1. Our Javelinas
I went with my friend to look for sandhill cranes and there they were in the field, big and brown and beautiful, and close enough to mosey out and strike up a visit with. My friend said they might not be brown at all, but just covered with mud. This is her part of the country, where land and sky open out to an expanse of grass and cloud, and where I can’t ever fathom why I live, as I do, in a distant, sprawling city far away from her. Later, my friend turned out to be right, when a group of gray cranes appeared out of nowhere, swooping low overhead and honking in the bright winter sky.
Another time, the two of us surprised a herd of collared peccaries, also known as javelinas, in the hills behind her home. Likely as startled by us as we were by them, they numbered about twenty and included a pair of good-sized adults, a large group of small and boisterous young, and a single outlier of indeterminate size and temperament we later surmised to have been an adolescent. First we heard them, a thunderous rumble in the hill just ahead, and then a wild galumphing as they burst from the bushes to transect the slope, comically bounding about like overinflated red rubber balls. Look! My friend said. And, Yes! I said. When, suddenly, the adolescent, seemingly intent, separated himself from the group and charged down the road—snout-jawed, breathtakingly fast—straight toward the spot where I stood, transfixed and only distantly aware of a rank smell and menacing sound that might have been a growl. Or even more distantly, of my friend yelling at me to get out of the way until, at the very last moment and as clumsy as the javelina, I did.
That night we got drunk and looked back on what I knew by then to have been a close call. Javelinas, my friend told me, have very poor eyesight and razor sharp teeth. The adolescent was probably confused; if I hadn’t gotten off the path, there was a good chance he’d have run me down.
Other animals that frequent her home include the cunning red fox that forages in her garbage bin, its delicate bush of a tail flicking up from the day’s detritus; the mud swallows that nest in the eaves of her house and litter her porch with dung; the elegant skunks that lurk along my path to her guesthouse at night, the trace of their lingering scent an acrid reminder of threat; the occasional stalking mountain lion; and the western red bellied tiger beetle, a subject of my friend’s recent book on citizen science.
Once, in the days when her book was still just the fledgling idea of a book, my friend took me to a nearby lab to look at specimens in jars. She was still new at this, and I can’t really remember—had her beetles just hatched, emerging from their fuzzy larval stages as tiny, gleaming jewels? Or were they crusty foundlings in their final days? Either way, you had to put them in the freezer until they grew sluggish enough to be viewed under the lab microscope, an exacting process not all survived.
Oh, my friend said, it froze. Poor little beetle, she said, as I took my turn to marvel at its spindly legs, its unexpected hairiness and refulgent colors—its golds, its purples, its bright crimson stripes. Such a beautiful, strange little thing, she said.
Toward the end of that visit, we went again to look for wildlife, this time for coatimundis, but they are shy and did not show themselves to us. Walking back along the trail later, we waxed philosophical—Oh well, she said. Next time, I said—before moving on to our other well-worn topics, such as the travails of family and the fate of the earth.
Driving home to those travails soon after, I was startled by a single coatimundi darting out across the road, as if not to let me go without a parting taunt. Long-limbed and loping like a primate, it moved every bit as if we shared a common ancestry, although I know the coatimundi belongs to the raccoon family. How this sighting would have pleased my friend, whom I already missed. For, unlike me, the wildlife we share this world with have always made her feel at home on planet Earth.
Not long ago I attended a wedding where a man and a woman pledged to love and honor one another not just for the rest of their lives, but throughout the unfathomable span of all eternity. They were not naïve and youthful, like the javelina, bounding headlong down the road. Nor were they cagey, like the furtive coatimundi. They were middle aged and rational, openhearted and clear eyed.
Once I, too, married, though in my heart I knew I was making a mistake and the occasion was not a happy one. In the years that lay ahead, I did my best to be a true and loyal wife, but though my former husband was a man of what we once called character, he lacked the temperament to be distracted by the curiosities this world holds in store for us and so turned, over time, into the kind of crazed and cornered animal I cannot comprehend.
Between us, the children, both boys.
And so it was during those years that human beings grew strange to me, too. Driving, for example, I marveled at the insensibility of other men and women in the insulated bubbles of their cars where, carefree or tormented, they went about their business utterly oblivious to the powerful machines they held in their hands—often in their single hand, their other hand busy doing this or that—amidst the complex choreography of hundreds of thousands of them doing this all at once. My friend believes this shared capacity of ours to drive is a remnant of our hunting and gathering days when we chased the prey ahead with this same unconscious focus, but now, how catastrophic a single lapse could be!
