This one time I read about this thing, this ritual. It was your basic New Age crap, marketed to unhappy people who felt like they didn’t have enough control over their lives. Like most magical, superstitious nonsense. Send Ten Dollars To This Anonymous PO Box And I Will Send You The Secret!! There are a bunch of different variations on the theme, and a couple kind souls even give away their version for free.
Teenagers are the most vulnerable, it seems. Young people who are basically adults physiologically and emotionally — or could be if they were ever forced to fend for themselves — who find every urge, every inclination to go their own way cruelly stamped down by parents, by teachers, by pastors, by a slew of officials and authorities who say it’s for their own good but by now have revealed themselves to be liars and hypocrites and cheats who aren’t above using their power to cushion their own miserable existences from the harsh terrain of actual reality. Who will take advantage of your innocence and naivety for the joy of stripping you of both.
Teenagers find themselves willing to jump at anything that will give them a little control over their own days and nights, over what comes into their lives. I was in that spot, wanting to go out and hang out with my friends, wanting to spend any money due me on designer clothes and expensive makeup, wanting out from under the tyranny of acne and A-cups and hair that I couldn’t make look like the pictures in the magazines for even an instant, dealing with the cramps and bleeding, wanting a boyfriend who wouldn’t kiss my girlfriends, wanting the trust and approval of my parents and step-parents. Wanting friends who would take my side when things blew up.
One or two of my friends turned to God and prayer for their illusion of control, but, to me, he seemed like the ultimate authority who wanted you to do things His way, to never use either the mind or the body that He gave you. It didn’t take long, maybe a few years, for me to figure out that that wasn’t God, laying down those bullshit rules, but every asshole for thousands of years who ever pretended to speak for Him, the ones who discovered that they could use the power of God to determine who had sex with whom and to gather all the power and money. It was a big relief when I figured that out, but that left God a giant mystery with no one to explain Him.
So I always thought something was out there, or maybe a bunch of somethings, because I never got the idea that things ever ran well enough for it to be one entity with one plan and one focus. But I could never figure out where the natural and the supernatural should be divided, or why, or if we were, what use we would have for favors from each other. Did they need us to move rocks around the way we need better luck?
I took the tour. I studied all kinds of “pagan” religions, read all the mythology I could find, attended every church, temple, synagogue, gathering, circle, or whatever for which I could get an invite. I borrowed whatever books my friends said worked for them. The more I saw, the more I read, the more I saw the same stuff. I saw groups of people with certain people fighting to get on top and others looking to be taken care of in exchange for no effort on their own part. I saw people who were amazing people despite what they said they believed, who were goodhearted often despite what their books and priests said they should be doing. And I saw a bunch of people sitting around quietly begging the universe to stop beating the shit out of them. With varying amounts of success.
Guardian angels. Daemons. Alien intelligences. Crystal energies. Chakras and kundalini. Meditations and yoga and various kinds of dancing and spinning. Prayers and candles and painting and writing and burning stuff. Nothing ever did anything for me. Except.
There was this one book that I read that detailed a spell, in a kind of offhand manner, because it wasn’t really important to the plot, where you imagined yourself holding something in your hand, imagined it surrounded by a brilliant white glow, and that thing, whatever it was and whatever it represented, would be magnetized to you and with all due speed come into your life. I tried it once, and I can’t even tell you what it was I thought of in my hand, because I don’t think it ever showed up. But afterward, I kept stumbling across magnets. For the next week or two I must have found maybe ten different things with magnets on them, or maybe loose magnets just stuck to things or lying around, and then maybe one or two a month for the next several years. It still happens.
Was it just a failure of my imagination? Was it because I understand magnetic forces better than I understand what it was I was wishing for? Did I really just not want whatever it was? That very well could be, because right now I don’t even remember what it was.
And then I thought, what is it everyone wants? Do they want money, or power, or comfort, or sex, or fame? I think a lot of people think they want those things, but I think they back away at the last minute because of all the old fairy tales that tell us to beware of what we wish for. All of those things can come with pretty steep pricetags. And then I had the best insight I’ve ever had into what it is that people want. What I’m most afraid it is that I want.
L’appel du vide.
I’ve seen it over and over again. In myself and others. When tragedy strikes, people root for the earthquake, for the tsunami, for the volcano, for the bodycount on the bombing.. We want the crisis to be as huge as possible. We want to discover that they’ve lost someone they know, fantasize about having lost someone close to themselves.
Because the world is so damaged we just want to smash it. Because we know that the survivors, if we are among them, will gain one another’s sympathy. Because there will be fewer mouths to feed, true, but more importantly there will be more willingness to share resources and comfort among those who remain. We all want to live through a horror that brings us together, even if it means we risk death ourselves. Even if we risk being the last ones left alive. It’s Münchhausen syndrome by proxy, where the child whose health we’re willing to sacrifice for sympathy and attention is the world and everything in it.
In my nightmares I do this spell. I picture my hand, and the glow, and then whatever is in my hand fades away, leaving nothing. Nothing, surrounded by the brilliant white glow.
Then the spell takes hold.
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This one time my cat came in from outside and brought me a present.
It’s what cats do. If they think you’re having trouble remembering when mealtimes are — or perhaps you just keep a food bowl full and it hasn’t sunk in that you’re the one that fills it up — they get the idea that perhaps you need some help with the hunting. If they’re really convinced you need help, they’ll bring you something alive, but maybe injured a little or with the wind knocked out of its sails, and then set it loose around you so you can practice your hunting skills.
My cat thinks I’m a lousy hunter. I go out a bunch, don’t keep a normal routine, sneak food into the bowl when she isn’t looking. Therefore: live chipmunk.
