How the Universe Works

Part I:

Randy half woke in the middle of the night.  It was the night after a disturbed young man had gone into an elementary school and started shooting people, killing children.  But that wasn’t why Randy found himself half awake.  He wasn’t even awake enough to wonder about it, but it would become something he would wonder about in the coming days.  As he slept, he had a sensation - not a dream, he would tell himself later, but a sensation.  Almost a visitation, had he believed in such things.  He had the sensation of total darkness and total emptiness.  As if everything he knew: His home, his family, the ground underneath his feet, his own body, even his mind - everything - was suddenly ripped away from him, and he was told that it was all illusion.  That the only “real” reality was the cold and empty darkness that he felt.  And then he fumbled into wakefulness, along with a vague sense of struggling to breathe.  Had he stopped breathing in his sleep?  Did he have some kind of apnea?  These were questions that would roll around in his head in the coming days.

This new “reality” that was presented to him was darker and lonelier than anything he had ever known.  He was afraid.  As he started to come out of sleep, he began to feel even more afraid, afraid that his own mind was slipping away from him, breaking off and falling away and that he was powerless to put the pieces back together, to make sense out of anything anymore.

It wasn’t the first time he had felt the darkness’ presence.  Just before Christmas, he and Alicia had taken their two children out to a Christmas train ride in the desert.  Dubbed the “Polar Express”, the train chugged through the desert to the “North Pole” where it picked up Santa for the ride back.  There was hot chocolate and cookies and singing of carols, and the children enjoyed it immensely.  Driving back though, everyone was quiet - both children had fallen asleep in their carseats and Alicia sat sleepily in the passenger seat.  Randy was suddenly aware of the landscape surrounding them.  Not the usual concrete and metal, but dark silent hills that seemed to breathe slowly, and vast expanses of terrain with no lights.  He found his eyes wandering from the road ahead to the solid mounds against the sky, massive dark shapes exuding a palpable presence that drew him in, beckoning him to come and sit in their silence.  He had the feeling of not being in a city, or even of being out in nature, but of being on a desolate rock spinning slowly in the unimaginable emptiness of space.  The silence of the desert, that darkness, was calling to him, welcoming him.  Reaching out to him, beckoning him to come back, to come home.  It was beautiful and powerful.  Yet it was also menacing.

Randy was so accustomed to living in a barrage of light and noise that when it was taken away, it struck him and he found it frightening, threatening.  Even from inside his state-of-the-art hybrid car, with the soft green glow of the little lights inside and the gentle reassuring hum, the silence outside made its presence felt.  It had seemed to seep into him, to wrap its fingers around him and pull him towards it - and failing to accomplish that, to leave a little bit of it behind in his psyche.  

Perhaps that little bit left behind had worked its way into his dreams and was responsible for his “visitation”.  Perhaps it had only wanted to share with him its great and beautiful secret - a secret terrifying to Randy but precious to the hills and the sky, and the darkness that had birthed them both.

When he lay down again two nights later, the last one to fall asleep, he could hear it whispering for him.  And he recalled again the feeling of unending darkness.  Once again, everything - everything - was ripped away into oblivion.  And once again, he saw the pieces breaking up before him, his own body falling away, darkness all around and the knowledge that it had all been an illusion.  Most terrifying, the sense that his own mind was also breaking apart and falling away.   What then was left?  Only the darkness?  Emptiness?  Had everything he had ever known - including his own self - just been an illusion?  A great big show someone had put on for him in order to conceal the ultimate horror of a reality too empty and lonely to fathom?  And yet... if even his own self were just an illusion, then what was it that had just experienced that emptiness?  What was it that was feeling this fear?

The next afternoon, he lay on the couch with his daughter asleep on his chest.  His three-year-old daughter who still hadn’t said “mama”.  A little girl whose particular genetic makeup made grasping language difficult - in some cases impossible.  It is the same genetic makeup that gives her a peculiar  little turned up nose and - so her father thinks - a sweetness that seems to emanate from her like light.  

