Carthaginian Rose

Carthaginian Rose

Originally published in Empire of Dreams and Miracles (2002)

 

The secret to my apple pie is that I use only Jonathans. They stay tart even when you leave them on the trees till the last minute.

“Mmmm,” Liz said to me before she left for Cairo, “you ought to go to Boston with these. You’ll be a hit like Martha Stewart.”

I had baked two pies for her to take on her trip, sealed in the new smart Tupperware containers that had computer chips for regulating humidity. “You can eat them on the plane. You know, when you are hungry.”

She laughed. Her laughter was loud and earthy, like a child’s. Four years at Wellesley had not managed to convert her wild yawps into the proper giggle of a New England aristocrat.

“Amy, I can feed myself. Do you expect to ship pies to me in Egypt daily to keep my alive?”

The thought had crossed my mind. Liz’s survival always seemed to me to be provisional. She drifted through her childhood, never learning how to cook or sew, or how to drive without seeming to escape an accident every five minutes. She forgot about meals and then begged her friends pathetically for stashed-away snacks. She misplaced boxes of winter clothes and went to class in December wrapped in her blanket. I can’t imagine living like that. She laughed often and loud nonetheless. She was smart, no doubt about that, just careless with the practical details of staying alive.

In the end we took the pies to the airport, where we handed out pieces to strangers. A few were suspicious or ironically disdainful, but most were grateful for the treat. Liz told everyone that I was opening a bakery and that these were samples. Before I could correct her, she was taking down orders for me.

“They’ll mail you a check, and you’ll mail them the pie. It’s a great deal! You have all this cooking skill. You ought to do something with it.”

All of a sudden I was the sister with no living skills and she the one to show me the ways of the world. I was both amused and annoyed. Being with Liz for longer than five minutes tended to have that effect on me.

I still get about three or four orders a week. It’s all word-of-mouth since I don’t advertise at all. The old ladies who get a pie from me every two weeks pass me on to their nieces and daughters, like a family heirloom. With each order I imagine that I’m sending the pie to Liz, in New York, in Tucson, in Toronto, and even once, in Hong Kong.

The truth, of course, is that Liz has traveled further than my pies ever could.

#

Growing old means you become more like a reptile. You have to soak up the sun in the mornings before you can move around. Next time Beth visits I should ask for a sun lamp, for the winter mornings.

It’s a good morning. I open the window and let the sun into the living room. Warm days like this are good for the foliage. The sugar builds up and the cool nights trap them in the leaves. Soon the maples will be on fire, and the tourists from down south will flood the country roads.

When I’ve soaked up enough light I tend to my postcard collection. The cards are placed around the house according to geography. Asia is in the kitchen. The mountains of Guilin on top of the fridge stare at the Meiji Shrine across the room by the microwave. Europe fills the bathroom with somber cathedrals and gay ruins. My bedroom is Africa, with the pyramids on the mirror attached to the dresser and the giraffes grazing on the bed stand. Australia and South America share the living room, the coffee table a stand-in for the South Pacific. The fifty states are jumbled into what used to be Liz’s bedroom, with California and Florida bathing in the sunlight from her window. The eighth-grader who comes over every Thursday afternoon to mow the lawn thinks I used to be a world-traveler.

The furthest I’ve been from Camlisle was when I went to Boston to pick up the ashes. Beth drove because I wouldn’t take an auto-auto, and I remember thinking, when we crossed the state line into Massachusetts, that they had good foliage there also.

The last of the postcards came from Algeria, and it shows the remains of the Roman theatre at Djemila. Liz wrote on the back, in her elegant, flowing cursive:

Now it may be, the flower for me
Is this beneath my nose;
How shall I tell, unless I smell
The Carthaginian rose?

Liz liked to quote bits of poetry at me. This one I know. It’s from Edna St. Vincent Millay, one of her favorite poets. She used to recite that poem when she was young and only dreamed about traveling.

#

When Liz graduated from high school, she wanted to hitchhike her way to San Francisco.

“Absolutely not,” Father said. “A young girl like you, hitchhiking across the country, whoever heard of such a thing?”

It didn’t help her case that this was also only a week after she managed to get lost driving home from her prom, which was held only two towns over, in Landon. She ended up somewhere in Connecticut, and called father for directions at 3:00 in the morning. She thought it a hilarious adventure, of course.

Father’s response was predictable, and so was Liz’s. She left that evening, with her backpack filled with two bottles of spring water and two pairs of socks.

