PodCastle 700: Rulebook for Creating a Universe

Show Notes

Rated PG

 

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The Annual Migration of Clouds is a “cli-fi” post-apocalyptic novella by author Premee Mohamed. It takes place in the distant future, after the climate crisis has entirely disrupted life as we know it, and a mysterious mind-controlling fungus has wormed its way through the scattered population. The story focuses on a choice: Reid, a young woman who carries this parasite, has been given a chance to move far away, to study in one of the few communities sustained by pre-disaster technology, but her mother is ill, and in a world where the planting season is planned down to the minute, every body counts. It’s not easy for her to leave her loved ones behind. To set her family up for life, Reid decides to take part in a foolhardy and dangerous mission. To accomplish this task, she must ask others to put great trust in her, but she can’t easily separate her own thoughts from the parasite’s will, making it difficult for her to even trust herself.

If you’re not yet familiar with Premee Mohamed, you’re sure to hear of her soon. She’s an Indo-Caribbean scientist and author based in Edmonton, Alberta, where this book is set, and a rising star in speculative fiction. Premee is a biologist and works in the field of climate science, so the depiction of Reid’s parasitic passengers is eerily plausible, and the climate disaster scenarios in the book are grounded in modern-day research predicting an all-too-likely future.

Yet there’s still hope to be found here: rather than doubling down on the hardships of life-after-technology as so many gritty apocalyptic novels do, this book’s focus is on connection and friendship, the things that bind us together. It shows the world moving forward after terrible hardships — including natural disaster and plague — and reflects upon the importance of community, our duty to take care of one another, and our collective ability to get through difficult times. In other words, it is exactly the sort of book we need right now.


Rulebook for Creating a Universe

by Tashan Mehta

In an island that floats at the beginning of time, there is a Rulebook for Creating a Universe. This book is old, with instructions on how to make forever-worlds. It says, “When stitching a universe, think carefully about the kind of sun you want. Will it be hot or cold, moss or vein? Your sun will last forever and your planetary color palettes will depend on it. Choose wisely. Follow the blueprint.”

Beloved, you know this story.

You know Yukti is a weaver on this island-before-time and she hates weaving. Her mother must put the lotus stalk in her hand and even then she will scowl at the water until her mother says, Faster Mu-mu, we don’t own time! So Yukti—who also hates the nickname Mu-mu—will snap open the stalk to reveal filaments of silver that she thinks look like spit. These are the fibers of Time. She will rub them together to make a thread and begin stitching the banana leaf she is assigned.

This is how a single universe is made—on this island, one leaf at a time. Leaves make a tree. Trees and rivers make a planet, planets create a galaxy, and galaxies form a universe. Small to large. This is what Yukti’s mother tells her as she brushes her daughter’s hair at night. She wants Yukti to apply herself. We’re doing good work, Mu-mu. Her daughter leans back into her chest, happy. Are you listening to me? Her daughter shakes her head, giggling. You’re not listening to me, you shaitan. Her mother tickles her until Yukti squeals.

On days her mother takes pity on her, Yukti is sent to harvest the lotuses. This she loves. She’s the only girl on the boat but she belongs—even the men know it. They send her into the thick patches of lotuses, where the boat cannot push its nose, and she wades among petals as large as her torso. The water, which is biting cold, grows warmer when she clutches a lotus stem, then hot when she holds the slippery knife and hacks through it.

Her brother tells her, in conspiratorial whispers, that this is because the lotuses go all the way down to the beginning of time.

But there is nothing in her life until now, nothing really, that explains why the lotuses one day bend their heads and begin talking to her.


Yukti doesn’t understand the lotuses’ language. It is color that blooms across her mind, the scent of faint perfume, trails of thought that writhe and curl like reeds. It changes her. One day she blinks and the island dissipates, breaking into a zillion fine particles of gold dust. She blinks again and the world coalesces, regrowing its outlines. She trembles.

She begins to dream of volcanoes.

She doesn’t know what a volcano is. They’ve never made one on this island. She tries to describe it to her brother and he tells her that she means a melted sun, that’s all. So she starts thinking of suns.

