Julianne Pachico’s new novel Jungle House follows the relationship between a young woman and the AI house that raised her. Jungle House is published by Serpent’s Tail in November 2023, and the following excerpt is reproduced with permission.
A dragonfly lands on the glistening scum, before retreating immediately, as if disgusted.
‘Well, Lena,’ Mother says. No greeting, no how are you. ‘So you’re not dead. Apparently.’
‘No botfly eggs in your arms.’
‘No infected bites. No tapeworms.’
‘Not that I know of.’
‘There you go.’ Mother sighs. ‘At least some things are all right with the world. At least not everything is completely fucked.’
Mother rarely swears, as she considers it beneath her – she must be in a mood. And when Mother is in a mood, Lena needs to be careful. She waits patiently.
Here it comes. ‘But as you can see,’ Mother says, ‘the nest is still there—’
Lena interrupts quickly. ‘They’ve fledged though, haven’t they?’
‘Oh, Lena –’ And this is it – of all things, this is what sets Mother off. There she goes, she’s off now, there’s no stopping her! Mother’s mood, black and swirling, bearing down on Lena like an afternoon thunderstorm. ‘Lena, you just can’t imagine. You’ll never know how awful it is. The smell, Lena. The stink!’
Again, it’s a fact that Mother can’t smell – but forget about bringing that up.
‘The constant flies, Lena. Can you even see up there? The carcasses? Body parts, Lena. Feet and beaks. Feathers, Lena. And layers and layers of encrusted, hardened—’
‘But Mother,’ she says. She’s trying to talk fast – maybe if she acts incredibly anxious, speaking a million miles a minute, this will offset Mother’s own anxiety. ‘Remember last year, Mother? Last year wasn’t so bad, was it?’
Last year was when she went up the ladder with a pair of gardening gloves from the shed. She pulled away the worst of the nest debris, tossing it recklessly over her shoulder, secretly enjoying the mess it made as it scattered over the patio tiles. How Mother cried as the ladder wobbled! How Mother groaned at the sight of the flattened songbird carcasses, baked into stiff patties by the heat. But once Lena swept them away, Mother calmed right down.
‘What would help,’ Mother says, ‘is throwing the whole nest in the river. And lining the roof with broken glass. And after that: shooting them. You’re good at that, aren’t you? Supposedly? Isn’t that part of your so-called heritage? That’s the only kind of help that would realistically do any good—’
Lena unscrews the lid of her water bottle and takes a long drink. The water is far too warm to be refreshing.
Because when Mother finishes with the hawks, next up will be the possums, who’ve built their own nest in the chimney. It doesn’t matter that the chimney is something that the Morels have never used, and probably never will. For Mother, it’s unacceptable.
‘You know, Mother,’ she interrupts. ‘If I block it up, they’ll just nest somewhere else, in a place you’ll find even more unpleasant.’
But Mother isn’t listening; Mother doesn’t stop. What follows are the usual talking points: the warping floors, the peeling wallpaper, the stained ceiling. Corroding metal, brackish water, layers of salt crystals on the wooden beams. Mother, talking. And Lena, sitting with growing discomfort, shifting her weight from one buttock to another as Mother’s litany grows and grows. The odours. My God, the odours! She knows they’re there, Lena, she just knows it! ‘I can feel them,’ Mother frets, and this is when Lena starts to feel them too: as suffocating as steam from soup. A sour rankness she can smell, but Mother can only imagine. ‘Like a gas,’ Mother says. ‘It stinks, Lena, it reeks. Oh, I can’t bear the thought of letting you inside; it’d be far too humiliating.’
Lena should say something comforting at this point. She really should.
Instead, she uses her feet to drag the chair across the tiles, into a shadier spot provided by the grapefruit tree.
Mother has always been obsessed with keeping the house clean and the property safe. Security and order – those are Mother’s jobs. Providing information as requested was another key task. But that hasn’t been the case for the past six months, since the satellite connection was lost.