Or, oh, how these excitable human beings are, yelling at each other over imagined affronts or talking, talking, talking into their tiny phones, lips flapping like butterfly wings. Sometimes it struck me as though I had never seen them before, and my heart rose into my throat at such peculiar creatures, top heavy of head and bizarrely bilateral, with all those inquisitive fingers and delicate toes. Ever alert to peril, I anxiously guarded the feet of their children, barefoot in parks or reckless on escalators, where I kept a close lookout for wayward shoelaces or open-toed flip flops.
In other respects, I am not a fearful person and, no longer married, live up a wooded canyon in the middle of L.A. where neighbors keep cats in at night to protect them from coyotes and where raccoons forage boldly through our garbage.
The first night I slept in this house, the sprinklers on the terraced back hillside erupted in vicious spluttering, and I found myself drenched, wearing only a son’s old white t-shirt, scrambling about in the dark in search of the shut-off. The second, a terrible racket not unlike the galumphing of our javelinas wrested me from ragged sleep. Again I rushed out up the hill, half clad, to discover a large pack of beefy raccoons traversing my roof to slink, with sly leaps, into the backyard of my neighbor who, I learned later, was feeding them kibble. I want to say they were cavorting, but in fact there was a certain stealth to them, even menace, as one or two broke off to nose around on the deck, cutting me off from the light and safety of my house below. Warily uncertain as to their temperament—which I know now to be unpredictable and potentially aggressive—I watched and waited in the darkness, the rocky soil beneath my feet as dry and dusty as it was familiar.
This is California, ridged by the twinned and mountainous ribs that run all the way up its long valley spine from here, in Los Angeles, where I now live, to its far north part where I grew up in what is now a prior century, roaming other hills that had once—like the one I stood on now—been home to Indians. We called them Indians because we did not yet know to call them the Wintu, the Yana, the Hoopa. Ishi, the last wild Indian, had been among them, but I did not know that then either. All I knew was that the one Indian girl in my class and school was poor and likely landless. What we felt for her was pity, a lower form of sentiment than the compassion we generally felt for those who were less fortunate than we were.
Looking back, it was years and years before I understood that we were, in fact, the impoverished ones, for the Wintus believe that wherever you plant your feet marked the exact center of the world—the universe—just there, where your feet meet the earth. And so it is here, to this small, mid-century house, with its back wall of glass that fills the spaces I inhabit with reminders of the backbone of the earth, that I came in the aftermath of my divorce and where, over time, I have planted my feet.
On the inside of the house, as well, I have surrounded myself with beautiful things, collected over time in the hope they might provide me pleasure. Inanimate, insentient, these objects nonetheless exert a kind of influence or pull, which is at least in part aesthetic (a painting may define both its wall and the space that surrounds it) but which speaks, as well, to the matter of utility (a bowl may hold noodles in their broth, or a blanket, which also adds color and form to its space, may keep me warm). Yet more and more, these objects have begun to resonate not just with the qualities that drew me to them in the first place, but also with their history, the residue of time, layers and layers of which have accrued around both them and me, and, in subtle ways, brought us together here.
Despite all this, my home sometimes makes no sense. Whose idea was it to place this red nubby wool sofa I’m sitting on now against this west-facing wall? How should I feel about the little watercolors an ex-lover dreamed off the tips of his fingers on the far side of the country so many years ago; the Peruvian textiles, gifts from the woman who was once my closest friend, now dead for already a decade; or the red river rock given to me by the man I might call the true love of my life (if we could still use words like that without self-consciousness or irony), despite the fact that throughout the quarter century we persisted so deeply in love, we were each of us married—and, almost to the end, faithful—to other people. He’s dead now, too. And I can’t help but wonder what it means to love the dead.
Yet as familiar as all these things are here, I can still be caught off guard by something so commonplace as the scent of a shirt fresh from its hanger that I have had for years but that seems suddenly to be that of a passing stranger. I felt a similar disorientation at my friend’s wedding, or when the coatimundi crossed my path. Although I recognized these moments to be precious gifts, how hard it was to imagine I belonged to the same world as they.
