Abstract Math and Honeyed Apples

Mary Alexandra Agner Click to

Mary Alexandra Agner writes of dead women, telescopes, and secrets. Her latest book of poetry is The Scientific Method (Parallel Press 2011). Her nonfiction appears in Humanities, ChemMatters and Escapist Magazine. She can be found online at http://www.pantoum.org.

It has been said that Alan Turing committed suicide by eating a poisoned apple, but his mother, daughter of a railway engineer, disagreed.

The thing about dwarves is that they’re often tardy. When you spend your days with ore, uncountable years rooted in a vein, in the dark, without sound, punctuality means little. So the dwarves came too late to save the prince.

The queen was not obsessed with her son-in-law, but she cosseted him enough to spread gossip. What were his favorite foods? The cook would have them ready, even at 3am when he walked the halls, unseeing, pondering his machine. The greenhouses were planted year round; the apple trees forced to bear in the spring. What were his hobbies? The stables were always open, bright young men with deep thoughts in the wings awaiting his word for companionship. The queen oversaw everything, thought of everything, held her breath, nearly, until the machine began to play chess.

The prince did not miss his wife, killed by a huntsman, mistake that unmade that good man, hung by his own hand in grief, his widow off back into the hills and good riddance to the rubbish of city people. At night, when the candles went out, there was only his breathing and that was enough to lull him to sleep. After a while, there were the electric lights he strung about his bed and no one to complain if he switched them on and off and on, amazed, until he fell asleep. The lightbulbs hummed even after they stopped emitting light.

The prince’s mother worried; it had kept her in good stead her entire life: daughter of a railroad man, hydraulic engineer herself, pumps and locks powered by changing pressure and an incompressible fluid. She made the rock and the hard place work together; she knew the lubrication of tears. She saw the brilliant spark that flit between her son’s mind and the machine’s. She watched the queen grow fat and happy just thinking of tasting its power.

The king noticed only that his war-room maps wore thin directly east of his lands. He called for his cartographer, for his cowherd. He demanded a new map. He did not demand to know whose fingers had worn them thin plotting supply routes, evaluating topography for earthworks. He called for his lutist, his harper, his poet. He called for sunshine and, surprising them all, it came, too, to his courtyard.

The prince’s mother went to the dwarves bearing gifts of alloy spikes and melting secrets. She dragged the cart behind her and no one noticed much, except the metallic smell so different from cut corn or brambles or baby milk. She waited a night and a day, outside their house, counting the million stars and thinking she had but one son.

The prince talked to his machine. It spit out cards which the bright young men had become good at translating into angles and elevations, munition weights and wind in knots. He watched it computing and pondered. He began to program it for vibrating air waves, for a turn behind the royal curtain as a world wonder. He left the queen alone with it, her hand lightly on its frame. He left her to her questions, as she left him to his abstract math and honeyed apples.

Bound in brocade and silk, curves emphasized and expanded, the queen adored the machine’s angles, its stutter, that it had never once stared down her d├ęcolletage. She caressed it surreptitiously. She spoke war words into its grates, grateful it could not give her away. She called her general, she called the hot-house gardener. So many things begin with spring.

The dwarves arrived in time to watch the hydraulic engineer pluck the apple from her son’s left hand, white patch the size of the prince’s mouth oxidizing brown. Their picks and axes lay slack at their sides. There is always regret, life too soon ended, another casket commission pro bono for a friend. They see a symmetry and make it match his wife’s. The last one leaving, heart torn, has no regret for the metal box still sound and chittering, until the army comes into their eastern shafts and runs them out in the queen’s own name.


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