Escape Pod 555: Monstrance of Sky
Monstrance of Sky
By Christopher Mark Rose
Aerbello — the shape one sees in the movement of wheat, blown by wind. The shape of wind, written in sheaves.
I left me, without really leaving. Well, not I myself, but Eva. She told me she was leaving me, as we made love in our bedroom. It was clear she didn’t mean immediately.
Cova — any place a crow could be. A crow-sized void, unoccupied by an actual crow.
She said we weren’t good for each other, we weren’t helping each other to grow. She said my God obsession had gotten to be too much. She said her presence in my life was redundant.
“Please don’t go,” I said. “If you go, my heart will be a cova.” I couldn’t understand, and it hurt me. It felt as though I had swallowed a razor blade, without realizing.
Monstrance — a vessel, in Catholic tradition, in which the consecrated Host is placed, to be exposed for the adoration of the faithful.
Without knowing why, I had started making a list of words that meant God, or related to worship, or words I thought could describe God. I found I was transcribing large portions of dictionaries, encyclopedias. I couldn’t explain it, I just felt compelled. I was probably obsessed. I wasn’t a believer but neither an unbeliever then.
Eva was my clone. Not a clone of myself, Evelyn — we were both cloned from the DNA of some original Eve we had never known. We had met in an ichthyology class, dissecting. We were both human women, electively bioluminescent but otherwise normal. Everyone needs bioluminescence below ten meters, and we were far below that.
We lived then in a submerged sea colony, a tubey maze of intertwined grottos of plasma-sintered spinel, transparent and pure, our anonymous neighbors’ lives as exposed and untouchable as our own. It was like a Habitrail for attractive young marine scientists. Everyone was a swimmer then.
Groache — a drug of uncertain purpose and properties — something one takes as a blind escape, unsure of the outcome.
Eva was the kind of clone that would reprogram other women’s robots unasked. Competent and helpful. I was the kind of clone that baked pies then gave them to strangers. Needy and abstracted, probably. We were two expressions of the same being — this is what I told myself then. I wanted to believe her accomplishments were my own.
I remember that look shot across the lab bench, a dead fish between us. It isn’t hard to seduce yourself. It’s mutually assured orgasms all the way down. You could read it in your own eyes, staring right back at you.
It was common in those days. It was self-affirming, certainly. At some level, people without clones must wonder what it would be like, to love yourself, though I learned that clone isn’t really you.
Shemhamphorasch — word describing the 72 letter hidden name of God, in Kabbalah and related esoteric traditions (but how could anybody really know this?)
At first, the ocean colonies were like Mars — full of women. Women were thought to be better at living in close spaces together. Most of us imagined it was temporary. We were young, and didn’t think we would ever grow old. People there weren’t old, mostly. They had found ways to extend the lifespans of women, though not of men.
Then the war started, and the colonies were glad to be apart. By some convention we had been excluded.
Predictably, the war hopscotched through several new weapons, each more horrible than the last — prionic, teratogenic, fermionic, nano-mechanical. We thought the world was ending. Then we didn’t want to go back. The colonies quarantined themselves, hoping for cures, for peace.
There we all were, tangled up together. The colonies had attracted a certain sort of woman, mostly. But then all the lines became blurred, by technology, by isolation, by spindrift passions. You loved who you loved, and that was all. The war made love inescapable. War and men above. Safety and love below.
We grew, we built, we cloned. We became self-sufficient. We stopped listening to news from the surface.
Farn — everything beyond the horizon.
“But why, why?” I asked Eva then. Why had she chosen this moment to tell me, in this languid, mesmerized voice? I could feel a hot tear on my cheek. Why were we even doing this then? But I persisted.
Sex then was a relief, a groache, it was permission to forget, to growl and to moan, without attributing cause or motive. My own tears made me desperate. And she knew me, she knew where to find the locus of me. She made love ambivalently, glowing there in the crucible of our bedroom, refusing to abandon the arguments of the day.
“I’m imploring you, stay with me,” I said, not looking up from what I was doing. “We belong together.”
“You could just say ‘begging’,” she said. “You’re begging and it’s not good for either of us. This is a sentence to say that we have to get out of this narcissistic, self-referential relationship.”
“We belong together.”
“We have to stop this. We’re too much alike. We’re not growing any longer.”
“Maybe we’re grown,” I said.
But she didn’t move out, she just became unpresent. She stopped talking. She only barely accepted my touching her, and never responded, which was horrible. During the days, she was gone more and more. At night, she lay absolutely still, compressed and unconcerned, like an ingot in a shipwreck. She had left me, without leaving.
My love was like a cellulose plate: bright and sparkling but flimsy, destined to be crumpled.
