Currant has a good feeling about the gathering today. Young Jaheem is back from his away mission, and the mood is bound to be high. She has a topic prepared, an old favorite, and a few new floor pillows for the circle, woven tulle filled with cattail fluff, made with love by hand just down the hill.
The empty Hall of Being greets her with the scent of slightly dusty wood, warm green and yellow light from the stained-glass panel of bay laurel flowers high above, and the silent ancestors carved into all six redwood walls. Lepidodenron, Tiktaalik, Deinonychus. She greets them as she walks the hexagon to ground herself, listening to the soft pad of her mushroom leather footsteps against limestone. She imagines all the tiny ocean animals that sunk to make the stone, the mountain it was quarried from, and the robots pulling it from sunken skyscrapers across the Bay.
Gray greets her with a hug and takes a pillow, unpacks his mandolin, and plays the first few chords of “The Song of the Swaying Scale Trees” with a cheerful flourish. The sandbots falling through the instrument’s tall, brightly painted shaft underscore the gentle tune with ocean waves.
Currant smiles and lights the incense by the door.
When the circle is close to filled but the clock is just past time, she starts the opening ritual. “Are you well?” she asks each gatherer in turn.
There are twenty-eight today. Most simply nod. Feng smiles widely, and next to her, Elle blushes and says, “Very.” Akilah only shrugs. Vihaan, who saved a seat when he arrived that still lies empty, shakes his head. Currant makes a mental note to check in on Samantha. Hediye only nods, but her smile shows how overjoyed she is to have her son Jaheem back.
“And Jaheem, are you well?”
Jaheem replies, “Uh, I’m not great.” Now she’s concerned. What happened on his away mission?
She reads a two-hundred-year-old passage by a poet botanist she’s long admired, and after the discussion, as the gatherers disperse, the unwell line up to speak with her.
Jaheem is last. He takes a seat on the pillow next to her and attempts a friendly smile. He’s grown even more than she expected in his year away. The shy sixteen-year-old with a permanently pimpled forehead is taller than her now, and seventeen, and his skin is clear and smooth and darkened from the desert sun into a deep, resplendent brown, richer than the redwood walls around them.
“Welcome back, Jaheem. It’s so good to see you again.”
“Um. Thanks.” His voice is deeper, too. He scratches the back of his head and smiles sheepishly. “This is probably stupid…”
“No such thing here. What’s on your mind?”
“It’s just. Something’s been bothering me. For months actually.”
“Something that happened in the desert?”
“No, nothing bad happened. It’s more… I dunno. They have a whole different thing going on out there, you know?”
“Mm-hm.” She nods. “Exposure to different cultures is part of why we have away missions. What was it about theirs that bothered you?”
“No, I mean, it didn’t bother me, not really. I mean, I guess it did. It’s like… well, they have these weird religions. Everyone I got to know out there believes, like literally believes, that there’s some kind of deity watching them all the time.”
“They’re theists. You learned about them in cultural studies.”
“I know, but like. They really believe it.”
“What about that bothers you?”
“It doesn’t! I mean at first, I was like, these people are crazy, but then when I really got to know them, it was like, all the ways they manage their ecosystem, their whole philosophy around it, is that this mysterious being created everything, and it’s their responsibility to take care of their ecosystem for him. And it’s usually a him. I don’t know why.”
“I think there’re historical reasons, but that’s not the part that bothered you, is it?”
“No, but like… this is stupid.” Jaheem scratches his knee. “I already know what you’re gonna say.”
He sighs, shifts his weight, and looks her directly in the eye. “Yeah. You’re gonna say there’s no god.”
Ah. There it is. “Jaheem,” she tries to give him a reassuring smile, “if there is a presence in this universe, that’s as powerful as the universe, and knows everything that happens in the universe, what do you think it would be?”
He thinks for a second. “The universe itself?”
She nods. “That’s what the concept of Occam’s Razor teaches us.”
“Ok, I know that. But like, Occam’s Razor is only as good as what you already know, right? Didn’t people use to think continental drift was too complicated to be real? And you’ve always taught us that life loves diversity, life is messy and needs randomness, so like, couldn’t the universe, at some point, have spawned a god? Or a lot of gods? Or a previous universe did, and its god created ours? I don’t know, Currant, it just seems like, they’re so certain out there that their god exists, so like, I spent a lot of time thinking about how it might be true. And… I think… I dunno, I think it might be.”