She began to stir and then opened her eyes, taking a few seconds to focus on his face and then another second before her own face melted open into a smile.  It is not the flesh that makes the smile, he thinks.  Not the muscles or the bones or even their movement, but something else.  That something, he tells himself, is the polar opposite of the darkness he felt himself plunged into in the early hours of the morning.  It doesn’t cancel out that darkness and it doesn’t make it any less dark or menacing.  It doesn’t counter it or combat it.  But as long as that other thing exists, as long as it is even possible, then the universe can make sense for him.  He can continue to put one foot before the other, to wake up in the morning.  To not go insane.

Random thoughts occur to him:  Had he been near death when he had his “visitation”?  Instead of seeing a bright light as so many people describe, he saw - no, felt - unfathomable darkness?   And if so, why is it that others report experiencing a bright light and sense of overwhelming peace at the moment of death, while he felt engulfed in a terrifying darkness?  What is it that he has done wrong - or not done right -  that makes him unworthy of the light?  And is it too late to fix it?

More random thoughts: Which is real?  The darkness or the life he knows, filled with constant noise, light, movement, connections.  Other people.  No matter how meaningless the connections may be, they fill the void.  Or rather, they obscure it.  All that noise, Randy can’t help thinking, just keeps us from sensing it, from knowing that the void is there.  It protects us from a darkness so terrifying, a ripping apart of all connections, the possibility of forgetting every connection ever made: your own parents, even your own children.  All that noise - it’s really here to protect us, he tells himself.

“Daddy?  What if a black hole came to Earth?  Would it eat all of us?”

“Yes.  It would swallow everything near it.  The planet, the oceans, our house, your sneakers... everything.”

Randy felt some guilt at giving such an honest answer to his six-year-old son.  The boy had no real concept of what a black hole was in relation to his own existence, no idea of how remote a threat it was.  And yet he was obsessed with the idea, with the possibility that it could come and eat everything up.  Randy always stressed that there were no black holes anywhere near them, that the danger of one coming close enough to do them harm was practically zero, but those never seemed to be the words that stuck.

Perhaps because Randy himself wasn’t so sure. 

“Is there any way we could get away from one?”

“No.  You can’t get away from a black hole.”

“What if I built a rocket ship that could carry all of us and we flew away so fast that we got away from that black hole?”

“Well... that might work.  If you got started long enough before the black hole got here.  But you’d have to know when it was coming.”

“How can we tell when one is coming?”

Randy thought a moment before answering.  “I’m not sure.”

After dinner, Randy turned off the news:  Earlier that day, someone had shot and killed some firefighters who were responding to an emergency.  He stood up and felt for a brief moment that his head was spinning around.  It seemed to him that all things were just spinning farther and farther apart, that the space between objects in the universe was widening.

A group of scientists had come up with a virus that could kill half the human population on Earth.  The question “why” bobbled around his head for a while, but something told him it was long past time for such questions.  The “why” is already here.  It has been with us for a long time already.

Alicia was already in bed when he came into the bedroom.

“Do you think maybe that DVD is a little old for him?”  He asked her.
“No, I think he understands it.  Enough anyway.  He loves it.”
“It just seems to be scaring him.  All he talks about these days is black holes.”

“He’s just curious.”

“I just don’t want him to be afraid.”

“He won’t be.  He’ll figure it out, and then he’ll be comfortable with it.”

As Randy got into bed, he felt dread but also stirrings of curiosity.  What would the darkness have for him tonight?  In small ways, he was starting to become friends with it, but only by attributing to it qualities it could not possibly have - qualities other than emptiness.  

The family’s golden retriever puppy lay spread eagled at the foot of the bed and he was reminded of the dog’s first few nights with them, whimpering in his crate alone in a room full of strangers.  Pooping and peeing all over the place, looking up with questioning eyes, following him around at his feet.  So eager to do the right thing.  So eager to please, to make these new people happy.

