Anita, at five. Crawling up stairs. Gets to the top and tumbles down.
“She should be walking by now,” says her mother.
Outside, Anita holds a tree and lifts herself up. Across the street, music blares and a man hits a woman in the face. A car twirls out of the driveway. Anita stands. No one is watching her. No one sees her victory.
Anita at nine sits on a train with her mother’s brother. He smells like hamburgers. She is wearing a dress, has a backpack on her lap. “You should be able to read by now,” says her uncle. She takes a book out of her bag and holds it upside down. He shakes his head and looks out the window.
There is music playing on the speaker. Anita can barely hear it. The train takes a bend, hits a bump that makes her leap off the seat. People laugh, like this is a roller coaster.
Past the trees, over the fields. As the city appears, Anita’s uncle puts his hand on her leg. It’s a warm hand. She stares at it, the way it is squeezing her flesh. Music is playing. Trees are gone, fields too. City is coming. She looks at the hand, wonders if she should touch it back.
### turns. “Turn!” he yells, but no response. Ahead, a blue globe approaches. The ship banks, but the atmosphere sucks for it, and suddenly the hull is warm. Blue peers through clouds. The ship buckles and creaks, on fire. Flames lick at the screen.
Hello, sweet planet. ### is out of his seat, opening a door. He jumps, snatched by oxygen and wind as he watches the ship head for a sea. He, meanwhile, is floating. The air is warm, the water cool as he touches it. Around him, waves. He can’t remember the last time he swam.
Visitors come, glancing against him. Slippery, tiny creatures. “Do you know,” he asks them, “what is divine?”
Silence. The water reaches to land in the distance. ### takes a breath of the rich oxygen. He steels himself. He swims.
Anita at fifteen is pregnant with her uncle’s child. She is in a clinic. “You should be smarter by now,” says her mother, as though her own brother hadn’t done this.
At the message board, a flyer. Anita blanks on the words, but mostly looks at the photos. They are of a coast, hills and mountains against the ocean, dipping towards the water as if to give tribute. On the ocean, a boat. On the sand, a tent. She hears a sound, her name. A tap on the shoulder, telling her that she needs to go in.
Lying down, staring at the ceiling. Hello sweet grief, thinks Anita. “She should be able to recover from this, no?” comes her mother’s voice.
“Can you wait outside, please?” says another person. Then, to Anita: “How are you? Let me explain what we are going to do. This won’t hurt. You won’t feel anything. Do you understand?”
“Can you turn on the radio?” asks Anita.
A click. It’s a news channel. A man is talking about a bus crash in Malaysia. After that, the cupcake festival in the next county. Anita is given something to drink as an important person on the radio talks about water quality, and what you can and can’t put down your sink.
What a shape ### carves into sand as he lies there. Heat touches him. He’s hungry. The water was too thick. Almost undrinkable. In the trees, he finds a glade of many colours, and eats a little from each.
He touches the soil. Puts it into his hand and closes his eyes, squeezes. In his palm, a diamond, a tiny thing he throws into the trees. From a stream, he drinks. In the mud, he walks.
“I didn’t mean to leave,” he tells a boulder. “I don’t mean to stay here,” he says to a bush. Long ago, he pushed his ship towards a hole in space, streaming alongside light that also couldn’t resist the pull of that flight into the unknown. “I was looking for the divine,” he says to a tree, and remembers. Crashing light, whipping bits of star matter, comets coming apart, and the blaze of entrapped sound. Into the hole he’d gone, and come out the other side into an existence just as empty as the one he’d left.
Worlds had passed, suns erupted. Clouds of gas had assembled into paintings, and waves of energy had soared as though they had known where to send ### for the answers he’d sought. He remembers the words: “I didn’t mean to leave”, but having lived so long, having gone so far, he doesn’t remember who he said them to.
On the ground, a snake. In the sky, a bird. He puts out his arms. Bends his head to the sun.
Anita, at seventeen, sleeps with a boy. Later, she opens his window and steps onto a fire escape. He’d given her money, but she’d said no. Below, the street is busy and Anita hangs over the ledge. I should have a job by now, she thinks. I should be living on my own.
The next day, she is asked to leave school. “Why?” she says, but what she actually means is: “What now?” At home, her mother raises her hand. “You should have tried harder,” but Anita hears a different thing, a question about why she was born and is the way that she is.
At home, she stands next to a tree and looks across the street. Music is thumping from a porch, as a man drinks beer. She walks over. “Can I have some?”
He opens one for her. “As many as you want. No one else to drink with.”
Music rages as Anita drinks. From here, her house looks different. It looks small. In the windows, she can see her mother moving. She can see curtains swaying. It almost looks like a television screen, and the more she drinks, the more certain she is that this is not reality she is watching. It’s a play, actors coming together on sets built to confuse her. To chase her away.
“I should be better,” she admits to the man.
He shrugs. “I thought that too. About five beers ago.”
“Is that all it takes?”
He hands her another beer. Turns back to watching Anita’s house. “Knew you when you were a little girl,” he says, and then silence as the music thumps.
### reaches a structure. Inside, animals are held in stalls. “Do you speak?” he asks, as they stare at him. “What is the matter? Have you not seen a being from somewhere else?”
The conversation goes nowhere, and he is hungry. He roasts an animal over a fire. Later, in the house, he wanders. People have lived here. He is not sure what he means by this word ‘people’, for he has seen many ‘people’ in his long existence, and none have been able to show him the divine. Hung from the walls, there are images of beings laughing together. On shelves, thick bundles of pages with tiny writing. He lies on their floor. Drinks their water. Presses himself against their glass, showing himself to the world, waiting for them to return and see him.
