Hélène is a United Nations activist, organizing classes and festivals in South Africa to raise safe-sex awareness. Putatively. She’s been there for the past year. It’s a lonely job, walking down the same six corridors six or seven times a day, waiting for classes and festivals, each spaced days apart from the next. At first, she loved the solitude. She enjoyed boxing her activities into little philanthropic assembly lines. It eased her young conscience. The corridors, mirroring her latent repression, spiral inwards from their opening, several levels down to a thick, oak, blue door. Behind it is an endless wasteland of cracked, dried mud.
After each day of class she retraced invisible footprints to this same final exit, syncing disparate memorized standard form arguments with psychical reductions to innocence. It was a safe-guard, and she knew it. She even scheduled it in her notebook as “peripatetic therapy.” But gradually, she felt something ominous, extraneous, and ontologically Other slide its way in behind her repeated analyses. Something bigger than doubt, she thought, yet less than contradiction in toto.
One corridor brought to mind love for her family, nested in frustration at how little they understand her. Another more grandiose corridor (only so because its paint had not yet faded) conjured her deep trust in science and humanity, couched in a vehement sense that this trust was non-consensual. She tried to bring out this self-betrayal, but could only visualize images of self-legitimizing authorities littering her news feeds with euphemized headings like “scientific frontiersmen” with “ideas worth spreading.” In the final corridor, before the door to nothingness, she would retreat to the very fact of Being-There, Now, with time apart from her “self,” but even this turned against itself as a purely narcissistic sentiment.
She soon found herself hurrying down each corridor, fearful of what she might find if she walked, or thought, too slowly. After two weeks, the anxiety became asphyxiating. She regularly dashed through the corridors. These alien critiques had gained a life of their own and audibly consumed her formerly idyllic sentiments in gnashing, grinding moans. It was horrific. She just made for the desert behind that final blue door as quick as her legs could carry.
After each day of class, her community liaison (CL) gives her three tickets, each good for one beer. CL is, ostensibly, just as lonely as her, but because of what Hélène has conceded as the “cultural barrier,” he always resorts to handing these tickets to her in a self-imposed double-bind; he wants her to leave one ticket for him, implying an invitation to drink, but is not legally allowed to verbally ask her as much. She’s noticed he wears two wedding rings.
For the first few days his face is framed by over-arched eyebrows and open-mouthed smirks, lips tucked behind teeth, as if he’s trying to direct her to his tongue with his lips. These early encounters are easy for her to handle. She just tucks her head down and to the right on the nod’s descent, so as to combine the acts of reception, gratitude, and refusal into one graceful motion.
But the next day, the fourth day, CL follows her out of the office and calls after her, “do you have family?!” Hélène tries to hide her shock, but she’s already looking at him, motionless.
“Yes, I do, back home. And you?” CL’s smirk vanishes, and he follows her down the stairs. She resumes her tour of the corridors in his company.
“My father used to say that the skies of Africa hold all the world’s dreams.”
“So your father liked to dream, huh.” Hélène grimaces at CL’s truism’s double bind. She knows she can’t blow him off. He’s kind of her boss, in a gray, non-documented way. But she has no interest in entertaining some stranger’s nostalgia. CL lets his head fall to his shoulder.
“Why are you in Africa?”
“I guess just to travel, and do some good for other people when I can.”
They enter the first gaping corridor. Behind a missing a section of the wall is black tarp. It’s motionless, with a crypt-like discoloring of mold. “Other people.” He seems to masticate these words for a moment. “And what good can you do for the people of Africa?”
“Just minimize the damage, for those who will listen, I think.” CL chuckles at this in broken hums. He lets his hand slide along the corridor’s pulverized wall and swivels around a pillar at its end. They enter the painted corridor. Hélène feels humanistic. “I think I’m helping people.”
“Do you know what you give to the people of Africa?”
“Well, I give them knowledge, I think. How to practice safe-sex, to prevent disease and rape so they can build some life of their own.”
“Knowledge about your sky.” CL stops. He straightens up and drags his fingernails through the wall’s blue paint. “Your sky.” Hélène turns and pushes her way out the door of that last blank corridor and into the bright African sun.