I don’t freak out. My whole freak-outer thing is busted. I don’t know what the deal is with that, but a number of other emotional responses seem to be a bit truncated, too. It takes a lot to get me worked up. I used to think I’d just completely mastered this “playing it cool” thing, but now I’ve come to realize I probably just have some kind of illness.
I’ve been through some pretty rough shit, so maybe I’m just out of juice. Give me a couple of years of tranquility someplace restful with no stalkers, no threats, no tragedy, no arguments, no drama, and it’ll all come back a lot closer to normal, I’m sure. Meanwhile I’m ace down at the arbitration center, and I’ve got the unofficial top score at shoot/don’t shoot drills that my buddy on the force let me go take after one of our afternoons at the range.
And screw the chipmunk. If Loretta wants to bring home a pet chipmunk to make up for the fact that I’m hardly ever here, who am I to blame her?
I did bother to look up whether chipmunks are big parasite and rabies risks in our area. Consensus seemed to think it wasn’t much of a problem. I checked to make sure Loretta’s shots and worm preventatives were up to date and left the chipmunk to her. I expected it might leave messes in places that would be hard to get to, but the chances were just about as high that I would wreck shit moving furniture to try to get to it. And if you worry too much about those kinds of messes, you probably shouldn’t have a pet to begin with.
The more I thought about it, the more I decided it would be best to direct things at least a little. I found an old cardboard box and filled it with newspaper. I figured if I were a chipmunk, that would be a fairly cozy home — and something I could throw away once Loretta was done playing.
Thing was, after she brought it into the house, she just ignored it. She really seemed to think that the thing was supposed to be my problem now. She would walk into the room, look at me with that look on her fuzzy face that seemed to be dripping with disappointment, and then walk away.
She would do that anyway. I guess now there just seemed to be a point to it.
But eventually the chipmunk started coming into the room with me too, to check out what I was doing. It would sit in the middle of the floor, grooming, and criticize whatever it was I was watching on the television. Loretta would poke her head in the door and, after looking at the both of us, walk away in disgust.
Then the meteorite came through the roof one morning and smashed him in his little box.
It was the damnedest thing. Hole punched through the roof, grazed a joist, through the ceiling, punched a hole right through the box leaving a tiny bloody mess, punched through the floor, and came to rest in the crawlspace under the house. Lump of nickel-iron about the size of the first joint of my thumb.
My little chipmunk friend, companion for nearly a fortnight of bad reality television, killed in a drive-by shooting by God.
What can you do?
I buried what was left in the backyard and got some people in to patch things up a bit. Meteorites aren’t much covered by insurance, so I had to eat about two grand in repairs. I covered where the finish on the floor doesn’t quite match with a new box, filled with new balled-up newspaper. Sometimes I think I can hear rustling in it, but there’s never anything in there when I check. No holes, no signs of chewing.
Loretta looks at me with a little bit more respect lately, though. An unexpected bonus.
This one time I was sitting zazen, listening to the noise inside and outside of my head, just letting it be noise. My old master once described the untrained mind as a puppy experiencing his first snow, barking with false aggression and jumping into the air trying to eat snowflakes. The sight is amusing and charming as hell. It fills us with joy. It is good to play, and to enjoy watching others play. But when it is time to work, to chop wood and carry water, sometimes we cannot afford the time.
There are big debates, some a thousand years old, over whether the aim of meditation is merely to be Buddha-like, or, instead, to train ourselves to be capable of the things Buddha is capable of, should the need arise. I see no difference. The Buddha is Buddha. When it is time, he will chop wood and carry water — whenever the world itself does not see to it that warmth and water come to him. It is good to be buddha-like, but we must also know the use of ax and bucket.
This time my buddha-mind was exhibiting its puppy-nature, and I sat and watched it play. My puppy-mind chased the shape of the world, snarling and barking for all it was worth. Here is the vision I had.
See the world as a flat plain, a desert. Imagine yourself as a fog composed of infinite droplets of yourself, drifting across the desert. As need arises, need for shelter, for water, for food, you take subtle cues from the terrain to decide which way to walk to find what we need. At the places where we make our decisions, the fog splits, and two fogs, each of which as much ourself as the other, diverge. And this happens ten times per day, or a thousand, or a million, as we explore the world looking for what we need to survive. Sometimes we cross paths with ourselves, the choices that we made having made no detectable difference to ourselves, having been so unimportant that we cannot even recall which choice we made. Then we recombine and continue on. But the rest of the time….
The desert is forced to warp itself, like a record album in the hot sun, to contain us all, to separate us from ourselves, to show us that sometimes there is no turning back, no way to backtrack to regain our other selves. We may meet our other selves in the future and recombine if we travel together long enough, like photons of the same frequency locking phases as they travel together. Like bosons forming a condensate as they cool down to their ground state. Entanglement reachieved, we continue onward reunified with ourselves.
Thus we navigate the impossible labyrinth of the (mostly) flat and (nearly) featureless desert and disperse ourselves into infinity.
But this world is not perfect. Are there no places where there are cracks where we can slip through and meet our other selves or find ourselves living in worlds to which our choices could never have brought us? Everywhere in the world there are earthquakes, there are storms and lightning and fire and volcanoes and fractures and barriers in the terrain. That is what it is like to live in a living world.
Is it possible that the world of time and space — a time and space so substanceful that its power is measured by casual creation and destruction of particles and forces in the foam of forever, that polarizes electromagnetic radiation, that compacts and rarifies as it twists around objects of mass, where every motion is a creation of distance in time and space, every motion a creation of more time and space like a scratch on skin raises a welt — is it possible that the world of time and space is as alive as the world we live in?
Is there weather? Are there quakes and storms? Do those scratches tickle or hurt?
