Tag Archives: reincarnation

The Space Invader and the Mud Lotus, Teresa Peni

 

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

When did my midlife crisis begin? Before the tears on the tiny plane, or the farewell party? Wait, no—let’s go back a bit—maybe the painful arrows and the street battle. Okay ‘battle’ is a slight overstatement. It might have been the moment my husband brought me in a breakfast tray.

He must have wanted my ‘company’. There was even a red rose in a champagne flute, which did make the breakfast look very pretty. Too bad his timing was off. I was mid-paragraph into the fresh ideas of my hero, Pacific scholar Prof Epeli Hau’ofa.i It was not time for sex, oh no, no, nooo. It was time to get angry, get organised, and save sinking Polynesia from climate change or being nuked by Kim Jong-un. The coffee was good though, he got that right. When he flopped into bed beside me I dipped the croissant into jam, turned a page, and kept reading.

He sighed, presumably about my lack of attention, and picked up a random book from the bedside table.

‘Are you going to keep wiggling that foot?’ It was vibrating back and forth as he read, making the bed wobble.

The foot stopped.

‘I might go play guitar,’ he said, strutting off. He wasn’t getting any action in here. The house was still; the kids were no doubt lazing in their beds, hooked up to YouTube. I heard the crackle and buzz of the amp being switched on, down the hall. But it wasn’t that which threatened my serene ladyspace, it was the anthropologist, author, artist, agitator, legend, Hau’ofa, that had got me all riled up.

A walk would do me good. I squeezed into my spandex tights, laced the Adidas, and cranked some electronica into my earpods to fuel my turn around the harbour.

Wind disturbed the mangroves and a black cormorant dove under the ruffled water surface. It reappeared with a tiny silver fish slung from its beak.

I mused and fumed over Epeli’s words as I strolled along. About how the Pacific Ocean, lapping almost everywhere on the planet—even right here at my feet in Sydney—was peppered with awesome Polynesian explorers for millennia before those pesky nineteenth-century colonisers arrived, divided, and dominated the vast Polynesian network—some, my motley ancestors. They carved it up with their invisible imperial boundaries into ‘tiny, needy bits,’ to be developed.ii They didn’t appreciate the wholeness of the Pacific Ocean; it was to them, the middle of bloody nowhere.

Hole in the doughnut,’ is how they saw us, warned Epeli; ‘If we do not exist for others, then we could in fact be dispensable.’iii It was as though the sea connection was worthless.

A man was jogging along toward me. Instead of staying on his side of the track, he made a sudden 180-degree turn. He jogged across my path, over my feet, as if I were invisible. He didn’t adjust his route for me one iota. A surge of outrage compelled me to curl my foot into a sneaky hook and discreetly ankle tap him as he barged through my personal space. He was quick enough to work out what was happening—adjusting his stride so he didn’t fall.

I maintained original course and bearing.

He jogged backwards, glaring at me like I blew out his birthday candles.

‘You tried to trip me!’

I death-stared him through my sunnies.

‘Watch your step,’ I said.

Jogging Man looked ready to pop a vessel.

‘You’re a bitch.’

Very slowly, I raised my two middle fingers, 1 and 2. There. You. Go. I cranked it a notch higher.

He looked me up and down with an overdone head pivot, as if his eyes couldn’t do the task themselves.

‘I hope…I hope your children get run over by a bus!’

He was seeking some part of my identity to trash. Mother, he figured.

‘Why don’t you hurry up and fuck off,’ I said.

I’m not scared of you, I thought, although I was shaking. I considered the likelihood of him thumping me—no one was around—and he was bulky. His blue eyes burned, incandescent with rage. No doubt, we both had adrenaline careening through our systems.

He stayed up in my face, trying to intimidate me, but I did not slow my step, smile, nor apologise. Do not fuck with a Maori lady when she is mad.

Then, it was as if the wind suddenly abandoned his sail; he knew words would not hurt me. He performed a theatrical manscowl and ran off, huffing.

I threw the parting punch:

‘Next time watch where you’re going, cockhead.’

