In the beginning, May was born on a boat, which meant, according to Mama Ruth, she was destined to travel. Mama Ruth spoke of all the places that May might go while she dug in the dirt of her garden.
May considered this from her spot in the low branches of the apple tree. Eventually, after she had thought enough, she said, “I think I don’t want to go anywhere. If that’s all right.”
“Of course it is,” Mama Ruth said. “But you might change your mind.”
“I like it here,” May said. “I don’t want to be anywhere else.”
Mama Ruth smiled. “I’m glad for that, kitten.”
May climbed higher to the fork in the tree that formed the perfect hollow for her body. From there, she looked down to the garden and the house and could see that everything was exactly as it should be.
May and Mama Ruth had always lived on the edge of Fenn, near the Gyre river. Their only neighbor was George, the bot repairman. He lived alone in a small red house and had a daughter who had left and never come back. Mama Ruth brought him produce from her garden, eggs from her chickens, and apples from her trees in exchange for the pleasure of speaking with him in a language May did not know.
In the long afternoons while Mama Ruth was working, May walked barefoot down to the river and skipped rocks into the water until the old women arrived to fish and shooed her away, leaving May to wander through the woods to the yard where bots gathered logs to be sent up river. She watched as they circled gracefully around each other, their movements slow and gentle. She often stayed until it was nearly dark and the bots were put to sleep. When all the people left, she would creep into the yard to examine the giant hulking mounds of metal, getting close enough to run her fingers along their cooling bodies. She wondered how long they had been there and how long they would remain; if she would be an old woman, old as Mama Ruth, and still see them toiling away in the yard.
May did not like school, so she paid very little mind to either her instructors or her classmates. None of them ever talked about anything she found worthwhile. Once one of the bolder children asked her if Mama Ruth was a witch. Unlike many of their questions, this one was born of curiosity rather than cruelty, so she answered yes, and then, for no reason at all, she said she was going to be one too. After that, most of the other children stopped talking to her.
Later, Mama Ruth told her that it was a form of witchcraft: easing bodies into the world, caring for them through illness and injury, and easing them back out again. In this way, she tried to make her work sound interesting, and May suddenly knew the shape that Mama Ruth wanted her future to take.
When she turned eighteen and was about to finish school, Mama Ruth baked her a cake and said, “What is it that you would like to do?”
May thought. Her classmates were becoming apprentices in town or working in the lumber yard or becoming farmers or going to the city for school. May did not want to do any of these things.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Perhaps I could do what you do.”
Mama Ruth smiled at her, so May knew this was the right answer.
The following week Mama Ruth brought May along on her calls, and May trailed her from house to house.
At the end of the day, when she and Mama Ruth were walking home, Mama Ruth asked, “So, kitten, what did you think?”
It was the smell she thought of first, stale and sour, and the stuffiness of the rooms, each one crowded with the illness itself looming over the fragile, failing, animal bodies. She had been relieved to return outside and had dreaded being plunged back into the cave of sickness again.
May finally said, “I think you’re good at what you do.”
Mama Ruth laughed, raspy and warm, and said, “Yes, yes I am. I think you could be, too, if you wanted.”
“I don’t,” May said because she didn’t and couldn’t and never would.
“No,” Mama Ruth said. “I didn’t think so.” But she still smiled and reached out for May’s hand, so it was all right.
In the summer, May took a job working for the grocer. She attached a cart to the back of her bike and ran bundles to and from the store. Some of the houses she went to were very fine, filled with rich fabrics and expensive nonsense items adorning tables that always seemed to retain a light covering of dust. In these homes, small bots opened the doors, removed the bags from her arms, and disappeared into the shadowed recesses of the house.
May didn’t mind this job. It wasn’t interesting, but it was something to occupy the long hours between waking and sleeping, and it allowed enough freedom to be tolerable.
Her days collapsed into the comfort of routine. On the roads in the morning, she always passed the same people and the same bots. Coming home from work, she often encountered George on his bike, just ahead of her. The sight of him became an essential part of her day, soothing and familiar, and she missed him on the days when he didn’t appear.
