Allison Wyss is a third-year MFA student at the University of Maryland. Her work has appeared in [PANK] and Metazen.
No Spark Will Catch
Sharp blades carve a blurry circle into the sky. That’s not true. They move more slowly, like oars, rowing the air. The wind farm is tower after tower after tower, patterned like diamonds, tessellating past the horizon. Blades synchronize, and it’s like a mirror looking into a mirror, glimpsed from the corner of my eye.
I pierce the ground, pull my sample. Wet the wand, tap the tower, pull my sample. These mills aren’t growing wind, just harvesting it. My job is to test the ground beneath and between. Spear a deep core of packed dirt. Measure the vibrations. Suck a plastic pillow of air and write down the readout.
The sun leaks through clouds, but only barely, and the ground is soggy as I return to the truck. My footprints fill with water. There’s no rule against footprints. I don’t think so, at least.
Just to test myself, like I do every Thursday evening, before calling my mother then my sister, before cooking dinner for my boyfriend/tax man, I dig my back-up liver from beneath a lumpy bag of frozen peas. The liver is solid and dark red, but bulbous, under the transparent cryo-seal. Rock hard, it skids a couple inches across the countertop. If I let it thaw, it would be squishy. It would wiggle gelatinously. I dump the liver back into the freezer with a thunk and a shiver. Then I pull out a couple of pork chops.
Behind closed eyes, I see fractals. Bloodlines in my eyelids, forking again and again and again. Sub-micro-capillaries, sub-sub-micro-capillaries. Crumbling forever into nothing.
It’s this way at work, between the numbers I scratch on my clipboard. And at home, cooking or reading or talking on the phone. Every blink draws division after division after division.
Working, I drive a truck to the reservoir. I park, then curl down the steep grade. There are some concrete stairs, some rubble that used to be stairs, then plain old dirt and gravel as the trail disintegrates. When I get to the water, I measure it, measure the reservoir. The chemicals in the water, the air, the sandy dirt at the shoreline. Drips of chemicals, then watching for colors to swirl, to change. A dial, a stopwatch. Samples sipping into tiny glass vials.
Wind blows the water into choppiness, short waves nick at the sand, pulling it, pushing it, carving it smooth and small. Each blade of water cuts into the next, splits it. New blades radiate. I don’t count the waves or try to measure them or the grains of the sand.
I copy the numbers to my clipboard, but never into the equations. It’s not my job to extrapolate their values over time and space and time again.
After I check the ingredients for dinner, pull meat from the freezer and start it under running water to thaw, I call my mother.
“Marcy! It’s been so long since I talked to you, Honey.”
I visit every Sunday night and call her as I make dinner every Thursday. “Not that long, Mom.”
“How was work? Were you safe?”
“Work is fine.” I’m using the water running over the frozen pork chops to rinse some lettuce. My hands are red and icy, wrapped in flapping green leaves. I pull the lettuce from the sink, pat it dry with a towel.
“How’s Ted? Will he eat dinner with you tonight?”
“It’s Thursday. He always does, Mom.”
“What are you making?”
“Ted’s favorite! Don’t overcook them, Marcy.”
“I try not to.” I slice cherry tomatoes in half with the tip of a long knife. They’re mealy on the inside, so I slide them from the cutting board into the garbage disposal and flip the switch to grind.
“Your father likes them well done, but not every man.” There’s a pause and I can picture my mother reaching her long neck around the kitchen corner, into the living room to glare at my father. “Burnt, dry pork chops! It probably runs in his blood, just like the drinking.”
I whistle out a high-pitched breath. “Dad is not an alcoholic.”
“Well, his father was.”
“Dad has two beers a week.” More chopping than listening, onion into wedges into slices into cubes. Smaller, crosswise, smaller and smaller. This is a tired and old conversation.
“It’s in your blood, Marcy.”
“I’ll watch out for it, Mom. I promise.” I wipe the knife and slice six rounds off the end of a cucumber.
“Well, you have the liver anyway, for when the cirrhosis hits.”
“A little bit of red wine, Mom. It’s good for you.”
“Anyway, you have the liver, at least.”
