When the aliens came and cut the sky up into golden ribbons Dan Milestone ran inside to get his daughter Margaret and put her up on his shoulders in the front yard and told her that this was history and she told him to put her down because he was embarrassing her. So Dan put her down and picked up Sam and put him on his shoulders and they watched the sky be cut to ribbons and Sam clapped his hands and Dan clapped his hands and Jean came out of the house in her slippers and pajamas, and soon they were all lying on the grass watching the billowing wrappings of cloud smooth over the hills and the sky heal itself of angry, gold-veined wounds, and Jean talked about how good this would be for Dan but Dan didn’t care, all he could think was that hey, look what they had done, they had been found, like survivors adrift on a life raft, so close to desperation, look, they had been found so close to murdering one another, so close to the final moments of dust and bright sound and blooming clouds like poppies rising up over time and light shattering like glass and oh God, we did it, this could save us all, God, I wish you could be here for this Professor Sagan.
For the following weeks, as the flying saucer (imagine, it actually was a huge circular disk, rotating at immense speeds, rounding about the horizon in slow circles) climbed over the hills it cut up the sky and at first there were lawn parties to watch it (they had heard on the television that this was safe) but after several weeks people didn’t even notice it, they had stopped looking up. Over those weeks Dan was at work for days and days and most of the time slept on a cot in his office and was so busy and yet didn’t really do anything at all. Margaret was appalled it got around her school that her father was working on talking to the aliens, but Sam was delighted, he was so proud, he had just finished being interested in dinosaurs and now he was into aliens, aliens were everywhere, and when Dan did come home, which was rare, Sam was there at the door to ambush him and tackle his shins and demand to know everything about the aliens: what did they eat, could they die, did they have lasers, were they green or is that stupid, I bet they aren’t green at all are they, and Dan would pick Sam up and hold him close and smell his head and a small part of him that he told himself was horrible would wish that it was Margaret who was hugging him now, that it was Margaret who loved him like Sam, like she had when she was younger.
Jean stopped making supper for him. She would leave leftovers in Tupperware in the refrigerator and Dan would reheat them in the silence of the sleeping house and as the timer ticked down he would glance over his shoulders at the still furniture and dark rooms and be seized with fear that something was going to emerge from the living room, that it was standing on the rug right now, quiet and patient and waiting. At night Dan would start off at a walk up the stairs and then break into a run as he felt it behind him, throwing the light switch off and slipping into bed in one motion. There, Jean became a warm arc that he was afraid to let his feet wander too close to, for fear they would touch, and that touch would somehow collapse everything, would loosen the winding knots that connected all of them, and he could see them unraveling in his mind’s eye, like hands slipping apart from an embrace, and he would lose the house and the kids and everything and Jean would leave him and he would have only the silence that the ship broadcast. He wanted to scream at her not to go, to move across the cold space between them and curl himself against her body like he used to but there was something, some great invisible presence in the room stopping him, an awful curling thing with wings in the dark that looked at him from the closet and caused him to make his movements small in the black and fall asleep lying on his back in case it decided to move toward the bed, which he knew it did when he was sleeping, looking down at him and unfolding a long proboscis that would slip between his lips and plant small thoughts, a dark bloom of uncertainty like mold.
During the day he would sit at a long oak table and occasionally see the Vice President or the Secretary of State via video feed, although he never actually talked to them, but they had said hello, they knew his face, and that meant something, didn’t it? Everyone else at the table was like him, an academic, and when they had to speak to government officials they found themselves resorting to metaphors that didn’t actually fit, and they could feel themselves building a perception that they themselves didn’t agree with, that they knew was false but they couldn’t communicate it, and every time they tried to explain they would shift the perception in their listeners’ minds a little farther away from the truth. The scientists ended up saying that these beings could be kind of like angels, and that if a human actually heard one “speak” their head would blow up but not really, just kind of like that, and they said that the aliens were maybe actually like archeologists, like bug-collectors, but don’t worry, they aren’t actually collecting anything, they said that the aliens might just be Chinese Rooms, this whole thing might not contain any minds, but the scientists weren’t able to say if that would be a problem, because an angry Chinese Room is just like an angry person and the parade of generals would leave thinking about angels who were Chinese and who collected ants and put them in little jars above their beds on mantels and tapped the glass and disturbed the ants and just generally made life miserable for the ants and fuckin’ A, those damn Chinese angels with their slit-eyed halos and their laughter at the generals’ budding impotence.
