WE ARE MEANT FOR GREATER THINGS
by Jen Julian
This girl, she’s one of those people you hear about nowadays, living her life for the second time around. She’s a slack-faced, dream-eyed sister, born—twice now—at the end of a gravel road outside town, a stone’s throw from the slaughterhouse. She abides with a skittish mother and two large black boxer dogs, and she knows that one of the three will die suffering from a snakebite, hopes she can stop it when the time comes, but she doesn’t know when it’s supposed go down, or if it’s still supposed to go down at all. The girl is Birdy. Birdy Brightlane. Sunny name for such a sad body.
But I don’t judge her, it’s part of the job not to judge her. You’d be sad too, is what I tell myself, after fifteen years at the institution, and besides, these are often sad people, the ones on their second time around. The agency–they call my visits “conversations” to make them sound less clinical—list them on the paperwork informal-like—Convo #1, Convo #2—but Birdy knows what they are.When I come to see her, we sit together on the mossy deck off the back of her mother’s house, and we drink strong coffee and I offer her cigarettes, but she declines. She knows I am not her friend.
I used to smoke, she says.
When was this? I ask.
Sometime—she pauses to think a minute. Sometime a while ago. I must have smoked. I remember it.
I can see in her big mooneyes that she’s drifting off, and sometimes I try to net her in with questions (Birdy, why don’t you stay here, in the now?). But there she goes, which is to say, she’s dreaming about what it was like the first time around, when she didn’t end up here with her mother, at the end of the gravel road outside town, a stone’s throw from the slaughterhouse.
She remembers a long drive, she and the man in the fire. She drives; he lights her cigarettes. A cigarette slips, drops down between her thighs. She curses, pulls over, and then, as she’s rubbing spit on the burn, they see the peppery cloud bourgeoning from an overpass, spilling out into the twilight—a colony of Mexican free-tailed bats. Tadarida brasiliensis, she tells me. In college, she wrote a paper about the way their migration patterns affected peach crops. That time? No, both times. Both times she wrote a paper on bats and peach trees, but that time, the first time, she and the man in the fire sat on the hood of the car and watched until they could no longer see, could only hear the tinny week week week and the beating of batwings in the darkness. Birdy tells me that’s when he said he wanted to marry her, his words all warm and honeyed. That’s happenstance (or is it happiness?): a dropped cigarette and some bats and a confession of love.
Birdy and people like her, they’re a phenomenon that hasn’t gone unnoticed. Physicists have said their piece, a big dump of Scandinavian names popping up on your newsfeed, airy blond whitecoats with the noble brains required for the paradoxes of time and probability. They wonder if folks like Birdy are proof of the oscillating universe, the Big Bang that starts it off, the Bounce that revs it back up again, over and over. They’ve given silly names to what Birdy’s experiencing: the quantum foam memory sequence, anachronistic recollection, kairotic displacement disorder. From the Greek, kairos, Birdy tells me, (she minored in Classics, both times), meaning “the supreme moment.” From where I stand, in the muck, among laypeople, it’s hard to know whether Birdy is holding on to a lifelong delusion, or if she is actually visualizing the existence of an alternative world, where things turned out better. I have tested her before (even though I’m told not to, that’s not my job). I ask about presidents, Superbowl winners, natural disasters—What’s in store for us, Birdy? What’ll happen in the future? But Birdy looks at me like she doesn’t understand the question.
How would I know those things, she says.
But don’t you remember?
She shakes her head. Her lips are dry, skin flaking like a sugar glaze.
And let’s think about the snakebite a minute. You can’t remember if it’s, if it’s the dog or—or your mother that dies.
Birdy’s face crumples with guilt. At the kitchen window, the curtains flutter: her mother, watching us. She seems like a very careful woman, not unkind, though I have the sense that she’s afraid of her daughter.
I’ve tried, Birdy says. I mean, I’ve tried to remember where I was, the first time, when I heard about it. I was with him. I must’ve been with him, with the children. I guess—you know—that’s why I took part in the experiment, because I wanted to remember—more.
