Thursday, August 30, 2012

Train of Consequence
... is my first Friday Flash, a short story submitted as part of the Friday Flash community. It's longer than it should be. I apologize for verbosity.
 
Train of Consequence
by D. C. Petterson

I’ve watched long enough, Sophie thought. I need to decide.
The door slid shut. Sophie clutched at the strap hanging from the metal beam to keep from falling over as the train jumped and started its crawl forward. She snorted in disgust. People packed into the train car like broken crayons crammed into a too-small box. She couldn’t fall over even if she tried. The crayons around her would hold her up. The thought of being crushed among these bodies made her choke and she struggled not to vomit.
The train lurched as it picked up speed, bursting from the dim station into searing sunlight, and a fat old man in a greasy three-piece suit jostled against her. He smelled of gym socks and stagnant water. Sophie had seen him before, more times than she could count. Nearly the same set of crayons jammed themselves into the same set of box cars every day, twice a day, once in the morning, once at night. Most had staked out territory they always reclaimed within the box. Stinky Fat Man in Threepiece usually stood closer to the front of the car where Sophie didn’t have to smell him. She turned her head away.
Why do I let this go on?
Skanky Waitress didn’t smell much better, reeking of fried chicken and stale beer. She seemed especially awkward this evening, precariously balanced on absurdly high heels, her belly bloated with her own new little broken crayon packed inside. Her profile looked like a twig with a tumor threatening to burst her middle. She seemed to pop those critters out once every year, as if marking the seasonal rhythms of snow and heat. Maybe she couldn’t find anything to do in the winter other than ride some lodgepole, but carrying enormous womb-tumors around in Chicago’s tropical summers couldn’t be comfortable.
They are all blind and weak. I need to set them free.
A mother stood nearby, holding the hand of her child, a boy of perhaps ten. He stood close to her, eyes bright, not yet dimmed by the crush around them. The mother stared straight ahead, not moving except to occasionally shush her son when he tried to get her attention. Sophie hadn’t seen them before. Maybe Mom had promised Boy a day in the city during his summer vacation.
The seat near Skanky Waitress always held Wall Street. Most days, he sat with his copy of the Journal tucked under his arm, staring at Skanky’s legs, or at the way her dirty white work costume barely covered her tiny ass. At the moment he held his paper spread in front of his face, blocking his view of Skanky’s belly. He apparently found her less appealing while pregnant. She shifted from foot to foot, staring at the top of his head. She sniffled, and rubbed a hand under her nose, her face twisting.
That displayed the reason for much of Sophie’s contempt. Wall Street couldn’t be bothered to offer his seat, even when the object of his lustful fantasies clearly could use the relief for her tired feet and aching body. For her part, Skanky didn’t have the courage to ask, nor the brains to stop getting repeatedly pregnant.
The train shifted, rocked downward, and plunged into darkness. Sophie allowed herself a grim smile at the sexual symbolism of the long train thrusting into a tunnel in the earth. It seemed fitting.
They suffer in silence, they lose their wills and their souls. They won’t change, and they won’t ask for help. All for a chance at something they’ll never have.
Another example. Sophie looked between the rocking bodies and found Mouse. She cowered in a far corner, eyes wide, barely twitching, as if she could hold her breath for the whole forty-five minutes of the twice-daily ride. Something once had shattered Mouse, breaking her spirit and reducing her to silence. It now festered like a rotting carcass within her, yet she couldn’t bring herself either to face it, or to run from it. She merely endured the unendurable, day after empty day.
Backrub clutched one of the metal poles, his face a mask of slack-jawed boredom. Sophie recalled him once finding a victim, a young woman, maybe a college student, anyway she’d never ridden this car before. He’d positioned himself such that every lurch of the train, every bounce and jostle, would just happen to force his crotch harder against the girl’s hip, just happen to rub him against her like a dog humping someone’s leg. She scrunched her eyes closed, silently trembling, putting up with it the way Mouse suffered though each day. Backrub had finally moaned, loud enough to be heard over the roar of the train, and all the tension drained from his face. He stumbled back. Sophie thought maybe he’d collapse, but he didn’t. The woman got off the train at the very next stop, and Sophie never saw her after that. Backrub didn’t even watch her go.
The train slowed, the darkness around them starting to flash as they passed the lights close to the next station. They groaned to a stop, brakes screaming in protest. Even their machines are in pain.
The broken crayons shifted around the box. A few got off. More packed themselves in. Tattoo Girl with her unfocused eyes and facial piercings and carefully-ripped T-shirt. Big Shot with his nose in the air and his briefcase clutched in a manicured hand. Beanpole towering above everyone, ducking as he came through the door.
None of them wants to be here. None of them wants to live here. Perhaps it is time to set them free.
The doors closed, the train lurched, and Stinky Fat Man fouled her air again.
Sophie sighed. Semjaza, I’ve done as you suggested. I’ve observed them.
The air tingled as with a stroke of lightening. Sophie smelled ozone. The little boy looked up at her, still holding his mother’s hand. “Then tell me, Sophia, what have you seen?”
The mother seemed not to notice the boy’s change of character. Neither did Wall Street or Stinky Fat Man or Skanky Waitress.
Sophie struggled to encapsulate her conclusions. “I’ve seen beings without hope, without souls, barely tolerating their own lives but refusing to change them.”
The boy shook his head. “This is hardly a fair sample.”
“I’m not generalizing to the whole species.”
