ONCE THERE WAS A PRINCE in want of a wife. The prince met a lady with gold hair, and he kissed her in front of video cameras. He took her to a polo match. The lady wore a sheer skirt and the prince rode a skittish pony named Drizzle. The lady wept because of the way the cameras, and the people behind them, trained their gazes on her. Young women are considered eligible for marriage because of their sensitivity and their long remaining breeding period. Photographs show the lady looking at her prince while he gazes into the distance, as though he were fascinated by every detail of the background. At the time there were 4 billion people on the planet.
Soon after the engagement was announced, a married couple, fashion designers, received an unexpected telephone call from the palace. The call lasted only a few minutes. When their dark-green Bakelite phone was returned to its cradle, this couple had discovered the meaning of their lives: they would make a wedding dress for a princess, and its image would travel across the world, forward into history. During her engagement the young princess-to-be developed bulimia, a disease that caused her to consume more resources than she needed and then to force her body to vomit. The lady’s body was shrinking inside the dress. Her pathology was the designers’ disaster. Wordlessly, from fitting to fitting, they pinned their dress around her.
MANY BILLIONS OF YEARS AGO, two neutron stars, merging, produced vast clouds of dust, out of which one unusually heavy, unusually stable mineral separated itself. This mineral came to reside in substantial quantities at the molten core of our planet, but it also rose in lesser threads and seams through Earth’s crust, and so it was discovered below ground in Indonesia and South Africa, in Russia and Chile, and on a hillside in rural Wales where, in 1885, two police constables stood guard at the entrance to a tunnel. The constables had been hired to prevent villagers from entering the tunnel to steal the contents of the hill. Deep inside the hill, from shift to shift, young boys worked by candlelight to extract soft Welsh gold. A century later, the boy miners and the policemen were long dead, the local farmsteads had been turned into holiday homes, and the seam inside the hill was exhausted. This, of course, meant that the few remaining bars of Welsh gold were almost unimaginably precious. The queen, the lady’s future mother-in-law, owned one of these few cherished nuggets. On her orders, a small volume of soft gold was removed from this nugget: precisely the quantity needed to encircle our young lady’s finger.
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THE COMPLETED DRESS HAD A 25-foot train and a 153-yard veil, instantiating the abundance of resources. This extravagant garment was made from draped, folded, pinned-in, woven silk taffeta that had been spun by moth larvae, and was embroidered with ten thousand pearls formed inside the shells of ten thousand mollusks. The princess was clothed in material that had emerged from the glistening live tissue of larva and mollusk, but the creatures themselves were invisible by the time it was complete. Each pearl had been sewn on by human seamstresses whose private thoughts as they sewed are not recorded, but may be represented in the flashes of the individual jewels during the wedding service. These winks and flashes, catching the electric spotlights inside the cathedral, created larger shimmering movements that reeled and cascaded over the congregation with motion analogous to that of a phosphorescent tide. The wedding was transmitted from the cameras, via satellite, to Chile and Japan, Yugoslavia and Angola.
AROUND THE TIME OF THE WEDDING, a young virus named HIV was finding its way into one young man’s body. Once inside, it corrupted the information in the young man’s genes, turning them on themselves. By the time this man came to meet the princess, sometime after her wedding, the effects of the virus were visible on the outside of his painfully thin body. Our princess now exhibited an unusual behavioral pattern. Altruism beyond the kin circle cannot readily be explained. A biologist once joked that he would be willing to die for two brothers or eight cousins. The princess held hands with the dangerous man, to whom she was not even distantly related. His incurable virus was only partly understood by humans, many of whom believed that it would leap from host to host given the slightest opportunity. Something inside the princess, young and anxious though she was, caused her to be unafraid. She touched the dying man.
THE POPULATION REACHED 5 billion. The princess had two sons, and her husband took a lover. A successful species may be marked, over evolutionary time, by its disposition to reproduction. There was a courtier who attended the apartment inside the palace in which the prince, the princess, and their young sons now lived. This courtier, who often stood by to serve the royal family, was—naturally enough—witness to the things that went on inside the flat. During this period the princess’s bulimia worsened. The courtier witnessed the battle and the consequent chaos of food consumed, then returned. Somebody, of course, must clean up, and somebody must restock the kitchen. One day, unable to keep his thoughts to himself, the courtier informed the princess that it was all a waste of perfectly good food. A craving to store fat and sugar lingers in the modern human body. And yet thinness, for women, is a signifier of beauty and control. These forces battled inside the princess’s body. Self-hatred and self-destruction are ineradicable features of the species’ psyche. A moderate meat-eater’s meal may cause the release of three kilograms of carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere.