Apoi, why can’t we make suns?

Her best friend Apoi puts down the fern she is stitching and thinks. They are sitting on a platform that floats on the endless water of their island. Water and lotuses, that’s all their island-before-time is made of. Apoi thinks hard. It is not a normal question; no one here asks these things. But Apoi is the best student in the village and so she finds an answer.

Because suns are big and require strength, she explains. Boys are stronger. Girls have deft fingers and so can stitch forests and rivers.

Yukti wasn’t looking for the textbook version. We can do it too, she says, surly but under her breath. Apoi doesn’t hear.

The Rulebook for Creating a Universe talks about the lotuses. It says, “Beware. Lotuses may shimmer and turn to gold dust when you hold them. Ignore this. Hold fast and cut the stalk as low as you can reach. If the lotuses talk, don’t listen. Never listen.”

Yukti has listened.

Ma?

Yes, Mu-mu?

Why don’t you make suns?

Her mother stops stirring her lotus stew. She is more perceptive than Apoi, so she says, Why do you ask?

But Yukti knows this sidestepping tactic. Have you tried? she asks. She doesn’t know that her voice is growing shriller, as it does when she is upset.

No, her mother says gently. But —

Why not? Aggressive now.

Because I don’t want to. Her mother continues stirring her stew, deciding that the best way to deal with this tantrum is to ignore it.

I don’t believe you.

Yukti . . . Stern now.

I don’t believe you. And if you had tried, only tried, then maybe I could stitch them too!

Yukti is sent to bed without supper. She lies on her mat and feels her skin boil, itching to erupt. She is filled with a bottomless want; she wants to know who decided the things she could and could not do; she wants to scream. The lotus voices whisper.

Later, when her mother kneels by her mat and asks if she wants her hair brushed, Yukti says no with venom. Then she cries into her mother’s lap, with large heaving sobs, as her mother strokes her hair soothingly.


They stop Yukti going out with the boats.

Her mother tries to hide her madness from the village but they learn of it. Yukti is now seeing three of everything. She is saying nonsense words in her sleep. The elders meet and remember the teachings of their ancestors. They have an important task here on this island—they are responsible for all creation. Each task in their society has been carefully crafted to fulfil this purpose of building universes; each person must play their role. A girl must never go to the lotus fields—it only spreads disaster.

The elders visit Yukti’s family. They tell her father to mind his daughter; they comfort Yukti’s mother, who trembles at what Yukti may become.

That night, after the elders leave, her mother makes lotus tea. She sits alone in the dark, steeping over the problem.

She knows her baby better than anyone else. The elders think the problem is small, some vague babbling, but she knows how far it has gone. Her daughter’s eyes are seeing further than they are meant to see. Her grandmother got like that once. They blinded her in fear.

She cannot let that happen to her baby.

From then on, she watches Yukti like a hawk. She makes her weave on a cushion opposite her, in her shadow; if Yukti goes to play, she follows. Her brother is forbidden to tell his sister folktales; her husband is made to wash all trace of lotuses off him before entering the house.

Yukti doesn’t complain.

Instead, she weaves better. She stops talking in her sleep and smiles when she’s supposed to, even though the smile doesn’t reach her eyes. Once, her mother catches her drawing a mountain with a hollow inside, but when she blinks Yukti has rubbed the drawing away—and she doesn’t know if she imagined it.

She must have.

Yukti becomes the best weaver in the village. She is praised; neighbors drop in at the house to admire her work and stay till they are offered free tea. Yukti’s mother pretends to be proud. She thinks of the hollow mountain and wishes her daughter’s smile would reach her eyes.

Then, one day, Yukti glances up from the glow lamp as she kneels beside her mat and looks—really looks—at her mother. Yukti’s eyes are wide, as large as the day her mother gave birth to her. Then she says Ma and holds out her arms.

Her mother collapses into them. She holds her daughter close, pressing her nose into her daughter’s neck, breathing in. When Yukti pulls away and smiles, it reaches her eyes.