 

MUTATION

Later that night, back at home; all nice and calm again, I felt very bad for Jogging Man (idiot). Of course I was proud of standing my ground, but my good shoulder-angel was more harpy than usual, making me ashamed of the way I’d done it; reaching for that familiar weapon—anger—so powerful yet so terrible. I blamed it on insightful literature, poured myself another red wine and tried to forget about it.

So I wasn’t shocked when Facebook analytics, which knows us better than our own mothers do, magically delivered this video to my feed; because it had digested and diagnosed every procrastinatory rant, preach, like, and share I’d tapped out since 2005. It submitted its sum total knowledge of me that night:

Transform Your Anger’ with Thich Nhat Hanh.iv

I hit [Play].

The Vietnamese Zen master is sitting in brown robes, beside a girl wearing a pink dress. She looks about ten. He’s holding up his fist to his own face and has a mean look.

‘You want to give that boy or girl a punch.’

Sprung bad, I thought.

He smiles as he jabs the air around his head. She smiles back.

‘Punish him or her. That is the anger in us… that anger is a kind of mud, it will smear everything.’

He’s got a strong, Vietnamese accent, so I’m grateful for the subtitles.

‘We need to be aware that the mud of anger, we must handle.’

He brings both hands together as if gripping a hefty mud marble.

‘But without the mud, you cannot grow lotus flowers.’

[Insert time-lapse video of an incredible pink lotus flower opening]

‘So the mud is useful somehow.’

The video cuts back to the monk and the girl surrounded by a luscious array of tropical flowers and candles. Cue bamboo-flute music.

‘So your anger is useful somehow, maybe you should not… let it out.’

He gently cocks his head at her. Maybe she laid into her little shit of a brother?

‘You should not throw it away. If you know how to make good use of your anger, you can grow the Lotus of Peace, of Joy, of Forgiveness. And if we look deeply, we’ll be able to understand. And when we understand, there is love. And when there is love, anger must…’

His palms open like lotus petals.

‘Transform itself.’

The girl gives a simple nod. She gets it.

I, on the other hand, was trying very hard to work out how he got from mud to love.

Google: Booktopia: ‘Thich Nhat Hahn Mud Lotus’. I pulled out my credit card and ordered his book. It was obvious I needed to stop spraying mud everywhere.

 

DIVERSITY

My street-stoush with Jogging Man was a tremor that heralded a quake. He was like a small dog that had got hold of my trouser leg. I wanted to kick the fucker off to fix the problem. But seriously, what was my problem? Was it really because he was a Pale-faced Manspreader invading my Ladyspace?

The next level of my mud quest came at me via another scholar. My two majors were, like the Pacific and the Atlantic, meeting at last. The anthropology of art was meandering into creative writing territory. We read Michael Jackson’s (yep, cool name) ethnographic-poetry, which veered away from desiccated academia. I was immediately fanboyant—more so when I discovered he came from my grandparent’s sleepy seaside town (Nelson, New Zealand), which I reckoned his poem, Making it Otherwisev was about:

 

‘… silt spread on the estuary

like a map of darkness

to be read by those

journeying toward clarity of speech.’

 

A small prophecy that held no meaning, yet—but I digress.

I was intrigued by his sweet-tempered explanation of the human condition. Apparently we are plural creatures, constantly trying to balance the seesaw between ‘our sense of what we owe others and what we owe ourselves.’ We want to be our own bosses and have all the things, AND we want to share nicely with our group, for the common good. Everyone struggles with this in a myriad of individual ways.vi

We tend to employ a bunch of simplified categories to frame our battles (for resources and ideologies). You can imagine all the variations on us/them: Raging Feminist Maori Mother Abuses Misogynist Second-Australian Fitness Addict.

Jackson agrees identity labels are helpful in getting us what we want—we should definitely study how we adopt them for good effect—marginalised people can be especially ravenous for identity.vii

Jackson says good anthropology (and writing, I presumed) will shine light onto the nitty-gritty ways we struggle with these tensions, mixed feelings, and contradictions. Nuanced description can unmask, and is more meaningful than, simplistic either/ors—when we write the life we actually live.viii

This was the kicker for me: ‘Any one person embodies the potential to be any other.’ix

Wait. What? Sounded like Jackson was saying someone can simultaneously carry the worldview of an adult and (a very needy inner) child; or exhibit the prejudices of the asshole and the victim. I am actually Maori and Irish. Goddamit, it’s possible Jogging Man was a nice guy who wasn’t wearing his glasses, just being a dick that day.

