, why are there robot people and human people?” the boy asks. Despite what his parents say, she doesn’t seem to mind the question.
“Well,” she says, “there haven’t always been.”
The boy looks at her in confusion.
“A long time ago, when I was a girl, there were no robot people in town,” she says.
“So why did they come then?” the boy asks.
“Well, back then the town was very busy. The farms were doing well, and the farmers were doing well. They had big families, and they came in to town for church on Sunday morning and the dance on Thursday night. The people who lived in town worked at the general store and the bank and the library. I worked at the soda fountain, myself, before I got married.”
“What’s a soda fountain?” the boy asks.
“Well, it’s a place you go to get soda,” Mrs. Petersen says.
The boy furrows his brow.
“Like from the grocery store?”
The boy’s mother takes him when she visits the grocery store and lets him pick out one thing all by himself as a treat. It is the best day all month.
“No, soda didn’t used to come in cans. It didn’t used to come in glass bottles even. Before that, you got it from the soda fountain downtown.”
“Didn’t it get sticky?”
It is Mrs. Petersen’s turn to look confused.
“The soda fountain?” she asks.
“Yeah, the soda fountain,” the boy says. “You must have had to clean it a lot, like when the dogs jumped in.”
The boy pictures a fountain like the one in the town square, running with frothing cola. His mother has told him never to drink from that fountain.
“Oh, it wasn’t a fountain like that! It was a store with a big long counter all metal and gleaming, and stools, and you sat on the stools and ordered what soda you wanted. When I worked there I’d pull the big handles to pour you what you wanted, and I’d put a scoop of ice cream in too if you asked for it.”
The boy looks confused. “What does that have to do with the robot people?”
“Oh, it doesn’t, darling, I’m just telling you how it was. Anyway, over time the farms failed, and the banks failed, and people gave up and moved away. The town was dying. Many of the smaller towns around us were already dead, their parks gone to weeds and the houses torn down. We didn’t want that to happen to us, so we got ourselves listed as a Historic Place and signed up for the tours. But the tourists wanted to see the town as it used to be, not as it was, and there weren’t enough people for that by then. So we brought in the robot people.”
“Oh,” says the boy, feeling a new sense of fear and loss.
“What was the town like then?” he asks quietly.
“Well, the gas station was open, and the grocery store. The tourists don’t need those, and there aren’t enough people, so they closed. You’ll see in a few weeks…”
The first tour bus rolls in to town a week later. The robot people have opened up the darkened shops downtown. The boy’s mother takes him down to the ice cream shop on Saturday afternoon. A robot person takes their order—a banana split for the boy and a small cone for his mother. They sit at a table outside and watch the tourists wander in small clumps up and down Main Street, in and out of the shops. It is very easy to tell the difference between the tourists and the town’s people. The tourists all wear bright, comfortable new clothes and carry many devices whose purpose and function the boy does not understand.
“It’s so small!” says one woman, coming out of the library. “Can you imagine, paper books? Just think, you would get so bored if you lived here,” she says to her children.
“Everything’s so well-preserved!” says a man. “It’s like time has stopped here.”
“Everyone’s so friendly!” whispers a woman to her friend. “You’d never think they were robots if you didn’t know.”
The boy wonders how they know.
“Look at all these antique shops!” says her friend loudly. “We could spend ages here. And what nice things!” Then, quietly, “How much do you think this chair would be worth, if we took it back to the city?”
“Not hardly the price tag, for sure,” scoffs the first woman. “They take such advantage of us. And it’s so gaudy. All that old stuff is.”
“Well, I think it’s very nice,” says her friend.
“How rude!” says a man, coming out of the library holding an ice cream cone. “No food or drink in the library? They could have posted a sign…”
The boy’s father is at the church that evening, giving a tour. The boy stands in the narthex, solemnly handing out informational flyers as the tourists file in. They are laughing and chatting easily as they enter the sanctuary.
The boy’s father is wearing slacks and a shirt the color of the spring sky, clerical tab pressed against the small of his neck. He enters from the side with his notes. He welcomes the tourists and introduces himself, and they quiet down somewhat. He says, “The first church building was built on this site in…” and begins telling them the history of the church and the town. After he has finished, he calls the robot people up from where they stand in the back of the sanctuary, individually and in family groups, and they tell stories of people who lived in and around town as though they are those people.
“I came here from. . . ”
“I sent money back and in. . . ”
“We came here in. . . ”
“Our youngest died in the crossing. . . ”
“I was born here and married my husband in. . . ”
“My husband fought in. . . ”
“He was killed in. . . ”
“I remarried, and in. . . ”
“We had four children. . . ”
“My brothers and I farmed our father ’s land until. . . ”
“We moved to the city in. . . ”
“We lived in an apartment over our store on Main Street. . . ”
“Our store closed in. . . ”
The boy sits at the back of the sanctuary, crying silently.
