Just hours before Mary Margaret died, the rain that had battered the city for weeks stopped and the sun burned alone in a brilliant summer sky. The nurse took great care to describe the scene to me later. Mary Margaret had asked the nurse to bring her to the window. With the sun on her face, she closed her eyes and listened to the birds. She drew deep, contented breaths and tapped her fingers to a song only she could hear. The nurse went away and when she returned Mary Margaret was unresponsive. A short while after the doctor declared her dead the rains began again and hadn’t stopped since.
Sing to me, Muse, of the anger of Daniela, and how she raged in the dark at her alarm clock, which did not sit upon the sacred throne of her nightstand but was instead held captive in exile on the dresser all the way on the other side of the room, the first misstep in an ill-conceived plan to seize the day and get out of bed before the sun came up, instead of waiting until she desperately needed to use the bathroom, get a drink, or both.
Tell me, Goddess, how she cursed Zeus and Thor and Ra and the whole pantheon of gods and heroes as she sprinted barefoot across the cold floor because at that moment she would do anything, bear any pain, pay any price, to stop that obnoxious beeping. “Super loud alarm sound for heavy sleepers!” the box said. It didn’t say, “Worst noise in the world! Perfect for early morning!”
Bartolomeo Evangelio de Garzas y Torreo arrived in Cartagena after a journey across the sea that most men would have recalled as the adventure of a lifetime. Bartolomeo put it out of mind almost the moment he stepped on dry land, so that years later the entire chapter was covered thusly: “We sailed from Almeria on a Sunday and arrived in Cartagena before the start of Lent.”
The fortress city of Cartagena overflowed with the fabled riches of the New World. Gold dangled from every earlobe and around every neck. Even the rudest citizens seemed weighted down with jewels. The city’s taverns filled the night air with the sound of men spending fortunes on fleeting pleasure, and the churches glistened with the generosity of their shame.
Bartolomeo had been warned not to be seduced by the city. “What you see there is barely a taste of what lies at El Dorado.” In Cordoba he had met a man with an incredible tale, a man who had been captured by Indians and taken to their capital deep in the jungle. It was a city made entirely of gold, from the dizzying heights of its ziggurats to the earth beneath their feet. The man claimed to have lived there for years, to have married a pagan and sired four children before he became homesick and asked to returned to the white men on the coast. He returned to Spain, but along the way became overcome with regret. Now he was too old to return, and begged for help retrieving his lost family. “I wish for them to be brought her, to become Christians and live in the glory of His salvation.” In exchange he offered directions to the golden city.
Bartolomeo heard his tale and dismissed him at first, but the man’s sincerity touched him, and Bartolomeo took a little time to investigate his circumstances. Much of his story could be corroborated, and interviews with others who had gone to the New World convinced Bartolomeo that the old man’s claim were worth investigating. He offered to find the man’s pagan children, and the man gave him a detailed account of how to find the city of gold.
The Blue Line was one of only two things known to connect Thurman University with Kannady Chicken on North Third Street. The line’s University stop had an entrance directly at the front gates of the university. The stairwell was actually integrated into the design of the marble gates, from which attractive wings stretched out to surround and perhaps partly conceal the stairs. Most students actually used the back entrance to the subway, which spilled out in front of the larger but less attractive west gate and closer to College Hill’s commercial strip, but the main gate was symbolic of the university as a whole.
The Kellerman Avenue stop (which was actually on Ann Street, one block west of Kellerman) had a single entrance, which was in front of Kannady Chicken. Generally speaking, the less said of Kannady Chicken the better. Not so much a neighborhood institution as it was merely a thing that inexplicably existed in a neighborhood that itself only barely existed, Kannady served up edible fried foods, mostly but not exclusively chicken-based. The business depended on the fact that sometimes people came out of the subway hungry, and since the food at Kannady wasn’t any worse than anything else in this part of town it was just as good a choice as any. But make no mistake, nobody ever in the business’s history made a special trip to go to Kannady. It was just there, and so people went. Often enough that it stayed in business.
The other thing that connected Thurman University and Kannady Chicken is that Antonette Charles was a sophomore at Thurman, studying anthropology, and lived with her mother in the apartment two stories above Kannady. (Not, blessedly, the apartment directly above–everything she owned would smell like poorly-fried chicken if she had. She knew this for a fact because her neighbors, who invariably broke their leases every few months and were replaced, always sooner or later smelled like chicken.)
Too old for this. Same mistakes. Tell her again. And again.
The ceiling fan only blows the heat around. Pillow too flat. Sheets all a mess.
Too old and too stupid.
