“Sunset Blues” by Wanini Kimemiah
Kita’s foot was a mangled mess. The steel trunk she’d accidentally dropped on it had shattered bones and broken blood vessels and nerves beyond repair. I took her to the regeneration clinic who said she needed a total replacement; a simple procedure. The foot was fixed in an hour, good as new. She would still need rest to give her body time to adjust to the new foot and heal. Some things remained the same, I thought; bodies remained bodies even when they could be changed.
I took Kita back to our home after the replacement procedure. After taking her to her room to rest, I went over to Mouse’s place, and found them hunched over at their workstation in their home workshop, repairing an insulin nano pump brought in by a customer. After leaving formal employment at one of the leading biomodifications research organizations, they took to repairing mods for people and had a thriving workshop. The precision mod they were using caused their skin to pulse slightly and fluoresce a barely perceptible purple haze. The standard usage time for any sensory mod was thirty minutes, but they had figured out how to use it for hour-long sessions with twenty minute breaks in between. I enjoyed watching them work. They were brilliant at what they did.
They heard me come in and smiled up at me.
“I have something to show you. A new mod. I think you’ll like this one,” they grinned. I’d never seen them so excited to show off their new creation, and I had seen nearly everything they’d ever made. I followed them out of the workshop, up a flight of stairs, and into the study room of their house. It was on the topmost floor and boasted long, floor-to-ceiling windows draped with satin sheers on the west-facing wall. It was my favourite room in the house and I had made it my mission to fill it with as many potted plants as I possibly could.
A few times a year, on clear days such as this, the setting sun would stain everything in the room orange, and every potted plant would turn towards the sun, as though in worship. It was a hallowed space in those times, one might even say it was some kind of spiritual experience. I couldn’t recall a time catching a sunset in that room didn’t bring me to my knees. Mouse and I would sit side by side on cushions facing the windows, and bask in that glow, feeling the air thicken and sweeten around us as the night blooms opened. We often wondered why the sun was so powerful in that room, and what the plants knew of it that we didn’t. Mouse wondered most about the quality of light and what it did in the plant. I was more concerned with how they saw this electrifying magic.
Today, Mouse had opened one of the windows and a soft breeze was playing in the curtains. The sun was still quite high up in the sky, as one would expect of 4 p.m. in the springtime, but I could feel the anticipation of the sunset from the plants in the room. Mouse was always envious of how easily I picked up on mood. And without any kind of mod too. I was indifferent to it; sometimes it was great when I was in places like this, and other times, like when I walked through the bombed out parts of the old part of town, it was unbearable. Grief hung in the air there in bunches, as though it was a bunch of decaying roses. And just like the scent of dying roses, was sickly sweet and overwhelming.
Mouse rummaged through their desk looking for the new mod, muttering under their breath. I walked across the room to the chaise lounge by the north wall. There was a pot of jasmine there with new buds, almost bloomed but still tightly closed, waiting for the right time to burst open. How lucky, I thought, that their first sunset will be this one.
“Found it!” they sang as they walked towards me with a small green box in hand. I took the box out of their open palm, and slid over the top. Inside was a small, pink piece of plastic shaped like a geranium petal. It was about the size of the nail of my thumb.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Well, you know how we always wondered what it must feel like to be one of these plants during the Sunset. I decided to make something that could help us know just a little about what that is like.”
For a long time, Mouse had been curious about modifications that would completely change the body, mods which would allow one to morph into different biological forms. That kind of technology was still quite undeveloped because of how risky it was. Nobody knew what the implications of changing one lifeform into another, different lifeform were. Who could understand what it would do to a human being to transform into another kind of animal like they did in the old movies where teenagers turned into wolves? Or into some plant, like a character in an old yellowed comic book I’d once found in my grandparent’s house? What new experiences would become available to us? It was an exciting prospect, undoubtedly, but there were too many unknowns to go into this inquiry fully. No reputable research body was willing to fund this kind of work, let alone test it on humans.
Mouse, of course, found all of this cowardly.
“It is certainly important to develop ethics around this, but I don’t think fear ever did us any good,” they told me once. They would leave their job at the company shortly afterwards because of this conflict.
I looked at the chip in my hand and turned it over and around. It felt sacrilegious to even be holding the mod.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
Mouse nodded, “It is. I don’t think you’d be doing anything wrong by using it.”
“Me? You want me to use it?”
“Yes. Now I know that you’ve never used a mod before–
“I don’t even have one piercing or tattoo, Mouse, let alone a mod.”