“The most important survival gear you need are socks,” she told me as she packed. “It’s very important to keep your feet well-padded when you are hitchhiking because you are doing a lot of walking. And socks are very versatile. You can use them to filter potable water, for instance.”

I threatened to go to mother and father right away. What bothered me wasn’t so much her rebelliousness, which I had come to accept and expect, but rather her na•ve optimism that a pair of socks would somehow get you from Vermont to California, and ward off all the serial killers, rapists, con-artists along the way.

“No, you won’t,” she said. “You know I can take care of myself.”

“You can’t even get home from Landon! Do you know how dangerous it is for you to be alone on the road? You have no camping gear, no clothes, no medicine, no money-”

“Which is why it’s not dangerous at all. Amy, I don’t have anything, so no one will want to hurt me.”

I was flabbergasted by her simple, ridiculous logic. I would have laughed if I hadn’t wanted to slap some common sense into her. But I also knew that her absurd assumptions would come through for her. I had seen, time and again, how she somehow managed to turn what appeared to be her clumsiness at practical life to her advantage. When she was lost in Connecticut, she ended up sipping free slurpies from the clerks at the nearest 7-11 and offering them advice on girls. The syrup dripped all over the front of her rented prom dress, but the dress rental shop didn’t even charge her for it when she told the owners her story. Like Blanche Dubois, she relied on the kindness of strangers. People naturally liked her. She had charisma.

I envied her daring, and her confidence in what she wanted out of life. When we were younger, both of us had done well at school, especially in the sciences. However, we had different temperaments. I had ended my two years at the community college with the resigned certainty that although I was intelligent, I was terrified of strangers, content to watch the world pass by while I stayed home and tended to the happiness of my family. Someone had to inherit father’s orchard, right?

Liz left with her bottled water and socks, and I pretended that I didn’t know anything when father yelled at me the next day and over the next week. He wanted to call the police, but then Liz sent us a postcard from Boston, telling us that she was all right, and she had met a wonderful jazz band on highway I-95.

She began her habit of sending postcards. From Fenway, from Manhattan, from the National Mall, from the banks of the Mississippi, from the endless vistas of the Great Plains, from the dry, dusty desert that seemed like the Promised Land to the Mormons, from the mountains through which the Chinamen blasted a railway, until, finally, she got to Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco.

In those postcards, she wrote the Great American Novel. She talked about the eccentricities and kindnesses of America in 250-word vignettes. She wrote about the law school student clerking at a gas station to pay the bills, about the date she went on with two brothers who were police officers (they caught her hitchhiking), about the time she impulsively knocked on a Kentucky housewife’s door because she wanted to take a shower (she got her shower, and a real Southern breakfast). She made the clichŽ of the travelogue fresh again. Father, mother, and I read her reports with relish, passing the cards between the three of us for hours, arguing and dissecting every encounter, offering our observations. Somewhere around the Mississippi, I think father forgave her for running away.

She came back three months later on a plane. She had loitered around the departure gates of San Francisco’s airport until a businessman who had to cancel his trip at the last minute gave her his boarding pass. She came home without her backpack or her socks.

She went to bed early that night because the next morning father had to drive her down to Wellesley. In the dark, she slipped into my bedroom.

“I wish you had come with me,” she whispered, her body warm and cuddly next to mine.

She sounded a little sad, but I was sleepy. “Yeah, I wish I had too.”

“And you know something else? Socks are not the most important survival equipment. Your body is.”

I thought then that she had finally learned something practical about life.

#

Behind the house is the hill, and up on the hill is the orchard.

I don’t own the orchard any more. I sold it ten years ago. It was getting too much to maintain for me, living alone with Beth after John died.

It’s still a nice place to take a walk in, though. I head for the Jonathan trees at the end. Not many tourists who come here to pick apples ever walk this far since by the time they get halfway here their baskets are usually full. Jonathans are not good eating apples anyway, too tart.

But they are my favorite. McIntoshes and other “good” eating apples are the apples you eat with your mouth, full of that cottony sweetness that practically melts into your throat. Jonathans, on the other hand, are apples you eat with your whole body. It hurts your jaws to bite off a hard chunk, hear the crunch against your skull, and feel the tartness spread from the ridge of your tongue down to the tips of you toes. You really feel alive when you are eating a Jonathan. Every cell wakes up and tells you, “Yes, oh yes, more please.”

The body is intelligent, I think. It knows how to say what it means to be alive better than the mind ever will.

#

“I want to travel a lot,” Liz said when the time came to pick a major.