“I think I have to go soon, I have to buy groceries in town, I—” Hélène walks more briskly now, along the concrete wall, as she did when alone in the corridors. CL is still behind her.
“But there is market in our oasis. The highway takes two hours, and you never know who is on bus!” CL yells after her. He has class in one hour; he won’t follow me on the bus. He continues to stare at her while she waits at the bus stop. “Then you must go to bar tonight, I must explain something to you.” The bus arrives and shifts gears with a thick sputter of exhaust. Hélène stretches her neck. CL’s pulling blue paint chips from his fingernails.
“Keep your head low, Hélène.”
On the bus, her anxiety resurfaces. Who did this man think he was? She’d worked with him for six months, and he’d never diverted himself toward her so stubbornly. She shivers in her seat and stares out at the meaningless expanse beyond her town’s oasis. The corridors’ leering doubts seize her again, so she stays on board and returns home. Her sleep is light, and drenched in nightmares.
On the sixth evening, she meets Ester at an outdoor bar. Dozens of possibly HIV-positive locals vie for a chance to sit with them. The light shines down weakly fluorescent, reflecting off of cheap metal tables arranged in an ellipse around the wooden bar. In every direction, she sees the bar’s light fade into the violet expanse beyond. No music plays.
From the expanse she hears hyenas howl. The gravel carpet before it crunches under the nervous twitch of every other lonely man’s leg. The men with high-browed lip-arrows clank their bottles and cans on their tables. Six men circle the bar, neither committing to nor aborting their respective shots at impressing her enough for that-one-drink.
She wants to escape. Withdraw, she thinks. She’s experiencing social withdrawal, and addiction is easier to face when you aren’t surrounded by picayune triggers. She is lonely, but wants to experience being alone, to see what it is she’s forgotten since she came—what’s eating her.
“Why do you look nervous, if you’re so lonely?” asks Ester.
“It’s there, I mean I’m lonely, but it’s sort of a background emotion. When people look at me like this I feel sick.” Hélène hides her now shivering hands behind her back. A hand brushes her spine.
“You finally came.” CL says with bloodshot eyes. He smells like moonshine.
“Yes, but I just want to relax here, so—”
“No, no, I insist. Let me sit with you for a minute.” He takes a swig of clear liquid from a tin cup. His accent is much stronger, phlegmatic. Ester takes the seat behind Hélène. “For all of Africa’s history in the world, we have had everything taken from us. Do you know how this happened?”
“Uh—colonialism? I studied some world history in my university days. I know it was wrong, it’s really unfortunate that the world can be so cruel.”
“Bahahaaa!” Hélène jumps back into Ester’s arms, and some orbiting men take notice. CL clears his throat. “Unfortunate. The world. Yes. It’s good that you know these things. But do you have knowledge of our misfortune? Do you know what happened to the people of Africa?” Hélène holds her left hand with her right, trying to keep the shakes away. Why does he keep asking me about the ‘people of Africa?’ “They cheated and blackmailed us out of our land, our crops, our precious resources. They did it for their people. Your people.”
“What can I say—I’m sorry I know—”
“You know nothing! Did your father sit you down as a child and tell you how you and all of your friends will be ignored by the world for the rest of your lives? Did you ever have to watch your people fight over which of them gets to be the favorite of the west? And realize while you watch your brothers slaying one another that this is already being forgotten?!”
CL spits as he speaks. He’s moved closer, now just six inches from her face. She forces herself to match him. His wrinkles betray his age. She can smell his rancid breath. His eyes are quivering. She struggles to stare back. His gaze is piercing. She’s desperate for words.
“I am sorry Hélène, I forget myself. I have lost my family, and it’s not often I have a chance to speak with a foreigner so openly.”
“I—uh, noticed you have two rings. Did you remarry?”
“Re—marry?” CL pulls away to examine his ring finger. “In a way, yes I have.”
“I’d love to meet your wife. How did you meet her?”