I know she is ashamed of her obsession with the man in the fire. It’s a quality almost universal to her kind, as if memory were a pane of shattered glass. Certain shards, particular ones, they shine their light in your eyes. Because as a teenager, she did remember getting the scholarship for State (though she wonders now if she applied for it only because she knew she had gotten it before). She remembered a series of unexciting boyfriends, which she avoided, a lewd professor, whose class she took with caution, an internship in Savannah, which moved her out of her mother’s house. She bought the car she remembered buying from before, an ancient junker that would break down the following summer (it did), when she’d find herself stranded at a backcountry crossroads on the hottest day of the year (it was). Here, by happenstance, she remembered hitching a ride back home with the man in in the fire.
And all this happened the way you remembered it? I ask.
Up to the point, Birdy says, where the man wasn’t there.
We sip our coffee in sync. The face of Birdy’s mother is a ghost in the window.
When’d all this start, the memories? I ask.
Birdy sits for a minute, working a loose thread on the edge of her sleeve. I’ll show you, she says, and she disappears into the shadows of the house, returns with a stack of old journals from her high school years. They are filled with drawings, cartoonish renderings of the man in the fire and their children, two girls, one tanned, one fair, their house with the wrap-around porch, backyard view of the Yadkin, a tuxedo cat named Sadie or Sasha, she can’t recall now, and a peach tree. Prunus persica, she tells me. It has always been a peach tree. She talks about how at night (both times) the slaughterhouse stench used to lie on her like a blanket, pig shit and blood, and her body (this time) would ache with hope and joy at the road ahead, and she would think, she would KNOW (this time): I’m meant for more than all this.
Birdy’s always been a troubled sleeper. The weight of time keeps her awake. She tells me she thought about suicide during her stay at the institution, that she figured her life as a trial run. Maybe the gods, whoever they are (and she’s sure they’re getting a good long laugh at all this), would send her back around again to get it right.
But that’s enough to make a body ill, isn’t it. I end up driving home from Birdy’s to my cheap, tiny apartment in Corporate Village, all those thoughts flitting like wasps in my head: maybe the Hindus got it right with reincarnation, except for the part about how no other lump of meat would dare have a sister like you, that nothing that exists prior to your birth or following your death. Just poor sad you, as you, as you, over and over again on the dented-up disc of time.
I think Birdy was okay until the experiment. After a year, they suspended her internship program because of funding problems (which happened last time), and toward the end (this time) she had a pitiful fling with some fool who gave her an infection, spent time in the hospital, whittled down her savings in copays. Then she found herself picking through a meager pile of shit jobs, clerks and lab assistants—women always end up languishing in those positions, and it was nothing she could live on in a city that expensive, not alone. This was when she heard about the experiment, how they were testing people like her.
You’ve heard of them maybe, Drs. Møller and Gasana. Swedish physicist, Rwandan bioneurologist, respectively. They chained up their subjects to some-other monstrous machine, wanted to hone and develop those spiderweb threads to the past, the future, to universes beyond. After all, if a girl’s living her life over again, does it not stand to reason that she is living her life for the tenth or hundredth or millionth time? Would it not make sense that she’d remember other lives too? They thought they’d help them too, pull them out of the pits these people find themselves in, where they question what they did wrong or fail to avoid a catastrophe they knew was coming.
And when they hooked Birdy up, Drs. Møller and Gasana, it did for her what it did for all the others—improvements at first, renewed clarity and breadth of all the childhoods lost, relationships failed, opportunities taken, cataclysms avoided, the complicated tendrils of cause and effect, choice and happenstance, a dropped cigarette, some bats, a confession of love. But further deepening, further prying, and they start to cling, these subjects. They couldn’t let go of what obsessed them most. They clung to it like crazy. And some say that gamma rays from the equipment did that, or maybe it was the chemical cocktails they used to track their neural pathways, or the mere terrifying act of Møller and Gasana unraveling the brain by threads. The multiverse—think about it—the multiverse is huge, after all. Can we ever consider our place in it, honestly, without going a little bit insane?
