We Have Never Lived on Earth
In the back room of the gallery is an installation by a famous Danish artist whom neither of us has heard of. The room is completely dark. We enter, aware only of cello strings flooding the darkness. A flash of light illuminates the room, revealing a waterfall, suspended mid-air. Then the room snaps to blackness.
The space is filled with people like us, couples clutching their phones, strangers brushing against each other, temporarily frozen in time. In a few seconds our faces will be lit up by the waterfall and then we will be lost again.
Unless the source of the river dries, reads a sign, the waterfall will never run out of water.
What is the source, Hugh asks, gazing at the sign. Icebergs?
His hair is thick and almost completely grey which makes his face appear oddly boyish. He leans forward to read the artist’s statement, tugging on the collar of his shirt.
It wasn’t loneliness that brought us together, but rather familiarity, and the fact that neither of us had a five-year plan.
This is love in the digital age, Hugh once told me. This is love in the age of microplastics. Everyone’s just trying to get their footing, he said. We recognize each other, and that’s enough.
Perhaps it is. We still do all the things we used to do as friends—go to galleries, films, sushi buffets—but now we hold hands, as if protecting each other. From what? Other people. Middle age. We even hold hands while arguing.
He hugs me now and plants a kiss on the top of my head.
In twenty years, he tells me, the only animals left will be insects. This is what our kids will eat. Grasshoppers. Cockroaches.
And he laughs because we’ve agreed we’ll never have kids. We made that promise when we got together. I thought he’d change his mind, but now, three years later, his commitment is still strong.
I think about a picture I’ve seen of him, an old one. Shirtless in black glasses, posing outside a Dairy Queen with a dog and a backpack in the summer.
There’s always something the camera doesn’t see.
Maybe we should get married, Hugh says now, staring at the waterfall. He brings this topic up occasionally when he’s feeling depressed or dehydrated. I hand him my water bottle.
I move deeper into the room to get closer to the waterfall. Pressing through the crowd, I close my eyes and feel the droplets on my face. My dreams are no longer of my childhood, I realize. They’re of wet trees and horses, or not horses, but the sound of hooves. Yet, this is the closest I’ve come to a forest, here among the trunks of strangers.
A woman laughs in the dark.
Someone shouts, I have healed myself in light, and will return, in light, to light.
I scan the crowd to locate Hugh, but the room goes black again.
A child grips my hand. I can’t see her, but I can feel her small presence beside me, her fingers warm and sticky. She’s speaking softly. I crouch down to hear her.
For an instant, the light flashes on and her face appears before mine, pale, nomadic, framed with two braids. She’s wearing a coat fringed with reindeer. There is something familiar about the design—the white crisscross of the buttons. A coat I might have owned once, as a girl.
She stands erect, shoulders still, absorbing the room, then looks me squarely in the face, which makes me feel self-conscious. She makes her hands into binoculars and holds them up to her eyes.
What’s your favourite natural disaster? she asks me. It’s dark again.
Earthquakes, I tell her. Though, they’re not always disasters.
She seems satisfied. I feel her hand again, reaching.
How do earthquakes happen?
First rocks happen, I tell her. Then tremors happen.
But how do rocks happen?
The light blazes overhead. She steadies herself against my arm, eyes clear and serious, fingernails chipped from biting. We could be the same person, encountering each other in a fragment of time lived twice. Or in a film, where one actor is cast to play all characters at different stages of their lives.
My name is Charlotte, I tell her. What’s your name?
Her face, close to mine, is the first draft of a future face.
Are you lost? I ask her. She shakes her head.
Is your mom here? Or your dad?
Black again. When she doesn’t answer, I find her hand. Her fingers curl around mine. I try again.
What does your mother look like?
Like you, she says.
What’s her name?
No, that’s my name, I remind her. What’s your mother’s name?
Light floods the room again.
Is this why we have children? A still-malleable cast, an inexact, more perfect copy. She extends her hand, waiting for me to give her something. Straightening up, I pat my pockets but find nothing, not even a coin or a piece of gum. She watches with interest, palm still extended.
There you are! Hugh clasps my shoulders, pulling me into his arms. He’s still holding my water bottle.
When I turn back to the child, she’s already drifting through the crowd, her arms streaming like a plant in a river. The waterfall’s light fades. I can just see the row of reindeer, illuminated in the dark. I try to follow, but Hugh won’t let me go.
