My Brother, Fire
When he was a baby, my brother, Fire, was uncontrollable. He’d incinerate his diapers and make his formula boil in the bottle.
By age three, he’d gotten a little quieter and easier to manage. He liked to sit in front of the hallway mirror, and watch flames curl and flicker on the top of his head.
By age five, he’d learned to burn things only when he wanted to. Fire knew he’d get in trouble if he hurt anyone, or ruined any of the furniture. But it was obvious that Fire had a temper, and a solitary, un-guessable inner life.
Like any brothers, we fought sometimes. Once, when we were in elementary school, Fire lost control of his temper, and hit me. I still have a dark red scorch mark on my cheek.
Fire’s teen years were difficult. The other students feared and disliked him. A few were attracted to the air of danger around him, and tried to become his friend. But, invariably, they came to regret it. The day after graduating from high school, Fire left home. We found his schoolbooks and belongings incinerated in dark piles on the floor. By that time, Fire was only speaking to us when he had to.
Fire didn’t like people, and he absolutely hated cities. I knew he would go somewhere as far away from people and cities as he could get. He’d sometimes talked about wanting to live in the woods.
Many years have passed, and no one has heard from Fire since the day he left. I think about him often.
And, when I see news of a forest fire on the television, I wonder if that’s what’s become of my brother, Fire.
The trip to the airport has been a series of wrong turns. We are here to pick up my wife’s parents. We drive all over the airport and somehow end up on the runway. A departing flight almost takes our roof off.
Next we find ourselves driving through the terminal. People with luggage move out of the way as I steer the car down halls and corridors, past reservation desks and escalators. My wife sees her parents and we stop and pick them up.
My mother-in-law sits in the back seat with her husband. She tells us she’s been seeing the Virgin Mary in the apartment across the street. The Virgin Mary looks out of its windows. She wears a shimmering gown. “It looks like it is made of lights. It is very beautiful…”
Her husband makes a noise of inattentive disapproval. We swing a curve, just as a loud roaring sound fills the terminal behind us. I twist around to look. Pandemonium. People running, trying to get away from something.
“It is a tornado,” my mother-in-law says.
Whenever there is trouble, she suspects a tornado. I look at her in the rear-view mirror. She is peeling an orange with a knife.
My wife kneels backward on the passenger seat to see what is going on. “It’s the tidal wave they were talking about on the radio,” she says. She’s right. The corridor behind us is being consumed by rushing water. It carries passengers and pilots and luggage buggies along with it. I speed up, but there’s no avoiding it. The wave catches us just as we finish rolling up the windows.
We’re swept along, sometimes under the water, sometimes above it. We see people swimming and floating past us. I let go of the steering wheel — it’s useless — and accept a piece of the orange my mother-in-law has peeled.
We’re swept out of the airport and then the car is floating precariously on the waves. The engine is still running, but we don’t know which way to go. We look, but there is no land in sight. The floodwater is up to the bottom of the windows. The headlights are on, and they make white blobs of illumination under the water. “We’re sinking,” my father-in-law comments.
He is right. The car is filling up with water.
“We are washing our feet,” my mother-in-law says to my wife.
Then we see two tiny lights in the dark sky. We look up, and see a large kite making its way down to us. There is a boy riding on it.
It is our seven-year-old son. He took off in the kite months ago.
He’s holding a flashlight in each hand. We’ve seen him plenty of times since he left, but he refuses to get off the kite. He will only bob around above us, visit, and swoop down for snacks.
We are glad to see him. He tells us which way to go to get back to dry land. He descends low enough to accept a piece of orange from his grandmother. Then, he’s up and off again.
Soon we are driving up a rocky bank onto the edge of a two-lane road. It is still dark. We can see a series of low, flat buildings. “Queens, ” I say to my wife.
“We’ll have to be careful,” she says, nodding. “Queens is full of werewolves.” Her father perks up at the mention of werewolves. He says that he saw werewolves when he was a boy in Italy. Werewolves, he says, are created when dogs get locked together during intercourse. If they cannot break apart before the moon rises, the dogs will turn into werewolves. My wife’s mother adds that werewolves have teeth in their ears as well as their mouths, and they can bite with them. She imitates some of the howls werewolves make.
“You will call them to us,” scolds her husband.
We make it through Queens without seeing werewolves. We are driving past bridges and smokestacks. The road is following the river. We see a sign for a “Scenic Overlook” twenty miles ahead. My wife’s parents want to see it.
