The Wisteria, In Its Turning
So here I lie, galley-chief of Sepulchral Zeppelin #12, locked in a permanent and sickening gyre above the chemical-yellow clouds of Ludwigshafen. They are the sort of yellow that could pass for white if you didn't know better, like a set of teeth in a town of smokers. Except in Ludwigshafen, nobody needs to bother with tobacco, not with the fumes choking the air. They say there's a perfume for every season here in Ludwigshafen: ammonias in autumn, esthers for Easter. Each of these redolent compounds will eventually find their way up here, above the sallow clouds, to ionize and fester.
This wasn't the life I had in mind when I enlisted with the Haute Brigadiers. Back then, the broadsides and flypapers still showed dramatic inkings of frigates, a few light cruisers. There was still adamant talk of patrolling the borders; there were even unvoiced notions among certain optimistic circles that the borders themselves—not the fact of them, but their geophysical coordinates—might yet be open to debate.
Not so any longer. We have grown docile; like the moth in the trapping jar, we have given up beating our wings against the glass, and are preparing to settle down for a terminal nap against the ether-soaked pillow. The only warship now worthy of mention is the great Dreadnought/Deadnought that casts a permanent twilight over sleepy Berlin.
Before taking my station at #12, I visited that once-progressive capital. It was funny to see the red lights and neon still burning over empty alleys, while the curtains of every window were drawn against them, lest they interrupt the People's Slumber. Funny, but not terribly funny. The Berliners, once champions of nihilism and transgression, are no longer so hale. A prohibition runs rampant there, last I heard. A Prohibition on coffee.
Leaning over the aft gun-rail, I whistle at a flock of new-geese, warbling drunkenly alongside our vessel. Their nasal clefts are oddly engorged, and their dermatic necritude is more advanced than I have yet seen: it has all but demolished the spinal tumors and neck-fringes common to this variety. I wonder if they might be devolving again this season; last winter, they were almost recognizable as birds once more. Whether the mutation results from chemicals in the atmosphere or from their own dogged inbreeding, nobody can say for certain.
I bring the Captain/Pilot his mid-afternoon meal; Brigadier regulations prohibit any mention of "lunch" or "supper." Even so, I sometimes slip up and use the words with which I was once familiar, at which juncture the Captain/Pilot is duty-bound to reprimand me.
This is as far as my duties stretch. Regulations do not require the daily preparation of food, though if I did not do so our deaths would arrive more swiftly, and with more pain. Today, I have prepared for him a salad of lightly grilled aubergine, a cutlet of veal or something closely resembling it, and a young but palatable Riesling. He expresses his gratitude thrice in prolonged succession, with no variation in intonation or gesture; I believe his mind has already started to go. Again, it is anybody's conjecture whether this madness derives from the poisoned atmosphere or from the basic attributes of our situation, or if indeed it is simply a harbinger of my own collapse.
Another clue that a breakdown may be forthcoming: my description of the menu and its ingredients was fraudulent. It is of course a macerated slurry, produced in one of the very factories above which we endlessly circle. It is neither palatable nor nutritious. However, it infests the ship in fat canisters that are our only cargo and ballast. I know of no other way to divest ourselves of this lassitudinous weight than by its measured consumption. At that point, we can rise higher, which is neither here nor there.
I happen to be in possession of a strange and unpleasant fact: that the man we know as the Captain/Pilot began his career as a hansom-driver in Mecklenburg. His hansom he referred to by the handle "Rosebud," and it barely got two feet off the ground on a good day; it was pulled by a balding ostrich with a skeletal left wing. I know this because, in my boyhood days, on a visit to the region, I was his passenger. I had my mother as travel-companion; she was then a lithe artist-activist, renowned (rightly) for her largesse. She paid the man in proverbs: "Lies have short legs," "One doesn't look into the mouth of a gifted horse," that sort of thing. It was much more than the ride was worth.
Two days later, she was found dead in a hotel room, wearing nothing but a girdle and a pair of intricately embellished but ultimately clownish men's pantaloons. It wasn't even our hotel. The hansom-driver, among a hundred thousand others, may have been her murderer. In any case, he is moving up in the world: he has painted the motto "Wisteria" on the side of our ship in large, lavender-pink letters.
As every new season passes, the Dreadnought/Deadnought hangs lower and lower in the sky, taking on gravity while the Sepulchral Zeppelins circle in their decaying orbits like the crumbling orrery of a nation.
Occasionally, the factory fumes get mixed up in the rotaries. When this occurs, they emerge a powerful analgesic cocktail. I consider myself lucky for this effect. My stomach, I think, is being torn open from the inside. The slurry is digesting us, rather than the alternative.
We fester up here in our ether-borne sarcophagi. We were promised that, in service to our country, our debts would be forgiven, be they moral or pecuniary; but where there is no longer any possibility of service, what hope is there for absolution?
I prod my abdomen, and it is a shapeless, bruised mush, but I feel no pain. As the day draws in, and the moon peeps like an overgrown cabbage from behind the clouds, I lie down on the deck, wherever I happen to find myself, and watch the stars unfold. The band plays some senseless, hallucinatory melody; not that it makes much difference, as there is little one can do with a zither and a trombone. There used to be more of them, I think, but only ever the two instruments. I pick a star at random, to wish upon, but I can't seem to figure where to go from there.
Byron Alexander Campbell is a graduate of the MFA Writing program at the California Institute of the Arts. His fiction has appeared in Polluto, Innsmouth Free Press, [out of nothing], and various anthologies, including Twisted Anatomy, a charity anthology of body horror published February 2021. Follow him at @YearIsYesterday on Twitter, or visit theyearisyesterday.com for news and sporadic fiction.