That night, Yukti’s mother brushes her hair slowly and languidly. They drink lotus tea. They laugh, warm in their love for each other. Then, when the sky is covered with gold-black, Yukti slips out of her mat, past her sleeping family who dream dreams of content, down the stairs and into the cold, where she unties the boat from its moorings and slips it, eel-like, into the catfish-black water.

You know where she is going.


The Rulebook for Creating a Universe talks a lot about the lotuses. It has 547 rules on the flowers, all of them warnings. Rule 89 is in bold. It says, “You are not a hero. Lotuses seduce. You are not immune to that seduction. Stay humble and work with the group. Stitch with direction, with the softness of certainty. Never stray.”

The water is emptier than Yukti remembers. Across each mile of glass, she sees the ghosts of lotuses now cut; their dead forms leave gold dust in the air. Yukti knows she is the only one who can see this, just like she is the only one who notices that the stalks the boats bring are yellow. The lotuses are dying. The village is farming too far and too fast; Time is running out.

She wishes her mother could see.

When the lotuses appear, they do so suddenly; Yukti is dwarfed by their petals, each flower eager to touch her skin. They are happy; they have been waiting for her. Her boat is nosed forward with trembling lotus pads; petal tips play with her hair. She laughs. She feels alive, understood. All her fear disappears.

The boat comes to a halt. Yukti waits. Nothing happens. The lotuses watch her. She watches them. Gold dust floats as if on the breath of an invisible creature.

Yukti grows sleepy and leans against the side of the boat. Gently, almost listlessly, she dips her fingers in —

The water erupts. Gold fans out in all directions; something wraps around her wrist and yanks her in. She thrashes, panicked, but more stems curl around her legs and arms. She fights. She opens her mouth to say “please”, but water pours down her gullet; the lake closes over her head with a wooosh. The last thing she sees is the lotuses, hazy through the water. They look hungry.


In the beginning, there were ideas. They streamed through the void as gold particles, content to go nowhere. Then similar ideas began to coalesce. They moved out of the neat lines they followed and clustered into logical order—this idea first, that particle second, and so on. In this way, they made Time.

These threads spun themselves into an island, floating in the void. They curled into seeds and became lotuses so that they could open their faces to the void, feel its cool touch. They wanted to have faces. They called to their brothers and sisters still journeying across the void; they asked them to join the island and feel what it was to be. Several did. They rained down and melted and bumped into the lake you now drown in. They even made you, bronze-skinned and yellow-eyed. They gave you only one command: make. But you listened wrong.

Why are you telling me this? Yukti asks.

She is floating in water that is golden, green and blue in different shimmers, like it cannot make up its mind. She isn’t breathing, so she must be dead. But the heart of the island is staring at her like she is anything but.

Why did you come to us? the heart asks.

Yukti doesn’t know how to translate her yearning into the lotuses’ language. She wants to burst out of her skin and flower into a jungle so complex no one could weave it. So instead she says, You are dying.

You heard wrong, the heart says. When did we ask you to snap us open and weave with our innards? What use is dead Time to you, silver like old hair? You were meant to shape the void as we shaped you—by tilting your head to the sky and listening to where the ideas wanted to go. When did you grow deaf?


Yukti wakes because she has to vomit. She vomits and vomits, emptying all the water in her. Then she curls up on the boat’s smooth belly and waits for morning. When it comes, she holds the paddle in her shivering hand and rows home. It takes her longer because she’s tired and the paddle keeps slipping from her grip. When she pulls into the village, it is almost afternoon.

Her community watches her. They discovered Yukti was missing in the middle of the night; her brother raised the alarm. When her mother found the boat gone, her heart sank. But by then it was too late.

The village’s activities lie abandoned; the villagers stand, grave, at the edges of their stilted houses. Yukti can see Apoi, her eyes like petrified pebbles, her mouth forming a similar “o”. Yukti doesn’t stop; she rows until she reaches her house. When she climbs the stairs slowly, she finds her mother waiting for her. When she dips through the doorway, her mother backs up against the wall, frightened.

