By Dylan Combs
Long ago, one of the men said to the others, “Something needs to change.”
One of the other men replied, “Nothing needs to change.”
Inside the dome, three men of metal pushed against the three beams extending from a colossal cog. They wore their feet out on the metal platform that supported the cog. They ground the rust from their joints as they moved. The river that flowed around the circular platform entrapped them. Life under the dome would continue. Their ongoing labor ensured the flow of the river, providing growth to the animals and plants, particularly their favorite trees. The first man of metal, Adhamn, favored hazel trees, which produced the nuts that fed the salmon and the crows. The second man, Reamon, felt an attachment to the rowan trees, where the songbirds made their nests. The third man, Meilyr, valued alders, the shade provided homes for the foxes, bears, trout and other creatures.
The crows wanted all the knowledge in the world; one of them tried to lure the salmon of knowledge in with the nuts of a hazel tree, but again and again he failed to catch it. The salmon of knowledge could not be caught. Being far more intelligent than the crows, it couldn’t communicate on their level of language. It swam over to Adhamn, the only being that could understand its language, the man of metal whose favorite tree was the hazel.
“Good day, industrious friend,” the salmon of knowledge said to Adhamn. It struggled to greet him, swimming against the clockwise current to keep up with the counterclockwise direction of the men and their cog.
“It certainly is, my erudite friend,” Adhamn responded as a smile pushed against his dark, rust-covered cheeks. “I’m curious to hear what you have to share with me today.”
The salmon of knowledge swam to the surface of the water, its eyes set in its forward direction. “It has been long enough since you last asked the others that important question, one hundred years to be precise. Now is the right time to ask again, to discuss it and learn from it.”
“I have asked them many questions.” He paused himself, turned his head to the other men, and lost his smile. “However, there was that upsetting question...”
“Yes,” answered the salmon of knowledge, as it angled its left eye at Adhamn.
He placed his hand back onto the beam, making sure to push his weight, and said to himself, “To change direction, that is what I have wanted to do all this time.” He looked back down at the salmon of knowledge and blurted another question. “Would time and growth reverse itself? Would you lose your nine spots and turn back into an egg?”
An unheard question as the salmon of knowledge changed its direction and reeled back into the current of the river. Adhamn tightened his grip on the beam, opened his mouth to ask the question again, but was instead interrupted.
Meilyr, the man who pushed the beam in front of Adhamn’s, eyed him over his shoulder and gave his answer in a clear monotone voice. “We should not.”
“And why shouldn’t we?” responded Adhamn.
“Because the creator intended us to move in this direction now and for always, for we faced this way when we first awoke.”
“But I prefer not to move this way anymore. It feels unnatural that this direction should be eternal.”
“I will not allow you or myself to defy our creator. If it is the preference of the creator, then it is my personal preference.” He asserted this in a lowered tone, and pushed against his beam to speed up the rotation for a moment. “I will certainly act on my preference, because I share it with the creator.”
Adhamn pursed his lips and let go of the beam. “Since I don’t believe in this ‘creator’ of yours, I’m free to act on my own free will.”
He turned around and threw himself onto the beam behind his, pushing against it with all capable force. On the opposite side of the beam was Reamon. He had listened to the songbirds and ignored the dispute up to this point, but now Adhamn’s hands were pressing down on his fingertips. Reamon heard the sound of creaking that came out of this contact, felt the uncomfortable pressure on his fingers, and yanked them away in response. When Reamon let go of the beam, the cog stopped rotating, and the river stilled.
They exchanged stares, cold glass eyeballs focused; Reamon’s shivered in their sockets while Adhamn’s were piercing and still.
“Wh-what are you doing, Adhamn?” He asked, and took a few steps away from the beam.
“I am acting on a decision,” he said, squinting.
“You see, it’s not only a decision, but a weakness too.” Meilyr said this with half a smile on his face as he looked across the cog at Adhamn. “You should just decide to take the better option, the one that the creator has shown.”
Adhamn turned his head to Meilyr and snapped at him. “Your belief in a creator is a weakness.”
Meilyr looked away from Adhamn quickly. His rage caused his arms to twitch. Reamon looked at Meilyr, and then at Adhamn, and spent a minute contemplating the two. He placed his hands on his head and mumbled his thoughts to himself. “I just want Meilyr to be himself and act on what he believes…but then, I want Adhamn to do as he wants.”
He turned his head and stared over the river, towards his beloved rowan trees, nestling among the hazels and alders, and froze. A swallow landed on his shoulder. Reamon was the only being that the songbirds could sing to; he was responsible for the survival of rowan trees, their trees.
Reamon leaned his head to the side to listen to the bird. The swallow hopped once, oscillated its head, and tweeted into Reamon's sound-hole, “You can please only one.”
“Reamon, help me. I can tell you’re tired of it too!” grunted Adhamn.