“Good. I wouldn’t expect such an unwarranted generalization from the Archetype of Wisdom.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Is that sarcasm I hear?”
“How can I know what you hear? My point is--”
“I know what your point is.”
“-- they can’t possibly thrive without--”
“You made that clear when you and the others first abandoned Heaven.”
“Sophia, they need us! Don’t you see that?” He looked away, shook his head, looked back. “They don’t deserve to be abandoned.”
“No. They don’t. Certainly not those here, on this train. They don’t deserve to suffer this way.” She was sure he wouldn’t mistake her meaning.
He frowned. “Everyone?”
“On this train, yes.”
The boy raised a hand. “Wait. Why did you summon me?”
“I promised to tell you what I saw. Now I’ve told you. Feel free to leave.”
“What about,” he patted his chest with his free hand, “this, or that?” and he pointed to the bulge in the middle of Skanky Waitress. “Even innocents?”
“Innocent? Some of them believe they’re born in sin.”
“I don’t buy that crap. I know you don’t, either.”
“You miss my meaning. Some of them do believe that. It’s how they shape themselves. Twenty years from now, thirty at most, these two will be no different.”
“Are you sure you’re not generalizing?”
“Get out while you can, Semjaza.”
He turned away. The scent of ozone drifted off. The little boy buried his face in his mother’s pant leg. Sophie spread her arms.
Stinky Fat Man jumped, as if stuck by a pin. He gaped at Sophie. “Are you all right?” He blinked, and tried to back away a step, pushing farther into the box of crayons. “Your face...”
Yes, I know. By now, it would be stark white, drained of blood, perhaps beginning to glow.
A hubbub and a murmur spread from where she stood, ripples in a pond. The others turned toward her, staring. The mother pulled her boy close. Skanky Waitress put her hand on her belly. Wall Street crumpled his paper.
Big Shot took a step toward her, pushing some of the little people out of his way. “What do you think you’re doing, young lady? Are you some kind of terrorist?”
I’m giving all of you want you want. From the corners of her eyes, she saw her hands burst into flame.
Tattoo Girl screamed.
They all fell back, shoving each other against the windows, crowding into the tiny bench seats. Sophie gathered her arms to her body and looked down, building the heat, pulling it to her. When she opened her eyes again, she stared out from the midst of a ball of air glowing white hot. Her clothes flashed into flame and vanished in a cloud of ash.
Backrub’s expression hadn’t changed--still bored, already dead inside. He moved only to shove one hand into his pants.
Sophie’s voice thundered, much louder than the roar from the train. “I set you all free from your suffering and your despair. Children, rejoice!”
The others scrambled away, climbing over each other in their desperation. Wall Street knocked Skanky to the floor, and stood on her crumpled body trying to get past the next bench seat.
I made the right decision. Nothing can be salvaged here.
Sophie threw fire outward at them all, flinging it with backhand slaps. They screamed as they burned. Beanpole tried to tear off his shirt when it burst into flame, before the skin started curling away from the muscle beneath. “Crazy bitch!”
Stinky Fat Man tripped, and he fell on two other passengers. They lay pinned, helpless, beneath him. He held his arms up in entreaty. “Please, please, please...”
She’d ridden this train with him every day for five years. He’d never once asked her name. She flicked her fingers at him and fire burst from his chest. He threw himself from side to side, crushing the unfortunate people under him.
One passenger, and one only, seemed to understand. Mouse turned dark and haunted eyes toward her. She spoke, barely a whisper, from the far end of the train car. Sophie heard her clearly. “Thank you.”
Sophie smiled. “You’re welcome, child. I set you free. I love you.” She held her arms wide. Just before the fire engulfed them all, Mouse smiled back and closed her eyes.
The explosion tore the car in half. The front of the train careened on, its cars thrown from the tracks like dice skittering down a drainpipe, flying a half mile father through the tunnel. The trailing cars crumpled and smashed into each other like a logjam in a narrow ravine. The echoes raced away, reverberated back, and slowly faded.
Sophie let her anger and loathing die along with the heat of the explosion. She stood naked in the shattered remains of the subway tunnel. No easy exit presented itself, but she had no concerns on that score. She could leave this now-useless body behind.
A voice drifted down the tunnel to her, a whiff of ozone carried on the fleeting echoes. “Was it good for you, too?”
She glared into darkness. “Semjaza, I came at your invitation. You wanted me to see these creatures, their pitiful state, the shells of their tiny lives. I saw. I pitied them. I freed them from sorrow.”
“Their tiny lives--that’s all they have, you know.”
“Yes, we’ve argued this before. I’m done with it.”
“What will you do now?”
What indeed? “If you want to help them, that’s up to you. I’m done with it.”
“Will you stand in my way?”
She laughed. “What can you accomplish without Wisdom?”
“Let me worry about that.”
“Fine. I’ll leave you to your own devices.”
“And the others?”
She paused. “The ones who revolted with you? We won’t disturb them either.”
“I meant your loyalist friends.”
“Most of them abandoned Earth long ago. You know that. I can’t control the Powers or the Principalities.”
“They haven’t cared about anything in five thousand years. I’m not worried about them.”
“Then we are at an understanding. Enjoy your world, Semjaza, but do not ever try to return.”
“You’re always welcome here, if you discover any softness in that ancient heart.”
She snorted. “Eternal Truth never changes. That’s what makes it eternal.”
“Wisdom never encompasses all things. I leave the door open to the wonder of foolishness.”
“Enough! Goodbye, Semjaza.”
If he said anything more, Sophie didn’t hear it. She left the spent and exhausted body of the young woman crouching alone in the tunnel. Someone would undoubtedly find her. Maybe she’d wonder what had gone on in the gap of five years since her last memory. Maybe not. Sophia stopped thinking about it. She had other worlds to consider.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Slow-sand...