It sometimes happens that stroke victims, too, lose the ability to recognize what was once familiar, even beloved. This affliction can be global, creating a terrible confusion, but it can also be highly particularized—a dancer may lose use of her legs, or a writer may awaken unable to read. The latter condition is known as alexia, and, while it has been known to resolve on its own, in many cases the loss is permanent and the victim must relearn an utterly unintelligible world.
For myself, as I am hopeful that my brain remains intact, I attribute the sensations that afflict me to more of an affect of temperament than a clinical disorder.
Throughout the wedding ceremony, for example, I felt physically detached from the body that, in principle, connects me to other human beings. Although I understood the vows and the ritual gestures—the exchange of rings, the matrimonial kiss—they seemed to come from another lexicon or culture, not mine. My eyes filled with tears at appropriate moments, but I could not have said why and felt myself, instead, to be parsing the enigmas of the planet, as powerless to decode the push and pull of love as if it were a personal vexation or conundrum.
It is at such times that I can’t help but envy the intimacy my friend feels with the animals who also share this earth, or even cat owners, their laps filled with pet as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Just as I envy the man and the woman who, with utter candor, pledged themselves to one another for all time, or the woman I once was myself who, after the boys were grown and gone, went back out into the world and found her way here.
Beauty, too, can sometimes, these days, feel suddenly alien. Once a guiding principle that determined so much of how I lived—my response to rock and sky that, as much as my affection, lures me back, over and over, to visit my friend and her sandhill cranes; the judicious precision by which I have arranged the objects of my life, taking care to achieve both harmony and balance; my staunch conviction that such things, our daily anchors, should be as functional and lovely as the Mimbres bowl this same friend once uncovered in the hills behind her home. Like the stroke victim who awakens without the ability to speak, I know all this once mattered more than anything to me. But in the absence of the people I loved who shared these pleasures with me, I no longer know how to think about them.
Such losses, I know, are not particular to me, but they are the ones that are mine.
Which is to say, I often feel my real home is elsewhere, on some other planet where I must truly belong and where I would not be troubled by such insoluble riddles as how it is that some of us commune with animals and others are straightforward in their marriage vows, or why the youthful javelina breaks from its family herd or the bashful coatimundi shows itself to some and not to others, or who we are supposed to be—where we’re meant to planet our feet—when what is most beloved is taken from us.
All this happens in half a human heartbeat, as the two hearts are cleaved, the one from the other, leaving the one that beats on to beat on, lodged in the crux of a final enigma: why them, I might ask, and not me?
2. What I Know About the Aliens
I’ve never been abducted, but I did go to Roswell once, and this is how I know what I know about the aliens.
They come in two colors, brown and blue. The brown ones are short and stocky and stupid, and the blue ones are tall and willowy and evil. Their large oval eyes are not eyes, but membranes. They experiment on abducted children and implant screen memories in them, which is why so many children are afraid of clowns. Also this: they copulated with Aztec warriors. Once a hybrid child was born.
I saw the skull myself. It gave you a particular feeling, just looking at it in its plastic dome—the strange shape of its head, its oversized forehead and narrowed jaw, and, where the eyes would have been, its two giant holes through which, absent their membranes, it was as if you could look clear through to the child’s soul. Although it’s fair to wonder: do aliens have souls? Or, if this child were alive today, could we tell ourselves from it? Were there others who grew to sexual maturity and spread their seed among us?
In truth, the skull I saw in Roswell was not the actual hybrid skull, but an authentic replica, which is to say exact, all the way down to the tiny curved folds around the holes where the ears would have been, the ragged flap at the base of the skull where the two sets of genes didn’t quite match up. I stood there for a long time, looking at the skull—so precise, so accurately reproduced that the feeling it gave you was to reach out and touch it. Touch me, touch me, it seemed to cry out, though, naturally, they wouldn’t let you do that, only look. You can’t let any old person go touching a thing as precious as that. Of course not.
The brown aliens are the abductors, and the blue ones experiment on you. You can’t resist them. They’ll bring you back but they won’t bring you back the same. This all happens in the blink of an eye, but not really because the aliens bend time as if it were a sentence and they were in charge of the commas.
