And did you get what
You wanted from this life, even so?
—Raymond Carver, "Late Fragment"
T he heat was historic.
“This heat is historic,” they’d said on NPR. At Pike Place fishmongers were selling their souls for ice. The biologist visited each morning, drank coffee, let seagulls drown the radio in her ears. She liked the rockfish, seeing them bright and flop-bellied in their lukewarm display.
At home her computer monitor gathered dust like an artifact. It had been untouched for three weeks. It baffled her that, after twenty-one years, researching adaptations in extremophiles hadn’t joined her loose ends. Was this it, then? She’d written a proposal that involved spelunking through the archives of one institution or another. To see what life at the bottom of the ocean might reveal about life on other planets, she’d explained.
In the afternoons she drank espresso martinis on her porch and watched Mr. Cardoso swing his watering can among the dahlias next door. Perhaps she’d buy one of those houses built around a big tree. She could become spiritual. Start a watch collection. Fall in love.
On Friday she brought home a King crab. It reminded her of—where was it that Gulliver traveled? Where everything was giant? Its spiked legs looked like a desert plant. Today was the nineteenth day of her sabbatical, she realized. Was it the twentieth? The heat made everything hazy. The haze seeped in through her ears. She could feel it as soon as she woke up, that heavy film on her brain’s machinery. The days bled together. The Pacific and the sky brewed a dull, disorienting continuum.
It was there when she returned to her house. She set her crustacean on the step and squatted to examine the envelope. Someone had dropped it on her welcome mat. The letter inside had an official look to it. They requested her expertise to investigate reports of an unnamed halophile in deep sea brine pools off the coast of X. At the bottom someone had scratched an illegible signature. No name was printed. She’d have to leave at once.
When she reported to the government office the clerk confirmed that she had been invited to take a leading role at the X Astrobiology Laboratory. He used that word. You have been invited, he said. She had never heard of it. How long were they expecting her to stay? The clerk couldn’t say for sure. It would depend on what she found. She asked the clerk who arranged her appointment. The clerk shook his head. You never know with these things, he said.
“I’m sure you recognize,” he said, shuffling papers on the big mahogany desk, “that the urgency of your assignment cannot be overstated.”
“I don’t quite understand.”
“They’re calling it Signifojn, I guess. It’s a kind of—what would you call it? A nickname? It’s a kind of placeholder in the scientific community, until they gather enough information to classify it.” His desk was like a repository for all the papers that had ever been lost in the world. “That’s where you come in.” He looked at her over his glasses. “The implications of a discovery would be colossal. And given the state of things . . .”
What was the state of things?
“Who will I be working with?”
He pulled his sleeve back and scrutinized the top of his wrist. “You’ll have to ask someone in country,” he said.
She packed her passport, toothbrush, three bags of Planters Honey-Roasted Peanuts, the June issue of Scientific American, and Annie Jump Cannon, her basement Bengal. She left Noah’s old Huskies sweatshirt and her favorite tuberose perfume. She kissed the boards of her acetaminophen-red bungalow and left a spare key with Mrs. Cardoso, who would keep an eye on her ferns while she was away. Mr. Cardoso joined his wife in seeing her off. Good luck, Irene. We’ll miss you.
She met the pilot at a neglected regional airport south of town. He wore an archetypal aviator’s hat—the kind lined with imitation wool—and motioned her toward the open door of a Cessna. She thought that was odd. As they ascended she watched her world become small. An arcing river balanced the sharp symmetries of an industrial park. Baseball diamonds baked and freeways ribboned like hair beneath a microscope. After several minutes the Sound carved the city into a jagged puzzle. When everything beneath her turned blue, she closed her eyes.
She woke in a wall of clouds. The pilot’s voice had startled her. She plugged her nose and blew hard and her ears popped like tiny bombs exploding in her head.
“Cat?” he said without turning around.
Annie Jump Cannon purred like a spontaneous extrovert. Irene was irritated.
“Bengal,” she said. The pilot cleared his throat. She could see his shoulders shifting. Her center of gravity was shifting, too.
“What’s your earliest memory?” he said. He was wearing a cotton t-shirt that might have been white in a previous life. She couldn’t see his face.
“Um,” she said. “What?”
“That you can remember,” he clarified. And, hurriedly, “I’m just making conversation.”
A long moment passed. Annie Jump Cannon was tense in her lap. “Spilling Cheerios in Alaska,” she offered.
“Alaska,” he said. She couldn’t place his accent.
“The cafe was up on stilts,” she said. “One big room without corners.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska,” he said. She felt vaguely sideways.