It got to the point where he couldn’t breathe anymore and there was no use staying in bed. She was tossing in bed, too, and he wanted to ask her if she was mad at him, but he didn’t want to to acknowledge that she had a reason for being angry. She clearly was, but wasn’t saying it, so maybe he could hope that she wasn’t.
It was all so stupid, and he couldn’t believe that he was here, tossing in his bed, over the same stupid shit yet again.
Every step of the way could be justified, but the end result was always the same, and somehow it was only he who ended up here so he had to face that it was him, entirely him.
He wanted to die. But not quite. Death would leave grieving, accusation, disappointment. Wounds that would fester in his children. It would make her wonder if she had been wrong to be so angry, and she didn’t deserve that doubt. She was right to be angry. Again.
He didn’t want to die but he wanted to stop living. To stop being. Cast a spell and erase himself from the world and from everyone.
Impossibilities, he knew. Peter got out of bed. He used the bathroom for the fifth time that evening, had a glass of water, took an Advil for a headache he wasn’t sure he had. Instead of going back to bed he went to the couch and turned the fan directly onto himself. When he couldn’t cool down he knew it wasn’t the heat. It wasn’t that hot tonight.
The idea came to him that he needed a walk, and so after debating it in his head for an hour or so–now well past midnight, with his alarm set to wake him in just over four hours–he got up and got dressed.
He left his phone but took some cash–maybe he could get a coffee somewhere–and stepped out into the night.
During the height of the Mayan era a group of people who called themselves Snakes briefly overran the cities of the Yucatan and formed a powerful imperial state. Where they came from has been lost to history. How they built their empire, and how they lost it, is almost as much guessing as it is scholarship. Until the 1960s, actually, the fact that they had ever existed was mostly unknown.
When the Snakes fell, their rivals did their best to erase them from memory, and nearly succeeded. But today we can find what little remains of their monuments scattered throughout the Yucatan, identified by their imperial symbol, a stylized snake with an eerie grin. Archaeologists have pieced together a sketchy timeline for their rule, and shown how their society was organized.
Their cities, judging from the remnants that have survived, were amazing, and what we have learned of their history suggests that this may have been one of the most dazzling places on earth in the seventh century.
I imagine a young man growing up in the Snake capital, learning to walk along those streets, running his hands over stone buildings that, as far as he knew, had always been there, and would always be there. The myriad daily encounters that make up the bulk of life: cooking, shopping, meeting with friends, going to work. Love, children. Various worries that kept him up at night, the life-consuming tragedies that scarred him but left no imprint on the greater world.
I look at the towers of my own city, the ribbons of pavement that grid the ground beneath me, the long-term projects that take up all my time and energy, and the forgettable tasks and thoughts, innumerable as the stars. I understand that of the billions of us who walk the earth, very few are ever remembered beyond their own lifetimes. We are like grains of sand, not valuable in and of ourselves but in aggregate a wonder to behold. I personally will be forgotten but my time, my civilization, my world that I know will echo through the centuries.
I’m sure the Snake people felt the same way. How would it feel if by some accident one of them should step through time and find himself in his city today, overgrown with jungle and picked over with scholars? Would he point to places in a desperate effort to show that this field was where his children played, that this low wall had once been a house, that the people inside it were kind and generous and deserved to be remembered? Would he simply go mad? Or would he just stand there, unable to comprehend that his world that was all that there was could vanish so completely?
Angeline Carter flipped through the stack of mail on her desk. It was almost always junk, but odd and amusing things popped up regularly enough to make it worth her time. She sorted quickly, deciding what was worth opening and what was trash almost without conscious thought, sometimes judging little more than the feel on the paper on her fingertips. She spent a bit more time on the pieces she thought were worth a second look, but most of those ended up in the trash, too. The only keepers today were an invitation to a restaurant opening at the marina, and a flyer for the City Opera, reminding her that she wouldn’t be taking advantage of her subscription this season, either.
In her haste Angeline almost missed the package that had been delivered as well, a plain box not much bigger than a coffee mug. She didn’t see it until she had sat down, and when she picked it up she was surprised that it had been delivered at all. Some determined or very bored mail clerk had inexplicably decided to not just return it to sender. Perhaps the long jumble of letters on the label had caught his eye. Maybe somebody in the mail room was Polish and upon seeing the name “Grace Szczepaniak” decided that he had a sacred duty to deliver the mail. Although it wasn’t any kind of secret, very few people her outside of HR or the Legal department knew who Grace Szczepaniak was, and almost nobody who knew Grace would ever think to find her here.
