Case: The memory belonging to the human Irvin Edwards flees, wraps itself in gravity, a film of dust and pollen, the skim of a first kiss. It dissipates, unwilling to be terminated.
We retrace, watch the memory begin, as we have hundreds of times, in a nebula. A molecular cloud.
We see Irvin Edwards and a girl, both sixteen and golden and fluid, drive to a field in his father’s Galaxie. This girl’s skin, so soft and warm, awakens in Irvin a fear that his fingerprints will melt into her cheek, mark her forever with his touch.
The sun perches atop a hill in the distance. Trees bristle around them, windbreaks, so livelihoods will not blow away, shatter grain by grain; everything is ghostly through the haze.
They lie in the dirt, tiny pebbles sticking to their clothes, dead plants crunching under their bodies. The girl says, the world is so round here, can you feel it curve? Like the earth’s pregnant. Irvin nods; she runs her fingers through his hair. They tickle his scalp.
The humidity dissolves her makeup into her pores.
As the dark closes up overhead the cicadas preach wheee-er wheee-er. The ground warmed by two young bodies, thinking of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, thinking of how the stars suffocate and their unconscious suicides cannot be seen until millions of years afterwards.
Objective: We who are not human have watched the species’ cycles, traced their memories from afar. We peer, now, into an emptiness more frightening than the births of black holes. It is the emptiness of worlds that have known life. We study Irvin Edwards because Irvin Edwards has been betrayed by his mind as we soon will be by ours, which blight with rot.
We would have previously stated this malady does not concern us. That we merely observe Irvin Edwards; that we feel no pang as Irvin finds he cannot navigate the opening of a Christmas present, or as his children become confused in his mind, or as he wakes up to shower at three in the morning and his wife finds him sitting naked on the bathtub’s edge.
We digress. We must discern why the memory shattered into broken-bone shards. Why, upon the final decay of Irvin’s mind, did this memory escape? Fear of destruction? Sorrow? (Note: we admit that, perhaps, we project our own emotions onto the thing.)
Or maybe it is Irvin himself who allows this memory, among billions of other memories, to continue. To clutch pearl-strands of other remembrances to itself.
We have watched others, it is true, suffer from this disease, and have done nothing. Our eons of experience in observing the scurryings of the earth, in compiling knowledge, cupping the distance in telescopes, have captured us in the amber of immobility. From our separate pods we seek to understand the troubles of fragile humans, though now we fear we are too late.
Background of Subject:
(Note: We apologize; our haste has forced us to preclude proper order. We should have allowed our subject to become known in facts, rather than sentiment.)
1. Irvin Edwards was created by an army sergeant and a biology professor. They had not only Irvin, but three other children. The army man was dishonorably discharged.
2. Irvin saw his parents smoke cannabis once, twice, many times. He also smoked cannabis many times. It slowed his mind, made him replay how he watched Miss Saigon for the express reason of perhaps being seen by his brother’s girlfriend. How he drowned an anthill and watched the tiny beings scurry in panic from the mouth of the watery volcano; how they were so small he could not think of them as living creatures. How his eyes had burned in the wind at the cemetery where they buried his godfather, a man who gave Irvin books about the planets and the atom bomb and the furthest reaches of the world, which he read under his covers with a flashlight.
3. Irvin Edwards watches the stars from Spain, London, Poland, Sweden, after he is married; he carries his small telescope, a wedding gift, leaves it in his wife’s bag as they travel, tells her it is because she holds his belongings closer than he does. They keep track of the sky together in the moments their travels allow.
4. When they go home, true home in the middle of the country, she attends university. He continues to fix cars, because he wishes to be a practical man, but still attends to the sky; his wife learns of areas light cannot escape from, the weight of ideas suspended in space, the density of a thought in a vacuum. She teaches Irvin, loses both of them in a universe of explosions without sound, decay without scent.
5. Irvin looks at his wife, the theoretical physicist, with the wonder of a man who brushes against the secrets of the universe. Sometimes he does not feel he needs a telescope to view the bodies above them, that they will blur and unfocus, and it will sit unused, smelling of Jupiter and Neptune and Pluto. Other times, his wife must work late, leaves him with children he puts to bed. Irvin races to the bedroom, pulls out the telescope in a darkened, silent house, comets in his bones and stellar evolutions in his blood, fears that he is drifting further and further away from the mass at the center of his galaxy. He feels that something has begun to shudder inside him, but he does not see as we see: the collapse of a core begun, the exhaustion of fuel.