“She is already here. I found her in the sky, and she ends at the horizon. She is my queen. You don’t know it, but she is looking at you now, studying and judging. She is wondering why you are in Africa.”
Hélène looks to Ester. What am I supposed to say to this? Jesus! Ester releases a long, dull sigh. “Hélène, he’s not maudlin. People today have forgotten, but some of us know that we’re never alone on this planet.”
“Yes, Hélène, she’s right. The very idea of solitude does not exist to us. I think you will understand if you go to my wife. Here—” He pulls a keychain out of his pocket and offers it to her, pinched between fingers. “Take my jeep and drive into the salt pans. There is food and camping equipment in the backseat.”
“Wha—I can’t just take your jeep out into the middle of nowhere. How can you trust me?”
“My wife will watch you. Out there, you cannot escape her.”
“Can’t you just tell me? I know I’d understand if you didn’t speak in riddles and metapho—” CL slams his tin cup on the bar with a crunch.
“I’m sick of your knowledge! Experience, this is what teaches people. That is how we learn. Only experience can do wrong or right.”
“I can drive you. Let’s go.” Ester volunteered. “I need to see her, too.”
Very little was said over the next thirty minutes. It was dry outside, but for the first time in weeks, Hélène could feel wind. It caresses her face with a hint of gasoline and oil, and it fingers through her tangled hair. Her scalp is pulled in cyclical motions, coded up and down, overwriting her histrionic-claustrophobia with a manageable, neurotic-looking agoraphobia. She can’t push the world away.
To counter the latter she hangs her body over the door and pivots on her hip. Sand cyclones lash dried mud caressing old, rusted wheels. They rip a series of concentric arrows across the land. The jeep’s wake transforms into two horizontal spirals. Hélène’s pupils relax to take in the horizon. Their wake is a creamy pillar framed by the ever-shrinking grassy oasis. She thinks to herself, that’s home, now. She realizes that she’s stretched her arm out, and shifts her pupils’ focus to her hand, now painted with chalky cracks.
Her heart sinks, and she pulls herself back into the passenger seat. Ester calmly pulls a hand off of the steering-wheel and touches Hélène’s face. She’s careful to avoid the eyes and gazes longingly ahead, at the destitute field of fading tracks and angled road signs.
“So do you feel better yet?” Ester asks.
“I don’t—I don’t know, it’s good to be moving though. How long do we have to drive until we’re isolated?”
“Not long. Maybe thirty minutes. It would take us a day to get across the salt pans, so we can really drive as far as we want before setting up camp.” Hélène sits back in her seat and thinks.
“Hey Ester? What do you know about CL? Is he like super-religious or something?”
“CL? Hmm, no, not really. I mean everyone here is supposedly catholic, but he never goes to mass, and he’s never talked about it before.”
“Okay. But then why did he send me to this wasteland to find his wife?”
“Listen to me, he didn’t tell you to find her. She is already here. You just don’t feel her yet.” Hélène is beginning to feel like she’s wasting her time. This must be a local custom or a remnant of some pagan religion, she thinks. One of those you-feel-it-once-you-believe-it cults. Hélène’s heart slows. Her suburban mindset returns, and her doubts slowly subside. This is just a desert, and I’m going to waste a few hours in the middle of nowhere.
“Why don’t we spend the night out here? I feel like I can trust you. Maybe I can finally be alone. We can trade ghost stories or something.”
“I will listen to your ghost stories if you like, but we are out here for a reason. Don’t forget that. We will be awake most of the night, working hard.” Hélène scowls at this. Great, now I have to entertain this fanatic all night. Does she expect me to take this seriously? I’m no damn tourist. Why does she assume I’m at her mercy?
The sun is nearly gone. Hélène looks back to the oasis, and sees the last sector of land disappearing through waves of heat. Her hair falls down, and time slows. Part of the hazing oasis is gray and fading into sage. A minute later it’s melting into the tan and barren nothingness surrounding her. The air feels empty; her breath is not enough. The sound of grinding tires fades into the sound of her heartbeat. Before long even this is lost to her. Her senses feel distant, like she’s floating inside a sphere of in-laid spikes. They could pierce her at any moment.