When we get there, we walk to the edge of a deep ravine. There is a waist-high fence and binoculars on a pole. There is a stiff wind blowing, and it makes our legs cold where our pants and stockings are wet.
We lean over the fence and look down. My mother-in-law’s babushka is flapping at the back of her head. “There,” she says, pointing downward. “There is where I lived as a girl.” We look down through the binoculars and see a rustic little town floating in the air. Little houses with wooden shutters, a dirt road that leads from the church to the bar. We can hear the church bell swinging lazily in its perch.
My father-in-law strains to see down into the gloom. He complains to his wife that she left his glasses in the car. He tells her to go get them. “I wonder if Mrs. Gorbachev waits on her husband like this,” she says, and heads back to the car.
She is gone several minutes. Her husband is straining to see down into the ravine, leaning further and further over the fence. “Where has she gone? Where are my glasses?” he complains.
Then, just as we warn him not to lean out so far, he tips forward — and over he goes, down into the Scenic Overlook.
His wife returns with his glasses and looks around. “Has the tornado taken my husband?”
The Stars In A Row
At the end of the 22nd Century, it was discovered that a form of interstellar space travel could be achieved by means of the brain’s neural synapses. It was the beginning of a golden age of quasi-physical space travel that explored the inner cosmos as much as the outer cosmos. Space was infinite, and when traveled by these means, infinitely personal.
Conceptual spaceships were constructed — vast, calculating engines of cohesion, absorption and directional psychic thrust, pulling travelers into the abstract dimensions of physical and quasi-physical Space.
The Hawaiian island of Kauai was the center of these operations.
Kauai remained a popular location for tourists. Its beaches could still be walked, its robust tides could still be surfed, and its resorts were still booked up in the summertime. But it was understood that the mountains of Kauai had been set aside for space travel. Kauai was now controlled by the Space Program. It was a launch pad for extraterrestrial psychic operations.
Spaceships were powered by gardens on Earth. The Limahuli Garden was the most powerful engine developed yet. The next ship to leave from the island — the Essence — would be powered by the Limahuli Garden. The Garden had been tended and fine-tuned for space travel for the last six years.
The Limahuli Garden was no longer open to the public. It was a loss for the tourists. But other splendid sights had replaced those that the Limahuli Garden had previously offered. The nighttime sky above the island was now full of spacecraft, in various stages of completion. Though conceptual in nature, the psychically-constructed spacecraft were nevertheless largely visible to the naked eye.
One could see the starry red tentacles of the Potential, as it made its way out of the Earth’s orbit. One could see the multicolored lights of the smaller excursion vehicles. For over a year, the formation of the Essence had been visible from the beach: a slow-growing network of glowing hexagons, in the Western portion of the sky. And in a year’s time, Kauai would be witness to the return of the fiery and immense Manifestation.
The launch of the Essence had started.
The launch began with the Om.
The Psychonauts spent the week before the launch in a haze, doing only simple tasks, hoping that they had prepared well for the journey.
They heard the first Om at the very edge of their consciousness. It was low and steady. On the first day the Om was barely audible, and they would lose track of it, if they weren’t paying attention.
By the second day, the Om was loud and unmistakable. They heard it even in their sleep. The Essence, that string of glowing hexagons in the night-time sky, was gearing up to take them into Space. The Limahuli Garden, it’s engine, was fine-tuning itself. And, it was fine-tuning them. Their bodies were falling in sync with the Om. It was a gradual process. When the Om reached its seventh and final stage, their trip would begin.
The Psychonauts took solitary walks along the beaches. In the evenings, they watched crabs jump out of the water and clatter sideways up the rocks. They meditated and exercised and tuned in to the Om. They swept their cabins clean. The Om was in their ears as they zipped up the netting that would keep lizards and spiders and mosquitoes out of their cabins while they were away.
The Psychonauts cleared their cabins of everything that would not be absolutely essential during the trip. This would make it easier to hold their cabin as an image in their mind, once the trip began. As the Essence traveled further and further away from the Earth, they would need to maintain their connection to their physical bodies. Their bodies would, physically, remain in the cabins, in a jelly of semi-consciousness. But their minds would be aboard the Essence, heading away for the stars. Assistants on Kauai would help the Psychonauts eat and tend to bodily matters while they were traveling.
When the Om reached its sixth stage, the Psychonauts dreamed of hexagons. When the Om reached it seventh stage, they dreamed of a single hexagon. This was the hexagon they would spend the trip in — the hexagon that had been slowly connecting to their body, at a silent, sub-atomic level, since the first day they’d arrived on Kauai. The Om was booming. The Psychonauts could pay attention to nothing but the Om. They lay on their beds, waiting. Dawn would bring the launch.
