Girl in Landscape (Jonathan Lethem)

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  Pella was off-balance from the start. She woke back into herself and left her warren, almost stumbling across the plastic bag of pills. She detached Bruce's note and let it flutter away. The wind died, then rose again, the note tipping corner over corner across the cracked gully, a square wheel, until it vanished in the glare. Then she took the bag and clambered up the grade, and that was when she saw Efram, at the top of the ridge, hand on his hip, eyes narrowed. He might have paused in midstep as he passed or been waiting there for hours, she couldn't know. After that she never caught her breath.

He fell into step beside her, one of his strides for two of hers.

"Pella Marsh," he said. His voice was far-away engines rumbling, the subway rushing underfoot. "What do you know."

She ignored the words, but walked with him, not veering away. For days she'd avoided his house, frightened to approach him even invisible, as a deer. Now her fear had been replaced by a furious compulsion to match his pace, to walk unafraid.

"I said Pella Marsh," said Efram. "What do you know."

"What do I know?" said Pella. She thought of Clement and Diana Eastling. I know too much, she thought.

Efram laughed. "That's right, Pella Marsh. What do you know?"

"More than you," she said. "I'll say one thing, though--you say my name as much as an Archbuilder."

"Which Archbuilder?"

"I didn't mean a particular one."

She clutched the bag of pills, refusing to try and hide it. The plastic was transparent, plain what was inside. But Efram didn't comment on it. Without seeming to change his stride he increased his pace, and Pella fell behind. He didn't look back at her.

She hurried to catch up, not knowing why she did. He'd sought her out, hadn't he? Why didn't he speak? But maybe she was wrong, maybe he'd just happened to be there.

A household deer curled around the side of a craggy shelf in the rock and skittered into their path. Efram leaned down and in one huge, smooth motion swept the back of his hand across the tops of his shoes. He'd calculated the deer's path perfectly. His knuckles collided with the frail body at the lowest point in the arc of his swing, and the deer flew up over the top of the rocks.

The deer skidded in the dust, feet scrabbling as it righted itself, then dashed away. The violence was so effortless that it had a kind of poetry, so fast that it seemed possible it hadn't happened at all. Efram held his hand in front of him, palm facing the ground, and glanced at his knuckles for just a moment, as if he were checking to see that nail polish had dried. His vast, lazy stride never faltered.

"This isn't your house!" said Pella.

"You're still here?" he said, turning to grin at her.

This absurdity made her feel again that she was the audience for something staged. But all she could say was "What are you afraid of, anyway?"

"From the deer?"


"Let me put it this way, Pella Marsh." He pointed at her, his finger descending from the air. "When I see you up and on your feet the deer don't worry me all that much. But I still don't want them around."

He handled her secrets so casually, like they and she were features of the landscape now.

She was a feature of the landscape.

She and Efram had that in common, she because she ran over it, hid in it, and he because he was like a chunk of it, broken off and ambulatory. The last intact tower.

They belonged together, out here walking in the sun. She skipped to keep up with him. The bag of pills swung at her side, the bunched plastic sweaty in her grasp.

Her objection to his swipe at the deer suddenly seemed hopelessly naive, something Clement would say. As if a human in a diving suit had tried to dictate that some ancient monumental whale not brush away a pilot fish, or gobble up the plankton in its path.

That was why she had to be her Pella-self with him, why she couldn't slip through doorways at his feet to spy on him. She had to be more than plankton to him, more than a buzzing gnat. She wanted his notice.

"Where are . . . you going?" said Pella. She'd almost said we.

"My house," said Efram. "You coming?"

"Is Doug Grant there?"

"You want to see Doug Grant?"


"Well he's not there. He doesn't live at my place, he lives with his parents. Nobody's there."

"Where's Ben Barth?"

"You taking a census? Ben Barth's out, he's helping Hugh Merrow."

"Helping him with what?"

"How should I know? Something he needed help with."

"I thought you didn't like Hugh Merrow."

"What's that got to do with it?" His exasperation made her childishly pleased. "Ben helps everybody with everything. He doesn't have to like them. And I don't tell him what to do. You coming?"


The reason went unspoken, like it was obvious. But in fact the only reasons she could conceive were ridiculous, so thrilling and objectionable that she had to think instead that they were walking together to his house for no reason at all.

