“That’s probably bad for the environment,” said a deep voice Lisa didn’t recognize.
She had just thrown a crumpled up piece of paper into the river, as she had countless times before.
“Environment’s fucked anyway,” said Lisa, turning her attention back to her writing pad without looking up. “If it makes you feel better though, they’re biodegradable papers containing sodium carboxyl methyl cellulose. They’re environmentally safe and dissolve almost instantly in cold water. I order ’em special.”
She leaned back against her backpack and resumed writing. She remained acutely aware that the stranger hadn’t moved since speaking, but did her best to tune it out. It was broad daylight and there was a busy shopping center within earshot on the other side of the trees behind her; if this guy was a rapist or a serial killer then he probably wasn’t good at picking his moments.
Still though, people usually left her alone when she was writing. There was absolutely nothing about her that said “Open for conversation, please engage freely” when she was immersed in the energy of a poem. The fact that he wasn’t moving on was becoming increasingly unnerving.
“Yeah,” said the stranger softly. “Your environment is pretty fucked.”
“What do you mean ‘my’ environment?” Lisa spat back tersely, finally throwing down her notepad and raising her head to face the intruder.
The pen fell from her fingers.
“Oh,” she said after a pause.
She was not looking at a human face. Its eyes were massive, with no whites, and its head was shaped like an upside-down teardrop. It was wearing a baseball cap with the brim pulled low, and a black hoodie pulled tight enough to partially obscure its face. Two enormous, pale sets of eyelids blinked in silence as she stared in astonishment.
“You’re not from around here,” she said.
The stranger shook its head.
“Can we talk?” it asked.
“Uhh… sure,” she replied, and gestured to the grass beside her. The stranger took a seat and stared at the water.
“Were you expecting me to freak out?” she asked.
“No. I have a feel for people.”
“You can read minds?”
“Not without a lot of technology I wasn’t able to bring with me on this trip. Reading human minds is generally pretty uncomfortable anyway. I just kinda get a feel for everyone’s personal essence.”
“What’s mine like?”
“Open. Open and clean.”
“Oh. So like, are you going to ask me to take you to my leader or something?”
“Who? Trump? What the fuck could I learn from that dipshit?”
“Ha! Good point I guess. So you’re here to learn? You guys are watching us and researching us and stuff?”
“Nah, not us guys. My people don’t care about Earth much. Life here isn’t expected to last much longer, so it’s generally seen as a waste of time. I’m here sightseeing on my lonesome.”
“Shit,” Lisa said, her eyes downcast. “So we don’t make it after all.”
“Well, hey, we don’t know. We can’t time travel or predict the future with any degree of certainty or anything. It’s just that once life evolves to a certain point of complexity it tends to wipe itself out, and you guys are at about the point in development where that tends to happen. If you make it through to the other side of the challenges you’re facing you’ll eventually attract the interest of the others, but if we spent all our time buzzing around the universe talking to every organism that evolves the capacity for abstract thought we’d just waste a lot of time and experience a lot of heartache when they kill themselves off. It’s not easy getting to know a whole world and then watching it die, you know? We’re a very emotionally advanced species, and watching an entire planet obliterate itself after you’ve become emotionally invested in it is just devastating.”
“Well why can’t you help us??” Lisa retorted after listening to the stranger’s words in steadily growing outrage. “You know what we need! Clean energy! Sustainable living technology! Hell, anything that lets us live without having to strip the earth bare to survive! Why don’t you pricks just give it to us??”
“Look, first of all I’m not in charge, okay? I’m just one dude and I can’t just go around doing whatever I want. We have laws, we respect sovereignty. Secondly, think about what you’re saying. You’re obviously someone who understands humans fairly well; what do you think happens if we hand over our tech to you right now while you’re all running around exploiting and killing each other all the time?”
Lisa opened her mouth to respond, then closed it. She drew her knees up to her chest and sat hugging her legs.
“We’d just use it to kill ourselves faster,” she replied after a long pause.
