“Infinite Skeins” by Naru Dames Sundar
The room clatters into being, a sound like the slow flapping of wings. This room is empty, the wood covered in wind-tumbled dust blown in from the gaping hole in the roof. The sky is burned and callused like the skin of dried grapes, a dull unblemished cinnamon. I don’t hear anyone around, but there is a keening in the distance, perhaps a wolf, or something akin to that. The windows are aged into amber, the glass obscuring whatever lay beyond. There are many of these rooms, abandoned, unattended and empty. I breathe deeply, hearing the hiss of my breath through the air mask. This isn’t it. I press the button on the side of the box, holding onto my flashlight in case a windstorm or a gale punctures the skein and blows it away as it happened once before. I learned to bring a flashlight the first time I opened my eyes to a cold unyielding darkness. The ground was solid enough but the darkness gnawed at my bones until my scrabbling fingers found the button. I’ve seen burning rooms, icy wastes, airless plains under a sky the color of cherries – that last one taught me the value of an air mask – all these worlds wrapped in my two meter cage. None of them contained Xikele.
There were rooms that were so close that I sobbed a hot sea of tears as I pressed the button to make it disappear. Once I saw that same curlicued tassel of black hair and my breath caught as I pulled the blanket down. It was a boy. He had my eyes, the same almond-colored cheeks, that same kink in the nose that Kuan loved to kiss, but his chin came from somewhere else, askew and dimpled. He stirred lightly and I hurried away. The conversations would hurt me more than the disappointment. It had to be close, it had to be a hair’s edge away. I’d tried before, with a maybe, a possibly, an almost found. She had slumbered softly in my arms, her head burrowed into the crook of my elbow. Her wall had that same scrawled stick-figure drawing, two mothers and a child in crayon, a streak of blue paint across the top. She didn’t know Kuan though, she had uncurled awake to Kuan’s desperate eyes and stumbled back in fear. She didn’t known Kuan, she hadn’t felt Kuan’s kisses or her gentle hands, her skein was too different. Our skein collapsed her in a silent flicker flash, as swift as a hummingbird, and then the weight left my arms and I was standing there holding nothing, feeling Kuan’s resentment and anger. I’d sobbed on the floor for an hour until I crawled weary into bed where Kuan finally let her rage cool and covered me in her warm arms.
The year had scrubbed us clean. Scrubbed us clean of words and hopes and dreams, washed away by a sea of endless waiting. Waiting for a vid, an email, a data fragment from some police ferret endlessly searching the datasphere of public surveillance. There was an eight-in-ten chance that walking out our front door, a spy-sat would capture an image fine enough to see the dried tears against my eyelids, and yet all we had was speculations and questions. One day she returned home from school, the next day, nothing. The first day was frantic and terrifying, our minds careening through as many possibilities as I have seen through the box. The next few traded the hot flush of terror with a cold seeping fear. As the days, and the interviews, and the depositions, and the investigations tumbled into each other, an unbearable agony of powerlessness – after all that, the fear remained, sunk into our bones, leeching away hope. At work it began with shock, then questions, then finally a wordless silence, the new leprosy of grief. Abandoned, we sunk into each other like water into sand.
Kuan and I spent the first nights as a tumbled sphere of arms and heads, locked in endless sobs until finally the grief ran so raw that we could only sleep in separate rooms, the mere touch sending arresting frissons of memory rushing through my head. Alone, I ran through those recollections, fragment by fragment, as if saturation might stop the torrents. I remember the ampule of synthesized sperm, an egg-white shell of micro-machined delivery mechanisms clad around Kuan’s genes. In that capsule lay the ancient song of my ancestors on some deep Kalahari night, thundering into the memories of Kuan’s wind-scarred Mongols riding across the plains.
We had both been ready to carry the child, but even on my research salary, we could only afford one. I remembered her fingers moving gently inside me while her lips described poems on my skin. I remembered the subtle flick and whirr of the ampule delivering its cargo, my body already suffering from the synthetic hormones. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. The memories run by too fast. The agony and ecstasy of birth. Xikele’s screaming cry, borne from her Okwango ancestors, as they pulled her out of me. Seeing that perfect almond-colored face against my chest for the first time. I wished I had fed her at least once, cupping her tiny head gently in my hands as I gave of my body. Instead I spent the first few months dazed on the bed, as the leftover chemical brew in my body slowly faded, stunting my mammaries as they exited my system.
Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. She’s one. She’s two. She’s eight. She’s ten. Where did her childhood go? She’s out the door, I wave to her and kiss Kuan goodbye. I’m getting into my car as we both watch her turn the corner. Flicker. Flicker. Stop. That’s it, there’s nothing. Then she’s gone, like a soundless whisper into the wind.
Kuan threw herself into her painting. Six feet swatches of incandescent blacks and browns, sometimes the red of the burning fire, the paint splattering the walls around the canvas like angry hands beating concrete. We swapped conversation for long hours apart: she in the studio; me in my lab – the lab where the box was.
It is a terrible thing I do. Monstrous.
At work there’s a glass jar with a feather patterned in silver and copper. It was the first thing we pulled through, a tiny beautiful feather. We’ve kept it in the jar for months, its tiny cupola of antipodal space merging into our own, the distortions swabbed clean as the skeins merge. It was magical and mysterious, beyond anything, an accident that fractured all the simple rules that moored us to this simple linear causality. Trake was terrified of the consequences, ethical and moral. It anchored him to indecision, into waiting, into more tests. He stayed in his office, awaiting our reports, unable to direct us for fear of the possibilities.
A twist of matter exotic, curled around a swath of quantum instabilities rendered and manipulated by silicon and diamond. A matte cube with a button and dials to constrain the direction of flight. A box. A button. Flicker. Flicker. What skein twists around this sphere, this quantum tunnel into another fork? An endless multitude of what-if spaces enveloping like water around this small cupola that the box extends. We watch our skein and the other fracture around the edges like feathers. Too long and one skein wins, the water rushing in, the air pulling out. Flicker. Flicker. We turn the dials randomly, not caring where it went, like children playing with toys. By accident we found strands that mirrored ours, the differences noticeable but slight. The dials turn slowly as we traverse the cusp of skeins barely distinguishable from our own. It bores us quickly. We swing the dials like casino wheels, the gamble of a window into a million worlds.
Once I saw a bird sitting on a pearl colored branch just outside the edge of the field, silver-patterned feathers splaying out on bifurcating wings across twin tails. I reached out, not caring, across the field, the skein folding like a glove, clasping a single feather and pulling. The feather slithered across the horizon, a feeling like slick oil. Drew and Obi were elated at the possibility that the feather could be in our skein without collapsing under the weight of its quantum interference. The feather was slight, an inconsequence, it existed in a tiny bubble that hung perfectly in our own imperfect reality, with nothing to pop it. That was perhaps the root of it.
The idea cuts through grief. Hope, like a flaming sword rising through my chest. I sat with Kuan in the paint-spattered basement where the grief is buried under turpentine and oil. I explained to her about the quantum sea and the twist of matter exotic, the filigree of skeins branching out through dimensions near and far. It burned, this hope, it burned with shame, and fear and the dirty mud-slick feel of its repercussions. Kuan clutched me to her breast, letting my tears muddle into the ochre and the ultramarine streaked on her skin.
“Ayo, we can’t. I don’t believe you. I couldn’t do it even if it was possible. She’s gone, Ayo. She’s gone, and there’s nothing we can do. We can’t do this!”
Yes, we can. We can if you want it enough, if that desire burns you like flame. I said words that shouldn’t be said. Accusations without meaning. We dug up that grief, so quickly buried, and let it flourish and flower. We are mothers, both. One of us bore the seed, the other fed of her breast. We raised this child, and though Kuan yields to the simple causal truth of what is, I cannot – what-if space beckons me. Once I drew the feather across the cusp of skeins, it wasn’t so simple anymore.
The box disappeared from the lab, rousing Trake from his stupor.
“What do you mean it’s gone? Gone how? Gone where? Who took it, Ayo? We can’t tell them yet? It’s not yet time!”
Trake is spluttering with rage and paranoia. He quietens when I tell him we’ve already built another one, retreating back into that small coffin of indecision. The children in the lab, Drew and Obi and I, go back to our meaningless explorations.
They knew I worked late. They knew why, but they had accounted me an exile from their questions and cares and asked nothing. It was easy to bring the box home, wrapped in nothing more than garbage bags and packing tape. I rigged it in Xikele’s room, attached by a spider’s web of wires to my slate, so I could map the skeins. Kuan stayed up with me the first night and the second. By the third night she went back to the basement and her paint, deathly afraid of what I might bring back.