“Jaheem, if you’re asking for my permission to believe in a god, you should know better.” She smiles. “That’s not our way.”
“Ha, yeah. Ok.” He nods, grins a little, and rubs his knees with his long hands. Then something shifts in his expression, and he looks up at the walls, at the life-size Parasaurolophus carved behind her, she guesses. Then his eyes fall back on her. “I guess that’s all. Thanks, Currant.”
It seems like he has something else to say, but she doesn’t want to make him any more uncomfortable and doesn’t press it. He stands, and she stands with him.
“See you next week,” he says, waves, and walks out through the door, which still hangs open to a day that’s bright and crisp and green.
The incense is long extinguished, and sunlight falls through the window with the poppies now, celadon and orange.
Currant stacks the pillows in the storage closet behind the engraving of Arthropleura, one of her favorite ancestors. Maybe it’s the symmetry and repetition of its wide, flat scales, or the sheer audacity of a millipede to get so big, or the fact that it’s the one she always touches last at the end of a long morning when it’s finally time for lunch.
With the Hall of Being locked up, she takes the footpath through the live oak grove to her abode, a geodesic dome of mossy reclaimed concrete and multicolored glass. As last night’s grasshopper biryani reheats, something nags at her.
The answer that she gave Jaheem didn’t satisfy him. And if she’s honest with herself, it doesn’t satisfy her either. He left the Hall of Being just as unwell as he came.
And there it is, the old self-doubt, the feeling she thought she’d finally shaken off in her third year on the job.
Lyta would have told Jaheem just the right thing.
Would she be disappointed in her?
“Come on, Currant,” she mutters to herself. She knows better than to let that voice take over, the one that tells her she isn’t the right person for this. That she’s not cut out to be a spiritual leader. That she doesn’t know enough, that all the things Lyta never got to teach her were the most important things, and now she’ll never be as good at this as her.
Self-doubt aside, she owes Jaheem a better answer.
This is a spiritual problem. Perhaps the solution, too, is spiritual.
She puts away the biryani and opens the cupboard underneath her alter, where several slightly dusty jars stand waiting.
A little nervous but excited, too, she opens up the one labeled:
For spiritual journeys
1 blue marble = 1 trek
Inside are balls of dried blue leaves bred for this purpose, each a little smaller than a fingernail. She shakes one out into her palm, brings it back to the counter, and drops it in a mug. Hot water makes the leaves expand, and the little ball blooms into a bright blue flower filling up the bottom of her mug, petals straightening as they absorb the water like the wings of a new butterfly in timelapse. When the water’s dark like a twilight sky and just cool enough to not burn her tongue, she drinks.
It tastes like the first rain in fall, petrichor and thirsty foliage, smoke lingering as she swallows.
Here we go. She lets her eyelids drop and concentrates on her breath to relax. Breathing in. Breathing out. Breathing in. Breathing out. Bre a t h i n g
stomach writhes like a ball of banana slugs inside her
food smell makes the air thick
time to go outside
She opens her eyes and stumbles for the door, startling a raven family as she flings it open to the sun-speckled afternoon. They curse her in their gurgling language, feathers ruffled.
“Sorry,” she says, then throws up behind the sword fern by her door.
She braves the inside once more to rinse her mouth and grab her coat. Then she walks.
Ahead, the oaks and bays conspire, tunneling their way around her path, arms reaching out to hold each other’s hands above and feet pressing just below the path together, sole to sole.
through the tunnel made of leaves
out the other side, a meadow
around the hill
across the stream, the small wood bridge
deep into a grove of bays
late-season fruits, wrinkled brown now, hang from the branches of the ones with wide trunks
Birds and wind and shuffling creatures in the underbrush, sorting through the leaf litter, hiding or fleeing as she walks past. Mostly voles most likely, and the song of all the forest functions floats and frolics, tilts and swirls all around her.