Epeli Hau’ofa soothed me, too—with his messier, oceanic view of our modern regional identity. Our diverse group—including new arrivals—were clever buggers, aye, once again regularly visiting each other, via Virgin Air; taking more than bags of cava or packets of pineapple lumps across borders. We were exchanging jobs, spreading welfare dollars, swapping sporting cups, and lovers. Epeli claimed our survival could depend upon us acting in concert to protect the Pacific Ocean (and by extension, Earth) from usurping ratbags who don’t respect it, who don’t see the real value of our epic space.x His warm voice wants to reunite criss-crossing Oceanians… who are all who love her, by being more expansive and tolerant, so we can transform ourselves: from being belittled ‘islands in the sea’, back into ‘a sea of islands’.xi

Heh. I started to like myself again. A roundhouse-kickass style had helped Oceanian women survive their dunking into the realm of nowhere. But, perhaps I could venture beyond the margins of stereotypes or monoculture; maybe morph into a more genuine creature, rather than some abstract, divided identity thrust forth in order for there to be only one winner.

 

GENETIC DRIFT

Finally, the new book arrived, No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering.xii

It was really excellent timing because my spunky little grandmother had just died, unexpectedly.

Breathe, incanted the ninety-one-year-old Zen master.

Thích Nhất Hạnh knows his readers’ mud is not limited to swearing at joggers. He did not promise to deliver anyone from suffering, but would teach me how to suffer, properly. The first arrow of pain, he soothingly explained, is pain you initially feel: anger, rejection, failure, injury, separation. The death of someone you love.xiii

Mum asked me to speak at Nana’s farewell: ‘I am somewhere I have never been before: Nelson without you.’ There was a lot more in that speech; but for some reason losing Nana also meant losing the whole town and occupants.

After seven happy-sad days spent setting up and conducting Nana’s funeral street party (Photoshopped invites; TV slideshow; where to park the Portaloo? red or black serviettes?); as well as catching up with hordes of cousins and uncles (beer and burgers; cycling along the river; reminiscing Nana over G&T’s; weeping while weeding her chic garden), it was time to return home to my little family in Sydney.

But grief opens up a hole; it irritates any festering, untended wound, makes it weep. The death of a matriarch can get the pus up.

The wound, what was it?

Breathing in, I know suffering is there.

Breathing out, I say hello to my suffering.xiv

Nhất Hạnh dropped a magnificent truth bomb: the second arrow of pain. Usually self-inflicted, it may take the form of judgement: the crap we tell ourselves to make our suffering much worse.xv

I belong nowhere, throbbed the arrow in the wound.

I pined like a lonely dog, seeing Nelson disappear through the airplane porthole, the din of the twin propellers masked my whimpering. As it banked over glacial blue water whorling into the estuaries below, I started crying up in that lonely airspace and could not stop for four days. I leave my extended family, again, and again and again.

Nhất Hạnh writes: ‘Some of our ill-being comes from hurt and pain in our own life; but some has been transmitted to us by our ancestors… you are the continuation of your parents… your body and mind contain their suffering and their hopes as well as your own.’xvi

I’d moved away from serious Buddhism a few years back when it got a bit mystical in the reincarnation department, but this guy was making things clearer. Nhất Hạnh explained how my body transported the genes and stories and happenings of all the people who came before, who had made me. I carried in my cells all their luck and habits. I was just the next step in all our journeys.

Jackson’s poem, Pioneers,xvii seemed to acknowledge their presence:

 

‘I am theirs and of them and for them speak.

My hands have gone over the roofs and gullies

of their names.

These hills I love under are their doing.

I have been given what they got.

I am what they became.’

 

I was seven when my parents vamoosed New Zealand to explore the world. Economic migration—ah, exciting new opportunities!—meant three nations, six primary schools, and ten houses changed before I slumped into high school. Boring, lovely old Nelson remained my spiritual basecamp, where I clambered a concrete blue whale to see the beach. I posted Nana and Pop regular airmail about our adventures; they were my first readers, and always wrote back. Letters were all that anchored me to their silver-haired kindnesses.

