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Shaking the Tree

by David Brookes

part 2 of 4


It seems that every time she goes out into the street she sees more people doing strange things.

She has the day off work because a week ago the District Court sent her a letter saying she had jury duty. The air is cold. The wind blew itself out overnight, leaving the walk to Court enjoyable; she draws in the fresh atmosphere, barely polluted by sparse traffic. All sounds are as sharp as ringing crystal in her ears. Because of the air? Or because I’m free now?

She has to laugh. Free. She’s been drafted onto jury duty and she’s “free,” apparently, like the conscripted at war are “free.” Her body feels cold now, as though her inner furnace is guttering. Lighting a No-bacco cigarette, she focuses on that mental image and begins to Know everything about furnaces: their invention over four thousand years ago, their various shapes and sizes, the mechanism of convection and insulation, the thousand names throughout history associated with them: Neilson, Shi, Darby, Wagner. A smile creeps up her face. It’s actually all quite interesting.

Four cigarettes later she’s asked to step inside the courthouse, and ushered through hallways of rich brown. The walls are adorned with paintings from the Neoclassic and Romantic eras, each with its own tiny bronze plaque that she doesn’t need to read. She only needs to look at the compositions and her mind dips its fingers into the rushing river of information that now cascades over humanity.

Knowledge geysers out of the depths where all information is stored, the space beneath space, and her mind recoils, utterly doused. That painting: Henry Fuseli, Horseman Attacked by a Giant Snake, circa 1800. Beautiful, and gripping — but terrifying. What a strange picture to hang in a courthouse.

The jury gathers in a back room. Somebody gives them a speech for an hour, then they move single file onto their benches. The varnished wood is as cold as the concrete step outside, as cold as Alex in bed, who would lie with his back to her, still as a stone. I don’t have to put up with that now. The judge sits to Louise’s right, in her neat booth: a woman. You know what I’m talking about, sister.

The Accused walks in — nothing dramatic, some skinny guy in a baggy shirt and brand new tie, white as a sheet but defiant — then the dishevelled looking Hispanic guy who is his neighbour in the outer boroughs. Alleges the Accused routinely harasses, bullies and threatens him for no good reason. Once turned his hose on the guy’s two-year-old girl. Regularly set his dog on his front door, scratching it to pieces with savage claws.

I don’t want to hear all this crap. Why didn’t I download one of those letters off the NewNet, one of the pre-typed Get Out of Jury Duty Free ones — “The above is a mature student and cannot miss study”, etceteras, etceteras.

I guess nobody needs to be a student anymore. Nobody needs to study. If this thing holds, whatever it is that’s happened to us, then nobody will ever have to open a book again. We will Know everything.

It’s time for the first witness, but the Hispanic’s representative refuses. What? The Accused is one smug bastard, thinks he’s already won it. The Plaintiff lifts a book he wasn’t even referring to and says, “Aitkin versus Smitheson, 1934.” The book thumps shut in his hands. The Defence sighs and sits. The Judge pauses, thinks deeply, and nods.

‘I’d never heard of that one before. Legal precedent rules. Case dismissed.’

The Accused stands, begins yelling at the Defence. The Defence shrugs.

He Knows better.

Outside. Still cool, the sun barely up. Louise looks into the sky and thinks of Alex, who works with her sometimes on projects at the Global Space Program. She has the better job, as engineer, but — always looking at the heavens, but never herself going. Always looking up and thinking of Alex, who has a habit of doing the same.

We won’t be working together anymore, she realises. He’s been promoted — Project Leader — and won’t be as involved with mechanical aerospace installation. He’ll have people to do that for him. Probably a good thing. Probably.

‘Still early.’

Louise turns. On the steps next to her is the Plaintiff who won the case. He’s smiling and seems to be patting his pockets, looking for something. She offers him a cigarette.

‘Ooh.’ He looks pained. ‘I quit. That No-bacco’s as bad as Diet Coke. Replacement’s almost as bad as the real thing.’

She draws on her cigarette.

He says, smiling, ‘You don’t care. Hey, we all knew the damage they do, almost as soon as they brought them out. But nobody ever really believed that could be that bad for you, hey? Then, yesterday, suddenly I Know what they do to my insides, and can’t bring myself to light up anymore. Still have the habits though.’

Patting his pockets.

Yeah, she Knows too. Images of some aspartame nicotine-lite not-as-bad-as-the-real, swirling through her lungs like asbestos, parking in her capillaries and causing cancerous growths in her pink tissue. Killing her slowly but surely, she Knows all right, doesn’t care one jot, not a bit, she thinks.

She and the Plaintiff stand like old Orient sentinels on either side of the steps as the other poor jury sods file out, meander away down the streets as the sun struggles to climb higher than the skyscrapers on the horizon. The air is a curious kind of white. Paler than daylight, but too weak to seem like a dawn. Give it ten minutes.

Then they’re alone again, and an air-shuttle hums through the air above them, pretty much the only sound they can hear. She smoking, he with his arms folded under his jacket, smiling faintly.

Something jingles. She looks down. Cute kitty. It hops through the low hedge of the court house and onto the pavement. Astonishingly, two more follow it, one white, one ginger tom.

‘Don’t think I’ve ever seen three cats together in the street like that,’ she says aloud, musing.

The Plaintiff makes a noise with his lips. His eyebrows are raised in interest. Another cat joins the three from the hedge, approaching from across the street. It trots towards them over the empty road, the bell on his collar tinkling.

During five minutes, they see thirty-one cats. Some look like strays, gnarled-looking and slightly pathetic. The rest are fat pets, barely strong enough to carry their own weight, grown weak in their luxury. Cats of all colours, heading in a definite line all in the same direction: past the courthouse, over the street, through the basketball court to disappear behind a weed-choked chain-link fence.

‘Where do you suppose they’re all going?’ asked the Plaintiff.

‘I’ve no idea. They must have somewhere in mind.’

‘Can you see it?’ he asks. ‘I don’t have the hang of it yet.’

She says no. ‘I don’t suppose we’d Know where they were going to until they go there. Then we’d Know too.’

‘Funny thing, Knowledge.’ Their voices are quiet in the absence of jingling bells. ‘You’d think we should know everything about everything. But it seems there’s a definition of Knowledge we’re not aware of.’

Alex had tried, on the plane. It was that which had led to the argument that brought about the break-up. Something we know, not suspect. Something written, not thought. Something stored somewhere in the databanks of the universe.

She always hated that kind of bollocks.

The last cat jumps through the hole in the fence at the back of the basketball court. Louise keeps her eyes focused on the tip of its stiff narrow tail, pointed skywards like a finger, until that too has disappeared.

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2010 by David Brookes

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