by Gretchen Brinck
Stars flared overhead, then vanished like bright pebbles flung into a river. Jenna scooted deeper into her sleeping bag. It smelled of smoke, pitch, pine needles, clean dirt, sweat.
It smelled of Drake.
Here, where trees stopped growing and craggy slopes angled toward the mountain top, she could feel his ropy arms around her and his wispy beard against her neck. They'd always made love when they camped in the wilderness.
Directly above her, another star burst into flame, so close she could hear its small boom followed by a whoosh as it streaked over the treetops. The ground shuddered when the meteor hit beyond the firepit. Multicolored flames darted out. Then darkness. Then a dull glow like an unquenched ember.
Jenna struggled into her jeans and boots. If the trees started burning, she'd have a dicey time trying to escape down the steep mountain trail.
But nothing caught fire, and she huddled again in the sleeping bag, alert, staring at the knot of shimmering heat.
Drake would have loved this experience. She'd done the right thing, climbing to this lonely, wild place for remembrance. The funeral had been nothing but a stage on which friends portrayed melodramatic grief. "Oh, Jenna," Drake's trekking buddy Ben had moaned to her turned back, "I was right beside him when -- there was nothing I could do. God!" He'd given a little sob. "At least let me return his backpack to you." He'd forced his card between her clenched fingers. "Call me when you're ready."
Ready for what? To learn how a skilled hiker like Drake could fall from a Himalayan trail and die?
"Look at that thing," she whispered to Drake in her mind. The fallen star throbbed redly till the moon sank toward morning.
When dawn woke her, she saw a small crater at the treeline. The meteorite's flames had left glittery trails across the dirt.
Her boots crunched as she approached. Up close the burn lines glistened like mercury. A few feet below the crater's lip lay a black stone the size of a baseball.
Jenna's chunk of outer space, part shiny, part dull, glinting with crystal or mica, couldn't be less like a mega-ton, dinosaur-killing asteroid. It was just an ugly little rock.
Still, she used a roll of film on the scene when the sun rose higher, though Drake, not she, had been the expert at nature photography.
Sunday night Jenna made her long drive back to the overpopulated San Francisco Bay Area. At work on Monday, she robotically performed administrative tasks for computer nerds, but Drake and the meteorite crowded her attention. When she surfed the net that night, she learned that few human beings had ever witnessed an actual fall. She downloaded images of recovered meteorites. None matched hers. The known ones were "interplanetary." Was hers different because its origins were farther away -- intergalactic?
Scientists would go crazy over it.
"Yo!" Drake shouted in her head, and she saw the giant footprint they'd once come upon while cross country skiing. Drake had raised his gloved fist. "Yo, Sasquatch! Head for the high country, Dude! Stay a mystery!"
Scientists would lock her meteorite into a chamber, chip it, zap it with x- and other rays, microscopically examine it, burn it with chemicals and argue over it in esoteric journals. Yo, Drake.
She told no one.
Saturday she returned to the wilderness and struggled for hours up the deer trail to the treeline.
Something had happened around the crater. Small mounds had erupted along the burn lines as if the mercury-like stuff had bubbled. Jenna came close. An inch high and an inch across, the gray-green lumps had smooth surfaces except for minute clefts across their tops. Jenna touched the bottom edge of the nearest one. The surface gave beneath her finger like firm flesh.
Of course. The things were just succulents. But how could they grow at this high altitude, in barely cooled intergalactic lava?
She couldn't stop gazing at hers, as she already considered the one she'd touched. Utterly minimalist, yet pregnant with possibilities, like the round end of a fertile egg. A cell about to divide. A mushroom cap concealing spores. A baby bottom. A female mound.
The head of a male organ.
What? Tears burst from her eyes. This stupid nothing of a plant had struck her deepest wound. She and Drake had planned to have children soon.
Chilly drops hit her face. She stalked away to set up her rain tarp.