The phone falls away from my ear as I scoop vegetables, two-handed, into a bowl. Then I catch it up again, chin to shoulder.
“You should call your sister, you know.”
I’m the only person I know—the only one from a good family—who doesn’t have an extra freezer in the garage to hold spare parts. And I’m the only one who’ll drive a truck outside the city.
There’s just the one liver wedged into the back of my regular freezer. An exact copy of my own liver, as it was four years ago. I can’t throw it away because it was a gift from my mother.
Each day I drive the same route, to the field, to the reservoir, to the wind farm, to the labs. A long loop, to bring the samples to the scientists. They never leave their labs. Sleep in cots between the beakers.
Each loop, I never get farther, just make a circle, to the field, to the reservoir, to the wind farm, to the labs.
My mother never leaves her house, but that’s not as strange as the way I leave the city, every day. We are opposites, my mother and me, balancing each other in our eccentricity.
“I saw you at the reservoir today.”
“Mom, that’s creepy.” The stump of the lettuce, the end of the cucumber—down the drain with a splash of water—grind to mush.
“Well, it felt like a good day for the reservoir.”
“And when you look, I just happen to be there?” She watches from home, from her recliner. She turns on the breezes, the audio, projects the scene around her.
“I was working, Mom. It’s strange to be watched.”
“I can look at the reservoir if I want to.”
“It was pretty out today. There was almost sunshine,” I say. When I’m out there, I feel the sun, almost, on my skin. She uses the simulator, which is strong and hot and I can imagine how her cheeks are pink from it, even now, so much later in the day.
“I felt bad for you working on a day like this, while I could sit home and enjoy it.”
Someone else calculates the trends. But the patterns are there, behind my eyes. I can’t stop them from tessellating outward, each measurement, each shape, to the ends of my mind, if there are edges or ends to a mind.
“It’s selfish, Marcy, you know that!” My sister tells me this, every Thursday when we talk on the phone.
“How is it selfish?” I know Julia’s answer, but still play along every time.
“No backups! And driving every day! You know you’ll get in some awful car accident and that I’ll give you my parts, any parts that you need.” She’s panting slightly over the soft whir of her treadmill. She doesn’t say what everybody thinks, which is that she can only give them if I make it back to the city and its freezers.
“You don’t have to do that.” I open the oven to poke at a potato, and the scorch of oven air clings to my arms.
“Yes, I do. You’re my sister and I love you and what would people think?”
“Still, you wouldn’t have to.”
“Oh yes I would, and then I’d have to wait six months or more for new ones. Cowering at home. What if I got in an accident in the meantime? What then? I die and you live with my borrowed organs. How could you live with yourself?”
“Then you’d better not give them to me.” It’s what I always say. I open the oven door again and this time put my face close to the rack when the pan slides toward me. I breathe the heat into my throat and my pores, then lift the pan out of the oven. The phone clatters from my shoulder to the floor.
When I can pick it up again, Julia hasn’t stopped talking. “No, I’d better buy a spare set now. Just the critical ones, I suppose. We’ll need another freezer. You’re lucky I’m a match, you know.” She’s been talking for years about this, getting a backup to her backup set.
It’s creepy to think of other organs wiggling inside me. Even my sister’s. Even clones of my original parts.
I’m a failed bio-chem major. Or dropout. And so I must travel, drive the loop and driving is dangerous. Everybody thinks so. Far from the freezers.
But somebody has to measure. The gases in the air. Acidity levels. Water levels. Length by width by height of grains of salt. I don’t do the analysis, the projections. I gather with my beakers and my gauges and my litmus. I don’t know the laws, so I can’t fudge the numbers. They don’t trust me to calculate the patterns. It’s a guard against bias—just keep her neutral! A seven on the scale, or a zero, or a straight unbreaking line.
We can’t improve, but we can copy, ward off age and degradation.
I’m strange because I leave the city and its tunnels. I go outside to the roads, drive a truck—dangerous—and let sunlight touch my skin if it can reach me.
The onions are clear, soft, aromatic in the sauté pan. The pork chops are just beginning to sizzle.
