Yo la sombra y tú la luz
Claudia studies the universe. Old-fashioned like, with a telescope and a star map. Occasionally there are high-res computers involved, but that’s in lab. Out here it’s just a sky and two lenses and the eyes of a girl called Claudia.
Occasionally there’s another girl. Her name is Fern. Occasionally there’s a bottle, and it’s filled with something worthwhile. Mostly those two occasions overlap, and the bottle takes them anywhere the telescope can’t.
But it’s a pretty talented telescope. “I wish,” says Fern, “for a kitten.” She’s flat on her back on the coarse blue blanket, tossing an apple up and down. Claudia is reading the summer map with a flashlight.
“What star are you wishing on?” she asks. “Can’t I wish without one?” “Sure,” she says. “But it won’t work.” “You don’t know that,” says Fern. “When it comes to wishes you’re as blind as I am.” A sky and two lenses and the eyes of a girl called Claudia. Fern’s eyes are old news. “Maybe so,” says Claudia. “Tal vez.” Fern has been wishing for a kitten since the day she was born. Since the day Australopithecus was born. Since the day stella polaris was born. But here they sit on a blanket atop a cliff in the sand dunes at midnight, no closer in time or space to Lucy or the North Star than they are to cat ownership. Somewhere nearby there’s water, a body or soul of it, and they can hear the waves rolling but they come in from every direction, water and sound ricocheting off the dunes so the whole shore feels curled in on itself. The only way out is up. Fern says, “When I get my kitten, I’m going to name him Hades.” “That’s grim.” “It isn’t at all. The book I listened to said it means ‘unseen.’” Claudia didn’t know that. But it’s the kind of thing Fern’s people run with, mythologies and symbolism and Sonnet 73. Claudia thinks that stuff’s okay. Fern makes it make sense, but on her own she gets lost in it, in the turns of dialogue and the characters who all want something different. Maybe it’s unkind, but she likes walking out of quantum with the crowd and hearing them all complain, hearing them whine the professor goes too fast, she assigns too much work, she doesn’t explain well enough and knowing in her heart that they don’t belong. Claudia belongs.
“You don’t like it?” She starts.
“What?” Fern throws the apple and it hits her arm and falls. “Anyone home? The name for my kitten—you don’t like it?”
“No,” she says, “I like it. It’s clever. I was just thinking about stuff.” Fern pouts, which Claudia loves because it proves something or other about genetic memory and how humans learn to make facial expressions, and also because she likes Fern’s face.
“What stuff?” says Fern. “What’s in your angel head?” “The sky,” she says, since it’s usually the truth. “I’m reading the star map.” “You have it memorized, sweets.” “I’m double-checking, sweets.”
Claudia puts down the map and the flashlight and leans back on her elbows. She points up at the sky.
“There’s Pegasus. Do you see it? In the east?” “No. Show me.” It’s a routine they have, a little dance. She takes Fern’s hand and touches it to her eyes, then lifts it up and away until her fingers point at the stars. Pegasus, born in a bath of demon blood, flying to the sunrise forever.
“I see it,” Fern says. “It’s pretty.” Claudia looks down. “You’re pretty.” “Pretty sober,” she says and sits up so quickly they nearly knock foreheads. “Enough of this outer space shit. I want a kitten.” “Well, there’s only whiskey.” “Oh, fine.” Claudia studies the universe. Fern does a couple of things. She tunes pianos, for one, and sometimes people pay her for it. For another she drinks to go blind, which would have been a problem in another life, but as it stands Claudia has no qualms handing off the whiskey and letting her girl have at it. She starts to mess with the telescope—trying to keep it upright in the sand is a sort of “Sisyphean torture” according to Fern, but Claudia refuses to look up what that means because she knows it’s an insult to her telescope. (Only she’s allowed to insult her telescope.) She digs the tripod deeper into the sand and calls it a cabrón for good measure, which it seems to register because afterward it stays still. Then she leans down and looks into the eyepiece.
“You don’t want any of this, Claud?”
“Of course I do, don’t you dare drink it all,” she says, adjusting dials. “Jesus, who got this thing so out of whack?”
Fern laughs into the bottle. “Give it to me, I’ll fix it.” “You and your nimble piano hands, huh?” She seems to enjoy that. “I work well with my hands.” Claudia jumps and the progress she’s made on the focus knob is undone. “Oh—just— drink your drink.”
She cackles and grabs a handful of Claudia’s shirt. “Teach me to say something.” “Wha—now? Give me two minutes?” She tugs the shirt. “Now. Nownownownownow.” “How did you have one sip of that and go batshit?” “This is just my personality, dahling.” Claudia emerges from the telescope, defeated, and snatches the whiskey from Fern and swigs it. “Fine,” she says, words burning. “What do you want to say?”
“Teach me poetry.” She frowns. “Poetry?” Fern stops yanking her shirt. “You don’t know any?” She does, distantly. Claudia likes to read, and poems are short and sweet and if you don’t understand one you won’t have lost a lot of time trying (mostly). She remembers some of them, in translation or not, but—nothing of Fern’s caliber. Nothing like Cervantes.