The aliens liked to speak in Zen koans, and sometimes it seemed like they didn’t really care about semantics, that it didn’t actually matter, that as long as the syntax was there it was okay and everything would sort itself out, and so the linguists translated a lot of messages that ended up being things like “colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” The linguists pulled their hair and declared that they must be doing something wrong and the physicists threw up their hands and declared that they weren’t sure how the hell that thing spun at all, or how it cut the sky to ribbons like rips in a painting when it cycled around the horizon, and the biologists still had no clue as to what was going on but they were certain that their expertise would be required any moment, and everyone got really excited when the physicists beamed up Schrödinger’s equation and the aliens responded by sending back long lists of digits and symbols which the cryptographers got to work on at once, and they ran into the office one day and screamed that these were directions, directions to build something, something important, and everyone was ecstatically happy and the engineers went off to build whatever it was.
One day Dan went home and saw Margaret getting out of a car with a boy and took her aside and yelled at her that she was too young for that kind of stuff and she looked straight at him and told him that she hated him because he was ruining her and Mom’s life and he felt something break inside him, like a vase shattering and spilling water everywhere, and he had nothing to say and she moved past him like the wind bearing colors and he tried to reach out and feel her hair, like he had some time ago, some time he couldn’t remember, but she jerked her head away from him and that movement to him was like grasping a live wire. He walked slowly to the garage and closed the door behind him and screamed in the dark and threw around tools he hadn’t touched in years and cried like he hadn’t cried in years and then he composed himself and took deep breaths and pretended to be a Buddhist and thought about physics and was calm, he was calm, and when he walked out he was a stoic leaving the academy, forcing himself to swallow all manner of things to toughen his gullet, confident he could swallow anything. Jean was waiting for him inside the house and told him that Margaret was sobbing in her room, fucking sobbing, Dan, because he couldn’t be a human being for just a moment, just one moment, and see what was going on.
That night the sky was a different color than it had ever been, a new color, something that was supposed to be impossible, and people ran around taking pictures and screaming that the end of the world had come or the beginning of a new world had come and all night painters set up their easels in backyards trying to capture just a small part of the hideous, formless beauties that hung above everything like streamers on a Christmas tree, like the ribs of the world arched up over the horizon, white and pale and a shimmering color that no one would ever forget or could ever name and that would never be seen again. And everyone wondered what the hell the aliens were doing.
Dan had taken to waking at night and muttering things loud enough to make Jean roll over in her sleep and sometimes he found himself in his bathroom in the deep before-blue morning with lipstick in his hand writing messages on the mirror, like “furious sleeping ideas green colorlessly,” or scrawling equations in Cherry Pink and thinking about cats trapped in boxes with Geiger counters, and drawing little boxes with little meow-meow kittens inside them like the ones he once showed Margaret how to draw and for a month, a beautiful month, he would find them all over the house, little cat caricatures with big puffy whiskers on her school binders, on her homework, in her scrapbook, in marker on her eyelids, so when she blinked at the dinner table twinned Cheshire Cats would grin up at him and he wrote on the mirror “you must be mad or you wouldn’t have come here” and then he was scared because the mirror was all covered up with lipstick and his wife might walk into the bathroom in the before-blue morning light and so he wiped it down with wet towels and his hands got stained the color of blushing roses, and he went back to bed and smelled his hands which smelled like his wife, or the way his wife used to smell back when she wore lipstick, which he didn’t think she did anymore.
