Book ‘Hummingbird Salamander’ by Jeff VanderMeer

Read excerpt 'Hummingbird Salamander' by Jeff VanderMeer
From the author of Annihilation, a brilliant speculative thriller of dark conspiracy, endangered species, and the possible end of all things. Security consultant “Jane Smith” receives an envelope with a key to a storage unit that holds a taxidermied hummingbird and clues leading her to a taxidermied salamander. Silvina, the dead woman who left the note, is a reputed ecoterrorist and the daughter of an Argentine industrialist. By taking the hummingbird from the storage unit, Jane sets in motion a series of events that quickly spin beyond her control. Soon, Jane and her family are in danger, with few allies to help her make sense of the true scope of the peril. Is the only way to safety...
Publisher: MCD; First Edition (April 6, 2021)  Pages: 368 pages  ISBN-10: 0374173540  ISBN-13: 978-0374173548  ASIN: B088DPRZPJ

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Jeff VanderMeer is the author of Dead AstronautsBorne, and The Southern Reach Trilogy, the first volume of which, Annihilation, won the Nebula Award and the Shirley Jackson Award and was adapted into a movie by Alex Garland starring Natalie Portman. VanderMeer speaks and writes frequently about issues relating to climate change. He grew up in the Fiji Islands and now lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with his wife, Ann VanderMeer, and their cats, plants, and bird feeders.

Book excerpt

FOR ANN

[0]

Assume I’m dead by the time you read this. Assume you’re being told all of this by a flicker, a wisp, a thing you can’t quite get out of your head now that you’ve found me. And in the beginning, it’s you, not me, being handed an envelope with a key inside … on a street, in a city, on a winter day so cold that breathing hurts and your lungs creak.

A barista leans out onto the sidewalk from your local coffee shop to say, “I almost forgot.”

The before of those words and the after, and you stuck in the middle. “I almost forgot.” Except the barista didn’t forget, was instructed to make it happen that way. “Time sensitive.”

You turn in surprise to receive what someone has left for you, but you don’t refuse it. Bodies don’t work that way—a person hands you something, you take it. A reflex. You worry about what it is later.

Or who wants you to have it. Because the barista doesn’t know. No one in the coffee shop knows. From the night before. A different shift. No chain of evidence. The barista retreating into the coffee shop sudden, like a monster grabbed him in its jaws and pulled him back inside. As if he never wanted to talk to you in the first place, except someone paid him. Who? How much? No answer. You’re left holding an envelope, breath like a chain-smoker’s, trees all around stripped of leaves and imprisoned in concrete. Your hand is all that burns, attacked by the cold, the sound of your nail ripping the envelope flap almost urgent.

Do you have a secret admirer? That feels both new and old, like the snooze button you hit three times that morning as your husband mumbled on the bed next to you. Your usual routine has been dull and kind of fucked up for too long. Inside the envelope, along with the key, is an address and a number. The number is 7. The key is a trap, but you don’t know that yet.

On the back of the envelope, someone has scrawled “If you received this, I am already gone. You’re on your own. But not alone.”

Maybe it’s the heat in your body giving itself over to the cold in a rush, something to do with absolutes, but you can’t withhold a surge of raw, rough emotion. Not alone.

The idea of going on to work feels ever more muffled, distant, under all your layers. Yet you crumple the envelope in that cold hand, a smolder at the presumption in those words.

Standing there on the sidewalk. Black slush of snow pushed to the sides of the street. A dead robin in the gutter, one torn wing spread toward the drain like an invitation to the underworld.

* * *

Another winter morning in a city in the Pacific Northwest.
Where, exactly? I won’t tell you.
Who am I? I won’t tell you. Exactly.
But you can call me Jane.
Jane Smith. If that helps.
I’m here to show you how the world ends.

PART 1

HUMMINGBIRD

DIORAMA

[1]

I went to the address in the note because I didn’t want to go to work. The car came for me, dark and chrome and sleek, its shadow leaking across the windows of fast-food places, gas stations, and tanning salons. The radio whispered panic about the elections, and my driver, unsolicited, had already imagined, in a soft voice, black drones congregating at night to listen in on our conversations. Yet I knew from my job that this was old news.

