The Waters & the Wild
Gates awoke one morning and knew the truth: his whole life was a mistake.
The realization struck like a hammer blow deep inside his brain, and a single word tolled within his skull: failure, failure, failure. He shook his head, but it wouldn't go away. Somewhere he'd gone off course, taken the wrong fork in the road, and now here he was, twenty or thirty or forty years later, an old man living all wrong, looking back and unable to see where the wrong began. He felt woozy, sick, the way a man feels after breaking to the surface from too deep a dive.
“Jeez!” he called.
Jeez, the butler, appeared. He held Gates' slippers and cotton robe.
“I've come to a realization, Jeez. Everything I've done is wrong.”
“You are the most successful man in the world, sir,” Jeez said. “Surely you've done something right.”
Jeez rattled off the statistics: technological whiz kid and founder of Gates Tekk at twenty-one, multi-millionaire at twenty-three, billionaire at twenty-five, major shareholder of Gates Global Conglomerate, three times Businessman of the Year, Forbes 500, cover of Time, Newsweek, the New Yorker...
“Enough. Look around you, Jeez.”
Jeez looked. “A fine bedroom, sir.”
“Yes, but what do you see?”
“Really look, Jeez. What do you see? Ionized titanium framing with synergistic heating and cooling tiles. High-density pixelated mycoplasma screens. Central ventilation system with purified mixtures of flavored aromas. Pine forest at seventy parts per million. Cinnamon, coffee bean, vanilla sprig, and mint leaf at thirty parts per million each. You can't even smell them distinctly, but they're there, Jeez, ticking off little sensors in the mind. Wake you up feeling giddy and spry. Different mixture at night to coax you into calm and peaceful sleep: sandalwood and apple smoke, chamomile and nutmeg, a tincture of moonbeam. All perfectly controlled by Mother.”
“Your own design, sir.”
Gates waved a hand. “You're missing the point, Jeez.”
Gates snatched up a bedside remote and pointed at the wall. He clicked. The mycoplasma screen hummed and shimmered. The ocean shore appeared. Waves rolled in across a fine brown sand. A light mist clung along the horizon. The sun, a dense ball of fire, climbed towards heaven.
From hidden speakers came a light, tinkling sound: gurgling water, gulls bleating, wind rustling through high grass.
“I haven't seen the ocean in thirty years,” Gates said.
“You see it every day, sir.”
“I see this. This is not the ocean. This is what Mother thinks is the ocean.”
“It looks real enough to me, sir.”
“Does it? Are you sure? Does Mother have the right color of light on the horizon? The correct size of the grains of sand? Are those waves too large? Too small? What of those gulls? Do they really fly in that pattern, or is that only how Mother imagines they must fly? Has Mother calculated the right drafts of wind, the proper amount of salt spray in the air, the accurate flexibility of the grass?”
“You designed Her, sir. I'm sure She's perfect. But if you'd like confirmation, sir, I could send a boy down to the ocean right away.”
Gates shook his head.
“Don't you see, Jeez? With the push of a button I've got the fake Cannon Beach in my bedroom. Another click and I've got the fake Kilimanjaro in my bathroom. Click. Fake Mona Lisa in the library. Click. Fake Last Supper in the dining room. Click. Fake Dallas Cowboys cheer squad in the den. I'm the biggest faker in the history of the world.”
Jeez's mouth puckered. He stared down at his polished shoes.
“Something must be done.”
“What do you want done, sir?”
That was the question. Gates stood and pondered. For almost forty years he'd lived in the world's most perfect Home. He'd been coddled and swaddled and rocked to sleep by Mother for all that time. When he wanted something, he had it. Best of all, he never had to leave the House. Mother was everything. She cooked. She cleaned. She sang. And never, not once, did she complain. She was perfect in every way.
But for some time now Gates had been dully aware of a growing protuberance deep in his gut. A gnawing, rending sensation that woke him at odd hours and distracted his usually focused mind. An aching like hunger, but one unsatisfied by food.
A hunger of the soul.
“I have an idea.”
Gates told Alice at lunch.
“That sounds lovely, dear. Just lovely.”
She'd been married to Gates twenty-five years and given him two beautiful children. More than once she'd stood with one ear tilted while Gates explained a plan that made her worry about his sanity. Early in their marriage she felt it her wifely duty to protest, to point out the obvious flaws and failings, to remind her husband that while she loved him dearly the rest of the world might not be so forgiving. She found this strategy never led where she wanted. Gates simply pushed on without her consent, and later he resented her. These days, Alice simply smiled, nodded, and told her husband what he wanted to hear. They were both happier that way.
“I'm sure it will be marvelous.”
She offered Gates a tight little hug, wondering as she did how long she'd have to endure this current undertaking. She hoped it wouldn't disturb the fourth floor, which was exclusively her own.