“When the bowl flipped I thought the world had turned over.”
That made him laugh.
Except for distant mountains, her destination was brown and featureless, like a face she couldn’t read. It wasn’t a town but a cluster of buildings—each a dozen stories and earth-colored with hexagonal windows she couldn’t see into. The pilot left her with an old-fashioned skeleton key and instructed her to report to the seventh floor of the building with the short lavender door. You’ll see a room with a circle of hands on the door, he said. That’s the one you want. Before she had time to ask questions he was back in the plane. Then she was alone there, on that dusty plain sewn with endless replications.
Inside the door engraved with a circle of hands she found an austere bedframe and a plasticky, dorm-style mattress. Aside from those, light from a hexagonal window with acid-etched glass revealed a couple dozen large bins. On the bed there was a letter addressed to her.
Welcome! We’re thrilled to have you here. Please take some time to settle in and get your bearings. We look forward to meeting you.
It wasn’t signed. Someone knocked on her door.
When she opened it a man pushed past her and heaved himself against the fort of bins. One tumbled to the floor and busted open. It was full of bags. Annie jumped from where she had been perched on the bed and scampered beneath it. The man shouted something she didn’t understand. She was frozen. He scooped up an armful and dashed out of her apartment, manic as he’d come.
The bags were all sizes. There was a coin pouch woven with hemp. A pleather clutch in the shape of a corndog had rolled across the room and popped open. One lunchbox featured a roost of embroidered butterflies. There was an oversized duffle and a guitar case and a whole line of fatigued paper grocery bags and a fanny pack. She touched them one by one. She opened the other bins and they contained bags, too. Touching the bags made her sad. She missed the pilot. She needed some air.
Outside it occurred to her that she might have left her oven on. She tried to text Mrs. Cardoso but there was no service. There were no streets or sidewalks or signs or traffic lights or cars—just the negative space between buildings. Around her people sat on benches or leaned against walls or sat cross-legged in the dust. Most were alone; most seemed mildly vigilant. She struggled to catch people’s eyes. She thought of little islands.
Ten minutes into her walk someone poked her on the shoulder blade. Irene spun around and found a small insistent woman pointing at the canvas tote Irene carried. The insistent woman excavated her pocket and produced a fistful of something. Then she thrust both cupped hands toward Irene and mumbled unintelligibly.
If the old insistent woman had been physically imposing Irene would have sprinted. Instead, Irene peered into the cavity formed by the woman’s small fingers. An array of glass beads pooled inside. Some were big as marbles and others appeared to be as tiny as salt crystals.
“Eh?” the woman said. She eyed the canvas tote hung on Irene’s shoulder, insistent. Irene touched its topmost strap. The woman’s eyes widened.
Irene removed the tote from her shoulder. She extended her opposite hand and displayed her blank palm. The timid woman moved toward her. She loosened her fingers and let the beads drop like sand in an hourglass. When Irene’s hand was full the woman seized the tote and pressed it against her chest.
When she got back to her building there was a very tall man sitting outside, manning a cardboard box. A hooded figure approached him and traded a basket for a roll of toilet paper. When she came to the door he inspected her and shrugged. Another person offered him a pair of purple socks. He reached in the box and produced a second roll. Irene fished the beads from her pocket and displayed them beneath the building’s leaking light. The very tall man frowned. Then he extended a roll of toilet paper and cupped his extended hands.
There were no outlets in her room. Two bulbs burned on the ceiling; the meager furniture glowed. Filaments coiled inside the bulbs like metallurgical slinkies. Irene’s phone was at seven percent. It was two in the morning.
At first it was impossible to acclimate. The second day was a nightmare. Irene woke in a flushed room; the light was dim but expectant. She inhaled a bag of peanuts then walked where she didn’t walk the previous evening. She struggled to get information. Someone squeaked and clucked at her on the corner of one not-street and another. A man toting bungee cords opened his mouth and expelled the sound of wind through high trees. She couldn’t get over that. That night, she was brushing her teeth in the bathroom down the hall when a woman yodeled with several voices at once.
She never found the X Astrobiology Lab. At first she thought if she could find the coast she would walk it until a research institute appeared. But there was no coast. On the third day she traced the development’s single continuous edge. Past the peripheral buildings there were dust, immaterial shrubs, and a suggestion of mountains on the earth’s long rim.