Two months after the first appearance of the ship, Dan sees that Margaret is reading The Diary of Anne Frank at breakfast and he compliments her on it, saying it’s a good book, and she puts it down and stands up and declares that it’s fucking boring and Dan yells at her not to talk that way in front of her parents Goddammit and Margaret empties her plate into the trash can and throws her silverware into the sink and walks up to her room, leaving the diary on the table. Jean tells him not to worry at her so and Dan sighs and says that he was just complimenting her choice of books and Jean tells him that it is required reading at school and that if Dan just paid attention to what was happening in Margaret’s life he would know that and Dan says he does pay attention and that he noticed her arriving with a boy and shouldn’t they talk to Margaret about that? And Jean stands up and piles dirty dishes into her arms and tells him that the boy’s name is Eddie and that Margaret and he have been going steady for a month now and the silence that follows is like the silence after a tear in fabric, like a great swallowing of color and time and Dan looks down at his eggs and toast and thinks, oh God, when did I begin to lose everyone in this house, and Sam is sitting and looking from his mother to his father and sucking his thumb, a habit that was supposedly dead two years ago.
Jean cleans the dishes in a still silence, and Dan is considering going up behind her and putting his arms around her waist and letting her lean backwards into him and trying to make her remember that she used to flash tour groups at Cornell on dares and that she used to go skinny dipping in cold lakes in November and scream when they both tumbled naked into the water and her legs would kick like a frog as she swam, illuminate, like a piece of the moon. But he can feel the winged presence again; it’s in the living room, just around the corner, waiting by the piano that hasn’t been played since Margaret stopped taking lessons, and he is so afraid for a moment, his breath is fogging up in this sudden cold, and he cannot move across that space, that infinite and tugging space between him and the kitchen sink, and she is done now, she dries off her hands and walks out of the room and he is released from his paralysis with a gasp and his hand trembles and his fork clatters against his plate as he tries to spear a piece of bacon and he looks up and sees Sam sitting with his eyes closed and praying with his little chubby lips and Dan realizes he had forgotten Sam was even there.
At work the engineers say that they have built what came down in the message. They lead the way to the basement level and there everyone crowds up against a long plane of glass to look into the room where the machine is and a colleague of Dan’s puts her hands up against the glass and breathes that it’s beautiful, but Dan isn’t sure, it just looks strange, it’s hard to look at when it’s moving, rotating, drifting, tracing spheres, and someone says the music of the spheres, that’s what they are trying to say to us and no, someone else says that it’s a model of an atom but some type of strange new atom, maybe something they want us to find but no, this is a classical structure, it must be planets, some system somewhere, perhaps a binary, but the spheres move too erratically, their motions un-elliptical, a spiraling and egging motion of dipping and bowing circles, with the occasional backtracking and Dan points out that this is more like an orrery built on the principles of Ptolemaic motion with epicycles and erratic motion and people are deeply impressed and decide that yes, that’s what it must be, or that is what it seems closest to, and Dan watches the spheres go round and round in a system that was disproved four hundred years ago.
The psychologists and cognitive scientists are trying to figure out exactly what the aliens are trying to communicate with this. They say that it’s just a huge brass model of a system, not to scale, that is obviously not ours, and maybe doesn’t even work along the same principles. The physicists say the system must be relatively young, the motions are too quick and it might only be a matter of time until one of the larger planets is pulled into a slow lover’s dance with one of the suns and they waltz around and then fall into each other’s arms and the system is scattered, but of course they can’t know for sure because the system isn’t to scale and besides, something is off in the equations, sometimes the planets are where they shouldn’t be, but maybe not, maybe we just all need to sleep.