In the morning the succulents shone with raindrops. Jenna watched herself gently scoop hers up, along with its soil and metallic particles. Drake had never taken anything from the wild nor left anything behind. He'd even packed out used Band-Aids and toilet paper.
But I just have to have this succulent , she told him, or his spirit, though she couldn't say why.
At home, she planted it in an arsty cappuccino mug and set it on the kitchen windowsill. Her orange cat, Muffin, sniffed it and then stepped over it, draping it with filaments of fur.
The following weekend Jenna boxed up the slim photo-essay nature books on which she and Drake had collaborated. She'd collect their royalties, but without Drake's beautiful photographs to inspire her, she doubted she'd ever write copy again. She paused over a studio portrait of his fascinating Asian- Polynesian face. Packed it with the books.
Then she watered the succulent. When she gave it a quarter turn, she noticed a lentil-sized, pale orange blemish on its lower edge.
Was the plant multiplying or did it have a fungus? She squinted. The bump seemed textured and -- No, this couldn't be. She rummaged through drawers for a magnifying glass and looked again.
The orange growth, wearing an expression of fat-cheeked contentment, was Muffin.
"Oh, God! Kitty kitty?"
Muffin bumped his forehead against her shin and rumbled.
Jenna picked the magnifying glass back up. Muffin's minute replica appeared solid and furry and three-dimensional. Was it moving? She couldn't tell.
"How did you do that?" she asked the plant, but as she spoke, she remembered Muffin draping fur across it. She plucked one of her own reddish-brown hairs and set it on the succulent's tiny cleft.
In the morning a dot had appeared next to Muffin's image. Jenna checked it morning and evening for days before it was large enough to be examined through the magnifying glass.
She saw herself: a lean, naked woman with reddish brown hair. "Oh, wow!" Jenna's delight bordered on love.
Could the succulent extrapolate images from sources other than hair? And would it accept flora as well as fauna? In her patio outside the window, pots and planter boxes burst with spring blooms. Jenna picked a purple petunia blossom and dropped it on the cleft. A pinsized purple outcropping rewarded her in the morning. She tried the root of a cyclamen bulb. That worked too. When she gave the succulent an ant, the bug scuttled away instantly, yet next morning another tiny bump emerged.
Jenna squatted by the windowsill. "OK," she said. "You can use lots of sources and you can capture a being the second you touch it." Her eyes traveled over its round shape. A lot of space waited to be filled.
On her next free day, Jenna offered, in one hour, a chrysanthemum leaf, fresh tomato pulp, a feather, an orange peel, an onion skin, a garlic clove, a coffee bean and her favorite yellow petunia. In the morning she found a multitude of new bumps. She could hardly bear the long wait till she could capture them in the magnifying glass.
In addition to the plants, the succulent had replicated an aphid, a bird mite, a hummingbird, a ladybug, a tomato worm, whitefly, a fungus and weird things she didn't recognize but which must be microbes or mitochondria or bacteria or nematodes.
But she couldn't find the yellow petunia. "You don't take the same species twice?" Jenna returned to her patio and collected seventy-two more samples of plants, bugs and worms.
On Monday she called in sick and foraged neighborhood flowerbeds and vegetable gardens, then gathered urban wildlife droppings from a shrubby vacant lot. It took hours to give the plant all the new offerings.
In the morning, when she'd seen the dozens of new outcroppings on the Mound, Jenna packed trail mix, juice, a thermos of coffee and her sleeping bag and headed for Golden Gate Park. She stepped from a sidewalk into the Park's dense, varied growth and plucked twigs, leaves, droppings, and insects. When darkness fell she switched on her flashlight and continued till she dropped asleep beneath a eucalyptus. She woke chilled with fog, ate a handful of trail mix, and kept going. She didn't go home till the trail mix had been gone awhile, didn't realize she'd been collecting for seven days till she checked the date on her computer.
When she finished giving Golden Gate Park to the plant, pinpoint dots completely covered its surface except the hairline cleft on top.