I had lost my huge family and beautiful land, and I never had a choice.

Why must I keep denying the wound? I squinted through my murky grief and saw broken arrow heads deeply embedded beneath my lifted chest armour.

Mindfully breathe, lulled Nhất Hạnh, it will create space to recognise suffering energy, then embrace it, ‘like a mother taking care of a crying baby… in her arms, without judging or ignoring it… with the energy of tenderness.’xviii I hugged my wailing mud baby, just by breathing.

Stacked on Nana’s coffee table had been family albums stuffed with hundreds of photos. One in particular—transported from 1973—gave me pause. Dad was standing on the dock, before his soon-to-depart frigate, hugging two-year-old me; I’m wearing his sailor cap and looking très grumpy. I didn’t know then, what I know now; that he was serving aboard the HMAS Otago, a Royal New Zealand Navy ship sent to protest the French nuclear testing at Mururoa Atol. Their military attention helped send those nuclear tests underground.

Our family line of warriors, sailors, explorers, and migrants seeking harbour stretched back through time. My uncle had shown me illustrations of the nineteenth-century tall ships that carried my great-grandmother from Ireland to New Zealand, a late arrival after the ocean-going migration waka had brought our iwi here, the Te Arawa and Ngāi Tahu Maori. I carried inside me more cheeky-sad travellers than one person could own.

How do I connect us? How do I belong?

Remove the second arrow.

Jackson, who knows something of being a bridge between art and social science, says, ‘When we don’t have power to materially change something, one power we can use is via the work of imagination, to rethink and reconstruct our reality, “undo deeds of the past,” with forgiveness’.xix

Could I revere my conflicting moods, be a breathing paradox? Notice, I imagined Jackson whispering to me, notice it all: the ancestors within me / the daughter left on the wharf / the girl torn from Aotearoa / the Oceanian who surveyed the world / the Sydney woman who battles space invaders. I am not either/ors—these are parts of a whole, spacious Sea of Me, and she has many expressions.

All this sounds a bit like the ethereal lotus.

Jackpot. Mud into love.

 
 

Works Cited

i Hau’ofa, Epeli. 2008. We Are the Ocean. University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.
ii Hau’ofa (p. 38)
iii Hau’ofa (p. 46)
iv ‘Transform Your Anger with Thich Nhat Hanh’, Goalcast, Facebook, accessed 1 October 2017. https://www.facebook.com/goalcast/videos/vb.897393153671209/1536207029789815/?type=2&theater
v Jackson, Michael. 1989. ‘Making It Otherwise,’ Duty Free: Selected Poems 1965-1988. John McIndoe, Dunedin. (p.27)
vi Jackson, Michael. 2011. ‘Not to Find One’s Way in a City,’ Life Within Limits: Well-being in a World of Want. Duke University Press, Durham and London, pp.359-383. (p.375)
vii Jackson Michael, 1998. ‘Here/Now,’ Minima Ethnographica: Intersubjectivity and the Anthropological Project, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, pp. 189-209. (p. 199-201)
viii Jackson, Michael. 2012. ‘On the Work and Writing of Ethnography.’ Between One and One Another. University of California Press, Berkeley, pp.167-214. (p.172)
ix Jackson, Minima Ethnographica (p. 208)
x Hau’ofa (p. 42)
xi Hau’ofa’s essays: ‘Our Sea of Islands,’ and ‘The Ocean in Us,’ in We Are the Ocean, express all these ideas, throughout.
xii Nhat Hanh, Thich. 2014. No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering, Parallax Press, Berkley, California.
xiii No Mud, No Lotus (p.46)
xiv No Mud, No Lotus (p. 23)
xv No Mud, No Lotus (p.47-48)
xvi No Mud, No Lotus (p.33)
xvii Jackson, Duty Free (p.28)
xviii No Mud, No Lotus (p. 27)
xix Jackson, Minima Ethnographica (p. 203)

 
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Soul 3396, Hannah Bell

‘On February twelfth the accused was arraigned before me,’ Chief Justice Ellins begins, his voice flat and dry, conserving itself for the long judgment to follow.

Astrea’s hands are wet. She hides them in her lap, wipes them on her thighs.

