The Converter of Time
by Mina Ikemoto Ghosh
Issue 6: Industry | 3,035 words
Beatrix Potter and the Industrial Revolution, Montgomery
My parents bought my freedom from the Converter of Time before I was born. When my parents worked there, it was a gray and black thing, a tabby striped dome with a coughing ridge of chimney stacks sweeping down its spine. Cinder and particulates clung to its sides, and when the rains ran down the CT, a slick black rainbow-shimmering wave would flood out into the gutters between the rice pans and beetle beds. Our schoolteachers would warn us not to go swimming, touch the waters, or even walk alongside them, for in the ash of the CT was the despair and poison that were the inevitable by-products of lifetime conversion.
“The CT,” said Miss Iria of Tranquil Ethics, writing the stark letters on the board with the chalked tip of her tail, “is for those who know they must die, but do not accept that. It is for those infected with the fear-of-death. Their fear drives them to lead greedy and selfish lives. So they must be contained, their explosive natures controlled and put to use. But you, children, are free of that. You were born blessed with Peace-of-Mind. Be grateful to your selfless parents that you have escaped the CT.”
“Then Miss Iria,” said Mimugi, my twin sister, raising her hand, “why do we stay so close to the CT? Why do we not move farther away so that we need not send it our rice and beetle patties or be troubled by its dirtiness? We use so much of what the CT makes. Is it we who need the CT?”
“You misunderstand, Mimugi,” our mother told us later, after we were both kept behind because Miss Iria wanted to be sure that Mimugi wouldn’t switch places with me and so escape her punishment. “It’s not that we need the CT, or that we must stay near it. We allow the CT to stay in sight of us as a kindness to those who must live within it. We take what it gives us to give those in it purpose to their industry. The CT needs us. We are where they hope to return or escape to. Without us, the CT cannot be. So, we tolerate it.”
“And not all mice of the Nez naturally belong here,” Miss Iria added the next day in the school hall when we were assembled before her on our knees, in clothes made in the CT, on cushions made in the CT. I felt her eyes rake me and my sister, both, because she couldn’t tell who was who. “Some of you still carry that seed of fear in you, that infection of the instinct, the fear-of-death. Should you be found infected, you will need a place to go, would you not? Somewhere where you would be granted the chance to receive the cure.”
I reached for Mimugi’s hand then. I was the coward of the pair. At that moment, as Miss Iria’s red eyes looked into me as if I were my sister, I felt the fear that was uniquely mine rise up in reaction, and, for once, Mimugi didn’t shake my hand away.
We had all grown up hearing tales of mice that didn’t belong: the troublemakers, the listless, the ones who couldn’t abide by the Peace of Nez for the fear-of-death in their hearts. Fear, that little scuttling weevil in the bag of grain; fear, that made them uneasy with our stillness. The fearful had to go the CT, so Miss Iria said, to be purified. They had to go to the CT, sell themselves to it honestly, and buy their freedom, earn it.
All of us here in the Nez, the sea of perfectly bountiful rice pans and beetle beds, with our towns of clean lights and gentle songs powered by the sun and the windmill blades on the valley slopes, had been born of parents who had worked in the CT and bought our freedom from it.
Out of all the thousand options they could have spent their freedom credits on, our parents had chosen to undergo the Peace-of-Mind. It was a virally induced genetic augmentation based on an artificial herpes virus that could enter the nerves and stay there forever. The effect was removal of the fear-of-death, and that urgency that made us mice chaotic, so that once released from the CT into the Nez, they could join serenity. Eight out of ten times, the virus would be transmitted to offspring, and so Mimugi and I were born free. We were free of the fear, so free of the CT and free of needing it. The solace of its ownership, the protective eye of its supervision, the guarantee of its exhaustive industry that would burn the fear out of our bodies and distract our minds, all this meant nothing to us. We were immune to the promises of the Converter of Time, and we were to pity those who were not.
So I wished to believe.
The Nez was constant. It turned through cycles of balmy seasons as gentle as the wind that blew through it. There was no disease, no unpredictability, no disturbance. Those living here grew old without complaint or fear.
The CT, on the other hand, was changing all the time. Our mother was one of the traders who took rice to the CT in exchange for their produce. Mimugi often sneaked into her rice cart to get a closer look at the domes, and where Mimugi went, I followed. The CT had always struck me like a creature, a great animal with claws in the land and a half-open mouth. Month by month, I watched it change. By the time I was twelve, it had evolved into a series of domes of glass and steel, with vents spewing white smoke from the sides in waves like luscious fur. It still spilled its dirty rainbow fluids into the gutters, which were there for the very purpose of draining the Converter of its poison. But the black and grey was gone; the CT gleamed now. It caught our eyes.