THE PRINCESS’S SONS GREW older. More and more, they understood the situation they were in: the inheritance of royalty, the fascination of the cameras, the state of their parents’ marriage. There were three people inside this marriage. It was a bit crowded in there. It was crowded everywhere in those days; the population was soaring. The princess did a television interview on the occasion of her divorce. She was to become a mere lady again. During the interview she tucked down her chin and looked up toward the people behind the cameras. The more the human female enlarges her eyes and exposes her forehead, the more the human male wants to mate with her and care for her. In those days it was common to read the news from a large, rough-textured paper, printed in a dusty ink that came away with contact. Newspaper stories, which speculated on the princess’s thoughts and feelings, transferred themselves, in fragmented and backward-facing sentences, onto the warm, damp, white under-paper that would later wrap the battered fish that was then consumed by so many in the United Kingdom, the country that the family ruled.
FOR SOME TIME, the landscape around Huambo, in central Angola, had been strewn with explosive weapons. The people of Huambo had suffered forty years of conflict. One elderly farmer had little option but to walk among these weapons because they were buried in the fields he had worked since his youth, because he needed to tend his corn and beans and cane, because he needed to feed his family, because his family was growing and growing. The man had sons and grandsons and great-grandsons, one of whom had lost a leg, from the knee down, while thinning maize seedlings in his sister’s flip-flops.
Our divorced lady traveled to Angola alone. She went to meet the farmer, to ask him questions, and to listen to his thoughts. She wore a transparent helmet which meant that the people behind the cameras could still see her face as she walked along a sandy path marked on either side by red signs that indicated unexploded land mines. The lady’s steps were measured and precise. She appeared quite self-assured. In the Northern Hemisphere, humans watched the princess from behind their screens. They experienced pity for the farmer and his great-grandson and, by natural extension, for all the people of Angola, whom they referred to as land mine victims. By walking the gauntlet of cameras and land mines, our lady made these victims visible on another side of the world.
ONCE THERE WAS AN HEIR apparent to a luxury department store, in want of a wife. The father’s West London department store was among the most celebrated in the world, partly because the royal family shopped there and partly because it sold objects of utmost value. There were walnut chests full of cakes of amber tea made of the youngest leaves and buds of plants grown in the Yunnan mountains, which cost, per unit, nine hundred pounds. Tea leaves grow on the Yunnan mountains because of the monsoon climate—warmth and heavy rainfall—and the pure air, in which tea shrubs can flourish. The trade of tea supported the creation of the United Kingdom, an empire that violently subjugated the peoples of many countries and created conditions in which, during our lady’s lifetime, luxury department stores and royal palaces were thriving. Once, two employees of this luxury department store kicked a homeless man to death after he asked them for a cigarette.
The heir to this department store met our divorced lady. They traveled to Paris together, where they stayed at a luxury hotel.
THERE WAS A WOMAN FROM Stuttgart in Germany, a Stuttgarterin, and this Stuttgarterin’s whole family was employed at the Mercedes-Benz production plant. The Stuttgarterin’s first position at the plant had been as beer lady: her job was to wheel a trolley loaded with brown bottles of local dunkel along the production lines. She supplied beer, at a reasonable price, to the men as they worked.
In the 1990s, when our lady was having her children, suffering bulimia and getting divorced, it was decided that the beer trolley was no longer generative to automobile production, and the Stuttgarterin was moved to the factory canteen. At around the same time, her brother, a welder, and her husband, a technician, were also relocated to different parts of the factory. Their old places were taken up by robots whose work was exquisitely uniform. The Stuttgarterin was observed, from time to time, when leaving the building at the end of her shift, to pause for a moment and watch the robots carrying out the critical operation known as die Hochzeit, “the marriage,” when the body of the car rises to meet its own chassis, which sinks toward it, before the two click together, beautifully, neatly. And so it was that this Stuttgarterin was standing at the end of the factory floor one day, some minutes after the end of canteen lunch shift, wearing a beige-gray anorak she had not yet zipped and carrying a soft pale-blue leather handbag that kept slipping off her shoulder, and watched the moment of marriage of one particular, if unexceptional, black Mercedes.