In an unrelated event of the mid-twentieth century, cognitive neuroscientist Michael Persinger and inventor Stanley Koren developed a device that later became known as the God helmet. Cobbled together out of an orange snowboard helmet affixed with a halo of electromagnetic coils, and engineered to deliver weak, but complex, transcerebral force fields across the temporoparietal region of the two hemispheres of the brain, this device was shown to reliably produce strange experiences in more than 80% of subjects—most commonly, the eerie sensation of the presence of another sentient being. Subjects reported feeling something—generally, though not always, benign—and the something they felt sometimes moved, or spoke, although not in a way that could be understood. Among those most intensely affected, some reported seeing angles, some few others, aliens.
Because my mother’s older brother, who would have been my uncle, once teased my father when they were boys and later killed himself before he finished college, he remained a spectral presence in our house. My father would not let his name be spoken in his presence; my mother was vague and evasive. There were certain facts we gleaned—that he was my mother’s elder by twelve years, that they were very close, and that he shot himself in an upstairs bedroom one Saturday when she was at the movies. Also, there he was in certain family photos, a young man with delicate features and the haunted gaze, I could see—anyone could see this—of the highly sensitive.
We are not a verbal family to begin with, nor overtly emotional either, a familial reticence that may as much have been a product of the era as of anything innate about our habits.
My parents, on the outside, were tidy and industrious, forward-looking—they were nice people, they were good—but on the inside, like everyone else who lived through the Depression and then went to war and somehow made it home in one piece, something was gone. They meant well, but remained ever guarded against pleasure or excitement—precursors, in their minds, to catastrophe—for life, as everybody knew, even at its most elated and carefree, its most joyous, could strike you down any moment without warning. And beauty, to which I was susceptible even as a child, was linked, suspiciously, to all of the above.
It will be no surprise, then, that I grew up as a solitary child, a voracious reader curled on my bed among a slew of books, seduced by words I barely understood into their other worlds where consonants and vowels collided unpronouncably, and where there were no proscriptions against beauty or delight. Being also small and timid, I clutched the books as talismans, as if they might protect me against the world’s treacheries and, paradoxically, anchor me here. For even then, I knew I needed mooring, as any strong wind might blow me away. Grab a tree, my mother said, or the handle of a car; duck down low in the other direction and you’ll be ok. The books gave me a little extra weight, without which I believed I might one day detach from the earth and drift far away to wherever I truly belonged, haplessly torn, as I was from my earliest beginnings, between deliverance and the comforts of home.
Because I also showed signs of exhilaration or slipped into trance-like dreaminess or emotional outburst, I was keenly watched. You never know, you know. Schizophrenia runs in families. My mother’s brother had been fine until he was at Stanford, a school where I later studied writing.
I was never crazy but now, on the far side of my life, having watched my own sons negotiate their developmental challenges and evolving temperaments through all the various stages—the grabby and volatile toddler years, the awkward uncertainties of grade school and vulnerabilities of adolescence, the hard realities of their young adulthoods—I am more sympathetic to the anxieties my parents must have felt. Was I about to go off? How could it be normal, my crying so much?
All girls cry, but I supposed I did cry more than normal. My sisters maintained I was not the natural child of the family, but a foundling picked up at the municipal dump, a vaguely extraterrestrial landscape we drove to on Sunday where I grieved for abandoned refrigerators and childless dolls while my father shoved yard clippings and last week’s newspapers out the back of our low-slung station wagon. On the inside, a part of me worried my sisters were right.
In other respects, it’s hard not to wonder how things might have been different if I’d grown up in a family that at least talked.
By adolescence I could will myself into very nearly ecstatic states. Almost any natural setting could set me off—trees, mountains, deserts, rocks—but in practice, I mostly just walked up to the nearby high school fields, pressed against the woodsy edge of town and bluffs above the river, to run or leap about, or just to stand there deep in reverence and feel my turbulent feelings. Like the ecstasy some subjects experience with their God helmets on, my ecstasy was right there in my body, but with such a lightness to it, not a lightness in my head but lower down, in my core—what I have since learned to call my “heart’s center.” By this I mean my first heart, my true heart, and, as things have turned out, my fierce and stubborn heart: the heart that beats on.
Perhaps all adolescents feel like I did. Certainly, life beats it out of you in time.
For me, the feelings persisted well into middle age, linked increasingly to wonder of almost any kind. My sons, for example, when they were born were every bit as miraculous as anything in nature and remain so to this day, grown men with tics of temperament and body they brought with them from the womb—passing facial expressions or habits of carriage. But any unexpected haptic pleasure, or just the right color in just the right light, a bird on an updraft of wind, could also produce a state of high excitability in me.