On her fourth day Irene met a soap peddler who refused to open his mouth. Inexplicably, she offered him a triple gusset briefcase. As he reached toward her she swam in silent gratitude. He reciprocated: a bundle of bright bar soaps bound in twine. He placed her hands on either end and squeezed lightly. She thought of Noah. She looked away. Later, a scalding shower made one fragrant: tuberose.
Her quick acceptance surprised her. On the fifth day she scanned articles about deadly fungi, ongoing projects to deflect asteroids on their way to Earth, and electrodes at the roots of conscious experience. She wrote Signifojn in the magazine’s slick margins with the obsessive agony of a first crush. On the sixth day she cried until Annie Jump Cannon’s fur was a salty mop and on the seventh day she slept. That night she dreamed of microbes pulsing in a sea of molten rock on a planet far away. She woke into darkness without contour and her loneliness throbbed like they throbbed.
On the eighth day she resigned herself to a life of tragic surrealism and vowed to find the person who signed her original letter. Instead she found Mona, bartering fire.
She went to the square in the morning to see what she could get. She carried a battered Tumi suitcase and a sequined pencil pouch and a backpack with a bloated pocket shaped like a soccer ball. She noticed a young woman showing pedestrians a picture of something. The chemical symbols for sulfur, argon, calcium, and samarium were arranged on her t-shirt to spell S-Ar-Ca-Sm. Irene squinted to read the text below it. My Main Element. Were her eyes playing tricks on her? Was this a mirage?
“Hey!” Irene shouted.
The woman made a visor of her hand. She was a nest of copper hair and a swatch of painfully pink skin. She looked about the age of Irene’s students. She held out the picture to Irene—a vintage 7up ad severed from some publication. An uncanny family smiled around an awkwardly cultish bonfire. You like it...it likes you! the slogan ventured.
When Irene approached her the woman extended a matchbox. “You speak English?” Irene said.
The woman looked baffled. She reached backward and set her clumsy merchandise on a folding table.
She lunged forward. She collided with Irene. Irene was alarmed.
“Sister,” she said. She squeezed Irene. Her arms were tight. “Yes,” she said. She was rubbing her hands on Irene’s back. “Yes.”
Irene shut her eyes. Pressure surged from her chest; it shattered the ceiling in her head. The relief was dizzy and private. The woman’s ear pressed against Irene’s shoulder.
“When’d you get here?” she asked.
“Eight days ago,” Irene said. “I think.”
“The heat makes your memory lazy,” the woman observed.
“When’d you get here?”
“God, I don’t know. I think we’re at the top of the world. Or the bottom. Pretty soon the sun won’t set at all. Then it won’t rise for longer than you can imagine and the dark is bitter cold. That’s what happened when I got here. The days stretched and stretched and then they snapped.”
Irene felt a wave of nausea. “What is this place?”
She shrugged. “Hell, I guess?”
Irene looked around. Across the square the man who sounded like wind appeared to be singing to no one.
“Why did you come here?”
“I left St. Paul to see my longtime friend in Michigan. I was supposed to catch a ferry in Manitowoc for the last leg of my trip.”
“Who arranged that?”
“What, the ferry?”
“Some service, IDK. Had this chick pick me up in a private plane and told me to look for a ferry named SEEG-NEE-FO when I got here.” She accented each syllable of the word. She shook her head. “On the other side of town, the agent said. It’ll take you right to us.”
Irene paused. She watched the woman. “Have you seen—”
“That the place is a blip in a big desert?” The woman twirled her pointer finger in the air and opened her eyes wide. “Hadn’t noticed.”
Irene showed her hand. “Irene.”
The woman studied it. It was as though she thought something would happen that could not be taken back. “Mona,” said Mona. They shook.
A lot of people seemed distressed, Mona said. She and Irene sat on the ground in the shadow of the building on the square’s western edge. Everyone had their thing that they had a lot of and traded it for other things. She was lucky, she said, to have found in her apartment several bookcases stacked with matchboxes. Fire was practical. The poor man who lived next to her moved into an apartment full of violins. She thought about giving him some of her matchboxes but then people would trade with him instead of her, and how would she eat?
Irene couldn’t say.
“Sometimes people you see everyday just disappear,” Mona said. “Poof. Into thin air.”
Irene thought. Then she said, “Earlier, when you said you were supposed to take a ferry, what did you say was its name?”
“Signifojn,” Irene murmured, half inside and half out. “The clerk who briefed me—if you can call it that—on my appointment said that word. Said it was a microbe.”
Mona frowned. “Sorry?”
“He told me Signifojn was the nickname of an unclassified microorganism off the coast of this place. I was assigned to investigate it.”