6. His wife frames a photograph after the first round of doctors. After she has held his hand during the spinal tap. After she has pushed his still-thick white hair back the way he loves. It is not a photograph of them. It is from the human telescope. The so-called Ultra Deep Field Image, a photograph of the universe’s childhood. She places it on the wall next to their bed, takes his hand, skin a thinning atmosphere. Says, Irv, you remember this picture I showed you last week?
He nods. Mmmhmm. His mind flashes pinpricks and spirals.
Her smile is an edge. She is afraid the universe, too, will one day forget how to tie its shoes or what the word for yes is.
Is it-Irvin stutters. Is it upside down?
His wife turns and looks. Tilts her head. You might be right.
He grins the creation of new planets. Geez woman, he says. Get it together. I can’t keep doing your job for you.
7. Here is the thing, as humans say. His wife did not hang the photograph upside down.
8. If we could tell them, we would say: Here. Some stars go supernova, as Irvin and his would-be wife spoke of in the field that evening. These stars do not take dying lightly, and their particles leave the body behind, paint new latitudes in their own celestial colors. Others, we have observed, do not struggle. They swan dive into the dark and leave a soon-extinguished ripple. These are black dwarves; their lifetimes are longer than the lifetime of the universe thus far (13.8 billion years compared to 13.7), and humans have only theorized what they will be like.
These are pertinent moments of Irvin Edwards’s life. Their significance?
We are digressing. We are failing. We have never grasped hands with someone; we have never spoken of unknowable mysteries. We have had no need to become this type of conduit.
Evidence: Irvin Edwards’s memory, cradled like the ashes of a loved one, begins to drift. To flood. Irvin’s fragmented memory deserts him in the way atoms desert a dying star.
Fragment 1: This pinprick of memory flits through nightmares. It is fusion, the relics of half-ideas. It becomes succubi. Bloody-eyed demons. Alien abductions. It relishes remaking itself, dragging back into wakefulness, the recognition that the hallucination was never real, or perhaps—
Fragment 2: A splinter of the memory is part of a boy. The great-grandson of Irvin Edwards. His mother tells him story upon story of her grandfather—a man he can never meet, not truly.
Irvin lived a life, the boy’s mother says. Let me tell you. The boy asks, tell me what, each time in a tone of longing as he pictures the drooping, blank old man. She tells him, Irvin met your great-great grandmother when he was fixing her car. He dropped out of school, have I told you that? He travelled with great racecar drivers. He took her to Mexico, to Rome, to Spain and England and Brazil. The boy asks why. His mother shakes her head with a deep exhaustion, slow and crushing, continental drift.
Fragment 3: Without a mind to contain it, the memory is a word on the tip of the tongue; it is right there, right behind the shoulder, a whisper.
Fragment 4: An ember burns tobacco holes in a retired priest’s lungs, the brother of Irvin Edwards. He sprawls across his unmade bed, pictures a sinkhole in the middle of his father’s cow pasture, one he saw when he was young, with a bloated bull carcass floating in the fetid water at the bottom, so far down, so deep like the edge of the universe, the edge of space.
Note: The two had been close when they were young, but his jealousy grew when Irvin married the woman he also loved. He never married, never loved any woman except for his high school girlfriend, whose skin warmed the fingers of Irvin Edwards in a field when she should have been faithful to him. Whose perfume he believes he can still smell in the cobwebs of his apartment.
Fragment 5: The wisp claws at walls, whispers through static in deep windy voices, cracked and fading. It loses itself in dark-eyed ghosts who are famished and lonely and miss someone to the point of hatred.
Fragment 6: The memory’s dust sifts through the fingers of a man at his wife’s grave and mimicks the shape of her lips: we met in Greece, we toured an empty volcano, isn’t it reassuring how the earth dies just like we do? The memory hollows itself out, becomes an extinct crater, an empty sepulcher for the earth and for the man and for his wife.
Note: This man went to school with Irvin Edwards. Their sons played baseball together. The two shared many beers and stories already known over uncountable hours in the splintered stands; they drove home in cars always covered with ball field dirt, each finding a film of the stuff on his tongue and over his cheeks and in the valleys of his face. Each saying in their respective showers, dammit, this stuff gets everywhere, and watching the reddish water snake through the respective drains.
