A light rain falls invisibly from a pure white sky. It does little to quench the warm November afternoon. Shannon is sitting on a picnic bench she has dragged close to the fire in her backyard. Her husband had asked her to burn the yard trimmings he collected the day before, a huge heap of dried olive branches and fig vines still running with sap so they pop, smoke, and hiss, the small flames struggling in the rain. Shannon sits close to feel the heat. Her husband is inside watching the Sunday football game. The kids are having their post-church nap. She feels a vague pull to check on them, to do the dishes, or to go in search of some other domestic emergency since the fire doesn’t require her absolute attention. But she resists, feeling equally pulled to sit in this solitude of rain and fire. The fire grows, the heat on her face becoming nearly unbearable, but the sky falling on her head cools her. Meager yet frigid raindrops slip down the slope of her newly shorn scalp, her toes curling with the maddening itch of it.
The rim of the copper fire pit, overheated, shimmers with molten rainbows. Shannon watches the raindrops that land there imprint perfect circles that evaporate almost instantaneously, a hypnotizing melody of appearing and rapidly disappearing orbs. Shannon is compelled to witness these raindrops as they materialize, their lifespan the approximate three minutes it takes to fall five-thousand feet, from ethereal sky to an inhospitable hot metal surface, and their fraction of a second of visible existence before being vanquished back to the realm of the invisible.
Shannon watches until the rain stops. She glances up at her husband, visible through the living room window, his arm stretched comfortably across the back of the sofa. She notes that his head and shoulders appear relaxed, silhouetted by the hyper-color and chaos of the football game screaming across their big-screen television. Still no sign of the children or anything else that requires her. As the fire dies down, she looks around for more to trimmings to burn, but that is it. There is nothing else.
They are already fifteen minutes late for dinner at their pastor’s house. When they were invited that morning after the service, Shannon offered to bring dessert. She waits near the oven now, regretting that decision. The timer beeps loudly and she rallies, whisking the chocolate chip cookies from the oven and sliding the cookies sheet with a harsh metallic clang onto the stovetop to cool. The baby, drawn by the aroma, stands at the baby gate barring her from the kitchen. She wraps her tiny fingers around the wooden bars and shakes the gate, her eyes locked menacingly on Shannon. Cucky nuss, cucky nuss, she chants robotically, like a small wind-up doll growing uncannily louder by the second. Cookies and milk, Shannon thinks to herself dully, feeling defined somehow by her small daughter’s demands for a cookie and to nurse. Her husband appears behind the baby, hands in pockets. You should have weaned her at one like I said. You’ve created a monster, he chides, thinking he’s being funny. Ignoring them both, Shannon transfers the hot cookies as quickly as she can from the baking sheet to a platter she thinks the pastor’s wife will find pretty, crumbling a few cookies and badly scorching her fingertips in the process.
For dinner, Judy, the pastor’s wife, has prepared a delicate corn chowder, a salad of baby lettuces grown in her garden, and a loaf of rustic bread she baked earlier in the afternoon. Shannon knows this is Judy’s gift, to take the paltry sum provided by the church and to not only multiply it like the fishes and loaves, but to transform it into beauty, bounty, a balm. Shannon wonders if this is what church people mean when they say they feel convicted. Why can’t she make something out of the paltriness of her own life? Perhaps this is what her husband is thinking as well when he makes a point of addressing her shaved head in front of their pastor and his wife in the middle of dinner. Shannon expected it, but it still sets anger roiling within her, slippery and snakelike.
I told you. I just needed a change, she says to her husband, her eyes locked on his soup, a semblance of a smile pasted in place on her face, a smile that feels like a betrayal. Change is often a good thing, Pastor James offers, a signal of transformation. Her husband stiffens in his chair, anxious to make himself understood, inexorable. Just a bit drastic, he says before picking up his napkin and wiping his mouth slowly, dramatically. Shannon raises her eyes from his soup to his face and sees what he never saw, herself beneath the harsh bathroom light in the middle of the night, her nose a hooked shadow, the clippers that she uses to give the boys buzz cuts in the summer riding her scalp as her family sleeps, her mouth smiling grimly into the mirror as pale blond strands float down and lay themselves prostrate over the tops of her bare feet. A quiet advances over the table. A bit drastic, perhaps she’ll give him that.
But the smugness of his concern knows no bounds. He brings up the accident. Fuck you, she screams. In her head. To calm herself she sucks air in through her nose and focuses on the feeling of her feet bound up in little green flats and pressed squarely to the floor. She then lets her awareness move up her legs to the napkin spread over her lap, the weight of it heavy, a leaden apron shielding her from the radiation of her own rage. She has learned by now that her truculent anger passes, usually without any obvious damage to their beautiful life. Every time it seems a miracle.
He has their attention now. Shannon assures them that it didn’t happen the way he described at all; it was hardly knitting while driving. Just an unfortunate confluence of staggered dismissal times, school traffic, a sleeping baby, and a whim to have a handmade Christmas – scarves for the all of their extended family. The expression on the Pastor’s face is both weary and empathetic. We all lead such busy, fragmented lives, he says, that it can be difficult to discern God’s plan for us. We have a good friend who is a psychologist. He practices something called prayer therapy. Judy chimes in, her tone a pitch perfect blend of confidentiality and friendliness: He’s absolutely wonderful! I’ve been to see him several times over the years, when things get a bit overwhelming.
Prayer therapy – so it’s Christian counseling? her husband asks. Dr. Dan is a certified clinical psychologist, the Pastor explains, but yes, it is a type of counseling meant to reorient you to your faith, to provide you with that moral compass when you are lost. Judy shoots a conspiratorial wink at Shannon and confides, It has gotten me back on track many times. The Pastor puts his arm heavily around his wife’s shoulders, flattening out something in her eyes. In fact, she adds, I wouldn’t mind going again soon. Shannon smiles politely.
