Science Fiction Art rock garden Japanese garden


By Tim McDaniel
Dec 17, 2018 · 2,485 words · 10 minutes

Photo by Kari Shea via Unsplash.

From the author: A rock garden on the Moon would last millennia, and that might not sit right with some people.

"It was a goddamn oddball thing to do," said Paden, his voice tinny over the cheap standard suit radios we'd been issued. I turned my face a little so I could see him out of the left side of my helmet, but I didn't say anything.  I couldn't see his face behind his faceplate because of the reflection of the landscape. I looked back down into the crater.

            "The photographers from Lifeseemed impressed enough," Janny said.  He stepped a little closer to the edge of the crater.  "Even that old expert they brought up."

            Paden breathed a grunt, the sound harsh over my helmet speakers.  "Oh, I know it was a hell of a lot of work.  Just ask 'Shadow' Schergen here," he said, lightly punching me in the shoulder with a gloved hand.  "He practically lived out here most of the time Kivett was doing it. But it's still a goddamn funny thing to do.  The first time I heard someone say Kivett was making a garden, I thought he'd lost it, and get himself rotated back Earthside ahead of schedule.  And he was about the only one up here who wouldn't have wanted that."

            "Had to give it to him, though, just for working so damn hard on it," Janny answered. "Out here after every shift, almost, except when it was completely dark."

            "He worked hard," Paden admitted.  "But I don't get it, now that it's done, I'll tell you that.  Do you?  I wouldn't know it was even finished if he hadn't told everyone so."

            "Well, I guess I wouldn't really, either," said Janny, laughing.  "It's still rocks and dust.  All of his work didn't change that."

            "And what do you say, Shadow?  You're the poetical one, aren't you?"

            "Come on, Paden," said Janny.  "So he tried to write a couple poems.  And I didn't think they were so bad."

            "Yeah, yeah. But we still have to get your take on this, Shadow."

            "It's beautiful," I said.

            We were standing on the lip of the crater, looking down.  The crater, a nice, sharply-defined one, was about twelve meters across, and the area enclosed by its walls was where Kivett had worked. Over the last several months he had painstakingly raked and swept and unobtrusively sculpted the soil.  I had watched him remove, and then carefully re-site, each of the rocks, so now they made simple designs, like tumbled boulders among the smoothly-combed powder fields and gentle hills.  With no atmospheric dimming, it was easy to lose your sense of scale, and see the small area as an entire landscape.

            The designs in the rocks and powder were not obvious, but you could see some of them, different ones at different times, maybe, if you looked for a while.  Now I noticed a meandering, broken line of rocks that led my eye to the crater's central spire.  And I sometimes thought I saw a small river straying through this landscape, not of water, of course, but of a carefully swept and sifted whiter dust. But if you tried to focus on this river you would lose it.

            The whole thing looked so natural, so right, when it was done, almost like it was not the work of hands at all, and yet it stood out against the lunar surface anyway, as something new, something somehow important.  And it belonged here.  It could have existed nowhere else but here, on the surface of the moon, still as a photograph.  This garden was not like a traditional Zen rock garden; it was not a garden that people would rake again and again, as a meditation.  Movement was alien to the moon.  Dead?  Sterile? Maybe so.

            It was quiet.  You might think -- most people who've never been here do -- that there's no sound topside on the moon, but it's never silent. There is always the hiss of recirculating air in the suit, and the vibrations of pumps and generators and mining coming up through the soles of your boots, even when you're outside. Unless you're way out, and who goes that far?  When someone is doing some blasting, well, the whole base might feel it if it's a big one. And the suit's sounds -- the air pumps, the creaking of the fabric as you move, and of course the radio, humming with static, or clicking, or voices; no one's ever aloneon the moon.

            But looking at Kivett's garden, the noises and the machines and the other people all seemed to fade into the background.  I've heard about machines they make that are designed to cancel out noises by broadcasting the opposite sounds.  I don't know how that works, but the garden was the visual equivalent of that.