I had no reason to remember the driver. Back then, I thought I was smart, for all the details I caught, but there was so much I never saw. He had a beard. He might have had an accent. I remember I feared he came from some place we were bombing. We didn’t talk about anything important. Why would we?

The driver might have believed I was a reasonable person, a normal person. Just a little larger than most. I dressed, in those days, in custom-made gray business suits because nothing store-bought fit right. I had an expensive black down coat. I didn’t think much about where the softness came from, at what cost. My faux heels were decoys: comfortable, just worn to preserve some ritual about what women should wear.

My main indulgence was a huge purse that doubled as a satchel. Behind my back, my boss called it “Shovel Pig,” which was another way of calling me shovel pig. Because I frightened him.

“So, what do you do?” the driver asked.

“Manager at a tech company,” I said, because that was simple and the details were not.

I stared out the window as he began to tell me everything he knew about computers. I could tell his greatest need, or mine, was to sit alone in a park for an hour and be as silent as a stone.

The downtown fell away and, with it, skyscrapers and gentrified loft apartments, and then, after streets of counterculture, zoned haphazard and garish, the suburbs took over. The driver stopped talking. So many one-story houses with slanted roofs and flat lawns, gravel driveways glinting through thin snow. The mountain range like a premonition twisted free of gray mist, distant but gathering.

I hadn’t done a search on the address. That felt too much like being at work. Didn’t make my pulse quicken.

* * *

When we reached the gates with flaking gold paint, I knew why I had a key in addition to an address. Emblazoned over the gates, the legend “Imperial Storage Palace.” Because I have to give you a name. It had seen better days, so call it “Better Days Storage Palace,” if you like. I’m sure, by the time you found it, the sign was gone anyway.

We glided down a well-paved road lined with firs and free of holiday decoration, while the base of steep, pine-strewn foothills came close. The light darkened in that almost-tunnel. I could smell the fresh air, even through the stale cigarette smoke of the backseat. Anything could exist in the thick mist that covered the mountainside. A vast forest. A tech bro campus. But most likely a sad logged slope, a hell of old-growth stumps and gravel the farther up you went.

The lampposts in front of the entrance lent the road only a distracted sort of light. The vastness of the storage palace, that faux marble façade, collected weight and silence. The murk felt like a distracting trick. What was it covering up? The pretentious nature of the Doric columns? The black mold on the plastic grass that lined the stairs?

Nothing could disguise the exhaustion of the red carpet smothering the patio. The threadbare edges, the ways in which pine cone debris and squirrel passage had been smashed into the design. Beyond the shadow of the two-story complex lay a wall of deep green, merging with ever-higher elevations. The pressure of that pressed against the car, quickened my pulse. This was the middle of nowhere, and I almost didn’t get out of the car. But it was too late. Like the ritual of accepting what is offered, once you reach your destination, you get out of the car. Too late as well because the world was flypaper: you couldn’t avoid getting stuck. Someone was already watching. Somewhere. “Should I wait for you?” the driver asked.

I ignored that, lurched out of the backseat. I am six feet tall and two-thirty, never mistaken for a small woman any more than a mountain for a valley, a heavyweight boxer for a gymnast. I need time to get up and depart.

“Are you sure I can’t wait?” he asked across the passenger seat out the half-opened window.

I leaned down, took his measure.

“Do you not understand the nature of your own business?”

The driver left me there, a little extra “pedal to the metal,” as my grandfather would’ve said.

Sometimes I am just like him.

[2]

Inside, gold wallpaper had turned urine yellow. The red carpet perked up as it ran past two ornate antique chairs with lion paws for feet. Beyond that lay a fortress outpost in the cramped antechamber: a barred cage jutting out and a counter painted black, from behind which a woman watched me. Beyond that lay the storage units, through an archway. A legend on a sad banner overhead read “Protecting your valuable since 1972.”

“What do you want?” the woman asked, no preamble. As if I might want almost anything at all.

“What do you think?” I said. Showed her the key, as I wiped my shoes on the crappy welcome mat.

“Which one?”

“Seven.”