It’s true that I sometimes heard voices. They offered advice—just walk right into it; they exhorted—it’s me, let me in; they spun out sounds of sentences never heard on Earth. Like the visitors produced by God helmets, they were, by and large, both friendly and benign. And I knew them, anyway, to be not real voices, but momentary glitches of my brain, synaptic misfires, tricks of desire or mind.
There may be something wrong with my brain, though, after all. Now, deep into middle age I forget things, like everyone, but the wrong things—not where I put my keys but what my closest friend or the man whom I might call the true love of my life (if we could still use words like that without self-consciousness or irony) looked like when they were alive. I Google them on the Internet and there, at least, they look familiar. Also, it’s easy for me now to empty my mind but, oh, how I long for the voices to return!
Recently, I received an email attachment containing the last known recording of my dead friend’s voice, notes she was making for an ethnographic study of the medicalized community her illness—her cancer—had launched her into. More than her pain or body, it was this—a vast lay underground priesthood of others—that had captured her imagination in her final days. Now, the sound of her voice across the span of this last decade seemed to alter the structure of the universe itself and, in its sheer otherworldliness, cleaved a sudden rift in time that affixed the present moment elsewhere, as if I might step out and join her there, or then.
The ethnography of me she did not live to write would have included such events as these: my children grew up, turned the lean lines of their backs away, and embarked on their own journeys out into the world that did not include me; I left my failed marriage and our family home, coming here, where, at last, I have planted my feet; the man I loved throughout the long years of our separate marriages and I became lovers just in time; then he, too, died. And that ethnography would also have included us, him and me, spooned together in the aftermath of love, my forehead resting gently against the curve of his upper back as if to assuage the pain that was there in the as-yet-unknown knot of his cancer, already commenced on its grim work of killing him.
For nearly a year after he died, his final voice message remained in my inbox: it’s me. I kept it there and sometimes listened to it, the sound of his voice come back from the dead—it’s me—and then the blank space when it ended, as at the end of every message. Sometimes I find myself listening to this blankness, which, like the center of an elusive circle, exerts a centripetal force I would follow forever if I could find the way.
Perhaps my real home, then, is not so much elsewhere as else-when, on another trajectory of time in which I have remained in sync with those I loved, safely anchored to them through all eternity.
Another thing I long for: if I were to be abducted, my abduction would have nothing do with the squat brown aliens who have membranes for eyes, but more with the opening of my heart’s center just as it happened in my first ecstatic states, when I was an adolescent, so long ago now.
And it is for this reason that, while some people anxiously await the opportunity for recreational space travel, I await the day the God helmet becomes available for home use. Imagine having one of your very own! If I did, this is what I’d do:
First, I’d decorate it. No garish orange or ugly hardware for me. I’d start with the fabric my friend brought back for me from Peru when we were just girls, and I’d cover the helmet with it, both inside and out. Then I’d sew on the rest of these things: a chip from the red rock that was also a gift and all that remains of the true love of my life; tufts of golden hair from the boys’ first haircuts and their unimaginably small baby teeth; a shard of Mimbres pottery I found once with my other friend when we were out exploring a gulch nearby her home; and all the best words of this story, which I’d write out by hand and stitch, one by one, to my helmet so that after I am gone you can find out what I know about the aliens now, which is all going to be different then.
After that, I’d add other small things I’ve collected over time—pebbles, shells, bits of weathered beach glass, stuff like that. For, oh, when the aliens come, I want them to be the right aliens, the ones who sang to me from rubbish heaps when I was a girl or called out from the pages of books.
Next, I’d find the perfect place—probably a desert but one with rocks, like Joshua Tree or Death Valley. Someplace hot where you can see for miles and feel the sun on your back. Or maybe the bank of a river, or the top of a volcano somewhere. Someplace where we’d all be at home.
And I’d go there. I’d sit for a while in my perfect spot thinking about things—the way my kids grew up, my friend and my lover who died, sandhill cranes.
I’d think all the things I was going to think and then, like that (because this is easy for me now), I would empty my mind. Either the sun would be hot on my back, or the water would be cold on my feet, or the wind would be howling around me. I wouldn’t think about what I was going to look like when I put my decorated helmet on because by now my mind would have thought all its thoughts and be empty.
And then, you know: I’d put it on.