“Hélène!” Ester pulls her shoulder around. “I know there is nothing to hold onto out here, but focus on me. I will be with you tonight.” Hélène nods automatically, still disconnected from her senses. She manages to form a few words of reassurance, “how old are you,” but she isn’t sure in what aphasic order they emerge; “you old, are how?” Ester nods back, “Okay. We are completely isolated. Let’s stop here.”
The sky has just a hint of turquoise left, chasing the sun round the western horizon. Hélène steps out of the jeep and backs away from it, slowly, then turns and just runs as fast as she can, panting, and her boots lick up an invisible wake. The ground cracks with each step like ice. Even her heart is pumping salt. She keeps thinking just forget Ester, lose this place, I need to find what’s right, what’s real and picks out a star directly ahead. She wants to chase it down, rip it apart and push for something familiar. Then she looks down and just stops. The horizon. It’s swallowed the Earth.
Behind her, Ester and the jeep are amorphous specs; anonymous silhouettes against the darkening sky. I should stick close to the jeep, to the water. Slowly, somatically recollecting herself, Hélène paces back to Ester. She allows her doubts to resurface. The old Otherly-ones. Her thoughts turn herself into an object. An irrational body in an organless void. Ester’s silhouette hangs alone, dangling up from the earth. She’s waiting for her, stolid and expressionless. Hélène takes a bottle of water from the seat of the jeep and sits on the shattered earth.
“Ester, did you notice how the salt pans look exactly like an ocean? I wanted to get lost, but now that I actually can push myself to feel what I want, the pressure is too much. Like the expectation of my liberation is itself the final unbreakable chain to the rest of the world.”
“You are thinking too much. You’re trying to hide. Stop it. I will do the thinking for you.” Ester sits down next to her, facing east. Gradually, both of them are enveloped in darkness. Their faces are nearly invisible. But Hélène isn’t looking at the ground anymore. She feels her pupils fully dilate as something begins to shine through the eastern sky.
Gradually, points of light group into blue frozen clouds, resting on what transforms from hundreds into hundreds of thousands of indiscernible eddies of every color. A mad nebulous blanket, whose luminosity is softened by an immense black maw. Its edges turn and wrap into itself. It’s self-consuming, and the resemblance is unmistakable.
“In your home what do you call this?”
“The Milky Way. But I don’t know why it has such a benign name.”
“Be-nign? Yes. Overwhelming, isn’t it. It’s been like this for billions of years, and will continue to look like this for billions more.” Ester speaks in monotone. Hélène feels something return her gaze. She turns away.
“If you put it that way, what difference do our lives make? I mean how can we say we really know we’ve overcome anything compared to the indifference of the big picture?”
“Do you think you’d feel better about it if you could live forever?”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it. You could study every science, get a thousand PhDs, fall in and out of love to your heart’s content, and see hundreds of generations go by.”
“Sure, but you’re just indulging in dreams. We’re all gonna die.”
Hélène rubs her left heel with her right boot’s metal tip. Ester clears her throat. “Do you know there are jellyfish living deep in the ocean that have the ability to live forever?”
“How is that possible? Everything dies.”
“Yes, inevitably, but these jellyfish don’t die from old age. It’s a disease called senescence. We die because our telomeres deplete and our DNA degrades. These jellyfish don’t lose telomeres, so they don’t succumb to senescence.”
“You think death is a disease? To me, death is more real than life.”
“You poor girl. Look up at your Milky Way. Tell me you don’t see a universe teeming with life and mystery, baiting us to put our fear aside and take what’s ours!”
“But what about CL’s wife? Wouldn’t that be her mystery?”
“Have you read Kant?”
“—He reasoned that what we experience of the external with our senses is actually a reflection of our own consciousness.”
“So you’re really a reflection of me?”
“Yes, and you of I. And what do you think that sky is to the earth?”
“I guess if we think of the earth as separate from the sky, then they are each other’s reflection.”
“Yes. And what is this planet if not a great womb, carrying us through infancy? That beautiful womb in the sky is CL’s wife.” Hélène repeats Ester’s words in a Sagan-esque voice in her mind. She laughs silently.