            Light from the Earth behind us threw our long shadows across the rock garden.  The sun had gone down a couple of days before, and the Earthlight was the only light around, natural or artificial, since the base was over the horizon.  It washed the garden in a soft but sterile bluish light.  Beautiful and cold.  Our three shadows, and the shadows from the rocks, cut the soil like knives, as definite and certain as death, even in this light.

            "The light.  It seems... disturbing.  Doesn't it bother you, the way it cuts the garden up?"

            Kivett didn't answer for a long time.  He was using the little blower over a section of small mounds, what I thought of as the hilly area; it looked like part of a frozen sea, the solidified, rounded waves slumping against each other.  Then Kivett stopped working, and stood for a while.

            "The sun rises there," he said, pointing. "And when it does the opposite crater wall will become an arc of light.  And as the sun climbs higher, higher each day, first the central spire will light up, then the tops of these rocks here, and then these little hills. Later all of those scratches and rake-lines there and there will show as thin lines of darkness.  Without the shadows, nothing would look as bright, as prominent.

            "And then when only the Earth is up, and the sun is down, we'll get similar effects, but in a bluish light.  Blue, the color of water, of the Earth sky, and yet a sterile color.  And when both the Earth and the sun are in the sky, that's when we'll sometimes get the double half-shadows.  Those'll be most interesting right here, in these hills."

            I couldn't say how he did it.  I don't know how artists paint their pictures, either, but I guess they understand exactly what they're doing.

            While the garden itself was meticulously clean, bootprints and tire treads now completely saturated the area surrounding the crater, and the regolith was chewed up until it looked like disturbed, dirty snow.  I guess pretty much everyone on the base had been up there at least once, to at least take a look.  And then, of course, there were the magazine writers and the television and camera crews and documentary filmmakers from Earth.  The people in the base who hadn't been out before that came out to see it after the crews had showed such an interest.

            Then the Lunar Corporate Authority declared it a park, just like the Apollo sites, and so no one will be allowed to go into that crater again.  There would even be guards, or caretakers, paid for by LUCA, and a little visitors' information booth of some kind.  But the booth hadn't been put up yet, and the caretakers wouldn't start work until tomorrow.  For now, only Paden and Janny and I were there.

            "Well, it's quite a piece of artwork, I guess, so they say," Janny said.  Then no one said anything, but I sensed Paden shaking his head from the way his suit wiggled, and I could hear him blow some air out of his nostrils.

            Standing out there with Paden and Janny, in front of the garden, was different than when I had been there alone, or with just Kivett. Their presence there was an invasion, even though they were just standing there next to me.  I resented them being there.  The silence seemed to build up in my head, like rising music.

            I think Janny was beginning to feel the silence that way too, or else he sensed my resentment, because just before I felt like I had to say something, just to break the quiet, he said, "Someone told me Ukita helped him with it?"

            I knew he wasn't talking to Paden, so I answered.  "Ukita? No, Kivett told me he'd never been interested in rock gardens.  He did come by to look at it, though, after Kivett invited him.  That was about a month ago."

            "His grandfather was some kind of well-known gardener, you know," Janny said. "He told me that, when we were blasting out that big habitat out under the ridge, a couple of weeks ago."

            "What did he have to say about it, Shadow?" Paden asked me. "When he was out here?"

            "Nothing much. But he stayed quite a while."

            "Hmmph." Not a word, just a noncommittal sound.

            I had noticed that people had often seemed uncomfortable with Kivett.  Maybe because his silence made many of us nervous. Often he wouldn't even acknowledge your presence.  Sometimes you weren't sure if he'd even heard what you had just said to him.

            More than that, though, I think it was because he seemed to be an expert in something that the rest of us could not relate to.  And we hated to show our ignorance, so the base crew tended to leave him alone, and retreat into a kind of bluff, "Why-should-hardhats-like-us-know-anything-about-Art?" attitude.  And so they either couldn't understand, or pretended not to understand, what Kivett was doing.  What he had done out here.