The Essence did not have a captain. It had a Gardener.
The Gardener, at the helm of the Essence, was steering the psychic spaceship out into Space.
The snout of the Essence was a swarm of flexible telescopes. Most were pointed at locations far out among the stars. But one of the telescopes was looking back, at the Earth. When the Gardener looked through that telescope, he saw the Earth, small and blue.
At the same time, the Gardener was in the Limahuli Garden, the leafy engine that was propelling the Essence into Space. The seven chakral fires that the Gardener had been tending all week glowed in patches around him: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. The Gardener, in the Garden, had a single telescope of his own. He was peering through it, into the sky. He was looking at the Essence, as it sped away.
On the Essence, the Gardener looked down at the Earth. He saw the tiny island of Kauai, lost in the restless Pacific. He saw the Limahuli Garden, and the seven chakral fires burning brightly. He saw himself, looking up.
Then, all the telescopes of the Essence swung upward. The Gardener looked out at their destination. Space was vast, and waiting for them.
So off they went.
The Unseen Beast
The most amazing thing about the Unseen Beast is that no one ever sees it. It doesn’t confine itself to deep woods, deserted houses, or seldom-visited places. No — it spends its days a stone’s throw from rows of parked cars, from schoolhouses, gas stations, apartment complexes, and convenience stores. The Beast is big enough that if it laid itself down in a roadside ditch, most of its flabby, rust-colored body would still be visible to traffic. It is slow enough, while moving, that it could never avoid being seen, if a pedestrian or cyclist approached it, from a block or two away.
It is not a quiet creature. It makes a loud, rancorous sound, a cross between a protracted yawn and a gurgling roar. Still, it can live in the same place for decades, and no one ever hears it.
The Beast shows few signs of intelligence. And it has absolutely no sense of hygiene. It likes to roll in garbage, and eat road-kill. Sometimes, it puts its hind legs (if legs you can call them) high above its head, and drags its butt along the ground, the way dogs do. But no one, thankfully, has ever stumbled onto this disturbing sight.
The beast does not prey on other creatures, nor do other creatures pose a danger to it. It loves its garbage and road-kill, but otherwise, it seems quite removed from nature’s ‘food chain.’ Unlike humans, animals are very aware of the Unseen Beast’s presence. They avoid it, and flee when it comes near.
The Beast is not afraid to enter buildings. If a window is left open, the Beast will crawl through it. It can work its body into all sorts of shapes, and get in anywhere. It has bones — lots of them. But none of those bones are connected. They float around inside the beast’s body, till its lazy muscles and thick innards push them into whatever shape it needs to be.
Of the beast’s origin and motivations, nothing is known. It seems to be the only one of its kind. Where did it come from? What is its origin?
Perhaps the beast’s biological solitude is what compels it to stay near populated places, though it can only be a resident of those places in an extremely peripheral manner. Big as a garbage truck, loud and incautious, it sometimes watches us from only a few feet away.
How do we not see it?
The Spinning House
In the middle of the town was a house. And, sometimes, the house would spin.
The house was in a quiet neighborhood. It had a modest front and back yard, and a white picket fence. The house was painted gray. Not a cold, metallic gray, but a warm gray that looked old, and settled-in. The house was small and square. There was a front door, with a window on either side. The curtains were always drawn.
When the house spun, it only lifted a few inches off the ground. Sometimes it rotated slowly. Other times, it spun very fast. It stayed level when it spun, as if the house was sitting on a carousel. But there was no carousel: when the house spun, there was nothing but dust between it and the ground. Whatever mechanism or process made the house spin, it was not a mechanism or a process of the everyday, rational world.
The grass grew tall in the yard, but not so tall as to make the neighbors complain. No one was ever seen mowing the grass, or going in or out of the house. There were several tall, woolly bushes in the front of the yard, pressed close to the picket fence. But these bushes only partially blocked the view of the house from the street.
When the house spun, it spun quietly. When it spun fast, you could see the bushes shake in front of the house. When it spun slowly, its movement was steady enough that birds sitting on the roof did not bother to fly off.
When the house spun at night, the light from its front windows — which came on every night at seven — lit up the patch of sidewalk in front of the house, off and on, off and on, every minute or so, as if the neighborhood had its own small lighthouse.
Many people saw the house spin. Each of them thought that they were the only one to see it. None of them told anyone else what they’d seen.