A deer, gold fur glowing in the sun, looks up from something it was grazing on ahead and leaps up the hillside all at once
Did she imagine it?
She must have, because normal deer don’t glow like that, no matter how much sunlight’s falling on them through the leaves
What did she come out here for?
The air here smells like bay leaves, fresh and spice and very nice
something stirs beneath the ferns
following her, shaking each frond as it passes underneath
She stops. It stops. She walks again, and so does it.
It pokes a gray and whiskered snout out from between two fronds.
It shows its face, white cheeks and big brown ears.
“You’re a fox.”
It steps delicately out into the dappled light, sits at the edge of the path, bushy tail wrapped around its toes, and squints its deep brown eyes at her. “I am,” it says.
She nods, slowly
drops her hands into her pockets where they think better
yep, ok, this isn’t real
“Isn’t it?” the fox asks.
She walks. The fox walks its fox walk as she walks, mere feet from her feet, paws light on the path and tail waving at the tip. She looks away from it to the trees and bushes and mysteries ahead.
“Where are we going?” the fox asks.
“Nowhere. Just walking.”
They come to a fork and then another fork, and at the third fork she realizes she’s never taken that trail on the left, the one with the glowing purple fireflies and tall fluorescent mushrooms.
The six-foot millipede still follows her. They go down the path together.
“Oh, I like this one,” he says through scraping mandibles and crawls ahead.
“Weren’t you just a fox?”
He looks back at her, whiskers twitching, pointed brown ears wide in her direction.
“I can’t be both?” The flock of dark-eyed juncos chirps, fluttering across the path, sparrowing their sparrow words, little brown bodies with little black heads, each in unison sings, “Weren’t you just a walker? Now you’re a stand-and-stare-agaper?”
She closes her mouth, which was, in fact, agape. Fireflies swirl, blinking, purple, violet, yellow… fireflies don’t live here, and it’s not their season…
“Come on,” the deinonychus says, gesturing forward with his iridescent feathered head, just higher than her hip now.
“Where are we going?” she asks.
“Nowhere. Just walking,” he says.
The deinonychus stops to chase a firefly. She sits on a log and watches. He eats the firefly, and the stripey patterns on his wing and tail feathers start to glow bright violet.
“What’s your name?” she asks him.
He spins and turns into a stream, and then a floating spark, and then a bush of bright red berries.
“I’m the last one,” she says. “With an A.”
And then a fox. “Tasty,” he says.
“I’m not hungry,” she tells him.
“I’m not even in communication with my stomach right now.”
“Then some other organ must be hungry. You came out here to hunt.”
That’s right. She did. “I’m hunting answers.”
“Have you found any yet?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Answers are funny creatures. Very diverse, paraphyletic, convergent, ubiquitous. Elusive and well camouflaged. Parasitic, symbiotic, effusive. Right before your eyes. What was your question?”
Jaheem. “It’s not my question, so much as someone else’s. He wanted to know if I thought there could be a god.”
“Sounds like a walking question,” the fox says, and walks, and she walks next to the fox.
The song of birds becomes the song of frogs, and the path is now lit only by the mushrooms towering above them.
“I don’t feel equipped to answer his question, because it’s not my place to tell him what to believe. Not in that way,” she says.
“But he came to you anyway.”
“The things he learned on his away mission contradict the things he learned from me.”
“He seems to think they do.”
“I’m not an expert on the theists, but they believe a great omniscient being made the universe. I’ve always taught my gatherers the universe came into being on its own. And that’s what Lyta taught before me.”
“But you’re talking to a fox.”
“I know. But you’re not real.”
“I beg to differ.” His tail twitches.
“I mean, you’re a figment of my imagination. A hallucination.”
“Those sound like real things.”
“Well, I guess you have a point.”
“So why can’t gods be real?”
“The belief is real, of course. But the god that they believe in, I just don’t see the need for it.”
Suddenly, the path ends, and she falls
And screams into the blackness smeared with stars, painted with an endless giant millipede, Arthropleura of the Carboniferous, red, wide segments each the size of solar systems, legs endlessly repeating, twitching, down, down
Still falling, still falling
“Where are we going?” she asks.
“Nowhere. Just falling,” the red trillipede says in an infinite voice, violet fox eyes gleaming in the starlight.