            I couldn't, either, but I had liked him.

            "You could put this rock there, and make a group of three, like you did over there."

            "Hmmmm?"  Kivett seemed to notice me for the first time in hours.  "Oh.  No, I don't want to repeat that pattern," he said.

            "Not really repeating it," I said.  "That group is in the flat area, the field area, and this group would be in the rough section.  And the rocks are different-looking, too."

            "Well, it's an interesting idea.  But I think I'll just keep it this way, with two rocks."

            He didn't thank me for the suggestion.  I wondered if he actually agreed with me, but acted like he didn't, to save face, to remind me who was the artist.

            "Toss me the rake, will you?" he said.  "I have to erase my footprints."

            Later, eating lunch in the little tent he'd set up next to the garden, he said, "I hear they're calling you my 'shadow.'"

            "That's just Janny.  Then a few others picked it up."

            "That bother you?"

            "No, I guess I don't mind."

            I still thought it would look better to have the rock where I had said it should be.

            I looked again at the garden.  I was no expert in Japanese rock gardens, certainly.  Not then and not now.  And I think even Kivett had learned about them mostly from videos and tapes from the base library.

            But even though I was no expert, I felt it.  And I felt that this piece of art, maybe more than others, had a special significance. I was in Greece once, and I saw then that the Acropolis was being eaten away by pollution and weather.  And you know acid rain has pitted the architecture of Rome, and da Vinci paintings have to be viewed from behind protective glass. The pyramids have eroded, nothing compared to what they once were.  Angkor Wat is half-digested by jungle, every year paintings are stolen or lost in fires. Statues with their arms knocked off. But when every piece of human art has been lost or forgotten or covered with the soot from torches or erased by rain and wind, this amateur rock garden, six kilometers from the Authority's Copernicus base, would remain.

            Here there was no wind, no rain, no pollution, not even any artificial light.  The chance of a sizable meteor hitting this particular spot was virtually zero for the rest of human history. Stray micrometeoroids would do no more than to eventually soften its pointed edges.  This piece of art would remain here when all of humanity had become extinct or evolved into something unrecognizable.  This was art for eternity, while all else changed. Well, unless someday they decide to terraform the moon.  But maybe even then they would put this section under a dome first.

            "Damn shame, huh?" said Paden.  "Kivett getting himself killed that way, now that it's done.  Hard to think of him making such a stupid mistake.  He knew his explosives.  Not that you'd naturally draw that conclusion, looking at this."

            "That's just the kind of mistake that'll do you in," said Janny.  "A stupid one.  But no one knows exactly what happened.  You were up there when it happened, right, Shadow?"

            "Yes, yes, I was. I was there.  But not too near.  I didn't see it.  I wasn't close enough."  I didn't look at him.  I knew they couldn't see my face any more than I could see theirs, but I wondered if they could hear the defensiveness in my voice.

            Kivett was gone, and according to the LUCA press release the garden would not be altered by Human hand again.  After the garden had gotten such great press, and especially now that Kivett was a martyr -- a "Lunar van Gogh," said Time, which was more than a little stupid but heartfelt -- the LUCA was terrified of being accused of not showing the proper respect.  It was trying hard to attract investors, after all, and a touching local story like this was all that they could want.

            "Well, I'd better go," Paden finally said.  "You coming, Janny?  Shadow?" He and Janny turned away from the garden, and began to lope back towards the buggy.

            I waved them off. "I'll walk back."

            "Suit yourself," said Paden.  He and Janny swung into the buggy, and with a lurch and a spurt of dust they headed back towards the base.

            I remained there for a little while longer, until they were out of sight, and then I walked to the very edge of the rock garden, to a narrow shelf of rock, like a final stair overhanging the level powder of the garden.  And then I carefully put one booted foot down in that smooth powder. When I lifted my foot again, there it was: one clear, immortal bootprint.

This story originally appeared in Fusion Fragment.