“Um, that’s weird. That’s actually kind of funny,” Mona said. “That’s like, really weird.”
“Have you ever heard the word?”
Mona looked reflective. “I think, yeah, I think it’s like the name of a boat company. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of it before.”
Irene was skeptical. “Well I’m certain I’d never heard it before. Have you mentioned it to anyone else?”
“To who? Tornado man? The squeaky chicken girl? I have to talk to myself just to fight off insanity.”
“That’s very odd.”
Mona shrugged. She stood and brushed the sand off her backside. “You a scientist?”
Irene nodded. “I study salt at the bottom of the ocean. Looking for life where survival is hard.”
Irene stood. Her legs felt like they’d been clasped for eons. “There are comparable bodies of water on one of Jupiter’s moons. Very salty.”
“So you’re hunting aliens?”
Irene looked around. A man sprawled on a patchwork of primary colors, surrounded by stacks of quilts. People idled and calculated. A crowd was forming around some kind of food. The air smelled nutty and rich. A woman kneeled at the large well in the center of the square, driving a gourd-shaped basket across its surface. A procession of rings swelled. The disruption was arresting.
“If you’re searching for something where it might not exist,” Irene said, “it’s important to know the signs of that thing where it does.”
That night she dreamed a vivid memory. Once—several lifetimes ago, it seemed, before the eggshells and impasses—Noah had taken her to the roof of his apartment building to try a mercurial malbec. In the nautical twilight she’d pointed upward. “Bats.”
The next weekend they returned. Noah’s eyes seemed fixated on the wide vacancy above the buildings around them. She asked him why. He hadn’t known those things were bats, he said. He was looking for them because he thought he might find them.
Had he ever looked for something he was confident he wouldn’t find? She conversed on the brink of a second glass. That vintage had been tainted by fire. She liked it; the taste helped her imagine something she’d never seen.
He squinted at her. Said finally what are you getting at. You couldn’t speak abstractly without inviting accusations, even in those days. She hadn’t seen it then. She wasn’t getting at anything.
He said people were more likely to look for things they guessed they could find. Wouldn’t be rational otherwise. Scientists, maybe, to rule out the far fetches. He kissed her floral wrists, her necklace. Before he’d met her he’d looked for love on the streets of Chicago without believing he’d find it. She thought about that. Low odds, high reward, she said. He wouldn’t go out in a snow storm. But a nice spring evening, he’d walk the streets for hours anyway. Notice people.
They agreed that they had a better shot at finding something from the roof of his building—given they knew what they were looking for—than from the street, which was full of obstructions. But a birdseye view lacked intimacy. They could guess at the texture of a leaf or the sound of an engine but had no way of verifying these. They might locate some sought thing from the roof and never know whether something else would have pleased them more. But roaming took forever. All that wasted time.
Overhead the bats convened and dispersed, shouting across the broad failing light. Noah was swirling his wine. Here and there she caught his eye. It was as though all the actors on that stage were determined to crystallize for a moment, then dissolve.
After a week of fruitless contemplation they resolved to say it to everyone. Signifojn, they whispered in doorframes, in confidence, in shadowed corners of the square. They were startled by the number of people who were startled to hear it. How would they describe the reactions they encountered? Incredulous, moved, paranoid, desperately familial. Irene said it to the woman who housed the choir of yodelers. Her vocalizations became clumsy, frantic. She grabbed Irene’s shoulders and seemed to plead with her. When Irene spoke other words the woman sputtered toward silence, like a candelabra suddenly and devastatingly snuffed.
Irene and Mona started recording their impressions of reactions in a notebook. They started drawing lines between them. The web became thick. They catalogued clusters. There was the curious camp, which thrilled to attempt commiseration across languages. There was the group of cryptic gesturers, who motioned and demonstrated with evangelical fervor. There was the huggy group that offered water and food and seemed to spend many hours each day admiring the immaterial shrubs. Mona named the smallest cluster The Unruffleds—rare individuals who rolled their eyes and clipped their nails and could not learn bewilderment at all.
“What are your conclusions?” Irene asked one night. They’d traded a picnic basket full of matches for bathtub brew and had danced while Mona’s neighbor played something scratchy and atonal. Now that it was late they were stumbling around outside, figuring. Irene balanced herself against the cool wall of the building. She tried to concentrate. The sun had been whittled down as far as the season would allow. The sky was lilac-colored, blank, barely lucid.
“Signifojn is not a microbe,” Mona said. “Or a boat. I mean, not more so than it is anything else,” she considered. “A tote. A flame. The thing that creates the possibility of a flame. A tiny piece of glass.”