The year May turned nineteen, Mama Ruth’s left hip became more of a nuisance. It ached and twinged with the cold, but she said she was sure it would be better when the warm weather came around again. She hobbled into the house at the end of each day, and May bundled her into a chair by the fire, made up hot water bottles, and brought her tea.
“Wouldn’t you like to find someone else to spend your evenings with?” Mama Ruth asked her.
“No,” May said. All her former schoolmates had started pairing off in various configurations. Only May existed outside this market of romance and sex, and that was the way she preferred it.
“All right,” Mama Ruth said and did not mention the subject again.
The week that ice started to appear on the river, Mama Ruth went down to the cellar one morning and came back with a choice collection of potatoes and carrots. “For George,” she said. “I promised them to him last week. Maybe you could take them tonight after work. I don’t know that I’ll be up to it.”
“Of course,” May said.
She did not see George on her ride home, and when she passed his house, it was silent and dark. Still, the basket that Mama Ruth had prepared for him was waiting for May just inside the front door, and so May hoisted it up and headed back into the cold.
She intended to leave the basket on his porch, but she saw him emerging from the path that led down to the river. She waited until he was within earshot and then called out to him.
“Ah, May,” he said. “How are you?”
In the low light, his face looked lined and tired.
“I have something for you,” May said.
He squinted at the basket in her hands. “Good for stew. Thank you,” he said.
“Mama Ruth said there are more apples too, if you’d like them,” May said.
“Yes,” he said. “They were especially sweet this year.”
Night was falling quickly, the air brisk and cold. Snow was coming. She should get back and build up the fire for Mama Ruth, who would be home soon. But May thought suddenly of the bots in the lumber yard, their sides heavy with rust, and the ones in the wealthy houses being ignored until they were rendered useful.
“Do you think they get bored? The bots, I mean,” May asked.
He did not laugh, although she hadn’t feared he would, but he did take his time with her question. “I suppose,” he said, “I suppose I believe they are very much like us. Some of their days are brighter and some duller than others. Though perhaps they all blur together. They have so many of them.”
This seemed sensible, so May nodded, bade him goodnight, and returned home to warm the house for Mama Ruth’s arrival.
The old year ended and the new one began, buried in bone-deep cold. They celebrated Mama Ruth’s birthday on the first day of the year. May baked a cake that was slightly collapsed on one side and gave her a blanket she had knit together from scraps of leftover yarn, which Mama Ruth immediately wound around herself and nested into.
This was not Mama Ruth’s real birthday. May didn’t know and had never known her real birthday. She didn’t know Mama Ruth’s age either, though she had watched as her face grew wrinkles and her hands became gnarled and crooked. But she was still hale and hearty, and she had not yet bothered to find an apprentice, so May did not worry.
It was late in winter when Mama Ruth caught a bad cold, and May sent her to her bed. For four days, May brought her cups of tea and sat at her bedside where they talked of nothing until Mama Ruth was tired. Then May gently brought the blankets up around her shoulders and bade her a good sleep.
These were good days, ordinary ones in a string of good ordinary days, where everything was as it should be.
Then, on a bright, fresh day, one of the first that felt like spring, May could not rouse Mama Ruth.
It was a long time before she realized that Mama Ruth was dead.
Once George had lived in a little red house near a river with his daughter, Tabitha. He was still there and so were the house and the river. His daughter Tabitha, though, had left for the city years ago while still a young woman. Then she died, and after, her friends had sent home a crate of her belongings that he, in turn, placed unopened in what had been her room, unsure what else to do with it.
He had tried to make her stay at home; tried so hard that she had no choice but to leave.
George had been young when he himself had left home, only slightly older than Tabitha had been, and he traveled farther than she had, crossing one border and then another, but he ended up in the same city that she had, where it rained often, the streets filling and flooding with water. At home, there had been no rain, only day after day of sun which first cracked the earth and then the people. He and his brother had left together, but his brother had returned, believing that what was left behind was better than what was ahead.