Some people in the neighborhood saw the spinning house in their dreams. They dreamed about the house even if they had never seen it while they were awake.
The people who dreamt about the spinning house never talked about it, either.
They seemed to know that there was something special about having the spinning house in their neighborhood. And they seemed to understand that thinking about it too much, or worse, talking about it, would be certain to make the house go away.
So they never talked about the spinning house, or thought about it for very long. They never wondered who lived in it, or what made it go round and round, or why they saw it in their dreams.
Because of this, the house stayed where it was.
And sometimes, it would spin.
The Exercise Lady
She’s awoken by a sound from the living room. She listens: has she left the television on?
She walks through the blue-shadowed hallway to the living room, and yes, the television screen is lit up. The Exercise Lady is on.
The reception is always poor when she sees The Exercise Lady. The Exercise Lady is a vague, crackly shape, in the center of the screen. She’s following the instructions of a male coach, who announces the exercises. He encourages The Exercise Lady as she performs the exercises. The coach is always off-screen. All you can see is The Exercise Lady.
The woman stands in the square of blue light the television screen makes on her living room carpet.
She begins to imitate the movements of The Exercise Lady.
17 Starboard Arc
His mother was a very small woman. Imagine setting a pin down at the center of a white linen sheet, on a king-sized bed, and you will have some idea of how small she was.
She was not timid, but she was very quiet and unassuming. At the nursing home, they called her “The Little Angel”.
This is why her son was surprised to find out that — in the Afterlife — his mother was a television star. She was the co-host of a morning talk show. The show was taped in front of a studio audience. Its two amiable hosts — one of whom was his mother — took phone calls from viewers during the broadcasts.
He had stopped at a laundromat to try and phone her. He was in a busy city that looked a lot like Detroit, or maybe one of the older neighborhoods of Brooklyn. He didn’t have his cell phone with him, and the laundromat was the only place he could find that had a public phone.
He dialed the old home number – the one he’d grown up with as a kid, the first phone number he’d ever committed to memory: 842-3743. The number, of course, was out of service. The house hadn’t been there since the 1970s. There was no answer.
Then he remembered something. He’d been given his mother’s laptop upon his arrival. He’d been carrying it all along, but he hadn’t considered opening it until that moment. Maybe he could use the laptop to reach her. Sure enough, when he opened the lid, there was a small tab on the side of its small screen that said ‘HOME.’ He pressed it, and immediately, he heard a connection being made.
But it was a man’s voice that said ‘hello.’ It was a smooth, professional-sounding voice. He did not recognize it.
He asked for his mother by name, and added: “This is her son.” He heard laughter from what sounded like a large group of people on the other end. There was even some scattered clapping. “I’ll put her on,” the man said. More laughter, this time with a hushed, conspiratorial ring to it.
Seconds later, he heard his mother’s voice, greeting him from the tiny speaker of the laptop. He recognized her voice at once. But there was something different about it. She sounded very self-assured; her voice conveyed a confidence and ease that he did not associate with her. He told her that he’d just arrived, and he’d been looking for a way to contact her.
The audience clapped and laughed.
His mother explained: she was co-host of a television show, and he’d called during the taping of a program. She said there was some irony in the thought that the show was broadcast ‘live. ‘ She laughed, sounding completely at ease.
It was not a problem that he’d called during the show. Part of the fun of taking phone calls was that it made the show loose and unpredictable. And the audience was delighted to witness his celebrated mother being reunited with her son.
Naturally, she wanted to see him, and she started to tell him her address. He stopped her. He said that, if she were on the air, she should give him the address privately, after the show.
“You don’t have to be concerned about things like that here,” his mother told him. “I live at 17 Starboard Arc. Just get in a taxi, and give them that address.”
A Visit From The Outdoors
The couple lived in a small house that faced away from the street. Their house had a small, unruly backyard. It was always overgrown, but in a pretty way — or, so thought the husband, who was more tolerant of wild green things than the wife was.
One day, the husband bought a small tree at the local nursery. He intended to plant the tree in the yard, and do some general landscaping around it. A stone path, perhaps. Maybe he’d plant a little flowerbed at the feet of the crumbling garden statue he’d found in a nearby field and hauled home.
To the husband’s dismay, the tree from the nursery was not a real tree. Once he’d carried it into the yard and gotten a closer look at it, he saw that the branches were detachable. They were stuck to the tree in a series of pre-drilled holes, like an artificial Christmas tree. He’d have to take it back to the nursery.