The philosopher, who hasn’t said anything for weeks, says that the aliens are trying to tell us something, that this is vastly important, the key to everything and he can almost feel it, and he is silent for a moment and runs his tongue over his teeth and feels each jagged edge and runs his thin young hands over his face as the scientists at the table yell at him and say that this is nothing of importance, the aliens are just having trouble communicating, we knew this would happen, that there would be difficulties, hell, the problem could be on our end, probably is on our end, that this is all expected and the philosopher is silent and the next time he stops Dan by the water cooler he asks if Dan has been having strange dreams. Dan brushes him off and the philosopher asks him why he is reading The Diary of Anne Frank and Dan replies that his daughter is reading it and he hasn’t read it in a while and it really is an amazing book, more adults should read it, she was a very good writer and that she meant something, that she has become a symbol and the philosopher, who is a semiotician, agrees. He tells Dan that Leibniz attempted to create a characteristica universalis, a language in which every signifier spoke truly of the thing signified, a system of true names, and that Anne Frank would surely be a symbol within such a language, a perfect sign.
Dan tells his daughter this and shows her his copy of the Diary and his daughter kind of nods her head and doesn’t take off her headphones and Dan goes to tell Jean what the philosopher said because it has stuck with him, that a human being, if the contours of their life were infinitely congruent to an idea, would become a word in a perfect language. Jean says that she is tired and doesn’t want to talk about his work after she has spent all day leading damn tours and then taking care of the kids and so Dan goes out and sits on the grass until the sky is cut to ribbons as the gloaming creeps over the edges of the world and he thinks about the model and the spheres moving as if they were partners on a dance floor and each one is both the signifier and the thing signified.
In the dark he pulls out an old basketball hoop from the dusty garage and shoots hoops and at first he misses a lot because it has been so long but then he starts getting warmed up and he can feel his joints flexing and moving like oiled gears and he moves around the court, mimicking his performance at the Regional Championships during his senior year in high school when he had come in at halftime and led his team on a thirty-point comeback, and to break the tie he had run up the middle and then tacked left and Number 15 had blocked him and Dan had moved around him like the wind bearing colors around a tree and Dan does this now, faking left and then sprinting right and taking a wild shot and watching the ball arch up and up and up and descend, a perfect curving sphere, like the sun setting, into the basket. Dan is prancing up and down the court, calling out shots and passes, and his feet pinch in his work shoes and he sweats through his collared shirt and finally his wife comes out at three in the morning in a bathrobe and asks him what the hell he is doing and he has no answer for her and for a few seconds, an ocean of time lapping around him, he has no idea who she is until the answer comes crashing back to him and he looks confused and she is annoyed and he again feels overweight and old and silly, so silly now, under her gaze, which gives nothing to him.
The biologists finally have something to do. The aliens have sent pictures and when the image comes up on the big screen there are murmurs around the oak table because this looks more like a close-up of lichen on a rock, there are valleys and hills here, and are those leaves or hands and here is something bending into something else and there is something protruding, like a lone tower, like an ant hill among the green, and is it a nose or something else or are they just big carpets and the biologists say that perhaps this is an advanced form of camouflage and one of the cognitive scientists has a moment of genius, the type of moment that makes a career, and says wait a minute here, these hills have no non-accidental properties, and says that this is amazing, that this could fool our visual system and that is what makes everything fuzzy and the biologists get very excited and scribble down notes and the philosopher points out that perhaps they just took a really shitty picture but all the cognitive scientists are already going on about the difference between non-accidental property recognition vs. metric property recognition and that this is a species that was obviously heavily preyed upon because they evolved this elaborate defense mechanism in what must be a highly visual world, and Dan imagines these huge blobs dragging themselves around on the floor like amoebas wiggling their way across a petri dish and he imagines these small hills, these ancestral mounds, moving as if the forest floor itself could move, and he watches the ground become a chessboard, and in his imagination these blobs run from sheltering bush to sheltering bush and up on the trees there are huge and pink Cheshire Cats with big bucktoothed smiles who track the flailing blobs with cartoon eyes and when Dan is brought back to the conversation he realizes that everyone at the table, surrounded by charts and graphs and screens, looks like they haven’t slept in weeks, they are all running on coffee and nervous energy and he looks at the biologist next to him and sees that the biologist’s hand has been absently chewed to the point where a ring of droplets has appeared around his thumb like a crown of thorns and at break Dan asks the philosopher if he has been sleeping and the philosopher just laughs and asks Dan if he thought a single one of them was sleeping at all, if anyone in the world has been sleeping. The philosopher asks him if it is the dreams and Dan says yes and the philosopher just nods and bends to refill his coffee cup.