“It’s not like we haven’t tried,” responded the stranger. “The last civilization we gave it to wiped out its entire star system. Everything gone in a giant blue flash, poof! Because they almost immediately figured out how to turn it into a weapon. If they don’t turn it into a weapon then one of them figures out how to control all the tech for themselves and enslaves the entire planet until they all become a bunch of mindless drones and stop developing, which is even shittier to watch. Until a species has matured psychologically and emotionally to the point where it’s not murdering and exploiting everything all the time, giving it advanced technology is like handing the detonator of a nuclear bomb to a toddler.”
“Well, like, what the hell man? Why the fuck are you even here then? Is this how you get your little Martian jollies, cruising around to inferior civilizations and gloating about how we’re all gonna die?
“I get it, okay! Ha ha, we’re stupid monkeys and you have giant brains, ha ha ha! As your chosen ambassador to our species, I thank you for smugly monologuing at me about how un-evolved and stupid we all are and invite you to smugly float on back to your other lightbulb-headed friends and high-five each other about how awesome you are. High-four, sorry.”
“That’s not what this is. I’m really sorry for upsetting you. I didn’t come here to monologue at you, I’m only telling you stuff because you’re asking me questions and I don’t want to be rude. I approached you to ask you questions.”
“Oh,” said Lisa, her irritation subsiding. “Okay. What questions?”
“I want to know what it’s like. For you, personally. What’s it like living on this planet? What’s it like being born and growing up here? What’s it like walking around on this dirt day after day and interacting with all the people and plants and animals here? What’s it like being human, and living among humans your whole life?”
“Those… aren’t very scientific questions,” said Lisa.
“I’m not a scientist,” said the stranger.
“Oh. Sorry For assuming.”
“Right. Well, hmm. Let me think.”
The stranger leaned in intently. She realized that its enormous eyes, which she’s initially taken for black, were actually a very deep, dark purple beneath a transparent outer lens.
“Umm… well… I guess I don’t know any different so it’s hard to say…”
“Try. Just let the words come together. You can’t get it wrong.”
“Well I guess you’ll never know if I don’t get it right, will you?” Lisa murmured thoughtfully, and then burst out laughing.
“What?” The stranger seemed taken aback by the sound.
“Ha well, I was just trying to think about how to describe here and getting all worried about getting it wrong, and then it struck me that that’s probably the most human experience of all.”
“Getting it wrong?”
“Umm, no, more like being worried about getting it wrong. I live my whole life trying not to get it wrong, worrying if I got it wrong in the past, hoping I won’t get it wrong in the future. It’s a very human thing to do. It’s like our favorite hobby, even though we all hate it.”
“You worry that you got it wrong in the past? Weird.”
“Huh?” said Lisa sobering up a little.
“Well you obviously didn’t get it wrong in the past, cuz you’re still here. So you can’t have gotten it that wrong.”
“Yeah, I guess so. Well, anyway, it doesn’t seem to matter, we all know it’s stupid but we do it anyway. We worry about getting it wrong. I’d feel scared not to!”
“Because what if something went wrong!?”
“So it’s like… like a superstition practice? Like something you do in your mind to ward off bad luck?”
Lisa was about to protest but the words wouldn’t come. She gaped for a moment before breaking into a giggle.
“You’re cute. That’s cute. That’s cute and probably true!” she said. The stranger did a little bow. She laughed again.
“What else? What’s your favorite thing about living on earth?” it said, leaning in so close that Lisa could see herself reflected in its eyes.
“Well, uhhh, gosh. So much stuff. Like the animals are really cool!”
“You guys have such a weird relationship with animals. The house pet thing is a trip.”
“The house pet thing?”
“Like, you have them. I don’t generally see that in other civilizations. You build these anti-nature fortresses called houses to keep the animals out, and then you go Uh-oh, there aren’t any animals in here! And you bring some in to live with you.”
“Ha! Yeah, we do that with plants too.”
“So you like the animals here? Which are your favorite?”
“Humans.” She said with feeling after a pause.
“Humans. Really. Tell me more about that.”