And then I called my puppy-mind to me, to sit with me, and, as it seemed necessary, to count our breaths with me until the sun finished rising.
This one time I got a pretty strange email from a woman I’ve never met, a woman in a different country, asking if she could meet me for a drink sometime. Usually this means spam, but there were a couple of reasons I didn’t throw it out. First, there wasn’t a link to some site where I could supposedly see pictures and video and, incidentally, download the latest suite of viruses. Second, it was emailed from the address of a research scientist from a reputable Italian university. She mentioned that she would be in town for a mathematics conference hosted by my own university, mostly as a pretense to talk to me, if I was available. And her department had already bought her tickets.
My own research was low-temperature physics. Applied maths were a part of my daily routine, but I couldn’t see immediately where she would have any interest in my work. I published pretty frequently, but even I had trouble working up any enthusiasm for my projects. We had one of the best low-temperature facilities in the world — but frankly that just meant we spent a lot of time trying to replicate whatever the really sharp guys and gals across the globe thought they found in their crappier facilities. My name was on maybe several hundred publications, either confirming or failing to confirm other people’s discoveries. The only cleverness I routinely exhibited was in reusing and calibrating the apparati we used in our thousands of expensive repetitions of thousands of other researchers’ experiments. And riding herd on my teams of student assistants who might not have the same deep grasp of how much easier the math is when the error terms are as small as possible.
The possibility that she was interested in me as a person never really crossed my mind. And thank God for that. I would have been in for a hell of a let-down. I did some minimal stalking to see what I might be getting into, to check her field of expertise and reputation, and nothing set off any alarms. She was attractive enough, though a little on the young side. Her reputation was spotless. Her papers were all business, though she had a flair for graphs and visuals that many of my colleagues would kill for. Graphics are critical in my field — not to make the math understandable to one another, though they do indeed help. Good graphics make projects more understandable to people who say yes or no on funding, however, and more than one project has undeservedly sat on the shelves forever because of stick-figure art.
I wrote her back and said I would be silly to turn down a free drink from anyone, anywhere. I kept the tone good-natured and humble, though I’m sure she could tell, even if English was not her first language, that I was curious as hell why she wanted anything to do with me. I hinted that I knew her university didn’t have a low-temperature facility, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have friends elsewhere that did who could use a favor, equipment-wise, from me, and that I was open to such maneuvers and a cheap buy.
The email she sent back was, again, all business, and made profligate use of the words “Bose-Einstein condensates,” “rubidium,” “entanglement,” and other such stuff with which I am on quite intimate terms, but that typically cause the eyes of the uninterested to glaze over. Then she went into a sentence or two regarding patterns in the error terms of a certain set of six thousand or so experiments replicated with equipment manufactured by my team and operating with calibration data we supplied.
She revealed that she herself worked with software designed to look for patterns in error terms, in the noise that scientists were forever trying to filter out and minimize. The applications were endless, from analyzing how the human brain makes us see faces in random patterns to vetting the data collected by research of any kind to see if it had been fudged or tampered with. And the unlikeliest end of the spectrum it could be used to determine systematic errors in data collection that could make the measurement-taking process more accurate. But that was the end she knew I would be most interested in. And she said her team had found something they wanted to show me.
And this email had an attachment. They had nailed on known GPS coordinates and timestamps to the data collected from the identical and tightly calibrated canisters we shipped all over the globe, and she said that her software found an interesting shape in the size and direction of the error terms collected in the six thousand repetitions mentioned previously. And for a hint, she sent me several views of a three-dimensional open-ended epicycloid-looking thing, including an animated bit that showed the rotations of the curve. Bizarre as it may seem, something about it seemed familiar. She mentioned that her software had a tendency itself to see “faces on Mars” from time to time, but the confidence of the first-pass analysis was better than 95%.
In physics, we like to see a confidence term higher than that. Ninety-five percent confidence means a 1-in-20 chance of it just being noise. Anyway, she said her team was still cranking on it, and she would have something better to show me when she showed up in a week.
At this point I had dismissed it all. I’ve done enough linear regressions myself, by hand and with software, and found more than plenty of my own share of faces on Mars. I couldn’t even imagine how forty different labs worldwide could be salting the data to produce this kind of artifact, or what it could possibly represent if the curve she sent me had any meaning at all.
But hey, free beer.
The first day of the conference arrived and I made damn sure my afternoon was clear. Around 4 PM I headed to The Hole, a dive just off the corner of campus that features brew college students could afford and staked out a table. As soon as I was settled I looked around — and noticed she was already there, with her own table and an old-school notebook with a huge screen, perfect for small presentations.
I don’t know how to describe her. Pale hair, jeans, some kind of pale blue sweater-thing that brought the term “twinset” to mind but I admit I have no idea what I’m talking about. It was hard to see anything in the light of the screen and the fire in her eyes. Her pale green eyes looked like she’d been drinking for hours, if not days, but everything else seemed normal. Well, excited. Excited in a way that it seems Italians are more comfortable with than most other people, but there you go.
She half popped out of her chair to shake my hand when I showed up — had no trouble recognizing me, so I guess she stalked me online too — and then dragged me down into a chair next to her. “Watch, watch, watch!” she directed.
There was the curve she sent me. She rotated it along all three axes with keystrokes on the massive notebook’s number pad. “See?”
“I see,” I said. “I see a fifth- or sixth-order three-dimensional epicycloid thingy that would make a hell of a design for a rollercoaster.”
She laughed and poured me a pint from a pitcher on the table. The table was a bit wobbly and I worried for the health of her computer. She ignored it.
“What do you think our software was designed for, mostly?” she asked. “Guess.”