It is a gradient descent through the sea of skeins, tracking the similar to find the closest strands. By day, the slate’s imager searches randomly, to find avenues worth exploring in my endless nights, until I crawl exhausted into bed. A grain of sand sails on a desert wind, a trillion causal connections separating skein from skein. I pick one road at random, adjust the dials with nothing more than intuition. Flicker. Another empty room, so similar to this one, the bed made and kept just like the day Xikele left. I sigh, the tears welling as they always do.
Once I saw another Kuan, slashed in shadow beyond the hall. That room was empty too, just like ours. Another skein without Xikele. That Kuan looked at me with shock. Understandable since another Ayo likely stirred in her bed. I flutter quickly away, another skein scratched off the list. Sometimes Xikele was older, a young woman asleep in the bed, the hair long and braided, the skin russet like red tea. The crayon drawings no longer adorn the walls, replaced by a scatter of books, Achebe lying atop Shakespeare.
Kuan and I both loved to read. We had spent our first night together on a beach in Durban, reading Yeats to each other by moonlight. The words had tumbled out of our lips like the odor of spices, stanzas flecked with notes of chocolate, verses laced in cardamom and myrrh. Years later, we would take turns reading sonnets to Xikele though she couldn’t understand the words, her gentle smile our only encouragement. I saw the Achebe on the floor, dog-eared like my mother’s copy of Things Fall Apart, a victim of my school bag and too many bumpy rides on buses drifting over ill-tended roads. Yes, I would have given it to Xikele. Another what-if. Flicker. This isn’t the one.
Once, Xikele is old and gray, death’s pallor inscribed on her face. The room is different but still the same house. Had we given the house to her before our own passing? It is a small bed, single, no room for another to curl into the space between her neck and shoulder, a sunken cavity of skin and bone now. This Xikele is awake when I appear. Do I seem like an angel to her, the surface of the merging skeins like a ball of tiny feathers hung in space? Does she fear my mask, and the box in my lap? She does not. She raises her hand, though heavy with death’s weakness, fingers clawing out into the air. I drop the mask and reach out, the skein like silk against my skin as I clasp my fingers around Xikele’s. We hold there, for moments stretched in time, a meeting across possibilities, doomed to be brief. I can do nothing for this Xikele, and she can do nothing for me. Flicker. I press the button. I try again.
In the mornings when I don’t go to work, as I brew coffee into a stained cup, Kuan regales me. It is our allotted time, when her wakeful energy clashes with my sleepless exhaustion.
“Ayo, what of the other Ayo? What of the other Kuan? If you take their Xikele, it dooms them too. It dooms them to this,” she waves her hands at the kitchen counter, the dishes piled up like small sculptures, the mold – iridescent green – growing in long uncleaned corners. It stops us, this gnawing grief, it holds us in dirty places where we wallow like flies in still water.
“How could you live with it? Ayo, how could you?”
Yes. It is awful. It is monstrous, but I rationalize it. The box exists in other skeins. Other Ayos will search for other Xikeles. An infinite number of Ayo’s searching and finding and retrieving an infinite number of Xikeles. Induction on infinity replaces morality, as if replacing the act with an equation is enough of an excuse. The truth is, I simply want her back, and I do not care.
Kuan grew still, that quiet stillness that I knew so well.
“What if… what if,” her voice stills to an ominous whisper. “What if that’s how Xikele was taken? What if that’s why there wasn’t a trace. Maybe one of you took her.”
The idea burrows deep. I am become a we now. A plural community of would-be monsters unable to accept the state of the world, grasping at exotic mysteries, opening doors locked closed by causal keys. Yes, induction leads to that conclusion too.
“Does it matter now, Kuan? Does it matter? I’ve opened that door in my heart, it’s taken seed and grown to root. How can I stop now? I’ve seen her, young, old, just born, just dying. I’ve held her hand, felt her breath. I’ll find her, Kuan. I’ll find her, and bring her here, let her merge with our space, and our time.”
Kuan shakes her head.
“Even if you bring Xikele here, it won’t be the same. It can’t be the same. This road doesn’t lead anywhere but darkness, Ayo. I’ve lost Xikele, I don’t want to lose you.”
An impasse. I cannot relent, and grief binds us too deep for her to leave, so the conversation stutters, like a broken piece of film. It curls up like flowers in the night, awaiting another dawn to unfurl the same argument, the same pointless words. Nothing changes. Nothing will change, not until I find Xikele.