In the house’s cool interior, Yukti realizes why. She is glowing.

Mu-mu?

Yukti nods.

Where were you, Mu-mu? Her mother takes a step forward. This girl is her baby, her beloved baby who kept trying to eat her thumb when she was born and who laughs like a drunken man, in great big hiccupping hiccups. She will not be scared of her.

Yukti tells her. She knows she must go to the elders with this story but she wants to tell her mother. Besides, she is only fourteen and her parents are still an authority of a sort, even though it is not spelled with a capital A.

So she describes how universes are being built with dead Time, spinning suns that cannot die and so do not truly live. Nothing will change in those galaxies; trees will not grow or shed leaves; rivers will not swell or fade. Mountains will always know only one height: the height the villagers gave them. In time, the dye will fade to reveal the silver weave from which the worlds were made—then this too will grow pale, caking into white ash. Creation will spin with burnt remains, until these too will flake and be swallowed by the void.

Her mother closes her eyes. Her child is mad.

So Yukti shows her. She unfurls the hand she’s kept clutched this whole time to reveal a lotus bud, its petals parted in a surprised and embarrassed breath, its roots intact. She lifts it to her lips and blows. Gold dust settles into her mother’s eyes.


Beloved, you have been in this story. Versions of it play across time, on loop. It’s in your bones.

So remember. Breathe through your fear and pull up the strands of this story. The elders will not listen. There’s Yukti, clutching onto her mother as they pull her away. She’s frightened, confused. She’s telling them what they cannot see; she’s only trying to save them. Why won’t they listen?

She finds no answer. Her mother is hysterical. She’s fighting with the villagers, trying to get to her child. She’s saying, It’s only make-believe, she doesn’t mean it, she takes it back, she takes it back. Yukti’s father is shouting. Yukti’s brother tries to reach his parents and finds the crowd shrinks away from him, like he is diseased.

Yukti looks for Apoi in the pandemonium, the smartest person in the village, the best student. You have to listen to them, she shouts, hoping her best friend can hear her. She will understand. You have to let it become.

Apoi looks away.

After that, Yukti stops fighting. They drag her out.

Yukti is branded hysterical. Her mother is blamed for this new epidemic of lotus madness. Her father is disciplined, her brother ostracized. If you look closely, you can see her mother’s eyes grow hard in a way that scares Yukti’s father. You can hear the echoes of Yukti’s last words as they tie her to a boat, rippling in the still air. Listen—why won’t you listen?

Fear hardens.

The community pulls together. Scribes draft the Rulebook for Creating a Universe. Artists sketch the first official blueprint. Copies are made. Keepers are appointed. The Rulebook is taught in special schools. Children quiz children on its details, a game. Girls who stitch leaves make sure they copy the veins exactly. Precision is praised.

And Yukti, the girl who won’t stop glowing, is locked in a house built specially for her, far away from the village. She is left to starve. But she doesn’t starve. She eats the gold dust she can scoop from the water by thrusting her hands into the gap in the floor. She listens to her heart shrink until she believes it cannot get any smaller. She stares out of the window as the lotus fields dwindle. They’re crying out for her help. She has nothing left to give.

All this is the story.

Now remember the parts they don’t tell you.

Like how everything is built like a volcano—planets, universes, bodies—with molten change sitting in our bellies. How the lock on Yukti’s jail clicks one night and the door pops open. How five women stand in the doorway, carved by the amber moon. A silhouette of a lotus flower, now fully grown and its roots trailing the floor, hangs from one of their hands.

Some things, Yukti’s mother says as she presses her daughter to her chest and they cry with an emotion that cannot be held in language, can only be done in silence, at night.


Six women stand waist deep in empty water. Gold whirls around them. Yukti turns to her mother, her glow faint now, and says in a small voice, I don’t know what to do.

But her mother is having none of it. She runs her fingers through Yukti’s hair, feeling the strands knot between her knuckles. Her baby. You only have to listen, she says. Her voice is so sure and full of love. It steadies Yukti.