But if the Mound was full, why did Jenna still feel empty? "We've barely begun," she pleaded. "There's so much more I can give you." Something went wrong with her eyes. She squinted through the magnifying glass but could no longer see the dots. They had vanished into their gray-green landscape as she spoke.
The plant had made room for more.
"Why?" she asked, though till now the question hadn't occurred to her. "What will you do with them?" She set it on the floor, sat lotus style and gazed down at it till it blocked out the walls, the kitchen, the wind blowing through the window. Jenna did not know if it was day or night when she sank into sleep.
In her dreams, she glimpsed a gray-green planet through clouds. She descended to its surface, which held only dirt and lichen and pure, swift rivers. She and Drake plucked sparkling stones from a riverbed and threw them over their shoulders. From her first stone sprang a brilliant blue kingfisher, from Drake's a drooping willow. Jenna's second stone created a leaping trout, Drake's a brown bear . . . . Jenna opened her eyes to her moonlit kitchen. She understood.
The Mound was gathering life for a clean new planet and she'd been appointed its life-giving goddess.
At sunrise she drove to work and packed her things. Her boss Arnold, sleeping beneath his desk as computer nerds are wont to do, woke and leaned in her doorway, running his fingers through his unwashed hair. "You look terrible," he told her between yawns. "You shouldn't make life-changing decisions while you're grieving."
"Grieving?" Pain over Drake had shrunk like the replicas on the plant.
She sublet her apartment to a desperate college student and dropped Muffin off with a cat-loving friend. Then she loaded Drake's old van with clothes, cameras, camping gear, credit cards and the plant and headed for the coast. She slept next to the highway above a rocky beach.
At dawn she tucked the succulent into a net shopping bag. She'd take it to the samples, not the samples to it. Dangling the bag from her wrist, she scrambled over slimy rocks to the tidal pools.
With every wave, fleshy plants opened and closed like mouths seeking the multitude of tiny life forms. Even the slime Jenna skidded over was vibrantly alive. "So amazing," she told the plant, dropping sample after sample into the bag on top of it. "You'll love this."
Cold water crashed over her head. She fell sideways. The wave tumbled her over barnacle-covered rocks, then dumped her on the beach and fled. Its rushing wake sucked the bag out with it. Moments later the bag reappeared in the rising curve of the next wave, crashed on the shore, rode away again with the undertow. Jenna plunged into the surf after it. Her mouth filled with gritty seawater. She dove through the next breaker and swam out.
Filthy with seaweed and foam, the bag floated on the swells as if waiting for her. She kicked her way to it, tied it to her wrist and let the waves wash her to shore like driftwood.
The cappuccino cup and metallic dirt were gone, but the succulent lay tangled in the bottom of the bag. Its gray green skin had gone blotchy and was streaked with sand and salt. It looked sick.
Jenna untangled it and held it gently. Tears ran down her cheeks. "Don't die," she pleaded. But how could the plant and the replicas survive a half hour in the salty ocean?
The plant nestled easily in her palm. Its flat underside had no roots. She faced the fact she'd been avoiding: the Mound was no more a succulent than the space rock was a meteorite. It was a womblike vessel incubating strings of DNA for the clean, pure planet she'd seen in her dream.
Jenna rinsed the mound in a drinking fountain by the parking lot. Then she set it in the van's window. The mottled surface slowly coarsened into pinpricks.
In the morning she bought a series of microscope lenses and a tweezer-like holder. Through one she examined the mound's surface. Sea life sprang into view: a seal, sea lion, fish, whale, dolphin, shrimp, plankton . . . The mound had taken full advantage of the sea water's animal excrement and sperm, plant spores, and all other traces of life. Far from destroying the Mound and its DNA, immersion had proved a short cut.
She jotted a quick plan: she'd travel north during summer, and by late fall would head south, and in addition to here and now life forms, she would give some extinct species a chance for new life in her little world.
