“Theory to Bring You Home” by Phoenix Alexander
He died in a bike accident in the city.
No one appeared before him at the moment of passing: no pantheon of spirits, his grandparents, ancestors with arms wide open, dead pets, or anything like that. Which is why he didn’t believe the universe when it told him
Everyone is here
It was the usual, fatal corner and the usual, fatal blindness of a truck driver. He realized too late that the vehicle would not stop and, in one of those banal segments of time in which lives are decided, he made the wrong choice and pedaled faster, trying to get through the rapidly shrinking gap between the iron railing and the truck’s chassis. His legs remained pinned in the terrible crushing impact; his torso was carried down the road and hurled, unceremoniously, onto the tarmac. Thankfully he died before he could register the shock of the dismemberment.
It happened so easily.
His shade stayed, keening, over the spot for days.
There was the nausea of incorporeality, the unexpected and horrendous intimacy of it. The wind passing through him, the fluids and microscopic lives held in air. There was grief and horror, or something like them.
And then rage had made an awful engine of him and everything was different.
Blustering about the city air like a dust cloud, he ravaged the airways and tore through the spaces between radio waves, lost in the clash of atoms. He missed his flesh, he missed feeling his bladder full, he missed the taste of food. He could not see himself.
Soon enough his hate was the only thing that sustained him. It was a powerful thing. When the universe tried to pull him away he folded in on himself, making a cyclone of negativity, becoming more powerful the faster the revolution of everything that was him, everything that was left, became. He felt the universe literally recoil from him like a hand touching fire (God how he missed his hands—no don’t mention that, don’t mention that)—and he fled and careened over and over again in and through the cells of the living, the vibrant matter of the living, moving from one to one and one and (they were not enough and did not sustain him) until he found her.
She was chemical miracle, masculine and feminine in glorious and confusing admixture: all the genders that were not him, the sex that was denied to him. She was eleven years old and uncurling her womanhood in strange anthesis, and he could not stand it, and he wanted more of it. She was bravery and life. Bravery in life. His rage rose, as high as his desire for her—and yet he could not name the desire, it was both a hunger to consume her and to burrow into the sacred flesh of her and lose himself in dissolution, sacrificing himself to her, and he stayed with her, drunk in her, drowning in her at first and then rising, buoyant, floating on the surface skin of the sea that was her.
Have you really thought about what it would be like leave this planet behind?
“You make it sound like I’m dying! [Laughter] I don’t think it’s like that—but even death, you know, it has to happen sometime. What difference does it make if it’s here on Earth, or up there? I left once before, from Iraq to come to the United States. Leaving is not so hard. I bring my home with me. My daughter is my family and my home now, and she is coming too, so I have everything I need. We are not disappearing. We are starting again.”
Of course. But it’s a big responsibility being one of the astronauts chosen for the ‘Mars: Genesis’ program. Aren’t you afraid?
“Of course I’m afraid. Who isn’t afraid? I’m afraid every day, about many things, not just Mars. I’m afraid of my daughter getting hit by a car. I’m afraid of finding a lump in my breast. I’m afraid for the state of our planet. But this gives me strength. Hope. It’s like our brain is trying to, ah, defeat us all the time. To stop us, to…to paralyze us. I have experienced this before and I won’t let it stop me.
“I think that the measure of life is what you do with your fear. I think it is a measure of death, too. How you die. What you do with it. What you leave behind.
“And I believe that no one really disappears.”
Let’s talk about your daughter then. Kainaat. You knew, you say, from the moment she was born that she would be trained to accompany you on the Mars mission.
“Yes! Ever since she was tiny she loved it, you know…I used to put her in baby clothes with stars and little ah, planets on the front [laughter].”
A real star child, right?
“Yes! Yes absolutely. A star child.
Is that why you named her Kainaat? It’s an unusual name. It means ‘universe’ in Urdu, if I’m not mistaken?
“Did you look it up? [laughter] Yes, yes it means ‘universe’. I thought it was a beautiful name and right for her, for us.”
Right! But why didn’t you give her an American name since she was born here in the U.S.? Do you think it’s some small way of keeping your family with you, like, in a way, you’re keeping that link to Iraq open? Are you running away, Dinna?
“Let’s stop for a break, please, now.”
The universe kept calling him but he was not ready yet.
It called out to him in that terrible voice that thrummed what was left of his body in a profound act of violation, it called out to him every day, in moments when he was just beginning to find stillness (although his measure of time was slipping and unraveling like a garment coming apart, breaking down into its constitutive fibers so that he/it was everywhere) and then he would fly again, anywhere, everywhere except up. It was always the same message:
Everyone is here
Always the same spike of euphoria at the thought of those who had gone before—and then he remembered and tore screaming back into corporeality, manifesting himself in aether, trying to remember human form. Two arms, two legs, a head. He could not separate fingers anymore. It was a thinning out; a fading, a forgetting that snuck up on him until suddenly he was on the edge of the atmosphere and wreathed in fire, pulled out by the universe and what lay beyond it. Then there was the rush—the sending of his spirit screaming back to the blessed Earth, the planet, gravity and flesh and life. Anchoring to something. Anything.