As she falls, a thought occurs to her. What if Jaheem is right?
What if some omniscient being is here with her even now?
“Are you a god?” she asks the gazillipede.
“Are you real?”
“We already determined that.”
Everything is spinning. What about
C a u s a l i t y
Someone shouts “THERMODYNAMICS” from the void, it’s Lyta’s voice, she’s the void.
“Are you the god Jaheem believes in?”
“Are you the god the theists believe in?”
“Are you synonymous with the universe itself?”
“But separate from it?”
“Do you just say yes to everything?”
“Because you are everything.”
“Are you nothing, too?”
She lands softly in a sand dune, bioluminescent waves caressing shore ahead, violet-colored fireflies floating between blades of beachgrass.
Fireflies don’t live here. There’ve been no sand dunes on this coast for a hundred years… but she used to imagine them.
The waves recede. The grass dries up. The fireflies remain.
The dry air fills with desert sounds, crickets, and wind against the sandstone that the sand became.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
She lays back in the grass, soft stuff now on a humid summer night, and watches the fireflies above her mingle with the stars. They’re orangey-yellow now, the color that they should be, and a young man is lying next to her.
This isn’t her ecosystem.
It’s the one she spent her away mission in, way out past the Continental Divide, where the air is thick and wet all summer and the way folks talk is slow and strange.
The boy was just one dimpled smile from convincing her to stay.
“There’s Orion,” he says, pointing up.
“I see it,” Currant says.
What had his name been?
“Someday, I’m gonna get up there.”
“Where will you go?”
“The moon, I think,” he says. “Maybe Mars. I want to see the floating station in the skies of Venus, too.”
“There’s a man in my village who spent a few years on the moon.”
“Did he like it?”
“He missed Earth a lot, but yeah. He was planting trees up there.”
“Something I heard once.”
“Are you a theist?”
“Nah. I just like the phrase,” he says. And she half-remembers, half-imagines that his name is Fox.
“Do you want to believe?” she asks him.
“In a god? Nah, not really.”
“No one else I know does. It would just make me, I dunno, different.”
“But you’re different anyway. We all are. When you look up at Orion, you connect the stars with lines in your imagination, and your lines don’t look like mine. When you stand next to your brother, even though your parents are the same, his eyes are green and yours are brown. His skin is light and yours is dark. You and I were once a single primate, she and the trees a single cell, looking for the light. Variation is the stuff that makes our world, all those stars, our universe.”
“And in all that variation,” Fox says, and looks at her, “do any gods exist?”
“In the minds of theists. As abstractions. Maybe something out there in the universe calls itself a god, but I need no transcendence beyond these stars above us, the ground below us full of life, and the fireflies and flowers… and your smile.”
He leans into her, and draws his eyelids closed, and she shuts her eyes, and waits for his warm lips—
Whiskers tickle her and a wet tongue licks her nose.
She sits up, laughing. The gray fox jumps off her chest and sits next to her, dark eyes sparkling with violet humor. The fireflies are purple again.
“Come on, God,” she says to him. “Let’s go back. I think I have my answer.”
The twilight tunnel lightens up ahead, the mushrooms shrink to normal size and cease their glowing, the fireflies fade one by one, and she emerges into bays and oaks and fog lit from the fading light above. A small gray fox runs up ahead of her and disappears behind a fern.
She buttons up her jacket and takes the path over the hilltop toward the village. From up here, she can see the Bay, all the ruins at its edge, and all the marshes full of birds where once stood neighborhoods, and once walked mastodons, and once was sea floor.
An airship floats along its path above, in and out of clouds, and somewhere past it all, through the black, a man her age with dimples and brown eyes is planting trees on Mars. God’s work, he would have said.
That year away was lonely more than anything for her. Even he, whose name she’s certain wasn’t Fox, never made her feel at home. She remembers longing for the sweet, spicy smell of dusty summer bay leaves and the fog roaming in between the hills, even while they watched the fireflies and made out in the grass and looked at stars.
And when she came back, seventeen and one inch taller with half a borrowed accent and a haircut her own parents laughed at, she felt even more alone.