At work, Trake wants to end the project. He fears a world where the box can be used in ways that it shouldn’t. He fears our people over-running an infinite worlds with our careless conquests. He fears unimaginable acts once only possible in dreams, God’s great gate into mystery used for the pettiest of desires. It’s too late for that. I’m already there.
Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. One more, before my eyes curl closed against the rising sun. One more room, not broken and buried, not wreathed in purple fire nor drowned in sand the color of coral. One more room, spattered with crayon-filled drawings, a beautiful coffee-colored child draped in a sea of black curls under the moss-colored comforter, a knife’s edge away from my Xikele.
The room flutters into being behind the feathered sheen of merging skeins. I gasp – an indrawn breath that burns into my lungs and turns my heartbeat into thunder beneath my skin. I turn the machine off and soak in every detail of the room in our house, Xikele’s room. I see the misaligned crayon drawings snaking across the back of the room, the stuffed toys stacked in leaning piles against the corner, a knit sweater now gray with dust lying on the floor, a single arm curled and pointing towards the hall. The arm is wrong, something about the shape, something about the color. A hair’s breadth away.
I press the button again, hearing the stutter and whine, the flicker and the flap. The floor is slick and shiny, free of dust and mold, but the stuffed toys still lean like organic sculptures against the corner. The same drawings are there, a few more I’ve never seen stuck in odd places, but the ones I know by heart – the ones I memorized in the days after she left – those lie in place on the wall, off-kilter as Xikele always liked.
I’ve avoided looking at the bed, though it lies in front of me. I’ve blurred it out of my vision, so I could look only when I was ready. My heart rends every time it hangs so close, it’s unbearable, though every night I sit in this cage and try again. I let my eyes unblur, starting from the foot of the bed, following the comforter from the wide meadow where the bed was too long for her tiny body. The meadow leans up into the hill of her feet, gently rising in delicate folds until I make out arms wrapped around the dun-colored bear toy that Xikele loved so well.
The round almond of her face, like coffee after I’ve added the first drops of milk, lies serene against the pillow. Her beautiful black hair, so like my own, dances slowly in the air as she breathes. I stop breathing for fear the moment will pass. I must drink of this moment like sweet nectar from the blossom-strewn fields of heaven. As I hang suspended in hope, she stirs, the eyes gently opening, slanted in a gentle arabesque like Kuan’s own.
My breath releases like a thunderclap.
“Why are you covered in feathers?”
In the hall, a light switches open. I must be quick – if I do not do this now, I will never have the courage to do so again.
“Come give Mama a hug, sweetie?”
She clambers out of bed and stands against the edge of the field boundary. I can see she’s not quite awake yet, or there would be more questions. I reach out, the skein as slick as my sweated palms. I take her hand and pull. The skein windows around her, gel like bubbles erupting around the gap. Like a caterpillar crawling out of its cocoon, she falls into the inside of my skein, fingers of the reality outside still wrapped like a barely visible caul around her. I hear footsteps in the hall, loud as the drumbeat of my heart. I press the button. Flicker. As I stare at the dissolving skein around me, I see the drawing on the wall, two stick-figure mothers and a child, blurred by the unfolding skein. I make out the dark crayon tresses of my hair in the image before my own skein flickers into place, the dust and the mold shining from the lambent light of the box. I turn the box off, still feeling Xikele’s reassuring hand in my own.
“Mama, it’s so dusty all of a sudden! This feels like a strange dream and my tummy feels funny.”
Joy unfurls, like the first bloom of spring. I envelop her in my arms, so tight she squirms against it.
“What’s wrong, Mama? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, Xikele, nothing’s wrong.” There is a river of tears in me, a great Nile of tears, but for Xikele’s comfort, I hold it back.
“Everything’s right, baby, everything is right. Mama’s here.”
“I’m tired, Mama, can I go back to bed now?” Xikele rubs her eyes, wiping away my sweat from her skin.
“Okay, Xikele, I’m just going to wait here for a bit until you fall asleep.”
The tiredness claims her and she snuggles into the dusty comforter. In the morning there will be time to clean, to rebuild, to show Kuan and to wind time back across the great chasm of sorrow in which we had spent the last year. A new day was dawning, a new spring blooming. I look at the box again, making sure its telltale lights are off, reassuring myself that I am in my own skein, and she is there. We have gone through fire and flame, Kuan and I, we have burned ourself clean to the bone, but this – this will thread us back together. I hold myself back from sleep, soaking in every diamond sharp moment, but sleep claims me anyway.