I shrugged and took a long sip. She bounced up and down, obviously serious about me having to make a guess.
“Analyzing particle tracks in cloud chambers and cryodetectors?” I looked at the revolving epicycloid thingy.
She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips. “Ooh, good guess! Right shapes, but wrong scope. Wrong scale!”
I smiled and asked her to elaborate with my free hand. She sighed, sensing I was done guessing. “Astrometrics. Analyzing wobbles to look for unseen companions. Planets, brown dwarfs, dark matter. But Fermilab, CERN, LHC — they all love our code. It undraws all their pretty pictures and gives them boring old straight lines — the straight lines that mean .999 correlations. Discoveries.”
She took a healthy pull from her own glass.
“Your rollercoaster — you’re on it. Let’s look at your own curve, and pull out ….” She tapped at some keys, and at every step the curve got simpler. “…rotation. Neutation. The moon’s tidal influence. Revolution. Earth’s orbit around the sun. The sun’s motion within the local cluster….”
The line also got fuzzier as it got straighter. I was starting to see the individual points which composed it.
“One final thing: relativistic effects from the influence of various gravitic centroids. Earth-moon, sun….”
And the line firmed up again. At the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, a confidence value: 99.95%.
She bounced up and down again, which was apparently a way to beg for a response of some kind from me. Stunned and uncomprehending was the best I could give her.
“This is from the data from my instruments?” I asked. “Are you absolutely sure?”
She relaxed and took another drink. “Oh yes. From your error terms, plotted by longitude and latitude and time. We ran it through every form of analysis we have coded to look for, and this one, this astrometric sidereal plot, this was where we got a hit. Judging from this, your instruments are around a million times more accurate than you think — as long as you take into account the sidereal position of a moving point in space, moving at close to the speed of light that, at the beginning of this series of repetitions, was about ten light years away, gravitationally bound to the movement of our local cluster.”
I boggled. It’s a legitimate verb. Look it up.
“Only now it’s less than two light years away. And still headed this way.”
“What is it?” I asked.
She shrugged and took a sip. “We got telescope time in lots of different places, radio to X-ray. We told the pros where to look in old data already collected. Couldn’t see it. We only see this in your data. And, somewhat more fuzzily, in error terms in other data sets from other low-temperature experiments. More work on condensates, usually. But hey, your equipment, your calibration data is the best! But we don’t know what it is. Or even if it’s a thing. We’re tracking the centroid of a phenomenon in time and space. That’s all we know.”
“The implications,…” I stuttered. “Heisenberg….”
“Screw Heisenberg,” she said. “If our paper passes peer review, and it will, we publish. This centroid, this phenomenon, we’re naming it after you.” She slapped me on the back. “Drink up! Congratulations! You’re a father!”
I drained my glass.
“Besides,” she added, taking another long pull herself, “we’ll see it close enough in a couple of years. Collision course.”
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This one time I was sitting on a sidewalk bench outside a club at maybe two in the morning. I had hit that stage of goofy tired where a beer has ten times the effect it ought to and a single cigarette goes a really, really long way. The thumping beats could still be heard out here. I could imagine that was what was shaking snow off of the power lines above me, but it was almost certainly just the wind.
Power lines still get to me. They look odd. Where I come from there were street lights and intersections had traffic lights and … there really just weren’t a lot of wires in the air. We put them in the ground in tunnels so they’ll be protected from rain and wind and suicidal squirrels. It’s like electricity was an afterthought here. An add-on feature. Like, “We forgot people need to see at night in their houses and keep food cold so it won’t spoil and watch television. Let’s string some shit up.” It’s just tacky.
I really wanted to go home, but I was here with people. This was my least favorite part of the night.
I didn’t really want to go home, actually. I wanted to be asleep, so I could wake up and be past all this and have another day. Not that I much knew what to do with another day. I didn’t really have a home anymore. Since I got dumped and moved out I just had a place with some of my stuff in it. A place where sometimes I could sleep if I was tired enough. Right now I was tired enough. A second wind would screw it up for me.
Not that I was expecting a different tomorrow. Wake up. Borrow the computer. Look for work. Call ten people and maybe talk to two of them. Fill out job applications, write cover letters, send resumes on the offchance I might get a nibble and schedule an interview for a job I’d pretend to love for the duration of the interview.
My best case scenario, of the feasible scenarios anyway, was pretty weak and not much worth fighting for. I considered just shrugging out of my coat and burrowing into one of the snowpiles around here that would probably last until April. Then I could just go to sleep and never wake up again ever.
I tried to think about what it would take to turn my life around. Because two o’clock shivering on a bench outside of a club tired out of your mind makes an awesome Chapel Perilous for a “dark night of the soul” episode. But let me let you in on something. This was now force of habit. I spent so much time in the Chapel Perilous I had my name on a pew up front and they let me give tours during daylight hours to visitors and tourists. Chapel Perilous was more home to me than the place where my stuff was.
I guess I was supposed to be praying, and sometimes I did pray. I had no idea who I was praying to, since God was a big stretch for me. Any God that had the power to make the world sure as hell seemed to like the sound of crying babies. All we ever seem to ask Him for was a break from tragedies that got the name, amusingly enough, of Acts of God, or for relief from oppression by one or another of His other children — whoever it was he favored enough so they got to have power over us. Praying for strength to carry on only gets you a larger burden. Praying for patience to endure only gets you tougher trials. Right before Jesus died he prayed to God, His Father, for a break. For a different destiny. And see what that got Him.
You get free will, enough so that He can punish you for your choices, but you can’t get off the rails he puts you on. Either God is powerless or He’s a bastard. Or He cares so much about his ultimate plan, whatever that is, that we’re no more than microbes to Him. Or we’re playthings, and one of the last things on earth we really want is His full attention.