Yukti takes a deep breath and closes her eyes.

They build a universe out of gold dust, collecting in their palms from the water. The particles flock to them, eager. The women shape with their fingers, asking the particles which ones they would like to join with.

Yukti’s yearning fills her. It mixes with her fear and her hope. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? She may never see another light or get this chance again. So she crumbles her fear and gives in to her yearning, letting it rise in her like a molten wave. She pours it into the universe she’s shaping. When the particles in her hand begin to vibrate, she knows they will never be content to stay in a single sequence.

The women weave small and fine and tight, so that when they are done, the whole universe sits on Yukti’s palm, no bigger than a gold speck. Clutching it very gently in her nails, Yukti pulls her arm back as far as it will go. She flings the speck into the void, where it disappears.

The Rulebook for Creating a Universe mentions Yukti only once. It does not take her name. It says, “Remember the girl who tried to steal Time to weave a universe. Remember that in her universe suns die and they call god a woman. Do not let that be your daughter.”


Yukti’s seed, pushed deep into the void’s skin, will burst. It will carry colours of its own. The particles in it will link and dissolve and link again into formations that will burn our eyes when viewed through our telescopes. It will create mountains that crush us and ocean depths we cannot touch. It will spiral up and down and up, the dunes of existence. We will keep trying to cross them.

It will have volcanoes.

But let us leave grandeur to science. Let us leave language to itself. Get up and go into the sun, beloved, to the edge of a world that houses you. You are on a beach. You’ve spent the morning scared of a future you cannot predict. You’ve spent the afternoon trying to map out different possibilities to create a rulebook of your own. You’ve prayed to this universe for the only thing it cannot give you: certainty.

Now let it go. Breathe in the salt. Watch the gold glint on the crest of a wave.

Then walk to where the crabs make their maps and the sea tries to drown them. Let a wave recede and press your toe into the wet sand it leaves behind. Watch it erupt into gold.

This is your inheritance. Listen.

About the Author

Tashan Mehta

Tashan Mehta is a novelist whose interest lies in form and the fantastical, and how a dialogue between these elements may offer us collective ways of seeing.

Her debut novel, The Liar’s Weave, was shortlisted for the Prabha Khaitan Woman’s Voice Award. She was part of the Sangam House International Writers’ Residency (India) and was British Council Writer-in-Residence at Anglia Ruskin University (United Kingdom).

In 2019, she participated in FIELDWORK 0.2, a multidisciplinary residency that explored alternative infrastructures for the future. She was commissioned by the Barbican (London) to create an artefact that captures the essence of the experience; On Unknown Things will be published in 2021. Recently, she has been invited to CERN IdeaSquare (Switzerland) alongside other writers and scientists to develop stories that can communicate new-age technologies to the public.

Her short story ‘Rulebook for Creating a Universe’ has been published in Magical Women and was shortlisted for the 2020 Toto Funds the Arts Award; two short stories are upcoming in Third Eye Anthology and The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction: Volume II. She is currently working on her next novel.

Find more by Tashan Mehta

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About the Narrator

Suna Dasi

A headshot of artist Suna Dasi. She holds a taxidermied mouse statue on her shoulder. She is dressed in a green Sari and the mouse wears a black hat.
Suna Dasi is an Indian/Dutch artist based in Scotland, who comes from a theatre and dance background in The Netherlands. Eventually her vocal chords became her main weapon of choice; her profession as a performer has taken her all over the world. Together with her wife, she’s part of The Lodge Arts Collective: a predominantly female group of long term friends living communally, who work in music production, theatre, poetry, fine arts and performance art. She records and performs with Texan progrock artist Erin Bennett and Metal outfit Krow.
When not in the studio or on the road, she writes SFF and Speculative Fiction. She is currently working on her poetry collection and her first novel. In 2017 she was Nominated for a BSFA Award in the Short Fiction category for one of her short stories.

Find more by Suna Dasi

A headshot of artist Suna Dasi. She holds a taxidermied mouse statue on her shoulder. She is dressed in a green Sari and the mouse wears a black hat.
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