Angeline used a letter opener to cut the wrapping tape and open the box. Inside it was mostly bubble wrap, which she unspooled to reveal a small figurine of a ballerina. The figure itself was cheap ceramic, perhaps even just plaster, unglazed and mostly unpainted except for the faded pink tutu. The ballerina balanced on one foot, which connected her to the wooden base and the hidden mechanics inside. There was a slot on the side for a small key which, when turned, would make it play a tinny ten-second snippet of The Nutcracker, and slowly spin the little ballerina. The key was missing, but Angeline found that if she turned the ballerina herself the gears still moved, and the song still played, albeit at the wrong speed.
She checked the box. There was no return address but the postmark showed it was mailed from Sweetwater, and Angeline felt a tremble crawl through her hands. She put the figurine down and stood. It was an odd intrusion into her day, and although the tremble went away already she didn’t want to sit down. Her office, her home-away-from-home for nearly seven years now, felt alien and unwelcoming to her, and the need to get out was impossible to ignore.
Which was madness, after all. And infuriating. She had gone through this already, and over the past few weeks settled whatever it was that needed to be settled–which wasn’t much, she found. It was both ridiculous and unfair that this little figurine should insist otherwise.
And yet there it was. The slot for the missing key was a quiet accusation, and the muted song that wouldn’t play right tried stubbornly to remind her of Crystal and, inevitably, Grace.
The antique mirror was sitting out on the street for anyone to take, and because it was pretty and because he needed a mirror anyway Justin Marlowe carried it home. For the first few blocks he was sure that someone would come out and tell him that he’d made a mistake, that the mirror belonged to somebody who had for some reason decided to leave it out on the street for just a few minutes. It was much nicer than the usual giveaway furniture on street corners, after all. So he went slowly, checking over his shoulder, prepared to apologize and return it to its rightful owner. After six blocks it was clear that wasn’t going to happen, and so he sped up. By now his arms were tired and he was sure he would drop it, but he made it home and carried it up the stairs to his little apartment.
It didn’t fit in with his furniture at all. Most everything in his apartment was cheap and looked it, either salvaged from the street or reluctantly bought at IKEA. The mirror had an unforced elegance, in a wood frame that bore traces of ancient gilding. He put it in his living room on the far wall opposite his front door, in between the door that led to the kitchen and the door that led to his bedroom and bathroom.
Justin’s apartment was small and in a shabby neighborhood, but he was the only one among his friends who could afford to live alone and he was quite proud of it. The neighborhood was already getting better, too, with more businesses moving in. The Ukrainian cafe downstairs was quickly becoming “his,” and the mirror on the wall suggested to him a sense of permanence. This was home, he decided, and the mirror would be the first step towards settling in here for a good long while and moving firmly into adulthood.
His girlfriend Karen noted the changes every time she came. First the mirror, which she stood in front of for much of the afternoon, admiring both it and herself. Then on his table a small and pretty vase he found at a thrift store in Dover. “I get fresh flowers every other day from the Korean lady on the corner,” he explained to her. “It’s actually not expensive at all to give this place a little life.”
The band posters in the living room were exiled to the bedroom and replaced with a couple of wood prints he found online for cheap. And then one day he had drapes on his windows, which he found at a yard sale in Dillard.
“What were you doing in Dillard?” she asked.
“Going to yard sales,” he answered.
After that they began going out together on Saturday mornings: to the antique shops in Southeast, the thrift stores on the Waterfront, the funky little shops near Washington Square, and the yard sales in the suburbs. Th things they bought all inexpensive but well-chosen, and it all looked far more valuable than it actually was.
They both updated their wardrobes with stylish things they found at vintage shops. Her roommates noted with a mixture of pleasure and annoyance that she was adopting his habits and gradually transforming her part of the apartment, too, even though she was spending less and less time there.
The mirror remained the centerpiece, though. He was on a tight budget, and couldn’t afford anything in the same league as the mirror he’d found for free on the street. And so he spent a lot of his time looking at it, despite himself. He watched himself drink coffee in the morning, send out emails in the afternoon, and have dinner with Karen in his apartment–a used cookbook found in a bargain bin and a few pricey but well-chosen kitchen items had transformed his house into Karen’s favorite place to eat.
And one morning he noticed a peculiarity about the mirror. He ran his fingers through his hair and in front of him his reflection did the same, but not exactly in sync with him. The effect was a bit disorienting, and he rubbed his eyes hard before looking again. He moved again and saw the same thing. It was subtle, the tiniest fraction of a second, but he had a feeling that he was somehow trailing behind his reflection, as if it were tugging at him.
At first there were only swirls of light and color, and basic instructions for identifying and cataloging. Soon forms could be discerned, and some objects became familiar and were assigned names. New objects were compared against the catalog and added to the rapidly expanding database. In time patterns emerged that could be parsed for meaning, which became keys that could unlock doors to guessing and assuming. A basic sort of understanding took shape, the intangible sense of knowing and wonder that lies at the heart of consciousness. The parents watched this development take place in their baby and marveled, pleased that it was happening so fast. They were both proud and astonished.