AI was just coming back in a big way when Liz was in school. The new three-dimensional chips from Nextensions finally had enough computing power to crunch through the real-time data processing. The first nano-neural networks were also just beginning to be mass-produced. Everything was coming together. During the summers Liz worked in Stanford’s labs, building the first working prototype of a statistical quantum computer. Her excitement was infectious, and I read everything about AI I could find on the Net.

She spent hours on the phone with me, breathlessly babbling away about all that she was doing. I tried to keep up with her by reading the textbooks she left at home. I even learned to program in Lisp and Prolog. I was pleased that I did well (oh, if only I weren’t so shy!). There was an organic kind of beauty to crafting these programs, like baking pies.

When she graduated, Logorhythms, the biggest AI consulting firm in North America, hired her. She was ecstatic. “I’ll get to travel a lot.”

Liz explained to me that Logorhythms specialized in building AI systems to handle decision-making in domains where the unexpected was always happening: deep-sea mining exploration, city traffic-control, public school administration, that sort of thing. Traditional expert systems were too fragile, too rule- and case-bound to function effectively when the unfamiliar and unexpected occurred. Logorhythms built systems that could muddle through, like humans in similar situations.

So she shipped herself to Cairo, to Beijing, to Honolulu, writing reams and reams of parallel pattern-recognizers and recursive co-routines to run on massively parallel nanoprocessors. The programs then evolved themselves for thousands of generations through genetic filters until deemed sufficiently fit for the task at hand.

“Traveling,” Liz said, “is just the process of upgrading of your own mind. In my job, I create new minds. So, you see, my life is all about the meeting of the minds.”

#

I don’t have any of the standard, even old-fashioned AI conveniences in the house. I’m not a Luddite, but I threw them all out, after what Liz did.

I think they are creepy: the alarm clock that can figure out whether you really want to wake up, the TV that can tell what you want to watch based on what it thinks your mood is, the thermostat that decides what the temperature ought to be based on a complex analysis of your heating bills and your state of health. If these are really little minds, it’s cruel to give them thankless tasks like these. If they are not, I’d rather not be told to put on a sweater by a machine when I’m cold.

So I still do everything myself. I muddle through.

Beth, being a dutiful daughter, wants to convince me that I should live with her in New York. I explained to her that living in a place where the traffic lights know to wait extra long when an old lady is crossing the street would drive me crazy.

“You are out of your mind,” Beth said to me. “What happens if you trip and fall down the stairs? There’s not even a smart phone to notice and call an ambulance.”

Out of my mind, but not out of my body, like Liz.

Mind, body, and soul. That’s how I’ve always thought about myself. What’s it like to be out of my soul?

#

Liz came back for father’s funeral. Not surprisingly, she forgot to bring a proper dress to wear.

We shared a sisterly moment in the living room after the other mourners had left.

“What a waste,” she said, by way of breaking the silence in the house. She fidgeted, switching off her ring, her glasses (purely decorative, she had perfect vision), her shoes, even her watch. The little computers chimed their weak protests and went dead.

In the dusk she looked naked, I thought, without the youthful glow that the smart embedded mirrors in her jewelry constantly and subtly cast about her face and hands. With them on she looked like a nineteen-year old. With them off she looked thirty-five. I thought she looked more beautiful naked, like that.

She looked about the room, at the dusty carpet, the dusty picture frames, the dusty chairs. Mother never liked the self-driven vacuum cleaners Liz had given her. “What a waste. This too too sullied flesh.”

We sat together for hours, holding hands in the growing dark. I liked cupping her cold fingers between my palms, feeling the circulation gradually bringing warmth to them, feeling the pulses of her strong heart.

Liz was going to fly back to Sydney the next day. I wanted her to get some sleep.

“Aren’t you scared, Amy?” She asked me at the door to her old bedroom.

“About what?”

“How weak the body is. Remember how strong he had seemed when we were little? I remember running into his chest and feeling like I had run into a wall. I remember him lifting me onto his shoulders to pick the apples I wanted. Even at my graduation, he shook my hand after I got my diploma. It hurt, like a vise. But it’s all just a lie, Amy. The body is a lie. It can fall apart at a moment’s notice, because of a simple blood clot.”

It was one of the few times I had seen her cry.

Because I didn’t know what else to say, I said, “That’s why the body is the most important piece of survival equipment.”

“Oh, yes,” she smiled. “I never told you, did I? About what happened in New Jersey that time I hitchhiked to San Fran?”

