Laika’s Dream15 min read
I think back to a night on a moonlit beach, the crash of breakers loud in our ears. Mara is beautiful in a floral sundress, her dark hair pulled back into a windblown braid. It’s the end of the term, a time for celebration. Situated crookedly in the sand is a bottle of red wine, two glasses, half-empty, perched next to it. We are barefoot and my pants are rolled up to my knees, Mara’s sundress riffling against my bare skin as we dance.
She whispers that she loves me, but we are drunk — and careless.
Two weeks later, we’ve created one of the most stable forms in the universe, a tiny sphere that will one day turn into our beloved Anna. On the ultrasound, Mara’s pregnancy is nothing more than a pea-sized shadow. Fluid shows up black while tissue glows white. The amniotic sac isn’t much larger than a bean.
“You’re due in March,” the doctor tells her.
When he leaves, she starts to cry.
I tell her not to worry — but, to my surprise, she looks at me and says fate has dealt her a different hand.
I think of this as it relates to quantum physics. Why didn’t I see it coming? In theory, we should remember the future as we remember the past, but something in our mammalian brains prevents us from taking a peek at our fates before they blindside us. I tell myself it makes sense, that a will to live must come from not knowing what happens next.
* * * *
As an astronomer, I try to answer life’s most unfathomable questions. I always thought I wanted to know about such things as supersymmetries and flop transitions. Now my questions, though couched in physics, revolve around what happens to us after we die.
We are always able to go back to the beginning, watching as our blueprints unfold in a cramped darkness, as I once watched Anna’s month by month. Only scientists haven’t yet been able to see the universe’s conception. They know down to a hundredth of a second or so what happened, that first brilliant flash of light, when everything blossomed, but the nanosecond before, the force that ignited the spark, is still man’s biggest mystery.
It’s no different for the giants than it is for the dwarves. Like each of us, the universe was conceived. All of nature’s little spheres, and I call them little because in relative terms they are, the suns and moons, the red and blue giants, the binaries, the dwarf stars, and yes, even the black holes, have parents.
As a professor of astrophysics, I stand before a class of 22, writing my calculations on the board as I share with them the discovery I’ve made. I haven’t told the dean or the head of my department about my hybrid, the connection I’ve made between the earliest occurring imperfections of genetics and the first moments of the universe, a practical application to the fractal geometry I’ve applied to M-theory. Everyone else will be skeptical. But I know my students. They are open-minded.
“You forgot something,” one woman says, raising her hand.
Turning, I catch a glimpse of tangled blonde hair and troubled gray eyes.
“What about the energy?”
Sheila Porter. Beautiful and sick. It began last term, this degeneration, her illness. She’d been at the top of my class, one of the smartest students I’d ever taught.
She is adamant. “You forget; it thinks.”
“Thank you, Sheila.” I’m embarrassed for her and she knows it. My gaze bounces around the room; I am desperate for someone, anyone, to speak.
“You don’t believe me, but I can prove it.”
I clear my throat, the class silent.
“Energy is sentience.”
“It’s pure consciousness.”
“God is everywhere.”
Reaching into her pocket, she pulls out a knife. “It’s the answer to the horizon problem.”
Adrenaline floods through me, white-hot. I stammer. “Just…don’t…”
She walks toward me, the knife in her hand. I stand, paralyzed, the class watching, silent. I keep thinking someone will come to my rescue, maybe myself. But I don’t move.
She stops directly in front of me, her grin crooked and her gray eyes teasing as she says one word: “Watch.”
Quick as light, she shoves the steel blade into a nearby socket, the heat singing the hair on my arm. I lurch backward, a reflexive cry erupting from me. Sparks fly, the smell of ozone heavy in the air. Students leap out of their chairs. I hear the bang of overturned desks, books hitting the floor, the clatter of pencils as they go flying. Hubris. Chaos.
* * * *
In the fifteen years my daughter lives, stars are born and die. Whole worlds vanish. And Anna? Like space’s primordial origins, she begins as a tiny sphere, her neurons dividing at 100,000 per hour. But something else has already happened; she’s been given an extra 21st chromosome and that little piece of imperfect genetic material has changed the glorious staircase scientists now call DNA into something it shouldn’t be.
Seven and a half months later, she comes too soon, before I can get Mara to the hospital. She’s born in the backseat of our station wagon, slippery in my new bride’s hands as she lets out her first squall.