He doesn’t just want to please them, Randy realized.  He needs to please them.  Is it because that is the way he knows to stay in the pack?  Is it that in his little puppy head he can’t even allow the thought of being without his pack - whoever that pack may be - and that he must do everything he can: jump up and down, bounce around, wag his tail, hang his head in shame if need be... everything... to make his pack leaders happy?  The possibility of their not being happy is unthinkable. It means darkness and an emptiness a puppy’s heart could not withstand.  It means being alone.

Randy understood that it wasn’t only approval the puppy craved, but connection.  Any connection.  A pat on the head, a hug, words spoken to him.  A physical assurance, not that he is a “good dog” but that he is still part of the pack.  That he is not alone, he belongs.  As he drifted off to sleep, Randy found himself wondering whether perhaps the darkness was nipping at the puppy’s heels too.

Part II:

Alicia’s mother died a while ago.  She doesn’t know when exactly although she knows it was some time after the death of her baby girl - Alicia’s little sister, a baby her mother never even saw.  Now, her ghost walks through her house, takes in the mail, drives away on errands... her ghost walks through their lives, wanting desperately to be a part of them but somehow unable to connect.  

Whenever she comes close to connecting, the electricity of it is too much.  Like an opposing magnet, she shrieks in ghost terror, lashing out, attacking, seeking out the softest spots, sinking her ghost daggers into tender human flesh.

They told Alicia that her sister would have been a dwarf.  That she wouldn’t be able to walk very well if at all.  That every time she moved in the womb, her bones were breaking.  They said her brain did not develop normally, that she would have problems.  But later Alicia wondered how they could have known that so soon or whether it was even true.  When she heard it, still a child herself, she imagined herself taking care of her sister, protecting her, shielding her from the taunts of other children.

But her father had said no.  Her mother hadn’t said anything.  The doctors had to perform an emergency caesarian and she was unconscious when the decision needed to be made.  She didn’t get to choose.  But she agreed, afterward, that her husband’s decision had been the right one.  At least that’s what she told everyone.

Afterward, Alicia remembered waiting up late at night, after it was dark and her father and sisters were downstairs watching TV.  She would sit on her mother’s bed, looking out the window, waiting for her to come back from what seemed like a very long grocery trip.  Her mind began to offer up stories for her, explanations that - although Alicia was old enough to know were not real - seemed to make as much sense as a late-night trip to get more food.  One of the stories was about some kind of processing plant, where mommies went when they were tired of being mommies.  They would go inside and get chopped up into pieces, coming out on a conveyor belt at the other end, meat for some purpose that must have seemed more useful than they imagined their lives to be.  

Alicia knew of course that the processing plant was not real, that her mommy would come back sooner or later.  But still she would sit up waiting, anxious, getting excited whenever the headlights of a car wound down their street.  And then feeling her stomach sink when the lights continued to wind on beyond her house.

Maybe Alicia’s mother hadn’t died after all.  Maybe she had been swallowed up in a black hole.  Alicia knew what that was like.  Sitting on that hospital bed, the monitor right next to her.  Showing the incomprehensible triangular shadow of a heart.  Still.  Not moving like it was supposed to.  She knew what it was like when those walls come up and she knew it wasn’t something you did voluntarily.  It’s something your brain does to protect you from going insane.  She knew all that.

Even so, she found herself getting annoyed with her mother’s chatter about the most trivial of inanities.  Never anything real or important.  Only flighty little words that twittered up into the air and blew away like tiny dried up leaves.  The ghost voice shrieks out, piercing the silence, and anyone within earshot cringes and winces from the sharpness.  

“I really like forsythia!  Don’t you?”

“I like the way they’ve done their flowers!  Isn’t that attractive?”