“No,” she says. “Not any.” “Okay,” says Fern, undeterred. “How do you say Hades?”
“Hades,” she says—ah-dess—and for good measure, adds: “Perséfone. Deméter. Atenea.”
“Fun,” says Fern.
“Vas a llamar Hades al gatito.” “Sure. How do you know those names in Spanish?” Claudia shrugs. “Not even sure how I know them in English. Besides, they’re all the same.”
Fern reaches out a hand and Claudia puts the bottle in it. “You can go back to your telescope,” she says.
Claudia laughs. “I’m dismissed?” A sleazy grin. “For now.” The telescope—perhaps it needed a moment to settle—is more receptive to constructive criticism this time around, and the knobs have stopped conspiring to put the Big Dipper permanently out of focus, so Claudia proceeds with her studies. The universe, she thinks, must be the greatest art history project ever invented, the most comprehensive lesson in geometry or philosophy or love. Even knowing the name of the star in Cygnus’ tailfeather feels special. It’s the only thing you could possibly study. Fern, drinking, studies it now without knowing. She leans on Claudia’s back and imbibes it through touch alone, swallows whole breaths of it and sets it running between the two of them, back and forth like an electron or a sparrow or something else so quick and light that if you caught it it would die. Except this—this can’t die. It was the first thing. And it shows itself to them, in swans’ tails and whiskey.
Quietly, Claudia says, “I lied.” In that breath of silence she regrets saying it because she can hear every whisper every thought in Fern’s head she lied? She lied? When she did lie did she promise something is it me is it about me is it about us is this all a
“About the poem!” she says. “The poetry, Fern. The Spanish. I do know one. I lied.” The alcohol takes a moment to decide if Fern is going to be mad or not, but in the end she just looks puzzled. “Why?”
Claudia shrugs and looks away, as if that does anything. “Didn’t think it was good enough.”
“Claud, I’m not even going to understand it.”
“I am. And you would have asked.” “Anything you tell me is good enough.” That hits hard, cuts straight through the booze. She lowers herself onto her stomach and leans on her elbows, looking into Fern’s pretty eyes. She begins, “Te amo.”
Fern goes still. “Te amo,” she says, “como se aman ciertas cosas oscuras. Secretamente. Entre la sombra y el alma.”
They wait a while. They hear the waves. “It goes on,” Claudia admits. “What does it mean?” Fern says. Then: “No, I mean—I’m sorry, I didn’t—” “No,” she says, and sits up suddenly. She grabs the apple and her flashlight and switches it on, sets them in place. “It’s okay. I can explain. Look—look at this, Fern.”
She takes Fern’s hands and shows her. The apple, sitting neat on the sandy blanket, has become the earth, and the live flashlight pointed at its side is the sun. She shows Fern the weak
heat of the bulb, the apple’s dry skin, then puts her hand down under the long shadow the two make against the ground.
“This,” Claudia says. “It means we’re an eclipse. It means you’re there, and you shine, and I’m here, and I fall. Nuestra alma, us—that’s in the middle. I’m the shadow of us, our love, the world, and you’re the light that makes me. Do you see? Fern, do you see?”
“No,” Fern says, and kisses her. Kissing looks like stars, it looks like Spanish poetry written by someone who studied the universe. Claudia’s foot hits her model solar system and the apple rolls away into the dunes and the shadow disappears, but she doesn’t see any of that. Maybe Fern saw it, maybe they traded eyes. But all Fern does is pull her down and in and away.
When she comes to, from the kissing or the alcohol or something else, they’re lying in the sand. The sky dome above the dunes looks soft and feathery, like it does on gray days when the universe has folded up the earth in its wings. Cygnus soars overhead.
Fern says, “In the poem, you said ‘secretamente.’ Secretly.” “Yes.” “Why secretly? You love me secretly, Claud?” It isn’t an accusation, but Fern doesn’t like secrets. “No, it’s just…private,” says Claudia. “You’re the sun. What celestial things do is their business.”
She narrows her dead eyes. “You watch Venus with a telescope.” “Okay, my metaphor’s broken. Go on.” Fern fidgets. “I want people to know, though. I want to”—she laughs—“I want to enlighten them. You like private, Claudia, I know, but it’s so private. Let’s not be scared.”
Fern scans as the kind of girl who’s never been scared in her life. But people think since she can’t see, she must not know anything. People think she could never take care of herself, much less another person, or a cat. She’s had more reason to be scared than Claudia has maybe ever.
So Claudia says, “Okay. Then we’ll tell them.” Fern glances up—maybe Australopithecus taught her that. “We will?” “Yeah. We’ll start off with everyone.” “Everyone?” Claudia takes Fern’s hand and points it up at the stars. “Everyone that’s out there, everyone who’s the universe. We’ll tell them right now. You see them?”
She’s grinning like crazy. “I do, yeah. Of course I do.” “Can I tell them now?” “Sure.” Claudia leans over, and the world sees an eclipse.