“Because that kind of change didn’t interest you. This is all you’ve ever wanted to know.”
They were right. The way plants experienced the world and their own plant-bodies had long been a deep fascination of mine. So much so that I had made studying plants my life’s work. I had never been as curious about my own human body. I wasn’t discontent with it, but I wasn’t also attached or enthusiastic about having it. This had worried Kita when I was younger and other kids were curious about their bodies and trying on new looks and genders, whereas I was happy to bury my nose in a book and had never even done so much as changed my eye colour. Even now, as an adult, Kita would worry in the way elder siblings do, that I was missing out on something important about being a person. We had fought a couple of times about it, and once she had hissed at me, “You have the chance, to be anything you want and you choose to be nothing!”
It was hurtful that she would say that to me. Obviously, I had read the books and watched the films of how it was in the old times for people like us. They told you who you should be when you were born, sometimes even before, chose a life and fate for you, and punished you if you dared to step outside those narrow bounds of what they called gender in those days. It was worse if you had skin like mine; rich and dark and loved by the sun like my grandparent used to tell me. I knew all this, and that is why I didn’t choose. I liked to think of myself as being the kind of free my ancestors dreamed of but never were, and for me, that was the freedom to be nothing but myself.
“I’m scared, Mouse. Nobody has ever done this before.”
I slipped the chip back into its case and shut it. Mouse wouldn’t take it back.
“We’ve both wanted to do this for a long time, even if it means something different to you than it does to me.”
Mouse sat down next to me and squeezed my free hand reassuringly.
“We don’t have to do this today,” they said. “So whenever you’re ready, use it.”
The sun was dipping lower and lower in the sky, soft light skimming the plant-filled room. It was almost time.
This mod had not yet been used on any human being. The testing simulations could predict to a certain degree of accuracy how a mod would interact with a particular body, and I had no doubts Mouse had done everything by the book. But there was always that unknown, that margin of error where everything could go horribly wrong, doubly so for this kind of mod that interfaced plant-being and animal-being.
But, how could I not.
I slipped off the lid of the box again and looked at the chip. I took a deep breath.
“Okay. Let’s do it”
“Now?” Mouse asked.
Installing a mod is easy. First, you have to identify an attachment site close to the part you want to change, disinfect it, then press the chip to it and hold to release the nanobots. They would then find the target organ, or nerves, and coat it from end to end. I had helped Mouse do this thousands of times, but I had never imagined that it’d be me on the other end someday. Mouse installed it at the nape of my neck — same place they installed their precision mod.
I hesitated. The manuals say the first few minutes after successful installation are always the hardest. The entire body is in a numb pain and everything is a blur. It felt exactly like that. My body was a canoe in choppy water. I wanted to throw up but I couldn’t. My skin buzzed like a broken light. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to breathe through the discomfort. We were sitting on the floor in front of the windows in our usual way, but Mouse was sitting behind me, arms wrapped around me, rocking me gently. It helped with the nausea to rock, apparently.
Already, the room was turning the palest of yellows. As the minutes went by, the colour thickened into a rich amber. The plants had been turning slowly and were now fully facing the window. All leaves and stems and flower heads arching towards the sun, trying to get as much of these blessed rays as they could. The room looked like a fire. The gentlest of fires. A fire that didn’t destroy, that only gave life. Suddenly my body felt different. I sat up straighter. Mouse let go of me and crawled around to face me.
“Oh my god. Yuna–”
But I couldn’t hear what they were saying any more.
There was another sound now. Low. Almost like a whisper. Just on the edge of my hearing. The room was no longer burning orange. It was blue. The bluest of blues. Bluer than anything I had ever seen in my life. It was the kind of colour I knew I would never see again once the thirty minutes of this mod I had were done. I looked down at my arms. My skin was still the same rich brown. The plants around me glowed eerily. They were emitting their own kind of light; a strange pale blue much like the midday sky, that seemed to shine brighter with each passing moment. I could see the wind, too. It was an electric indigo mixing in with the blue, turning the space around the curtains a strange colour I couldn’t even place. The jasmine had bloomed, and its petals seemed to grow bigger and bigger as I watched. I could see its scent, speckling the room with a fluorescent green. Scents from the other flowers in the room lazily spun out of them, riots of green and aquamarine, and floated towards the open window despite the fact the wind was gently blowing in.