“I…am tired of this,” he replied without taking his eyes off the swallow. “But I cannot help you make this change; I just can’t bring myself to do it. I'm sorry.”
“Then if nobody supports my cause,” said Adhamn, “I have no reason to be here.”
Adhamn slid his hands off the beam and turned away from both of them. He strode over to the side of the platform and casually walked off. Meilyr stopped pushing for a moment to listen to the sound of Adhamn’s body splashing into the water. Reamon ran over to the edge and watched his friend's body sink to the bottom of the river. The salmon of knowledge swam over to his struggling body and circled him as his mouth opened to let all of the bubbles escape. The wise fish circled around the metal shell that had been Adhamn a few more times before it also gave up on moving and respiration. Its body ascended more slowly than the bubbles did, but Reamon watched the salmon of knowledge rise until it met the surface.
Within the following days, the corpse of the salmon of knowledge floated until the nine spots on its body decayed, then sank to the bottom with Adhamn. Meilyr pushed in silence, but Reamon often looked out into the distance or sang to the songbirds as he turned. He received the notes of many birds, but understood only the songbirds that nested in the rowans.
The ceiling of the dome was a cyclorama, which up to that point had shifted from day to night at a usual pace, but now that one fewer man of metal pushed the cog, the sun in the pseudo-sky took longer to rise and set. During the next few months, Reamon noticed that the rowan trees were propagating in the most unlikely of places: amongst spacious fields, or on the wall of the dome. As he and Meilyr struggled to push the beams, Reamon sang to himself of the rowan’s adventures to distract himself from the pain in his joints, and he mingled his songs with moans.
However, when Reamon vocalized about being a rowan and digging his roots through the wall of the dome and beyond, the meaning of his songs became too clear for Meilyr not to interrupt. “If you want to protect this beauty that the creator left with us, the beauty you find in the rowans and the songbirds,” warned Meilyr, “then stop singing this wretched song.”
His comment caused Reamon to push his metal brows together for a moment and gape, his mouth ajar. Reamon scratched his fingers into the beam and glared at him, but Meilyr returned no eye contact and only looked forward in his direction. Reamon sighed, stopped singing, and looked down at his tarnished fingertips. The swallow flew off Reamon’s shoulder as a family of thrush landed on the middle of the cog. One of them sat on Meilyr’s head and used it to break the shell of a snail. The rest of the thrush sung loudly with their beaks opened wide and their throats flexing in and out. Meilyr swatted the bird off his head and screamed at the family, scaring them off. Reamon stopped for an instant when all became silent, and then trudged on, sinking his head onto his outstretched arms.
“Seems like a needless amount of birds under the dome, they’re multiplying faster than those unsightly rowans,” said Meilyr.
Reamon didn’t lift his head to acknowledge the comment. A wren landed on his forearm and he smiled at it. He hummed a song to the wren but it didn’t respond.
The wren nipped at the underneath of its wing with agitation and complained about the other birds. “The nightingales are always singing when it’s dark out, the cuckoos are always stealing my grubs, and the linnets won’t keep quiet with their trilling about the outside of the dome. They practically worship it. I’m sick of them all.”
“Wait, they worship the outside of the dome?” asked Reamon, with a slight shift in his chin.
“That’s what I just said.”
“I would love to join them,” he lowered his voice to a whisper and turned his head to Meilyr, “but…”
Reamon turned his head to the surrounding river and whispered, “How am I going to get across it?”
“I can get some birds I know to help you,” said the wren, “but they’ll have to carry you piece by piece.”
He nodded to the wren and it flew off his shoulder.
Meilyr eyed Reamon from across the cog, pushing his jaw up to force a frown on his face, lowering the sheets of metal over his eyes to squint.
When the six magpies perched themselves on Reamon’s beam, he let go of it. He climbed onto the cog, and sat in its center. Meilyr began to yell at him, only to be ignored. The first appendage to go was his right leg, and when he ripped it off, hundreds of diminutive gears and rods spilled onto the floor. The same happened when he pulled off the left. The magpies lifted a leg up together but he wasn’t able to see where they were taking it, because Meilyr continued to push the cog, and his view of the world blurred as he spun. With both of his hands pressed against his jaw line, he sang the song of the wren until he pulled his head away from his body. Disconnected from his body, Reamon closed his eyes with the power that remained. He couldn’t watch the magpies drop his body parts into the river.
Night returned, but when the morning followed, all of the songbirds awoke with cages around their nests formed by tightening rowan branches. Without any food to eat, each bird warbled its lungs out, and as days passed and bodily energy quieted, the other organs followed. Unlike the other songbirds, the wren didn’t sing its very last breath. It utilized the dense space, slamming its body against the weak and etiolated branches of its dome until its neck caught in one of the holes and snapped. Eventually, the rowan trees withered and the vines gave way, deteriorating and fading in the thinning shadows of the rowans.