When I could tear my eyes away, I told myself that the CT was for the fearful and those infected with the fear-of-death. In the assemblies, I whispered on my knees that the CT was for those who had not been engineered to accept death, not for the free fearless of the Nez.
“It doesn’t match up,” Mimugi said one summer. We were watching the dirty bubbles swilling out from the CT. I prodded one floating by with a dried stalk of rice. Instead of popping, the bubble clung and sucked the stem from my hand.
“They say the ones in the CT are infected with fear-of-death, but us, out here, we’re the ones with the virus. Why doesn’t Miss Iria say that we’re the ones infected with peace?” She held out her hand, spreading her fingers. I saw fragmented between her pale pink claws, as if painted on glass, the crisp green-gold of Nez’s rice and flutegrass, the lilac mountains, and the daisy chains of its windmill blades. “If this is where the ones in the Converter want to be, why don’t we get more new families here more often?”
“You heard Miss Iria,” I said. “It takes selflessness, self-discipline, and lots of time spent in the Converter for those–”
“Who are sick to forget their fear long enough to set aside credits for Peace-of-Mind,” Mimugi finished. She stood tall, her fur just as white as mine, her eyes just as red, but the delicate frills of her ears and the needle of her tail pricked towards the CT. My ears were turned down to the gutter, and my tail wrapped about my ankles. “You’ll be a good schoolteacher of Tranquil Ethics someday, Miho.”
We were fourteen, and I felt something disgusting then—a crawling in the grain, something scuttling at my spine. I thought then that Mimugi knew how much of a coward I was, and the thought became a weevil, lifting its snout from the straw-bound barrel.
I was afraid, and I had good reason to be, it said, this weevil in the grain. Mimugi was my twin sister. She was close enough to infect me.
My fifteenth spring, I stopped accompanying our mother to the CT. Mimugi didn’t question why, neither did my mother nor my father. I told them I would be spending more time with Miss Iria, assisting her classes, and, maybe, hoping for something else to infect me—Miss Iria’s peaceful certainty. That would pinch away the weevil that was stretching its crooked legs.
I thought Miss Iria would be able to see it with her pincering eyes and do something to crush it out of me. But as the days and weeks passed, once she was sure that I wasn’t my sister, she stopped looking at me closely and turned her back, returning to the blackboard. I wanted to scream at her, cry out, rail against the walls of the classroom as I distributed books. There was something wrong, I knew it, and if Miss Iria didn’t see it, she wouldn’t be able to pluck it from me. If Miss Iria couldn’t see it, I didn’t think anybody could.
Except Mimugi, who watched me like she watched the CT. We watched the smoking domes together each night. I would join her on the veranda under the thatched window and keep her company. That was all. I was not brave enough to initiate anything, and I didn’t need to be. All I needed to be was tranquil, certain that I would die and that I need not do a thing to fight it. Peace had been bought for me, and so I was free.
“The Converter of Time is a factory,” Miss Iria told the class, pointing at a picture of the looming black body of the CT in its early days. Her tail tapped at the fanged archway of the CT gates. I had drawn the picture for that session. “An industry of character. The disturbed and the disturbing go in, and the calmed and the calm come out, the penchant for destabilisation exhausted, the violent urges diminished. They return to us as our peaceful family. Our ancestors deemed this system necessary to manufacture the peace that we all now enjoy. It is because of the Converter of Time and the Peace-of-Mind that we are free of war, our resource-use efficiency is maximized, and our world is clean.”
“But what is the time converted to?”
I looked up, glancing around for Mimugi. I thought I had heard her voice. Then I realized, as a dozen red eyes of five-year-olds turned to me, their whiskers quivering, that I had asked the question.
My treacherous tongue wouldn’t stop. “What do those in the CT believe is the point of their work?”
Miss Iria regarded me so sharply that I thought, at last, she had found it, whatever was creeping in the granary of my skin. To my dismay and joy at once, all she did was nod, approving my contribution to her lesson. I could have wept. “The inhabitants of the CT are obsessed with only one thing, diseased as they are… “
“Legacy?” repeated Mimugi when I recounted the day to her that night in our shared room, with its shared bed and the shadow of the CT against the moonlight, visible through the straw shutters over the window. “That’s what she said?”
“She said they were so afraid of death they go mad for immortality instead. They’re obsessed with leaving things behind and leaving a mark. That’s why they’re always so dirty and produce filth. They want to stain the world because it shows they were here. And that’s why they’re so violent, and they know no peace, and they all become monsters.”