“And she is just regent queen to our interstellar destiny. If we could extend our lives indefinitely, we could stop fighting over precious resources, or political ideologies and amorous indulgence, you know, think things through.”
Hélène couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Sure, she thinks, immortality would be great, but she couldn’t place Ester as the eternal philanthrope. “Ester, just who could afford this genetic alteration? Who’s to say who should live forever?”
“Eventually governments would make it illegal to have children. This is inevitable. We won’t need kids in a race of adults.”
“And you’re looking forward to this? Doesn’t everything worth living for come from fresh perspectives?”
“You are naïve, Hélène. We only need children now because we accept the fact of death. We must remember that there is no limit for us. With enough time, people like us could remove every doubt, every false god. We would come to trust our origins as our rightful heritage, and leave this wandering womb behind.”
“So you believe we have access to true, objective knowledge?”
“I think it is inevitable that we already have access to some correct categories. Look what we have already accomplished, as a species. We need only to implement the right concepts and rid ourselves of fear.”
“You’re so lost in the concept of the ideal that you’ve forgotten the real.”
“What is more real than empirical data? I believe in evidence as proof of reality.”
“That’s pathetic Ester. Evidence is image given simulated life by the vote of a privileged minority. Science is a myth-generator. It’s popular because it works, because it’s popular, because—do you see the vicious circle? It feels good, but that’s what it’s made for; nothing more.”
“You’re an amusing one, Hélène. What explanation do you have for all of this, then?”
“When I look up, I don’t feel love or sense any great womb. It feels like a wound in the sky. Don’t you feel it pushing down on you? We’re just surfaces pressing into surfaces.”
“Wrong. To exist is to fight for the right to continue existing. It is a privilege to be among the stars. Why waste time with dark sentiments?”
“Do you hear what you are saying? Don’t you enjoy life? Why rebuke yourself for using what is given to you by our cosmic mother?”
“Yes—CL is my father, by blood and by faith.”
“It’s good you admit to your faith, but this mother of yours is no friend to trust. She is a dying entity, if anything. Anyone so old would exude only the last cycling thoughts of loss, humiliation, abandonment and self-loathing, swirling round the drain of her pupils. What would you do with eternity? Do you even know? How long until your thoughts fade into the background static noise of this murderous universe?”
“Murderous? Yes, this is true. But my Will can never fail me. It will only grow. Think Hélène, how much has your mind grown since you were a child? Project that forward a hundred more years, a thousand, a million! Can’t you feel it? Our destiny?”
“I think you’re talking about deep time. The kind of duration that sees events as something lasting billions of years. Be careful, Ester, deep time is an insatiable maw. In its gaze you’d become a monster, if you already aren’t.”
“Don’t talk to me like this. It’s disrespectful to mother.”
“Would you like me to gentrify? Is your ‘Will’ already threatened? Don’t you understand what CL was talking about when he mentioned his life’s tragedy? What it’s like to have to ask to exist?”
“I know I exist because I can doubt this truth. And I have a right to seek what I can imagine. You only let your doubts determine your future.”
“What if I held a gun to your head right now and told you to do exactly as I say, would you feel so autonomous then? And what if I tied you behind the jeep and let the salt pans rip your clothes to shreds until you called me master? What then?”
“I would die before submitting to you. That is the true nature of humanity.”
“Listen to yourself, ‘true nature of humanity?’ Nature is a euphemism for the unknown. How long can your Will stand that? An hour? What happens when your skin begins to peel off? Can you imagine that? And what if I keep you alive for days, running supplies from town, just to make sure you don’t die on me? Do you have any idea what experiencing this means?”
“I can’t believe you have such cruel intentions.”
“Can’t, or won’t? My intentions have nothing to do with this. I’m telling you that you don’t really know what it’s like to have your humanity stripped. To know that you have to continually choose, in every passing second, to be more than a thing. That’s the thing about intentions, they don’t actually determine what happens.”
“You’re saying that everything I’ve told you is just fantasy? But how could I have come this far? You’re just a wicked, cynical woman.”