Anyway, Birdy came out of all that swinging, a spiraling tornado of anguish and hope. She decided then that she’d find him, the man in the fire.
I can’t blame her. The man’s handsome. I’ve seen pictures. And when I come home from a job that pays too little to an apartment that’s too small and too dirty, I wonder where I could go if I weren’t alone. Find someone you like who’s paid well, snatch him up quick, even now, mothers spell that out to their daughters—Birdy’s mother did, mine did. But the thing is, I like being alone. I don’t care for most men, for most everybody. So it does, I admit that, it does frustrate me to see Birdy still obsessing.
She has the peach tree tattooed on her ribs, wormed with fibrous wrinkles (in truth, Birdy has been more than a girl for a long time now). She remembers (last time) that he gave her the tree as an anniversary gift, at their place on the Yadkin, that they planted it together along the side of the house and collected its first fruits by the end of the summer. When she found him, she did find him, he had married someone else (this time), a woman who resembled Birdy in her face and in her gestures, and the house was as she remembered it, and the lawn was as she remembered it, and the tree—the peach tree—was planted along the side of the house as it always had been, half-withered in the heat of a summer drought.
But how—I say. How did he—
I don’t know, she tells me. I don’t know. I always thought he got it special, for me. That’s what I assumed. Wouldn’t you assume that too?
I have no answer, so I light up a cigarette. She puts her chin in her hands.
His wife didn’t take care of it, she says. She didn’t know how. The tree was drying up, it was dying. But I swear, I don’t even remember lighting the match.
She does remember the wind that night, how it pulled the flames beyond her reach, how the burning tree nested its sparks like seeds on the roof of the house, their place on the Yadkin, the man and his wife inside.
I feel for her, I do. But a body could spend years and years feeling sorry for Birdy and never really know her, never understand. I didn’t realize it then, when I started driving out here, though I realize it now—when her mind gets its death-grip on the home from before, and the man, and the children, it’s endurance, it’s survival. It’s the kind of survival with collateral damage—we’ve all seen that now—but survival nonetheless. Birdy would rather destroy everything than let herself vanish in the void of time.
It’s better now, I think, though I doubt any of that’s my doing. Now that she lives with her mother, Birdy wants to take up gardening, and I say, That’s good, that’s good. Gardening is good. Very therapeutic.
Yes, she says. I know. I took it up the first time, at the house on Yadkin.
After our chat on the porch, I gather up my paperwork and follow her out into the yard through the overgrown grass, through the smell of the slaughterhouse, thickening like soured milk in the heat of the afternoon. Birdy is filled with plans.
This will be a raised bed here, she says, waving her hand over a square of tilled earth. I had tomatoes and squash. Okra. Sunflowers. I’d drop them off on my neighbors’ porches in baskets, and I’d cook for my children on weekends.
She smiles. She is here in the garden. She is there, in the other garden. The grass itches my calves, and my eyes are darting all around for snakes. But I smile too.
And there, at that sunny spot, that’ll be a rose garden, she says. I didn’t have roses then, but my mother loves them, so I’ll have them this time. And all that brush down there, that I’ll clear out.
On the porch, her mother is watching us, a stone pillar, and while Birdy is lost in thought, considering the underbrush in the tree line, I wave—it’s all right, it’s all right, don’t fret about us—and Mrs. Brightlane nods and waves back.
Maybe, Birdy is saying. Maybe this time I won’t pull out all the honeysuckle vine. I’ll let it alone. It’ll be better, once I get things going. It’ll be even better.
Jen Julian’s essays and short stories have appeared in Press 53’s Open Awards Anthology for 2010 and 2013, Four Way Review, New Delta Review, North Carolina Literary Review, and The Antigonish Review, among other places. She also has work up and coming in New South, Tahoma Literary Review, and The Chattahoochee Review. Currently, she is a PhD candidate in Fiction at the University of Missouri, Columbia, though she calls rural North Carolina her home.
Image credit: Paul Chaloner on Flickr