I turned around to look for Mouse. They were no longer in the room. I wondered how much time had passed, but I assumed not much had, considering the mod hadn’t worn off, and the sun was still flooding in through the windows. I tried to stand up but my legs felt gummy and my knees gave way, causing me to topple onto the wooden floor. The low whisper I had heard grew louder. It now sounded like the murmurs of a crowd.
“Who is that?”
“What is that?”
“Have you ever seen anything so odd?”
“Oh no, never! And I’ve been here awhile!”
The sun was now sinking under the hills on the horizon, and with it the blue in the room. It felt as though it was being pulled out and taking me with it, like the ebb of the tides.
“Oh, oh, what’s it doing now?”
“Should we be afraid?”
“That’s definitely not one of us.”
“Oh yeah? Then why can we see it?”
“It’s feeding off the sun too?!”
Mouse returned from downstairs, panting, with a mirror. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, so I tried to tell them to come closer, but the words froze in my throat. I signed for them to come closer, instead. I had never been more grateful that we had all been taught to sign in school from an early age. They crouched down to the floor and handed me the mirror. My face had changed. My eyes were large, with no pupils or whites, and the colour of honey and my skin had a pale blue sheen to it that I was sure Mouse couldn’t see. Can you see the way my skin glows? It’s blue, like the sky, I signed.
They shook their head no. Then signed other things. I couldn’t pay close attention. In that moment, I felt that it was most important, most urgent even, that I watched the sun.
The plants continued to sound. I tried to talk back to them. Could they hear me? Maybe if I had more time.
The sun set. The pulling stopped. The mod timed out. My mouth went dry and the dizziness started again. Everything, stopped.
When I came to, I was lying on a mattress on the floor of the now dark study, tucked in firmly with a soft blanket. Kita was sitting back on her legs, staring intently at me as though she could will me awake.
“Yuna’s awake!” She called loudly to Mouse. She turned to look back at me with an expression on her face I couldn’t place as worry, rage or confusion.
“So, the one time you decide to get a mod, it just so happens it is the most dangerous, untested, unheard-of kind of mod that exists, yeah? You’re trying to kill me, aren’t you?” she asked.
I didn’t have anything to say so I laughed. I laughed and laughed and laughed and she gave me an even stranger look. Oh, but it was bizarre what I’d done. It was the most unbecoming thing I could ever do. What would the ancestors say when they heard that I, who they fought for with so much blood and loss, had now decided to become a plant? Even for that half-hour? Is this what they would have wanted? I kept laughing and Kita looked like she was about to burst into tears.
Mouse walked into the room with a bowl of steaming soup to find me cackling and Kita weeping. Unfazed, they walked over to me and helped me sit up so that I could eat. Kita stopped crying to glare at Mouse and me, as though we were in on a conspiracy to make her lose her mind.
“Yuna, I don’t even know what to say to you. I’m frightened. You shouldn’t have done that. Neither of you should have done that.”
I chuckled in between mouthfuls of soup Mouse was spooning into my mouth.
“Don’t laugh, Yuna! This isn’t a game!”
I was beginning to get angry. What was it to her what I did with my body? I never said a thing when she cycled through every available alteration for height, weight, hair texture, skin colour, a tail. I never said anything, and she had the audacity to get angry at me when she could be at home icing her sore foot.
“If I wanted to become a fucking sparrow tomorrow, I would and there isn’t a goddamn thing you could do to stop me, Kita.”
Kita gasped. “Don’t you dare speak that way to me!” She was furious. She looked at Mouse and then to me, her eyes glassy and wet and full of rage. Mouse stared back at her, unsure what to say or feel about what was transpiring. They stood up slowly.
“I think it’s best if you left, Kita.”
She looked at them nodding tearfully and got up on her good foot. Kita walked out of the room, receding into the dim light of dusk.
Everything is blue again and I am dancing. I am spinning like a dervish. I am whirling like a tornado. My hair grows long long long from my scalp and rounds my head like a halo. My hair is big and beautiful and my dance is big and beautiful and Kita looks at me jealousy from the balcony of the theatre. My limbs twirl and dip and I do not sweat or tire. The blue grows thick. There are vines creeping up onto the stage from beneath the floorboards. There is ivy dangling from the ceiling. There is jasmine blooming in the corner. Growing growing growing as I dance. The whispers are getting louder. The vines are wrapped around my legs. The ivy is wrapped around my arms. I am trying to dance but I can’t move. I can’t move and Kita is gone and the blue is getting thicker and my hands are splitting at the palms. There is no blood only vines only thorns only baby’s breath twisting out of my palms. Now it’s coming out of my lungs and through my mouth: more and more decaying roses. Now my eyes have turned into honey and there are bees in my head, buzzing, talking about me. I want to dance. I want to go home. I want to find Kita but I can’t move. I can’t scream. The bees and the roses won’t let me. I have to scream I have tomoveihaveto—
“Yuna. Yuna. Yuna can you hear me?”