‘She faces charges of malicious damage to property and using a hoax bomb to cause alarm. In addition to these terrorist offences, the prosecution has sought to confirm that this woman is the eleventh reincarnation of soul number 3396, formerly known as Ezekiel Armstrong, and sentenced to twelve lifetimes in prison for war crimes. To avoid prejudice in considering this very serious accusation, it was agreed that this case should be tried by a judge alone, rather than by jury.’

The rest of the courtroom is stiff with silence. Astrea’s breathing is louder and far more laboured than she’d like; each inflation of her lungs is a weightlifting exercise. She crosses her legs at the knee, uncrosses them, crosses them again at the shin. The trial has taken months, the route by which she’s found herself here much longer than that—but as Ellins methodically reads through his decision Astrea can’t bear to wait even a minute more.

 

17

 

Astrea was seventeen—very nearly eighteen—by the time she felt any connection with her past lives. A late bloomer. There were just weeks left until Confession Day. She was putting on lipstick when the blood started welling up under her tongue, staining her teeth, dribbling down over her lips. It painted them so much more vividly than the waxy balm of Revlon’s fuchsia shock. She coughed, expecting liquid to spew out onto her vanity, but it didn’t. The fingers she brought to her mouth came away with pink, not red, tips.

It was only the mirror, then, that was bleeding. Astrea was not relieved.

Reflections were a common unlocking point for transincarnational residue—deposits of history or intuition that stayed tucked away within the soul through death and rebirth. Dreams, hallucinations, feelings of déjà vu—all were potential clues about former lives, and would appear with increasing frequency as the brain reached maturity.

Astrea ripped her eyes from the mirror as her reflection’s cheeks grew hollow and sickly. The phantom taste of hot iron stuck in her throat.

Residual blood is an indicator of significant violence in a soul’s history. That was what the textbooks all said.

She found her aunt Kath out on the porch, lighting a fresh cigarette with the cherry of the one before.

‘You saw something that scared you,’ Kath observed, face half-obscured by a cloud of smoke.

Astrea nodded.

‘Well, babe, you’ve got two weeks to get really good at acting like everything’s fine. Think up some cute stories to tell them about your visions—maybe you’ve dreamt of your past lives caring for sick animals, and the smell of jasmine flowers reminds you of a long, happy marriage. If they see you’re scared shitless at Confession they’ll suspect your soul’s got a number on the Registry. There are a couple of major ones supposed to be turning eighteen this year, so they’ll be watching.’

Astrea felt bad for making her aunt talk about the Registry. Beginning on her own Confession Day, Kath had served the remaining three years on her past life’s sentence for a hit and run. Kath herself had never driven. Dad used to say that she never even liked to take the bus to school when they were growing up—residual instincts showing through as phobias, was his theory.

‘Don’t give them any reason to believe there’s a sentence hanging over you.’ Kath tilted Astrea’s face up, examining it. ‘You should wear that lipstick to the ceremony,’ she added. ‘It’s cute. Sweet. All the things you need to show them that you are.’

 

18

 

Astrea was just lucky that Confession Ceremonies weren’t what they used to be. At school, she’d had to write essay after essay about the legal overhaul that prohibited soul-searching in the physical sense—the culmination of decades-long campaigns by human rights groups, people suffering PTSD after their search procedures, many legal professionals. The UN, which, ever since its inception, had condemned the entire concept of the Soul Registry. Even if she hadn’t had anything to hide, Astrea would still have been glad not to be waiting half-naked in a hospital gown outside a sterilised, soundproofed exam room, watching as the other eighteen-year-olds walked in and hobbled back out.

Confession Ceremonies were conducted state-wide each month. None of Astrea’s friends shared her February birthday, so she filed into the huge city hall by herself. The girl she sat down beside was hunched over, apparently scribbling something on her forearm. Maybe, Astrea thought, she was writing notes to prompt her in the interview. If she needed notes, it could well be because she was planning to lie. The idea that there was someone else lying—someone doing it less carefully, someone more likely to be caught than Astrea—was comforting.

The girl shifted her posture, holding her wrist up to the light to observe it, and Astrea saw that instead of writing notes she had been drawing flowers with her blue biro.