No one comes. A bottle of murky brown liquid loosens his limbs. A fire blazes in a hearth, and he dances with arms raised, knowing that something in this picture is missing. What is the reason for all this motion, he wonders? What is this twirling and spinning, why am I doing it?
The fire cracks. Otherwise, all is silent.
Upstairs, a mirror. He cannot remember the last time he saw himself. On a bed, he closes his eyes. People are going to come home and find me here, he thinks. “Then they’ll do as they will,” he says, his mind spinning from the brown liquid. He is wearing the clothes of these people: they don’t fit at all. Most are ripped as they hang from his body. Tatters lie on the floor, circling the bed.
Anita at twenty stands on a bridge at night. Cars are moving, but she doesn’t know how to drive. Headphones are in her ears. Below, water. It is the longest drop she can imagine.
“She should be alive,” she can imagine her mother saying, later. Anita turns up the volume and steps onto the other side of the barrier.
A boat moves. Across the river, lights on a building change colour – they pulse for a moment, vanish, surge. Her phone rings, and she drops it into the water. There is a tiny splash, then nothing.
She is just like that, she thinks. A tiny splash and then nothing. She turns up the music.
“She should be married by now. Have a career, a house. Should be over her teenage fancies. What’s that? She’s mentally incapable of writing a sentence? Has about five learning disabilities? Was raped by her uncle and had an abortion? It’s got nothing to do with me, oh no. I didn’t drink when I was pregnant with her. Took no drugs. My worthless husband didn’t beat me. There is no explanation for this. There is no reason.”
“I should be better,” says Anita, and when the words come, her phone rings again. It is at the bottom of the water, but she can hear it over the music. The screen lights up the whole river. Exposes the fish, the floating plastic, the coarse muddy bottom. And the young girl standing on the bridge, looking down at all that light.
### is being chased. Two nights ago, he saw a person, and tried to communicate. Made inquiries about the divine. But they’d screamed and thrown rocks until he’d run into a forest. After that, lights had appeared in the sky – do I know you? he’d cried, but these were not crafts he recognized. People and animals chased as he’d run, faster than his pursuers but too alone, too far away from home, to get very far.
The forest had ended on hard rock. Under the light of the moon, he’d scampered into a desert.
He runs. How do you talk with those who will not listen? With those who do not care what you are looking for, or why you think the way you do? Do you stop and make gestures with your limbs? Do you grunt? Draw in the sand? What? How to make them listen, understand?
The sun rises. The desert stretches. There are no sounds behind him, but that doesn’t mean that he will get very far. Ahead, a grey line in the sand. On it, something is moving.
She stops the car when she sees it. West, the road stretches through the desert.
I have to stop, she thinks. I shouldn’t stop, but I have to. She opens the door and lets the creature into the front seat. Its black skin is steaming, its eyes wild and looking everywhere. “Put on your seatbelt,” she says, stupidly. Stupid! She’s not even sure how a seat belt could fit around this thing.
I should be smarter than this, thinks twenty-three-year-old Anita. Maybe I’m not even seeing this thing. Maybe it isn’t real, and my bad brain is failing after all. “Are you going west, too?” she asks. “I am. To the ocean. The big water.”
The creature stops shuddering, as though it’s caught its breath in the air conditioning. “Have a drink,” says Anita, and hands it a bottle. The contents are drained quickly. “Chips?” The whole bag disappears.
Anita turns to the road. She takes her foot off the brake, and the car moves forward. It only takes a moment for her to get to speed. There is no one else on the highway. Just her and this creature.
“Looking for something, you know,” she says, to break the silence. “I saw a photo of the ocean. I don’t remember things well, but I remember that. I keep asking myself: what now? It’s hard to answer that, isn’t it?” The creature shifts. “Don’t eat me, please. That would be a terrible way to end this journey, okay?”
As if it understands, the creature nods.
“Well, you and me for a few hundred miles,” says Anita. She is wearing a tank top and shorts, a necklace. Her skin is brown, hair long. There is sand between her toes, crunching under her sandals as she gives the car gas. “Are you looking for something too? Anything I can help with?”
No answer, just silence. Anita sighs. The car revs. “Well, let’s try this,” she says, reaching for the radio. “I made a playlist. Know what that is?” She hits a button and the music comes. It’s a familiar song. Thumping music, back from when she was a kid, neither happy nor sad, meaningful or important, but a sound she remembers and attributes to Anita at five, at nine, at all the ages in-between, the same sound that had played in her ears when she’d stood on that bridge, and decided to step back. Had decided to learn to drive. Get a car. Turn it west, and just go.
The creature shudders. “What’s wrong?” asks Anita. “Are you okay?” But the creature shakes harder. Its mouth, a ridiculous maw, opens. Its limbs sway, frantic at first, but then closer to the rhythm of the song. “Are you dancing? Do you like the music?” The creature gyrates, its skin lighting, its eyes glowing. The car lurches. Wheels spin, but they’re not touching the road anymore. “Hey!” yells Anita. “How are you doing that?”, but she’s not going to argue against the feeling of flight. They soar over the road, the creature thumping to the music.
Far down the highway, the song ends and the car lands, coming to a stop. Anita is laughing. She is pointed west. The creature is breathing hard, distraught. “It’s okay,” she tells it. “I can play it again. As many times as you want. Just say the word. It’s only a song. One little song from when I was a kid. That’s all.”
The creature stares at her, eyes so wide.
“No big deal, see?” she says, turning on the music with the tinniest flick of a finger as her foot hits the gas and the desert whips by, sand everywhere. At the end of it, an ocean. Around it, all that there is – and we, the divine.