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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Past Is Red

Catherynne M. Valente





MY NAME IS Tetley Abednego and I am the most hated girl in Garbagetown. I am nineteen years old. I live alone in Candle Hole, where I was born, and have no friends except for a deformed gannet bird I’ve named Grape Crush and a motherless elephant seal cub I’ve named Big Bargains, and also the hibiscus flower that has recently decided to grow out of my roof, but I haven’t named it anything yet. I love encyclopedias, a cassette I found when I was eight that says Madeline Brix’s Superboss Mixtape ’97 on it in very nice handwriting, plays by Mr. Shakespeare or Mr. Webster or Mr. Beckett, lipstick, Garbagetown, and my twin brother, Maruchan. Maruchan is the only thing that loves me back, but he’s my twin, so it doesn’t really count. We couldn’t stop loving each other any more than the sea could stop being so greedy and give us back China or drive time radio or polar bears.

But he doesn’t visit anymore.

When we were little, Maruchan and I always asked each other the same question before bed. Every night, we crawled into the Us-Fort together—an impregnable stronghold of a bed we had nailed up ourselves out of the carcasses of several hacked-apart bassinets, prams, and cradles. It took up the whole of our bedroom. No one could see us in there, once we closed the porthole (a manhole cover I swiped from Scrapmetal Abbey stamped with stars, a crescent moon, and the magic words NEW ORLEANS WATER METER), and we felt certain no one could hear us, either. We lay together under our canopy of moldy green lace and shredded buggy-hoods and mobiles with only one shattered fairy fish remaining. Sometimes I asked first and sometimes he did, but we never gave the same answer twice.

“Maruchan, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

He would give it a serious think. Once, I remember, he whispered:

“When I grow up I want to be the Thames!”

“Whatever for?” I giggled.

“Because the Thames got so big and so bossy and so strong that it ate London all up in one go! Nobody tells a Thames what to do or who to eat. A Thames tells you. Imagine having a whole city to eat, and not having to share any! Also there were millions of eels in the Thames and I only get to eat eels at Easter, which isn’t fair when I want to eat them all the time.”

And he pretended to bite me and eat me all up.

“Very well, you shall be the Thames and I shall be the Mississippi and together we shall eat up the whole world.”

Then we’d go to sleep and dream the same dreams. We always dreamed the same dreams, which was like living twice.

After that, whenever we were hungry, which was always all the time and forever, we’d say We’re bound for London-town! until we drove our parents so mad that they forbade the word London in the house, but you can’t forbid a word, so there.

* * *

EVERY MORNING I wake up to find words painted on my door like toadstools popping up in the night.

Today it says NIHILIST in big black letters. That’s not so bad! It’s almost sweet! Big Bargains flumps toward me on her fat seal-belly while I light the wicks on my beeswax door, and we watch them burn together until the word melts away.

“I don’t think I’m a nihilist, Big Bargains. Do you?”

She rolls over onto my matchbox stash so that I’ll rub her stomach. Rubbing a seal’s stomach is the opposite of nihilism.

Yesterday, an old man hobbled up over a ridge of rusted bicycles and punched me so hard he broke my nose. By law, I had to let him. I had to say: Thank you, Grandfather, for my instruction. I had to stand there and wait in case he wanted to do something else to me. Anything but kill me; those were his rights. But he didn’t want more, he just wanted to cry and ask me why I did it and the law doesn’t say I have to answer that, so I just stared at him until he went away. Once a gang of schoolgirls shaved off all my hair and wrote CUNT in blue marker on the back of my skull. Thank you, sisters, for my instruction. The schoolboys do worse. After graduation they come round and eat my food and hold me down and try to make me cry, which I never do. It’s their rite of passage. Thank you, brothers, for my instruction.

But other than that, I’m really a very happy person! I’m awfully lucky when you think about it. Garbagetown is the most wonderful place anybody has ever lived in the history of the world, even if you count the Pyramids and New York City and Camelot. I have Grape Crush and Big Bargains and my hibiscus flower, and I can fish like I’ve got bait for a heart so I hardly ever go hungry, and once I found a ruby ring and a New Mexico license plate inside a bluefin tuna. Everyone says they only hate me because I annihilated hope and butchered our future, but I know better, and anyway, it’s a lie. Some people are just born to be despised. The Loathing of Tetley began small and grew bigger and bigger, like the Thames, until it swallowed me whole.

Maruchan and I were born fifty years after the Great Sorting, which is another lucky thing that happened to me. After all, I could have been born a Fuckwit and gotten drowned with all the rest of them, or I could have grown up on a Misery Boat, sailing around hopelessly looking for land, or one of the first to realize people could live on a patch of garbage in the Pacific Ocean the size of the place that used to be called Texas, or I could have been a Sorter and spent my whole life moving rubbish from one end of the patch to the other so that a pile of crap could turn into a country and babies could be born in places like Candle Hole or Scrapmetal Abbey or Pill Hill or Toyside or Teagate.

Candle Hole is the most beautiful place in Garbagetown, which is the most beautiful place in the world. All the stubs of candles the Fuckwits threw out piled up into hills and mountains and caverns and dells, votive candles and taper candles and tea lights and birthday candles and big fat colorful pillar candles, stacked and somewhat melted into a great crumbling gorgeous warren of wicks and wax. All the houses are cozy little honeycombs melted into the hillside, with smooth round windows and low golden ceilings. At night, from far away, Candle Hole looks like a firefly palace. When the wind blows, it smells like cinnamon, and freesia, and cranberries, and lavender, and Fresh Linen Scent, and New Car Smell.

Copyright © 2021 by Catherynne M. Valente