Never any words, thought Alicia, about the steaming mound of shit that had been dumped on top of her family all those years ago.  Even back then she couldn’t remember many words said about what had happened.  Only at the photography studio, the woman in the front had said “it’s a blessing”, meaning it was a good thing that her little sister had died.  To this day, Alicia has trouble making sense out of those words.  Her mother had smiled and agreed.

Her parents hadn’t even buried her sister.  Hadn’t named her, hadn’t honored her, didn’t even acknowledge her.  Just gave her away to science.  Alicia thought that because she and her husband had buried their stillborn son, named him, held a ceremony honoring his short life, that it would be different.  That she wouldn’t become a ghost.  Yet for a long time, she felt that she had never really returned to the world of the living, that she still had one foot in the other world and that at any time she could shift her weight and step off in either direction.  Even now, even with two children who push and pull her every day into the hot and cold, the hard and soft of daily life, who force her to be there and to experience it, even now she sometimes catches glimpses of her mother in the mirror.

They go to a birthday party for one of their son’s school friends, Alicia walks around with her speechless little girl while Randy stays with their son near the bouncy house.  The three year old wants to explore.  She totters along, determined, just ahead of her mother. Unstoppable.  

Alicia dreads the day that she learns she is “different”.  A part of her even hopes her daughter is never able to fully comprehend it, that she never knows.  It is cliche for a mother to say it, but her smile is the most beautiful thing in the universe.  It is pure light, unimpeded by understanding.  Unimpeded by self doubt, questioning, sadness,  judgement.  For Alicia, the cliche is real:  That smile lights up her life.

And the thought of anything ever dampening it makes her sick.  The little tottering girl continues ahead of her mother, smiling in the sunlight.  “I will take care of you,” Alicia says out loud softly to herself.  “I will protect you.  And if any child, anyone, ever dares taunt you, I will knock them to fucking kingdom come.”

                              *                    *                    *

“Mommy, what if a black hole came to Earth?”

“Well, it would swallow us up.”

“Is there a way we could get away from it?”

“No Sweetie.  But you don’t need to worry about that.  There aren’t any black holes anywhere near us.”

“How do you know?”

“Well, that’s what the experts say.”

“What if they’re wrong?”

She reads that there is a scientist who thinks that black holes may just be “doorways”, tunnels into new universes.  She doesn’t buy it.  She thinks that’s the kind of physics that comes from Hollywood.  She’s seen how dark the universe is and she doesn’t believe for a minute that there is a “reason for everything” or that every story gets to have a happy ending.

“Watch out for the black holes!”
“I will!”

But somewhere deep inside she shudders.  Seeing the scene as if in a movie and it’s the melancholy words of a boy to his mother the last time she ever sees him.  It’s the kind of scene that plays itself out in her head day after day.  And she know constant fear running through her veins can’t be good for her.  

Alicia can hear her mother’s ghost sometimes, late at night, when everyone else is asleep.  Sobbing in a hallway somewhere or in a far off room.  She sees her reciting her ghost-world rules in the face of another world - Alicia’s world - that she cannot comprehend.  

She feels her watching over her shoulder as she sits in thought.  Hearing her thoughts, saying to her: “So those are your thoughts, your feelings.  They have nothing to do with me.”  And - because she is a ghost - Alicia has no way to tell her that, no, as long as she believes that, they don’t.  As long as that’s what she thinks, then her daughter’s thoughts and feelings can’t have anything to do with her. 

And yet she catches herself refusing to believe in happy endings.  Tired after a long day, she takes the dog outside, checks that the cat has food and water and heads to bed.  The smell of cat shit from the litter box in the bathroom is waiting for her in the bedroom.  And she feels herself starting to think of her pets not as she did as a child, with excitement and love and care, but as her mother saw them: as burdens, a source of chores, drudgery and mundane work that can take up a whole day.  That can take up a whole life.  She looks in the mirror on the closet door, sees the tired lines pulling her face down and wonders if she can still catch herself or if it is already too late.

© Bretigne Shaffer 1998