So the only thing I pray for is oblivion. Or distraction. In the timeless view, there is no point to anything. The best humanity has to offer is a bloom of algae on a muddy rock. Eventually this algae might evolve into something with some power, with some purpose — or maybe it will just die off. Right now, though, it pretty much sucks to be a microbe.
And the only thing I have to work with right now, is this very moment.
I look away at a glint of something bright, something distracting, and then I find I’m back here again. Right at this moment. A pencil balanced improbably on its point, not tipping, not falling, but writing a line at the speed of light through time, starting at birth, ending at death. A brief hash-mark in a larger picture none of us will ever see.
And that’s God’s gift to us. Each and every one of us. Just this moment and everything that’s in it.
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This one time I was sitting in a old wooden boat that wouldn’t have been allowed to do time as a dinghy where I used to work, not that there was any ocean within a thousand miles of here. It was witch’s-navel cold, only we didn’t used to say “navel”, and nowadays I’d still be yelled at for being insensitive to witches. I’m married to one, though, so I’d like to think that gives me special permission.
Straight out of a failed attempt at college, I went to work in the Merchant Marines as an unlicensed seaman on one of the oldest vessels in the deep sea fleet. After events on deck in the South Atlantic, I maneuvered to get a position as an oiler belowdecks, and then another event happened, and I decided I’d had enough of salt altogether. Then there was what happened on Lake Michigan, and after that, though I still love boats and the water, I’m not really comfortable anywhere where I can’t see both shores, if you take my meaning. And now I’m running out of puddles to stand in.
That’s a pretty sketchy summary of twenty years of my life, but the wife says I have to cut back on the swearing for the sake of the kids. That’s all you get without the casual and studied blasphemies, picturesque obscenities, graphic depictions of grotesqueries, spurious and uncalled-for anatomical references, and odes to indelicate bodily functions and various modes of sexual congress centering on the element of surprise.
This puddle I was sitting in was famous for striped bass, though, and there was no line to handle today that was thicker than 20-pound test. The cold air was still, so I didn’t feel it if I didn’t move. The lake was frozen in time instead of temperature. It was like I was sitting on glass. I could see the Milky Way reflected in the lake, even though the sun, not quite awake yet herself, was making the sky turn a funny color in the east. In this little cup in the mountains, true sunrise wouldn’t be for another hour. A sliver of a moon was enough to see bridal veils blowing off peaks at the horizon, distant snow mixing seamlessly with the dusting of stars.
I had a line in the water. The only ripples on the lake radiated from that and bounced off the hull. The other end of the line had a shiny lure and a couple of cheater hooks. Behind me in the boat was a couple of buckets, each already preloaded with a pinch of lake. I was here on business, that business being bass on the grill tomorrow night for the podlings. I wasn’t leaving without at least three big ones or four small ones, and I had all day.
Surrounded on all sides by mountains, I was doing well to not be sitting in a puddle of bad memories. I caught myself listening for the sound of gulls, though, and shivering at their absence.
I was dragging the lure through a little muck. Bass aren’t bottom-feeders, but they’re known to nibble on things that are. I was dressing the lure a bit when it snagged a bit on something. Not surprising, seeing as this lake was built by beavers sometime in the past hundred years. There’s a whole forest down there. I’m puttering about fifty feet above where its top branches would have been. Most of the soggy trees would have had the good form to rot by now, but you never know.
I tugged the lure free. A moment later there was a kind of hissing, like what you hear when you spill pop on a table. All around the boat I could no longer see the stars reflected, but I thought maybe it was the growing light. Looking farther out, I could see that wasn’t it. A fog rose, and as far as I could tell, it rose around me.
There was a very familiar smell to the air. Forgive the weak description, but under my current linguistic restrictions, the best I can say is “something fishy.” It’s a little more accurate to say that it smelt like the underside of a cod left to bake on a tropical deck for a couple of days. And it smelled like salt.
That’s not a good sign, the salt thing. Maybe it was just in my head.
As far as the ocean is concerned, it’s a well-known fact we know more about the surface of Mars than we know about the deeps. So basically it was a 500-tonne cliche that built a wall of icebergs to trap us off of Tierra Del Fuego and, when we slipped out of it, raced around before us and powerdove to drag us down in its whirlpool wake. A cliche whose eye I looked into from the controls of a deck crane, shifting our load to lift an ice-cut gash in the hull out of the chop on the starboard side.
The storm, complete with waterspouts, that chased us across Lake Michigan had the same smell. The clouds were the same color as an angry sea, and the rain that came down with it smelled of rancid fish oil and diesel fumes, and normal soap wouldn’t shift the smell from your hair and clothes. And the puddles of it, forgive me, wriggled. When that was over, we burned every last stitch and shaved every last follicle and slathered every last place we could reach with depilatory lotions. When people asked us what the hell happened, we all blamed it on space aliens. Everyone just assumed a huge prank gone wrong, and mysteriously we were all okay with that.
So I was feeling a bit nervous.
Things that live in the water have strange and involved lifecycles sometimes involving both salt and fresh water, rivers and streams and shallows and deeps. Scoop a bucket of plankton and krill and fry — and good luck to you putting each thing you find under a microscope and guessing what beast it’ll be as a grown-up, whether it’ll anchor to the bottom and wave dainty little fans around or coat itself in armor and grow claws or mile-long tentacles with built-in forks and knives and hooks. Some fish grow to the size of their tank, and I really can’t think of a tank larger than the Pacific.
