“That’s… very beautiful,” said the stranger. “So hey, look at that. Maybe humanity makes it through after all. Maybe your species is one of the rare exceptions.”
The alien face and its mannerisms were unknown to her, but Lisa had noticed a distinct shift in demeanor as she’d been speaking.
“My turn to ask a question,” she declared.
“I don’t have a lot of time.”
“Oh come on, you can’t just visit a girl from the other side of the galaxy and tell her she can’t ask questions! I’m the one who’ll have to live the rest of her life knowing she met an actual, literal space alien and never asked him stuff. What do you have to do that’s so important? Gotta go ghetto rig a ‘phone home’ machine with a Speak & Spell?”
“I don’t even know what that is. Look, fine, ask your question.”
“What’s your actual deal, anyway? Nothing you’ve said about what you’re doing here makes any sense. You’re really curious about humans and you ask a bunch of questions about us, but you said you’re not here for scientific research. You also said your kind doesn’t like interacting with civilizations at our stage of development because it’s too painful watching them self-destruct after you get to know them, but, I mean, here you are. You are here, getting to know us. Why?”
“Well, it’s… it’s kind of my thing,” the stranger replied. “A very long time ago I noticed that there are all these worlds and civilizations blossoming and extinguishing themselves all across the universe, and nobody really cares. A populated planet that wipes itself out is of no use to science, and because they destroy themselves before they can mature it’s not like they make for particularly stimulating conversation-”
“Gee thanks,” interrupted Lisa.
“Present company excluded of course. But it’s generally kind of like what hanging out with a house pet would be like for you. It’s not worth the hassle of traveling across the galaxy far removed from where all the cool stuff is happening just to go hang out with a hamster, especially if you know the hamster’s probably just gonna commit harakiri any minute now.”
“I mean, it’s like that for them,” the stranger hastened to add as Lisa’s expression grew increasingly appalled. “Not for me. Never has been. What I’m trying to say is, I’ve never been able to ignore the beauty of civilizations at this point in development. They crackle with a white hot spiritual energy that’s unlike anything else you’ll ever encounter anywhere. The exuberance of exploding technological and cultural innovation coupled with the steadily growing realization that it’s completely unsustainable to continue living as they’ve been living, the thrill of a completely unprecedented world paired with the white-knuckled terror of seeing it gasping its last breaths, the last-minute shift in collective consciousness as the advanced species makes one last Hail Mary pass at rescuing itself, the regret, the goodbyes, the last flickers of the last life forms as the final curtain is drawn on that world forever.
“There’s just absolutely nothing like a world when it’s facing the great test. There’s always chaos, there’s usually violence, but there’s also something that kicks in when it dawns on a species that it’s signed its own death warrant by destroying its ecosystem or inventing doomsday weapons. A sudden pivot toward humility as they realize that they’d always had the freedom to pass the great test if they’d just done things a bit differently, starting a bit sooner. It almost always happens like that, and yes, it’s the most painful, heartbreaking thing you can possibly experience if you make yourself a part of it. But it’s also the most beautiful thing in the universe.
“So I do make myself a part of it. I move around, speaking to the organisms who will speak with me, asking them questions and learning what their time here has been like, familiarizing myself with each world’s unique little facets. And, when it all starts falling apart, I stay. I stay fully present for all of it. I don’t hold back any part of myself, any part of my guts. I feel it all. I watch the final thrust toward survival, I listen to the screams, I feel every little bit of the anguish of a dying world, and I wave goodbye forever. But it didn’t die alone. It didn’t die unwitnessed. It didn’t die unmet. I met it. I experienced its beauty. And then I try my best -I always fail but I try my very, very best- to convey that beauty to the others.”
“Artist,” said Lisa, suddenly aware that tears were streaming down her face. “You’re an artist.”
The stranger nodded.
“Like me,” she said.
“Like you,” said the stranger.
They stared at each other for a moment.
“It’s my turn to ask a question,” the stranger said softly.
“Okay,” Lisa sniffled.
“Why do you sit here day after day writing poems and throwing them into the water?”
“I guess… maybe kinda for the same reason you zip around having love affairs with dying worlds?”