“I’m saying there are things worse than death, and blindly fantasizing about infinite consciousness is nothing but hubris.”
“But there is, must be something. The universe is so big, where else can these feelings come from?”
“You are a relic! So you’ve studied some science, modernism and paganism, but you should at least keep up to date with one of them. We’re dealing with a multiverse of infinite determinations, now.” Hélène surprised herself with these thoughts. Those corridors were no good for her self-analysis, but that’s nothing to say of everything else.
“Infinite determinations? Well I want the life determined to extend to my Will.”
“You wouldn’t be the only one. And you still don’t get it. Should I redress this in scientific language? Countless duplicates of yourself are already on their way to that life, doing everything you are dreaming now, everything you aren’t considering, and are even right now in this laughable womb of your fantasies reacting to these words in more ways than you could ever hope to out-think.”
“But it’s still my choice to pursue any of these possibilities. I am the one choosing it here. In this reality.”
“Why are your choices so special? They aren’t exempt from this. And if you think you have problems being unique now, wait until your soul dies and your humanity suffocates. I’m betting after your first century or two that that palate of choices will be so limited that if you could see it from here you’d choose death now rather than fulfill such a pathetic destiny.”
“If I’m so pathetic, then what are you doing in this desert with me? You seem to have found all the answers yourself, so how dare you come out here, Hélène, you miserable fake, walking around playing the ignorant innocent virgin as if you even have a fucking right to exist!”
“Wow, this is really novel to you, isn’t it? I guess I am really lucid right now. It feels so natural, though.” Hélène drags down that particular mention of the natural to extol the wound Ester is beginning to accept. “And Ester? I’m just taking in all the myriad ways. Mapping my ideological coordinates. You’re my little reference dipper.”
“How can you just take advantage of people, hurting them just to see where you are in life? Is this why you came to Africa?”
“I don’t presume to clutch citable meta-theories of myself underlying every choice. That wouldn’t be human. You should try something besides ‘mother’ sometime. And as to how, letting go enlightens your subconscious’ reflection. Do you know what the etymology of addict is? In Greek it’s something like religious devotion. Even I want it from time to time, but I don’t need it any more than that wound in the sky needs our recognition.”
“But we all need something to hold onto. An interface with reality. Perfecting this is what I want to do.”
“What you want and what you need are two different things. This whole ‘mother’ kick of yours is just a metanarrative you’re clinging to. It’s icky.”
“You speak to me like a child.” Ester’s voice is insular; obscured. “Why would you use such uneducated words except to hide your uncertainty?”
“I’m not hiding. I’m just bored of trying to box the world with you. Congratulations, Ester, you pulled a truer me out. I’m, like, free.”
“Please…Hélène, stop. Don’t take this from—” Ester is shaking her head, and slow, gradual sobbing overtakes her words. Hélène feels fresh laughter brewing inside her. It’s nothing at all resembling some tawdry comic-villain. It’s a mad, deliberate laughter, no longer sporadic or separate from her. She rolls to her sides, glimpsing Ester’s imago-death in one turn, and the empty horizon in the next. Her hands claw at the ground, snapping fingernails.
“Is it eternal damnation, then?” Ester is barely audible. “To be crushed forever, pushing nature away in hopes of another release?” Hélène turns over to straddle her. She crumples the earth in her hands hanging over Ester’s eyes. Her laughter grows tender and more delicate. It’s almost methodical, like a surgeon narrating delicate procedures in a forgotten demonic language. “Just blind me, Hélène, I don’t want to see, it’s too heavy.”
“An anesthetic to your Sisyphus, then.” Hélène lowers her head to Ester and massages dirt into her eyes, tracing black tears into triangles across her face. Ester whimpers every minute or so until she cycles into silence. Her breathing is regular. Hélène falls back, legs tangled with her new disciple. “Hey Ester?”
“…all life is evil.”
“Because in life, death is all?”
“To presume a right to immortality proves our wretched nature.”
“Then I will spend this life pushing my nature away from me, until I am no more.”
“So you see, Marjorie, we must end shortly.”