They are born on the edge of winter, when it is still cold, biting, but the icicles on the trees are dripping, wet. We wrap them in scraps of our wedding clothes—the girl in white silk, the boy in black wool. We’d worried there might be two, when, despite everything, her belly grew big. But it’s one thing to worry and another to face it. When she won’t take the second, the boy, I carry them both to the cracked window to watch water slip from the leaves in heavy drops, and I tell them their first story about the way we used to be. About two foot tall cake, orbs of red fruit floating past on plates of silver, people screaming in song. Outside the piles of brown snow are beginning to thaw, and all the sky is a single cloud.
We are always careful with what we tell them. That’s the deal we have. When we first realized she was with child, my wife waded into the river and lowered her head beneath the gray surface. I returned from a trap and found her there; dragged her out, legs only just kicking. I told her, maybe it was time for children again. Maybe this was God’s way of saying it’s time. She didn’t speak for three weeks, maybe four, who’s to say anymore. When she finally did, she said “only if we do it right.”
So when they are out hunting and spot, for the first time, high above the cracked pavement, posters of giant tomatoes, the color of blood, and they run home to tell us, we tell them the story of the fat farmer and his rows and rows of plants, each exactly—perilously—the same. We tell them how the fat farmer was greedy and vile and sent his clones to everybody in the land.
What’s a clone, they ask. Were they bad for you?
Yes, we say. Poisoned.
And later when, digging through a pile of trash, they pull out an old advertisement for beer, we point out the people of the old time and say look how strange and smooth their skin is. Rusted orange sliced with luminous, painful white. These people never worked we say. They only wasted. The children nod their heads in agreement.
At night, after they go to sleep, we lie with dirt lining our fingernails, and tell each other different stories.
Microwave popcorn, my wife whispers. Butter and salt.
Sushi, I say, with fluffy, sticky rice.
With salmon she whispers back. Pink and slick.
One day when the boy, almost a teenager, pitches a bone off his plate and onto the sinking floor, we re-tell them the story of the selfish woman who tossed her mug out the window after each drink.
And what happened to her, I ask?
The pile of mugs got so big it collapsed, sighs the boy. By now they know the stories by heart.
Yeah, says the girl, smiling. And it buried her alive.
That night my wife and I play a darker game, and each word seems to fall from space.
The girl? She asks.
Maybe a politician, I say.
Yes, she says. Or a lawyer.
Same thing, I say. Or was.
What about the boy? I ask, and she turns to me, rustling dust out of the blanket. She
whispers, almost nothing: you.
Sometimes my wife gets very tired, and sometimes she coughs up things red, and it’s those nights I lead the children up to the hilltop and teach them what I know about stars. I point out the Big Dipper, the Little, Orion, Leo. I make up new stories to go with them. The humble hunter, the quiet beast. Did you do this with your dad, they want to know. We have not taught them the word grandfather.
I tell them that, in the old days, before the fossil fuels ran out, the atmosphere was so saturated with light, the burning bulbs of our architecture blotted out the stars. They mouth this new word with uncertain lips. I say we had to invent theatres with screens that mimicked the sky, just so we could remember what it looked like. That’s how I learned the heavens, I say. In a theatre.
Never like this? They ask, bodies sinking into the wet grass.
No, I say, never.
When they are fourteen, their mother passes in the night. I roll over to reach and her arm is ice beneath my fingertips. Minutes later, I am running, panting into the dark.
I’ll go back, eventually, because I must. But on this night I splash into to the river, which has passed from gray to olive, knees jumping high, until I slap onto my back. Lifting my eyes to the black sky, I see that we have not prepared them. We have taught them to survive, not to be as we were, but we’ve not prepared them for what they’ll become. We’ve not addressed the instincts that scream from behind cell walls, those galactic voices in each of us that breathe: even the stars belong to you. I can make out Gemini, barely. Stellar bodies glowing against a shrinking perimeter.
I want to answer every question they have. Confess to my constellation of lies. Tell them that of course I am the fat farmer, and their mother the selfish woman, and what’s worse, I wish we could be again. That while our bellies howled, and we learned the shape of our stomachs in their emptiness, their mother and I whispered food to each other to sing ourselves to sleep. That it was us who destroyed the world, and I would give anything, anything for another shot at it. And maybe I will tell them someday, when it’s my turn to descend into this shimmering, uninterrupted sky, under millions of unspoiled lights, that what I miss most of all is breathing in the seventy-one degree, recycled air of the planetarium, leaning back in the seats, and staring up into an impossibly large universe.
Stephanie Lynn Devine is a first year PhD student in Creative Writing at Georgia State University. She holds a Master of Arts in English and Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.