“Well…” she looked sideways to the sky. “They’re, I mean, we’re really fragile. Anyone could crunch down on my finger easier than a carrot at any moment. But for some reason they don’t, for some reason we’re all super tender with each other’s fragile bits whether they’re body parts or mind parts. We carry each other’s wounds. Well, for the most part anyway. We try not to hurt them because we know what it is to hurt and we don’t want to do that to someone else. That’s really beautiful, don’t you think?”
The stranger nodded in agreement.
“And when we’re young, we really should still be in the womb. Like we haven’t developed like other animals have at birth, so we’re basically fetuses in baby blankets and everyone tiptoes around us and carries us real careful because our little skulls are still soft and you can see our hearts beating through our fontanelles. And at the end of our lives too, we can lose everything, even our personalities, and our loved ones will still wheel us around and be careful with our soft bits and even when our minds are gone and our body is just a home where we used to live, they are careful with us because this body is where someone they love dearly once resided. I mean, really, we’re so fucking sweet.
“We hug when we’re happy, we hug when we’re sad, and we jump up and down and shake our asses when music plays. I mean, we make music. How cool is that? We played around with wood and strings and bone and rock until we made contraptions that made buzzes that sounded good in our earflaps. We play all the time! We love to play with all sorts of things. We make toys that sound good and look good and feel good and make us fly through the air for hours at a time. No other animal does shit like that.
“We’re really fun. We find smells we like and make them into oils that we put on our bodies so we smell like a piece of candy. We put paint on our faces and flowers in our hair to go and stand in a field and listen to humans play with the contraptions that make pleasant buzzes in our earflaps. Sometimes the noises remind us of when someone hurt our tender bits, and we hold hands with the person next to us and let water fall out of our eyeballs until the hurt goes away again. I mean, if you saw an animal in the wild like that, you would think it was the cutest fucking thing ever.”
“And we love helping. Sometimes late at night when I can’t sleep I watch videos of accidents or disasters just to watch people spring into action. Sometimes the nicest thing you can do for someone is let them help you. People really love to be useful. It’s nourishing in a way that I can’t really put words to. It’s just nice to be needed, you know? And you know what, sometimes I wonder…”
Lisa stopped for a second and looked at the stranger.
“Go on..?” it said.
“Well I just wonder sometimes if… well if… if the challenges… if what you say is coming is coming… ”
“Yes?” The stranger prompted.
“Well I wonder if it would be the best thing to have it all turn to shit,” she tumbled out nervously, biting her lip. “Like, not kill us, but have all the systems collapse. Doomsday. Armageddon. End of days shit, you know what I mean?”
“How do you think that would go down?” it asked.
“Well, like… I don’t buy all the dystopia stories that we read and watch. I just don’t buy it. If there was a massive catastrophe today and everyone had to live by their wits, we wouldn’t dissolve into a Mad Max hellscape where it was every man for himself. That just wouldn’t happen. In an emergency situation, people aren’t like that. Emergencies bring out the best in people. They help each other as much as they can. They can’t do enough to help. I’ve seen it over and over. After a tsunami or a hurricane or whatever, people won’t sleep until they know everyone is safe and accounted for. They will travel miles to help someone. And I think we all know that deep inside us. I think maybe that’s why… ”
She paused and sent a blank piece of paper drifting into the river current.
“That’s why what?”
“Well sometimes I wonder if we’re trying to force it. Everyone’s sick of the money game, it’s made us crazy and turned everything bad, and maybe subconsciously we want to get back to a time where plain old goodwill is the currency again. Like, a time when you share whatever you have and be grateful for whatever comes your way and enjoy building a new world together. A reset.”
She looked over to the stranger and smiled sadly. “Sometimes I wonder if deep down, that’s all we really want.”
“That’s… very beautiful,” said the stranger. “So hey, look at that. Maybe humanity makes it through after all. Maybe your species is one of the rare exceptions.”
The alien face and its mannerisms were unknown to her, but Lisa had noticed a distinct shift in demeanor as she’d been speaking.