“There’s something wrong with her,” Mara, sweaty and delirious, gasps. “Clark, look at her…”
At the hospital, neither of us speak. The tiny baby that tiny sphere has become has already set our marriage adrift. Mara won’t look at her — or at me — knowing somehow that I’ve caused something irrevocable and that Anna has descended upon us, unwanted. After the baby’s whisked away, my wife is wheeled into the Mother-Baby Unit and put into a bed. Nurses check her vitals. Doctors sweep in and out in their white lab coats and all the while I sit in a bedside chair with my head in my hands.
“Mr. and Mrs. Namast?” one of the doctors, a balding 40-ish man, says somberly. “I have some bad news.”
Mara looks up, her dark eyes red, anticipation and fear in her gaze.
“Your daughter has Down Syndrome. It occurs in approximately 1 in 800 births.” He pauses delicately. “The good news is that, these days, high-functioning individuals can live relatively normal—”
“Normal?” Mara sits up straighter, her face red, fury in her brown eyes. “Did I hear you right? Were you about to say these people live normal lives?”
The doctor takes a step back.
“Does she look normal to you?”
“With all due respect, Mrs. Namast—”
“You want to trade me, then? You got a kid, right? A normal one? How about I trade you my normal kid for your normal kid?”
I jump up, a reflex, a protective father already. “Mara…” I put a hand on her arm. “It’s not his fault.”
She turns from the stunned doctor, her eyes imploring. “I don’t want her, Clark.”
* * * *
Sheila’s heart stops four times before paramedics establish a regular heartbeat. She is clinically dead for over two minutes and a walking miracle. Proof, I suppose. And 22 people bore witness.
I visit her in the hospital, wanting to know why. She is haggard, black circles beneath her piercing gray eyes.
“I saw what I needed to see,” she says.
I look away.
“You still don’t believe me.”
“In this life.”
I catch her gaze.
“But not in the other.” She smiles.
I swallow a lump, think of Anna.
“I’ve never been so purely myself.”
Anna’s brown eyes, her silky blonde hair, and that wonderful dimpled smile run through my mind, attributes unappreciated. My anger erupts. “Do you know how selfish you are?”
“I’m just trying to hang on to who I am,” she says. “That’s all that matters to me now.”
I think of Anna and who she was. Kind and willing to give, but nobody’s friend. I realize how alike they are.
“I’ll never be smart again — not in the way people want.”
Though steeped in the cloud of mental illness, I see her brilliance. “You’re still smart, Sheila,” I say quietly. “You’re still head and shoulders above every other student I’ve ever—”
I stare at her, dumbfounded.
“You think NASA’s going to hire a schizophrenic?”
The words inspire an ache in me, celestial in nature, bone-deep; they are Anna’s words.
“I have to think of other ways to make a difference.”
“By killing yourself?”
“By proving that there’s more to life than what we see.”
* * * *
I want to believe her — desperately. There’s got to be more than this. Heartache. Uncertainty. A constant search for truth when the truth we see is never enough or too hard to face.
* * * *
In the grips of severe postpartum depression a week after Anna’s birth, Mara gets up at 4 a.m., slips into a robe and tiptoes into our daughter’s bedroom. She peers over the crib railing at our newborn, watching as she sleeps. Tears slip from Mara’s eyes as she makes a decision.
“I won’t let you suffer,” she whispers. For a moment, she thinks about pressing a pillow over the baby’s face. It would be painless, easy. It’d look like SIDS. Down’s children are prone to crib death.
But she can’t bring herself. If she does anything, it has to be abstract, cleanly and comfortably out of view. There has to be some doubt. She has to believe that maybe she didn’t succeed, that maybe, just maybe, her daughter might someday be living that normal, productive life the doctor spoke of. So instead, Mara wraps our daughter in a pink receiving blanket, climbs into our beat-up Honda, and drives 40 miles south. All the while, as her cold hands grip the wheel, she shakes and cries. Anna’s on the front seat, squalling, hungry and wet, a typical newborn and an anathema.
It’s a patchwork morning, gray clouds crumpled over the ocean, cobalt blue in the east. Out on the shore, death is waiting. Mara looks for it there. Some shape of it. A form slipping beneath the waves or around the rocky abutments she sees. Fog clings to the sand, to the water, now calm. She pulls over, closing her eyes as she picks up our newborn, and steps out into a tongue of frigid air.
She tells me all of this later, after driving home, still shaking, horrified at what she almost did — and for fifteen years, I keep her secret.
* * * *
That newborn turns into a girl of fifteen who likes Star Trek and dreams of going elsewhere. She is high-functioning enough that Mara insists she go to public school. “We’re not babying her,” she says. “There’s more to life than dancing with boys.”