Mouse is shaking me awake. I blink. I don’t know where I am. It is dark. I am in a bed.
“You were having a bad dream.” Mouse turned on the bedside lamp.
“I don’t think we should use that mod again. I fear that it’s messed with you somehow.”
“You sound just like Kita right now. And weren’t you the one who gave it to me anyway? I’ll do what I want.” I snapped.
Mouse narrowed their eyes at me. We stared at each other for awhile, then they reached over and turned off the light then rolled away from me to the far side of the bed and slept. I sighed and turned away from them to try and sleep again. My palm was getting really itchy, so I opened my hand to scratch it and in the centre, was a single rose thorn.
The scans at the regeneration centre showed that everything was within all the normal ranges in my body. There was no evidence to suggest that the mod had changed anything in me, and yet nothing could explain why all food tasted like wet cardboard to me, or why the palms of my hands were suddenly so rough, or why I had taken to sleepwalking into the study when I could sleep at all. I was given a box of nutrient capsules to swallow with water that would prevent me from getting malnourished. They didn’t taste of anything either, but they weren’t as tedious to consume as food. Mouse hid the mod from me. Mouse was beginning to get very worried, and hid the mod from me, while Kita had taken to weeping silently every time she looked at me. They felt as though I would take it out and try it again. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to resist the urge to seek out the blue again. It was all I could think about in the day and all I could dream about at night, that blue. Always that same dream of me dancing in an empty theatre quickly filling with the blue and creeping plants.
There hadn’t been another clear day in weeks. The clouds always seemed to gather in the afternoon and rain until just after sunset. I began spending more time outdoors, and had taken to tending the garden behind Mouse’s house and Kita’s vegetable patch. Neither of them complained. In fact they made themselves available to accompany me when I needed to buy tools or fertilizer or seedlings whenever I felt like it. It helped to be outside in the sun, but I knew I’d never feel like myself until I caught a Sunset.
Today the sky is clear.
I am in the study watering the indoor plants. I can sense their excitement. They know there will be a Sunset today. I wish I could see it the way they did. I shouldn’t be crying about wanting something so silly and so dangerous. Across the room at Mouse’s desk, something clatters to the floor.
I turn around, startled, because I am home alone and our cat is asleep in a sunbeam in the middle of the room. I walk over to the desk to see if anything important has been damaged. Then, I see it; there, by the leg of the desk chair, a small, green box.
I have done this many times before for Mouse. I know the standard procedure by heart. I remember where the attachment site for my mod is. Disinfect. Hold. Press. Quick and easy. Soon I will be good as new. Soon I will see the blue. I rock my body to stop the waves of nausea from washing over me. The room is a slow blur, like a photograph made by an oily lens. The sun is setting now. The light is fading; amber into blue as the mod takes. My skin is dancing. I throw my head back and laugh. The window is open. A breeze whips in, purple as crushed grape. It is carrying a song.
I stand up to dance as the blue thickens around me. The plants are turning again. This time towards me. I shrug off my robe and take down my hair from the bun it was in. The song is gentle but insistent. I begin to move. I twirl. I jump. I stretch my arms out. I carry the sun on my back. I carry the rain on my brow. My hair is a halo and it is growing, glowing. I step and I hop. I pirouette perfectly like I was taught all those years ago. I laugh when I think of how proud my teacher would be that I am finally dancing like he wanted. The plants are watching me now. The sky smoulders off my skin like glowing pale blue coals. I watch the blue follow my moves as I dance across the room. My arms are ocean waves. My legs are strong tree trunks. I dance and I laugh and the plants cheer me on and on and on and on.
“Look,” I say, “Look at the leaf I made!”
Wanini Kimemiah is a visual artist, writer and student based in Nairobi. Their work as a visual artist seeks to explore the fantastical in the mundane, while their work as a writer is an unending series of questions to existence. When not trying to find out who will finish the other between them and their degree, you can find them at your local music festival eating overpriced food. Instagram: @headfulofkiinks
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