Twentyman’s brief history of the world
Extracts from Sophora’s Book, a novel in progress, set in the near future and following the machinations of a demigod called Twentyman. She is the self-appointed guardian of an ancient human lineage that she is determined to see through the Earth’s sixth mass extinction.
1. Laiha and the pines
Laiha asked two Hoom children – sisters – to gather nuts that had fallen from the pines.
It was hard work picking them from the heaps of dried pine needles. The sisters realised they could get more nuts faster if they snapped cones from the trees’ branches, then picked nuts from between the cones’ scales.
When Laiha saw, she said, Stop! Take only what you can carry!
Big Sister said, But we can carry all these nuts no problem.
Laiha said, Can you carry the cones, too? Because as soon as you snap them off the tree, you’ve taken them.
The sisters went back to gathering nuts from the ground.
2. The neolithic revolution
Some say it was as if a great timer went off inside every Homo Sapiens line, across the globe and through centuries, like the flowering of bamboo. But it wasn’t.
The Sapiens had never been creatures to accept their lot. They’d been harnessing other animals, and tending their favourite stands of plants for as long as I could remember; observing, testing, tinkering, and passing their discoveries from friend to friend, ally to ally, elder to child. The ‘revolution’ was simply a slow accumulation of knowledge: harnessed pets became harnessed herds, and favourite patches became crop fields.
Any area that could be worked into greater abundance exerted an attractive force on the Sapiens. Villages became towns became cities. Now that was a revolution. How did animals make cities? Sure, the Sapiens had great hands, and free arms, and brains full of talk. But cities!
Here’s how: the Sapiens had a special awareness. They never went about their business as parts of the natural world unwittingly. They saw their part-ness. And once you understand that you’re part of something, that’s when you can separate yourself from it, or try to. You can even build your own version. These intricate new systems, these cities, were increasingly removed from the patterns of nature, but at the same time they depended on the Sapiens’ age-old willingness to each play a small role in something grander, and to know they were doing so.
Of course, in every generation, there are a few who lack that willingness. They’re the ones who’ve never accepted in their hearts that they don’t, can’t, control the world; the ones who, when confronted with their smallness, rail against it. Face to face with nature, they’ll always lose that argument, but cosseted and encouraged by a city, they can imagine themselves huge. Then, if they have certain attributes and a helping of luck, they can roll out their influence to the farthest horizons, and dream on.
Cities became kingdoms became empires. Civilisation took on a frenetic quality, until it seemed there was nothing the city-Sapiens wouldn’t pull from the sky or the sea or the ground, pretending they didn’t see the collapsing hollows left behind.
At one time, when a bit of brown coal rolled from the earth, its lucky finder would be delighted, thankful to who or whatever had put this famously hot-burning rock in their path. Their room would be cosier that night, their bath steamier, their dinner better cooked.
Next thing, city-Sapiens were mining the stuff. Reaching ever deeper for the densest, blackest specimens, and hauling them out by the ton.
The coal shrieked warnings at them. It marked skin, stung eyes, poisoned lungs. Like a venomous animal it did everything to try and make them understand: leave me alone. But the Sapiens carried it off anyway, and set it to use powering their revelries and their wars.
And I’d thought Rome was bad!
In 1666, flames fanned by autumn winds set the city of London ablaze for half a week. But that was nothing compared to the slow charring of millions that took place in industrial London. By 1830, magnates were demanding that coal be torn from the earth by the megaton, and the biggest city in the world was gasping for air. Coal sat on London’s chest like a demon.
Shut your eyes. Imagine you’re there. What do you hear? A hiss of pistons? The metal-squeal of steam-train brakes? Trotting hooves on cobbled streets, and the cry of the Cockney news-boy? Lucky you. All I ever heard was the coughing – wet, dry, rumbling, explosive – like hell’s birdsong, every individual contributing their own unique hack to the chorus. And if I looked around, all I could see were the hordes of labouring luckless, straining and gasping – just like the fish in the filthy Thames below.
6. Auckland, 2030
If Rome was built in a minute, New York was built in half that, and Auckland in 12 fucking seconds. Not Tāmaki Makaurau, but Auckland the city.
Look at it as you fly in. Houses, warehouses and factories for miles – like discarded shells, bones, bags, cans, spilling out of one vast, exposed midden. And year by year, more and more of the world’s moneyed trash find it and cling on, as if to a monumental metal detector. Come to New Zealand – you’ll be safe here! But don’t stray too far from the rest of the world… Welcome to Auckland: the bob-each-way city for these dark times.
We’re leaky things, humans. Stories, knowings, feelings, secrets. They leak out through our mouths and our eyes; they fill our bodies and shape them from inside. And others absorb what we leak, through their eyes, their ears, their sympathetic bodies, then leak them out some more.
We put our secrets into objects because we can’t hold them all the time. We write them, we paint them, we sing them, we dramatise them, hoping that they’ll stay hidden. But this is the fool’s way. Or the sneak’s. Or maybe just the tired person’s. Perhaps, deep down, you want to pass the secret on. Please, someone, hold it for me. Because secrets are heavy. They weigh more than knowledge that can be freely given. Their weight is directly relative to how much you must never tell. Call it Twentyman’s Theory of General Secretivity.
8. Laiha and the character of the world
A flock of Twelve-feathers became regular visitors to the pine trees, because they loved the juicy nuts in the cones. Big Sister became entranced by their little personalities and big voices, and soon she wanted only to sit under the pines, all day long, and watch them.
One day Laiha heard yelling. Uncle was trying to drag Big Sister away from the pines and back to camp.
She needs to be learning a useful skill like the other children, said Uncle.
Laiha told Uncle, Sometimes a Hoom needs to wander, to explore the Character of the World and learn what no one, not even them, expects.
Uncle let Big Sister go.
A year passed and Big Sister knew all the Twelve-feathers’ songs and calls. One day, she heard them calling about a giant eagle. Big Sister knew Little Sister was playing in a nearby clearing, and she ran there. She saw a speck in the sky growing larger as it plummeted towards them. Big Sister pulled Little Sister into denser forest just in time.
As years went by, Big Sister also saved people from snakes, wild dogs and tornadoes.
When Big Sister grew old and died, the Hoom laid her out under the pine trees and covered her in needles and nuts. Laiha said, Now she will become part of the Character of the World.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Johanna Knox’s non-fiction books include A Forager’s Treasury (2013) and Guardians of Aotearoa (2018). She has just had the best year of her life doing her MA at the International Institute of Modern Letters and remembering how much she loves fiction.