“Got ID?”

“I’ve got the key.”

“Got ID to go with that key?”

“I’ve got the key.”

She held out her hand. “Identification, please, and I’ll check the list.”

I considered pushing a twenty across the counter. That idea felt strange. But it felt strange to let her know who I was, too.

I handed her my driver’s license.

She was much younger than me. She had on a lot of black, had piercings, highlighted her eyes to make them look bigger, and wore purple lipstick. Practically a uniform in some parts of town.

She might’ve been a brunette. I remember her expression. Bored. Bottled up here. Doing nothing—and I wasn’t making her life less boring.

“I’ve come a long way,” I said. Which would be true soon enough. I would’ve come a long way.

“If you’re on the list, great,” she said, finger scrolling down a single sheet of paper with names printed impossibly small.

“Yes. That’d be great,” I said. Struck by how meaningless language can be. Yet I remember the conversation but not her face.

The woman found a line on the page with a ballpoint pen, gave me back my ID.

“So go in, then,” she said.

Like I was loitering.

“Where?”

“Over there.”

She pointed to the right, where another door waited, half disguised by the same piss-pattern wallpaper.

I stared at her for a moment before I walked through, as she picked up a magazine and ignored me. Somehow, I needed a list of life choices that had led this woman to be in this place at this time. To take my ID. To ignore me. To be sullen. To be anonymous.

I wouldn’t see her on my way out. The cage would be empty, as if no one had ever been there.

As if I had emerged years later and the whole place had been abandoned.

* * *

All those rows of doors. So many doors, and not the usual roll-down aluminum. More like a sanatorium or a teen detention center: thick, rectangular, the smudged square window crisscrossed with lines and a number taped on as an afterthought. Not all the doors had been painted the same color, and teal or magenta made the institutional effect worse somehow. The smell of mold was stronger. Sound behaved oddly, as if the shifting weight of clutter behind the doors was making itself known.

What did I know about storage units? Nothing. I’d only known our mother’s, a place we’d rented to appease our father, who didn’t want to become a hoarder. But, just maybe, if you drove all the way to the outskirts of the city, to the edge of the mountains, what you kept here you wanted at arm’s length. And what you wanted kept at arm’s length could be precious or fragile as memory. Even a bad memory.

Nine through eleven followed one through three. Had I missed a passageway? It was a warren, with several crossroads. Perhaps the storage units went on forever, the space wandering beneath the mountains in some terrifyingly infinite way. A moment of panic, at the thought of getting lost, as I kept walking and didn’t find number seven.

But I found the right door.

Or the wrong door, depending on your point of view.

[3]

“It was all meant to be” is a powerful drug. Crossing that threshold into Unit 7, I couldn’t have told you what was preordained and what was chance. Or how long it might take to separate the two.

All I saw at first was the emptiness of some square stripped-bare cliché of an interrogation room. A modest wooden chair stood near the back, under flickering fluorescent lights in the ceiling. A medium-sized cardboard box sat on the chair.

I stood in the doorway and stared at the box on the chair for a long time. Left the door open behind me, an instinct about doors slamming shut that wasn’t paranoid. The trap could be anywhere. It was so still, so antiseptic, inside. Except for one moldy panel of the back wall. I don’t recall dust motes even. Like a crime scene wiped clean.

But I checked the far, dark corner, the ceiling, before walking up to the chair. I did that much.

Just an ordinary cardboard box. The top flaps had been folded shut. Lightweight, when I gave it an experimental nudge. No sound coming out of it, either. No airholes. Nothing like a puppy or kitten, then. Immense relief in that.

I put down my purse, pulled back first one flap and then the other.

I think I laughed, nervously.

But there was no moment of misunderstanding, of recoiling in horror. A small object lay in the bottom of the box. A curio? Like the horse figurines my mother used to collect. Which is when it struck me this might all be an elaborate joke.

A tiny bird perched down there. Sitting dead. Taxidermy.

A hummingbird in midflight, attached by thick wire from below to a small pedestal. Frozen wings. Frozen eyes. Iridescent feathers.

Beside the hummingbird, I found a single piece of paper, with two words written on it and a signature.