Irene seemed unsatisfied by her answer. “I keep thinking—and I hate this thought every time it surfaces—I keep thinking that this place,” she said, “is a red herring. You know?”
Mona scratched her cheek.
“Like, plane drops us here, then we’re bent on locating the answer to something that doesn’t exist within the limits we’ve taken as givens.” Irene paced unsteadily. “Who decided that X describes just the ground beneath these buildings?” She looked around. “What if it’s out in the desert? The next town over, the one we can’t see?”
Mona squatted. She laid her palms on the earth and made little dunes between her fingers. “I’ve noticed something,” she said. “I told you how people disappear.”
“Yes. The tall toilet paper man who used to sit outside my building. One day he wasn’t there and I haven’t seen him since.”
“Yes. Yes. Just like that. Poof.”
“You have a theory?”
“I don’t know,” Mona said. “A relationship, maybe.”
Irene raised her eyebrows.
“Well,” she began. “I’ve been thinking about the people I’ve known who disappeared, like, thinking about what cluster they’d belong to.” She scattered the dunes between her fingers and dusted her hands off. “From what I can remember, seems like everyone would’ve fallen in that smallest group.”
“What do you make of that?”
“I don’t—I mean, there can’t be just less Unruffleds of all the people who get dropped here. Right? You know? Like, what if it’s the smallest group because they don’t last long?”
Irene was silent. Then she said, “You think that’s the ticket out?”
Mona shrugged. “Seems like it. But how can we know where they go?”
“Wouldn’t you guess they’re taken home?”
“I thought I was going to Manitowoc and now I’m here. So who knows? I think you’d have to make a big bet on whether the place they go to is better than this one.”
Irene shivered. Mona’s face looked unfamiliar in the vague purple light. The buildings loomed like staunch shells in a world that was passing ceaselessly through them.
In her dream that night Irene stood on the ground where her building had been built. This was centuries before that, though—before that dust had become foundational. In the crook of one arm a heavy manuscript moved her speech. She turned its illuminated pages carefully, admiring the spiritual colors. The people in that general vicinity nodded, pondered, shook their heads, scoffed, affirmed, laughed, glanced with curiosity or none, struggled to understand or didn’t, formulated rebuttals, listened occasionally, shrugged, moved along. She traveled to all the corners of the earth and stood at every intersection, proclaiming the answers to the original questions. She gave them names that were broadly recognizable and elusive as contours in a cave.
In her dream it was unknown to Irene why she was doing these things, but she was overcome with the impression that she had failed to achieve the outcome she was seeking. After the failure she sang. It was a wordless, unpredictable song. She was stunned to hear the notes she sang as she produced them. After a long time a bystander moved close and yielded to impulse. His body twisted and popped like a spark. Later, another approached them and stretched a reptile over a hollowed tree. He rapped and slapped and thumped and struck until there was a perceptible correspondence between the three. Day after day they returned to that place and did those things.
Irene woke feeling strangely comforted. After so many days waking to the immediate challenge of reconciling her present situation with the complex and long-rehearsed situation that she’d expected to be her life, she had become adept at retraining her focus on things that couldn’t be taken from her. At mid-day she sat by the well in the center of the square and watched people draw water. She wanted to reach out and touch each of them—a gesture of compassion and understanding. Suddenly she was overwhelmed by their shared, inarticulate sadness.
Mona sat beside her in the afternoon. The sun was intense then and the square was quiet for a long while.
“I dreamed last night,” Mona said.
Irene became aware of her surroundings at once. The voice had startled her. She looked up.
“What’d you say are signs of life?”
“Um, they’re different. It depends. There are certain molecular signatures. . .” Irene trailed off. On the other side of the well a man pressed his basket against the force of the water until it was submerged. The still surface crumpled like a paper bag.
“There has to be some kind of disturbance,” she said. Waves arced toward her. She thought of bats calling out, getting their bearings in the night. “Some transformation of energy. Nothing lives without ruffling everything.”
Mona seemed to be anticipating more. Then she squeezed her hand. “Sister,” she said.
Irene looked at her. The pressure on her hand was kind and safe and knowing—it knew. It was like regaining a pair of misplaced glasses. Mona’s copper mane sharpened at the edges. The pale lines crossing her perpetual sunburn flashed with clarity and contrast. So many places the sun hasn’t touched, she thought. That was easy to forget at the bottom of the world. The top. Wherever they were, this inexplicable X.
“Sister,” Irene said. “Yeah.” She exhaled. “Yes.”