The big ship is on fire in the bay outside my window and a fire engine wailed to the rescue of the epileptic who collapsed in the cafeteria, but nothing will rescue the big ship tonight because no one can see it choking in flames but me. And I will not put a call to the fire department where father worked until he was ash, for they would put an end to that pyre down in the bay, they are paid to extinguish the beauty that so few recognize. So few see her beauty—the girl in a sick mask with tie-dye pants and cold blue eyes, and half her face covered under wraps. She submits to a stigma that brands her a leper in this climate of our current influenza. Mother warned me not to hug anyone this year. Mother held me tightly.
To keep the sickness at bay outside, my window is always sealed, but tonight I open it to breathe the smoke from the big ship that burns in the bay in the wicked late hour tonight… is she afraid of the sickness? I sat at her table but she would not speak. She sits alone in the back of the cafeteria where the firemen rushed in with a stretcher and checked his vital signs, but they will not rush to the rescue of the big ship… no one has seen it. No one has seen the rest of her face. Only her eyes. Such beautiful eyes. Alone at her table I sat down across from her and asked why she wore the mask and she looked at me with her eyes wide, a frightened blue-eyed animal, but I could not see the expression on her mouth behind the mask. They are all afraid of her. They think she carries the sickness. I asked if she was infected already or if she just wouldn’t risk catching ill. She shook her head both ways. Mother pressed a pocket size bottle of Purell into my hand before she left me here, but I am not afraid. Father was not afraid.
You’re like cellophane, you all are. You were always translucent to me but now you can hide nothing. You cannot possibly imagine how finely tuned my eyes are. I look and shudder and think about painting the walls into checkerboards, and you’re just sitting there with your mouths open, you’re breathing it in, you’re just swallowing it.
They put a cap on my head and turned it on. Images flashed on a screen, things I had never seen before, and I wish I could remember now how I understood them then. I did not know what a gun was, but they showed me a man having his brains blown out so they could record the activity between my neurons. They said that I would not remember. I was too young to remember, they said, but I remember. Death may not have been a concept to me then, but I knew how flesh was and was not supposed to look. It was for the sake of science. Professionals, those men in lab coats with their clipboards, with the apparatus they strapped to my head, their oracular electroencephalograph: I remember a steel-toed boot crushing the life out of a boy, but what was I to think? Whatever I thought is filed away in Dr. Straussmann’s drawer. Results of the study went unpublished—the scientific community would have ridiculed Straussmann and damned his methods had he submitted his report to any journal for peer review. The experiment was never approved by any board at any institution. Straussmann worked independently.
I sat at her table three times and she wouldn’t talk to me, so I followed her back to her dormitory after she left the cafeteria where the epileptic was carried away by his convulsions. I never saw him again—did they cut his corpus callosum? Did they make him better? He was broken—did they fix him? She didn’t know it, but I was no more than twenty feet behind her as she walked the path to her dormitory, and I made sure of the building’s name and her room’s number. She lived in a tower made of concrete. She lived up in the sky.
I saw her go into the biology building four days in a row. What was she working on in there? Was she building life? Playing god, constructing things from genetic codes that she found in the alchemy books of our era, the recipes for life, amino acids she could bend to her will… what was she doing in that lab? What form did her will seek? What precipice was she leaning over? I followed her to her classes: she wasn’t in biology this quarter, so it could only be her own hobby that compelled her to spend so much time in there. It could only be her own obsession.
The big ship hasn’t left port for as long as anyone can remember—it’s been sitting there without any freight, all the sailors on permanent shore leave while the captain sits in his quarters carving glyphs on a desk, negotiating terms of departure with spectral representatives from kaput cargo companies… his men crawl the taverns all through town, but the thrill of this small city has gone, and they’ve turned to ghosts now as the big ship burns.
Rain is coming. It’s too late. Things always happen too late, don’t they? If only we had known, if only there’d been more time to intervene… think you could have changed it with more time? Think anything would be different?
She wore her mask while she looked through the microscope. She didn’t hear me approach. Was it bacteria she examined? Viruses, parasites? Did she mean to do us harm? Was she drawn to the deadliest amoebas, the scum of the earth, was she fascinated by them, was she spellbound by them? What did she know about the naegleria fowleri? Did she know how it could invade the body through the nasal membrane and attack the nervous system, eat the brain? Did she mean to contaminate our water? Did she mean to make us sick? I said I had questions. I said she’d give answers.
I took her to the big ship at the port that was empty and unwatched in the middle of the night, while the city slept and the wind howled like a tribe of gypsies who mourned for their fallen kin. I said that I had questions. I said that she would give me answers. I made her look into the microscope of my collection of knives. I showed her some of the things I still knew about from when I was a boy, I showed her the ways in which flesh could be rendered, I took off her mask, I put gasoline in her wounds.
Father fought fires until he was ash, but he allowed me to be set ablaze in a test chamber when I was young. The fee that Straussmann gave him for his infant son’s participation in the study paid for me to come attend school here. And can I stay here? Can I stay here with my hands this color? Can I stay here until the firemen come to take away what’s left of her? Can I wash these clothes with the same water they’ll use to extinguish the flames that I made?
This town could sleep forever, and I could be awake until the whole world leans over the precipice of God’s insomnia, but it makes no difference, because the big ship will never stop burning.