After the tour, the tourists go back to their bus and drive off. The boy and his father clean up after them, picking up discarded flyers, and then go down to the garden with seed packets and seedling trays to plant in the failing light.
“Dad, where do tourists sleep?” the boy asks, making a trench in the earth with a trowel.
“They drive to the city and spend the night in hotels there. Or they sleep on the bus, if they’re going further,” the boy’s father says, cutting up seedling potatoes.
“Oh,” says the boy. “Are there other towns like us?” the boy asks.
“Some,” says his father.
“Can we visit them?” he asks.
“Some day we can,” the boy’s father says.
The setting sun silhouettes the steeple in fire. There are many birds now, looping and diving, although there is still a chill to the air.
“The swallows are back,” says the boy’s father. “That means spring is about to get going in earnest.”
Some of the birds whistle as they dive—the metal birds, still, the boy thinks. The boy pictures them diving with their mouths open, air rushing in. Occasionally one of them will pull out of a dive low over their heads, making a noise like a truck passing.
“Dad, why do the metal birds do that?” the boy asks.
“Do what, kiddo?” his father asks.
“Make that big whooshing noise,” the boy says.
“I don’t know,” the boy’s father says.
Mrs. Petersen dies a month later.
The boy wakes up to the sound of the ambulance landing. He looks out the window and sees it parked across the street, rotor still spinning lazily, and some strangers standing around it.
Mrs. Petersen’s door is open.
“Mom, what’s happening?” the boy asks.
“I don’t know, sweetie,” his mother replies.
“Where’s Dad?” the boy asks.
“He’s over there now,” she says.
“Is Mrs. Petersen okay?” the boy asks.
“I don’t know, sweetie,” his mother says. But she hugs him close as silent tears wet her cheeks.
The boy’s father comes back a bit later, face grim. He reads the question on his family’s faces and shakes his head.
“I was there in time to deliver last rites,” he says, “but that was it. The paramedics guessed it was a heart attack.”
The boy looks at him in confusion.
The boy’s father kneels beside him and smiles sadly at him. “I’m sorry, kiddo. Mrs. Petersen is. . . Mrs. Petersen is not going to be around any more.”
“Is she. . . dead?” the boy asks.
The boy sees pain in his father’s face. “I’m sorry, kiddo. She’s dead.” The boy feels like there is a yawning empty pit under his feet now, and in it all he can hear is the rolling of the tumbler.
The boy’s father hugs him, and he buries his face in his father’s flannel-covered shoulder.
The boy’s mother lets him have the day of the funeral off from lessons. He eats and dresses mechanically. His mother calls him, and he comes downstairs. They don’t need jackets for the short walk; the sun is shining, and they can see the swallows flying to and from the steeple with mud and bits of grass in their mouths.
The boy sits in the back of the church with his mother, his eyes strangely dry as his father reads from the Bible and talks about Heaven.
After the funeral, the boy walks home with his mother and goes upstairs to his room.
He lies on his bed, still in his church clothes, feeling very little. He is falling, rocking on the air like a leaf discarded by autumn, into that empty grinding pit. Far below him he can hear the tumbler rolling.
He stands up—he doesn’t know why—and follows that sound down, until he is standing in front of it in the dark. It seems to fill his head, his chest, his bladder. It pushes against his heart, threatens to overwhelm his regular lub-dub.
It goes on forever, and he loses himself to it.
He doesn’t hear the outside door open, but sunlight shines suddenly through the glass of the inner door, and the pressure of it on his eyelids rouses him. He scuttles up the stairs and hides in the dark there where he can just see without being seen.
The boy’s father comes in with one of the robot people carrying Mrs. Petersen’s casket and sets it down in front of the tumbler.
“Thank you for your help,” the boy’s father says to the robot man, projecting his voice over the din of the tumbler. The robot man leaves and the boy’s father shuts and locks the doors behind him.
The boy’s father hits the red button to stop the tumbler and then opens the casket.
Mrs. Petersen looks smaller than the boy has ever seen her. She lies in the casket on her back, eyes closed, hands across her stomach, skin ashen gray and taut along the bones of her face.
“I’ve never really been sure what the rite for this is,” the boy’s father says, softly but conversationally, as he works, barely audible over the tumbler as it winds down. The boy thinks that he is talking to Mrs. Petersen, which doesn’t make sense since she is dead.
“It’s not a graveside service,” the boy’s father says, “although that’s closest to right. But the family isn’t here, and the graveside service is a rite for the family.”
“So I think this rite is for me, mostly,” he says.
The boy’s father opens the tumbler. He picks up Mrs. Petersen’s body, grunting a bit with the effort, and feeds her gently, feet first, into the hatch. Then he pours a couple scoopfuls of gravel in, fills a bucket with water and pours it in, and then closes the hatch and stands back.
He repeats the words he said earlier, during the service, and the boy is almost unable to stay silent, to contain the sudden pressure of emotion. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” the boy’s father says. “From dust we were made, and to dust we return.”
The boy’s father bows his head in prayer.