And when he got there, something, another small piece of what was once him (he could not tell what, everything was spirit) was lost. The sun would rise and he would feel…thinner. Another little piece gone each time. It always took him when he lost his focus. He was tiring. The cold and the black above the earth had kept a part of him, was collecting him. Calling him back. He felt something beyond that too, but he did not concentrate too hard, because he knew that it was a lure, because he knew where that siren song led if he followed it.
So he went to the girl in the house.
He fastened himself to her, imagining barbs of his phantasm-self entering the warm life of her, wavering like a banner in terrestrial wind.
He was in her room now.
He watched her write, scribbling at the pad with the gaudy cover (cartoon aliens, glittershades) with her pen with the miniature aquarium in its body. Printed background, tiny cardboard fish among tiny jewels that bobbed with the force of her writing. Numbers and symbols materialized in black ink; the twist of her lips as she concentrated made him miss his own flesh. She was a world in miniature and everything about her was beautiful.
The voice spoke to him then, louder than ever, and he felt as if every part of him—the parts that were left—was shaken almost to dissolution.
Everyone is here
The ghost of the man ignored the voidcall and reared behind her, passing a hand through her skull. Her pen wavered on the page.
Looking at her in the spectral way of looking he had had to learn (it was the only thing left to him now) fueled the hatred in ways unimaginable in life. There was the solidity of her limbs, most obviously. The scent of her living. And then there was the reminder of his barren-ness, of his childless-less: he had left nothing and no one behind. The hatred was powerful and he was grateful for it, because hating so strongly was living again, in one way.
He would punish her for living.
After dark held the precious hours, when the world turned (and he hovered in her room, spreading himself out in it, hovering above the carpet so he would not fly up and turn in the planet’s gaze and then up and up and—) and the sun did not shine on her part of the world. It was difficult to maintain his form when he spread himself out like this; he needed her fear.
Her room was small and blue and smelt like synthetic fruits and dreams of futurity and sex that had not yet solidified, cells lying dormant in precious flesh.
Smells were stronger to him. They had color. Trees and flowers were a lurid orange that made trails for him in the air (he would pause in motion and look at them, mesmerized, before remembering that he had to move again, always move). Human beings were pungent shades of red. The scent drove him to frenzy: it scintillated, burned itself up, smoking itself at the edges of however it was that he sensed. The chemical smells of Kainaat’s things were all a dull grey. Her body was bright coral and glowed in darkness.
There was darkness now. She was in bed. Posters of space (don’t look at it) and spaceships (human endeavor, look at it) hung from the walls and there were glow-in-the-dark stars fastened to the ceiling in terrifying parody of the universe (don’t look at them) but they were not the universe, they were plastic toys, they were children’s things, and he rushed up to meet them, pushing his gaseous nose, or what should have been a nose, or whatever actually was left of him, up to them and smelling her, or trying to, because her fingers had pressed them into place.
The girl stirred in the bed.
The covers depicted a huge graphic of a spacecraft and were emblazoned with bright white letters N—A—S—A—that, too, reeked of her. He rushed back down to the bed and tasted them. Her head was under the covers; a mop of brown hair lay across the pillow, like an animal. Something wavered in him: that awful, nauseating wavering (the earth moving, maybe, or the universe readjusting itself as if it, too, slumbered), and he needed her, right now. A hand hung suspended in air from beneath the covers, the fingers lolling and twitching as if to remind him that there was nothing left of him.
He took them.
He hung over her bed and, letting the hate form him, stoking the anger like a physical fire, he manifested a single, shadowy point and pierced the skin of her thumb. The ecstasy lasted a moment and flooded him with what he remembered to be life—and then she groaned and rolled away, mumbling something to him (it must have been to him, who else?) and she withdrew her hand beneath the covers and he let himself drift, full and languid, to the corner of the room where the shadows were the darkest, into that profound blackness that always drew him.
He felt himself settle.
It was a coalescing; her strength granted him a momentary peace.
She sat up in bed.
He was stunned by her vitality. It was too much to look at her head-on (and that was all he showed now: his body had sunk through the floor and he was a shadowhead, blacker than the lack of light around them) and he stared back at her, transfixed. He tried to make features to smile at her.
He tried so hard!