I almost believe her, but in the quiet of the night I hear Anna crying, and that’s when I realize that there isn’t more to life; it is everything to be normal.
Our true heartbreak begins one morning when Anna sits down at the breakfast table, smiling that sweet, dimpled smile and I notice something shining blue on her eyelids.
“Notice anything?” She grins.
I smile back. “You look nice.”
She points at her eyes, giggles.
“Anna Grace Namast, you march into the bathroom and wash it off.”
I catch Mara’s gaze, anger spiking through me. “She’s fifteen; she can wear a little—”
“It looks ridiculous on her.”
“She looks nice.”
“Everybody’s going to laugh at her.” Mara turns her attention back to Anna. “It’s not going to change anything.”
I don’t remember what Anna did, whether she washed off the makeup. I do remember the look on her face, her fading smile, her brown eyes brimming with tears. And that’s when I have to believe in something more, something beyond this, our everyday lives.
* * * *
At birth, a child’s brain has as many neurons as stars in the Milky Way. That’s what I thought when I looked at Anna, that she had the whole galaxy in her. And it didn’t matter that some small thing went wrong in the beginning; she was still whole, still beautiful. Still a galaxy.
As a scientist, I studied her as such. From the time of her birth, I collected information on Down Syndrome, cataloguing all of the disorder’s idiosyncrasies, from the physical (the upturned corners of Anna’s doe eyes and her flattened face) to the mental (her “delayed” development, though I tend to think that she simply held onto a child’s spirit longer than most), to the genetic (an extra chromosome replicating itself in all of her cells). I wondered who’d caused it. I asked, was it me? Is it my fault she’s so unhappy?
Even now I look for the answer doing what I do best. I use numbers and probabilities and I plug them into formulas. I know they can’t extrapolate and explain a child’s crippled spirit, but maybe they can tell me something.
I write on the board, frenetically, as my students look on. But the principles I apply aren’t about cosmic space and time.
“Can anyone tell me what this is?” I point to the numbers, formulas upon formulas. A continuum of inner space, soul.
Silence settles as my glance darts over all of the blank faces. Then I see hers. She knows, smiles, raising her hand. “The human genome,” she says.
I swallow a lump. “My daughter’s.”
“I know.” Sheila’s eyes sparkle.
“You’re applying M-Theory to inner space, to genetics?” another student asks, bewildered.
I nod, my eyes still on Sheila’s. “I want to know what happened in the beginning.”
* * * *
I wait for her to come down the stairs, holding the paper up when I see her. “What’s this?”
A shadow passes over Anna’s face as she pauses at the bottom. “My project.”
“It’s about what I want to do when I get older.”
I gaze at her scrawled handwriting, heartsick. “Anna, this paper’s about Laika.”
Her smile fades. “I know.”
My heart sinks as I stare at the paper about a dog in space, science’s first orbital casualty, launched by the Soviets in 1957 and left to die. “What’s this got to do with you?”
“I want to be like you; I want to learn about space.” She waits, desperate for my approval. “That’s the only way I can do it.”
A lump catches thickly in my throat; her answer takes my breath away. “That’s not true.”
“It is true.”
“Laika died, Anna.”
Her gaze is unflinching. “I know.”
* * * *
I find the letter to NASA a day later, a 6-page offering, Anna’s life laid out, her bone-deep pain, her all-encompassing despair and her fierce desire to make up for it by sacrificing herself to science. I don’t read much, but I read enough to feel it in the pit of my stomach. Enough that I’ll go to my deathbed with the weight of it on my shoulders.
I tear up the letter, viciously, enraged and grief-stricken, breathless as I rip at it with my teeth, the tang of lead on my tongue.
“Clark, what are you doing?”
I turn to see Mara standing in the doorway.
I burst into tears as I let the torn bits of Anna’s bequest swirl to the floor. “We’re losing her,” is all I can manage.
* * * *
Contrary to the seeming paradox of it, there is such a thing as deterministic chaos. Initial conditions exist. Add time and evolution and you get something else. What appears to be random isn’t.
Scientists believe time flows in this way, in one direction. And this fact is often one of life’s biggest tragedies; people lay awake at night thinking, if only…never to return to that magical half-second something might’ve changed an indisputable and heartbreaking truth.
“We lost her years ago,” Mara answers.
“You lost her, not me,” I shout, my anger spiking. “You were the one who gave up. You were the one who didn’t want her.”
“Clark Namast!” My wife’s voice is full of tears.