My grief was like an ornate umbrella: a useless, absurd burden for life underwater.
Maybe I got these two backwards.
I had relied on Eva, her composure as the world was ending, her fearless humor, her ability to understand remote controls. Without her I couldn’t negotiate the world.
Muezzin — a Muslim who proclaims the call to prayer (adhan) for public worship, and the five daily prayers (salat). Often standing atop a minaret. The call of the muezzin is considered an art form.
When they arrived, the aliens looked like sparkling animate trumpets, or flickering tumbleweeds assembled from them, and when I said so, Eva frowned and said that everything doesn’t have to be like something else. I said that everything did, and is, and why did she resist that? I think she might have known even then, or guessed, when we first saw them together.
They disembarked, from their bright barques, coming from we-knew-not-where, to surface with no warning in the center of our docking bay, of our lives. They didn’t want to have anything to do with the war, up on the surface — that’s why they came down. Men had never seen them.
We set up an impromptu inter-species conference. I wouldn’t say we were first contact — we were more like a first sit-down. I was distantly connected to this. I was a nutritionist. My job was trying vainly to feed them, while reducing the chances of cross-species infection.
We didn’t know what to offer them to eat, so we offered them everything. We didn’t want to be rude. We asked them so many questions. They were curious and forbearing, polite but unhungry.
The aliens said that photons could be assembled into long molecules like atoms are into DNA. They said that mass was an illusion caused by volition, and everything possessed volition. They said that the universe was limitless, and only appeared to be expanding.
They disapproved of marriage and yogurt, of mood rings, house pets, and sports. They liked Jackson Pollock. They were curious about chairs. The aliens told us there was no God, by our definition of Her; that a universe so conceived was not so much incorrect as insufficient.
The aliens weren’t uncertain. They had the confidence of superior physics, and of having made a long journey. Who were we to doubt them? Their voices were a kind of fluid violence, like whisking eggs in a bowl.
“We don’t understand them, yet, but they can understand us.” Eva had been watching them, attempting to talk with them through machines. They seemed incomprehensible to me, but Eva apparently thought could understood them, given time.
Rama — the seventh avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, and protagonist of the famous Hindu epic. Rama’s life is a parable of adherence to dharma.
I doubted the aliens’ assertions about God. Nights, I would flip through 3-D footage alone, trying to imagine myself inside chapels, mosques, cathedrals, temples, synagogues, monasteries, basilicas, Presbyterian Bible camps, atop ziggurats, inside reliquaries, singing from minarets, until the sanctity sweated all out of my palms and made my mouse and wine glass slippery with lost grace. I wished my life were a tale of faith and redemption, or a parable of adherence to dharma.
Eva’s reasons for (not) leaving kept changing. I never believed any of them. But I could feel our distance growing, and it inflamed me. “I’m imploring you,” I said.
“I could just say ‘begging’,” I said.
I was wanton for me, I wanted to make love to me day and night, to smear myself all over me and then kiss me, fulsomely, so that I would never forget my wild coppery scent on my lips, to hold me down and thrust against me, to listen to my quaking arching breaths, to be rude and to be helpless. To provoke me, to incite me. I thought sex would keep me wanting, keep me from leaving. But I was wrong.
When you’ve had enough of yourself, of all your stale or crazy or boring ideas you can’t give up — that’s where Eva was, with me. The things you can’t ever say to yourself, your odd blind spots and thought impediments. The prologue you seem to always be living in.
I began to feel sure she had another lover. I could see all the signs. We were too much alike for me not to know. I was a psalter of jealousies.
I followed her, stealthily, when I should have been working. She seemed to always be in what became the xenolab, chatting with the aliens. I scrutinized the other members of the lab team — none of them seemed to be my type.
Psalter — a book collecting Psalms, for liturgical or devotional use.
Once I saw her in a wet room, with a diving instructress, the one who was always talking about squid. They were in each other’s arms, chins over one another’s shoulders. It struck me as intimate and remote.
Later, I confronted her. “It was nothing,” she said. “She was giving me breathing lessons.”
I was furious with her denial. “You can’t lie to yourself,” I said, though I knew this for a lie. I wanted someone to strike her — so, I struck her. Sometimes you have to do things for yourself. It felt good. It left a red mark on her cheek.
“There. Now she can tell us apart,” I said. But I was sure the squid-woman wasn’t her lover.
Evrova — a response from a machine, telling that no replacement can be found for what one is seeking.
We held a fancy ball, to celebrate the visitation. We had had few celebrations. Everyone ate shrimp and wore starfish, though we learned later the aliens were annoyed by this.
