Hello, Anya. I am always glad to hear from you, however your letters arrive.
They show up on my computer, but I’m not sure how they get there. Especially if your computer is no longer working. But even when it was working, what cables connected it to mine?
The summer, with its hot hungry sun, has passed. The bit of the planet that I am on is now tilting the other direction. The air is cooler, the leaves are changing color, and the sun is getting its fill elsewhere now. It only comes here for an occasional snack.
I am fishing on the docks, and the rat behind me is now alone. I am not sure if it ever knew any relationship secrets. I am not sure if anyone ever knows anything.
I am the Seth who told Sarah the truth.
How does a house die? Well, other than being burnt down. Speaking of which, I have not yet set the apartment on fire. I suppose that’s good.
The apartment does not give me gifts. Sarah does, sometimes.
She is still here. I told her the truth, and she didn’t break or burn. She didn’t disappear into the sun. She is the Sarah who stayed.
I am glad you found something to write with. I would miss you if your letters stopped.
I don’t know if time has ever been stuck for me. Or maybe it’s always been stuck. I think it’s one of the two. Or possibly both.
How would that work, you think? Being both stuck and unstuck in time? Maybe it’s like how right now I am standing here on the dock, waiting for a fish to bite, and this moment seems constant and still, but also later I will be in the apartment with Sarah and she will ask what I want for dinner, and she will ask about you, and she will ask how I am doing, and that moment will also seem constant and still. Time happens around me, but not to me.
Does that make sense? Probably not.
Oh yes, I told Sarah about you, and about my other pen pal.
Over two hundred days is a long time to be alone in the silence. I am sorry. I will try to write more often, although I’m not sure if that will help.
I think your letters are helping me.
I think I can understand how yanking what you needed to know out of what you understood caused your house to crash down, salami and all. Or at least I can find some way to relate it to my own experience.
I would feel bad about that, but as far as I can tell it’s what all humans do. It’s impossible to ever really know what existence feels like through someone else’s sensory systems, so listening to others and relating it to ourselves is the best we can do.
Is it possible for you? When you go through a door and into another life, do you really know what that life is like? Do you become the person whose body you took over? Is there any Anya left somewhere in there to know the difference? Or is Anya the body you’re in now, and there isn’t really a Self that remains through all the doors?
You may have already explained this to me, and I’ve forgotten. If so, I’m sorry. It’s been…difficult to think, lately.
I am having to find a way to handle not knowing and not understanding, because I do not want the apartment to crash down around me. Sarah would never forgive me for the destruction of her salami.
Or maybe she would. She forgives me for everything. Or at least she doesn’t leave, which is the same thing maybe. Or maybe not. I don’t know.
I don’t know anything.
I wonder what life is like through the sensory systems of the fish in the bay. Have you ever been in a fishbrain?
I have always been in a brain that wanted to know. That needed to know. That was willing to bring the world down around itself to know.
I am still me, but something is changing.
How are you not an innocent who’s trying to survive, like your other pen pal? How is anyone not an innocent who’s trying to survive?
The rat on the dock is an innocent who’s trying to survive. I should remember to bring some food for it next time.
I may even be an innocent who’s trying to survive. It seems possible, at least on cloudy days.
If I were to send a present to you, the way your other pen pal did, how should I go about it? I don’t think stuffing it into the disk drive of my computer would work. I suppose I could ask Sarah if we have envelopes. What’s your address? Would I need postage, and if so, what sort of postage?
Maybe I could just draw pictures of the sun on the envelope for postage. Or maybe drawings of things I remember from my old garden. I could draw a life fruit, and we could see if it returns to dust when it arrives in…where are you living now, if your house is dead?
Your world may not have room for generosity, but you do. You keep writing to me, even though I am boring and I do not understand your doors.
What sort of food do rats like? I will have to look it up.
I am glad that your other pen pal was happy. And sustained by the sun, even. How does one get the sun to sustain you and not eat you? Well, you did say that she turned into a plant. So maybe I just need to grow roots.
Your house sounds like Sarah. Always giving you food until you kill it.
Did you like the yogurt? Was there anything odd about the rice and apples and eggs and bread? It’s possible that, like Sarah, your house was trying to communicate its feelings to you through food. Did the ramen taste like a serious lack of structural integrity?
Lately Sarah’s dinners have tasted of a small hope and an infinite….something. I am not sure what it is. I am only sure that it has no end.
I think before I would have said it was syrup, and it would have suffocated me. But I have changed, and now it…I still don’t know what it is, but it is golden and light and it doesn’t end, and I can breathe in it.
I still don’t eat her breakfasts though.
Even if your house knew you killed it, it loved you anyway. I think that means something. Does it?