If I'm going to get in at least one post each month, I have to do one in the next couple of days. So here it is.

The prequel to A Melancholy Humour has stalled a bit. It's really two books in one, the first half set in a tiny village on the slopes of Santo Stefano in Sicily. That part's done (in first draft, anyway), and I'm maybe 20,000 words into the second half.

Chicago circa 1965 isn't a challenge. I recall enough to texture the story with sufficient background. I have, however, introduced a potential love interest for my heroine, and he's turning out to be a bit of a putz. Who knew? Still, even that's not so much of a problem. If he comes across as too dorky, I can fix him in rewrites. (Anyone who can seduce a she-wolf had better not be a dork, if he doesn't want to wind up as dinner. I've got other long-range plans for him.)

I have been spending a lot of time in video games lately, but that's just an excuse. Besides, it's good research -- at least, the gems I prefer really are. Bethesda's open worlds of Fallout and Skyrim are addicting, and have some cool storytelling concepts ripe for stealing. Plus, they're awfully pretty in a dread-filled sort of way.

No, what's been slowing the story relates to my penchant for explaining things. Any first-year writing course will hammer home the need to "show, don't tell." That's rough when you write concept-heavy fiction. One slips into explanation mode far too easily. Furthermore, it's often hard to come up with a way to show certain ideas, particularly nuances of historical philosophy or theological struggles.

I put a lot of explanation into my first published novel, Still Life. In order to make the exposition more palatable, I had various characters explaining things to each other, or arguing about the ideas, but it still dragged on sometimes. In my defense, the story came out of the sense-of-wonder "literature of ideas" Golden Age of 1940's science fiction, where every novel had to have a detailed explanation of the workings of star drives, or the optics of lasers, or the geometry of a tesseract.

