Big Echo

Critical SF

 Boy Upon Mount Abraham

by Stephen Langlois

  The three of them–boy, sister and mother–came to the clearing in search of whatever scant bounty might be procured in these, the earliest days of spring. There along the clearing’s ragged edges the purple shoots of wild leeks were spotted, plucked, and deposited into the canvas sack. Fiddleheads were spotted also, but had not yet fully unfurled and greened into readiness. As regards the blackberries the boy hoped to locate amid the bramble the sister quickly dissuaded him of such a notion.

“With the seasons all outta proportion there ain’t likely to be any berries for a while,” she told him, “if at all.”

Only then did the boy notice the carcass snared in the deep shadows between a boulder and an adjacent spruce. Its long, spindly legs were knotted together as if this creature had dropped, astonished, in a moment of agony. Its neck and head were thrown back far beyond any point which seemed natural for that which was once animated by life. In further exhibit of agony its slender torso–ribs buttressing auburn fur–was twisted so that the whiteness of its underside was exposed and the darkness of the cavity in its belly rendered darker still. Darting in and out of this cavity were a number of broad, black flies. In fact, if one was to peer closer the larvae of these flies could be discerned, writhing into existence within the cavity.

“A white-tailed deer,” the sister told him. “We saw one once a couple years back, though you’re probably too young to remember. From the looks of it this one here’s been dead most of the winter and just recently thawed out. You stay away from her,” she told the boy and while the boy knew there might be some heretofore unsuspected knowledge to be gleaned from this carcass he knew also to heed the sister’s words.  

It was that very evening the illness began its assailment of the mother. She vomited what meager stew had been concocted from that day’s foraging. When she’d emptied herself of the stew she spewed forth water with such force the flames of their fire were made to sputter and hiss from its spattering. Even after she’d emptied herself of water her body retained its hook-like bearing and she continued spewing–though naught but air was expelled–as if attempting to disgorge something unknown even to herself.   

Soon thereafter the convulsions began–the mother’s body hooking from one side to the other in such a way it appeared to be in search of purchase to which the mother’s own will could not direct it–so that the sister was required finally to grapple the mother. In this way she forced the mother into the wooden lean-to which had furnished hikers long ago and which had been sufficient to harbor the three of them for the winter. The boy took his own place in the lean-to, but sleep was difficult to attain due to the clattering of floorboards induced by the mother’s continued hooking of body to and fro.

“Could be anthrax,” the sister told him the next morning. “After the First Deviation the military took to stockpiling all manner of biological weapons at installations like the one down in Jericho. Word is some kinda accident occurred not too long after involving a misplaced filter. Most of this was before your time,” the sister said, “though the bacteria that causes anthrax can survive in the soil for decades. Along comes some woodland creature and ingests the bacteria in the course of its grazing. Ain’t too long before it resembles that deer you happened upon. All the bacteria needs at that point is a little oxygen to transform itself into a spore. From there that anthrax can spread pretty much anywhere it damn pleases. Could be that,” said the sister, “or the ethylene dibromide they sprayed the skies with prior to the Second Deviation. Could be something else entirely.”

The mother was still on the floor of the lean-to hooking to and fro, though there was now a distinct lessening of intensity with each exertion as if the body had come to accept it might never attain the purchase for which it was laboring. Moreover, the mother had cast aside her blankets and shed her parka, pants, boots, and all the rest of her clothing, too. In fact, the whole of her anatomy was flushed deep red and conflagrant with a heat the boy could feel on the opposite side of the lean-to.

“What you gotta understand is there’s like a map of all the radiation left over from when the universe formed,” the mother began murmuring the following day, “and there ain’t no part of this map what should allow for the temperature nor the size of this thing. This thing’s 1.8 billion light years across. You kids understand me? The Eridanus Supervoid’s just about the coldest, darkest thing out there,” the mother said, “and biggest, too. Could be so goddamn big light can’t regain the energy it needs to get all the way through it. Could be like the imprint of a whole other universe what got separated from our own due to cosmic inflation or whatnot. Ain’t no one really knows for sure,” she said, head and neck thrown so far back into the musty folds of her blankets it seemed to pain her simply to invoke the use of vocal chords.

“Now I know I ain’t the smartest woman what ever lived. Probably it surprises you kids to even hear me speaking of such things. Ain’t never been much of a conversationalist. These days,” she said, “days go by where I don’t hardly feel like speaking at all. But what you gotta understand is it was round about the First Deviation scientists discovered the Supervoid was growing even colder than before and bigger, too. A fluctuation is all they said it was, but when you got a fluctuation on a scale like that its effects are bound to be felt even millions of light years away. I certainly weren’t alone in my opinion. All sorts of theories started popping up, though I’m guessing you ain’t quite old enough to recall,” she croaked at the boy.

“Some folks say it’s like the very balance of the cosmos got thrown outta whack. Some say the Supervoid got stretched out beyond all reckoning and is leaking out energy from some other plane of existence. Some go so far as to say the Supervoid’s got like a consciousness of its own. All I know for sure is it ain’t no coincidence that’s right when the Second Deviation occurred. You kids hear me? Ain’t no coincidence that’s when your daddy decided to go all haywire on us. Ain’t no coincidence that’s when he did what he did to the baby. Ain’t no coincidence–“ the mother began and then stopped as her head was thrown back further in what appeared a deliberate attempt by body to cut off communication altogether, neck arching in corporeal collaboration.