And then some right motherless scum I sailed with put the idea in my head that maybe the largest beast in the ocean might be a larval stage for something that will eventually take to the stars and scoop up planets in its maw. Maybe the worst of the lot is still krill right now, biding its time. Or buried frozen as spores in the ice caps. Or swimming in some kippered sailor’s bloodstream.
And then the surface of the lake rose up where I was, maybe a foot or two. The water rushed away from me and dropped me to the bottom of a wide, flat bubble that stank of peat and silt and sulphurous muck, and a huge quantity of freezing lake rained into the boat. Water came into the boat wave after wave, and it kept coming for what felt like an eternity. Early on, I fell off the seat into the bottom and cowered until the rocking steadied some.
When I could stand, the boat was two-thirds full of water. I waffled on grabbing for a bucket or an oar, and eventually decided on a bucket since the boat would move faster if it were emptier. I bailed five or ten times, working around some angry flopping things that were sharing the boat with me, and then grabbed the oars and went to work.
Later, shivering to keep the ice from setting up, as I hauled the boat onto the trailer and pulled the bilge-plug for it to drain, I noticed that I had rowed back with a number of fine bass flopping about in the boat with me. I rescued three I would consider large and four somewhat smaller ones, and set free any number of smaller fish of many different kinds, scooping them into a bucket to tip back out into the lake by the ramp.
Out on the lake, wallowing in the fog, something huge slapped the surface of the water twice. And the ground shook like with the vibration of a huge diesel motor. I took that as a sign that it was time to leave. So I did.
This one time I was at a rock concert with my boyfriend of the hour. I wasn’t really into the band, but it was an excuse to spend an hour or two dressing up and making every effort to look hot in front of everyone who might be watching, and it’s not like there was a lot going on in my life that gave me the opportunity. Not that there aren’t a lot of women I know who are hotter than I am, and at least two of them were going to the show with us, but it’s a fun game and — you never know. It makes the guy you’re with act a little differently. Grateful.
The venue was an old megachurch that fell apart when the televangelist/pastor got caught doing whatever it is they get caught doing that no one gives a damn about except it was a famous televangelist caught doing it — sneaking off to some secluded vacation spot with some boy he rented online, or maybe he was the one who got too many of his parishoners pregnant or whatever. Money and fame make people want to have sex. That thing in your body that says “business is booming — I can afford to feed any number of little mouths” kicks into overdrive and ramps up your libido.
At the end of the day every human being is an ape. The only people who get into trouble because of that are the ones who think they can deny their animalhood. Your only hope is to acknowledge it and take it into consideration.
The acoustics in the place are amazing. There’s the main floor and three or four tiered balconies, at least two of which wrap around three walls. There are lounges on every floor and they’re pretty liberal with the bartending stations. Even the bathrooms are huge and luxurious. And the decor is some kind of trippy punk voodoo thing.
The weather was a bit cool and I was suffering because of it, but this outfit let me get away with the platform heels that were a lot easier to walk in and stand in for hours. And it was warm enough once the place loaded up and the music started going. We were lucky and got seats not too far from the middle of the first balcony. Right up against the rail.
My boyfriend — which everyone called “Exhibit A” because of some in-joke I wasn’t in on but had something to do with the fact that he was a law student — had volunteered to go get us a round of beers from the nearest cart. My friend who had scored us the tickets was right up at the rail, leaning way over and tugging at her hetero-lifemate and long time concert buddy who I didn’t know very well but I thought was kind of sweet, pretending to try to drag her over the rail. She was pretty scared and pulling backwards. And then I heard a loud, booming crack from the drums and the crowd really got into it and started yelling.
And then someone went sailing past downward. She grabbed my friend’s waving hand on the way past, dragging her over the rail. Her friend maintained her grip, though, and I caught her leg as she tipped forward, and then we all came back over the rail. Except for the woman who had fallen.
I looked at my friend’s arm and it was pretty scratched up. There was blood. And that was what I was looking at as more people started falling past.
Then it hit me that what had happened was the balcony rail had given way on the level above ours. Everyone who had been leaning on it was now falling. People on our level surged forward, some of them straining by reflex to try to catch the people as they fell past. My legs gave out from under me and I looked up. It wasn’t just the rail that had given way. The whole balcony above us was sagging at the front, spilling people over.
The band hadn’t stopped playing. Hell, I doubt they could hear us over the amps or see us past the lights shining on them. But the music kept thumping and the light show kept up and in the stuttering strobes I just saw people floating in the air, slowly turning and spinning, like they were dancing to the beat, clapping and waving their arms. The longer I watched, the more it looked like they were in ecstasy, falling upwards toward the ceiling, singing and shouting, called by God out of the sky to go join him in Heaven. And more and more kept flying up, shouting and laughing and waving goodbye to all of us.
And then I passed out. Fainted. For a while, anyway.
That night lasted about a year after the music stopped. We eventually all got out and ambulances were there in fleets and going away and coming back and it was long after midnight before we made it back to the car. My friend got her forearm swabbed down with some nasty brown ointment and wrapped wrist to elbow in gauze. And we all just wanted to go home, but we didn’t really want to split up. So we ended up at my friend’s apartment and all just kind of crashed.
The news the next day said twenty-two people died. And right now, when I close my eyes, I can still see them flying into the air, shouting and laughing and waving us all goodbye.
This one time I was walking home from work — second shift at the textile mill where my mother had worked until she died and where my husband had been a shift manager until he he got singled out to take the fall for some merchandise theft. I had to work to keep the money coming in to feed the kids. At least we owned the house free and clear. I didn’t really have any love for the mill, as you might imagine, but everyone knew it was awful that my husband was in jail for something he didn’t do, and the foreman offered me the job for the sake of the kids. Besides, the mill was pretty much the only show in town unless you wanted to load and unload at the dock or the railyards.