A Melancholy Humour had a lot less of that, but still involved discussions of historical issues like the role of bodily humours in Medieval medicine, or why it is that the Office of the Inquisition still exists today. But rather than tell the reader that Vincent is something of a neurotic depressive with suicidal tendencies, we see the story from inside his head so the reader can experience his pathology directly.

Telling rather than showing is a timesaver -- it uses less ink, and if a publisher has a limit on the numbers of words in a novel, it's hard to show everything. That's particularly true when a story is told in a point of view limited to a single character. This is the problem I've been struggling with in my current effort, Lupa Bella.

Observe: I could have Emmett tell Celeste that he's a Ceremonialist Magician, with ways of contacting daemons who give him secret information, and that's how he knows she's a werewolf. Any emotional impact then has to come from Celeste's reactions to being discovered, and to her uninformed assumptions about the reality of Magic.

Or, I could show the reader a scene wherein Em contacts his daemons and learns what they have to say. Emotion then comes not only from Emmett himself, but also from the reader's shock at seeing and experiencing the daemons (not to mention the impact of Ceremonialist Magic going on in the heart of a 1960's Chicago meat-packing warehouse).

The second course takes a lot longer than a paragraph of dialogue followed by one or two of reaction. It also requires being able to break away from the highway of my point-of-view character, Celeste, and take the reader through a backroads off-ramp into someone else's experience. After a hundred pages or more of being in Celeste's head, that's not going to work.

A third alternative is for Em to bring Celle to his temple-room, complete with the shadowy presences of the rest of his Magical lodge, and pull her into one of his ceremonies. By far, this is the best way. If I've involved the reader enough in Celeste's way of seeing the world, the visceral experience of her shock and surprise should shake the reader as well. This is, however, also the most time-consuming way, for we need additionally to see Emmett seduce her into it, not to mention the mechanics of him setting the whole thing up. If done wrong, it will slow the story unbearably, provide a distraction and detour from the main action when it could have been done in a half-dozen sentences.

Finding that balance between a story that gallops with action, and one that progresses more slowly but wrings every drop of sweat from the reader's bones -- that's hard work, and often takes trial and error, or long periods of meditation on how the hell do I show this?

After doing far too much talky-talky in Still Life, I showcased a lot more action and emotion in A Melancholy Humour. I'm trying to tell as little as possible in Lupa Bella, with the exception of occasionally having a character tell Celeste about events from decades before (and even then, I'm considering flashbacks instead). It's a lot longer way to tell a story, and it may force me to break it up into a series of smaller novels instead of one big one. My hope is to have a tale where I explain nothing, but make everything clear nonetheless.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Four Dead in Ohio

Tin sol­diers and Nixon com­ing,
We’re finally on our own.
This sum­mer I hear the drum­ming,
Four dead in Ohio.

— Neil Young, “Ohio”
Go watch the video. I’ll wait.

Yes­ter­day marked the forty-​​second anniver­sary of the Kent State Mas­sacre. I feel a very per­sonal tie to this event, whether deservedly or not. Let me tell you my thoughts.


It was a dif­fer­ent time. Rocked by racial ten­sions, Amer­ica seem­ingly could not extract itself from a bloody, unpop­u­lar, and unnec­es­sary war. Protests on our col­lege cam­puses, and riots in the streets of our cities con­trasted with an explo­sion of artis­tic expres­sion and new-​​found sex­ual free­dom. The assas­si­na­tions of Bobby Kennedy and Mar­tin Luther King still burned like open wounds.

I, an impres­sion­able young per­son, had worked on the cam­paign of Bobby Kennedy in my own small way. As a sixth grader in 1968, my capa­bil­i­ties were lim­ited, but at least I talked him up with my class­mates, most of whom spent their time argu­ing whether the Bea­t­les were bet­ter than the Rolling Stones. Bobby’s assas­si­na­tion changed the nature of my polit­i­cal con­scious­ness. It robbed me of my polit­i­cal innocence.

Amid the ten­sions and the vio­lence, the world still held infi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties. The first men walked on the moon in the sum­mer of 1969. The Who released Tommy that year. Doc­tor Chris­ti­aan Barnard had per­formed the world’s first heart trans­plant only two years before that. We stood embed­ded in a moment preg­nant with his­tory, at the end of a tumul­tuous decade that had seen JFK and the cre­ation of Medicare and the Civil Rights Act and the Vot­ing Rights Act, Selma and George Wal­lace and school deseg­re­ga­tion.