“My turn to ask a question,” she declared.
“I don’t have a lot of time.”
“Oh come on, you can’t just visit a girl from the other side of the galaxy and tell her she can’t ask questions! I’m the one who’ll have to live the rest of her life knowing she met an actual, literal space alien and never asked him stuff. What do you have to do that’s so important? Gotta go ghetto rig a ‘phone home’ machine with a Speak & Spell?”
“I don’t even know what that is. Look, fine, ask your question.”
“What’s your actual deal, anyway? Nothing you’ve said about what you’re doing here makes any sense. You’re really curious about humans and you ask a bunch of questions about us, but you said you’re not here for scientific research. You also said your kind doesn’t like interacting with civilizations at our stage of development because it’s too painful watching them self-destruct after you get to know them, but, I mean, here you are. You are here, getting to know us. Why?”
“Well, it’s… it’s kind of my thing,” the stranger replied. “A very long time ago I noticed that there are all these worlds and civilizations blossoming and extinguishing themselves all across the universe, and nobody really cares. A populated planet that wipes itself out is of no use to science, and because they destroy themselves before they can mature it’s not like they make for particularly stimulating conversation-”
“Gee thanks,” interrupted Lisa.
“Present company excluded of course. But it’s generally kind of like what hanging out with a house pet would be like for you. It’s not worth the hassle of traveling across the galaxy far removed from where all the cool stuff is happening just to go hang out with a hamster, especially if you know the hamster’s probably just gonna commit harakiri any minute now.”
“I mean, it’s like that for them,” the stranger hastened to add as Lisa’s expression grew increasingly appalled. “Not for me. Never has been. What I’m trying to say is, I’ve never been able to ignore the beauty of civilizations at this point in development. They crackle with a white hot spiritual energy that’s unlike anything else you’ll ever encounter anywhere. The exuberance of exploding technological and cultural innovation coupled with the steadily growing realization that it’s completely unsustainable to continue living as they’ve been living, the thrill of a completely unprecedented world paired with the white-knuckled terror of seeing it gasping its last breaths, the last-minute shift in collective consciousness as the advanced species makes one last Hail Mary pass at rescuing itself, the regret, the goodbyes, the last flickers of the last life forms as the final curtain is drawn on that world forever.
“There’s just absolutely nothing like a world when it’s facing the great test. There’s always chaos, there’s usually violence, but there’s also something that kicks in when it dawns on a species that it’s signed its own death warrant by destroying its ecosystem or inventing doomsday weapons. A sudden pivot toward humility as they realize that they’d always had the freedom to pass the great test if they’d just done things a bit differently, starting a bit sooner. It almost always happens like that, and yes, it’s the most painful, heartbreaking thing you can possibly experience if you make yourself a part of it. But it’s also the most beautiful thing in the universe.
“So I do make myself a part of it. I move around, speaking to the organisms who will speak with me, asking them questions and learning what their time here has been like, familiarizing myself with each world’s unique little facets. And, when it all starts falling apart, I stay. I stay fully present for all of it. I don’t hold back any part of myself, any part of my guts. I feel it all. I watch the final thrust toward survival, I listen to the screams, I feel every little bit of the anguish of a dying world, and I wave goodbye forever. But it didn’t die alone. It didn’t die unwitnessed. It didn’t die unmet. I met it. I experienced its beauty. And then I try my best — I always fail but I try my very, very best — to convey that beauty to the others.”
“Artist,” said Lisa, suddenly aware that tears were streaming down her face. “You’re an artist.”
The stranger nodded.
“Like me,” she said.
“Like you,” said the stranger.
They stared at each other for a moment.
“It’s my turn to ask a question,” the stranger said softly.
“Okay,” Lisa sniffled.
“Why do you sit here day after day writing poems and throwing them into the water?”
“I guess… maybe kinda for the same reason you zip around having love affairs with dying worlds?”