Eva and I argued on the balcony. She said “It’s not that they say there’s no God. You wouldn’t have to believe that, if they had said it. It’s that they’re proof themselves. You say that humans are made in God’s image — so what are these amazing creatures?”
I knew this mood. I knew all her moods. All her moods were mine.
“I don’t think they’re so amazing,” I said. “They can’t even dress up for a party.”
“God has special powers. God names all the sea cucumbers. God can walk on kombucha. You know, if you have too many definitions of God, She becomes meaningless. What good is it to collect these things?”
“I don’t know! I just don’t want them to be discarded. It seems heartless. People believed these things.” I pressed my eyes closed. “This is blasphemy. Why must you put this distance between us? We’re me.”
“We’re not. And why do you have to be so serious, all the time? I’m not like that. What happened to you?” she whispered, head close to mine.
I opened my eyes. “How do you even know they’re alive?” I hissed, clenching my wine glass. I glanced over the balustrade at the aliens, scattered among the other partiers.
It was true. We didn’t know a thing about them. We couldn’t discern any respiration, circulation, excretion, reproduction. They wouldn’t say how they acquired energy — it was their trade secret. Some things they wouldn’t share. It was like they existed by magic, or our imagination. In a sense, they weren’t like anything at all.
“You define ‘alive’ for me and then I’ll prove it,” she said. We glared at our mirror selves. It felt like evrova.
Then she stepped backwards, off the top step, tumbling down stairs and off the open landing, her emerald gown billowing. One of the trumpets swooped and gurgled, and in a second it was around her. They can move very fast in air. It broke her fall, it cradled her. I could tell she wasn’t hurt.
And then it rocked her, very gently. It sizzled and glittered. One trumpet tendril touched her cheek. Then the alien made a different sound, a long, low susurration, and Eva smiled. I knew immediately what I was hearing and seeing.
Wladolor — a high plateau (plana) on Venus or a similar planet, so hot that everything is continually melted and new. Nothing can persist unaltered there except diamonds and like substances.
I walked out of the party. The trumpet was her lover — as bizarre as that was, I knew it for truth. I was humiliated like no one in our species ever had been.
I couldn’t be in our grotto. I felt confined by my own wishful domesticity, like an octopus in a bottle. Days, I walked around the colony endlessly, and never could get away from myself.
I went to the chapel, a silent auditorium for dust bunnies at midday. I remembered my catechism. I had come there to worship as a young clone. It was rare to be so alone there. I had intended to pray, but was tempted to masturbate. Maybe no cathedrals were left on the surface, or temples, or mosques — or none it would be safe to enter. What God would allow this? Knowing something about each of the world’s religions made all of them less believable.
But reading about religions is different from worship. Then I thought: maybe it’s absurd to love yourself. Maybe the only way to be loved is from the outside. Then: how necessary is God, if our lifespans can be extended indefinitely? Then: being a clone meant always wanting for parents. What is God but an abstraction of a parent?
What would their lovemaking be like, Eva and the alien, I wondered grudgingly? Would it be just touching all over? Would there be glittering and sizzling? Do the aliens have orgasms? And if not, what would make one want to have sex with Eva? I left the chapel, unprayed.
Bonshō — large bells found in Buddhist temples throughout Japan, used to summon monks to prayer.
I stared at the aliens for hours, when they were out in public en masse. They vexed me. They were never quite where they were. I was always exactly where I was. And they were changeable — more than I, I admit. I thought the one that belonged to Eva, or vice-versa, had a certain willowy quality, tended towards yellows and oranges. But I was never sure.
I tried to sketch them one night. They came out like demented snowflakes, like flowers constructed from trombones and paperclips, like smudged images of hairpins and coral. Maybe they were beautiful, but I couldn’t see it.
Why couldn’t they just be little green men? Why does life have to be so incomprehensible? What does it say about you, if your own clone would leave you?
Then suddenly understanding rang through me, like the voice of a bonshō. Eva wanted to love the furthest creature away from herself that she could find. Or from me. That’s what she had done. I moved out the next day.
Asase Yaa — Earth Goddess of the Ashanti people, who comes to fetch souls to the otherworld (Planet Jupiter) at the time of their death.
Two months later I was still wounded. I had moved into the garrett upstairs, to be with the poet I knew up there, Paige, who couldn’t stop watching Eva and I when we were together. Below, the trumpet had moved in with my gene-sister.
Probably it’s a more common feeling than I imagined then — that your former girlfriend’s new lover is alien, incomprehensible, her feelings absolutely inexplicable. Maybe everyone has felt this way.