Shannon enters Dr. Dan’s office having roamed the tangled thickets of her memory to harvest, like overripe berries, her most traumatic memories. She collected wordless images, sensations she imagined worthy of his analysis: the reflection in a window of her mother scowling out into the night, a kitchen knife clutched near her cheek; being snatched up and pressed roughly against the window, her mother’s arm cutting into her ribs, the cold of night on the other side of the window cold beneath her small palms as she slaps them against the glass to steady herself; her father’s face surfacing up out of the darkness on the other side of the window, laughing, mocking, joyously drunk.
But this is not where Dr. Dan starts at all. He doesn’t want her memories, her story. He wants to tell her a story, but he needs her permission for some reason, and so requests it. The muscles in her face twitch. She resists the urge to smile politely and say yes because she made a promise to herself. She will be honest. Dr. Dan hovers in her periphery, smelling of soap, as she thinks hard. It takes effort, practically a physical effort, to be honest, to answer honestly. Does she want to hear a story? She doesn’t know. What could a story possibly do for her? Is he patronizing her? Or is he about to embark on a paradigm-shifting parable? It would have to be a very universal one, as he knows nothing about her or her situation. He waits in silence, and it is a patient waiting. Her shaved head has become weirdly sensitive. The hairs, like individual antenna, search out but pick up no pressure to proceed from Dr. Dan, which Shannon finds reassuring. Her body relaxes into more deeply into the reclining chair. Without a smile, she says flatly, okay. More silence.
Shannon wonders briefly if he heard her, but then she hears him take a deep, meditative breath. His voice, slow and disembodied, instructs her to close her eyes. After another few minutes of silence, he begins. Dr. Dan’s voice fills the small room with a certain vibration that makes Shannon’s scalp tingle: People equate darkness with emptiness, he says, his intonation resonant, mythical. They equate light with life. But they are mistaken. Life doesn’t begin in light. Light to the newly living is harsh, discordant and disorientating. Darkness is regenerative. We sleep to absorb its salve, to heal, and then churlishly we pray to return to the light unscathed. More than just regenerative, the darkness is generative. In darkness life begins. The mystery of creation happens in obscurity, but humanity is not satisfied with mystery, so we invent ways to witness – then we marvel. So let us witness together this miracle. We begin to apprehend that dark nothingness is merely the veil that potential wears. Then into this nothingness, this dark, erupts a potent orb. An egg, spinning out into the chaos. It often is gathered back up into the nothingness, into obscurity, but not this time. This time something miraculous happens. Egg meets seed. A union ocurrs, beautiful in its magic, in its manifestation of potential. It is a chemical paroxysm that changes everything, that results in the effusion of a unique and inspired genetic code, a code that is you, Shannon. This is your genesis, but you must consent. So my questions is this: Should this union occur?
At first she cannot comprehend his question. It is pushed aside as she tries to recall why Dr. Dan’s voice is so familiar. Then it comes to her. Her son’s field trip to the Griffith Observatory. There had been a voice like Dr. Dan’s narrating the planetarium show. She and her son reclined beneath the domed ceiling splattered with stars as a voice exactly like Dr. Dan’s narrated the dawn of the cosmos, while the hum and click the star projector shifted the heavens above them and strained her willing suspension of disbelief. She is about to ask Dr. Dan if he indeed lent his voice to the planetarium when her scalp begins to tingle again. The pressure absent earlier is now building, pressurizing the room, drawing her attention away from his voice, from its trajectory of emotion, first god-like and distant, then personal and almost loving, to his question: Would she, if given the choice, call herself into creation? The pressure generated by the question, by placing her existence in her own hands, seems a cruel mockery. Tears of frustration spring up and are captured beneath her closed eyelids. She is there to learn how to accept her life! Now that is not enough? Now she must choose it? In the continuous, fraught silence, she thinks of her children. Would her nonexistence negate their very existence? She imagines them as they probably are at that very moment, their small blond heads cradled on pillows strewn with moonlight, oblivious that their existence is being desperately deliberated by their own mother. It seems impossible that they could exist without her, and equally impossible that they could somehow not exist. Shannon concedes in the face of this paradox that she cannot answer Dr. Dan’s question based on her children, their existence, her love for them, or their need of her, although all are tempting shelter.
Instead she thinks of the difficult birth of her daughter, her last child, of the roaring pain of being ripped right up the middle, spirit from flesh. She remembers feeling herself peel away from her corporal encasement without hesitation and with a strong sure sense that nothing would be lost. She would take her totality with. She considers this experience but in reverse. If existence continues after the body, does it preexist the body? If so, did she choose her life, her incarnation? And if not this body, this life, was there, is there, the possibility of another? And what if Dr. Dan’s narration of her genesis, like the narration at the planetarium, is just a show, a curated overview or preview of this particular life so that she can choose here, now? In the quiet darkness behind her eyelids, her tears recede. She grows instinctively assured, like some pale cave-dwelling creature blind yet certain that all it needs is in the vicinity. She utters the word and turns inside out, opening at her core – a blown white peony in the morning sun: no.
Marisa Guadalupe Whitney is a California-dwelling writer and community college teacher who fantasizes about cold weather as the globe heats up. She recently moved her teaching into the online realm, and now spends her days at her computer by a window where she can simultaneously prod her students to become critical thinkers via online chats (thinking emoji) while keeping a close eye on the lizards colonizing her backyard. Her lack of a commute means she is finishing up a climate change novel for middle-schoolers because she believes they should know what they’re in for, and they should raise hell.