“I just, well, at a certain point I realized that most of the beauty happening in this world is coming and going almost completely unwitnessed and unappreciated, and it doesn’t even bother anybody. The silly things a crow does to amuse itself when all its food-finding is done. The way the sun bounces off the pieces of a broken beer bottle. Or like, our dreams. Have you ever watched humans trying to tell each other about their dreams? The way the other person reacts most of the time you’d think they were trying to stick needles in their face. Nobody wants to hear about anyone else’s dreams, but every night there are seven billion of us cranking out these weird, wonderful tapestries that only we ever get to see. Seven billion movie theaters playing a different movie every single night, and nobody will even let you tell them a bit about one of them.
“I’ve always loved poetry, and I used to try to write things that other people could appreciate, so that we could share that one flash of a perspective together in that moment. But at some point I realized that I was excluding almost the entire world of beauty just to focus on that little tiny slice that people appreciate and relate to enough for one of my poems to dance around between their ears in an enjoyable way. It has to have some kind of egoic relevance to them or it might as well be nothing, and most of life doesn’t care about anyone’s ego. Trying to share art that people don’t relate to is like trying to tell someone your dream; almost all the beauty happening in our world is beauty that people don’t care about. To let all these unwitnessed, unappreciated aspects of life slip by uncelebrated and un-honored feels… I dunno, sacrilegious I guess. But I also don’t want to fill up my apartment with thousands of poems nobody will ever care about and have some well-meaning relative print up a bunch of worthless vanity publisher books with my name on them after I die which everyone will feel guilty about not reading.
“So whenever I get time I come here and I scribble something about whatever’s majesty is jumping out at me, and then I send it off to disappear into the water. That way I don’t wind up with a bunch of worthless papers cluttering up my life, and there’s one less part of this nonstop explosion of miracles that I have to let slip by uncelebrated.”
“So very much slips by,” said the stranger.
“Right? I mean, look at you. Today I met a space alien. Nobody will ever believe me if I tell them about it, so I won’t, and I’m sure you knew that, which is why you felt comfortable coming up and telling me the secrets of the universe and stuff. You’re just like one of my poems; you come in, you express something weird and wonderful, then you’re gone forever. Except instead of dissolving in the water you’re going to buzz off in a flying saucer or some shit.”
“Portal, excuse the hell outta me. The miracles rush in, we honor them as best we can, and they rush right on out. That’s my point.”
“Can I try?” asked the stranger, pointing to her pen and writing pad.
“Be my guest man, least I can do after you had the decency not to anally probe me.”
“Gross,” said the stranger, and started writing. Lisa watched in silence as it scratched away at the paper for a few minutes, then tore it off the pad and began crumpling it up.
“Wait!” said Lisa. “You don’t wanna share?”
“I… okay,” said the stranger, handing her the paper. “But please understand this is not anywhere remotely close to my first language.”
“Shush. Lemme read.”
Some humans throw pennies into the water
because they have wished for miracles.
She throws poems into the water
because the miracles dance between her ears.
And now the river is full of pennies and poems,
and we are all getting older,
and the shadows are getting long.
The stars swirl in clusters
like the eddies on the water,
and I am swirling with them
wherever the current goes.
Maybe they will get their miracle.
Maybe the miracles dance only between her ears.
But her soft brown eyes will live in me
until the river carries us all
to wherever it is going,
and the pennies and poems twirl
with the galaxies.
“I love it. I really, really love it. Thank you.”
“Can I throw it in now?”
“Yeah. You can throw it in.”
“I have to go now.”
“I know. You’ve got a lot of mellow humans to sneak up on and chat with before we all nuke ourselves.”
“Thank you for talking to me.”
“Oh, hey, you me too. Thank you for this.”
The stranger placed both hands on its chest, and she did the same. She watched it turn and walk away, disappearing into the grove of trees. She picked up her pen.
A man from another world visited me today,
and then he was gone.
And hell, fuck me,
I just realized
I never even asked him his name.
And there you go, Lisa,
worrying you’ve somehow gotten it wrong
in a world on the brink of armageddon.
She set the paper down flat in the water and watched it disintegrate as it flowed away.
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