Just then, he noticed a tiny blue snake on the ground. He crouched down to look at it. It grew bigger before his eyes. Its appearance changed. Its snake eyes became large eyes, dark and round, and two thick teeth sprouted from beneath what was now a pinkish nose. The snake was turning into a rodent. It kept getting bigger. The man hurried into the house, and shut the door quickly behind him.
The shape-shifting creature had followed. It was pressed up against the door. The door’s upper portion was glass, and he could see the creature through it. It was a woman now — but a monstrous, dirty woman, huge and wild-eyed. It was pushing its body hard against the door. The husband pushed back from the other side with all his strength, desperate to keep the woman from getting in.
Only the thin glass separated their faces. The woman’s face was wide and round, and fluctuating, like an egg that had burst open and was running in all directions. Her eyes were red-rimmed and bulging. The man was terrified. He did not know what to do. He desperately made a scary face at the woman, hoping that he could seem as frightening as her.
He was surprised at the effect of this makeshift strategy. The woman’s dirt-smudged face changed — she was frightened. The man thought for a moment that she might turn and run away.
But then the fear vanished from her eyes, and she pushed even harder against the door.
The next thing he knew, the woman was right in the kitchen with him — giant sized, and bad-smelling. She had passed right through the wood and glass of the door without breaking it. Her odor was of fur and dirt and perspiration. The two of them were now squeezed together in the space between the wall and the kitchen counter. The woman was looking down into his face. He could see grass stains around her mouth, and a crust of dried snot on her upper lip.
And that was the scene his wife walked in on, as she entered the kitchen. The situation was, of course, highly abnormal.
The man’s wife defused it, however, with surprising ease. She invited the strange woman into the dining room.
She sat her down at the table, like a guest. Then his wife made coffee, and put cake on plates for the three of them.
The giant woman from outdoors sat quietly as she was served.
The man’s wife was not a fan of wild green things, but she was an exemplary hostess.
When a visitor came to her home, nothing could stop her from offering coffee, and a bite to eat.
First Angel was beginning. A flash initiated it above the endless green data carpet beneath the Omaha Polyp. First Angel turned the sky speckled pink where the data carpet met the horizon. Its energy mass hung there in the firmament for only a moment, then it began its crackling, sprawling skid over the green surface of the carpet.
The data carpet was a multilayered mesh of rotating cubes that spun as they received signals from the other cubes. The surfaces of the cubes both attracted and repelled the rushing energy of First Angel, and thus, as it passed over, the cubes increased the speed of its passing. First Angel was a high-speed dawn. The sizzling rush of it left a hot-pink spume in its wake. The spray faded as it sank into the layers of the data carpet.
The sky above the data carpet was a tense and angular pattern of flowing lines. As First Angel passed beneath it, the lines opened up and released the Harvesters that lay dormant inside the pattern.
The Harvesters awoke. The sky opened up with millions of them as First Angel rippled past. They opened in pairs like eyes from behind invisible lids. They saw the stinging, luminous light of First Angel as it hurtled away from them, and they saw the sky around them open up with other Harvesters.
Second Angel happened immediately after First Angel. Second Angel was dark blue and intimidating, it rose up from the data carpet in whale-sized, upwardly-growing trunks. Second Angel’s giant fibers erupted from the carpet, pushing the spinning green cubes aside as it sped upward. The trunks of Second Angel shot up above the eyes of the Harvesters, and formed a complex latticework above them.
Second Angel would wait while the Harvesters did their work. It would link the lines in the sky while it waited. The Harvesters descended, and began digging data from under the carpet.
When the Harvesters finished, Second Angel swallowed up all the data the Harvesters had collected. It sucked the data up into its trunks through trembling apertures. It searched through the data, sorted it, and slid it down blue-walled tunnels, through the hierarchy of the Polyp, routing it to whatever destinations the Second Angel saw fit.
Third Angel was last in the cycle. Third Angel was a silver-yellow breath from the lungs of the Omaha Polyp. It came at the end of the day. Third Angel was a champagne wind that flowed upward; it was an irresistible, soothing push. It dislodged the harvesters from the sky and blew them up even higher. It lifted them in pairs, and placed them in the strata that they slept in. Third Angel continued up, past them, then flowed back down, passing through the Harvesters as it descended. It caused them to light up and glow, as they shut down.
This was the last thing the Harvesters saw as the day ended: each other, glowing; and far beneath them, the pale yellow fizzling of Third Angel, as it seeped down, into the vast plains of the carpet.