But the car had stopped working and I couldn’t get another ride on short notice. Not everybody had a telephone. The older boys were probably good for fixing it, but they’d still need daylight to see what was wrong, and then there would be the usual rigamarole for finding parts and trading for them. We had an extra side of venison half the girls wouldn’t eat anyway because of how pretty deer were.
Mama used to work ten-hour shifts, and she’d walk the nearly two hours each way back before it was reasonable to have and keep up an automobile. I figured walking was the easy part of the work anyway. It would be dark, but I knew the road. I used to walk into town and back when I was a kid.
The walk to town hadn’t been work, even though River Road was a bit hilly, but after eight hours of chasing shuttles in the looms with the other girls, the walk back home certainly was work. Shift was over at eleven, so it would probably be one AM or past by the time I made it home.
My oldest boy demanded I take the battery lantern with me, but I wasn’t sure how much juice was left in the battery. I left it stuck in my purse. I still didn’t want to use it, but right about now I was really starting to regret its weight. I was walking along a part of the road with a steep embankment on one side, seeing pretty much by starlight alone.
Mama had worked second shift too, and she made no secret that she carried a brick in her purse just in case someone wanted to interrupt her walk home and help themselves to her pay or her person. The lantern weighed next to nothing, but the battery weighed about as much as a brick. As much as I wanted to leave it behind a tree or something and pick it back up when the car was running, I decided to show some grit and carry it on. My mother had been tinier than me, and after six kids, I had some girth and some muscle underneath it.
I was in the middle of shifting my bag to my other shoulder when I saw Mama.
At first I thought it was just that thing that when your eyes are tired you see faces and shapes and stuff in the twilight. I’m a good Christian woman and didn’t have no truck with ghosts or occult nonsense, now or back then, and ghosts were just something my own brothers and sisters tried to scare me with when I was a child. But as clear as she had been made out of moonlight, there she was, as young as she were about my age, stepping high for her boots to clear the weeds, swinging her bag and waving howdy.
I stumbled a bit, breathing heavy from the shock. I didn’t know whether to freeze where I was or run toward her. But she was waving and smiling. I started forward just as a car crested the hill behind me. When the beams from its headlights came down to where she was, she just vanished. And the car zoomed on past.
I froze and ran it over in my mind. There was something odd about her wave, and that smile seemed like maybe I could see her teeth because she was shouting something. I looked quick over my shoulder and there was a man behind me, a flesh-and-blood man in boots and overalls, reaching for me. I spun around and whipped my shoulder-bag at his head as hard as I could. I felt stitches in the straps give a bit, but they held. And the bag, weighted down with that old lantern battery, clipped into his head with a crack like from a baseball bat down at the stadium.
The man just tipped over and slid headfirst down the embankment. I never saw him again, nor did anyone else I could ask. And to this day I’ve never seen another ghost.
No related posts.
This one time I … heh. Did I say “this one time”? Yeah, it was this one time. It’s also right now.
You’re familiar with déjà vu, right? When you’re really sure that what you’re experiencing is something you feel you’ve been through before, even though it’s maybe unlikely or impossible. You’re talking to someone, or jogging along, or sitting in a chair waiting, or doing something, anything, and then there’s this overwhelming feeling that sometimes you can work past but most of the time it makes you stumble to a halt, this feeling that this moment in the present is overlapping strongly with a moment in the past, and it’s accompanied by, I don’t know how to say it, like maybe someone just cranked up the volume on the world, like clicking the “loudness” button on the controls of an old stereo, but not just for sound. For all of your senses.
And then it slowly fades.
When I was a kid this kind of thing would happen pretty rarely. Two or three times per year, tops. And it wouldn’t be for anything significant. Riding my bicycle helmetless through a wooded trail in our little neighborhood. Sitting in the backyard swingset with apples and pears still hanging green on the trees, sun shining through the filter of a wind that still has a bite of chill. Dodging people in the mall trying to keep up with older people with longer legs. A sudden flurry of wings as a flock of blackbirds decide they’re done with your magnolia’s bright red seeds and move along on their migration route. Sitting in a classroom, looking up from some math problems and watching a girl bite at the eraser on her pencil. And you remember the déjà vu more than you remember what it was you were supposedly remembering or reliving.
I’ve read about it because it’s of particular interest to me. It’s still very up-for-grabs what déjà vu is and whether it is significant at all. Some neuroscientists feel it’s a hiccup in the brain, some chemical spasm that changes how you store memories so that for the duration, what you are experiencing goes straight into long-term memory. I’m no neuroscientist myself, so I’ll say maybe. But there’s no real discussion of why and what triggers it.
The reason I’m interested is it happens a lot to me lately. Where it used to be a couple of times per year, it’s now a couple of times per week. And it’s distracting as hell.
In my need for explanations, I’ve started fantasizing my own answers to my question. Making stuff up. Each moment of déjà vu is a moment of significance because embedded in it is a chance to make a tiny choice that will change the course of your future. Or each déjà vu experience is an actual loop in actual time where you can leap back into the past or into the future with just a tiny act of will at the point of the overlap. Or each occurrence is the hand of an angel burning the experience into you so that you’ll remember the important detail embedded in it when the time is right. Or it’s just a case of mental hiccups and it doesn’t mean anything.
But none of those little fantasy explanations give me anything toward why the feelings are getting stronger and more frequent. Or why, in general, I feel some kind of sense of impending doom regarding this. That there is some sort of crisis coming during which this feeling will get switched on, stuck on, forever, and that it won’t just be some sort of personal mental illness.