I feel a tug on the fishing line.
Being chased by a faceless root sounds terrifying.
It’s understandable to not want to be afraid of the emptiness anymore and to want to know when the gardens are going to come. I don’t think that what you did was wrong. You couldn’t predict what would happen when you pulled the root out. Houses don’t normally die that way.
How did you know it was the root of judgement? What did it judge?
There are no roots of judgement here. I should try to grow one when I have a garden again. It will judge the emptiness, and it will find the emptiness wanting.
Perhaps that’s what your root did, and it grew the house to fill the emptiness. Maybe the body you’re in now once belonged to a gardener, who came upon the empty space your house is in and wanted to fill it. Someone like the woman I met in the garden behind the roots. Someone who knew many stories and who had a garden that moved. But something went wrong. Something cracked the gardener wide open, and you came to fill the space that was left.
I hope my next garden is one that moves.
I will have to learn many stories first. And how to fill my own emptiness. I do like you, but I don’t want you living inside my body. Don’t take it personally.
There’s another tug on the line. Time to reel in the slack and set the hook.
I snap the rod and reel the line in. It’s a pufferfish. Sarah will like it.
I am not sure if I want her making pufferfish nigiri, though. The man who lived in our apartment before made it, and eating it killed him. But I don’t know.
I have been talking to her. I am trying to learn how many Sarahs there are. And I think that her cooking is like my garden and my experiments. There is the Sarah Who Cooks, and it is important to this Sarah to learn and to challenge herself, and she wants this. Like I want my work.
The Seth Who Plants. The Seth Who Grafts. The Seth Who Wants To Know.
The Seth Who Sets Fires.
The Seth Who Catches Pufferfish And Gives It To His Wife Even Though It May Kill Her.
And you are The Anya Whose Skin Burns. Or you were, when you wrote this letter. Who are you now?
The pufferfish is a real thing, and things are happening to it. The polite term for it is “percussive stunning”.
It’s quick, and I tell myself that makes it okay. Does it? I don’t know.
Everyone dies. Not everyone gets to die swiftly and with a minimal amount of pain. So there’s that, at least.
And it is a death with some meaning. If Sarah can cook it and eat it without killing herself with its tetrodotoxin, then….I don’t know. Is there meaning in that, really? Probably not that the fish would care about, at any rate.
But Sarah will care. That will have to be good enough.
What would you do with your cardboard person? Would you talk to them? That could help, with the silence. You could even use percussive stunning on them, and as you say, that wouldn’t kill them. It would just be good stress relief.
Have I bothered to live? I’m touched that you think so. But I’m not sure if I have. I have been silent. I have hidden from the sun. I have killed fish, I have burned down labs, and I have created new plants. But I don’t know if I have lived. I may have only been searching for a way to avoid pain while continuing to breathe.
I think you’re truly alive, for what my thoughts, stuck in my own brain as they are, are worth.
I hook my finger around the flap of skin between the pufferfish’s gills, and I pull.
The sun has gone down while I’ve been fishing. The city lights itself up for the night, coming alive with cardboard and noise and the particular sort of bright clawing emptiness that shines out from digital billboards. Their messages tell me that I deserve quality solutions and peace of mind, but I know there is no such thing as absolution.
It’s quiet and dim on the dock. The billboards don’t reach here. The only sounds are the water lapping against the concrete and the hum of the cars crossing the bridge over the bay. The lights on the bridge touch the ripples in the water below, tipping them with a yellow glow, and I think maybe I deserve beauty, at least.
The pufferfish is bleeding in a bucket behind me.
There’s a splash as a salmon leaps out of the water. Do you think it’s thinking about how one day it may be dead and bleeding in a bucket, and does that possibility make the sensation of the air on its scales sweeter? Does it like the lights?
I like the lights. One day I will be dead and bleeding in a bucket, but for now there are the lights.
Thank you for the vote of confidence that I am still the same person and that I still do exist in the same time and space. It’s hard to know, sometimes.
Of course I’m still writing to you. I would still try to write you even if I did not exist in the same time and space, and from what we’ve observed so far my letters would probably still make it to you, somehow.
I agree that I haven’t made it through one of your doors yet. I am not sure if I want to go through one of them, anymore. Would you want to go through one of my doors, if you could?
I would like to see you with your halo of teeth!
I don’t think there is a difference between beautiful and terrifying. I think there is a difference between real and notreal. Caramel and cardboard. And what’s real is beautiful and terrifying and awesome and horrible and infinite and it tastes best when salted, and not all of us ants can take that. So we build a fortress of cardboard to protect ourselves, and we walk in lines across the edges of our universes.