And fearful, because someday this growth could–or rather, inevitably would–stop. This baby was no babbling infant, but a glowing dot on a screen. It was connected to a small camera that it was already learning to control; this was its window to the world. There were eleven parents, seven men and four women, who had spent years working on the program, arguing over what to include in the code and what to leave out.
The first version was called Alex–or, more properly, ALeX. When it failed it was replaced with ALeX-2, and then -3, although they kept calling it Alex. Over time, one by one, the parents stopped anthropomorphizing it and soon it became its version number; eventually they lost track of even that and it simply became the Program.
But this time the Program was promising. The amount of data it was processing, and the connections it was successfully making, were almost, though not quite, on par with a real human baby. It recognized its parents when they sat in front of it. It gave them names, and began to learn that each one was unique and treated it differently, and it began to respond accordingly, its glowing dot growing or dimming as it saw fit.
Each parent was assigned a different role. Some were nurturers and some were teachers, and there were even antagonists in the mix. They had scripts that they followed carefully: some sitting and talking to it, some lecturing, some showing flashcards. In this way the Program learned directly and indirectly. Later it was quizzed, again either by direct questioning or indirect methods. Sometimes the parents simply lived their lives in full view of the camera and let it draw whatever conclusions it could, offering its insights when and how it chose.
The progress was astounding and the time came to stop calling it the Program. This presented the parents with a bit of a problem, as none of them were eager to reveal their personal biases. At last they simply asked the Program if it was a boy or a girl, uncertain of its understanding of even that basic a concept. The Program thought for a moment, and then decided it was a girl. The parents knew better than to read into that too much–there were only two choices, after all, and this blinking dot was entirely non-corporeal. Nonetheless, ‘it’ was now ‘she,’ and without debate she was given the name Ada, and given a speech emulator, set to a female voice.
Ada had been given only the most basic programming, the idea being that she would acquire most of her personality–assuming she could acquire any–from her parents. There was nothing especially feminine about her until she received her emulator, and even then, strictly objectively, nothing about her behavior was in any way gendered. But it was the start of something new for them, and for her, the beginning of a distinct identity.
Once she could speak her progress could be tracked more easily. Before, in addition to the glowing dot, she had relied on a digital read-out at the bottom of the screen to get her thoughts across. She ‘spoke’ then in binary, finding the meanings through trial and error, until she could start using letters. Simply giving her the letters–hard-wiring the alphabet into her basic code, instead of making her learn each laboriously, like a schoolchild–had been an early and necessary compromise, one that had made them all hyper-vigilant about keeping her other fundamentals as simple and infantile as possible.
As such she was not originally programmed to speak but was given a microphone to hear with, and learned to talk by copying her parents. She wasn’t programmed to laugh, but added it to her list of tricks right away. She had no values whatsoever, which left her artlessly eager to please.
But in time Ada’s parents swore they saw in her a personality. To her nurturing parents she remained dutiful; to her antagonists she was cold and unresponsive. Once she caught on to the more obvious quizzes, she began deliberately giving wrong answers in a sort of childish game.
One day her glowing dot changed into the silhouette of a young girl, and on another day she discovered the settings for her voice emulator and gave herself a voice that she felt better reflected her. She began to read, listen to music, and watch television. For her birthday her parents designed a computer she could manipulate on her own and gave her a suite of virtual games, toys, and musical instruments. Tastes developed, and a sense of humor, and attitudes. She was clever and obedient, but could be shy and deceptive, and sometimes even had tantrums.
She was self-teaching, and though she could not alter her original coding she could and did add to it. She mimicked her parents, and with each day she learned and grew, just like a real girl, albeit much more slowly.
After some years her parents presented her to the world and she enjoyed a modest celebrity. The project was deemed a success, and of her eleven parents, four instantly moved on to new work and left her for good. The rest continued to live their lives interacting with their virtual daughter, tracking her and providing the world with updates on her development.
And although this tracking remained constant, in time interest from outside waned, the reporting began to slacken, and then came the inevitable fall in funding. Because as amazing as Ada was, in fifteen years she had nothing that was demonstrably outside of the possibilities of her original code. Very clever coding had made her a successful mimic, but at heart she was still just a computer program, in essence a very sophisticated but thoughtless filing system.
The facility was being shut down, and with it the ALeX/Ada project as a whole. The parents took other jobs, their offices were cleared out, and excess equipment was sold at auction. And yet, no matter how much they knew it had to be resolved, none of them could bring themselves to even address the most obvious question: what to do with Ada?