So I’m writing this now. And it feels like I’ve written it before, taking care to use the same words I’ve used before dozens of times, hundreds of times. And even though I can feel then ending of this coming, I feel that I’ll be writing it a thousand more times, overtyping on top of itself in the timeline, fearing that, like in the olden days of typewriters, the strikers from these mental keys will smash themselves into the equivalent of the ribbon and the paper and the roller again and again and again and again and again until they eventually punch their way through.
God help me.
This one time I was sitting at my desk talking to myself.
Everyone does it, kind of. But my way is special.
I was hugely epileptic. During my childhood in particular. Thunderstorms of neural activity would wander around my brain. I’d get killer headaches. I’d pass out and fall down and thrash. I’d bite the hell out of my tongue. The spasms would clench my muscles painfully. Sometimes afterward I would hurt for days, like I’d been beaten. But sometimes it wouldn’t even be days between seizures.
I was given lots of different kinds of drugs to see what would work best. I needed special help in school because it was hard to study, to read, to concentrate when I was doped up and half-drunk all the time on the medicine. And still I’d have seizures.
The doctors and my parents were worried about what all the medicine would be doing to me developmentally. They were worried that I would be slowed developmentally. We managed as well as we all could until I was old enough to have my brain cut in half.
My older brother is awesome. He took care of me and stood up for me in ways that no one would have ever guessed that he would. I wanted to join the Girl Scouts but, all things considered, it wasn’t such a good idea. My brother was in Boy Scouts, however, and twice a week he and I did stuff out of his books. Somewhere I have a box full of all the badges I earned, hand drawn and colored with markers and cut out of paper, improving in quality as his skill with the arts bumped along.
We would talk after bedtime via Morse code, tapping on the wall between our rooms. We would talk about school and gossip and ask each other about the boys or girls we wanted to go with and about how our parents were fighting and whether I was to blame. I remember him telling me about how when our dog got hit by a car and broke his leg he would bite at anybody who got close even though he never bit anybody ever before that, or after. People are like dogs like that sometimes, snapping and biting when they’re just scared and in pain and don’t know that everything is going to be okay.
I really needed to know that then. And later.
I was shown videos about what to expect after the surgery. There would most likely be two people in my head, trying to share a body. Each person would control one half of the body, and maybe I’d have to learn how to be right-handed. And then there were the videos of people that would get into fights with themselves. Looking at some of those it was hard to see that it wouldn’t be as bad as seizures, and then I saw the way it would clearly be better. The fights, the internal disagreements — those would be under someone’s conscious control, either myself or my other self. There was no reasoning with a seizure.
It took a while to recover from the surgery. Everyone is different in their own skulls and everyone heals differently. The doctors knew this was a heavy-handed and barbaric solution, but until something better made itself available, this was pretty much the last-ditch attempt. If this didn’t work I would just be two people trapped in one head and both having seizures. And it half worked.
I was sitting at my desk the first time my field of vision on one side started going all spinny and one of my ears fuzzed out, filled with cotton and distant roaring. I could feel my left hand tensing up — that being the hand that would reach for things I had just put down and such, and I could feel the panic building. Then my left hand started tapping out Morse code: “nononononononononono….”
I reached for my left hand with my right to try to soothe it and it lurched away and slapped and clawed at me and then I remembered what my brother said about how people were like dogs when they were hurting and scared.
So somewhat slower, because I hadn’t really been right-handed for long, I tapped out on the left side of my chest as well as I could, “It will be okay it will be okay it will be okay….”
And gradually my left hand’s tapping stopped. And then it said, “Are you Carlo?” That’s my brother’s name.
I thought for a moment and tapped, “I’m you. The other you in your head. It will be okay.”
While I was tapping the last part my left hand started up again. “Oh thank god. Blind. Deaf. Seeing things. Hearing things. Am I dreaming? Been hours. Don’t go.”
“Does it hurt?” I asked. “Must be something like a seizure. I’m not going. Can’t go. I’m you.”
“No pain,” my other hand replied. “World is broken. Shattered with hammer. There is nothing here. Everything is here. All at once. Come get me.”
“I am here,” I tapped. “I have you. It is a dream. Like a seizure. Ride it out. It will pass.” I hoped I was right. Half blind, half deaf — I was much better off than my other half, but still.
“Can’t wake up,” my left hand tapped. “Wake me up. Help me wake up.”
“It will be okay. Ride it out.” And then I had an idea. I found my music player and looked for my — our — favorite soothing song. Something I’ve made my brother sing for me during a rough time. I plugged in my headphones and set it going.
My left hand tapped out, “Oh god oh god oh god music…..”
“Sing with it,” I tapped on my chest. “Sing.” And I sang along.
“Hush,” she tapped. “Let music play.”
And the spinny patterns and roaring faded away over the course of the song. My seizures never really lasted more than a couple of minutes, but I’d never really been conscious for them. I guess until now.
“Thank you,” my left hand tapped out after the song ended. And then it added the “ILY” I would use to end the late-night Morse code conversations with my brother. I Love You.
“ILY,” I tapped onto my chest. For a moment that felt odd, but what the hell. I was in this together.
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This One Time, 21
This one time I was standing in one of the rooms upstairs in the church adjacent to the baptistry where new Christians change into baptismal robes and dry off afterward. I’m not really sure what I was doing there. I walk around when I need to think, but I can’t really walk around outside like […]
- This One Time, 21
- Siddhartha loves meatball. August 23, 2015
- Meet Carla March 31, 2015
- Family portrait March 16, 2015
- Bunnysitting February 28, 2015
- Zoognosis February 20, 2015
- Camellia says hi February 6, 2015
- Possibly a crime against math to eat February 5, 2015
- Yup. Early spring. February 5, 2015
- Consulting rates apply. January 22, 2015
- Like Risk? Get the upgrade. January 16, 2015