When he says “Amen,” he straightens up. “Thank you, Mrs. Petersen,” he says. “You were a good friend to me and my family.” Then he starts the tumbler.
The tumbler moans a bit as it winds up, like it too is mourning Mrs. Petersen. The boy is trying not to cry, not that if he did he would be heard over the rumble of the tumbler, which is deeper now.
His father carries the casket over and sets it on top of what the boy now realizes are other caskets, narrow pine-smelling wooden boxes stacked in neat rows adjoining the far wall. The boy’s father strips off the gloves, and then washes his hands to the elbows in the utility sink.
The boy’s father nearly steps on him, coming up the stairs. Once they are both safely out of the basement, he closes the door and sits down heavily next to the boy on the floor.
“Did you see all that?” he asks.
The boy nods silently.
“Do you know what I did?” the boy’s father asks.
“You put Mrs. Petersen’s body in the tumbler,” the boy says.
The boy’s father nods.
“Do you know why I did that?” the boy’s father asks.
The boy’s eyebrows draw close together. “So. . . ” he says. “So that her body would decompose, like the orange peels and the egg shells?”
The boy’s father nods. “In a few months,” he says, “we’ll spread the compost from the tumbler on the garden, and Mrs. Petersen will help our tomatoes and our peas grow strong and well.”
“That—that’ll be—good,” the boy says, choking, and his father holds him close as he cries at last. His father smells a little bit of roses.
There is a new family in church a couple weeks later. They come in after everyone else is mostly seated and sit behind the boy and his mother. The man and woman are younger than the boy’s parents, and they have three children, the youngest about the boy’s age. Their clothing is old-fashioned, and they don’t speak. The smell of the woman’s perfume makes the boy want to cry.
When they get home after the service, the boy asks, “Mom, who were those new people?”
“That was—Mrs. Petersen,” says his mother, her voice breaking.
The boy’s eyes well with confusion and fear. “But Mrs. Petersen is old and walks with a cane and her husband is dead!” the boy says.
His mother shakes her head sadly and kneels, taking him in her arms.
“And Mrs. Petersen’s body is in the tumbler in the basement! I saw Daddy put it in there! I saw it!”
“Shh. . . ” his mother says, smoothing his hair. “Shh.”
“Mommy,” the boy asks, “are you going to die?”
“One day, sweetie,” the boy’s mother says. “A long time from now.”
“Mommy,” the boy asks, burying his face in her neck, “is Daddy going to die?”
“One day, sweetie,” the boy’s mother says, picking him up. “A long time from now.”
“Mommy,” the boy asks from inside her arms, “am—I going to die?”
The boy’s mother sighs. “Oh, sweetie,” she says. “One day, you’ll die too. But it will be a long time from now.”
“Oh,” says the boy, and cries quietly for a while as she rocks him, standing in the front hall.
“Mommy,” the boy asks after a while, “when we die, will they make robots out of us?”
The boy’s mother squeezes him tight. “I don’t know, sweetie. I don’t know.”
They spread the compost on the garden on a midsummer evening, the boy and his father. They spade it, molasses-black and crumbling, on the bare gray ground between the tomato plants and peas, taking care to keep it from touching the stems lest it burn them. The boy takes delight in running a fine mist of water from the hose nozzle over the streets and avenues between the rows, watching as the loam darkens and rivulets runnel into cracks in the earth. The boy takes delight in spraying his father once or twice too.
The boy’s father holds his hand and says a prayer.
After the prayer, the boy says, “Goodbye, Mrs. Petersen. Thank you for helping our tomatoes grow. And for answering my questions.”
They stand on the slope and look out over the garden and the town below and behind it. They look out over the houses, beginning to turn lights on; and the main street and its shops, quiet on a night with no buses; and the warehouses and homes behind it. They look and beyond the edge of the town are the fields, endless and gleaming and green, unbroken save for the road, and dotted here and there with robot cultivators, as tall as houses and as ponderous as sailing ships in a painting, processing slowly across the expanse. They look, and beyond that are the hills along the river, hidden in the haze.
Overhead, the sweetcorn-yellow sky is filled with the chatter of the swallows in the hundreds, their swift black wings rising up in clouds like steam. They chase invisible insects and each other in great convective loops, caught up in the dance that the town hall can no longer hold. Here and there the metal birds loop too, glinting and endless. The dying sun silhouettes the steeple, the cross at the top lost in its glare.
The great bulk of the church shadows them as they stand there. The boy’s father starts singing something, wordlessly, a baritone hum. As they go inside, the boy joins in with his high clear voice, tentative but strong.
Underneath the house, the tumbler rumbles on.
This story was simultaneously published online here and in Fieldcraft: Four Stories on the Edge Between the Present and the Future, my first short story collection! Available in paperback and ebook from several fine retailers who can be found via the above link.
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Copyright © 2019 by Kellan Sparver. All rights reserved.
Cover image copyright © 2019 by Kellan Sparver. All rights reserved.