SOME BELIEVE THAT GOSSIP became a human need at the time early humans began to dwell in caves. Living behind walls made it more common for humans to deceive one another. This, in turn, heightened the advantage to those who knew others’ secrets. Some say that the word paparazzi captures the sound of a camera shutter, others say it is designed to mimic the buzz of an annoying mosquito, and others say that it is a dialect word from a region of eastern Italy, where it refers to a kind of clam. A clam is a shellfish whose name means “secret.”
THE MAN WHO DROVE THE princess’s car was not her boyfriend but a lightly resourced human who was paid by richly resourced humans who stayed at the luxury hotel and did not want to drive themselves. The driver, who had been off duty when he received his summons to the hotel, had been drinking alcohol and taking the pharmaceutical drugs acamprosate (Campral) and fluoxetine (Prozac), which are used to treat depressive disorders by regulating the release of serotonin into the brain. The driver had been prescribed these drugs after he broke up with his partner two years earlier. He had taken the breakup badly.
THE LADY WAS WEARING A black jacket and white trousers when she climbed into the car. She was wearing a pair of earrings shaped to look like miniature golden kidney beans. Several minutes later the car crashed into the concrete walls of an underpass.
Concrete is so powerful that it has become almost inescapable. The surface of every continent bears its weight. One cubic meter of it is used per person, per day, for each of the billions of souls alive on the planet at the time of writing. The weight of the lady’s body composed only a small fraction of the weight that was flung into the underpass wall, which was lightly marked. Later, an earring in the shape of a kidney bean was retrieved from the car’s dashboard.
THE LADY’S YOUNGEST SON was twelve. Years later, he would ride an old pony of his father’s, Drizzle, in a polo match. The young prince noticed that Drizzle was acting oddly and so he steered her to the sidelines, where Drizzle had a heart attack and died. The young prince was distressed but stayed on the field, diligently satisfying his responsibilities toward the organizer of the game—a German car manufacturer—who had promised to make major donations to the charitable causes that the prince believed in. At that time the 6.9 billion people on the planet were all breathing an atmosphere that was, in some minute component, composed of the lady’s exhalations, cycled and propelled by geological forces and orchestrated by all life on Earth. As adults, the princes would remember their mother as warm, affectionate, mischievous, and loving.
DURING THE MONTHS PRECEDING the princess’s death, millions of flowers were growing in Kenyan soil, using homogenous, chemical-intensive processes that stripped the land of its nutrients, minerals, and microbial life. These flowers abandoned their roots when they were cut and airfreighted to England to line the streets along the roads that would be traveled by the lady’s coffin. The thoughts of the farmers who grew the flowers are not recorded, but they may be represented in the drifts of petals that blew along the roads during the days following the funeral. After a time, however, these petals melted into the environment as though they had only ever been a deviant expression of some common element and were now relapsing in submission to an overwhelming majority, as when snow falls on water. The lady’s sons chose a circle of white roses, placed on the roof of her coffin, inside which her body made its final impression on a pale silk lining.
A song was released about the lady and it sold millions of copies on compact disc. Soon afterward, a new species of fungus was discovered that had evolved the capacity to consume compact discs. The human species is comparatively slow to make evolutionary leaps when viewed in the context of such an intelligent and opportunistic life-form. This particular fungus, which had pioneered a method of sustaining itself on the substance of compact discs, corrupted the information it consumed. Not long after its discovery by scientists, compact discs became obsolete as a musical medium. In our lady’s day, however, few people played music through virtual platforms and most cameras produced negatives. Many of the 7.7 billion souls alive today will have no memory of the photographic negative, though it was then the original form of any image, printed on a plastic strip: a dark, miniature, intensified version, the print in precise reversal. When the lady died, people all over the planet experienced an overwhelming grief. In her absence, they saw her imprint everywhere. Their love, gathering together, revealed the form and volume of their loss.