I judder awake, my heart like the gallop of horses. She is gone. She is gone. Stop. Breathe. Look. I count myself to ten to slow the spiraling world down. The comforter, long folded into its perfect geometric line, is disheveled and flung open, the memory of a child’s shape still pressed into it. I stand up, my bones creaking, and walk into the hall.
Inside the kitchen at the end of the long hall, I can hear the clink and plink of fork against bowl, and the slow slurp of coffee being sipped. Xikele stands just outside the arch of the kitchen, hidden in the shadow, face flush with fear. Feather streaks still hung around her arms and legs, though most have faded – she is settling into our skein slowly but surely.
Kuan would be in the kitchen. Has she seen Xikele? I would likely have heard. I bend down, my face against Xikele’s own. I hold her hand reassuringly. It is flesh warm and not skein-slick as I feared. I whisper into her ear,
“What’s wrong, sweetie?”
Her eyes look at me, slightly vibrating, tiny feather streaks glistening in and out of being on her eyelids.
“There’s a ghost in the kitchen, Mama.” Her quiet, fearful whisper back.
“There’s no ghost there, sweetie, I’ll show you. Come.”
I take her hand as she sidles up against me, walking together into the kitchen. The ceramic bowl falls from Kuan’s hands first, shattering against the kitchen counter. A silence like the shaking of mountains unfurls, broken by Xikele’s tiny plaintive voice.
Kuan wails Xikele’s name, bursting across the kitchen floor to envelop Xikele in her arms, all her fears and words of darkness shattered by the simple truth of Xikele’s presence.
“I missed you so much, Xikele, I missed you so much, I missed you so.” Kuan continues to repeat the words, burrowing her face into Xikele’s neck. I feel the cascade of time being drawn back, a rewinding to a time and place a year ago, the three of us unbroken. Xikele holds Kuan tight, her tiny arms clenched around Kuan’s delicate body.
“I missed you too, Mama Kuan, I thought you went away. I thought you went away forever.” Simple words. Such simple words, like iron nails hammering into my bones. Like the fallen porcelain, I shatter into shards. The blurred drawing against the wall as Xikele’s skein dissolved flashes like lightning in my mind. I see the details of it, etched in sharp relief. In our wall, two stick figures surround Xikele’s tiny form, one in chocolate and black, another in ochre. The drawing in my memory from the other skein rises up and swallows me. Kuan’s figure was scratched out. Another mistake. The last one simply evaporated, she did not know Kuan, and that un-knowledge resolved her intersection with our skein into redaction. This Xikele knew Kuan, and had lost Kuan. I don’t know how the mathematics of this resolution will work out. It is as unclear and mysterious as the box, and the fear is exploding in me.
I look down at the two halves of my heart, hugging each other before me. I do not know what is about to happen. I wish I could undo this, walk backward through time until I could have seen the drawing and considered it at leisure. I watch the feather streaks glisten into being, wrapping the two of them, the skeins colliding and merging. In the lab we played and cavorted, abandoning science, abandoning the rigor of question and answer, of datum and hypothesis. We had rushed through dozens of worlds like visitors to Shangri-La. I don’t know what the skeins will do, I don’t know how they will merge. All I know is that I am bereft of power to stop this.
I could tear them apart now, but I can already see the skeins wrapping around them, preparing for judgment, preparing to render unto mathematical fact. This does not belong. Repair, redact, adjust. Clutching Xikele to her chest, Kuan looks up at me. Does she know? Does she feel it? An oil-slick nausea. Her eyes fill with light, a lambent sheen, like the eyes of angels out of a Carravagio painting. A hand reaches up, fingers sliding across space beyond infinite towards my own. She’s gone, flickered away, redacted into non-existence. Xikele is screaming.
My heart is a desert, scoured to bone. I wrap my screaming child in my arms, hold her for hours until the sobbing subsides. I tell her she was right. She saw a ghost, and seeing ghosts is a painful experience. Yes, Xikele, I miss her too. She continues to sob, until exhausted, she falls asleep. I carry her into bed and crawl in with her, holding her safe against the horrors of this new world.
As I close my eyes, another idea burrows to seed. Out the window, the sun rises, a lavender dawn casting pale shadows against the box on the floor.
About the Author
Naru Dames Sundar is a speculative fiction writer living in the mountains south of San Francisco. His work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and forthcoming in Strange Horizons. When he isn’t writing he protects his son from nefarious dimension-hopping copies of himself.