The girl turned further and caught Astrea watching. ‘I want to get this tattooed one day,’ she said. ‘Dad’s always saying people will find tattoos suspicious, but it’s just art. I know I was an artist in a past life. There’s already art all through me. Why not on the surface?’

Astrea nodded sympathetically.

‘My name’s Lita, by the way.’

‘Astrea. You’re going to be an artist for this lifetime too, then?’

‘I’m in beauty school right now, so my art will be makeup and hair. Designing tattoos on the side, hopefully. It’s different to oils on canvas, but it’s all variations on a theme, you know? We live different lives, but I don’t think we ever really change at heart.’

Before Astrea could decide whether it was wise to argue a hush fell over the hall.

‘As I’m sure you are aware, we are no longer able to use invasive measures in order to identify individual souls,’ Commissioner Francis spoke from up on the stage. He looked damp under the spotlights, his posture as wooden as the podium he stood behind. ‘Evidence relating to transincarnational residue is now our greatest weapon when it comes to ensuring the serious criminals in our midst are put behind bars. We are reliant on interviews, and on information provided to us by yourselves. If you see or hear something suspicious, you have an active duty to report that information to police. Failure to do so could result in your being charged with a criminal offence. Today, you become adult members of our society. That means you take on significant responsibilities. I hope that is clear to you all.’

Where they would once have been sent to physical exams, they were called away to interviews.

‘I really hope you find the souls you’re looking for,’ she told the Senior Constable conducting hers. He was fairly young, but had a hard look in his eyes that she thought would probably be considered incriminating if he were in her position.

‘You’re free to go,’ the officer told her.

Astrea smiled at him, smiled at everyone she saw as she walked back out of the hall, smiled until it hurt, smiled with fear because she didn’t feel free at all.

 

24

 

The coffee had barely even been an afterthought; Astrea’s head was whirring with case names and dates for her final-year exams, aching with the friction of them all, and the decision to recaffeinate before the interview for the clerkship was instinctive. She checked her makeup as she waited, bracing herself against the stream of blood that ran from her nose in the little round window of her compact. She heard a scream—a raw, dying sound that cut off too suddenly. No one around her reacted. Please! I said we surrend—

Astrea did her breathing exercises and let the memories play themselves out. She smoothed composure on over her face like her Bobbi Brown setting powder. The residue was always most unsettling when she was stressed, but she’d had five years of practice at swallowing her reactions.

This interview had to go well. Justice Ellins had been a driving force behind the amendments that outlawed soul-searching, and Astrea had wanted nothing more than to work for him ever since she’d read his work in first-year Jurisprudence.

She promised herself that once the interview was over she’d squeeze in an extra yoga session at the gym.

‘A caramel latte?’ Ellins raised an eyebrow as she offered him one of the twin coffees in her hand. ‘That’s certainly not my regular order.’

‘I—’ Astrea had blown the interview already. Her resume was not exceptional enough to counterbalance some bizarre, presumptuous slipup. ‘I’m so sorry—’

‘More of a guilty pleasure from my youth,’ Ellins took a long sip of the drink, set it down on his desk, and regarded her intently. ‘How did you know?’

‘Maybe I read it somewhere?’ Astrea floundered.

‘No, you wouldn’t have. It’s Astrea, isn’t it? How old are you?’

‘Twenty-four.’

‘That seems right. And how much have you discovered about your past lives?’

‘Nothing illuminating,’ Astrea’s response was automatic.

‘I see. Are you familiar with the name Nathaniel Chan, by any chance?’

Astrea went cold. ‘He and his family were part of the same Anti-Registry campaigns you were,’ she answered. He knows, went the rhythm of her pulse, too loud in her ears. He knows. He knows.

She remembered the afternoon she’d read about Chan. She had been researching for an assignment, sitting in a cafe and soaking up the coffee and wifi on offer there.

Nathaniel Chan, the tenth incarnation of soul 3396 since the notorious Ezekiel Armstrong, died in prison from several knife wounds. Chan’s parents released a statement saying they stood by their son’s innocence, as they had done since he was imprisoned upon Confession twenty-three years earlier. Chan, who as a child was a musical prodigy and aspiring astronomer—

‘Hey, you alright?’ the waiter had interrupted Astrea’s reading as he’d cleared away her most recent coffee cup.