He felt the pull and twist of forces, not flesh, never the blessed and hoped-for flesh: but he felt a sinking around his head, and he made two eye sockets appear. They swelled and grew as he drank her in; he was deathshead with eyes as big as the universe (no, not that…) taking her in and—
The fear left her in a torrent and she was paralyzed, her hands clutching the sheet and her face held rigid. He drank all of it, washed his face in it, and sank through the floor, fat and bloated and, in that midnight moment as he hung suspended now against the ceiling of their living room, sighed, and was sated.
“Look, I don’t know if I want this on camera. But she chose her own name. She’s always known what she wanted and who she was. You know, when she was only three years old, I sat her down and said to her, Mahmud, mama is doing this and I want you to come along with me. And she said yes. Right away. She wanted to learn languages. Wanted to swim. Loved science, you know? And reading. She was always reading. And she chose that name. Kainaat. She always liked blue, always liked sports, that kinda thing. But she liked dresses, you know? And wanted long hair. And to play with some dolls. And after what I went through I said to myself, Dinna, this is your child, you will never, I mean never tell her she can’t be what she wants to be and…and…
Take your time [no…no I know, it’s fine, keep filming]
Not at all. Let me ask you another question, though, since you’ve brought us to one of the more controversial topics of the Mars: Genesis program. Many groups and commentators on the left have applauded the inclusion of a trans child as part of the initial group of twenty to be taken in the spacecraft, but there are also those who—
“My daughter is smart and brave and cares for everyone, everything. That is all people need to know. Next question.”
She is not afraid of him for long, that is the worst thing: she does not stay afraid of him.
The girl is robust; she comes back from the swimming pool one day (he feels every turn of the planet with a sickness that almost, almost, makes him lose himself in the hungry black above him) and she is dripping with water and smelling of the chemicals that are not her, and he is there in the steam when she showers, marveling at the strength of her limbs, how they flex and push against the force of the world’s gravity, as his limbs once did, and he is there in the mirror when she brushes her teeth, and one night when he is strong he makes a cyclone around her legs and draws the hairs up to stand on end, chilling the epidermis. He learns her cycle, grounds himself to it. It helps with the turning of the world and the vast feeling of space, and beyond that, and beyond that, somewhere above him, a somewhere that he cannot think of.
She studies at her desk every night until her clock reads 10pm. She is learning Russian. Her face and hair turn gold in the light of the electric lamp on her desk (this, too, is covered with stickers of spacecraft) and he stands behind her and watches the pen with the ocean in it as it moves across the paper: tormenting physicality.
He is weak tonight.
She has steeled herself.
He knows she knows that he is there but she will not turn despite him rollicking in the air behind her, summoning all the powers of haunting he is able to.
He realizes he is nothing but a worthless spirit now.
He has one last trick to try—but he does not want to do this, because it reminds him of—what? Death? He is not dead, he is here. But there was a truck. And his torso travelling through space, and the cold hardness of the tarmac, and the liquid red of him everywhere, frightening, metallic.
He changes his spiritform to a disembodied torso, losing what had passed for his legs (murky conglomerations of gas, now invisible, now—where?) and he parades himself in the dark oblong of her doorway, fluting back and forth across it, materializing half a man, leering with his universe-spanning (no not that) eye sockets, begging her to look, begging her to look, praying for her to look and scream and give him what he so desperately needs.
The universe hears him (how can it monitor what runs through him all the time, what thoughts and words! He is so tired and weak!) and speaks to him so terribly that the very house around him vibrates:
Everyone is here
He stops his obscene parading and vanishes into thin air.
It has stayed with her for years, this shade that was once a man who was killed.
It has not quite left her.
It has forgotten everything of what it means to be alive except through her. She is fourteen years old, heady with hormones, powerful as drugs to it. It watched her grow up and does not remember who it is anymore. The hate has subsided and all there is left is a long, grey stillness stirred by ripples of confusion, like a note held too long, extended, wavering, falling off-pitch.
The spirit is in her dreams tonight.
It used to try the old phantom-forms: monsters, her father, anything to frighten her. It worked at first. Then it did not work.
“I’m studying to go to Mars,” she said aloud to the room once. “Do you think I’m afraid of a dead guy?”
Then in a dream it took the form of the little boy she once was: Mahmud, sick and weakly, a toddler lisping his love to his mother. The shade took Mahmud as the form of his weakness and confronted Kainaat in her dreaming. This cut her. It brought back a fear older and stronger than he. But this time her fear burned him like an acid and he melted out of the form, apologizing, hating himself with the faintest memory of what hate is. Was. Then he admitted a terrible thing to her:
“I was frightened too.”
THE UNIVERSE KEEPS CALLING BUT I DON’T WANT TO GO. I WON’T.
“The universe is calling me, too! Me and mom. And the others! Why don’t you come to Mars with us?”