I made a pie, and I took it down to Eva, making sure first that the trumpet was out. It was what I knew how to do, and I knew I had to do something. I was hearing that susurration in my dreams. I had to have resolution, to breathe again. The pie was sea cucumber, the kind engineered to be sweet, and some hydroponic berries. The crust came out nice.
The kitchen now was cluttered with equipment for interacting with the aliens, different things she had made. There was no baking happening here. I hardly recognized it. She looked the same.
She caught me looking at all the gear. “Babel is just a fable,” she said.
“What’s it like, with that thing living with you? It’s so surreal,” I said. Part of me was bitter, and part still wanted to mash myself up against her. I was losing my sea-cucumber calm. “I mean, what do you guys talk about?”
Eva tried the pie but left the crust. “Things. Everything. You know, it’s more appropriate to think of them as one big colony organism, like coral,” she said, sitting at what was now her kitchen counter.
Aha, I thought. “So they are like something. You admit that something is like something else.”
“I’m just repeating what they explained to us — they, the aliens.”
“Are you part of the colony now?” I have this skill for blurting the worst possible thing. Eva sighed.
“What is she like?” I asked.
Eva pursed her lips, really looked at me. “She’s like a gust of wind over a wheat field. She’s like feeling a gentle rain.”
I missed wind. I missed rain. I missed clouds and birds and sky.
“I can’t believe you’re letting ‘her’ sleep with you, in our bed.” I felt like I would never feel the wind again, or the rain, or the sun, or follow the flight of a bird.
“They don’t sleep.”
“Is she good in bed?” I couldn’t help myself. I was abject. I, I, I.
“Be serious.” She looked away. “It’s more about exploration, it’s more about trying to understand one another. I’m a whole person, the first one they’ve been this close to.
“They can sense our emotions. They don’t have a word for love, but I think they can arrive at it.”
“I sense your emotions,” I said. “You never used that word with me.” I felt as though God was disappearing, that some part of myself was leaving, that the world was ending. It seemed to be ending right there, in that kitchen.
“I feel like I’m an ambassador for human good will.” She gestured expansively. “We’re coming to understanding. We’re learning from each other. We’re growing. This is how we always hoped an alien first encounter would go. Men wouldn’t do it this way.” I could feel the rich flush of feelings she called up in Eva.
She pointed at the pie. “She wouldn’t approve of this, you know. Sea cucumbers are animals.”
Then I pushed, saying “What was it like, what was it really like, loving me, loving us? Say what it was like.” I held her forearms so she couldn’t turn away.
“Evelyn, …” and Eva frowned. “Not us. You. I loved you.” She exhaled. Then she said “Alright.
“My life with you, it was like sucking on a penny – not nutritious, not satisfying, an addictive taste, a little dirty.” If things didn’t end badly, then I guess they wouldn’t end.
She went on. “When we were together, I felt like I was the frame of a mirror. You didn’t want me, you wanted the reflection of yourself.”
“Stop!” I said. “That’s not true! God damn you.” I turned and ran, leaving the pie plate and my clone behind me, never going back for either one.
I went for a long swim afterwards. I put on a wetsuit, scuba tanks, a mask to hide my hurt expression. What I was doing was forbidden but popular. Happiness seemed farn.
The most prominent feature of our colony, other than the forest of thermal gradient tubes that generated power, was our waste stream. Some part of that was pushed into the ocean as a river of semi-refined human filth. It went all the way to the surface, and spread out for miles.
A million species of sea life,
shivering river of avid creatures,
a clamor of vibrant need.
Not an observer, I belong of it.
I, lying backwards, imploring
a scudding cumulous of fishes,
making gestures like invocations to keep myself aright.
What do I carry now inside me?
My heart becomes a monstrance of sky.
It’s easy to forget we were once all God’s creatures.
Its easy to forget how close to the surface we are.
Finally I surfaced, careful to breach on the up-current side of the refuse. I took off my mask, breathed in real surface air, the substance of sky.
The wind sang its song. Sunlight slanted down beneath the edge of a cathedral-like cloud. At the edge of my vision, a gull wheeled.
Yahweh — name of God, per the Iron Age kingdoms of Israel and Judah. This name may be derived from a verb that means “to be”, “to exist”, or “to cause to become”.
The war went on, becoming worse and more remote. I thought: maybe this is how it ends for men and women — the men fighting at the surface and the women diving deep. We didn’t need them anymore, but they hadn’t guessed it yet.