“Because destroying is the easiest way to leave the biggest mark.” I was undoing the braids from Mimugi’s neck ruff with slow flicks of my fingers, combing out the twisting curls left in the fur. They were soft curls, like ripples over summer paddies. “But the Converter gives the infected a bigger pool of things to do. It maximizes their chances of producing legacy. It’s got all the facilities, the schools, the shops, the wheels, the hundreds and millions of mice in there. They’re–”
“Concentrating the resources,” Mimugi picked up. She turned over in the bed to look me in the eye, away from the CT. “So, if you have the fear, and you’re aware of how short your life is, you can cut the time to produce legacy. You can try things out and experience more in a shorter span of time. All your chances of leaving a good legacy-a meaningful legacy-improve. That goes for industrial legacy. And biological.”
“Like families,” I murmured.
“Have you noticed,” Mimugi went on in that voice, like the one in my head that I wished would stop, “that no one here leaves anything behind? They die and they’re gone. No one here makes anything, does anything, records anything. They can do that tomorrow, and tomorrow always comes. If they’re to die tomorrow, then that’s tomorrow’s business. Nobody here meets someone and gets scared about life without them. That all happens in the CT, before they undergo the Peace-of-Mind. Nobody falls in love in the Nez, Miho. Nobody has children, and nobody says a word of any of it because they’re not afraid enough to care. Forgetting to care’s the price they’ve paid for all this peace.”
“You notice too much, Mimugi.”
The words came out impulsively. They brushed the air between us like the soft fall of the citrus incense into its shallow tray at the window.
Mimugi looked into me, and I knew she saw it: the creeping curling kernel of wrongness with its dark and ugly snout. “Miho,” she asked, “Do you feel it too?”
The moon gleamed on the CT, and through the weave of straw, I saw the assurances that shone outside of it: the industry of legacy; the relief from this restlessness in my skin that I would die out here in these green-gold fields unseen, unheard, never to disturb or to light that fire that burned.
“I don’t feel a thing.”
I drew back my hand from where she’d been about to take it.
“The fearful must be industrious,” Miss Iria had carved in uppercase over the classroom doorway.
I noticed it for the first time while tidying up after her evening class. The letters were dark and deep. Mimugi didn’t know what she was talking about. We made things here in the Nez that lasted. The peace here in the Nez was our legacy. To die and become the wind in the grasses was all we needed. This was our gentle promise to the CT of release and relief.
“You said you wanted to see me, Miho.”
I rose when Miss Iria came into the room.
“Miss Iria.” I pressed my thumb down on that scuttling weevil, holding it fast. “I think Mimugi is infected with the fear.”
She looked at me, and only at me, unlike Mimugi, who looked into me. She would never see the fear. She didn’t know it to recognize it.
Then Miss Iria nodded. She raised my chin with the tip of her pale tail. “It’s for everybody’s good, Miho. Hers and ours. The fearful must be kept occupied, or else they will set that fear upon the rest of us. Well done.”
I stayed at the schoolhouse that night, so I didn’t see Mimugi get put on the rice cart and taken to the CT by my mother. My parents agreed with Miss Iria. It was the right thing to do for her, and for all our sakes. It was to preserve the Peace of Nez. The infection had to be corralled and removed before all the grain was spoiled.
Though they told me I had done the right thing, the weevil still skittered. It burrowed under my skin and itched and scratched and wormed its way into my lungs. How empty the bed was, the house was, my days were. I started counting my breaths and hearing my heartbeats, both too loud as they exhaled and ticked the days away. The CT, the Converter of Time, shone and belched its white smoke, and I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t forget it.
When the red dragonflies started flying, I asked my mother if I could join her on the rice cart to its gate. The CT gleamed over the rice pans. It was the first time I had accompanied her since I was fifteen, and she gladly took me with her. Every time she left the Converter, she would come away with all its goods, the products of its industry—the plates, the cloths, the cutlery, the radios and music, the fierce and fiery things the Nez would never make—and she would take them back into the Nez to disperse. The CT curiosities would prick the peace before fading away.
She was quiet, my mother. She didn’t talk about Mimugi or how Mimugi had gone to the CT. She only smiled.
I pulled my hat over my eyes, adjusting their wings to cover my ears from sunburn, and watched the CT grow larger and larger. Its gates looked like a mouth opening wider. I would fit in there, I just knew it. It was a mouth my size.
At the foot of it, before my mother unloaded the rice, I stepped down from the cart and went to the gatekeeper. My mother didn’t stop me, for she had nothing to fear. She didn’t fear death, so she didn’t fear the death of her daughters. We could come and go just as tomorrows did. We were accepted, our whims never fought against.
“Excuse me,” I said, and the gatekeeper raised their head, “I’ve come to earn my Peace. May I enter the CT?”
Mina Ikemoto Ghosh
Mina Ikemoto Ghosh is a British-Japanese writer based in the UK. She studied for a BA in Natural Sciences, enjoys fencing, and spends springtime chasing raccoons away from her grandma’s vegetables with a sickle.