* * *

Hummingbird
.. .. ..
Salamander
—Silvina

* * *

Oh, Silvina, thank you for not scrawling “Find me” across the bottom of your note.

Thank you for knowing that wasn’t necessary.

[4]

A man who could’ve been the brother of the first driver took me home, at the wheel of a car more anonymous and darker than the first. The landscape seemed compressed, moved past more quickly, so we were back in the city sooner. Or I just wasn’t paying attention.

Hummingbird. Salamander. One there, one not, and the one not there the creature I knew so well from childhood. The overturning of rocks. The swirl of the river and the sway of the tiny river plants. The deep-green moss. All those expeditions so long ago.

I sat silent in the backseat with the box guarded by my knees, arms engulfing it gently. So I wouldn’t crush it. Dead, but somehow alive, able to be wounded. I didn’t dare open the flaps to stare at it for fear the driver would see. I had no thought. Nothing at all. Or maybe I was held by the outline of memories I’d left behind. The look of rage on my grandfather’s face. The slack, pale form of my brother by the river.

No therapist ever told me I should forget my childhood, because I hated therapists and had never seen one. But I knew that forgetting was best. Let the dead stay dead. Make dead what was still alive. Move forward.

It wasn’t the box or the storage unit. I don’t know exactly what tried to pin me back there, trap me, except the sense of not being in control.

[5]

Early afternoon. No one would be home. I had already taken care of my boss and texted in sick. I set the box on the kitchen counter, next to my purse. Tossed my coat on the living room couch, came back to the counter, hesitated … then opened the box and removed the hummingbird.

I regarded it from a precarious kitchen island stool, on the edge of that expanse of wood and marble. Spotless stainless steel, double sinks, a cutting station on wheels, a sparkling black-and-white stove, a smart refrigerator I’d deliberately fucked up so it couldn’t report back.

Somehow, the hummingbird dominated that space beyond its size. Beyond even what I could’ve thought it meant at the time.

The hummingbird had a fierce aspect, jet-black feathers, smoothed out and yet bristling. Even the beak, long and slen der, made me think of a blade or a needle meant to draw blood. I imagined a dozen of its kind circling someone’s head like guardians or a crown of thorns. Hard to imagine this species sipping delicate from a flower, but I didn’t know much about hummingbirds. Our neighborhood didn’t have them, nor any school I attended, and they’d been rare on the farm. We didn’t plant a lot of flowers.

The thick wire attached to the dead bird had the look of dull silver. The stand had a glossy look, almost a deep red. On the bottom I found the letters “R.S.” Plain, crudely carved. By the maker or by Silvina?

Taxidermy registered strange to me. The language of taxidermy made no sense. I didn’t like bars or restaurants where they signaled “macho” through deer or bear trophies on the wall. Macabre. Pathological. But this—this came from a different impulse. Secretive and elusive. The bird’s body caused a disconnect. The stillness, and then the way the eyes weren’t blank but staring at me.

The distance across the counter widened, and the silence grew unbearable. Who was “Silvina”? And why had she given me a hummingbird? And where was the salamander? Because the salamander felt personal. As if this woman I didn’t know had done her research and understood the salamander didn’t need to be there, in the storage unit. That just the word could awaken a recognition or impulse.

Some things remain mysterious even if you think about them all the time.

Salamanders. Hiding under logs and river stones. A creature that did not want to be found.

* * *

I drank a glass of water, had an apple and then a big bowl of leftover chicken salad, rummaged for gum in my purse after. Tried to shake off whatever had gathered within me, but the hummingbird stared at me defiant. It was what I had to work with.

I resisted the idea of using my phone for an online search for “Silvina” and for “hummingbird.” A search for “R.S.” yielded nothing useful and, three pages down, “arse.” But adding Silvina’s name to “R.S.” concerned me. A stabbing unease at the thought of exposure. I needed context more than data. Didn’t want to open up a channel that could lead back to me. A client breach around search terms months ago didn’t help rationalize the risk.

Was the hummingbird code for something? Or just the first of two bookends? That space between them yawned like the abyss, and the space in my head felt deliberate, like Silvina wanted it to be there.


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