The new language had been difficult for George; the words, thick as syrup, refusing to peel off his tongue. He learned phrases in handfuls and then struggled to find the right ones to use. Finding a job proved difficult, but he had been told that better ones could be had in the provinces, so once he had earned enough money, he bought a ticket on a boat and went as far up the river as it would take him. After Fenn, the river grew too narrow for passage, so Fenn was where he disembarked. At first, he worked with the loggers, most of whom did not care where he was from or how poorly he spoke so long as he kept their equipment in good order. They weren’t hostile or cruel, only insular.
George lived in a small room above a shop in town, kept to himself, and did his work well.
He fell ill in his first winter, and Ruth came to care for him. When she arrived, she spoke to him in a language he had not heard in three years, and, feverish and lonely, he wept, curling himself into her lap as he had his mother when he was very young.
Years later, when they spoke of home, she told him about the citrus trees that her family used to grow and about her wife who had died and left her a young widow, the people she used to know, and the places she used to visit. Their remembrances had occasional moments of overlap, and these were always greeted with great pleasure, the memories made more tangible by the sharing.
Ruth had died a month ago. He missed his friend. He missed hearing his language in a voice that was not his own.
He thought often of May, who he had not yet visited. He knew that he should. The cords tethering her to the earth likely felt thin and frayed. Perhaps she was wondering what the point was of staying here where Ruth was not. Still. Still. It took him longer than it should have to go to her house. When he finally did, he had to knock three times before she answered the door.
“I’ve been cleaning,” she said, “and I found something I thought you might want.”
She led him into the house’s cramped front room, cleared off a chair, and then leaned down and placed a small stack of books in front of him.
“I can’t read them,” May said. “Mama Ruth never taught me. Or I never asked to learn.”
George picked them up one by one.
“You don’t have to take them. I thought you might like them,” May said.
“Yes,” George said. “Thank you. But are you certain you don’t want to keep them?”
“I’d rather not,” May said. She stood. “You should have tea.”
She disappeared into the kitchen and reappeared with two cups. She handed one to George.
“I could teach you,” George said.
She stared at him, uncomprehending.
He tapped the books. “If you wanted to learn, I could teach you.”
“Oh,” she said.
“Only if you want,” George said.
“All right,” she said.
He hesitated, running his fingers across the fraying fabric of the chair. “I miss her,” he said. “She was my oldest friend.”
“I think it’s getting late,” May said.
George picked up the books and stood. “Yes. You’re right.”
May followed him onto the porch. “It was nice of you to come,” she said. “The house is very quiet now.”
George nodded. He understood the brutality of the quiet.
“Good night,” he said.
“Good night,” she said and slipped back into the house slowly and uncomfortably, as if sliding into unbearably frigid water.
On the shop table in front of him, George had assembled all the bits and pieces he thought he needed. Scrap metal panels, wires and gears, circuits and glass.
He lit the lamps above the worktable and slid on his glasses. His sketch called for a small bot. Normally, these models were designed to be seen only when needed and to be almost never heard, but this one he wanted to be cheerfully noisy. It would chirp and hum, and its little wheels would whirr pleasantly against the floor.
It took him five days to get it precisely right.
When he lowered the little bot down to the floor, she hummed happily and rolled into the front of the shop to explore while George swept the floors and ordered his work bench. He hung up his apron and then bent down to the bot.
“Are you ready to go?”
She stopped and watched him with her blue glassy eyes.
George opened the door and waited for her to roll outside. He locked the shop and picked the bot up again, placing her in the cart attached to his bicycle. On the ride home, he pointed out the sights in the town and warned about the dangers of the river when the waters rose, which was happening more and more frequently.
When they got to his house, George said, “This is where I live. You’ll stay here tonight because it’s late and we don’t want to wake May who is sleeping. But tomorrow you’ll go to her. And that’s where you will live. You’ll like May. She’s a good girl. But for now, come.” He lowered the bot to the ground, and they went inside.
In the morning, the bot trundled after him up the road toward May’s house. He knocked while the bot rolled back and forth beside him.
The door opened, and May met him with a curious stare. “George,” she said, “Is everything all right?”