Jean is divorcing him. She tells him when he comes home, right when he sets down his briefcase, like she couldn’t wait, couldn’t wait any longer, and she tells him that she has been thinking about it for a long time but it couldn’t wait any longer because living with him is impossible, and she feels like she is drowning all the time and didn’t he feel it, didn’t he feel it right now, that this is what drowning feels like, and then she takes off her apron and tells him that she is sorry, that this is her fault too and he still hasn’t said a word and when he does, he asks her, what about Margaret, and she says that the kids could live with her for the weekdays and then go over to his house for the rest of the time and he says that that’s not good enough and she says that it has to be, whatever happened to us Dan, and he feels like screaming and grabbing her and shaking her and throwing her across the kitchen and he knows that he could but he thinks that maybe Margaret is upstairs so he doesn’t. Sam comes down to get a Rice Krispies Treat and Dan opens it for him because Sam can’t and Dan keeps his eyes on Jean the whole time, trying to bore holes into her, trying to talk without talking and tell her that he loves this, that he loves the security, the syntax of his life and he loves coming home to people even if they hate him and he tries to tell her that he is going to build a time machine and go back and change everything, he will change everything and then a hurricane overtakes him and the world moves into a blur of color and then he is hugging Sam and crying and feeling ashamed and Dan doesn’t think Sam knows what is going on, but Sam is just pretending to be confused, everything is crystal clear and sounds are so loud and Sam can’t stand the exactness of his comprehension. Dan goes to the bathroom to wash his face before he sees Margaret. When he walks into her room and she is texting her friends over the Internet he sits down on her bed and is surprised at how high up it is and realizes that he hasn’t been in her room for a long time and he just comes out and says it, says “your mother is leaving me,” and Margaret doesn’t say anything but he can see her spine stiffen up and her thin fingers like sparrow bones are tap-dancing and she still doesn’t say anything but her hollow bones pound the keyboard harder and harder, and finally she is striking it with her fists and the bones of her skinny back look like wings as she shudders and she throws her keyboard at Dan, and it flies right past him and then Margaret is down the stairs and throwing on a coat and taking out her bike that she hasn’t used in years and biking to her boyfriend’s house under a sky that is cut to ribbons and weeping into deep orange banks of cloud.
Upstairs Dan slowly packs and puts away boxers and suits and shoes into a suitcase and then he leaves without saying anything and checks into a motel. At the drugstore near him he buys crayons and paper and tape and string and lies down on the motel bed and reads The Diary of Anne Frank and after a couple days the walls and the ceiling and the floors are papered with drawings of spheres and cats with big bucktoothed smiles and quantum mechanics equations and he draws little people inside boxes with cats outside and a fifty percent chance of decay and poison release and the cats are wondering if the people inside are dead or alive and now there are little blobs like landscapes inside the boxes and the cats outside are grinning their grins that are far too large.
When Dan shows up for work he thinks that everyone moves like they’re in a dream, that each thought has become dominated by the aliens and all the scientists do is drink coffee and scribble the same equations down on napkins over and over again. The aliens continue to be excited, as judged by the length in bits of their response, by the quantum models the physicists are sending up, especially those concerning the many-worlds interpretation and the physicists are very excited about this and are all writing to Nature together to say that the aliens favor a many-worlds interpretation of quantum events.
And then the last picture comes in. The image appears on the wall-sized main screen and when Dan sees her eyes staring back at him and her tossed-back hair and the expression on her young face he nearly faints as the world swims around him and he falls into her black eyes and the impish smile on her face, as if she is saying that yes, she is posing for this picture and she knows you are looking at her and she is looking at you looking at her and how ironic but how honest of you to do so, because she is saying that later she will die in Germany and she will be alone when she does because her sister dies three days before in the same typhus epidemic, and she will have a shaved head and be starved so that her ribs show and she no longer has breasts and she will feel over her body for the knobs of bones and doesn’t cry because she is done crying and she will cough and cough and cough as her little frame trembles. The scientists are in a state of stunned silence and the philosopher starts laughing and laughing and laughing as the group falls into her eyes, pools as cool and radiant as the Atlantic in spring.