I thought I’d lost you, he says. Drained of blood, his face reminds me of the decoys made by the prisoners who escaped Alcatraz in the 1960s. We’d watched a film about it a few weeks ago. They fooled the guards with dummy heads made of soap, toilet paper, and bits of hair.
I turned around and you were gone, he says. Where did you go?
By now the room has emptied.
I was right here, I tell him.
Hugh is calmer now. Taking my hand, he leads me to the next room which is well-lit and empty. Horses flash across the walls, galloping towards each other. I’m an animal I don’t know, reads the script. An animal I don’t know I’m an animal. Colour returns to his face.
The decoy worked, I remember. The remains of the prisoners’ getaway raft washed up on a small island in the San Francisco Bay. The prisoners were never found.
We move through the gallery rooms together, tightly holding hands, but I don’t remember the rest of the exhibition. I don’t see it. I’m searching for her.
I met our daughter tonight, I tell Hugh, as we find our coats.
He laughs. What does she look like? he asks.
My future daughter. She wanted something from me.
Charlotte, he says, and rubs my arm.
We pass beneath a skyscraper, lit up like a cruise ship. Any moment, I think, it will dislodge itself from the commercial district and float up the St. Lawrence seaway.
If I could just climb high enough, I might find her again. If I stood on the roof of that skyscraper, I might spot her below. But all the tall buildings in the city are closed for the night. Even if they weren’t, and I found her, what would she say to me. For I am not made of mud, I will not recognize the Garden of Eden.
Come on, says Hugh, waiting for me at the street corner.
Slowly I peel my toes up in my boots, lift a foot, take a step, until I have arrived at the bus stop.
In Denmark, I tell Hugh, the lighthouses are left mysteriously unlocked. You can climb up the stairs to the top and stay there all night, looking out over the sea. It’s a bleak landscape. A cold sea.
Who would want to do that? he asks. I catch our reflection in the bus window as it swings to a halt. Two sets of hands, one open mouth, his.
You wouldn’t make a good lighthouse keeper, he says. Up in the sky day and night. You’d miss living on earth.
We’ve never lived on earth. I point this out to him as the bus veers up the street.
In the world we’re creating together, no animals exist, no seasons either. We live eight stories up and never touch soil. We follow highways not rivers. We name our heat waves after our grandmothers. We pretend our pain is weather. We dream of houses we’ll never own. Of second homes, seventy minutes out of the city. Of well-lit rooms and comfortable chairs, of gardens, but never children.
I thought you didn’t want them, he says, searching for two seats beside each other. He says the same thing every time we return to this question.
In bed now, his back to me, he turns around slightly, not all the way, just enough to see if I’m listening.
I’m thirty-nine on Monday, he says, sounding surprised. He repeats himself. Thirty-nine.
When my father was thirty-nine, I tell him, I was ten years old.
To be ten years old, he mumbles, half-asleep.
When I was ten years old, we still lived on earth.
A few minutes later I run my fingers through his hair. What is your favourite natural disaster, I ask him, but he’s out, gone from the day just like that, arms flung over his head. A swimmer casting off.
I see the shore, speeding towards him. His body lies motionless beside mine, but up ahead, I know, through fog and dark water, he glimpses its shock of sand.
He will live on that island forever. He will keep it clean.
Then it occurs to me that maybe he’s not dreaming. His sleep is eventless and deep, and it is I who dreams the room, the bed, the family, who, I’ll discover in the morning, is made of soap and paper and prisoners’ hair.
The waterfall will never run out of water.
Will never run out.
Somewhere on the planet, I have heard, is a museum of shadows. There is a vault of artificial blackness, kilometres deep, that corresponds to our vertical cities of light. Everything has a counterpoint, every storm a visible score.
I have been keeping count.
Hours, days, months. It might be months before the girl appears again before me in her reindeer coat or in a coat I don’t recognize. She’ll announce herself with a question.
What are currents?
What are tides?
I’ll search for a gift to offer her, this child who’ll never live on earth, but my pockets will be empty.
Instead, I’ll hand her a shard of ice. Watch it melt in her palm. Take her unknown name and toss it before me. ✲
Kasia Van Schaik is a poet and writer living in Montreal (Tiohtià:ke). Her story collection We Have Never Lived On Earth is forthcoming in September 2022. She is currently at work on a book of cultural criticism entitled Women Among Monuments. Follow her on Twitter @kasiajuno.