“Yes,” he said. “I’m sorry to come by so early. I brought you something. To thank you for the books.”
“You didn’t need to,” May said.
“No, no. I was glad to do it,” George said.
That was when May noticed the bot. “What,” she said, “what is it for?”
“I thought she could help,” George said.
May watched the bot, who in turn watched her.
“All right,” May said and moved aside so that George could herd the bot through the door. The bot swept into the front room, stopping to examine each object in her path. George watched her quick movements and heard her cheerful noises and was pleased.
The bot tried to follow George as he left. He knelt down on the ground and said, “This is where you live now.”
This seemed to be enough for the bot, who spun around and rolled back into the house.
He left with the thought that he would return the next day or the one after and inquire how the little bot was doing. Perhaps there would be a need for alterations. He, after all, did not know the shape of May’s routines.
But a week passed, and then another, and he did not visit. May, he thought, would eventually come to him should she require anything.
When he awoke on a bright morning a month later, George knew it was going to be a bad day. The air sagged with extra weight, absorbing all sound, and in the quiet, there were no distractions. All he could think of were the empty spaces in the house that should be filled.
He went to the river, where there was enough noise to drown out the silence. He walked on the rocky shore and watched the birds and the movement of the waves and wind and the boats in the distance, and enough of the water and the wind and the birds made their way into him so that he would be able to sleep that night and then get out of bed the next day.
When May came into the shop in the morning, the sound of the river was still stuffed in his ears. He was slow to hear her.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, and then noticed the bot by her feet. “Did something happen? Does she need repairs?”
“No,” she said. “I thought she might be useful here.”
The bot rolled toward him, her head tilted upward. She reached up and pulled a screwdriver from the work table, one George did not need, and handed it to him. George took it and shifted it around in his hands.
“All right,” he said.
May turned to leave.
“You will be back to get her?” George asked.
“Of course,” she said.
The bot whirled around him for most of the day, nosing around the broken machines waiting to be repaired and patting them gently with her little hands. When given a rag, she wiped floors and windows, merrily chirping a song. She only knew the one, so George endeavored to teach her another, a song that his mother had sung to him and he had sung to Tabitha when she was young. At the end of the day, he hauled the bot on top of the workbench and cleaned and polished her. Then he set her down on the floor, and they waited for May to return.
The bot greeted May at the door. “Hello,” May said to her. “How was your day?”
She chirped, and May nodded to her response.
She looked up at George. “Could I bring her by again tomorrow?” May asked.
He had enjoyed the bot’s presence in the shop. Still, George said, “I made her for you.”
“All right,” he said.
George locked the shop, and they both headed home.
“Does she have a name?” May asked. “The bot?”
“I didn’t give her one,” he said. “Most of them don’t have names.” This, however, had not stopped him from christening each of them with a name known only to himself when they passed through the doors of his shop.
“I was thinking Olive,” May said.
It was not the name he would have chosen, but he said, “I believe she will like it.”
May nodded. “I’ll bring her to you in the morning,” she said.
“Thank you,” he called after her, though he wasn’t quite sure what he was thanking her for.
He waited on his porch until she and Olive safely disappeared into their house.
In the morning, May arrived at his shop with Olive. In the evening, she came back, and they all returned home. This cycle repeated itself, and George’s days took on a different color and consistency.
On their ride home, May would ask him about how he learned to fix machines and how he knew this was what he wanted to do and about his time in the city, but she rarely mentioned Ruth and she never asked about Tabitha. He wanted to tell her it was all right to do so, but he couldn’t. He wanted to tell her that grief carves a different path through everyone, but he thought she must already know this.
One day in early summer, May said, “Olive has been helping me with Mama Ruth’s garden.”
“How has she been doing?” he asked.
“Her wheels keep getting stuck in the dirt,” she said.
“I can fix that,” he said. “I could do it at the house if you have the time.”
“You don’t have to fix her right now,” she said.
“I don’t mind,” he said, and indeed the thought of doing something different brightened his evening. “You could go home, and I could bring her back to you.”