Fragment 7: The granddaughter of Irvin Edwards recalls how her father, drunk after Irvin’s diagnosis, spoke about her grandfather. How he ate steak rare and dripping; how his laugh crowded every room. How Friday nights were filled with beer and The Twilight Zone and car talk. How he never got rid of his holiday weight and would only read biographies of scientists.
Fragment 8: The calcified memory lodges in the sons of Irvin Edwards, unremarkable men. Of average size and intelligence, who do not care deeply for much of anything.
Note: Irvin and his wife spoke often of these, their products, and we have seen the skin gnawed away from Irvin’s lips as he contemplates their lackadaisical minds, their drooping smiles. Even as Irvin forgets who these men are, he holds a pit of worry in his gut, one that has no word.
Fragment 9: This memory splinter exists as the inkling a one-time aspiring artist never painted. It traces across her eyes in a summer sunset she never remembers having seen; she focuses and the flare disappears. This woman never became an artist, but instead married a man who kept large coffee table books about the Louvre, which she flipped through every day after vacuuming; her hands, still dirty, left smudges on each crisp page, smudges which had the appearance of small animals frozen in the snow.
Note: This woman is a sister of Irvin. She had heard of Irvin and his wife’s first kiss in that desiccated cornfield from the girl in question, and she recalls, each time she visits their home, how her friend’s cheeks glowed peachy-pink at the first retelling of the evening she knew she was falling in love.
Fragment 10: A miniscule segment of the memory becomes scentless air. It becomes the color of closed eyes, the color of no color at all. It creeps into us, we can feel it. The absence of color fogging our minds. We fear to cut open one another’s skulls lest this is all we see: nameless voids, oily and toxic.
Fragment 11: The memory lurks in the fogs of Irvin’s mother’s perfume, clogging her home–the wallpaper, the sinks, the air–with its scent of decomposing flowers. She wants, always, to stay in the house she and her family built.
Note: Each time she returns from seeing her decaying son, she runs her fingers over holes he left in his boyhood room, from posters, from darts. She recalls the nights he snuck out and came home in time to help his father with the goats, smiling with the idea that he’d gotten away with his escapes. She bludgeons her mind against these thoughts–Irvin tall and young, Irvin on the baseball diamond, Irvin teaching his siblings to drive—and begs it to shatter like her son’s has.
Conclusion: This memory that once belonged to Irvin Edwards, for some reason, will always belong to Irvin Edwards. Has never lost his trace. It will never stop smelling of a teenage boy in a dead cornfield. It will not lose its hint of Irvin’s skin, Irvin’s chaparral eyes, Irvin’s jackdaw laugh.
Result 1: Irvin Edwards stores this memory, Irvin Edwards preserves this, and when the moments of his life fade away in marks from an exhausted pen, this one goes, too, only last. Because it sank into his lobes so deeply, the remembrance Irvin could point to and say, yes, this is when I touched her, this is the beginning, when I wanted to be something good and beautiful and lasting.
Result 2: Even as the memory becomes a sore tooth, a pocket of pain Irvin does not understand, its motes remain with his wife, a woman who will now look at the people in her life through a snow globe, a souvenir from a destination she never recalls having reached.
Result 3: The infinite, endless atoms flood, swaddle themselves in people known by Irvin— as birthdays, Nobel Prizes, introductions at parties, oily engine scents, creatures long thought extinct, lucid dreams and first jobs and last touches and bar fights over nothing—
1: We continue to watch this lifetime of action, replay it. Exist with Irvin and outside of ourselves until we cannot anymore. We will do so even as we feel an exhaustion that comes from expansion, scraping the universe across itself.
2: We do not subsist outside of this, our task of watching, nor have we ever.
3: We have perceived the souls of dead stars, black dwarves, and we fear they are hollow–
4: We know theirs are true deaths, death that does not nourish.
5: We replay this scene over and over. Create a loop, our own universe in which it is always the last moment, the last time we will remember, like Irvin:
His wife asks him what he thinks. He, mind like torn cloth, will not reply. Will mash his lips into a line, will hunt for words that are extinct.
We see the night our minds spawned something new, attempted to save themselves.
We leave old thoughts behind in crackled, dusty cornrows.
We taste the moment with Irvin Edwards, earthen and grassy.
We catch the growing dark in snowflakes on our tongues.
–Elizabeth Breazeale (from Tupelo Quarterly)