They finished the trek in silence. The household deer kept away. Indeed, the closer they got to his house the fewer Pella saw. She wondered if over time the deer had learned to avoid his place.

As they came into Efram's potted garden, the sprawl of wire-mesh-covered planters, scattered tools and refuse that surrounded his house, Pella felt that they were crossing into an enchanted circle, a zone of meaning. His house wasn't like the others. It was older, finer. She'd arrived on the Planet of the Archbuilders at last. The rest had been a facade. But she barely had time to measure her response, to place herself, before they stepped inside. And inside, it was another world. Efram's main room was a reconstruction of an Archbuilder interior, like the fallen fragment that Pella used as her hideaway, but larger. Efram-sized. The surface was scraped clean, shattered shelves and ornaments painstakingly glued together, whorls of stone and knobs of translucent glass restored, polished until they gleamed. Lit by tiny colored bulbs hidden everywhere in the crevices, the room glinted like a jewel box as she stepped inside. Hung on the walls and piled on the shelves were Archbuilder medicine bottles, tools, appliances, other objects she couldn't identify, some corroded, fragmented like the towers, others glistening. The reconstruction made up the four walls of the room, blocking the windows, narrowing the space by half. As Efram closed the door behind her, squeezing away the last margin of sunlight, the effect was that of stepping from the day into the inner chamber of a star-lost spaceship, or an ancient tomb.

He waved his hand at a small couch tucked inside the convex Archbuilder wall, and she went to it, stumbling a little. She sat, dropping the bag of pills to the left of the couch. Efram still hadn't taken notice of them.

"I thought you didn't like Archbuilders," she said.

"You said the same thing about me and Hugh Merrow," he said, raising his eyebrows. "You're awfully concerned with what I don't like."

"Well, isn't it true?"

"The Archbuilders I don't like aren't the ones that built these walls," he said. "They're the ones that didn't bother to keep the walls from falling apart. You want something to drink?"

She nodded.

He pushed open a door to what looked, from her vantage on the couch, like a normal kitchen, illuminated by a sunlit window. It was then, in the light from the kitchen, that she saw the rifle mounted on a ledge inside the Archbuilder wall. It was one thing that had nothing to do with Archbuilders, she knew.

In a moment he returned with glasses for both of them, and closed the kitchen door. Pella sipped her drink. It was some kind of soda. Root beer, but pale, almost clear.

She swallowed a mouthful and said, "I have a place like this." She surprised herself with the words, the boastful way they sounded.

He stood over her, watching. All he said was, "Good."

"Sit down," she said. "You're too tall." She felt afraid, but again her words came out manic, assertive. Her cheeks were glowing with heat. She imagined they shone like beacons in this room, that they glowed like the colored lights. She wanted to dip her fingers in the soda and wet her cheeks with it, feel the cool bubbles on the heat of her skin. But Efram was staring at her.

He laughed again and sat on the couch beside her. He took a long drink from his glass, closing his eyes while he tipped his head back and swallowed, another little performance for her to watch. The color of his soda was different from hers. It looked darker, like whiskey. She wanted to be drinking what he was drinking, and to close her eyes while she swallowed.

He put his glass on the floor between his feet. "Why'd you come here, Pella Marsh?"

"Stop using my whole name."

It was actually the least of her objections. She hoped he'd withdraw the dangerous, unnecessary question.

"Why'd you come here . . . Pella."

"To your house?"

He shook his head, and waved his hand like the suggestion was exasperating. "Planet of the Archbuilders."

"Family, stupid." She thought of Clement sitting with Diana Eastling, her leg over his. Family.

"You're old enough to make your own decisions."

She nearly corrected him, then decided she liked the sound of it. She put her glass to her lips to have something to do with her mouth other than speak. She drank, then held the side of the glass to her burning cheek.

"I guess you do what Clement tells you," said Efram, half-contemptuously, half as though he'd realized her connection to Clement for the first time.

I'm here because of Caitlin, Pella thought. But she didn't want to tell him that, either. She didn't want to talk to him about her parents. It made her too much the pilot fish beside the whale.