Still, in the twenty years that they’ve known each other – the twenty years that Lena’s been alive – those primary jobs haven’t changed. And she, Lena – her entire life, she’s always been helpful. Mother’s helper.
What has changed – she must admit, albeit reluctantly – is the extent of Mother’s rages. Especially this past year, since the Morels’ last visit. Sure, Mother had always been a bit on the angry side, a bit irritable, but her temper has definitely become a bit more . . . well, pronounced. Lena’s often wondered if it’s a result of Mother’s aloneness. Of course, she’s been here for Mother, but it’s not the same, obviously. How could Lena ever hope to replace the relationship Mother had with the satellites?
Anyway, she doesn’t like to think about it, and Mother certainly would never bring it up. But when she does think about it, late at night in the hut, when she can’t sleep – if she thinks about it too long, it becomes hard to breathe. Like her lungs have become sticky, overgrown with spiderwebs.
The satellite connection, gone. The family, silent. And Mother, alone.
It can’t have been easy.
Especially with Lena moved out, on top of everything else.
And so, Mother’s rages – she can’t resent them. How can she? All Mother wants to do is her job – keeping the house safe, orderly and tidy. To stay busy and purposeful. Who wouldn’t want that?
The Morels used to come three times a year – two weeks at Christmas, ten days at Easter and three weeks in summer. The visits decreased over the years, due to the rebels’ presence in the area, which was obviously not her or Mother’s fault – not anything anyone could control. During the last fateful Christmas visit – a year ago now – the family was barely here for a week, cutting their trip short. After that trip, the Morels stopped coming, and six months after that, the satellites cut off. But even when the connection was still functioning, she and Mother never heard from the Morels, not a word.
So she and Mother have had to do their best, making do with what they have. Without the satellite connection, it’s impossible for Mother to receive any news, but the country must be in turmoil, what with the upcoming elections and the increasing support for the former rebel candidate. It must be the worst bump in the road since the disarmament process. And, of course, it’s obvious why the family won’t be returning any time soon. But who could say what the future might hold? Both Mother and Lena have lived through this kind of isolation before and come out of it just fine; now shouldn’t necessarily be any different. Yes, a couple of years might pass, and when the Morels came back, things would obviously be different, but they could survive; they’d done it before. Her and Mother. The two of them could wait out anything. Any sensible person would see why the Morels need time away from the property. Lena understands, Mother understands (well . . . she thinks Mother understands). She doesn’t hold the radio silence against the Morels; she doesn’t take it personally.
Mother isn’t even the family’s only property. There’s also Mountain House, where the family spends three-day weekends during the school year. Lena has never been to the mountains – she’s never left the property – but, according to Mother, the weather there was much pleasanter. Not a sweat fest like here, Lena – to be honest, you’d probably prefer it, it’d suit you; you’d end up never wanting to leave. But I like it right here, Mother, she’d insist. I don’t want to leave. And even if Mother didn’t say anything in response, she’d know Mother was pleased. It was unfortunate that Mother’s relationship with Mountain House was so acrimonious. Her most common complaint – repeated often, with much bitterness – was He thinks he’s better than me, Lena, so damn superior, and believe me, dealing with someone with that kind of personality is a complete waste of time.
The main family home was City House, on the military base. That’s where Isabella went to school – well, used to go to school – and her father to work. Mother’s relationship with City House was even worse than with Mountain House. How scandalised Mother had been by what happened! The way she admitted those rioters, Mother once ranted. Just let them waltz right in through the gates. She let them break the windows! She let them burn the car! Unbelievable. Unforgivable. Absolutely useless. They should have torn her apart for scrap metal. That’s the only thing she’s good for now.
Mother! Lena exclaimed, alarmed by the harshness of Mother’s judgement. But Mother just laughed.
But even so – even though the Morels hadn’t been in touch the past year (which, while distressing, was completely understandable) – Mother had never failed to do the best job she possibly could. And Lena had too.