“Scared of what? ”
I AM SCARED
DON’T LEAVE ME
I AM SCARED
PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME
The spacecraft is a silver skyscraper shining in sunlight. Crowds surround it, and teeming life enfolds it: television crews and flying craft and the twenty Mars colonists, resplendent in the blue of the NASA uniforms, beaming. Dinna is there. Kainaat is there. There is no fear in them, no fear in any of them. The spirit hovers close to Kainaat, then rises above her, buoyed by the life-energy of the crowd. There is excitement and something electric above the clouds. Something like hope.
Just for a moment the spirit directs its vision up the tapering length of the spacecraft and up into the bright blue of the firmament: it feels vertigo, feels the vastness of the universe around it, realizing that there is nothing between it and that. Only endless altitudes.
The astronauts ascend the ramp, all professionalism and pageantry, smiling and waving as technicians fuss around them. They take their last look at Earth and those who live on it.
I CAN DO IT TOO
The spirit moves up with them, looking at Kainaat all the while. She is smiling wider than any of them, her strong features painfully beautiful in the light. A rending sorrow scalds it and it wants to touch her face, just once, to kiss it. It stays with her. As the door clanks shut and they strap themselves and monitor the craft rousing itself for the ascent the spirit passes a hand through Kainaat’s lips, sending what it remembers to be love, and lets itself fall through the metalwork of the ship’s structure. It takes refuge in the vents of the craft: where there is energy, and where there is fire.
Where there is life.
As the craft sets up a roaring like nothing else it had ever heard it hears the voice of the universe again, unmistakable:
Everyone is here
PLEASE LET THEM BE. It projects back, finding words. PLEASE LET THEM BE.
It fastens itself to the fire, becoming one with it. The roaring is the roar of a god. The energy ignites it and lends it form, and anyone looking would have seen a haze in the shape of a human being streaming up in the fire and smoke behind the spacecraft, coiled in the curve of the vent, mouth open in a conflagration of joy.
Time expands; metal shudders and creaks, the air thins and boils in ecstatic agitation. Faster and faster—but it is only nine minutes, and it sees them physically shoot before it like meteors, each minute an infinity of acceleration—and then the spirit feels the thinning of the planet’s shell, feels the heat of the atmosphere, and faster, a burning velocity, it is there with them, up until up is no longer up anymore.
The fire dies to a powerful, extended growl and it turns its head (forgetting corporeality, letting it loose to the void and becoming spiritform) and sees the earth and—
It sees the Earth.
The planet is textured.
It is both crystalline and living; it beholds it, and is seen in turn. The beauty of it is stupefying. The spirit is watched by the world and is held in rapture at the sight of it. As it turns in void it sees itself within the bluest eye of the planet and in, a moment, the fallacy of its individual identity winks out and it-him-her-they realize the unspeakable connectedness of all things, there in the face of Earth, and beyond it, the black sail of space.
The universe, when it speaks, is close this time, and intimate, like a lover.
Everyone is here
I THINK I…BUT WHAT DO YOU MEAN, he cries, himself for a flickering moment, fighting the dispersal of his substance like a nodding head resisting slumber but pulled down, anyway. The spacecraft propels itself out of Earth’s pull and moves into the void, Mars-bound, glutted with life. The spirit, the essence of what was a human, the cloud of particles or, or whatever it is, whatever he (was it he?) is, wants to follow. It mouths Kainaat’s name. Then there is nothing left to recall but a blankness. Then a hum of expectation: hope and fear. He sees the world and loses himself again. It is the world. It knows the truth of moving around the sun with the world, held in powerful embrace, rocked in the arms of a giant.
The universe unfolds in front of it.
And then something happens. Everything moves all at once and it is the biggest thing it has ever seen (but it is more than seeing, it is like an ocean pouring out in the firmament above it, a living tide of color, undulating); it is a sliding away of something and—the sheer gorgeousness of it—the power of the presence of the universe hits us all at once—No! Not a hitting, not a violence, but an unfolding, a star-becoming—and we realize that the universe is so much more than this, and we understand these words for the first time
Everyone is here
And in those final moments before the euphoria of connection comes we remember so vividly the words our loved ones in all their multitudes and all their shades told us and the days in their infinity when they said to us we will see you again in Paradise and we are there and there and we are here and we understand everything and oh, the last vestiges of the illusion of the world unfurl before us and oh, how beautiful is the canvas of the universe with our form fading before it and into it and the stars showing through each piece of us and oh and oh and
we are home.
|Phoenix Alexander is a queer, Greek-Cypriot writer and scholar of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. He holds a Ph.D. in English and African American Studies from Yale University and is the Science Fiction Collections Librarian at the University of Liverpool, where he stewards the largest collection of sf/f in Europe. His work has appeared in Black Static, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Metaphorosis, among others. More information and links to his work may be found on his website: www.phoenixalexanderauthor.com.|