You come into the solar system past the smoldering husk of the red dwarf, Nemesis, into the tundra-like wastes of the Oort Cloud, threading a path among dirty snowballs of methane and ammonia and water, and then the tedious plain of the Kuiper Belt is before you, the centaurs Chiron and Pholus galloping in the firmament between Jupiter and Neptune, and then the gas giants themselves, mighty wanderers, and finally the small rocky planets close to the sun. It isn’t true that complex animal life is abundant in the Universe, as people of this world tell themselves in their films about alien civilizations—it is rare, and strange, and wonderful. You cannot know what it is to see Earth after skirting the microbe-infested worlds of the void—after all that desolation to see the blue hue of her oceans of free oxygen and water shining in the far, and to know the stuff of life is there to fuel her biosphere. It is like one bright sentence spoken in dark chaos, and you gaze down upon it like a garden made for dwelling in; a thing absolutely not to be forgotten.
And that is how I know I did not dream it. Although I certainly heard my father tell it enough; so do I really remember, or do I only imagine?
My father would visit with my mother’s parents and grandparents and their neighbors there in South Dakota about their roots in northern Europe. He would sit with old Gregorius Tilley and leaf through his old Detailed Atlas of All Parts of the World—a Russian-language atlas from when the Tilleys had been Tiillikovs—to find the Tilleys’ home village near St. Petersburg. Once when Gregorius asked, “And that accent of yours—is it from Germany?” he answered: “A little farther than that, actually. I lived for years in Dresden, but really I am from a small world orbiting Sirius, that blazing star in the constellation Canis Major.”
So—a crazy man or a charlatan. Was he delusional? It’s possible. He grew orchids and Psilocybin mushrooms. He kept three cats named Teónanácatl, Teotlaquilnanácatl and Xochinanácatl. No one else could say their names, which he did with a peculiar emphasis on “cat.” He wrote an epic poem called Dog Star. He was a historian interested in the DDR and Marxism. Do I need to say more about how out-of-touch he was with reality? It bothered him that the Iron Curtain fell just as he was beginning his studies. For a while he was going to write a science fiction novel in which an East Bloc astronaut flees some cataclysm on Earth and brings Marxism to other worlds. As though that would be of any good to other worlds, I used to think.
“Or maybe,” he would say, “maybe it was brought here from the stars. Why did no one ever think of that? Maybe civilizations in all worlds move toward something like Marxism from the same inexorable laws. What do you think, Heike?”
I would tell him: “I think I’m late for my saxophone lessons.”
When I was 13, my father left us for a slutty little grad student from Hamburg whom he’d met at an economics symposium. He told me they both loved the River Elbe—as though that is reason enough to abandon your American wife and your 13-year-old daughter and three proletarian cats from the animal shelter.
Afterward I used to go down the corridor of our apartment building to visit Richard, whose father had left them for a waitress he’d met while hauling truckloads of steel pipe around the oil patch in North Dakota.
Richard loaned me paperback novels about alien civilizations and hardcover texts about cosmology. We looked at photographs of dusty galaxies. We discussed the Fermi paradox—if there are civilizations out there, as probability suggests there should be, where are they? Why this vast silence?
Richard had formed an idea that complex multicellular life, perhaps intelligent life especially, was by nature self-destructive, like a superorganism that cannot live with itself. “Like the fathers and mothers in our stupid families,” he would say. “Like North and South in our hurt history.” Even if there ever had been other civilizations out there, he thought we would probably never know, because they would very likely have destroyed themselves by now. As our civilization was sure to do, too.
There is a serious theory about that now — the Medea hypothesis. But Richard had speculated about something like that before there was a name for it. He was a smart Catholic boy and attended Catholic school and taught me Latin phrases such as silentium universi. He told me that astronomers had detected a black hole in the Perseus cluster of galaxies that is singing a deep celestial B flat, 57 octaves lower than middle C.
We would lie together in bed and he would ask: “Why do men and women destroy the feeble little colonies they build together? Why is love so alien? Why do parents abandon children, why do brothers and sisters cheat each other out of inheritances, why do lovers leave each other? What happened to commitment?” We would tell each other about our parents’ quarrels. Then he would say, “But that won’t happen to us. Because we have each other. Because we love each other.”
He taught me wonders.
Then I went to the Twin Cities to study music. I met a Brazilian man who played the clarinet. We both loved jazz the way the Dave Brubeck Quartet played it. We moved in together. I don’t know what to say about the rest of it. Richard took sleeping pills. Richard’s father and the waitress from Williston came for the funeral, and my father drove up from Lincoln, alone; because the grad student had already left him; as I had left Richard; as the Brazilian would leave me in the gray winter that followed. For all the foolish, self-destructive reasons Richard talked about.
Lance Nixon is a part-time UPS driver and freelance magazine writer in South Dakota, where he previously worked as a newspaper reporter and editor. He also edited Montana Magazine in 2016. He has a master’s degree in English/creative writing from the University of North Dakota and a master’s in journalism from South Dakota State University. One of his short stories, “Father of Lies,” won the 2021 J.F. Powers Prize in Short Fiction from the journal Dappled Things in April 2021. His fiction has appeared in Gray’s Sporting Journal, Ruminate magazine, Cricket magazine, The King’s English and Dark Sky Magazine. His journalism appears in national magazines such as Cowboys & Indians and Wild West. He also writes for regional and niche-industry magazines. He writes mainly about the Great Plains and the West.