Richard Nixon promised an end to the Viet­nam War in the elec­tion cam­paign of 1968. In Novem­ber of 1969, Amer­i­can troops slaugh­tered over 500 civil­ians, mostly women and chil­dren, in the lit­tle vil­lage of My Lai. The draft lot­tery began in Decem­ber, the first Amer­i­can draft lot­tery since World War Two. The war had appeared to be wind­ing down; the lot­tery sig­naled a new surge. Pres­i­dent Nixon ordered Amer­i­can troops into Cam­bo­dia, and began “secret” bomb­ings there (“secret” only from Amer­i­cans — the Cam­bo­di­ans cer­tainly knew they were being bombed).

A series of protests broke out on col­lege cam­puses across the coun­try. Quite nat­u­rally: young men of that age would be most directly affected by the war and the draft. They died by the tens of thou­sands.

Con­tro­versy raged across the nation. Con­ser­v­a­tives insisted the pro­test­ers were sim­ply unpa­tri­otic cow­ards who didn’t want to defend Amer­ica. The pro­tes­tors pointed out this par­tic­u­lar war had noth­ing to do with defend­ing Amer­ica, since Viet­nam was not, and could not be, any sort of threat. True patri­o­tism, they insisted, rested in point­ing out when your coun­try was mak­ing an error, and helping to cor­rect­ a ter­ri­ble course.

We heard, how­ever, that there was some­thing unpa­tri­otic, and per­haps sedi­tious, in crit­i­ciz­ing the deci­sions of a wartime president.

The cam­pus of Ohio’s Kent State Uni­ver­sity saw protests in early May of 1970. There’s an excel­lent his­tory and sum­mary of the events here. The protests were mostly peace­ful, but there were spo­radic inci­dents of con­fronta­tion and vio­lence. The gov­er­nor called out National Guard troops to con­tain the protests. On May 4, 1970, in a con­fus­ing series of events, perhaps due to the inexperience of a junior officer, the Guard troops opened fire on the pro­tes­tors with live ammunition.

Four col­lege stu­dents died of gun­shot wounds from Amer­i­can National Guard soldiers.

I remem­ber the date. My birth­day is May 4. On May 4, 1970, I turned four­teen. I spent the evening lis­ten­ing to the news reports.

The head­lines on May 5, 1970: “Four Dead in Ohio.”

In two years, my older brother would be eli­gi­ble for the draft. Three years after that, it would be my turn. The lesson was clear to this fourteen-year-old: it seemed as dan­ger­ous to protest the war as to allow one­self to be pulled into that meat grinder. The world had already become The Hunger Games.

My dad told me a story when he came home from work on May 5. For months, a par­tic­u­lar coworker had been crit­i­cal of the teenagers protest­ing the war and the draft. Con­ver­sa­tion around the water cooler (they still had those then) focused on Kent State that day. This par­tic­u­lar fel­low was almost glee­ful. “It’s about time!” he said. “We have to stop these protestors!”

Dad looked at him for a moment. “We’re killing our children.”

The man had no response.

Dad walked away.

It’s easy to get caught in the polit­i­cal give-​​and-​​take, the con­test of who is on top and who can win. But pol­i­tics is about peo­ple. It’s about lives. It’s about our chil­dren and our par­ents and our broth­ers and sis­ters -- and our friends' children and parents and brothers and sisters, and the brothers and sisters and parents and children of people we'll never meet. If we for­get that, then our souls have already died.

I’m sure there are par­al­lels each of you can see in my story, par­al­lels to Iraq or Afghanistan, to the Tea Party protests or to the Occupy peo­ple, to George Bush or Barack Obama. I want to express an opin­ion on that, but I’ll refrain. At heart, I’m a nov­el­ist. The pur­pose of a nov­el­ist is to tell a true story, and to let the reader decide how that tale relates to his or her own life.

What I know for cer­tain is that my birth­day is for­ever col­ored by tragedy and fear. Deservedly or not, I have a tie to four col­lege stu­dents who died at Kent State, at the hands of America’s National Guard, because a crim­i­nal of a pres­i­dent insisted on pro­long­ing a war he had promised to end.
 Gotta get down to it
Sol­diers are cut­ting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
Go lis­ten to the video again. I’ll wait.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Monsters walk the streets of Chicago

It's now less than a week until the release date for A MELANCHOLY HUMOUR. I'm pretty psyched.