I obsessed with my project, collecting all the names of God, words describing Her, the things that people could see Her in, or Him. Sometimes I couldn’t see a distinction between what was God and what was not. I felt that, with the arrival of another intelligent species (though truly, whales and dolphins should have prompted this centuries ago) God would become harder and harder to believe in, and all the beautiful words and stories, the traditions and the rituals surrounding Her, would begin to fade from human memory. This would be worse tragedy, I thought, than God disappearing. Then me disappearing, or Eva. They were evidence of something. When I left the pie plate behind, I had left behind my belief, but I continued collecting.
Dharma — key concept in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism. Behaviors that are considered to be in accord with the order of life and the universe. Cosmic duty. Observance consonant with one’s inner nature.
‘She’ and Eva embarked, finally, when the aliens left, to go wherever the aliens went, in their sparkly barques. All the dogs and sea lions barked.
Eva was the cross-species infection I had not prevented from occurring.
The colony had a barbecue to celebrate their voyage. I waved to Eva and her lover. Paige was there, holding my other hand. I wanted Eva to see us together, but it wasn’t out of spite. Paige had taught me. I thought then maybe I could be a poet too, a pie-poet or sky-poet. This was me, growing.
If Eva had run from me, I would, in Paige’s calming light, do the opposite — find my way into myself, to the center. Writing then was a relief, it was permission to remember, to rant and to roam, to dig for the roots of things. My own words were a benediction.
Eva stood with her alien, the alien almost wrapped around her. I could see the aliens still hadn’t learned about appropriate touching in public, but I was over that, mostly.
Eva was right, it wasn’t healthy for she and I to be so close any longer, but how far away would she be now? No one could say.
One of the aliens spoke, through devices that Eva had helped make. Their language was partially gestural, their bodies literal glyphs of meaning. To speak, for them, was to dance.
“We are grateful to you have shown us your ways are beginning to become clear to aliens are glad to include embrace embark Eva is a gift will become a very tangible sign of our collusion will make new dimensions of [thought, space, platonic reality]??…” The machine faltered, but people applauded. Eva ducked her head, grinning sheepishly.
The thought returned to me then — the aliens were a colony organism. Did this mean they all share one big colony orgasm? Did they all share Eva? For a moment I was half-past miserable again. I pushed the thought away.
“They’ll probably eat her for a snack, on the way,” I said to Paige, who was patient with me.
“I hope they’re happy together,” she said. The crowd cheered as the aliens embarked, my ex there among them. We threw handfuls of confetti made from kelp.
“Me too,” I said. See? Growing again. I had found a grain of dharma, maybe, that day, between the fish-river and the sky.
The scientists had theorized that the aliens were projections into our space from a higher dimensionality — that they weren’t really ‘here’ at all. They were like the shadows of hands on a wall. I wondered how Evelyn could feel about that. Loving a shadow. It explained why they wouldn’t eat my pie, anyway.
Eva had said she would write to me, but I didn’t believe it, or see how that could work. I thought then that she and I would never be together again, like teacups no longer a set.
Finally the barques embraced wider reality, shimmered and left. At that very last moment, I saw Eva, her face in a surprised ‘O’ as she expanded in new directions, grew into new dimensions. She glittered and sizzled, ecstatically.
Other Eve clones — clones like myself — existed in our colony. I could have sought them out. I thought how that would be, then gripped Paige’s hand tighter. She wasn’t anybody’s clone, but she was mine.
Here’s the thing about clones: it’s better to save your love for someone else. So they can tell, and so you can tell. So that everybody knows who you really love.
About the Author
Christopher Mark Rose
Christopher Mark Rose is a fledgling writer of speculative fiction. His story “A Thousand Solomons” won first place in the 2015 BSFS Amateur Writing Contest. He participates in the Baltimore Science Fiction Society Critique Circle, and has finished a first draft of a novel. He hopes to write stories that are affecting, humane, and concerned with big questions. His day job is in the JHU Applied Physics Laboratory, where he designs flight firmware for NASA missions. His work is flying now in NASA’s Van Allen Probes, and will be in the soon-to-be-launched Solar Probe Plus spacecraft.
About the Narrator
New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis is a princess, storm chaser, and Saturday Songwriter. Author of over 20 books and 40 short stories, Alethea is the recipient of the Jane Yolen Mid-List Author Grant, the Scribe Award, the Garden State Teen Book Award, and two-time winner of the Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award. She has been twice nominated for both the Andre Norton Nebula and the Dragon Award. She was an active contributor to The Fireside Sessions, a benefit EP created by Snow Patrol and her fellow Saturday Songwriters during lockdown 2020. Alethea also narrates stories for multiple award-winning online magazines and contributes regular YA book reviews to NPR. Born in Vermont, she currently resides on the Space Coast of Florida with her teddy bear, Charlie. Find out more about Princess Alethea and her wonderful world at aletheakontis.com.