Gods were never Jaheem’s real concern.
She knows what to do now.
“I came back changed,” she tells the gatherers, after opening the week’s discussion with her own story of her year away. “And that was the point. We all go away for a year so that we all come back with different experiences, different ideas, because survival depends on adaptability, and adaptability is strengthened with variety, with openness to the unexpected, to the strange, to things that frighten us at first. Nature’s lesson is to listen, learn, accept, evolve. Use all the senses that we have, including our imaginations.”
The people in the circle nod and murmur.
“How did you feel when you came back from your away mission?” she asks Feng, who’s sitting next to her today.
“Pretty weird. I’d gotten so used to the tundra, it felt sweltering here even though it was rainy season, and everyone was complaining about the cold. It was like I knew everyone, but they didn’t know me anymore.”
“And you, Akilah?”
Akilah takes a deep breath before sighing, “I… actually got kind of depressed for a while. I felt… I don’t know how else to say it. I just felt really at home with the family I stayed with in the prairie. I’ve been thinking about visiting them actually.”
That would be good for her. Currant nods encouragingly and turns to the next gatherer. “Vihaan?”
“Well,” and he turns to Samantha, sitting next to him where last week there was just an empty pillow and grins. “I think everyone knows I got a little more out of my away mission than I bargained for.” Everyone laughs, including thankfully, Samantha. “So, yeah. Everything was different. It still is.”
Samantha takes his offered hand and speaks up in her sing-song accent without prompting. “I only know away missions from the other side, but I can definitely tell you all they leave the folks you meet a little changed themselves.” She smiles, glances at Vihaan, and says, “Ok, sometimes a lot changed.”
The stories travel all the way around the circle until it’s Jaheem’s turn.
“Yeah,” he says, and rubs his long hands on his knees. “I still feel pretty weird. When I first came back last week, it was like, I didn’t know if I belonged here anymore.”
Everyone around the circle, except the younger kids, nod and mutter in agreeing tones.
“I felt like that when I went home last year,” Samantha says. “I don’t think I belong anywhere now.”
“You belong here,” Vihaan tells her and kisses her hand. She smiles at him, but her eyes are still a little sad.
Jaheem continues, “Yeah. Samantha, you belong here as much as I do. I mean, I think everyone who’s been on an away mission probably knows how you feel.”
After the discourse, as the Hall of Being empties for another week, Jaheem approaches.
“Hey, Currant.” He looks down at the floor, runs a nervous hand across his head.
“I just wanted to say thanks. Last week after we talked, I felt super weird, and then, like, this week, I dunno, the way you got everyone talking about their own away missions, it really helped.”
“What you said to Samantha was really nice. I’m proud of you.”
“Yeah. Belonging is something we all help each other with.”
“Oh, yeah. I remember Lyta saying that. I didn’t really get it, though. I think now I do.”
Currant smiles. Would Lyta be proud of her, right now?
“Anyway,” Jaheem says and raises a hand to wave goodbye. “Thanks again. See you next week!”
Samantha enters as he leaves, pushing her wild blonde hair behind an ear. “That kid,” she says. “He’s alright.”
“He’s a good one. What’s up, Samantha?”
“Well, I’ve been thinking about what you said a few weeks ago, about getting more involved with the community. It’s good advice.” Currant nods. “I’ve been helping out at the library, and fixing up a robot here and there, but, well, I was wondering if you needed any help up here?”
Help? Up here? Currant glances around the simple hexagonal hall, at the pillows that take her five minutes to stack up in a closet, at the incense holder filled with ash. At the slightly dusty carvings of the ancestors. There really isn’t much to do.
But that’s not what Samantha’s really asking, is it?
She tenses. She isn’t ready to be a mentor. She barely has the basics figured out. What if Samantha sees right through her? Realizes she has no idea what she’s doing? Tells everyone?
Lyta’s voice breaks through her spiraling internal chorus. Look at what’s in front of you.
A young woman from another place just trying to belong.
“Yeah,” Currant says. “I could use some help.”
“Great!” Samantha smiles and claps her hands together. “Where do we start?”
“Well, first, let’s meet the ancestors. This is Arthropleura, who lived three hundred million years ago…”