She taped the plan to the dashboard, started the ignition and lost track of time. Nothing mattered anymore except collecting life. She took the mound everywhere with her in its net bag. It plunged into rivers, lakes, swamps, was dragged through the underbrush of forests; it absorbed desert microbes, bone dust from long-extinct creatures, pollen from rare plants Jenna located on heritage farms, dung and guano from zoos. It dangled from her arm as she swam with seals in the Galapagos Islands and when she hiked in a protected Amazon rain forest rich with exotic and endangered species.
And every night when she was alone, she cupped the mound --by now swollen as if pregnant -- and, using ever stronger lenses, plunged into her created world. Its scenes endlessly fascinated her yet remained endlessly incomplete..
One evening she pulled up the van in Puerto Natales in Chile. In a day or two she'd take a bus to the spectacular national park, Torres del Paine. She lit her lamp, held the mound and picked up the strongest lens.
And saw only gray-green.
Where were her lovely forests and animals, her resurrected extinct species, her exotic crops? She ran her finger lightly over the mound's surface. It felt grainy. Through the lens she watched a green dot appear and resolve into a scraggy pine tree. Next to it a flesh-colored pinprick emerged: herself.
Terrible emptiness opened within her. "Not yet," she pleaded. Jenna turned tear-filled eyes to the calendar she'd taped to the van's wall. Yesterday must have been Sunday; locals had thronged the churches. She pulled an ATM receipt from her purse. March 27, it said. Three days ago.
She felt as if she were swimming up from murk into fresh air. Drake had died a year ago today. His funeral had been held two weeks later, April 14. That meant the space rock fell into her life on the 15th.
Could she make it to the California mountainside in two weeks? Battered by a year of rough travel and minimal maintenance, the van barely ran. She'd spent chunks of her dwindling funds on jury-rigged repairs.
She packed her few worthwhile possessions, sold the van to a pair of guides cheap, and used her last shred of credit for an airplane ticket.
On the way to the airport she made the cab driver stop twice so she could pick interesting roadside grasses for the mound.
During the all night flight, she leaned her head against the cold window and clutched the net bag as her recurring dream came. She and Drake threw bright stones that became living beings as they hit the ground . . . .
She woke gasping. How would the recreated life forms propagate if the mound collected only a single sample of each one?
She took the mound into her palm. The mushroom cap, a dividing cell, the female organ, the rounded half of a fertile egg. . . . There had been at least thirty mounds at the crater. She visualized one merging with hers, each with its own load of DNA.
But hers carried richer treasure than the others. What could they collect up there at the treeline except a pine tree, a few seeds dropped by passing birds, maybe a drift of pollen or feathers? No humanity.
When she arrived in the San Francisco airport, she hurried to a pay phone and dug out her long-forgotten address book. "Ben?"
"Is this Jenna? God, where did you disappear to? Your boss said -- "
"Come get me. Bring Drake's back pack."
"Well, sure, but are you all right? You sound -- "
She forced herself to be patient. Months had passed since she'd spoken to a human being for any purpose other than achieving access to an offering for the mound. "I'm sorry, Ben, I'm weirded out from jet lag. I was in Patagonia."
She waited for him outside the terminal, shivering in the blowing fog. He pulled up in a vintage VW bus and jumped out. "Jenna?"
"Is that all your luggage?"
"Luggage?" She hefted her backpack and Guatemalan shoulder purse, lifted the net bag on her wrist, then caught the expression on Ben's face. "What's wrong?" she asked.
"You look so different."
She leaned toward the VW's side mirror and saw weathered features and long, knotted hair.
Later she'd have time to care. Not now. "You brought Drake's pack?"
"It's at my place," said Ben. She'd forgotten how his eyes smiled through his wire-framed glasses.
He took her to an old Victorian house in San Francisco where he had a three room apartment filled with color. For curtains and bedspread he used brilliant Indian tapestries, and he'd covered the walls with his own travel photos, prayer flags and baskets. Incense burned in a metal holder.