She felt drowsy and crazed at once. Efram was drinking the whiskey--if that's what he was drinking--but she was the one getting drunk. Drunk on the Archbuilder walls, drunk on Efram's big, disastrous body so close to her. Drunk on the way he moved his arms.

She lifted her leg, entranced, and draped it over Efram's knee.

He didn't push it away. She couldn't bring herself to look to see his expression. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the couch, and said, "Explain to me about the Archbuilders."

It seemed like a thousand years before he spoke.

"Which Archbuilders?" His voice was neutral. Her leg felt like a twig across his giant thigh. It twitched, pulsed. She felt sure he could feel the blood beat in it the way she could. Like her whole leg was a single vein.

"The ones you hate," she said, eyes still shut.

It was a while again before he said anything. His leg was perfectly still, and it--or more precisely, the place where her leg met his--was the only thing in her universe, until his voice floated down to join it. "Hiding Kneel and Truth Renowned, those types aren't what I call Archbuilders," he said. "They're what the Archbuilders left behind."

His words came to her like she was underwater. But she understood. "You mean the ones that went into space."

"That's right. They were something a little different than the sorry batch we've got lurking around here. They remade their planet, built a civilization, and then they figured out a way to do the greatest thing anyone's ever done--explore the stars. The rabble around here are just the lazy, stupid ones that didn't want to go."

Pella tried to imagine this exodus, the great world that had been here, then flown away. Somehow she couldn't picture the arches any way other than destroyed, couldn't imagine the Archbuilders any different from how they were now. What she pictured instead were people living here, building starships. People like Efram, exactly. Maybe that's what he pictured too.

She said, dreamily, "Someone had to stay."

"Could be that's what they told themselves at the start of it, Pella."

Pella, her eyes closed, head back on the couch, felt that she and his tremendous leg and the couch were in one place together, while his voice was piped down from some impossibly distant other place. Perhaps from space, from aboard an Archbuilder starship.

"But look what it's done to them," he went on. "They passed up the chance to find new frontiers, became a bunch of good-for-nothing navel-gazers instead. They made this planet into a hell of luxury--the weather control, the free food. And it made them into hothouse creatures picking through their own memories of greatness. They're not a civilization anymore."

Was Efram really using words like navel-gazers and hothouse? He sounded like an Archbuilder. Like Hiding Kneel. Or was she beginning to fall asleep and dream elaborations on his talk? Was he really talking at all?

"The Archbuilders who left built this place as a challenge to us, Pella. Why else do you think we can breathe the air, drink the water? They invited us up to get a look around here, give us a taste of getting off Earth, to face us with a choice. We could try to follow them to the stars, to the real frontier, or we could bog down here with these idiots, get lulled by the weather and the free food and the atmosphere of complacent degenerate buffoonery."

It felt as though her leg and his were floating upward, that the immense weight of them together had been released and that they were now moving toward the ceiling. The words--some of them had to be his, she could never have invented complacent degenerate buffoonery, didn't feel at all responsible for bog or lulled--swam in her consciousness.

"Calling them idiots is too generous. They're sexual deviants, most of them. That didn't matter when it was just me and Ben and a couple of others living up here, but if they touch the children I'll kill them."

She was falling into a nerve-racked sleep. It came over her irresistibly, like a fever. For a moment she thought she might escape into some nearby household deer, and by doing so find clarity, open her eyes. She could sneak around to Efram's house, find her way inside and watch this encounter from a neutral corner, sort out the confusion of bodies and words.

But this wasn't that sort of sleep, and besides, there wasn't a household deer nearby. She was only slipping deeper into herself. Nobody would see what happened in this room unless she opened her eyes, and opening her eyes was impossible.

"I kill them already, actually. I roast them in my kiln in the backyard and eat them. My little joke--Archbuilders eat potatoes, I eat Archbuilders. They both grow wild around here."

She was dreaming, and in her dream she protested, illogically, Can't he see that I'm asleep? Why won't he stop talking? Doesn't he know that I'll believe whatever he says?

"If your dad doesn't leave, I'll kill him too. This isn't the place for him to practice his politics. He should go home. Maybe he'll leave you here, though. I wouldn't mind that."
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Excerpted from Girl in Landscape by Jonathan Lethem. Copyright © 1998 by Jonathan Lethem. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.