“I just, well, at a certain point I realized that most of the beauty happening in this world is coming and going almost completely unwitnessed and unappreciated, and it doesn’t even bother anybody. The silly things a crow does to amuse itself when all its food-finding is done. The way the sun bounces off the pieces of a broken beer bottle. Or like, our dreams. Have you ever watched humans trying to tell each other about their dreams? The way the other person reacts most of the time you’d think they were trying to stick needles in their face. Nobody wants to hear about anyone else’s dreams, but every night there are seven billion of us cranking out these weird, wonderful tapestries that only we ever get to see. Seven billion movie theaters playing a different movie every single night, and nobody will even let you tell them a bit about one of them.
“I’ve always loved poetry, and I used to try to write things that other people could appreciate, so that we could share that one flash of a perspective together in that moment. But at some point I realized that I was excluding almost the entire world of beauty just to focus on that little tiny slice that people appreciate and relate to enough for one of my poems to dance around between their ears in an enjoyable way. It has to have some kind of egoic relevance to them or it might as well be nothing, and most of life doesn’t care about anyone’s ego. Trying to share art that people don’t relate to is like trying to tell someone your dream; almost all the beauty happening in our world is beauty that people don’t care about. To let all these unwitnessed, unappreciated aspects of life slip by uncelebrated and un-honored feels… I dunno, sacrilegious I guess. But I also don’t want to fill up my apartment with thousands of poems nobody will ever care about and have some well-meaning relative print up a bunch of worthless vanity publisher books with my name on them after I die which everyone will feel guilty about not reading.
“So whenever I get time I come here and I scribble something about whatever’s majesty is jumping out at me, and then I send it off to disappear into the water. That way I don’t wind up with a bunch of worthless papers cluttering up my life, and there’s one less part of this nonstop explosion of miracles that I have to let slip by uncelebrated.”
“So very much slips by,” said the stranger.
“Right? I mean, look at you. Today I met a space alien. Nobody will ever believe me if I tell them about it, so I won’t, and I’m sure you knew that, which is why you felt comfortable coming up and telling me the secrets of the universe and stuff. You’re just like one of my poems; you come in, you express something weird and wonderful, then you’re gone forever. Except instead of dissolving in the water you’re going to buzz off in a flying saucer or some shit.”
“Portal, excuse the hell outta me. The miracles rush in, we honor them as best we can, and they rush right on out. That’s my point.”
“Can I try?” asked the stranger, pointing to her pen and writing pad.
“Be my guest man, least I can do after you had the decency not to anally probe me.”
“Gross,” said the stranger, and started writing. Lisa watched in silence as it scratched away at the paper for a few minutes, then tore it off the pad and began crumpling it up.
“Wait!” said Lisa. “You don’t wanna share?”
“I… okay,” said the stranger, handing her the paper. “But please understand this is not anywhere remotely close to my first language.”
“Shush. Lemme read.”
Some humans throw pennies into the water
because they have wished for miracles.
She throws poems into the water
because the miracles dance between her ears.
And now the river is full of pennies and poems,
and we are all getting older,
and the shadows are getting long.
The stars swirl in clusters
like the eddies on the water,
and I am swirling with them
wherever the current goes.
Maybe they will get their miracle.
Maybe the miracles dance only between her ears.
But her soft brown eyes will live in me
until the river carries us all
to wherever it is going,
and the pennies and poems twirl
with the galaxies.
“I love it. I really, really love it. Thank you.”
“Can I throw it in now?”
“Yeah. You can throw it in.”
“I have to go now.”
“I know. You’ve got a lot of mellow humans to sneak up on and chat with before we all nuke ourselves.”
“Thank you for talking to me.”
“Oh, hey, you me too. Thank you for this.”
The stranger placed both hands on its chest, and she did the same. She watched it turn and walk away, disappearing into the grove of trees. She picked up her pen.
A man from another world visited me today,
and then he was gone.
And hell, fuck me,
I just realized
I never even asked him his name.
And there you go, Lisa,
worrying you’ve somehow gotten it wrong
in a world on the brink of armageddon.
She set the paper down flat in the water and watched it disintegrate as it flowed away.
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