Dear God, what have I done? I catch Anna’s sweet face peering around the doorway. That angel face, looking at Mara, then at me, disbelieving.
I can’t stop her, can’t catch her as she runs away from me. Anguish has a strength all its own.
* * * *
Alone in the classroom, I feel her hand on my arm and I look up to find Sheila’s shining gray eyes.
“I want to help you prove your theory,” she says. “I want to die again.”
I slam down my book. “No way.”
“I haven’t forgotten what it’s like.”
Her words stop me, quiet me. I turn to her.
She seems small suddenly, vulnerable, like a child. “Most people forget.” She smiles. “It’s different than you think.”
I look away, a lump in my throat.
Once again, I feel her hand. “It isn’t heaven.”
I feel sick. Now there is doubt.
“Help me do it.”
I shove her hand away. “I can’t.” I catch her gaze. “I won’t.”
“What are you afraid of?” Her gaze has hardened. “Don’t you want to know what it’s really like?”
I jump up and sprint out, papers flying in my wake. I am suddenly, inexplicably, terrified of her.
That night the lights go out sixteen times. My cell phone drops four calls. Seven severe electrical surges fry my TV and DVD player despite the fact that outside, the stars shine. There are no tempests. No sunspots.
Then I get a call from Edric Lind University Hospital.
* * * *
“She left a note,” a doctor tells me. “And your phone number.”
I find out that Sheila took fourteen of her Lithium pills, enough to send her into acute renal failure, though doctors were still able to flush her kidneys and save her life.
But I can’t face her. Not this time. I turn from the doctor and walk away, realizing at last that I don’t really want to know after all.
I return to my office at the University and destroy my research, shredding, deleting, feeling the paper tearing in my adrenaline-drenched hands, all the while recalling a dog lost in space.
Then I see her face in a dream. Anna’s dancing brown eyes and her sweet smile. Those dimpled arms poised to embrace me. I awaken with an anguish so bone-deep it chokes me, Sheila’s disheartening words flashing through my mind: It isn’t heaven.
Then what is it?
* * * *
She is asleep when I get there, as I stand at the foot of her hospital bed.
Then she opens her eyes, smiles. “That was me.”
“Sorry about your TV.”
My breath catches.
“I was trying to tell you no one dies.”
I cover my face; I can’t let her see me cry.
“I was myself. Pure energy. Electricity. Light. Power. I was with you and I was at the farthest corner of the Universe at the same time. There is no light speed after death. No vast space to traverse.” She makes a gesture. “It’s all right here.”
I swallow a lump, my heart pounding. “What’d you mean when you said it isn’t heaven?”
“Heaven’s too oversimplified. This can’t be defined — or quantified. Everything’s here and now. There’s no time. No space. It’s as though every dimension is unified.” She smiles. “It’s the answer to the horizon problem.”
I nod, drifting. “Death’s dimension…” Something I’ve never considered in my theories or calculations.
“And life’s dimension,” she adds. “There’s a reason there isn’t a unified theory. We’ve never considered the possibility that there was more than one force acting on the point of origin during the big bang.”
She smiles, nods. “Two Gods.”
* * * *
As I offered up Anna’s genetic profile as proof, Sheila confirmed what I already knew; that we are all pieces of a whole, the living fractals of an astonishing Union.
I can’t stop the flood of memories. The rush into the woods, Anna’s footprints through the mud, my strangled voice calling her name. We find her hanging from a tree branch, one of my neckties cinched so tightly around her neck that I cannot find a grip to loosen it.
And then Mara’s heart-wrenching screams: “You did this. You killed her. I hate you I hate you I hate you…” Fists on my chest, blows to my heart. Tears on my shirt. A spirit unraveling.
I close my eyes. I can think no more.
“This is your shot,” I tell Sheila. “I want you to present our theories at the upcoming Astronomy Conference in Paris.”
She gazes at me, puzzled. “But don’t you want to—”
“This is yours. You made it happen.” I smile. “After the Conference, no one will care about your illness.” They are words I wish I could’ve told Anna.
* * * *
I close my eyes as I sit at my desk. As I remember her sweet smile. I think of the random fractals that made her up, the same fractals that make up snowflakes, coastlines, and mountain ranges. I recall a night on a moonlit shore and I’m inspired. Two Gods. Maybe love existed long before space and time.
I think of a dog lost in space. A scientific breakthrough. Mankind’s step forward. And an unspoken loneliness. I need to find her, to tell her what Sheila told me — though I’m sure she already knows.