He made her shower and work tangles out of her hair while he prepared rice, vegetable curry and a fruit and yogurt dessert. On the way to his kitchen, wearing his robe and dangling the net bag from her wrist, she gave the mound a thread from a wall hanging she suspected contained yak wool; then she added a bit of ash from the incense. She fell asleep over the fourth bite of rice and woke late the next morning beneath a patchwork quilt on the couch. "I'm at work," said the note on his refrigerator. "Back at 5:30."
In his closet she found Drake's back pack. State-of-the-art when he bought it, its light-weight, waterproof fabric was torn now and stained with ground- in mud. Himalayan mud? She scraped a bit and gave it to the mound before she opened the pack's clasps and buried herself in Drake's familiar possessions -- baggy tan shorts loaded with pockets, his favorite old jersey, blue jeans worn soft with age, his battered down jacket and hiking boots, a crumpled shaving kit, though he'd seldom needed to shave.
The zipped inner pocket of the pack held what she was looking for: a plastic bag of used Band-Aids spotted with Drake's blood. She dropped them into a bowl of cold water, and when the water turned pink she dropped the mound into it. She was white, he was Asian and Polynesian. Would the mound consider him different enough from her to be a sample?
She cleaned everything up and climbed back under the quilt with the mound in its net bag. When Ben came home, she borrowed money from him. "Will you be back?" he asked, his eyes sad behind his glasses.
She leaned into him, slid her arms around him. More than a year had passed since she'd last embraced a human being. Warm and nice, yes, but still an intrusion. "See you later, I think."
She caught a Greyhound bus and made it up to the treeline at dusk on April 14th.
Sticks, bits of fur and feathers, rotting meat, maggots and flies and other debris surrounded the crater. She had to scrape it away with sticks to get at the mounds. To the naked eye their surfaces seemed as smooth as the first time she'd seen them, but like hers, they had grown.
A fox trotted across the dirt as if she weren't there and dropped a small rodent onto one of the mounds. Then he lay down inches away with his chin on his paws and stared intently at his gray-green lump, nose twitching, ears lifting. She suspected the animal's rapt expression matched her own when she studied her mound through a microscope lens.
What fascinated the fox so much? Fox pheromones? Scents of the hunt? Jenna realized she wasn't a life-giving goddess, mother of all living things in a tiny world. Like the fox, she'd been seduced and enslaved. And for what?
Suppose instead of populating a new planet, the mounds' creators subjected earth's life forms to cruel experiments in some floating, alien lab?
Jenna strode to the fire pit, and when she forced the damp wood finally to catch, she studied the flames. Should she entrust the mound with the thousands and thousands of DNA strands she'd given it, or should she burn it?
Imagine giving these wondrous life forms a chance in a clean, pure place. If it existed.
She lit her lantern and pulled out her best lens. She trained it on the mound.
Against the gray-green backdrop, perfectly formed, stood Drake's replica. Her own emerged, its hand touching Drake's. Gradually flora and fauna came into view around them, not static but in motion. Trees and grasses swayed in invisible winds. Ancient and modern crops grew, animals browsed. She and Drake walked in a vivid rain forest swarming with life.
Let it be true.
Jenna took the mound to the crater and set it with the others. Then she climbed into her sleeping bag and waited.
Long into the night, the rock in the crater began to glow like an ember. It shimmered a long time, then briefly shot out flaming arms. Their flash of light revealed the mounds flattening as they released their cargo. Jenna jumped when the tiny stars burst across the sky. Her rock shot up from the ground and streaked across the treetops. When it joined the others she lost sight of which glittering speck was hers and she realized what a wealth of earthlife the group must have gathered.
They flared, then vanished like bright pebbles into a river flowing to a distant soil.
Story © 1998-99 by Gretchen Brinck <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Artwork "Jenna's Forest Discovery" © 1998-99 by Romeo Esparrago <email@example.com>