She was waiting at a rest stop when a man, a nice, clean man with a polo shirt and a pickup truck, agreed to drive her to the Pennsylvania border. He chatted amicably with her about school, about skiing, about literature, about the kindness of strangers.

Then he turned off the highway. He drove until the dirt road ended at an abandoned warehouse, stopped, pushed her out of the cab of the truck, and raped her there, on the grass, under the warm sunlight, with the birds chirping and the bees buzzing through the clovers. She still had her socks on.

Obviously, there was no postcard.

“When he drove away, I was done crying. I sat on the grass and thought: I could travel to the end of the earth and this will always be with me. I will always have his hands tearing apart my shirt, his mouth over mine. My mind will always be trapped in my body, reliving it over and over again. I will never be able to get away.”

I hugged her tight. Her arms hung limp at her sides, but she leaned her weight against me. She used to do that when she was a little girl. I wish I had the strength to lift her, to enfold her body in my arms, to give her back what she had lost. I felt guilty because I knew that I would never be able to understand how she felt, not viscerally, not with my body.

“You see, the body is indeed the most important of survival equipment, but it’s weak and imperfect. It will always betray you.”

#

I don’t understand people who say that they’ll travel when they are old. Travel is for the young. If you don’t start to travel by a certain age you end up like me, rooted to the place you grew up in.

I don’t think Camlisle is the best place in the world. I just can’t imagine moving anywhere else after having spent my whole life here. I like the way the shadows move across the floor of my bedroom. I like the squeaks and cracks as I go up the stairs, each one an intimate, old friend. I like the view of the apple trees, lined up like headstones in a cemetery behind the house, on the hill. Or maybe I’m just used to those things, too comfortable to change. Too many brain cells have died to make those connections for me to abandon them easily.

The house, the hills, the shadows, and the taste of the apples have become part of my body. They have changed the way my dendrites and axons connect to each other, etching themselves into my skin, my brain, my body through the microlithography of the gentle years until a holographic map of Camlisle is deposited into me, as inseparable from the rest of me as my toes and fingers.

I do wonder, sometimes, how the physical contours of my mind would have been different if I had traveled, like Liz, around the world.

“You’d be running on different hardware,” Liz would have said. “Time for an upgrade. Cote d’Ivoire, here I come.”

#

The last time Liz came home was a Sunday. I got back from church, and there she was, leaning against the old oak tree in front of the house, smiling.

We went into the house. As usual, she had no luggage. It’s not the sort of thing she would remember, ever. It’s a good thing she makes as much as she does. Everywhere she went she ended up having to buy a new wardrobe, which she would again forget to bring with her when she left.

After dinner we had some apple pie for dessert.

“Mmmm,” she said. “Still want to try that Martha Stewart idea?”

I laughed with her. She laughed so loud the plates clattered. It’s good to have her in the house again, I thought. She looked so young. Her body glowed, and not just because of the intelligent nanonet of diamonds she wore.

“Amy,” her face was serious. “Do you know what we are about to do?”

She explained to me about the project she was working on for Logorhythms, DESTINY. “It’s going to change the world,” she said.

“Amy, look around you. We’ve come so far since I was in college. In fifteen years we’ve managed to create cars that drive themselves, dishes that clean themselves, and phones and clocks that monitor you 24 hours a day and are ready to call for help the minute you are injured in an accident or suffer an unexpected fainting spell. AI has come of age.

“But now we’ve hit a roadblock. We have all the processing power we’ve dreamed of, and all the storage capacity we can want in our ultra-dense neural networks. But it’s not enough; we still don’t know how to make a mind. Sure, the last computer lasted a whole half hour in the Turing Competition before it was found out, but I think we’ve hit the limits of what we can do, working blind like we are.

“What we need is a map, a blueprint to the only example of a successful mind platform we have, ourselves. After all this time, we still don’t understand how the brain works. We’ve done the best we can with MRI, with ultrasound, with infrared, with the dissection of frozen, dead brains, but we have just scratched the surface. We need to reverse-engineer a living brain so we can take it apart and put it back together, and really understand how to build minds of our own.”

What she was saying sounded exciting and scientific. My body knew that something was wrong though. It felt so tight, so tense.

“So, this DESTINY project is about developing some technique that will allow you to scan brains at the sufficient resolution, is that it?”

“No, Amy, we already can do that.” I’ll never forget the way she smiled that day. Amy, you already know what I’m about to tell you.

“We can peel the brain away, one layer of neurons at a time. We’ve had that capability for years.”

“What does DESTINY stand for?” I asked, afraid of the answer.