Astrea had nodded politely, only just able to hear him over the piano notes that seemed to be resonating from the fibres of her muscles, emptying out pockets of memory buried deeper within her than she’d ever gone before.

‘Are you alright, Astrea?’ Justice Ellins asked.

‘Of course, Your Honour,’ she blurted out.

Ellins laughed. ‘None of that. In fact, you should call me Arthur. I wonder whether maybe you’d like to take a trip to the observatory sometime? I used to go there with a friend of mine when we were just boys; he always found it quite relaxing.’

 

28

 

It was impulsive, stepping into the unfamiliar hair salon the day before her biggest trial yet was due to begin.

‘I was thinking of copper highlights, as well as a touch-up of the blonde,’ she told the hairdresser, who reached around to fasten the cape across Astrea’s front with arms covered in rose tattoos.

She wasn’t sure what identified her, but Lita stopped her movement and met Astrea’s eyes in the mirror.

‘Did we meet at Confession?’ she asked. ‘Ten years ago. I swear you look like—’

‘We did. I see you got your tattoos—the permanent version.’

‘As permanent as anything in a single lifetime is. What are you up to now? You’re dressed all corporate.’

‘I’m working as a defence lawyer, currently,’ Astrea explained. Crown Prosecutor was the ultimate goal, but she kept that quiet when Lita leapt at the defence aspect.

‘Wow, sounds stressful. That explains why you’re so tense, I guess. I’m sure you’re helping a lot of people—now that it’s harder to, you know, identify souls, lots of average folk are needing good defence lawyers to vouch for them. I reckon there are so many that are wrongly accused.’

Astrea shut her eyes while Lita worked, listening to the steady stream of chatter the hairdresser kept up.

‘My boyfriend’s the president of Green Souls—you might have heard of us, but if not, we’re all about taking radical action to stand up for the environment. We’re doing a protest soon, actually. I can’t tell you the details yet, but you should keep an eye out for us in the news. Actually, have you got a business card or something I can take?’

Astrea gave Lita her card, but she didn’t get a call, and she didn’t see anything about Green Souls on the news. Not that year, at least.

 

36

 

Astrea was always dazzled by the stars. The wide open space of the sky was a comfort she’d missed for many lifetimes. She had long ago begun to suspect that Arthur was bored of the observatory, but he humoured her.

‘There’s a case coming up that might be the one,’ Arthur told her quietly. ‘Eco-terrorism charges, so not an unconvincing match for Armstrong’s war crimes. And she’s thirty-six.’

‘Lita.’ Astrea had seen the case in the media, but she’d have known the name regardless. ‘It’s crazy, Arthur—I sat right next to her on Confession Day.’

Arthur frowned. ‘You can do it, though? You will?’

With every new arrest of someone Astrea’s age, or even close to it, there were new questions about soul 3396. Among those the media suspected there was even a client Astrea had defended several years ago, before she finally made the transition to prosecution. Joseph Stene, the client, had murdered his wife and young daughter. This is what people expect from me, Astrea had thought, flipping through the tabloid pages despite her better judgment. Every word she’d spoken in Stene’s defence felt like a confession of her own. I’m just doing my job, she’d had to remind herself. Everyone should know it’s just my job.

There was only one way to make it stop. Once the world finally had its soul 3396, it wouldn’t matter what Astrea said anymore. She could even advocate for the abolition of the Registry without feeling like she was exposing herself. She could do good, that way.

‘It’s the perfect chance,’ she gave Arthur a decisive nod. ‘I’ve been on the run for half my life; I’ll do whatever I have to.’

 

37

 

Arthur takes his time reading out the verdict. Even though Astrea knows what it’s going to be, she needs to officially hear the words and be out of this courtroom so that she can breathe, cry, rest, scream. To finally be acquitted of being will surely be an unimaginable relief.

She casts her eyes across the room to where Lita sits. Her floral wrists are cuffed in her lap. It’s unfortunate. Not what Astrea would want. But it’s self-defence. She watches on with a hard look in her eyes that might have been considered incriminating, had she been in Lita’s position.

 

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