The following morning the boy awoke to the sound of the sister’s spewing. Considering neither had eaten anything in nearly three days it was of no surprise this act yielded little more than the expulsion of her own hot, sharp breath. Soon after this the convulsions commenced–limbs and torso promptly reconfiguring into the familiar hook-like bearing as if the sister’s personage was eager to gain on the mother’s affliction–and thus contorted did she drop into the lean-to. There the two women’s bodies hooked in accord, floorboards clattering to the point of cacophony. The boy did his best to ignore it, building a fire in the pit and boiling a pan of water collected from the rivulet adjacent to the lean-to. Neither the mother nor the sister would drink the water, however, and come evening the murmuring had begun.

“Word is it wasn’t just ethylene dibromide. Word is they sprayed the skies with aluminum dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and all other manner of chemicals so as to create a sorta artificial cloud cover in order to reflect solar radiation back into space. We know now that wasn’t all they were trying to keep out. No,” the sister told him, “they knew the Second Deviation was coming and we been suffering the consequences ever since.

“Sky’s so thick with clouds these days we ain’t able to see the sun but once every couple weeks. You probably ain’t even seen the stars more than a handful of times your entire life. Lack of visibility’s one thing, though. Aluminum dioxide’s a whole other matter. Aluminum dioxide causes kidney failure, lung cancer, paralysis, and every variety of neurodegenerative disease you can imagine. If the Second Deviation weren’t enough to make us lose our minds,” she said, “breathing in all these toxins sure as hell is. Seemed smart to hightail it up here to the mountains, but I don’t know now. Ain’t even safe these days to eat a goddamn leek.          

“You gotta get outta here,” she told him. “Oughta get to a higher elevation at least. Oughta keep moving in case–” the sister began and then stopped just as abruptly as the mother had, head thrown back in what appeared another attempt by body to cut off further communication.

The boy packed the canvas sack with his blankets, poured what was left of the water into an empty Snapple bottle, extinguished the fire, and turned from the lean-to where the clattering continued unabated. What else was he to do but heed the sister’s words?

By the time he himself began to spew he was short of breath and much fatigued, having traversed a considerable length of the mountain trail. The water rationed in quick gulps was ejected back out and when his belly was empty of water all oxygen within his body seemed to gather into a single bubble of dispossessed air. For a long moment did this bubble swell against the boy’s internal anatomy–bone made to feel as if it were skewing to the very curvature of this sphere–before finally it burst and its roiling gaseous contents were expelled via mouth.

Thus depleted of both water and air did the boy find himself convulsing. His physical congery hooked to and fro as if attempting to pump essence back into his otherwise shriveled corpus and thereby return substance to selfhood. It was an impossible task, though–wearying to the point of insensibility–and he was made to drop from the trail into the clearing where he, the sister and the mother had foraged days prior.

When he came to the boy found night had descended. His body had somehow hooked itself to and fro across the clearing’s breadth during the course of unconsciousness. In fact, he was curled between spruce and boulder, the ragged contours of the carcass discernible opposite. Discernible, too, were the broad, black flies, so engaged in the transaction of carrion they were felt to rebound obliviously off the boy’s forehead and face. Soon the murmuring began.

“Cosmic inflation wasn’t just a one-time thing,” the carcass told him. “You follow? All that energy what prompted this universe here to first expand from its high-density state–well, it’s still out there, my friend. It’s still out there doing what it’s been doing since way back in the day. Not a second goes by where a whole other universe doesn’t pop outta this one here and another pop outta that one there and so on,” said the carcass, “and if you guessed each one of these is expanding exponentially you’d be right, my friend. Just another example of what’s-it-called. Eternal inflation,” the carcass said. 

“Point is a Third Deviation’s on its way. After that, a Fourth. After that, a Fifth. It’s pretty much infinite,” said the carcass, “this series of Deviations and each one’s a little bit worse than the last. That’s just how it is. I don’t gotta explain the second law of thermodynamics, do I? The entropy of an isolated system can only increase as it moves forward through time. The physical, the mental, the cosmological–well, it all falls apart eventually, my friend. That’s exactly what you got going on here. These so-called Deviations ain’t even really Deviations are they? Not if they’re all part of the process they ain’t. Don’t matter how many dang universes you got,” the carcass told him, “each one of ‘em is gonna fall apart in the end.

“The upside? With everything coming apart at the seams you typically get a tear in the very fabric of space-time. Now sometimes this tear is on a sorta cosmic scale. Other times it ain’t nothing but a little hole in the last place anyone would expect to look,” the carcass said and that’s when the boy realized he’d already inserted a hand into the cavity of the carcass’s belly. Larvae writhed between his fingers while his hand searched out and found the solidity of bone amid soft unknowable rot.

“A portal if you will,” said the carcass as the boy gripped the bone tighter, steadying his body’s convulsions. “An escape route, my friend, and the route’s just about clear now. I’m offering you an escape,” the carcass told him and the boy understood he should heed its words as once he had heeded those of the sister’s. In fact, by now his other hand had slid past the larvae absorbing the rot so that he might be allowed to grip still more bone. In this way he was able to pull himself to the cavity’s breach.

“It’ll be dark for the better part of the journey. Silent, too. Cold most likely,” the carcass said, “and I ain’t gonna lie. It’s gonna take a long time. A helluva long time, my friend, but it’ll be worth it. I don’t gotta explain how quantum particles play out all possible realities simultaneously, do I? You do know every probability inherent in the quantum wave function exists in some other universe somewhere, don’t you? What I’m saying is–well, you might just run into your family once you reach the other side. Even what’s-her-name,” said the carcass. “The one your daddy killed. The baby. Your twin.”