Sometimes those lines are broken, by doors or bridges or other things, and the caramel pours through the cracks in the cardboard, washing away the ants. Or at least what the ants thought of as Ant.
Does it matter if you’re human? It’s not such a great thing to be, after all. Maybe you are caramel, given form and voice, and you are what washes into the humans, or ants if you prefer, when what is Ant is no longer there.
I still think that the people whose lives you enter choose you.
I think I chose you.
I don’t know what I am willing to do, now.
I still have the fireleaf. But I also still need a garden, and other seeds as well.
Do you think Sarah would like another trip to Granite Falls? I need to collect the tears of a rainbow firefly. It doesn’t hurt the firefly. It just makes them sad for a bit.
I was about to say that if I collected everything, if I found a garden and a door, it wouldn’t hurt Sarah. It would only make her sad for a bit. But I don’t know.
I am walking back to the apartment now. Looking at the people gathered in the plaza. Someone’s playing a guitar. It’s late, and the food stalls have closed.
Yes, I think the good that you have done for me and your other pen pal outweighs the unintentional killing of the house.
I also think that you and the Egyptian carver that you were once are both equally real. Or should that be were? Or I guess I could say that you are currently as real as he was then?
I am sorry. My mind is not as clear as it was.
I think we would all ask more questions if we had our lives to do over again.
Part of me would like to be where you are. I think I might enjoy a howling quiet. The sounds I hear here, the guitar and the people and the cars and the sirens in the distance, are loud and jangly and they make my skin feel like it’s rippling, and also they are not real. Not in the way that you and your carver were. Or are. Or am, even. I don’t know. Does it matter?
It is dark and the sounds aren’t real and I almost wish the sun would try to bite into my skin again, but soon I will be home. With Sarah. Who I think is very, very real. She’ll help.
I wish you would stop feeling so guilty over things you can’t help. You are a decent person, there in your garden of darkness with your mailbox filled with sea grass. I know you feel terribly alone, but you have my letters. Does that help?
I keep using the word help. I don’t know if I know what it means.
I am almost home. I hope I didn’t stay out too late. I don’t want to worry Sarah anymore.
I am home now. Too late. Sarah went ahead and made dinner. Kept a plate warm.
When she goes to the bathroom, I put the pufferfish in the freezer. I want it to be a surprise, and I’m not sure how long she’ll want to wait before cooking it.
She’s not angry. I told her about you and Jasper, my other penpal, and she said that this is okay for now, that your letters seem to be helping. And she said that she understood why I didn’t tell her about not going to therapy, after she threatened to leave. Said she shouldn’t have said that.
She’s talking about work. She got promoted. She caters events for people now. I don’t think I told you. She likes to tell me horror stories about catering for weddings. There are a lot of them.
Did you ever have a wedding, in any of your lives? Did you scream at people and get very upset about things like the color of the bands around the napkins?
Could you not still have your transcendence, even with the dead house? You’re not alone. I am here.
I am not alone. Sarah is here. It’s a circle of not-aloneness, I think. Do you think Sarah is alone? I’ll ask her.
She finishes her story about a groom who fell on the ground and wept when the napkin bands were ecru instead of ivory. I swallow a bite of fish taco, which tastes like frustration and lack of sleep and also the docks, oddly, and I ask her, “Are you alone?”
She looks at me, and I think if she’d cooked something now it would taste like worry and confusion. And the docks, apparently. I’ll ask her about that too, maybe.
She says, slowly, “No. I’m not alone. You’re here.”
She hugs me. It’s awkward, since I’m holding a plate, but it’s warm.
I am the Seth Who Keeps Sarah Not Alone.
It’s after dinner now, and I’m typing this to you from my notes. Sarah is sitting on the bed.
She’s curious about you. She had a lot of questions when I first told her about the pen pal project.
“Where is Anya from? How did she choose you? Do her letters help?”
I told her that you lived in a smug yellow house in an endless void and that sometimes the house had gardens. I told her that I don’t know why you chose me. I told her that yes, your letters help.
She watches me type.
“Was Anya the friend you asked for a recipe for? Were those the ingredients she had in her voidhouse?”
“Yes. Her house is dead now, though.”
“Oh dear. Does she have anything to eat then?”
Sarah likes you. I can tell because she is very concerned about your food.
I think she believes you’re real.
If there is a Seth who didn’t go behind the roots and who didn’t hear about the other Seths, the ones who set fire to their houses, I hope he’s happy. I hope he doesn’t set fire to his apartment.
Maybe he’s just walking in circles around the woods, looking for fireleaf and the tears of a rainbow firefly and a tomato and noxious elderberry.