When my sister and I aren’t talking about organs on the phone, we talk about men. Julia likes to say that our two men, her husband and my boyfriend/tax man, are so much alike, isn’t it just like all men to be that way? I fill in the pauses with “absolutely,” “really?” and “tell me about it.”
The men are boring. Too boring, but we’re both entrenched.
There is silence after my last “really” and so I swing the conversation to another old one. “So you’d be like Mom? If you weren’t backed up? Afraid to leave your house?” Julia doesn’t go far, never into a car, or outside the city, but she’s proud of her daring. Shopping in person. Creeping—careful—through the safety-certified tunnels.
“Mom is backed up,” she says.
“You know what I mean.”
She chuckles and there’s a bang through the phone line. It means a foot has slipped from the exercise equipment, but Julia is up again before the whooshing can stop. “You’re the one who’ll be like mom, if you don’t hurry up.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I say, stealing Julia’s next line. She’s split from my topic, spooling outward, but I know this one, too. “Stuck at forty-three forever.”
“It could happen,” she says. “Just a few more years...”
This is our joke, about my age. “Twelve! It’s twelve years!” Once a year, the number shifts, but not the idea.
“Think of it. Forty-three forever. Not twenty-five or thirty-one. Forty-three!” Julia isn’t joking anymore.
Crow’s feet splinter into soft skin. Fractals cracking smaller and smaller?
“Mom couldn’t help getting stuck there.” I focus on the seasoning, crush then float the pepper, micro-cubes of salt, over the soft sizzle lifting from the skillet.
“My point exactly,” she says.
“Maybe she liked her forty-three years.” Julia never understands, but I say it anyway.
Through the phone line, I can feel her eyes roll. Her shoulders go limp even as she swings her arms back and forth and back and forth. “God, Marcy. That doesn’t even make sense. Does she act like she likes them?”
Before I quit school, I get to work on a theory, my mentor’s theory, how shifts in gravity affect aging—how lighter or heavier pulls, should we ever live on bigger or smaller planets— affect cells and their life cycles. That’s the big picture. Ten years ago, it seems that movement, that travel, will fix our problems. My part is measuring and not much else, but at least I know what I’m measuring toward, can get excited by a number, by a change. I measure bounce. A new center, a new pull. It changes everything! I’m bringing cells to the moon, at least theoretically, and measuring their bounce.
I still measure bounces, elasticity, tensile strength…. I see, try not to see, the patterns extending outward.
I have enough money. I could stay, forever, in whatever body I have the foresight to save, to back up. As long as I’m careful. Copied organs wiggling inside me. Xeroxed face and heart and ankle and bladder.
I open a bottle of wine to go with the dinner for Ted. The cork pulls clean in a smooth twist like it does every Thursday night. I pour wine for him, even though he won’t drink it, because it looks nice on the table, the deep red richness of it, reflecting the glow of the candles. My boyfriend/tax man doesn’t mind—finds it exciting, maybe—to watch me drink a glass of wine with dinner. I play with the flash of the steak knives as I put one to each plate. There’s snow on the ground outside the dining room window, and I wish I had a fireplace. I turn the heat up, to just above comfortable, because maybe it will simulate an open flame.
I feel like there’s a new me, everyday. A Marcy who is fresh and clean and no relation to the me of yesterday. I’m trapped in the renewal.
When Ted bursts through the door, using his own key and not knocking, he throws his coat on the couch. Then when he gets to the dining room, he loosens his tie. “Smells good!” Ted growls. He speaks in a low guttural voice, which I once, regrettably, told him was sexy, and so he uses it all the time.
Ted starts in on his favorite subject, guided to it by remnants of Julia’s words, their split double helix, unspooling down the walls. He must know he can’t convince me, but, every week, he tries.
“I started a new brain today.” Ted scrapes his chair forward, drops his napkin to his lap.
He already has two of each part on ice. He even has the non-essentials, the parts you could wait for: a full skeleton, a collection of tendons and muscle tissue, a large square sheet of skin, complete with freckles and hair follicles, folded into a neat packet.