The philosopher begins to shout, Goddammit, don’t you people fucking get it yet, these things, these things are actual fucking aliens, they are so fucking strange and we can’t communicate with them even if we had the same language because these things don’t think of meaning the same way we do, that’s the key here, the meaning. He is screaming that humans have a system of semiotics, there are signifiers and the signified and so on and we all recognize that and what if these things fucking don’t, they just don’t get the meaning behind any of the things we do because they don’t even have that concept, so we’re trying to communicate with things that don’t care if they live or die, that don’t care if we live or die, things that don’t fucking care about anything in any way that we would understand, that this is playing Duck or Rabbit on a cosmic fucking scale and Jesus Christ, can’t you people see—
The room erupts into shouting and the biologists are standing up and pointing at the philosopher and the physicists stand up to try to tug the biologists back down and the cognitive scientists begin screaming at each other and a mathematician lunges across the long oak table, knocking over the satellite feed to the Vice President who is trying to speak across the confusion, and the mathematician is trying to get his long white hands on the philosopher who falls back out of his chair and soon the brawl flows out of the room and into the hallway as biologists gang up on chemists and linguists are punched out by physicists and Dan is pushed under the table and then makes his way on his stomach with feet stomping all around him and he moves into the hallway and starts to run and run until he pushes open the door to the underground parking lot and collapses for a moment in the cool dark air and the silence.
He is walking to his car and looking over his shoulder when he feels it, on his right, the presence, and he knows that it is so tall standing between the cars that it brushes the ceiling, and that it is looking at him, or was just looking at him, and he knows that it is silent with great buzzing eyes and is incomprehensible and terrifying and he is so afraid, he is so afraid that he will get in his car and it will be sitting in the back and in his rearview mirror it will be just looking, just looking at him, those eyes, those limpid dark portals, as terrible as the Atlantic in winter. He quakes with terror and the underground cold. There is what looks like frost on his windshield, and when he drives out into the summer sun it melts.
As Dan is driving he thinks about Jean and about the huge disk that is rotating through the atmosphere and he knows that there is a connection, that one must have precipitated the other, and he can feel the smooth curve of her stomach underneath his hands and he thinks about the way she used to shake after she came, like there was an earthquake in her legs, and that her toes would tingle and how he loved that, how marvelous it was, to have toes that tingled as she lay underneath him and quaked and quaked.
As he parks he notices the small form of Margaret at the door of his motel and she is pausing and hesitant as he approaches up the steps, and she stands as if waiting for leaves to fall, for words to drop from his mouth and then she parts her lips and he can see that she has been crying and she moves one small hand up with black-painted nails and gestures delicately and he steps that extra, private distance, and he can see her tiny bones moving with her breathing and the outline of her small frame under her sweatshirt and without having to be asked he takes her into his arms and to her it is like falling from a great height and she cries into his shoulder that she is sorry, that she is so sorry because she couldn’t put it all back together and above them the sky whistles as it heals.
Dan is hugging her and thinking about the multitude of worlds and how every Margaret has existed and will exist and what exactly is the point of loving this one, there are ones that are better and worse and each one is both infinitely unique and infinitely overshadowed and there can be no elevation of one above the others because they are all equal, they are all happening, and Dan thinks about all the Anne Franks, the ones who died of gas and burns and murders and as stillborns and the ones who didn’t die and were saved by American soldiers, by Russian soldiers, by German soldiers, and that army of Anne Franks stretches out in front of him and some are sickly and starving and others are healthy and bright and all are smiling and tossing back their black hair and he realizes that there is no point differentiating among any of them, and that there were none, not a single one, that the aliens would think worth saving. And Margaret whispers into his jacket that she loves him and his sky is cut to ribbons.