“I don’t mind waiting,” she said.
So, he left her in the front room and guided Olive outside to the little private workshop behind the house. Olive roamed the room while he cleared off the workbench and found the parts he wanted. She came to him, and he lifted her up and placed her on her back to replace her three little wheels. The bolts were quickly attached, and he returned her to the floor.
“Try them out,” he said.
“You like them?”
She rolled around George and then looked up at him and chirped. He was glad to be able to make this change, to do a simple thing that would make Olive happy.
May sat in one of the armchairs, her hands crammed under her thighs. She stood quickly when she saw him. Before she could speak, he said, “Would you like to stay for dinner?”
She hesitated but said, “Yes, I would. Thank you.”
She trailed after him to the kitchen and hovered in the doorway. “Can I help?”
“No need,” he said. He motioned her to the table and started making tea.
“I’ll have tomatoes for you soon,” she said. She curled her hands around the table’s edge. “I don’t know what else I’ll be able to grow. I’m not really a gardener. Mama Ruth tried to teach me what goes into the ground and when and how to care for everything. I didn’t listen.”
George put the cup of tea in front of her. “You don’t have to bring me anything.”
“Mama Ruth used to,” May said.
“Yes, but things change,” George said. “It’s nice just to have you here. Just like it was nice to have Ruth here.”
May was silent, her head bowed over the cup.
“I miss her,” she finally said.
“Of course you do,” George said as gently as he could.
He looked away as she sniffed and wiped her nose on her sleeve. Olive rolled to the table and brushed against May’s leg.
George lit the oven, pulled down a cutting board, and made space for May’s grief.
Once she had calmed, her breathing deep and easy, he said, “May, if you like, but only if you like, you could tell me about your day. I would enjoy hearing about it.”
“All right,” May said, and she began to tell him fascinating mundanities while he settled into the methodical preparations for dinner.
Olive’s eyes opened.
It was not light out yet, but it was bright enough to let out the chickens. She opened the hutch and found four eggs. She put these in the basket that May had given her. She held the basket carefully in both hands and revolved to go back to the house. Then she noticed that the tomatoes were ripe and picked two to put in the basket along with the eggs.
The old gardening shed sat right outside the back door. May had labored to clean and repair it after she had cleaned out the inside of the house. Olive wondered what would settle into all the empty spaces May had created.
When she reentered the house, she heard May begin to stir, and she rolled impatiently around the kitchen until May appeared. May smiled at Olive and said, “Good morning” and Olive chirped a greeting back.
May used the eggs Olive had gathered to make herself breakfast. Olive felt pleased. When May finished eating and put away her implements, she said, “Ready to go?” As an answer, Olive rolled to the door and reached up to open it.
May placed Olive in her cart, and Olive chirped happily in anticipation of the ride. She liked how May always sang to her as she pedaled. Some of the songs she already knew, and others she was still learning. She liked them all, but she preferred hearing the new ones.
She and May crossed the bridge into town. She watched the other bots along the street. Some of them she knew well. They had been in the shop, and she and George had fixed them. Olive had talked to them, and they had told her about the functions they performed and about their people. She told them about May and George and the garden she helped tend and the metal bodies she helped to fix.
May stopped outside George’s shop and lowered Olive down. She eagerly rolled forward. The shop was always dim and warm and filled with wonderful clutter that Olive had been organizing.
Usually, May left immediately after delivering Olive to the shop, but today, she hesitated at the door. “George?” she asked.
He looked up, smiled at her, and said, “Yes?”
“I wondered—” she said but then stopped and shook her head. “It’s nothing.”
“Are you sure?” George asked.
She nodded and stooped down to Olive and said, “Have a good day. Be helpful.”
These would be easy commands to follow. Olive always had good days, and she was always helpful.
George watched as May left and then asked Olive, “What would you like to do today? I’m working on a repair, and you could help if you like. Or you could organize. Or you could clean. Whatever you like.”
Olive thought. The repair first. Then around midday, when George was eating, she could organize. Before May came back in the evening, she could clean. She looked up at George and then rolled toward the workbench.