“I've always thought the House needed a little more green.”
Gates smiled. “That's just what we'll have.”
The landscapers arrived at noon.
Gates stood on the front steps and bellowed so all could hear. “I want a wilderness! The grandest and most natural wilderness you've ever seen. I want jungle. I want swamp. I want river and waterfall. Whatever you see here right now, tear it up! Throw it out! And put in its place...Mother Nature!”
The back of the landscaper's trucks popped open. Inside was a whole new world. Inside were the Amazon, the Congo, the Himalayas, the Serengeti. There were redwood trees and coconut palms, cactus scrub and rubber saplings. There were blocks of ice and piles of shaved snow, river water and mountain streams, ocean silt and lake clay. One truck held wind from every continent. Another held shadows from every jungle. This was Mother Nature captured and bottled, ready to be sprung back into the world at a moment's notice.
Jeez supervised from the top of the steps. He held up a bullhorn and called out this way and that way, over here and over there. He pointed and shook his head, stamped his foot and pointed some more.
“And I want it inside,” Gates said to Jeez.
“What's that, sir?”
“Inside. I want rainforest in the hallways. Meadows in the kitchen. A veldt in the library. When they're done out here, tell them to bring it inside.”
Jeez's eyes rose, but he nodded swiftly. “As you wish, sir.”
The next day the tigers arrived. They came in long rumbling trucks lined with cages. They were not alone. After the tigers came pumas and elephants, giraffes and gazelle, water buffalo and hippopotami. In the afternoon came the birds. Birds of every color and every size, squawking and whistling and cawing and chirping. Birds that talked. Birds that sang. Birds danced the tango and formed a line to conga. They were everywhere.
More arrived that evening:
A pride of lions.
A herd of zebra.
A coil of pythons.
A pack of hyena.
A sleuth of black bears.
A colony of army ants.
A raft of wild ducks.
A mob of kangaroos.
On and on they came.
“Where shall we put them all?” Jeez asked.
“Let them run wild,” Gates said. “That is why they're here. I want Nature, Jeez. Raw and red in the tooth. Let them run. Let them do as they please.”
“But they'll surely kill each other, sir.”
“That's Mother Nature, Jeez. She's mean and She's cruel, but She's fair. There's a dangerous beauty to Her, and I've not looked Her in the eye for far too long.”
Jeez let the animals out of their cages. They flowed like living a river, pulsing out of their bounds and streaming into the newly formed jungles and the pristine plains. Within minutes they disappeared, finding new homes amongst the Gates Estate. All that remained was a single elephant butting its head against the front door.
“Knock it down,” Gates said. “If it wants in, let it in.”
“There are no doors in Nature, Jeez. Knock it down.”
A buzzing noise came from the Intercom by the door. Gates pushed the button.
“I need to speak with you right now,” sparked Alice's voice from the ComLink.
“Of course,” Gates said.
Gates glanced up towards the fourth floor window.
Gates listened patiently.
“I've had just about enough of this. You told me this was only going to go so far. A little remodeling you said. A few new plants you said. Some pets you said.”
Gates nodded emphatically. Yes, yes, and yes.
“There is dirt in my hallways! There are...vines! Earlier today, I found a gazelle in my bathroom. In my bathroom! Using my facilities! I won't stand for it. I am your wife, and I have rights. I won't stand for this any longer.”
Gates waited until he was certain her fury had calmed.
“Darling, don't you see that I am doing this for us? Don't you see that we've built up this bubble all around us for years and years and years? A bubble of glass and metal and silicon and high-speed optical fiber. We've built it and lived inside it and it's made us unhappy and cold and lonely. And why? Because we don't actually talk, we squawk through the ComLink. We don't cook, we order food from the AutoChef. I haven't seen your real face in years, darling. I've only seen what that Beauty Wizard has made you into. Not my wife. Just hair spray and eye liner and mascara and nail polish all applied by an artificial intelligence. It's all the bubble, Ally. And I'm tired of it. I'm tearing it down.”
Alice stood speechless for a long time.
“You want me to go without makeup?”
“I want you to be you.”
“What about my hair? My wrinkles? George, I have wrinkles.”
“You'll be all natural again.”
Gates sighed. He turned to his children, who waited patiently on the bed.
“Today we pop the bubble. I want you to throw away your clothes! Mess up your hair! Run through the jungle! Play and be free!”
“Do we have to take baths?”
“Never again!” Gates cried.
“Do we have to eat our vegetables?”
“Eat whatever you find on the trees, my darlings.”
“Go! Be wild!”
The children scampered off the bed and down the hall and out of sight.
“I won't do it,” Alice said quietly.
Gates took her hand. “When did you start believing that you ever needed perms and eye shadow and lip gloss and facial creams to make you beautiful? You are naturally beautiful. Just as God made you.”