Have you ever smelled noxious elderberry? I don’t recommend it. It smells like someone slowly dying in a nursing home bed while blue light flickers over them from the infomercials on the TV.
Tomatoes smell nice, though.
I don’t know. I think I can bear the idea that one day everything will be gone, including me and Sarah and tomatoes. You too, probably. Or do you think a door will open up and you’ll drop into a life in the multiverse that comes after this one dies?
If so, and you remember me, tell the lifeforms there that I hoped they’ll do better than we did.
Do you think you’ll drop into a RNA molecule? What would that door be like? Very small, I imagine.
Have you really been everyone? Have you been me? Have you been Sarah? Have you been the people I saw in the plaza on my way home from the docks?
If so, it’s possible that you are….what is. Maybe you don’t enter into people who had too many cracks and they shattered. Maybe you enter into people who cracked themselves wide open on purpose to let the multiverse in.
I like that idea. Anya the What Is. Anya as Existence. Anya the Destroyer of Egos and Bringer of Enlightenment.
No, I’m not afraid that you exist. Why would I be?
I ask Sarah, “Are you afraid of Anya?”
She says, “No, what you’ve told me sounds interesting, and I can tell that her letters are good for you. You have seemed more…present lately, is maybe how I would say it.”
There you go. Sarah isn’t afraid of you either. You’re not scary.
Of course I haven’t told her about the doors and the lives and all that, but she does know that you live in a house in a void with gardens that aren’t there sometimes, and she isn’t afraid.
She is afraid to bring up the subject of gardens with me, though. I can tell. I told her about yours, and she skated right over that to ask more questions about your house, like how can a house be smug, and was it the yellow that made it smug or something else?
I’m glad you don’t want me to disappear.
Sarah’s looking out the window at the billboards. I wonder what she sees in them. Probably she’s thinking about all the lonely people asleep in their beds while the light from the billboards shines on their walls, and how she wishes she could make them dinner.
I want to ask her why I tasted the docks in her tacos, but I haven’t told her about the things I taste in her food. I am tired of her looking at me with worry. Although I am trying to tell her things now, true.
How do you tell someone you’ve been tasting their emotions and experiences in their food? It’s so personal. How would she react if I said, “I know that you are lonely and worried and angry and sad and that you love me, because I taste it in your food?”
Perhaps it is best if I do not tell her this one thing.
I am not sure that I want anything from you, other than your letters. I do want those, please.
I am the only person who can absolve me, if I can be absolved. There’s nothing you can do really about the other Seths and their fires, not in your void with your dead house. You have your own things to worry about.
I do not know anymore if I want to open a door beyond all things. And anyway, if I do manage to find or make such a door and I end up deciding to open it, I want to open it on my own. It doesn’t count if you open it for me, does it?
Do you really think Sarah would melt if I took her through a door with me?
I don’t want to be alone either. Sometimes it feels like I do, but other times Sarah is here, and I know I don’t want to be alone and that I don’t want her to melt.
What do you want? If you could go through a door and arrive in your ideal life, what it would be like? Or is that too painful to think about? I understand if it is.
I don’t think the woman in the garden behind the roots was like you. I think she had always only been herself. I also think she had only been herself for a very long time.
Why do you think she was warning me about doors? I thought your doors dropped you off into a new life, not into the worst versions of the one you already had.
I am watching Sarah as she watches the city outside the bedroom window. She is soft and light and her pajamas are pink, and I think maybe I love her too.
I tell her, “Hey, I caught a pufferfish down at the docks today.”
Did one of your childhood homes burn in one of your lives?
My childhood home did not burn. The paint factory where my father worked did.
The walls in his hospital room were an institutional green, like the walls of our apartment. His room reeked of the sort of flowers that people hang on stands at funerals.
I should know precisely what sorts of flowers those are, but I can’t recall the names right now. There’s just the smell of….I know it’s not actually the smell of decay, but that’s the word that comes to mind. Fresh dirt and decaying matter and a cloying perfume that attempts to cover up the rot.
Sarah says, “Oooh, a pufferfish? Did you keep it?”
“Yes. It’s in the freezer now. Ready whenever you want it.”
She looks at me and smiles, and I remember how her dinner tasted of the docks.
She says, “Thank you.”
I think she wants to say more than that, but she doesn’t. Not right now. She just smiles.
She will cook it and then she will maybe die or maybe not, and I will see the end of my own story maybe or maybe not.
I hope not. Perhaps you are right, and I will never see the ending of my own story.
I am listening, if your mushrooms aren’t. And I don’t think you could have done better. I think you did the best you could at the time with what you knew, and that’s all any of us can do.
Sarah is still looking at me. She is golden and light and she does not end.
I am sure that your house forgives you.