As with many of my stories, this one went through a number of changes before reaching its final form. My original conception was for a short tale of a psychiatrist interviewing a young man who is convinced he is a monster. The story as I saw it then had only two characters, and neither of them survived into the present version, though a number of elements of personality have.

The title came before the story, which is unusual for me (I'm currently over 60,000 words into a prequel to A MELANCHOLY HUMOR, and I still don't have a title I like). It's such a perfect title for a werewolf tale that I'm amazed it hadn't yet been used. Too bad for everyone else.

My penchant for puns perhaps led me to the title. I'd gotten interested in werewolf lore (how that happened is a story for another time) and even the most superficial research revealed the medieval explanation for lycanthropy: an excess of one of the four bodily humours, the fluids that keep us alive. Too much black bile -- melancholic -- is the culprit. This is why werewolves are so often pictured as being depressed, antisocial, withdrawn -- melancholy. But I shall say no more, lest I spoil some of the surprises.

With the startling revelation of the title, the main themes of the story couldn't be avoided. Both the beginning idea and the soon-to-be published version center on the people involved -- their reactions to the events, more than the events themselves. Both deal with the tension between madness and the extremes of reality, the question of perception and how a broken mind deals with the pressures of everyday life. How can one tell for certain that the absurd things someone else describes are not real? How can one be certain of one's own sanity?

The young man in my original tale has become a young woman, one with a twin brother. The female psychiatrist who examines him has likewise been split, into a retired profiler of serial killers and a much more minor character, a policewoman.

I changed the focus of the story in expanding it into a novel. When I had the germ of the idea, urban fantasy had not yet become a part of popular culture (yes, I'm that old). A current reader wouldn't be surprised by the idea that someone who thinks himself to be a werewolf might actually be one. The question of who really is or is not a preternatural beast could not be saved for the ending. Instead, a more interesting question today would be who really is the monster.

The original form of the story still interests me, however. I've started a draft of a short more true to that beginning conception, but one that doesn't deal with wolves. I think I can still make a go of it, after it undergoes a few more metamorphoses.

Meanwhile, I'm hard at work on a longer tale, a prequel -- really, a series of prequels -- to A MELANCHOLY HUMOR. I dropped some hints as to where Celia came from. It will take more than one book to explore all that. I do intend eventually to tell where it's all going. I think these people have taken up permanent residence in my head, and I know better than to argue with creatures who have teeth like that.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Transplanted

I'm not from around here. None of us are.

I grew up near Chicago. Where we are as a child affects how we think and how we view the world. That's not where we're from, though.

I have a carved wooden elephant I bought from a street vendor in Dakar, Senegal. It's made of some black wood, the color of midnight, heavy and solid. It has tusks made of a different material, possibly ivory. I think sometimes about where that statue came from.

Did it come from a tree, or from the hands of the unknown artist? The tree came from a seed, nurtured by the earth and the rain. The soil from which the tree grew, the material that became the tree, was the decayed remnants of billions of years of plants and animals who lived in Africa and whose bodies became the dirt and rocks. The same is true of the artist, whose body was made of the food he or she ate, meat and meal that came from the Earth.

Not limited to Africa, though. Storms and tides carry flotsam around the world. Dust from a volcano in the Philippines can be found in Europe, and will certainly become parts of the living creatures there. We are all made up of pieces of everything that lived. The same atoms that once were part of Cleopatra or Moses are now in your body and mine. We breathe the same oxygen.

From where did those things come? Physicists tell me the only original natural element is hydrogen. Anything more than that -- oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, gold, copper, all of it -- was manufactured in the kiln of stars, enormous nuclear furnaces that smash simple atoms together to make more complex ones. When a star dies in the explosion of a supernova, its material is spread through space, like a cosmic Johnny Appleseed fertilizing the galaxy. Those freed atoms then coalesce into planets, and, eventually, living things like you and me and trees and elephants.

We are all made of dust from the dying remnants of stars. Carl Sagan and Joni Mitchel were both right. We are star-stuff.

I don't recall being part of a star. I don't even know in which galaxy that star lived. I suspect my elephant statue doesn't recall being a tree in Africa, but it was. I wonder about it sometimes.

All I know for sure is that I'm not from around here. None of us are.