“Destructive Electromagnetic Scan To Increase Neural Yield.”

Destructive. I stared at her without words (what could I say?) or expressions (how did I feel?) while she explained to me how a brain was to be sliced apart, one layer of neurons at a time, and all the connections and dangling ends recorded and mapped. All this would happen while the brain was alive.

“Why can’t you use a dead brain?”

“We’ve tried. The deterioration sets in too quickly. The patterns we need to see are obscured by the trauma and diseases common in the dead brains available for scan. We can’t build a mind based on a dead brain that no longer has a mind in it, just like we couldn’t really understand the circulation system until we vivisected a beating heart.

“It will all be captured, every detail of my brain, down to the last, least significant neural connection. And the first thing we’ll do is to make a copy of my brain, in silicon, and I’ll be alive again. Only difference is, I’ll be thinking a billion times faster, and I won’t ever grow old or die because I won’t have a body any more. When we are done, no one will ever have to die. This weak flesh will not be our prison. We will fulfill our destiny.”

“And if you fail?”

“We won’t know unless we go and try, right? I’ve done all I can to make sure this succeeds. And even if we fail, it will be quite a trip.”

So I knew that she had made up her mind to travel again, and there’s nothing that I could give her to take with her, to help her this time. I could only take care of her body, and she was about to leave that behind. She was finally going to get away.

#

I’m in a white room, and the precision saw is whirling over my head, just outside my field of vision. I’m trying to stay calm but it doesn’t work. I can’t be anesthetized because the results may be skewed if I’m under. So I’m strapped down onto the gurney and trying not to hyperventilate or scream. Then the saw starts to come down, and that first searing jolt of pain is unbelievable. It is so intense my vision goes out in a flash of light. And I think to myself, oh God, they’ll have to do this a few million times, one layer at a time.

I would usually wake up at this point. Of course I know that my nightmares hardly can reflect reality. Doubtless the instruments they used were much more sophisticated than my medieval imagination can come up with. I’ll never know how they actually did it because I wasn’t there when it happened. They had to go to Algeria, in secret, because anywhere else the laws would have considered it murder.

When I went to Boston to retrieve the ashes, I also got copies of the scan results, twenty silicon wafers the size of matchboxes, the reason my sister killed herself.

I crushed the wafers under my heels one at a time there on the cement floor of the office of the faceless bureaucrat.

Her final moments were also captured forever in the electronic memories of the super computers of Logorhythms (It depends on what you mean by final, I suppose. For me, those moments were beyond final. They occurred in the place my sister had traveled to, a landscape more alien than the face of the moon). Her electronic computation patterns had lasted less than five seconds-which is an eternity-on the neural grid constructed based on the results of her scan. They had simply gone through those billions of cycles per second and then, disintegrated.

It will take years before they can finally understand what had happened. One of the neurologists on the team had speculated that the failure was perhaps related to the utter lack of any somatic and sensual feedback for the subjective eons she had spent in that grid. Imagine if you were immobilized in darkness, unable to even feel your fingers, your toes, your lungs laboring for air, with nothing but your thoughts to accompany you for years. A brain in a jar would finally go insane. The body is important, after all.

She had gone out of her body, and then, quickly after that, out of her mind.

#

When Liz was six years old, she asked father what her soul looked like.

“Probably like a butterfly,” he said. That was a good reply, with so many medieval paintings to back it up.

“Souls have very light bodies, then,” she said, trying to be logical.

Father lifted her over his head and helped her pretend that she was a butterfly, fluttering among mother’s potted plants. You could hear her laugh all the way from the orchard on the hills.

#

Years of litigation have failed to get Logorhythms to destroy the copies of my sister’s mind that they still own. Logorhythms argued that they are too important as scientific data, and invaluable for all the AI research that still had to be done. The public uproar that came after resulted in the passage of the Anti-Destructive Scan Act, and Logorhythms no longer operates in North America. I suppose that’s some consolation.

I can’t even mourn for Liz properly, not when she is away, frozen in the interstices of the memory lattices of machines located on another continent. Doubtless they have secretly tried to revive her in their more and more elaborate neural nets, and doubtless she has gone through her agony of bodiless, mindless solitude again and again. Which of those copies is my sister? Which one should I mourn for?

So, meanwhile, I tend to my postcard collection and I bake pies, nourishing my body with the sunlight and the smell of coffee in the morning. I wait for my turn to die, and Beth will mourn me properly.

I bite into a Jonathan, letting the wonderful sourness course through my body.

### End ###