Alice looked down. “You really think so?”
“You wouldn't lie?”
Alice threw her arms around him. “I love you.”
“I love you.”
“I'll try. For you, George.”
“There's nothing like it. Trust me. Soon it will be perfect. Real and live and wild. Mother Nature. The way we've always supposed to live. We'll live like God intended. We'll pick fruit from the trees. We'll lay under the shade of palms. We'll feel wind on our bare backs and clean water between our toes. We'll do it all. And you know what?”
“We'll be the happiest people on Earth.”
Something was wrong.
“The feeling in my gut, Jeez,” Gates said. “It hasn't budged.”
“Perhaps you need a laxative, sir.”
“No, something's missing. It's like we've gorged on potato chips. Empty calories. No sustenance at all. And at the end, we're still hungry. That's what we have here, Jeez. Emptiness. Hunger.”
“But how, sir?”
Gates' dark eyes narrowed. “We have made only pseudo-nature. We've fallen short of the real thing.”
“Look at how the leaves droop in the halls. Watch how the tigers lounge all day by the pools. The gorillas do nothing but fart and scratch. This rain...ha! It does not pour. It drizzles. The river does not rush. It meanders. Do you smell this air, Jeez?”
Jeez sniffed. He thought it smelled pretty rank.
“Pungent?” Gates asked. “Hardly. This is not Mother Nature's air. We've been had, Jeez.”
“But this is everything you wanted, sir.”
“It's wrong. All wrong. We must set it right.”
“We must make it more natural.”
Jeez sniffed the air again and wondered if, once the air was more natural, he might not need a nose plug.
“You cannot do Mother Nature halfway, Jeez. This is a test of our resolve. And we must meet this test. We must make nature more natural. That is our goal now.”
Jeez shuddered. Already a thick layer of black soil carpeted every hall. Damp rains fell in nearly every room (save the Sahara Room, where rain never fell). Blustery winds carried from the Kilimanjaro Room directly through the Yellowstone Kitchen, making for wintry lunches and frosty dinners. Jeez himself had twice been pawed by a stealthy black puma that roamed the House. And there was simply no sleeping for all the cawing birds and buzzing insects. There was no peace in the House any longer.
“Get Dowin on the phone,” Gates said.
“Yes, sir,” Jeez said faintly, without resolve.
The ComLink had been shut off days before. Jeez took out his personal cell phone, dialed, and handed over the phone.
“Dowin here, Gates' Genetics Division.”
“Dowin, this is Gates.”
“I need you, son.”
“Of course, sir. Anything, sir.”
“I need genetically modified fertilizer. The plants here are all limp and saggy. The vines don't cling. They just hang like limp string. I want more perk, Dowin. I want plants that stand at attention, that snap and grab and jostle when you go by. The bigger, greener, and leafier the better. I want plants that remind you why civilized man never ventured into the depths of Africa. Understand?”
“Can do, sir.”
“And the animals are all a wash. The zoo has lamed their instinct. You've never seen a lazier bunch of butt sniffers. The other day I told Jeez to stick his head in the lion's mouth. He could have laid it there and taken a nap.”
“We can do genetic modification, sir. Clone you a whole new set.”
“Perfect. I want them wild, Dowin. No kittens and goldfish, understand? Red in tooth and claw, that's what we're after. The real Mother Nature.”
“I could get you a saber-tooth tiger, sir.”
“Make it two. And snappy.”
“Already ordered, sir.”
“And the air, Dowin.”
“What about it, sir?”
“This isn't Mother Nature's air, son. It smells like a dying circus. The ocean air needs more salt and tide. The mountain air needs more pine and sky. The arctic air needs more ice and desolation. Right now it's just all wrong.”
“I'm calling an Eskimo right now, sir. I'll have him step outside and get you a whiff.”
“Anything else, sir?”
“I need something for myself. All these colognes and aftershaves and deodorants have built up for five decades. They're in my pores. In my DNA. I need a body spray. Something that really reeks.”
“Tangy and obscene, sir? Heavy dose of swampy feet and unwashed body hair?”
“That's the stuff.”
“Not a problem, sir.”
Gates hung up the phone.
He felt better already.
It didn't take long.
Dowin's improvements arrived the next day. Trucks from Gates' Genetics Division lined up in the driveway, and from morning until late evening they unloaded their wild cargo. Gates stood on the porch, nodding and smiling and clapping his hands.
The Sprayers came first. They wore dim green suits and carried heavy silver canisters on their backs. Narrow hoses snaked from the canisters to long thin rods the Sprayers held in their hands. They shuffled from the trucks across the lawn into the House and everywhere about the property. They sprayed and sprayed.