Meilyr turned the cog in solitude, paying attention to nothing else. It wasn’t until some time that he noticed the lagging growth of the young animals. Every day an enormous bear and her cubs stopped to look at him, and he would stare at them for a moment before he pushed onward. For weeks, the cubs stayed the same size. The mother looked at him, and though her eyes were so small in his vision that they were mere gleams in the sunlight, he could hear the requests of the bear from the distance. She roared into the air but meant him no harm, her expression remaining the same as her neck extended out and her muzzle opened to make the noise. She wanted, Meilyr understood, for him to keep the cog moving, in order for her young to grow. He interpreted her movement, just as she sensed from his steering of the cog that his purpose was to move the river with his rotation and keep the dome alive. He pushed harder, and stomped his flat feet against the floor with every step because he thought that this is what the creator meant for him to do.
A fox perched on one of the surrounding alder’s branches perked his ears up at the roars of the bear. He quickly climbed to the highest branch of the tree and darted off the end of it, diving into the river. He climbed and scratched his way onto the platform, gasping as he scuttled on its smooth metal flooring. “Don’t listen to the bear.”
“Why is that?” asked Meilyr. “She seems to understand the will of the creator.”
“No, no, she doesn’t at all,” said the fox, licking his whiskers. “The less you push the younger everything stays. Can’t you see? Things ended up this way because the creator wants eternal youth.”
The mother growled. Meilyr could tell by the line of white teeth that opened in her dark brown face.
“All of them have pointy claws and talons: mother bears, mother hawks, mother wolves; don’t they?” The fox looked up at Meilyr. “I guess you can’t blame their motherly selfishness, even if they defy the creator by questioning its reasons for keeping their young from growing.”
The fox snickered as the bear ran forward and roared, and almost fell into the river as she yearned to attack him. He let out a fake whimper and intentionally urinated. The stream that splattered onto the metal flooring of the platform was more audible to Meilyr than the distant roars.
“Oh look what she’s done,” said the fox, who looked down at the puddle underneath his trembling legs. “She’s gone and scared me.”
He climbed up Meilyr’s legs and torso, and crawled onto his shoulder. Meilyr looked down at the dribbles of urine that rolled down his slate-grey body.
“Pitiful,” said Meilyr as he pet the fox on the head. “Just like a baby.”
The fox grinned and waved his tail.
“I’m sorry about that,” said the fox as he stood up on Meilyr’s shoulder. “I am here to tell you something magnificent. Yes, magnificent; the creator has been testing you. This, the ever-slowing time of the dome, is its sign to tell you that it’s time to meet it soon. You’ve been true to its will. Like all natural processes it created, it wants you to walk a straight path, to stop this constant cycle.”
The bear let out another roar in the distance, but Meilyr began to ignore her.
The fox pretended to be afraid again, and nudged his muzzle against Meilyr’s neck. Meilyr left his feet flat on the ground and stood still, and the clanking of the cog lulled until it diminished into silence when he let go of the beam. The current of the river stilled. Meilyr noticed the fox’s struggle to balance on his shoulder. He pulled the fox into his arm and cradled him like a newborn.
The mother bear bellowed with her face lifted up towards the artificial sky, and her thunder lasted for ten seconds. She ogled the cog and stopped her noise when she made eye contact with him. She saw in his eyes that he was determined to do nothing. She let her cubs finish eating the trout she caught them, and then stomped their heads into the water to drown them. Meilyr sat down on the edge of the platform and let go of the fox, who settled down beside him. Both watched the splashing in the distance until it came to a stop, and passively gazed at her as she retired into an outlying cavern. She disappeared from their sight, and Meilyr silently stared at a nearby alder while the fox licked itself.
After a while, the fox stood up and said to Meilyr with half a smile on his snout, “Well, have a peaceful death my friend, and tell the creator that I said hello.”
Meilyr smiled and nodded to the fox as he jumped into the river and swam across. The fox paddled by the bodies of the two cubs that bobbled in the water, looked at them, and snickered. Once on land, he shook the water out of his fur and ran off to prey on all the young animals under the dome.
Meilyr kept still for days, sitting on the edge with his legs crossed as he fixed his gaze on the alders. Within those days, out of his sight, the poppies wilted, lost their color, and shed their petals. He tried to pray after he snapped out of the trance, but couldn’t project his voice into the silence. He watched the first leaf to fall off an alder land in the river. With his mechanical eyes, he followed the leaf all the way from its release from the tree to its gentle landing on the surface of the water. Shifting his legs and dipping them into the water, he watched the way his faded black feet glided under translucence when submerged. Underneath his feet, trout lay next to each other and released infertile sperm and egg. The trout dispersed, and Meilyr stirred the rocks of the nest with his feet, causing gravel to cave in the empty ovum.