“Well, you know how brains are.” He taps his fork on the edge of the plate and speaks in growly singsong.
“Seems like a waste.” I fork a potato onto Ted’s plate, then another onto mine. I slice a long X into the skin of my potato, fold the edges back and lean into the steam as it rises up.
“The waste would be to lose six months of memories. Our memories.” Ted looks up and finds my eyes. “Not to mention all the new code I’ve memorized lately.”
“Uh-huh.” I’m tired of the old conversations.
“You know, if we got you a set, you could always keep them at my place.” Ted is pretending to relish his pork chop, as if it’s not overcooked. “You wouldn’t need to buy another freezer.”
I shrug. “I just don’t think—”
“—Or if it’s too early for that. You know, with you and me.” Ted looks down at his plate. There is a moment of practiced awkwardness. It’s the same moment we’ve been performing for six years. “We could always rent you some space. You can deduct the cost of the rent, just like the organs themselves.”
My next line is about tax codes, about how I know them all by now, even as I try to tune them out. Ted laughs and then tries again to sell me on copying myself, on storing today’s version in discrete segments, individually wrapped and frozen. I always play my part, protest absently, deliver my lines.
Except for once or twice a year, when I give up, agree to have copies made of my organs, and then Ted quickly talks me out of it.
We don’t let the wind sweep across the plain anymore—we wrench it into tight, stationary circles. Turning the blades. But how far did the wind ever sweep? Isn’t it just the same air, in a pattern of hot and cold, of sinking and rising?
When I close my eyes, I see fractals. Bloodlines in my eyelids, forking again and again and again. Sub-micro-capillaries, sub-sub-micro-capillaries. Crumbling. Forever into nothing.
The next stop, after the reservoir, is always the field. From my perch in the truck, which sits high on the road above the tall corn, the fields extend to the horizon, spreading out like a dinner plate. The road is straight and flat, pushing both ways in a line that cuts the center.
Then the truck is stopped and I’m on the ground. Leaves shake like an old lady’s fingers, rustle above my head. I cut a leaf, then an ear, careful not to tear the silk, slip them into ziploc and label them. I test and measure the soil, so dry it’s dirt. Record the numbers.
Then I pull out my compass, smooth weight in my palm, and pace into the field. It’s cross-row and hard to stay straight, easy to get lost, but I know what I’m doing, know how to mark a course. A hundred meters, test dirt, take samples. Then turn, return. Sun shuffles between leaves, summons sweat from my eye creases.
I think about getting lost, about hurling the compass in a wide arc and then punching my dirty boots from furrow to furrow. Every direction the same, cornstalks radiating in rows from the point in the center that is me. Maybe I shouldn’t go back, should lose myself here.
Because every day there is a brand new me, split off from myself, smaller and smaller, with each division. A different Marcy, split off from me, would still be wandering tomorrow.
She would be thirsty. Not me.
But the needle is steady and I follow it. The highway emerges from between rustling leaves and I stumble from the field, only a few paces from the truck.
Behind my eyelids, stalks radiate in all directions. Rows symmetrify. Leaves split off stalks, split again, then again. My eyes open to bright sun. In the air, blood veins pulse spidery holograms.
After dinner, Ted’s lips are icy when he fumbles at my neck and then my ear. But Ted, the boyfriend and tax man, has to work early on Friday mornings, so he doesn’t squirm further, doesn’t spend the night. When I clear his plate, the food is really gone and not just pushed around to please me.
I gulp down Ted’s wine as I load the dishwasher. Tap the heat up one more notch. Then I put on slippers and fuzzy pajamas. Get a fluffy blanket and one more glass of wine. I move the candles to the coffee table and re-light them with a match. Identical flames, three of them in a line, waver in identical patterns. They jump and bounce together, with each disturbance of the air.
I never think about the future. After all, I’ll never see it. Each moment, a new Marcy emerges, ready for anything.
I’m waiting for fire, for an explosion that will break the pattern, a heat that will melt the cracking ice fractals. But no spark will catch. Behind my eyes, the lines split and spread, on and on, to the edges and past. They bump against brain coils, then push out—out—over the expanding plate of the horizon.