The foliage thickened. Plants stretched up as if waking from a long slumber. Leaves grew greener. A thick mucus dripped from limbs and stalks. New flowers blossomed in a matter of hours, each bud a raging, virulent color that stung the eye.
After the Sprayers came the new animals.
Saber-tooth tigers with nine inch claws.
Komodo dragons that spit funnels of fire.
Pterodactyls six feet high with wings that stank of death.
A python eighty feet long.
Dowin's animals sprang from their cages. They roared and clawed and hissed and screeched. They snapped and pounced and mangled and swiped. They broke free in their hundreds and swarmed across the Estate, and everywhere they went a scream rose up. The new ate the old. The law of the jungle reigned.
Gates marveled at what he saw.
In all her glory.
Something wasn't right.
Gates couldn't put his finger on it. Dowin had come through brilliantly. Everything had been perfect: the animals, the plants, the air. All of it exactly as Gates wanted. Then why was there still this ache in his gut?
Something was wrong.
Some small detail had escaped him. Something infinitesimal, but important. You couldn't fake Mother Nature, Gates knew that. And you couldn't fool your gut. You either had it exactly right, or you didn't have it at all.
Gates stared out his bedroom window at the New World he'd created. Where had he gone wrong? He heard the howls and cries of his kingdom in the night. Was it the New Breed? He breathed the cool dank air. Was it the air? He peered into the gloomy darkness. Was it the quality of light?
His gut roiled.
Gates knew what had to be done.
For three days Gates locked himself away in his room.
He experimented with the air. To the humidifiers, he added droplets of salt spray, draughts of black tar, tinctures of oleander and mint. He aerosolized a mixture of bone and feces and moth wings and sprayed it into every crevice. At night he gathered cobwebs and bat droppings, nightcrawlers and owl feathers, which he burned in a heap to catch the smoke in a beaker. When it had cooled, he blew the smoke upon the curtains.
During the day he was a student of light. He strained sunrise and sunset through tinted filters and recorded every shade and hue. From Gates Laboratories he ordered bulbs in every color, screwing them in at random along the ceiling, in lamps, in flashlights upon the floor. A rainbow of light cut crisscross throughout the room.
Rain he had shipped from every corner of the globe. He had a monsoon from India, a flood from Argentina, a rapid from the Congo, a drizzle from the Swiss Alps. Each he distilled, recording exact chemical makeups, temperatures, consistencies. He mixed them, boiled them, stirred them and whirred them, seeking out their watery secrets.
Three days and nights the experimenting continued. The door never unlocked. No one came. No one went.
And then, on the fourth morning, the bedroom door opened.
A voice issued forth:
“Jeez! Bring my family.”
Gates' clothes were in tatters, his shirt gone entirely and flapping shreds of his pants dangling at his ankles. The hair on his chest was singed black. He was bald. A dark streak ran along his arm the color of dried blood. But it was his eyes that worried Jeez most. They were the eyes of a man who'd looked too long at the stars, looked and looked until he'd seen something beyond them, something man was never meant to see.
“Good heavens, sir.”
“I've done it, Jeez.”
“Are you alright, sir? You haven't eaten in three days. You need a meal, sir. A meal and a bath.”
“I've made it right, Jeez. It's finally right. Bring Alice and the kids. They have to see. They have to see what I've done.”
“Bring them now, Jeez.”
Jeez brought them.
“George, my god!”
“I've done it, darling.”
“Look at you!”
“It's over, now,” Gates said. “You must come and see.”
Gates held out his hand.
The children took a hand each.
“You look terrible, Daddy.”
“Daddy's just tired. He's worked very hard.”
Alice shook her head. “You're scaring them, George. Scaring me, too.”
“There's nothing to fear. It's finally done. Come look.”
Alice followed her husband and children through the door.
Jeez came last, but he stopped at the doorway and put only his head inside.
Inside the bedroom, the ionic mycoplasma screens had been revived. They were different now. Gates had manually adjusted their settings. A sweltering jungle appeared on every screen, and a dense canopy up above. Heaps of soil and plants and trees lay scattered through the room, and they blended seamlessly into the images on the screens. Lights from above winked and flickered, and the screens appeared to pulse with the light. A misty fog twined along the edge of the screens, but it also appeared to rise out from the floor.
Jeez bent down and wiped his hand through the fog. His fingers came away wet.
“Sir?” Jeez called.
He could no longer see the Gates family clearly. They were now only dark outlines at the far end of the room. The faltering chatter of the children drifted through the heavy air.
Jeez watched. He rubbed his eyes. He thought the fog must be affecting his sight, because he was certain he'd just seen the Gates family step past the last clump of trees and into the mycoplasma screen.
Jeez shook his head.
They were still going, fading now, into the screen. Wavering, darkening, gone.
“Sir?” Jeez whispered.
And from somewhere in the wild, the screaming began.