“I was hoping that would be what you picked,” he said. “Come. Let’s get started.”
When the workday ended, Olive always experienced a feeling of satisfaction. She liked to count the things that she had accomplished during the day. She had assisted with three repairs, sorted three piles of parts, cleaned two-thirds of the floors, and greeted ten customers. Now, she was on the workbench patiently waiting as George cleaned her wheels and her hands and removed the dust from her body. This cleaning was mostly unnecessary. She would work fine without it, but it was the way they ended the day and George seemed to enjoy doing it, so she was happy to allow it.
“There you are,” George said, as he always did.
He lowered Olive to the floor and went to hang up his apron. It would not be long now before May came to collect them.
When May entered, she knelt down and asked Olive how her day had been, as she always did. Olive was glad that the floors were clean so that May would have very little to dust off her trousers when she stood.
Their evening ride was always unhurried, so Olive was able to enjoy looking at the storefronts and the lights in the houses and the other bots who were ending their days with, she hoped, a sense of contentment akin to the one she felt, sitting in a cart behind a bike, feeling the air move around her. They crossed the bridge, and Olive watched the flights of the birds, and she hummed a little to herself.
George and May both stopped speaking and listened to her.
“What song is that?” May asked George. “She was singing it yesterday when we were in the garden.”
“It’s one I learned as a child. I used to sing it to Tabitha,” he said.
“I think it might be her favorite,” she said.
“I hope that’s true,” he responded.
They stopped outside George’s red house.
“You’ll come by for dinner in a couple hours, yes?” he said.
“Of course,” she said, and then she and Olive were off again.
When they arrived home, May paused before opening the door, looking back to George’s house. Olive looked as well, but it was only grayish shadows occupying George’s empty porch.
Finally, Olive bumped May’s foot in impatience and received a hasty mumbled apology from May, who quickly opened the door. Olive rolled through the rooms and then headed out the back door.
She liked the garden, with its neat rows of plants and the methodical way each must be cared for. May had told Olive about her mother and how this garden was hers and how she could grow the most magnificent things. Olive thought the garden was the most magnificent as it was now.
When May finally came outside, she watched Olive tending the watermelon. Then she said, “Let’s walk down to the river. I don’t think you’ve ever seen it.”
“Come on,” May said. “It’s a nice day for a walk.”
The path to the river wound through the woods. Olive rolled in and out of the trees’ shadows. She thought that May would sing or talk to her, but May remained silent. Olive did not make any sound either. She liked being quiet with May. The woods opened up to a long platform made of wooden planks and steps that sloped down to the rocks. May stopped and sat, and Olive stopped beside her.
In front of her was the river. It was vast and dark, and it made the softest sounds.
They sat together, doing nothing.
The sun began to set.
“I thought you might like this,” May said.
Olive chirped, watching a bird swoop down into the water.
May was tapping her fingers against the wooden planks. “Olive,” she said. “Do you like our house? Do you like living there?”
Olive chirped. She had her own space at May’s house, a warm little corner May had decorated for her with the pretty objects Olive had found.
May nodded, her eyes looking over Olive and out toward the water. “We do have more room than we need though,” she said. “Plenty of room for another person.”
Olive thought. This was true.
“I cleaned out the shed. And the other room, Mama Ruth’s room.” She inhaled deeply. “I think it’s ready for a new occupant. So, would you like it if George came to stay?”
Olive disliked leaving George at the end of each evening, seeing his figure grow smaller as he waited on his porch until they reached the safety of their own door. She liked having May in the house with her before she closed her eyes at night and knowing May would be there when she woke in the morning. It would be better if George were there too, enjoying the eggs from the chickens and the tomatoes from the garden.
Olive chirped once and then again.
“Yes,” May said. She exhaled and smiled. “Me too.” Then she stood. “Come. George will be waiting for us.”
They returned to the path that wound through the darkening woods.
“Olive,” May said, “would you sing for me?”
She was very pleased to oblige. She hummed until they reached George’s house where he stood waiting for them, silhouetted in the soft golden light of the open door.